Reviews

Four heads that defined the world

Four heads that defined the world

Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, Epikouros, four philosophers who defined the world

In the British Museum, London, the curators have placed four remarkable sculptured heads together. They are not remarkable as sculptures — they are all Roman copies of lost Greek originals. They remarkable by juxtaposition — the four great schools of Greek philosophy represented either by their founders or principal exponents. Sokrates, 469-399 BC, of course, needs no introduction. Antisthenes, 450-370, his pupil, was the founder of the Cynic school. Chrysippos, 281-208, was one of the principal exponents of the Stoic school, founded around 280 BC by Zeno. Epikouros, 342-271, founded the Epicurean school.

Sokrates: the pursuit of knowledge at personal expense
Antisthenes, Cynicism: virtue through the rejection of conventional desires
Chrysippos, Stoicism: moral and intellectual perfection by rising above emotions
Epikouros, Epicurianism: the greatest good through seeking modest pleasures and the absence of pain

The British museum has many treasures, but this is an adventure in curating which is to me one of the most thrilling. Rather than considering the philosophers themselves, which, seriously, you can better do through their writings or even Wikipedia, consider the artistic journey by which these heads reached us. First, at some point either during their lives or soon enough afterwards for people to still remember them, four different sculptors created the heads. Based on what we know about Greek sculpting, they created them because they had been commissioned to. Then, two centuries or more later, some four other wealthy persons commissioned four other sculptors to make copies of the heads. These heads survived the depredations that ended the Roman empire in the west, which almost certainly meant that they passed through the hands of preservers or collectors, until they were each, finally, separately, collected in the 19th century and donated to the British Museum collection, about a hundred years after its founding. Finally, a curator chose to exhibit them together.

Looking at the sculptures themselves, the wealth of Greek culture is at once revealed. If you wander a few rooms to the North, South, East or West, you can review the colossal, majestic but inhuman statues of the Egyptians, the flattened reliefs of the Babylonians, repeating the same figures again and again as they emphasise the greatness of the kings who defeated them, the grotesque, stylised representations of the Incas, and the noble, but largely lifeless representations of medieval Europe before the Renaissance. These, by contrast, are filled with life and character, even down to hair and cloth which seem to flow, though they are stone. Like the Socrates of Plato’s writing, they appear to be at the point of moving and speaking. With the possible exception of Epikouros, these are not ennobled heads.

Blurred by time, and second generation copies as they are, these are sculptures that speak. If you will let them.

Superior Branding work book

Superior Branding work book

Book - Build a Brand in 30 Days

Simon Middleton — Build a Brand in 30 Days

Build a Brand in 30 Days is not the bible of branding. That honour more properly belongs to Wally Olins. On B®and.. But it’s more or less the best how-to guide to branding I’ve ever come across. Basically, it’s a workbook that takes you through all the accumulated wisdom of brand developers that, well, Simon Middleton has managed to accumulate.

In a world where every one-man start-up can become a nationally or globally traded product by virtue of the power of the internet, brand differentiation makes the difference between a mildly diverting hobby and a serious business. But sole-traders brimming with ideas cannot afford the £50,000 to more than £1 million that the better-funded are investing in brand creation. Most startups will never get beyond a rather fussy home-designed logo, or possibly a catchy (but ultimately unsuitable) product or company name. Branding is much more than a name, and much, much more than a logo — something not entirely understood by at least a proportion of the ‘branding’ books on the market.

Middleton is not backwards in coming forwards about his own personal brand. He describes himself on the front cover as “The Brand Strategy Guru”, with the attestation “passionate and persuasive” from one of his many admirers. Middleton may well be passionate and persuasive in person, but that is not really the character of this book. It’s actually quite chatty and matter-of-fact. But it’s also highly directive: this is a book of worksheets, and the idea is that you work through them.

The name of the book is every so slightly a bit of a cheat. As Middleton explains, you shouldn’t really expect to complete this book in a month. Actually, it’s designed for you to spend about thirty whole days over a period of six months. I suppose that “Build a brand in six months” wouldn’t have had the same pull on the shelves with the get-rich-quick-for-no-effort books. Nonetheless, aside from the shaky title, this really does get my vote for the best brand-building process.

My guess is that, for most people, the first brand you try to create using this book will be unsuccessful. Not because the book is bad, but because it’s very tempting to skip and rush the stages. Most readers will have a brand or product idea in their head, and will want to reassure themselves by virtue of these worksheets that they’ve done it all right. This might work, but it stands no more chance of working than doing it without the book. The second time round — those who get that far — working through the sheets may take more time, but the understanding gained from the first time will ensure that the steps are not skipped.

I have to admit this is a slight disappointment: I was lazily working on a piece of software called B®anager (see what I’m doing there?) that was a database of worksheets to take people through. Middleton’s set of worksheets is better than mine was.

In addition to the DIY branders who the book is aimed at, I would also recommend this to someone who wanted to learn about branding, perhaps as an adjunct to other skills in marketing or PR. You don’t need to actually release a product to work through this book, and if you master the process, or, better, a subset of the process that works for you, then you might well be in a good position to lead others through it. And that could become a brand in itself.

