Thursday, March 15, 2012

Not as Funny

Now that Bo Xilai has been removed as Party Secretary of Chongqing, some bozo has meme-ified it and written a Goldman Sachs-style resignation letter from his perspective.

Unfortunately, the analogy in the meme is broken. It's not really appropriate to point to the "Cultural Revolution" as the "golden old days" in this parody. You could argue that the Party has lost its original ideals since 1949, but virtually no one (in China at least) wants to return to the horror and chaos of Mao's campaigns in the 1960s.

The Goldman Sachs piece argues for principled action and privileging clients above one's own short-term profits. That culture was something actually in place. It was successful and could rightfully be celebrated. While the Cultural Revolution warped ideals in a millenarian fashion, it was not just and it was not benign. No one in their right mind would laud it today.

Maybe I shouldn't take this "meme" so seriously, as it's just for entertainment, but it really irks me. The critiques of the Party are certainly valid -- but the supposed “solution” of bringing back the Cultural Revolution is far worse. That's obviously not a fix, and the author knows it -- yet persists in using it as if parodic tool. Not only does the meme's author fail to suggest a real salve to China's problems, he makes light of an episode of immense human suffering. Overall it's just ... inaccurate. If you're going to make a meme, at least construct it properly.

The problems in China are real and immense, and there might be real dissenters in the Party. This irresponsible joking does them a disservice. You are devaluing complaints against the CCP and the abandonment of its purported founding ideals by associating contemporary opposition with insane calls for total Cultural Revolution. It simultaneously twists the Goldman letter into a demand for rigid and violent ideological purity, when it's actually a call for ethics and balance in corporate conduct.

This meme plays straight into the Party's narrative that if we don't control everyone and restrain the masses, then the Cultural Revolution will be repeated: Chaos and disorder will reign, and more people will die. Oh, plus you won't get rich anymore. Everything China has gained since Reform and Opening will be lost!

A real Goldman Sachs-type letter out of the Communist Party could have the same shocking effect and cause some national soul-searching. (Or is that too hopeful? Maybe everyone who joins the party is a cynic these days. But then at very least it could lay bare the utter hypocrisy permeating every trembling, ecstatic breath extolling China's wonderful socialist model.)

Instead of providing a guerrilla act of dissent, this meme trivializes China and its history, just for a cheap laugh. Classy, just classy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

If you want to work in Finance

The blogosphere is abuzz about the Goldman Sachs employee who resigned after watching the company's culture descend into sheer profiteering and becoming "toxic and destructive" -- and who penned an op-ed in The New York Times about this decision.

Some choice quotes:

The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for... I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival...

I have always taken a lot of pride in advising my clients to do what I believe is right for them, even if it means less money for the firm. This view is becoming increasingly unpopular at Goldman Sachs. Another sign that it was time to leave. How did we get here? The firm changed the way it thought about leadership. Leadership used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence...

Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them... It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

I hope this can be a wake-up call to the board of directors. Make the client the focal point of your business again. Without clients you will not make money. In fact, you will not exist. Weed out the morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm. And get the culture right again, so people want to work here for the right reasons. People who care only about making money will not sustain this firm — or the trust of its clients — for very much longer.

This article should be translated into Chinese and disseminated as widely as possible. (I've already posted a link on Renren). It's not just a Goldman Sachs problem, though that company had certainly crystallized the issue. It's a whole-culture problem if screwing others in the pursuit of wealth is seen as the loftiest and worthiest goal, and perfectly justified.

If Goldman really isn't the way it's portrayed, and its employees are all upright corporate citizens, then the company's leaders should laud and celebrate every principle raised in this piece. The only thing they could claim is that they agree completely with all his ideas, but the op-ed is inaccurate because GS already lives up to those ideals.

And well, if the company doesn't actual reflect those principles, and the executives end up covering themselves by attacking this guy -- then at least all those Goldman employees will be jolted into a moment of clarity. They will have to take a hard look in the mirror and ask what kind of company they work for. (Also see reaction from former employees.)

It's a thorny problem, and I'm actually rather glad it got tossed in Goldman Sachs' lap. Either they'll be forced to live up to these standards and affirm (or reaffirm) internally what believe in and let employees judge for themselves -- or they can just admit that they don't believe in such principles and simply put profits first, in which case smart employees and savvy clients will want to GTF out of there.

UPDATE  (3-15-2012)
My friend Patrick, who previously spent time at J.P. Morgan and also observes China, posted this:

"China in itself is like Goldman Sachs. The business culture there is as corrupt, if not more so, than Goldman's. The only thing that's good about it is that China is openly corrupt while Goldman hides their shitty deals as 'Abacus CDOs.'" LOL.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Motion and Rest

These "cinemagraphs" are pretty cool -- a different format for images, perhaps a new medium for visual communication. (See this description in The Atlantic Monthly.)

However, from the examples I've seen, many of these works are a bit too focused on the actual animation without paying attention to rhythm and rest. I like the hair blowing in the wind in the GIF above, but an actual breeze wouldn't continuously go back and forth, back and forth. The model's hair should come to rest and stay there a bit before another puff of wind sets it into motion again. That would feel more natural.

If you go to the Cinemagraphs website, you'll see what I mean, with the set of images on the front page. They feel very mechanical -- they don't really seem life-like, not only because of the regularity of the motion, but because that motion is nearly continuous. Pauses and "drift time" would make these images more aesthetically pleasing, and set the viewer more at ease.

It's possible that for some effects, you might want rapid flashing, alternating colors over and over -- but not everything is Vegas.