Faraway Places

When Turkish fans jeered and booed during a minute’s silence held at the start of a football match between Turkey and Greece in November last year, some saw it as support for terrorism and as an insult to those who died or were injured at the hands of terrorists in Paris a few days earlier. More likely it was a protest against unequal and hypocritical treatment, since there were no similar moments of solidarity in Western Europe when more than 100 people were killed by terrorists a month or so earlier in Ankara.

It is a sad fact that all kinds of proximity make a difference to how we feel about events. Geography, family, tribe, culture, language, gender, race, religion – all bring us closer to, or distance us from, others’ suffering and joy.

Though technology has shrunk the world, the emotional impact of events in distant places is still diminished by distance. In 1938 Neville Chamberlain could speak disparagingly of a ‘quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’. You’d have to travel further from London to be ‘far away’ in today’s world, but clearly what happens in Ankara hurts us less than what happens in Paris, even if it should not. The distance from Number Ten to Prague is still just a thousand miles, but London and Prague are closer than they were, especially since 1989. Indeed, events all over Western Europe are closer than they were, closer not only because physical access is easier but because there are more bases for solidarity – our ‘European’ way of life has converged on a liberal democratic model, we’re all seeking ‘ever closer union’, and we all have a strong shared sense of ‘European values’ (sadly, I am being facetious, but I wish it were so!).

A far away man


I was thinking about all this yesterday when reading an article on the BBC News website by Sarah Dunant about having too much money. The article was inspired by the leaking of the Panama Papers. She was curious about why people with vast amounts of money squirrel it away in far away places. But what interested me was her reference to Peter Singer, the Australian moral philosopher. He’s most famous for his work on animal rights, but has recently been promoting the idea of ‘effective altruism’, urging the rich to give their money away, but not necessarily to causes that are ‘close’ to them:

Broadly based on utilitarianism – he argues that if our decisions about our behaviour and use of money were based on how to effect the greatest good for the greatest number, then once we had what we needed we would simply give the rest away. But not necessarily to the causes we might naturally feel closest to. His definition of altruism here is not interested in feeling – indeed he argues that empathy can be dangerous simply because it can be manipulated, but rather adherence to a guiding moral principle.

This seems an odd idea to me, or, putting it another way, an unrealistic and unnatural one. Such ‘guiding moral principles’ would surely demand that we give our family and friends no special status, let alone our colleagues, compatriots, or co-religionists . But moral calculation can’t be a cold and technical affair, the application of principles from a distance. The basis for morality, to my mind, lies in ‘feeling’, our instinctive identification with others and with their pleasures and suffering. It’s this that also makes us hear noise as speech and meaning, and makes the brain the mind. ‘Effective altruism’ could have no underlying ‘engine’ if it must be separate from these feelings, and these feelings are inevitably stronger when identification is made easier by proximity in one form or another. That’s not to say that equal moral weight should not be given to Ankara and to Paris, but it is to understand why it doesn’t happen and never will unless the far away places come yet closer.


Conferen.ces and Canap.es


There’s one fixture in the software reseller’s calendar that can’t yet be handled remotely – the software conference. We can sell, install, and implement software without leaving the comfort and sobriety of our offices or homes, but once a year we must stir ourselves to press the flesh, down the drinks, and endure the evangelism of our software partners at the annual software jamboree. It’s a festival of PowerPoint presentations, Keynote addresses, teas, coffees, drinks, chit-chat, and endless, seemingly limitless, canapés.


I’ve just returned from Inforum EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), an event attended by customers and resellers of the dozens of software packages that Infor has acquired over the last decade or so. It’s a chance for Infor to present it’s ‘roadmap’ and its vision of the future of business software. And before I carp, let me say that it was useful, and encouraging.

In days of yore, gatherings such as these involved the demonstration of software, but today, the senior Infor executives who present to us breathe a freer air, unpolluted by detail, by bugs, functional shortfalls, misunderstandings, and the nitty-gritty of integrating business software. Indeed, their presentations, and vision, are sometimes unpolluted by the software itself and you wonder, from time to time, what they’re talking about. These days all you get to see is pictures on PowerPoint, and very often pictures of what the software systems will look like, rather than how they look now. Presenters used to talk about what the software does. Now the talk is high-altitude marketing speak, and you long to put up a hand and ask, ‘Yes, but what does it actually do?’

This year there’s been lots of talk about the Cloud, just like last year. If you gave me a Euro for every time I heard the word I’d be a rich man. It’s been a cloudburst of Cloud, and, indeed, why not? At least I know what the Cloud is all about. It’s a place of immense safety but unknown location where you can put your software so that organisations all over the world can use it without installing it on their own premises. I like the idea, on the whole. It gives software authors and resellers more control over what’s going on, saves money for customers and allows them to concentrate on what they do best. But of course it’s not quite as simple as it sounds. How do you modify the software or integrate it tightly and safely with other Cloud systems or your own software?