Holmes tells us a lot about Moffat’s Doctor Who

Holmes tells us a lot about Moffat’s Doctor Who

Original illustration of Holmes and Watson

Holmes and Watson — original version

Steven Moffat’s Sherlock (BBC One and HD, 25 July, 21:00 — A Study in Pink) is a remarkable update of the great detective for post-modern times. This is House meets The Mentalist, but the tricks of speech are the same as Moffat’s Doctor Who, as is the skilled handling of the vocabulary of television.

Sherlock Holmes fans, of course, have been playing around with the great detective for more than a century. Television, film and stage productions range from the reverential to the ludicrous. But what is more interesting than the fan-fiction and media productions is the string of post-Holmes analytical observers. Gregory House (House) and Patrick Jane (The Mentalist) are the most recently popular, but the parallels to Doctor Who are triple underlined by Steven Moffat’s reworking.

I was determined to sneer at A Study in Pink. How crass to update Holmes, how predictably BBC to change the name of the first novel to something punningly similar. The Seven Percent Solution and The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother left me deeply unappreciative of attempts to freshen up the genre by changing the character of the detective.

But what Moffat has done is to keep the character of Holmes, and update more or less everything else. Holmes is not regarded reverentially as a genius, but as a sociopath, which in Aristotelian terms, is exactly the likely impossible (if such a character as Holmes could exist, this is how people would respond to him) which we need. If anyone as dangerous to criminals really were around, then bribery would be one of the first tools which would be used against him.

Putting Holmes in a new context with people responding him as they would today, rather than adapting the character to modern standards, clarifies just what an odd fish he would have been. As much an alien as Doctor Who, and Moffat, in using the same patterns of speech, is clearly drawing for us an explicit parallel. But Moffat also restores Doctor Watson as the clever, brave man that he was in the original stories, rescuing him from a century of being the bumbling foil to Holmes’s brilliance.

The other thing about all this is that, for the first time in a long time, I am watching a Sherlock Holmes story which will not either be a huge disappointment because it gets the story wrong, or will end the way I expect it to. In a modern re-envisioning, everything can be different, without being less good.

Magical.

Sadly, though, this will not be the BBC’s comeback against the tide of CSI, Law and Order, Mentalist and NCIS flooding our way from the US: in keeping with the Simpson’s jibe 1, the BBC has only made three episodes. Barely enough for an American weekend’s telly.

Best line: “In real life, people don’t have arch-enemies.” (Watson)

Show 1 footnote

  1. “We’ve got the longest running British soap opera — and tonight we’re showing ALL FOUR episodes”
Flipboard — iPad’s killer app

Flipboard — iPad’s killer app

The iPad has found its killer app, and it may surprise you. There are all kinds of ideas about what constitutes a ‘killer app’, but, as far as I’m concerned, the definition is simple: something that does something on your device that just couldn’t be done on any other device, and isn’t being done by anything else.

The original ‘killer app’ was Visicalc — the original spreadsheet app that ran on the Apple II, turning personal computers from a hobby into a business competitive advantage. The whole ethos of personal computing was that you could try different stuff out until you were happy, unlike big corporate mainframes where every second you were on there was costing money, and, in most cases, your chances of getting ‘realtime’ access were slim to none.

The killer apps for the original Apple Macintosh were Aldus Pagemaker. It wouldn’t run on any other device, because the Macintosh was the only WYSWIG personal computer in the marketplace, and Pagemaker was the only Desk Top Publishing software. It established the Mac as the graphics computer — something the Mac needed in order to survive against IBM’s business-targetted PCs — and it established Pagemaker as the ‘real’ DTP software.

But enough of history. The killer app is something called Flipboard, it was launched earlier this week, and it is beautiful, extraordinary, and utterly iPad. And it’s also kind of hard to grasp how it actually does what it does.

Essentially, Flipboard creates a custom magazine for you out of FaceBook and Twitter posts. You can add other modules to gather more generic material from the web if you like, but it’s the Twitter and FaceBook that makes this app come alive. Unlike the spartan terseness of Twitter itself, or the overload of TweetDeck, or the very desktop look and feel of FaceBook, Flipboard reformats your content on the fly into a beautifully designed magazine. The name of the app is maybe a bit misleading: there’s lots of apps that allow you to flip pages, of which iBooks is probably the most famous. The flipping is not the killer bit — it’s that you suddenly see your friends’ comments, photos and shared articles laid out like they were all celebrities.

FaceBook for the iPhone made a splash because suddenly you could do social networking on a mobile device. Other manufacturers jumped in quickly to show that their phones could also do social networking, but for less money. The thing was, though, FaceBook on the iPhone was never as good as on a desktop or laptop. The interface was (is) cumbersome, and, seriously, the only reason I installed it was because the web version was a bit flakey on iPhone.

Flipboard is so gorgeous and so much more usable that I don’t think I want to go back to FaceBook on the web. Actually, I’ll still need FaceBook, because, thus far, Flipboard is good for commenting on other people’s content, but not for uploading your own. Maybe that’s a good thing. Part of Flipboard’s beauty is it’s singleminded devotion to mining content and magazining it. If it starts to become a content creation tool as well then it will just get diffuse. But, for what it’s doing, it’s immense. FaceBook’s regimented, soulless page layout is brought to life. I get to see the whole article if someone posts an article, not FaceBook’s derisory three lines and then ‘more’.

The iPad was a great device before Flipboard, but most of its apps were either cut-down desktop apps, or expanded iPhone apps. Flipboard is something uniquely iPad. Let’s hope we see many more in this vein.

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