Aug 182013
a grey, modern house in sydney australia

If an era’s architecture tells us about the times, what do today’s houses tell us about modern society and values?

On Sydney’s North Shore lies a collection of old army bases, from the 1980s onwards the military started moving out and some of the land was handed over as national parks, other parts were converted into office parks or cafes while the disused married quarters were sold off to private home builders.

The old stores and administrative buildings have been adapted into artists’ studios and elegant, if expensive, offices. Overall, that’s been a success which has created quite a thriving businesses and creative community.

old army store converted into an art gallery

old army store converted into an art gallery

Many of the colonial officers’ and NCO’s quarters, impressive sandstone and wood structures, have become offices, restaurants or function centres. Although some are still looking for a purpose.

Old Colonial Military residence

Old Colonial Military residence

What happened to the functional three bedroom 1960s and 70s brick veneer homes that housed a generation of army brats is less encouraging and tells us much about the times in which we live.

A few of the old post World War II homes remain for Navy families in the still operating, and expanding, HMAS Penguin and these show us the houses that once lined Middle Head Road in Mosman.


1960s Mosman military home


Another old Mosman military family home

These are perfect examples of the functional family homes that covered Australian suburbia during the 1960s and 70s. While nothing exciting or particularly pretty, they were adequate for their task as baby boomers built their families in the post war prosperity.

When they were sold by the Federal government most those modest family homes on Middle Head were bulldozed to make way for the grey behemoths of the 21st Century.


New grey mosman mansion

Like the Mc Mansions that crowd today’s suburbia, these feature four, five or even six bedrooms with on-suites, multicar garages and games rooms. Just as every child today has to win a prize, every room has to have a plasma TV.

These monuments to the modern consumerist economy triumphantly march along a road that once featured modest homes with gardens, trees and lawns.

Line of grey mosman mansions

Line of grey mosman mansions

In many ways these modern buildings represent the ethos of our time – grey, non-descript, poorly built, overcapitalised and dependent on cheap, never ending debt.

A striking aspect about them is their hostility to the pleasant surroundings and the 1930s mansions that make up most of the street. With their battleship grey, security features and blocky air raid shelter lines they look much more like some sinister military installations than the red brick army homes they replaced.

What’s also notable about these new buildings is many are empty. Some of them are being refurbished, only a few years after being built, and many are undergoing substantial repairs – a testament to  how Australian building standards have declined in the past two decades.

Strolling along Mosman’s Middle Head Road its hard not to imagine that if Dorothea Mackellar were writing her iconic My Country poem today, she would have included the lines;

I love a sunburnt country
a land of capital gains

The tragedy for Australia is those old three bedroom houses could have been used by a visionary government to help low income families in Sydney’s increasingly unaffordable suburbs.

However we don’t live in visionary times and government assets today exist to be sold off as quickly as possible to Australia’s rapidly growing rentier classes.

There was little chance those modest housing blocks would become anything more than expensive, over capitalised gin palaces for bankers and the city’s well connected business elite who are never slow to see a coal mine or old military property going cheap.

Architecture tells us a lot about our times and the abandoned Middle Harbour army base is a good commentary on the phases of Australian development through the twentieth Century and the beginning of this century.

The houses also tell how Australians see speculating on overcapitalised property as a safer investment than building the technologies and businesses necessary to prosper in this century. How that will turn out remains to be seen.

What will be interesting is how our great-grandchildren see us and our legacy when they look upon the grey, hostile buildings we built to celebrate our good fortune in the early 21st Century.

Aug 022013

Cisco gave a media and analyst briefing earlier today on the Internet of everything looking at how various technologies can help with tasks ranging from reducing traffic accidents to improving productivity which I’ll write up later.

One of the analyst’s questions though is worth pondering – “what happens when the power goes out?”

For most of the industrial processes discussed by Cisco and the panellists, this would be a hassle but most of the systems would, or should, be designed to fall back to a default position should the power fail.

On a much bigger scale though this is something we don’t really think through.

In modern Western societyour affluent lifestyle is based upon complex supply chains that get the food to our supermarkets, fuel to our petrol pumps, water to our taps and electricity to our homes.

Those chains are far more fragile than we think and few of us give any thought to how we’d survive if the power was off for more than a few hours or if the shop didn’t have any milk and bread for days.

It’s one of the fascinating thing with the end of the world movies. When the meteorite hits or aliens take over then our power and food supplies probably have only 72 hours before they dry up.

After that, you’ve probably got more to worry about your neighbours trying to steal your hoard than being ripped to pieces by zombies.

Most of us probably wouldn’t cope without the safe, comfortable certainties which we’ve become used to.

