Sunday, 30 November 2008

Why I was summoned to the Old Bailey

Throughout my life I have managed to steer clear of the judiciary, the police, the law, the Courts. I have only once given evidence, at a discrimination hearing, and being questioned by a tricky lawyer was not a nice experience.

So it was a bit of a surprise when I found myself "invited" to the Old Bailey, the central criminal Court in England, a couple of weeks ago. But when you get that sort of invitation, you don't turn it down. I put on my most grown up suit and tie and off I went. When I told the taxi driver that I had to be at the Old Bailey at a certain time and could he hurry up please, he asked if I was a lawyer. No, I explained, I am going to be questioned by the judges. "Good luck, mate" he said, looking at me sadly in the mirror as if he didn't expect to see me for a long time.

I had been invited to meet an Old Bailey judge. Actually not just one Old Bailey judge, but ALL the Old Bailey judges at the same time!

The occasion was one of those City of London traditions that stretch back hundreds of years. The daily luncheon at the central criminal court hosted by the City of London, which actually runs the Old Bailey. Two Sheriffs of London (did you know there were still Sheriffs of London?) reside within the Old Bailey building and by tradition they invite all the judges to a three course lunch every day. They also invite a guest or two and on that particular day I was the guest.

So I arrived at a special side door and was ushered up to the Sheriffs apartment, where I was met by a senior City Alderman and a very nice judge. A chap tried to tempt me with a crystal glass of the finest champagne presented on a silver tray but as I don't drink I asked for a plain orange juice instead. Such fineries are wasted on me!

Then we wandered up the corridor to another very ornate room, where I walked into the amazing (to me) scene of a couple of dozen fully wigged and robed Judges, a handful of Justices of the Peace an Alderman and an Under Sherriff who is also known as The Secondary (but nobody seemed to remember why). We sipped tomato juice. I asked if this was another ancient tradition, but it seems the judges just like tomato juice. Unlike me.

Then we were called to lunch and processed two by two to the grand dining room. The chaps in the red robes went first (I think they were the ones called "The Hon. Mr Justice so and so") followed by the Alderman and Guest followed by Judges, JPs, Under Sheriff.

The food and wine was delightful (obviously I didn't eat much of it, having taken my usual precaution when going to posh meals of eating a sandwich beforehand). That's not completely true - we had shepards pie so I ate the mash potato from the top of the shepards pie. Judges are very entertaining lunchtime company, I found. Incredibly smart and slightly other-worldly, with astonishing memories. They chatted about events that happened back in the 60's as if it was yesterday.

The Honourables found me quite an interesting specimen I think. They questioned me forensically about what Garlik does, about the internet, identity fraud and cybercrime. Several of them had tried fraud cases of course so they had a deep knowledge of the law in this area. As my name plate described me as "Dr Tom Ilube", the Honourable opposite me asked me if I was a medical Doctor. I said "No, Doctor of Technology" and he said "Ah ha! Very good. Now, why is my broadband so slow, eh?". Thus began one of those surreal conversations where we talked through his PC settings and broadband provider and I offered advice whilst several other judges listened in nodding wisely.

As we left the hall, I was chatting to a few of the judges about social networking. "It's that Face thing, isn't it?" one of them said. "Facebox?" "Facebag?" "Facebook!". We finally got there. I explained that they could set up a profile on Facebook and keep in touch with the many people they had come into contact with over the years. The Honourables looked at each other slightly horrified and quickly concluded that perhaps they wouldn't be embracing social networking afterall.

They invited me to sit in on some of their cases in the Old Bailey that afternoon, but I decided I had spent enough time inside Court for one day and was a bit wary of being accidentally "sent down", so I made my excuses and left. I must say, this was one of the most fascinating lunches I have been to in a while and I felt very honoured to have been invited.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Gateway of India

I am in Mumbai, India today pitching Garlik to the VC arm of one of those huge Indian corporations that are the size of a small country.

It's my first visit to India and one thing I can say for certain is that there is serious money in this country...and serious poverty too. As I watch the breaking news about India's moon landing satellite and read todays paper with the Forbes list of Indian multi-Billionaires I am reminded again as I was in China a couple of months ago, how the old order is changing.

