Four For Friday (37)

Stanford University announced its new President this week. Marc Tessier-Lavigne is a “pioneering neuroscientist, former Stanford faculty member and outspoken advocate for higher education”. More importantly, in keeping with Stanford’s reputation as a crucible for entrepreneurial creativity, he has been executive vice president for research and chief scientific officer at Genentech, leading work on disease research and drug discovery for cancer, immune disorders, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases.

In a conversation with Ruth Porat, a member of Stanford’s board of trustees, Tessier-Lavigne he talks about how, as a Rhodes Scholar, he chose philosophy and sharpened his critical thinking, and learnt to appreciate the importance of a broad-based education encompassing both liberal arts and the sciences. He talks at length about his research philosophy and interdisciplinarity. “Greatest advances are often made at the interfaces of disciplines,” he says, thus underscoring a crucial aspect of innovation for human betterment.

This week’s links are all about the role of liberal arts in education, research, and scholarship.

India is stereotyped in the west as a country of maths and engineering nerds. Creating a broad base of technocrats was what India needed after it gained independence from British rule. But this has created lopsided development. In a recent essay on the importance — and timeliness — of creating a liberal arts university in India, the founders review the history of higher education in India and ask crucial questions while outlining the form liberal arts education is taking in India under their watchful gaze.

Today, liberal education in India is not just blindly aping the western model. It incorporates the best of content, courses and knowledge that India has to offer and marries it with the best in contemporary pedagogy in terms of experiential learning, use of technology, grass-roots immersion and mentorship. It ensures that the best minds in India are capable of engaging with the toughest challenges we face as a society. This way we ensure that the Indian liberal education aspires to be not just the best in the world but the best for the world. As America worries about its overdependence on liberal education and its rising costs and relevance, India and its Asian neighbours are showing how a rejuvenated model of liberal education is not just an imperative but can be delivered in a high-quality and affordable model at a large scale. As a country we have the opportunity to change the course of higher education not just for India but for the world.

This impassioned essay reproduced in the Washington Post suggests kids need to learn philosophy. The entire essay is worth your time — especially though not only if you have or are in charge of children, in any form. For today’s children are tomorrow’s men and women, and we all have a stake in the matter. An excerpt:

I think most of us realize that society is a necessary compromise, and at least pay lip service to the idea that critical thinking and effective communication are virtues essential for its success. As we get older  many of us tend to be less open to new information, evidence, and arguments — but we can and should instill the requisite virtues in our children via K-12 education.

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” as Frederick Douglass once said in a different context. In that spirit, then, it’s imperative that our kids become philosophers.

As both the founders of Ashoka University in India and Steve Neumann, the author of the essay in WaPo note, liberal arts and philosophy seem to have a poor reputation as something of little “use” to society. To balance that, uh, feeling, here is a utilitarian argument about why digital companies need liberal arts majors. The piece is longer than it needs to be, but it can be skim-read for the main points.

But there will be a limit to how far computers can replace human capabilities, at least in the near long term. What can’t be replaced in any organization imaginable in the future is precisely what seems overlooked today: liberal arts skills, such as creativity, empathy, listening, and vision. These skills, not digital or technological ones, will hold the keys to a company’s future success. And yet companies aren’t hiring for them. This is a problem for today’s digital companies, and it’s only going to get worse.

Vinod Khosla, a leading light in the Silicon Valley, however holds a slightly different opinion. He argues that we need to teach critical thinking and the scientific method first, and humanities later.

To me, the fundamental tools of learning stem (no pun intended) from science, technology, engineering, and math. This updated curriculum should eclipse the archaic view of liberal education still favored by institutions like Harvard and Yale based on a worldview from the 1800s. Critical subject matter should include economics, statistics, mathematics, logic and systems modeling, current (not historical) cultural evolution, psychology, and computer programming. Furthermore, certain humanities disciplines such as literature and history should become optional subjects, in much the same way as physics is today (and, of course, I advocate mandatory physics study).