One thing is for sure — if the power does fail, then most of us will have more to worry about than whether our smartphones are working or whether our geolocating, internet connected fridge is tweeting our wine consumption.

Jun 282013

I was sitting on the back of a motorbike grimly clutching a briefcase full of 100 baht bills when the realities of working in Thailand really dawned on me.

One of the downsides of being the contracts administrator in an Engineering company is that one gets stuck with the jobs that doesn’t fit anybody’s official duties.

This time it was going to rescue Ken – not his real name – a Kiwi Project Manager who instead of enjoying Friday afternoon in a Soi Cowboy beer bar was under siege in his site hut in suburban Bangkok.

Because of a glitch in the insanely bureaucratic payroll system our Singaporean employers used, Ken’s labourers hadn’t been paid and now they were threatening to burn down the site hut with Ken and his office staff in it.

So the story of Chip Starnes, the US businessman freed yesterday after being held hostage by former employees in his Beijing office for six days, is very familiar. It’s a story that expat workers should understand about their status and position when they take an overseas assignment.

While Chip seems to have come out of the ordeal unscathed apart from being in need of a good night’s sleep and a shower, it could have been much worse; shortly after I left Thailand an Australian accountant was gunned down over a business dispute involving a sugar mill outside Bangkok.

In Dubai, two Australian property developers find themselves mired in a legal dispute that could see them facing a decade in gaol.

The risks involved in being an expat worker are easily to overlook, particularly in places like Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore where the life is good for western expatriate workers – the reality for Filipino maids or Pakistani labourers is another matter of course.

When things go wrong though, they go wrong badly and the reality of life in a foreign country can be a rude shock for expats who thought they were living a privileged existence.

The guilded cage for expats is a nice, comfortable place to live in but it is a lot more fragile than many think.

For Ken, he escaped being burned out of his site hut by an angry mob as we arrived before the torches were lit. Some frantic dishing out of notes to the crowd – I’m still sure many of those we gave money to didn’t actually work for us – defused the situation.

Ken still got his Friday night beers at Soi Cowboy and took the whole saga as being part of a day’s work in Thailand, but then Ken was an old Asia construction hand who had no illusions of what could befall an innocent expat. Others might not have been so relaxed.

Dubai image from SG777 through SXC.HU

Jun 182013

Today I wrote a story for Business Spectator on the Google Loon project, a pilot program to see if high altitude balloons can provide affordable internet access for the developing world.

What really fascinates me about Loon and the projects in the Google X program is the concept of the ‘moonshot’. Google explain it on their solve for [x] website.

Moonshots live in the gray area between audacious projects and pure science fiction; instead of mere 10% gains, they aim for 10x improvements. The combination of a huge problem, a radical solution, and the breakthrough technology that might just make that solution possible is the essence of a Moonshot.

Great Moonshot discussions require an innovative mindset–including a healthy disregard for the impossible–while still maintaining a level of practicality.

Missing in that definition is the concept of risk – it’s easy to propose a radical, audacious solution to a problem when it’s not your money or career on the line.

On the other hand, most organisations that have the resources to experiment with breakthrough technologies stifle any thought of true innovation or radical solutions.

The advantage Google has is that parts of the organisation encourage those moonshots, although there are divisions of Google which are just as bureaucratic and staid as a chartered accountant’s or quantity surveyor’s office.

Interestingly Apple were the reverse with only one guy allowed to do moonshots and everyone below him followed him either to the moon or hell, as this wonderful story tells.

Which brings me to the little folk – the startups, small businesses and backyard inventors who don’t have the resources of Google, Apple or the US space program.

For that matter there’s also the writers, painters, musicians and other artists who are risking everything for their vision.

Everyday these people are risking everything for their little ideas as their homes, livelihoods and sometimes their relationships are on the line for their one big idea or audacious vision.

These are the real risk takers and every day they are taking little shots at the moon.

Jun 012013

Twenty years ago, Bruce Springsteen sang about TV having 57 channels and nothing on.

While little has changed on TV, today the web has 57 million websites* offering little beyond click bait and a quick rewrite of someone else’s work.

At the moment that model works for the kings and queens of the digital manor who pocket a few pennies for each of the ten stories their overworked interns pump out in a day but it’s hard to see how that form of publishing adds value to the audience.

The 1990s television stations and cable networks got away with no adding value – and still do today – because they are in industries that are tough for new entrants to enter.

But on the web there are far fewer barriers to new entrants which means offering 57 channels with nothing on, or 57 million websites with no real content, isn’t a long term path to success.

*a wild guess

Apr 052013
Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia

One of the key traits of managerialism is executives spending vast quantities of shareholders’ money on opulent corporate headquarters, is Apple the latest company to succumb to this disease?