Mumbai is somehow much more familiar to me than Beijing was. It's the type of developing country I recognise and understand from Africa, with its dust, noise, energy, free-wheeling exuberance and raw ambition. Some people find big Indian cities crazy on their first visit. I just switched into Africa-mode and actually found Mumbai strangely calm, safe and well organised by comparison. Even the traffic lights work here! True, the taxis largly ignore them, but they do work.

I put my Africa-mode mindset to the test in a side street store. The store manager was delighted to see me, positively rubbing his hands with glee as I wandered in. "From England, Mr Tom? Man United eh, Mr Tom? Cricket eh? Just look at this one Sir, don't worry about the price. Look at this one. She will love it. Don't worry about the price, I will make you a fine, special price Sir".

So I asked the price. He looked pained as if I had pointed out an unsightly boil on his nose, but forced himself to tell me. Then the haggling began in earnest. Or rather it didn't, as I adopted a little known technique called SILENCE. I invaded his body space, stared at him quizically and went silent.

"What's the matter Mr Tom? What price do you want? Name your price. Don't be embarrased."

I said "I want the price please".

That is the correct price, he claimed, then grabbed a big calculator, theatrically proded some buttons and showed me a new price that was 10% lower. Look, he said, almost as if he was surprised himself, that is the new price? Okay? Is that okay? Why are you staring at me.

I smiled and stared. I want the price I repeated.

This went on for about half an hour. He dropped his price three more times. He hit the side of his head angrily. Threw the calculator on the floor. Begged me to say something, name a price even if it was zero. Accused me of wasting his time. Advised me to join the police if I was going to stare at people like that. Explained his family circumstances and appealed to my better nature.

Finally he stopped speaking. I stared. He stared. We stood nose to nose in a little upstairs store in a backstreet of Mumbai staring at each other in silence for five minutes. Sweat pouring from his brow. Me, smiling quizically. Then he broke "Okay", he said "take it for this price" and he threw up his hands in disgust. Then the final insult as I handed him the money "You lied. You are not from Britain at all. Where are you really from?". I smiled, invaded his bodyspace one last time and left.

On the way back to the hotel, as dusk drew in, the driver stopped off at the majestic Gateway of India, standing proudly in its faded Mumbai glory with people teeming around its base, selling giant orange balloons (why?). I swaggered around in Africa-mode, pushing past outstretched beggers, waving away balloon sellers, threatening photographers, stopping traffic imperiously as I crossed back over to my car and driver.

That's when I noticed the small boy walking along next to me. About 6 years old I would guess. No shoes. Rags. Silent. Just inside my bodyspace. Staring at me. I stared back and waved him away imperiously, like Emperor Nero. He looked at me. I looked at him and saw my son, a few years ago. I thought about the life this little boy will lead and I thought about our lives. People, if you have a computer and you can read this then you are soooo unbelievably lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky. Recession? Credit crunch? Job security? If we think we have problems, we just have no idea.

As a nearby hotel security guard wandered over with a stick to drive the small boy back into the snarling traffic I did something I never do (in Africa-mode). I reached in to my jacket, pulled out a decent sized note that would mean nothing to me in pounds and handed it over with tears behind my eyes. He looked at the note as if there must be some mistake, looked at me with empty eyes and darted back into the traffic before I changed my mind. As we drove away I looked back across to the Gateway of India. I saw him skipping, yes, skipping along. Like a 6 year old boy. Oh, God. What sort of a messed up world do we live in.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Picked up in a German Bar

It's not all glitz and glamour being a "highflying" venture backed start up guy, let me tell you! Sometimes you need to get down and dirty to make things happen. And so it came to pass that I found myself being picked up in a German bar before returning to a sleazy, backstreet hotel.

Let me explain.

I'm still on the road, fund raising for Garlik. Last week I heard of a couple of German VC firms that might be interested, so I executed my tried and tested "getting a VC meeting at short notice" plan.