Finally, English and social studies should be replaced with the scientific process, critical thinking, rhetoric, and analysis of current news—imagine a required course each semester where every student is asked to analyze and debate topics from every issue of a broad publication such as The Economist, Scientific American, orTechnology Review. Such a curriculum would not only provide a platform for understanding in a more relevant context how the physical, political, cultural and technical worlds function, but would also impart instincts for interpreting the world, and prepare students to become active participants in the economy. After all, what is the job of education?

While I don’t fully agree with the “how” of Mr Khosla’s line of thinking, in my own life, I have made choices that have followed a similar path in educating myself as I have written elsewhere.

Studying numerate, “right answer” things followed by studying humanities – Engineering is a good first degree (although I think Physics is better but problem formulation skills acquired in engineering are second to none); but to situate the problem solving in the real world needs an understanding of how resources are allocated and how decisions are made. Studying the “there is no right answer” disciplines helped me become less linear and more able in life in general. It has worked well for my career too (I am now teaching Society & Technology to engineering undergraduates as a choice, and this was a subject I wish we had studied when we were in engineering school).

Women Artists in London: Annie Leibovitz

Long post alert!

Women artists are predicted to garner more attention this year. Right on cue there is Women: New Portraits, by Annie Leibovitz, the American photographer. The London show launches the 10-city international tour of the exhibition. These images are a continuation of the project Women that Leibovitz began with Susan Sontag many years ago.

I went to see the exhibition with two women friends, one of whom is a professional photographer.

Walking from Wapping Overground station, and talking about this and that, we could have easily missed the venue, the disused and dilapidated Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. While accessible on the shiny new Overground from the south and the north, it is not obvious why this venue was chosen. The show is sponsored by UBS so it is not like it was on a British art grant and had to be shown in an area being regenerated. Despite the location, it appears to have been a popular show, as evidenced by the crowd control frames, not in use when we went, in the grounds of the building.

As we entered, a young lady in an orange jacket stopped us. She would like us to know there are trip hazards inside. Oh, and we could take pictures with our phones if we like, but not with a camera.

The reason for the warning became clear soon.

This is no ordinary exhibition. The large hall has three large digital screens and a tacking wall with chairs in the middle. These screens are plugged into the walls, and necessitate floor cable protectors, which are the trip hazards we were warned about. Each large screens is made up of smaller screens. This makes for an interesting viewing experience. One expects the photos will be “broken” in some form. But as the images move at a soft clip – on two of the three large screens, except the one at the back which has a static picture of Queen Elizabeth II — they don’t feel broken. The tacking wall has same-size prints of many of the images. Another standing screen lists the names of all the women whose photographs are on show.

Annie Leibovitz exhibition - image by Karuna Kapoor

Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition – photo by Karuna Kapoor

The tacking wall at Annie Leibovitz's exhibition by Karuna Kapoor

The tacking wall at Annie Leibovitz’s exhibition – photo by Karuna Kapoor

While Women, the project began with images of American women in the late 20th century, Women: New Portraits looks at some other women too. Queen Elizabeth II and Adele being two of the several British women who are featured in this show. There are unexpected pictures of persons in personas such as Ellen Degeneres in a sparkly bikini with a white pantomime made-up face.

Ellen Degeneres by Annie Leibovitz

Ellen Degeneres by Annie Leibovitz

There are family portraits such as the Osbournes, who are probably the second most famous British family. There are mother-and-child(ren) portraits such as Arianna Huffington with her daughters and Carolina Herrera with her clan, but more notably, the striking Richardson clan.

Four Generations (Kempson & Richardson) by Annie Leibovitz

Four Generations (Kempson & Richardson) by Annie Leibovitz

Then there are portraits of domestic violence, of mine workers, of athletes (Serena and Venus feature in one such, looking fierce and awe inspiring), and of models in a long tableau format. While heavy on famous women, the range is considerable and admirable.

Gloria Steinem referred to those chairs in the middle of the hall as the “talking circle” where people could sit and discuss the feelings these photographs evoke. When we visited, there was very little talking going on. In a small backroom, with a tastefully casual ambience with a long communal table and several small and high-back chairs, there are books of photographs, not all by Leibovitz. That is where people talked more, mostly in whispers.

