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Terms of Sale

Sunday, 14 April, 2019

Haisam Hussein has produced a very entertaining map for Lapham’s Quarterly charting the flow of merchants, merchandise and words along the ancient global trade routes. As exotic goods made their way across new regions, their names mutated along the thoroughfares, goes the theory. Take tea, for example. It was transported from Mandarin-speaking Northern China via the Silk Road, with the result much of Asia has similar sounding words for tea. So, chá evolved into the chai widely consumed in India and neighbouring areas. The other major trade route for tea was through Min-speaking Southern China and this led to the spread of the pronunciation that became the standard in Europe. Think of the similarities between tea (English), thé (French), thee (Dutch), (Spanish), tee (German) and (Italian).

Terms of Sale


Europe sans platforms

Wednesday, 15 November, 2017 0 Comments

Internet platforms are eating the world and the value of the top US platforms now exceeds $1.8 trillion. Europe, meanwhile, has no internet platform and neither does it have a single tech company in the list of the global top 50 firms. Martin Wolf of the FT examines this sad and humiliating state of affairs.

The platforms


Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy

Thursday, 22 June, 2017 0 Comments

That’s the title of the new book by Tim Harford, best known to readers of the Financial Times as The Undercover Economist. True to elitist form, he conjures up pieces for that paper with intros like “Some things are best left to the technocrats: On any piece of policy, the typical voter does not understand what is at stake.”

The upcoming book is based on Harford’s BBC podcast 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. One of them is the iPhone, and Harford trots out his typical take on its revolutionary impact thus: “Surprisingly, Uncle Sam played an essential role in the creation and development of the iPhone — of course, much has been written about the late Steve Jobs and other leading figures at Apple and their role in making the modern icon, and its subsequent impact on our lives. And rightfully so. But…”

But there’s always a “But…” However, here’s the blurb for Harford’s book, which will be published on 29 August:

“New ideas and inventions have woven, tangled or sliced right through the invisible economic web that surrounds us every day. From the bar code to double-entry bookkeeping, covering ideas as solid as concrete or as intangible as the limited liability company, this book not only shows us how new ideas come about, it also shows us their unintended consequences — for example, the gramophone introducing radically unequal pay in the music industry, or how the fridge shaped the politics of developing countries across the globe.”

Very Harfordian that, “…the gramophone introducing radically unequal pay in the music industry.” And it all began so harmoniously. In 1903, HMV in England made the first complete recording of an opera, Verdi’s Ernani, on 40 single-sided discs, and on 10 June 1924, George Gershwin recorded a shortened version of Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra. It was released on two sides of Victor 55225 and ran for 8 minutes and 59 seconds. But as Tim Harford would say, “But…”

Rhapsody in Blue


Language acquisition à la Goldman Sachs

Sunday, 31 July, 2016 0 Comments

The noun is returnship (plural returnships) and it’s a blend of return + internship. Definition: “A returnship is an internship-like program for experienced workers seeking to re-enter the workforce after an extended absence, often in a new line of work.”

The notion of “returnship” is central to The Return Hub, recently launched by Dominie Moss, who has spent 20 years in London’s financial services industry as a commodities trader and then in executive search. According to the “mission statement,” The Return Hub is “a campaign to raise the profile of returning women with employers in the financial sector.” Naturally, it’s got a hashtag: #timetoreturn

If one scrolls to the end of the extensive homepage, this appears: “*Returnship — a term trademarked by Goldman Sachs.” And it’s a fact. Goldman Sachs started its returnship program in 2008 and trademarked the term. “We are committed to help facilitate the ‘on-ramping’ process” is how Goldman Sachs puts it in “Start Your Journey Back to Work with the Goldman Sachs Returnship® Program.”

What’s the real meaning of that ® symbol there? Well, it indicates that a trademark has been federally registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which defines a trademark as a “word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods of one party from those of others.”

Note: Trademarks protect the words and symbols that identify the sources of goods and services. Patents, on the other hand, protect inventions and improvements to inventions, while copyright protect artistic or literary works. Unlike copyrights and patents, trademarks can be perpetual, as long as a company keeps using its trademark. The only way to lose a trademark is if it becomes the generic name for a product or service. A trademark does not mean, however, that no one else can use your word, phrase, or symbol in connection with any and all goods and services. It means only that somebody else can’t use a similar trademark with similar goods or services.