Here's how it works. I contact one of the VCs and arrange a 30 minute conference call. Everyone's got 30 mins to spare at short notice and then you have a foot in the diary. Then I contact the other VC and tell them that I happen to be in Germany the next couple of days and, since I'm around, how about I pop in and say hi? I don't trouble them with the detail that at this stage it is only my voice that happens to be in Germany. Armed with this meeting in the diary, I go back to the first VC and say since I am in Germany anyway for a meeting, why don't we turn or 30 minute slot in to a face to face meeting. Bingo - two meetings lined up at short notice with busy VCs.

Now, we try to figure out how to make it happen. That's when I discover that the two VCs that I am now supposed to be seeing on the same day are actually hundreds of miles apart. Never mind, we'll figure something out, so I pack up my toothbrush and head off to the airport.

Check in at Terminal 5 (very smooth, great terminal in my experience). BA flight to Munich (bloke on plane next to me using blackberry when he shouldn't. Do I tell the stewardess on him or snatch it off him and ram it in to his ear? Neither. I adopt the traditional British approach and just "look extremely annoyed"). Nice chat with the German taxi driver on the way to VC number 1 (how many London cabbies could have a chat in German I wonder?). Enter the VCs palatial offices, whip out the laptop. Pitch, pitch, pitch, sell, sell, sell, question, question, question for about 2 hours. Then dash off, jump on a high speed three hour cross country train and off to see VC number 2.

But this is where things go a bit off course. The VC lady has arranged to meet in my hotel lobby at 8pm and grab dinner, so that we could discuss the investment opportunity.

Or to put it another way, I had arranged over the internet to be picked up by a wealthy German lady in a bar, taken to dinner and then ask her for money at the end of the evening. Hmmmmm. People could get the wrong impression. "People" mostly being my wife (who, thankfully doesn't bother to read this blog :)

However, I am a start up guy and right now I am a start up guy in cost cutting mode, so I am not actually staying at the posh hotel in question. I am staying in the cheap and slightly sleazy hotel five minutes walk around the corner.

When we booked it, I did wonder how different a £30/night two star hotel was to a £200/night five star hotel. It turns out the answer is "very different" as became clear when I was buzzed through the security door at my hotel and the receptionist looked like she was going to ask me whether I needed the room for the whole night or just a few hours!

I actually laughed out loud when I went into the room, put the ash trays in the draw to try to get rid of the smokey smell and looked around for the bathroom. I couldn't see one so I assumed with sinking heart that it must be a shared bathroom in the hallway. I opened the cupboard to hang up my coat only to find that there was the smallest shower and toilet tucked away inside that I had ever seen. Ah, the joys of start up life :)

I rushed around the corner hoping to get to the posh hotel before Ms VC but she was there waiting in the lobby when I arrived. "Don't you want to check in?" she asked.

"It's alright, I've got it covered" I said making vague arm sweeping gestures in the direction of the reception area and guided her out of the door. Off we went for dinner.

Posh hotel. Now posh restaurant. Why, why, why? Don't people know I hate posh food. We walked right past a perfectly good Burger King to get to this fancy French place. Octopus. Can you believe, they actually serverd me octopus! When the waitress came to take the plates away she looked annoyed and said "is there a problem with the food, sir?". I felt like saying "Yes, you seem to have given me an octopus instead of real food and I don't know what to do with it."

Instead I said "No, no, no, it's lovely" and quickly took a fork full of octopus. I almost gagged but managed to chew away whilst making "mmmmmm, lovely" type of noises. Then I chopped it up and hid it under my knife. I am a master at this technique. Sometimes people find stuff I have left under a knife many days later.

So, over dinner I pitched, pitched, pitched, sold, sold, sold. Then walked back to the posh hotel. Said my farewells. Made as if to go into posh hotel, then nipped off round the corner to Sleazy and Sons. Lept up at 5.30am, back on the 3 hour train ride to Munich. Back on the BA flight. Back to the UK and got to the office to find a BBC TV crew waiting to interview me about a new type of financial fraud, for tomorrow's BBC breakfast news.