My photographer friend and I looked at some images in those books together. She pointed out how Leibovitz’s subjects almost always make eye contact with the camera. We talked about how our knowing the stories can change how we see the images. I confessed my prejudice that if I do not like a public person for their politics, I find it hard to appreciate their photographs, no matter how technically brilliant they are. Equally I felt Queen Elizabeth II’s photo is harsh, and her eyes without the signature twinkle makes for a strangely alienating experience.

The venue remains a peculiar choice. No doubt, by design.

Its bare-boned, utilitarian look is far from the opulent art galleries many of us are so used to. It is rough and ready, but it has potential. It has after all been transformed into an art gallery. It could be anything – a performance venue, a fashion show catwalk, a school, a speakeasy, a dance studio.

Perhaps that is the metaphor for modern womanhood where Annie Leibovitz’s art forms a confluence with the venue: the power to be the anything the woman can will herself to be.

(See it in London before February the 7th, 2016 if you can. Else catch it in Zurich, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco, Mexico City or New York through to December 2016.)

Four For Friday (36)

Art is seen by many as unrelated to the grind of our quotidian lives. It sometimes is. But at other times, it encapsulates the times we live in, makes snide commentary, catalyses change, ignites conversation. This week’s readings are on Art. Not long essays just contemporary happenings.

When Lego refused the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei’s bulk order late last year, citing it “can not approve the use of Legos for political works”, it caused a storm. Lego has now announced its changed policy and will not ask what users intend to use their products for. instead asking customers to write a public disclaimer if the works are displayed. 

In a statement posted on its website on Tuesday, Lego said it used to ask customers ordering bulk purchases for the “thematic purpose” of their project, as it did not want to “actively support or endorse specific agendas”.

“However, those guidelines could result in misunderstandings or be perceived as inconsistent, and the Lego Group has therefore adjusted the guidelines for sales of Lego bricks in very large quantities,” it said.

As of 1 January the company will instead ask that customers make clear the group does not support or endorse their projects, if exhibited in public.

Public art is woven into the fabric of the urban life in London. From now until the 13th of February 2016, various London art galleries are showing a smorgasbord of art.

CONDO is a huge project that sees our very own Arcadia Missa, Carlos/Ishikawa, Chewday’s, Project Native Informant, Southard Reid, Rodeo, Supplement, and The Sunday Painter provide a series of collaborative exhibitions with galleries from Berlin, New York, Shanghai, Amsterdam, Roma, Glasgow, Sao Paulo, Geneva, and Zurich. Participating artists include Ed Fornieles, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Oscar Murillo, Puppies Puppies, Etel Adnan, A.L. Steiner, Pheobe Collings-James, and many, many more names besides.

This large-scale, ambitious initative turns the programme for London’s hippest galleries into a biennial format, of sorts. Expect an exhibition and you’ll be confronted by a bombastic network of some of the world’s hottest young artists being displayed alongside one another. Where one gallery may turn over their space to an international counterpart, others may divide their gallery into parts, showcasing their own work with their collaborative partner.

This isn’t just a hodgepodge rampage through the works of the art world’s next household names. Rather, it’s a delicately constructed, carefully curated selection of art that isn’t just hot right now – but that is destined to remain hot for a long time to come.

It is predicted that 2016 will see more interest in women artists and non-western art, according to Christie’s, the auctioneer.

From 1 April, London’s Saatchi Gallery is shaking things up, celebrating its 30th anniversary with an exhibition of works by 14 female artists, including Alice Anderson and Soheila Sokhanvari — whose Moje Sabz, a taxidermy horse straddling a ‘jesmonite blob’, is pictured at the top of this page.

Elsewhere, Victoria Miro is presenting works by Chantal Joffe, from 22 January to 24 March while, in America, female Abstract Expressionists including Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler are the stars of Women of Abstract Expressionism, a major show of more than 50 works at the Denver Art Museum that opens in June. From July, Georgia O’Keeffe and her sinister flowers will bloom at Britain’s Tate Modern.