‘Cloud’ is an acceptable word. Indeed it’s a nice metaphor. So I don’t cringe every time I hear the word, as I do when I hear ‘architected’, or ‘methodology’ (I stick to the word ‘method’, but I fear I am alone in that). Neologisms abound at a software conference, and many are coined there. It’s all part of forging a new world, however incomprehensible.

There’s also a new fashion for putting full stops in the middle of software names or methods. There’s Ming.le, which isn’t new, and now local.ly. Try pronouncing the dot. The former is a splendid ‘platform’ for presenting data and providing workflow on dashboards and mobile devices, but I didn’t understand what the latter is, and I’m not sure the speaker did. It’s something like a global catalogue of statutory requirements.

I’ve attended so many of these conferences that I’ve developed the following code of conduct, all essential guidelines for survival:

  1. Don’t attend too many presentations (I attended only two). They’re often mind numbingly dull, and you’ll get the gist of them simply by asking others. (For the very same reason, I never wear a watch. You can always ask someone else what the time is.) If you’ve missed too many, then sidle up to someone and pretend you’ve been in the audience. Ask some carefully general questions such as ‘What did you make of the roadmap they’ve just presented?’ You’ll be safe with a word like ‘roadmap’. But be aware that you may be talking to someone who wasn’t there either, and you’ll end up having an entertaining conversation about nothing at all, both of you bluffing.
  2. I preached the other day on the Death of the Business Card. But I make an exception for software conferences and you must have plenty of them to hand.
  3. Wear your identification label, even if you don’t like feeling like a parcel. You know how awful it is when you meet someone you know and don’t know the name. Find a way of casting an eye at someone’s label (for that reason wear your glasses) without appearing to be assessing the circumference of their stomach.
  4. Don’t drink at lunchtime. Don’t eat too many canapés.
  5. Make time for some extra-curricula activities. Visit a gallery, or a museum, a church, a temple, a synagogue or a mosque (even if not for religious purposes). Do some shopping. Do something naughty if you’ve got the time and still possess the energy. You’ll return with new impetus to the fray, and possibly with something interesting to say.
  6. Don’t go to the conference dinners unless they’re sit-down affairs. There’s nothing more dispiriting than yet more canapés, and more stand-up chit-chat after a whole day of the same.
  7. Above all don’t drink too much at the bar, and don’t stay up too late. You’ll be sorry. But I know you’ll ignore this, as I do, even after years of regretful mornings.

Another Fabulous Staircase by Frank Gehry

Another fabulous staircase by Frank Gehry (see Art Gallery of Ontario).


Though it reeks of money and is founded on vulgarity (I am no great admirer of the Louis Vuitton brand), Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris is a magnificent and expressive construction. Likened by many to a ship, I see it, rather, as a praying mantis about to prey, or another huge insect with an exoskeleton.


As you make your way through it, every twist and turn a surprise, the gallery feels almost improvised, as if made by a child from a kit of glass, wood, steel and slabs, braced here and there haphazardly as it grew. But no doubt there’s subtle mathematics (and probably huge computational power) behind this extraordinarily complicated construction. At least I hope so. Gehry takes the materials of which so many sober and tightly controlled modernist buildings are made and puts them together with joy, if not the impatience of a child. It’s Baroque elation rather than Renaissance austerity.


Unlike the Sydney Opera House, whose striking exterior was conceived without much thought as to how an opera auditorium and concert hall might be crammed inside its sails, the inside spaces of this building don’t disappoint. It’s a beautifully organised exhibition space made up of vast cool galleries, many with more than a sliver of natural light, each leading on to the next one, adjoining levels linked by escalators and staircases that thread their way from floor to floor. Half-enclosed, half-exposed decks beneath the propped up canopies offer views of the Bois de Boulogne and the water basin in which the building stands.


Even the door handles are deliberate, and distinctive. It looks expensive and it is. The building cost around 100 million pounds.


The gallery is far more interesting than its current exhibition of pop art and musical or sound-based pieces, a third selection from the vast LVMH collection. There are a dozen or so works by Andy Warhol, including the usual cynically self-celebratory self-portraits (they do nothing for me), a monumental political triptych by Gilbert and George, video art in the basement, musical art on the upper decks. Some is decorative, some almost beautiful, much of it banal, or pretentious, and a little that’s pure torture: a large dark cube in the basement where you’re sonically assaulted and brutally machine-gunned by projections on all four walls, and a clicking room of deck chairs and asynchronous metronomes – an installation called Rejuvenator of the Astral Balance by Marina Abramovic.


metronome hell

A delightful John Cage musical sculpture, and a roomful of mirrors and filmed close-ups of a performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola were my favourites.

I’m in Paris for a software conference at the appallingly brutal Palais de Congres, a short walk through the park from the Louis Vuitton Foundation and a depressing contrast.


But I suppose you can’t live an exuberant Frank Gehry kind of life all the time.