The good news as I sit here typing at 2am is that I get a whole 5 hours sleep in my own bed at home before setting off again tomorrow. This time to Mumbai, India to pitch to some VCs there. I'm not taking chances this time though. I reckon a cheap and sleazy Mumbai hotel would be beyond even my hardy start up guy spirit!

Monday, 10 November 2008

Hurray - we are all racialists now!

Yes We Did!

And I am so pleased that we did. It is unbelievable and it challenges all of us as individuals to stretch further than we thought was possible just a few days ago. I am, as we speak, rethinking my own journey. How far dare I try to go? (Not in to politics, that's for sure - my wife has already told me that if I even think about it she will immediately expose all my secrets to the gutter press!).

But does the fact that I am so pleased that Obama won make me a racialist? Does it make all of us racialists now?

This is a tricky question and one that most people have been carefully steering clear of, lest one makes a careless statement and ends up being accused of racism. Then you are in deep trouble!

Did you notice the slightly awkward word "racialists" rather than the more usual "racists" above? That was deliberate, as according to some authorities in this area, such as Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, they mean different things.

Racialists believe that the human species can be divided up in to different racial groups and that each member of a given racial group has traits and tendencies (not just physical traits) that they share with other members of that same racial group, but not with people outside of that group. Racialists don't necessarily believe that any racial group is better or worse than any other racial group, just that there are differences between racial groups, that are not just based on culture for example, but are part of some sort of "racial essence". Separate but equal is the credo of the racialist.

Meanwhile the non-racialist takes a different view. The non-racialist obviously sees different colours (they are not colour-blind) but the non-racialist does not link any particular traits or tendencies to a person merely because of their external appearance. So to the non-racialist, categorising humans into distinct groups based on their external physical appearance is a meaningless thing to do.

So, if you believe that it makes sense to group people in to racial groups and that black people (wherever they are from) share traits and tendencies beyond their physical appearance with each other as do white people and so on, but you are not saying blacks are better than whites or vice versa, then congratulations - you are a racialist :)

Does that make you are racist, though? To be a full-blown racist, you have to go one step further. A racist, just like a racialist, classifies people into racial groups, ascribes morally relevant tendencies to different races but then RANKS them. The racist concludes that one racial group is better than another and therefore should be treated differently because that first racial group has morally relevant tendencies (courage, intellegence, honesty etc.) that warrant a higher status amongst races.

If you believe this to be the truth then whether you are black, white or yellow, you are a racists and I probably don't like you very much, even if some of your best friends are /insert colour here/.

Professor Appiah pushes the definitions a bit further in a way that I find interesting. He distinguishes between extrinsic racists and intrinsic racists.

The extrinsic racist says that its all about logic. It is obvious that if one racial group is on the whole more honest or more intelligent than another racial group then it makes sense to treat the two groups differently. With the extrinsic racist, if you show him that actually these morally relevant values are not directly connected to different racial groups, then he should (if he is being honest) give up his racist position and revert to merely being a racialist.

The intrinsic racist is a bit trickier. He believes that you should treat people of your own race differently and better that people of another race purely because they are "your own people". It is an extension of how you put your family first just because they are your family. You can give the intrinsic racist all the evidence you like that races don't exist as such, that even if they did the morally relevant traits are evenly distributed, but the intrinsic racist will favour his "own people" anyway.

So are you a non-racialist, a racialist, an extrinstic racist or an intrinsic racist? Go on, really. What are you? You can tell me. I won't tell anyone. It can be our dirty little secret :)

However I am going to let us all off the hook, when it comes to Obama. Something different is going on here. Obama is a reflector. We (who like him) see something in him that transends race. We see Change. Possibility. Rebirth. Relief. Redemption may be. Atonement perhaps. We see all sorts of things, but apart from the intrinsic racists amongst us (you know who you are!) our relationship to his colour is confusing.

Like the Texan couple who were apparently phoned up by Obama pollsters asking who they intended to vote for. The wife says on the phone "Oh, I can't remember his name" and calls out "Honey, who are we going to vote for again?". The man pulls himself away from the ball game for moment and calls across in a deep Texan drawl "Tell them we're gonna vote for the Nigga".

God Bless America.