Nigerian art is very much on the radar at the moment — just look at Lagos-based artists Peju Alatise, who works in cloth, or Yusuf Grillo. Galleries such as London’s Jack Bell and October Gallery have taken note, and the success of shows such as Touria El Glaoui’s 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair (returning to New York in May, and to London in October), is bringing hot new painters to international attention all the time.

A tribute to womanhood, in the form of photographic portraits by Annie Leibovitz, is currently on show in London.

Can you capture the infinitive varieties of womanhood? That’s what Annie Leibovitz’s new exhibition, “Women: New Portraits”, an extension of a project she began with her late partner Susan Sontag in 1999, attempts to achieve.

“Visualising what women look like, who we are, was a very, very important thing to do,” she explained to Forbes. “Men have been portrayed, we understand in art and photographs very well. We understand how men look, but with women haven’t really developed that. Who are we? With my work, I’m very interested in what women do and who we are.”

The mention of women artists reminded me of something shared by novelist Rabih Alameddine last year. “Wife dabbles in art” is the headline about Frida Kahlo. She has been having a laugh ever since. Publication unknown.

Frida in a headline from another time

Frida in a headline from another time


Investment and Luxury: The Birkin Bag

From fashion magazines to feminist commentariat and regular journalism outfits, many seem to be telling women this January that buying Birkin bags is a better idea that investing in the stock market. A luxury bag selling website’s research comparing S&P 500 performance with that of Birkin bags says the latter stacks up more favourably over a 35 year period.

Birkin Bag in Ostrich (Image copyright: Wikimedia Foundation)

Birkin Bag in Ostrich (Image copyright: Wikimedia Foundation)

Is this good advice?

The short answer is a qualified MayBe. The devil per usual is in the details which these articles are too busy to get into.

The long answer lies in a suggested framework to think about your investment philosophy and goals, your risk propensity, and how they match with Birkin as an “alternative asset class”. All this with the huge qualifier that this is not investment advice.

What is your investment goal? Do you seek growth in capital, or do you seek income? If the latter, Birkin bags are not a great investment for you. Regardless of the legends surrounding them, Birkin bags don’t pay dividend! I make the point with levity if only to ensure the point is understood, but this is the serious first question to ponder.

If you are seeking capital growth, you need to consider carefully the kind of Birkin you buy.

Birkin bags are extensively customised with choice of skins, colour and hardware. This is where deciding what to buy gets tricky. In order to realise that capital growth at some point in time, you (or your heirs) need to be able to sell the bag. Which means there needs to be a buyer for the bag you buy. For a commoner version, such as grey or brown snake skin, there may be many buyers but equally there may not be so much growth in value, more on which later. You will also need to think of the channels through which you can sell the bag for a profit, and unlike stock brokerage accounts, there is no one clear channel for soliciting buyers and completing the sale transaction.

For a less common version, say a white Himalayan Birkin, in platinum or palladium, encrusted in diamonds, you may not have many buyers because it is a serious test of affordability. The channel here, however, may be clearer; antique houses or auction houses could advise you on disposal although they will certainly take their cut, which will come from your capital growth.

When it is argued that Birkin delivers a better investment growth than some stocks, it is important to take into account all the comparators behind that claim. Are you comparing for risk? Are you comparing for the time horizon over which you will hold the stock — and the Birkin? Which other asset classes, other than stocks, are you taking into account (for instance, London residential real estate has been a high growth asset class over the last two decades for sure!)?

Regardless of what a handbag vendor website says, it is difficult to predict which bags will retain value and which may become commoner and more ordinary over time. That uncertainty is no different from stocks. Also Birkin bags will need to remain a scarce resource, their scarcity being the real reason for their “value”, for them to grow in value. That is a pretty big assumption to make for your investment decision. The only consolation being that, unlike stocks, you are at least able to use this “asset class” as arm candy and social signal.

All this is the Birkin equivalent of “fundamental analysis“, if you will.

If you can conduct this analysis rationally — while also keeping in mind that you could always keep your Birkin and pass it on as bequest — then you will arrive at your own conclusion as to whether this is good advice. As antique dealers often point out, such alternative assets often have unpredictable or smaller growth in market value, but they can and do grow in intrinsic value due to the personal stories we imbue them with.