Building a new headquarters is fun for managers. One company I worked for in the early 1990s was debilitated for months as executives spent most of their time moving walls, rearranging desk positions and changing lift designs to reflect their status as grand visionaries.

For the company gripped with delusions of management grandeur a flashy head office is the must have accessory. It’s the corporate equivalent of the Skyscraper Index and is almost as good a predictor that a change in fortunes is imminent.

Apple’s new headquarters is nothing if not impressive. Bloomberg Newsweek reports the building which, at two thirds the size of the Pentagon, will house 12,000 employees is currently estimated at costing five billion dollars, sixty percent over the original budget.

The plans call for unprecedented 40-foot, floor-to-ceiling panes of concave glass from Germany. Before the Cupertino council, Jobs noted, “there isn’t a straight piece of glass on the whole building?…?and as you know if you build things, this isn’t the cheapest way to build them.”

With over a $120 billion in cash, Apple can certainly afford to spend five or ten billion on new digs despite the grumbling of shareholders who have had to settle for a stingy 2.4% dividend from their shares.

The big question though for Apple shareholders though is whether a project like this indicates a company that has peaked with management more intent on building monuments to itself or its genuinely visionary founder rather than deliver returns to owners or products to customers.

On the latter point, there’s no evidence of Apple losing their way with their products yet, but it’s something worth watching in case management becomes distracted with their building project.

For the company I worked for, the distracted managers all vanished one day when the main shareholder of the Thai-Singaporean joint venture discovered they’d been fiddling the books. They probably needed to pay for the office fit out.

Mar 262013

The Prime Minister’s courting of bloggers in the run up to the Australian Federal election later this year shows how credibility and relevance are most important assets for any media outlet.

Late last year the Prime Minister invited bloggers to Kirribilli House for lunch then to dinner during her Rooty Hill adventure a few weeks ago.

The press gallery grumbled and wrote patronising articles about North Shore mummy bloggers but failed to recognise the real threat to the established media outlets – these writers are more relevant to people’s lives than the machinations of ‘anonymous political sources’, sports stars or Hollywood celebrities.

Now the Prime Minister is giving one on one exclusive interviews to some of those bloggers, something that will irritate the nation’s political journalists even further.

Old media’s loss of relevance

The press galleries’ problem though is relevance, which lies at the heart of any successful media outlet.

In 1831 when The Sydney Herald’s first edition was published, the front page was made up of advertisements and shipping notices as it was with all newspapers of the time.

That was relevant to the readers, they paid 7d – not an insubstantial amount in 1831 – to find out the latest in shipping movements, real estate sales and livestock prices which were essential to life and business in the colony.

It wasn’t until 1944 that the now Sydney Morning Herald moved news to the front page, the London Times held out until 1966. What was now relevant to readers were photos and wire stories from around the world.

Papers continued to do well despite the introduction of radio in the 1930s and TV in the 1950s because they were continued to be relevant to their readers. If you were looking a job, a house or where to take your mum for her 60th birthday then the local newspaper was the place to look.

The shift to sensationalism

In the 1980s all the media – newspapers, TV and radio stations – started a shift to sensationalism and infotainment and steadily all became less relevant to the populations they served.

At the time media outlets got away with it as there was no-where else for people to get news. If you didn’t like stories about Princess Di’s wedding dress then you had to curl up in the corner with a good book.

Then the web came along.

All of a sudden engaged readers could get relevant information from all over the world.

With social media and blogs, reporting Kim Kardishian’s latest wardrobe malfunction raised a ‘so what’ from an audience that learned about it two days ago on TMZ, the Huffington Post or Facebook.

Making matters much, much worse were the advertising rivers of gold moved to specialist websites and Google.

Newspaper executives found their revenues were evaporating and they worked their way deeper into the quicksand by cutting costs in the areas where their editorial strengths lay, making them even less relevant to the readerships they want to serve.

Relevant lifestyles

Today the mummy bloggers – along with the food bloggers, travel bloggers and political bloggers – are attracting  audiences with relevant, useful content that the audience can engage with.

Last week’s embarrassing circus in Canberra was an example of how irrelevant the media, and much of politics, has become to the average Australian.

Indeed it’s interesting to contrast the self important Canberra press gallery pushing non-stories while fawning over their discredited ‘anonymous party sources’ with the genuinely questioning tone of the some of the bloggers.

So the mainstream, established media can kiss the mummy bloggers’ backsides; if they can’t find relevance in today’s society then they may as well shut up shop.

For politicians relevance is important too – political parties that pitch themselves to 19th Century class struggles or 1980s corporatist ideologies are as irrelevant to today’s society as the Soviet Communist Party.

It would serve the Prime Minister and her staff well to listen closely to what the mummy bloggers and their readers are saying.