One imagines that our learned friends in the City considered this matter in detail before advising The Return Hub to embellish its offering with the applicable asterisked notice at the bottom of the page: “*Returnship — a term trademarked by Goldman Sachs.”


Sell oil, buy drugs

Thursday, 13 August, 2015 0 Comments

“The Board believes that the healthcare industry, particularly the biopharma sector, is experiencing strong momentum and there exist significant M&A and value creation opportunities for both small cap and large cap companies.” We all know that the healthcare industry and the biopharma sector are experiencing growth and that both are set for more, so that remark would be unremarkable were it not for who is issuing it. Namely, an oil exploration company. Fastnet Oil & Gas PLC is listed on the Dublin and London alternative investment markets and on Tuesday it informed shareholders of the following change of policy:

“In light of the current economic climate within the oil and gas sector, the Board has determined that it is not in the best interests of Shareholders to either pursue M&A opportunities in that sector or to expend further resources on the Company’s existing oil and gas assets.”

On the same day that Fastnet signaled its retreat from the coasts of Ireland and Morocco, the socialist paradise of Venezuela, which gets more than 95 percent of its export revenue from oil, was hit with more bad news: its huge gold reserves are losing their value, fast. Meanwhile, biopharma deals are booming and there’s no end in sight.

Moral of story: Sell oil, buy drugs.


How pay-per-view KOd boxing

Monday, 27 April, 2015 0 Comments

Why has boxing lost the popular touch? In this week of Mayweather-Pacquiao, it’s a valid question. One of the reasons, surely, is the paradox of the pay-per-view business model. On the one hand, it bestows vast riches on the best fighters, but on the other, it hastens the decline of the sport by taking it off free television, thus removing boxers from everyday conversation. Jonathan Mahler of Bloomberg noted two years ago:

“HBO — and later Showtime — didn’t have to worry about satisfying advertisers; it could underwrite fights by making them pay-per-view events. This may have worked as a business strategy (Mike Tyson, in particular, was a cash cow for HBO), but it helped to turn boxing into a niche sport followed only by those willing to pay $59.95 or more to watch big bouts.”

One cannot imagine a Rocky or Raging Bull being made ever again, nor can one imagine a future author writing this:

“And so the match came to an end, and when we had all emptied out onto the street, into the frosty blueness of a snowy night, I was certain, that in the flabbiest family man, in the humblest youth, in the souls and muscles of all the crowd, which tomorrow, early in the morning, would disperse to offices, to shops, to factories, there existed one and the same beautiful feeling, for the sake of which it was worth bringing together two great boxers, — a feeling of dauntless, flaring strength, vitality, manliness, inspired by the play in boxing. And this playful feeling is, perhaps, more valuable and purer than many so-called ‘elevated pleasures'”.

Breitensträter — Paolino by Vladimir Nabokov


Amazon and the mobile shopper

Monday, 29 December, 2014 0 Comments

Two big little sentences in the Friday, 26 December, press release from Amazon: “Nearly 60 percent of Amazon.com customers shopped using a mobile device this holiday. Mobile shopping accelerated as customers got later into the shopping season.”


There’s gold in them there Alps of apps

Friday, 27 September, 2013 0 Comments

“Mountain, Society, Technology” is the theme of this year’s Innovation Festival in Bolzano-Bozen. The South Tyrol region has prospered mightily from its combination of tourism, agriculture, industry and services but as Jeff Bezos once remarked, “If your customer base ages with you, you’re Woolworths,” and the danger is that a place which is profiting from affluent German, Italian and Austrian pensioners in search of hiking, skiing and dining holidays may miss out on the information revolution, with all its apps and its opportunities.

This morning’s discussion, then, “Open Data — Digital gold” is designed to get regional innovators and planners thinking about how digital access to public databases can improve daily life for the citizenry. The panelists include Ulrich Atz, Mark Madsen, Ivan Moroder, Brunella Franchini, Alex Meister and Sandy Kirchlechner. According to the organizers, “Even the layperson will realise that Open Data could turn out to be a digital gold mine.” Time to stock up on shovels, eh?