Whichever way we look at it, thirty five years is a long time!

(This is not investment advice. Merely an exhortation to read critically the sensational piece du saison, which is quite likely to mislead less discerning readers.)

Four For Friday — 2016 in predictions

Welcome to 2016!

The curated links today are all about predictions for design, luxury, jewellery, and fashion tech in 2016.

“Simplicity will win.. but don’t oversimplify and sacrifice thrill of discovery” is my favourite from these 10 predictions for design in 2016.

Thanks to the digitization of everything, we now have the most hyperreactive markets in history. However, innovation at this speed comes with an unintended consequence—a never-ending glut of options. From more than a million apps in the Apple Store to your grocery’s milk aisle, every aspect of our lives now requires making a choice. It is becoming increasingly difficult for consumers to make sense of all the noise. In 2016, brands will help people take things off the “thinking list.”

Companies have already enjoyed some success doing so. Aldi built a successful and disruptive business model while offering significantly fewer choices than traditional supermarkets. When Proctor & Gamble cut its Head & Shoulders line from 26 products to 15, the organization saw a 10% increase in sales.

Services that are able to automate low-maintenance decisions will be an especially important step. We’re already starting to see this with Google Now, while Australian startup Pocketbook prompts users of their upcoming payments and bills to avoid missed payments.

“Conscious consumption” and “owning over becoming” are two that caught my eye in luxury and design.

On conscious consumption:

Perhaps all of the above trends could at some level be attributed to the fact that manufacturing has now become so easy, cheap and ubiquitous. There is so much stuff, there’s room now for the weird, the wonderful and the fun. On the other hand, however, there is so much stuff there’s also an urgent need to zoom out and see the bigger picture. Disillusioned with focusing our lifestyles on the attainment of more material goods, more of us are seeking to achieve balance and enhance life with a greater sense of wholeness: making conscious choices, taking greater responsibility for ourselves, our communities and the wider planet. What does that mean for design? Activist brands, more conscious and considered design methodologies, anti-obsolescence and slow design.

On owning over becoming:

The direct result of brands needing to extend their role and remit as entertainers, educators and also enablers. This will take the form of new collectives, still deeper examples of hybridisation and also concepts attuned to borrowing… The premise is ‘owning over becoming’ which the luxury sector will embrace by connecting their audience with increasingly rarefied experiences and access of a highly topical, often intellectual nature.

The predictions for jewellery however seem to be focused on one key theme — personalisation.

Emin, a woman who, like few others, has captured the essence of our age and the idea of expressing your personal history, has put her finger on it. The biggest trend in jewellery today is in fact all about making it your own, be it how you wear it, or indeed sporting a tattoo.

Joanne Ooi, co-founder and creative director of Plukka – the new online fine jewellery e-tailer – came back to me with her predictions for 2016. “Delicate jewellery that is like a second skin and as easy to wear as a tattoo appears to be here to stay, as women, especially younger ones, eschew the look of large cocktail rings and reject the aesthetic of jewellery as an object.”

Fashion tech is an active area of investment, innovation and possibilities. WT Vox predicts many things about fashion tech but this would be an interesting one to watch.

In Q1 of 2016 we will see Jimmy Choo and Moncler investing in tech startups. More important, just like Amazon that is working hard to launch their digital health online store, we will see the appearance of dedicated online stores/sections for fashion technology.

Keep an eye on Asos, and Net-a-Porter. Not a real surprise as both companies are fashion technology ventures at their nuclei.

I enjoy, sometimes, reading predictions for the arbitrary one-year period that starts on January the 1st. I regret though that ex post assessments of such predictions a year down the line are few and far in between. JP Rangaswamy articulates some of my other ishoos with the predictions gig.

Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.

What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.

My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.

The Janusian nature of the predictions linked above contain the essence of creativity — namely, how to balance the connected and tracked nature of our emergent world with our innate need to stand out, be seen, be counted, be individual? This tension is where all that matters and will matter will emerge. That is what I intend to watch over this year.

John Williams Waterhouse (1902) – The Crystal Ball (Image from Wikimedia)