Reading - February 2013

All Fun And Games Until Someone Loses An Eye by Christopher Brookmyre (2006)
The usual Brookmyre fun, satire and body count. Pure fantasy but beguilingly possible.
The Insider by Piers Morgan (2005)
A real insight into the world of the tabloids and highly recommended. Morgan is fairly unsparing on himself at times, although he is clearly very pleased with himself overall, and as a result only comes across as a bit of an arse. Some of the other characters - say, Murdoch or Rebekah Wade/Brooks - sound like complete wankers. But unmissable if you want to understand what makes the tabloids the way they are.
The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood? and other essays by William Goldman (2001)
Being a collection of articles written over several years makes this somewhat repetetetive. Nevertheless Goldman's insight into the industry is as keen as ever and it's fascinating to see him flag up future phenomenons - like Titanic - well ahead of time.
The Truth About Melody Browne by Lisa Jewell (2009)
Lisa Jewell is one of my favourite authors and this is a sweet book that tackles a potentially difficult and unpleasant subject in a light yet thought-provoking way.
Titanic And The Making Of James Cameron by Paula Parisi (1998)
An interesting insight into what I think is an astonishing film. Despite the way book attempts to portray Cameron as a driven genius, I think he mostly comes across as an arsehole. But maybe that's what it takes.
Alex II: Magnum Force by Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor (1989)
A nice light read of what was once one of the best comics around.

The Atomic Mr. Basie

Count Basie Orchestra

It's impossible not to compare this with Duke Ellington's Ellington At Newport. To the uninitiated - me - there is precious little difference between them. I believe that Ellington's band is the older, for what it's worth. But they both played big band swing, jazz with a driving rhythm. They both have leaders with assumed titles who play the piano. And they both produced classic albums towards the end of the fifties. This is the Count's.

It is a great jazz album, but not quite what I expected. Although there is improvisation, there's less emphasis on it and more on the tightly arranged, punchy ensemble pieces. If you've never heard it before, then think about the theme music for Top Cat or The Flintstones - that brassy riffing and infectious swing. The up-tempo tracks are the ones that initially grabbed my attention, the opener, "The Kid From Red Bank" being an excellent way of starting the album, while "Double-O" builds nicely and contains the most traditional jazz solos on the album. The subtler tracks are good too, although it took me a few listens to get past the immediacy of the noisier songs. All in all, great stuff.


So, Farewell Then

R.I.P. Lotus Software UK
1983 - 2013

Not to sound overly dramatic about this or anything, but last Friday was the end of an era. IBM left Lotus Park, the home of Lotus software in the UK for the last twenty years.

For those of us who worked there this is a bit of a melancholy occasion. Not because of any particular love for the building itself; it struck me as a typically bland corporate box when I first encountered it in 1995 and it felt no different on my last visit about a year ago, when the tumbleweed was already starting to gather in the corners. No, what makes it sad is that this is the death of Lotus in the UK.

For several years, IBM has been slowly killing Lotus, the brand it paid 3.5 billion dollars for in 1995. You could argue that there have been several milestones that mark its actual demise: the decision a few years ago to rename the Lotus division internally to ISC (don't ask, it's too dull); the re-branding of Lotusphere this year as IBM Connect (zzz); or even the announcement that the next version of Notes will be marketed as "IBM Notes" (although obviously this won't stop everyone else calling it Lotus Notes forever more). While there were still some of the old faces clinging on in Lotus Park, we could claim a spark of the old firm was still present inside Big Blue, but no longer. Now there are just scattered ex-Loti, some of whom still work for IBM.

I have my own valued memories tied up with the place, many good, some bitter-sweet and a few bad. They are mostly about people. The place itself - an anonymous building in an anonymous business park in an anonymous suburb - is merely a container for these events, a vessel for the reminisces. Don't get me wrong, it was pleasantly situated on the Thames and comfortable enough, but being in ISSL (née CSG, LC and LPS) meant I spent significantly more time on customer site than any sales person, which may explain why I'm not as sentimental about the building itself as some. Indeed, if I recall memorable working locations, my two years in Edinburgh comes up first, followed by the 18 months in Halifax.

No, Lotus wasn't a particularly special place or even a uniquely gifted set of people, but it was, for a good while, a proper team, with all that implies. There were many great people, some of whom I am still in touch with and some of whom I wish I was. (There were some right wankers too, but that's inevitable.) We worked together, we played together, a few even loved together. Unsurprisingly, nearly all the stories we swap concern the latter two; for some reason there aren't many anecdotes about great business wins.

Lotus valued its people enough to consider them worth treating well. Obviously, creating a team isn't just about money, but it does help. A month after I joined I expensed £120 (almost £200 today) on dinner for two in Oslo (gravad lax, reindeer steak and cloudberry mousse, no alcohol), fully approved in advance. Everyone loved the Christmas parties, which followed a simple formula of loud music and free booze. We were taken for week-long kick-offs in Evian, Cannes and Athens, where the business content came a distant second place to the nightly parties. I worked for two months in Cambridge, Mass (in the Lotus HQ) and lived for the duration in a luxury apartment on the 26th floor of a building overlooking Boston harbour. On a separate occasion I blew $4,000 in two weeks at the Charles Hotel on Harvard Square (although they've left me off the guest list for some reason). We had an annual summer family gathering, at one of which the number of people injured by the activities on offer outnumbered those uninjured. And I worked for services, generally considered to be a poor cousin of the money-spinners in sales. They had serious amounts of cash thrown at them.

As an employee, I consider such generosity a good thing, of course. However, it's generally acknowledged that Lotus was losing money when they were bought and it couldn't last. IBM makes money almost despite itself, thanks in part to an intensive policy of penny-pinching (current restrictions include not buying laptop bags for new joiners), but I've yet to meet anyone who feels the same about working for IBM as we felt about working for Lotus.