Innovation Festival


The hidden cost of BMWs, Ferraris, Porsches and Volkswagens

Tuesday, 13 August, 2013 0 Comments

“One company that buys and processes Colombian wolframite, or tungsten ore, supplies some of the world’s leading multinational corporations — including the makers of BMWs, Ferraris, Porsches and Volkswagens as well as Siemens AG (SIE) and the producer of BIC pens, these companies say.”

Brilliant reporting by Michael Smith for Bloomberg Markets Magazine in an article titled “How Colombian FARC Terrorists Mining Tungsten Are Linked to Your BMW Sedan.” But lots of other well-known companies are connected to this dirty trade: “Apple Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) and Samsung Electronics Co. purchase parts from a firm that buys from the company that imports tungsten ore from Colombia, company records show.”

What Smith documents about the tungsten market is disturbing in the extreme, but some end users give the impression that all is well: “Munich-based BMW Group spokesman Frank Wienstroth says his company works hard to avoid purchasing anything from tainted suppliers. ‘These few grams out of the billions of tons of raw materials passing through the BMW supply chain are of no practical relevance,’ he says.”

Smith’s sobering conclusion: “Sixty-one hundred kilometers away from the glistening buildings of Silicon Valley, miners in Colombia’s Guainia province dig for tungsten ore on FARC-controlled land. The minerals they extract from the red earth help feed the world’s voracious appetite for luxury cars, smartphones and computers. Neither the Colombian government nor the world’s most powerful corporations have been able to stop a trade that has helped fund a half-century-long war.”


Claude Monet and the Syrian connection

Wednesday, 19 June, 2013 0 Comments

This evening in London, Sotheby’s will auction 72 lots of Impressionist and modern art in one of the most anticipated sales of the year. When all the bidding’s done, Sotheby’s expects to have raked in more than £75 million. Undoubtedly, the star of show is Claude Monet’s gorgeous depiction of The Palazzo Contarini in Venice, which he painted during a three-month stay in the city in 1908. But it’s complicated.

Monet

What the Sotheby’s auction catalogue does not mention is that this particular Monet is from the collection of Helly Nahmad, a character for whom the adjective “colourful” was coined. The Nahmad family hails from Aleppo in Syria and its members operate art galleries in New York and London. Their collection of 3,000 works, including 200 oil paintings by Picasso, is valued at $5 billion by Skate’s Art Market Review.

Much to the surprise of its posh patrons, however, the Helly Nahmad Gallery in Manhattan was forced to shut its doors earlier this year after it was raided by US agents on the grounds that its owner was running a high-stakes gambling ring that catered to celebrities and the very wealthy. On 16 April, Helly Nahmad was charged with racketeering and money-laundering conspiracy. According to the indictment, Nahmad ran an operation that used illegal gambling websites to generate tens of millions of dollars in bets each year. The gambling ring was supported, in part, by the gallery, states the indictment. After such unpleasantness, it is a relief to lovers of modern art, no doubt, that the Helly Nahmad Gallery is open for business once more. The proceeds from this evening’s sale of The Palazzo Contarini painting, which should be spectacular, surely will comfort the proprietor during his difficulties.


Intrade didn’t predict this

Tuesday, 12 March, 2013 0 Comments

“With sincere regret we must inform you that due to circumstances recently discovered we must immediately cease trading activity on www.intrade.com.” So says the grim sentence that greets visitors to the website of the celebrated online-prediction exchange. Citing Irish law — Intrade is legally domiciled in the blessed land of St. Patrick — it said that it had been obliged to close customers’ accounts. What happened? And what were the “circumstances recently discovered”?

Well, more than a million trades took place on Intrade last year, but just 52,166 this year so far, according to the site’s statistics page, which is now offline. That must have hurt and something grave must have contributed to the fall off the cliff. Bloomberg, using the “irregularities” word, goes there. Missing in action, too, is the Intrade market page on the papal conclave, which begins today. As recently as Sunday, it had been predicting the election of an Italian pontiff, with an implied probability of 47 percent. Cardinal Angelo Scola, the archbishop of Milan, was the clear favorite with an estimated 25 percent chance of white smoke, while Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana followed with 19 percent. Now, alas, the papal electors must get on with the job in Rome without the aid of Intrade, a very worldly enterprise that fell to Earth because of “circumstances recently discovered”.

Rome