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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

A Business Miscellany: Booms, Busts, Blunders and a Great Deal More

Schott’s Miscellany; The Book of Lists; Brewer’s Cabinet of Curiosities; The Top Ten of Everything; Schott’s Almanac 2007: who among us has not received a book such as these as a present in recent years? How are we to explain this profusion of abstruse facts, which seem to have been selected for their irrelevance to our lives?

Lists of apparently unrelated items have long had a role in literature, from Borges and his ‘accumulations of disorder’, via the shoes, ships, and sealing wax of Lewis Carroll to Rabelais and, going as far back as is practicable, the themed but rather unexciting lists appearing in Homer (for example, the full listing of Agamemnon’s fleet in the Iliad) and the Old Testament.

GK Chesterton had a particular affection for such lists, apparent in many of his stories and explicitly noted in this passage from his early work Orthodoxy:

Robinson Crusoe… owes its eternal vivacity to the fact that it celebrates the poetry of limits, nay, even the wild romance of prudence. Crusoe is a man on a small rock with a few comforts just snatched from the sea: the best thing in the book is simply the list of things saved from the wreck. The greatest of poems is an inventory.

Chesterton delighted in the incredible variety that can be found in even small lists, and he had a similar affection for what we might call ‘random facts’:

… leave the earnest and elaborate parts of the newspapers and join me in poring over the snippy paragraphs. They are not tainted with any of the evil and idle modern philosophies; they are not chosen because they are instructive, and therefore they are instructive. They are mentioned simply and solely because they are odd facts; but it is something that they are facts at all.

Nothing new

So our fascination with collections of abstruse facts is not entirely new – just look at the history of such works as Pears Cyclopaedia, which revels in its unstructured structure. Perhaps it boils down to a natural desire for news, where our survival instincts must make us open to a wide source of material. Sherlock Holmes’s assertion that he did not want to clutter his mind with notions of no relevance to his work (for instance, Watson’s astronomical digressions) shocks because it seems so contrary to our natural curiosity.

Seen in this light, the publishing phenomenon of all this paraphernalia is more understandable. A recent publication of this type is the Economist’s A Business Miscellany, a fascinating collection of material bound around the theme of business life. A quick tour through some of the sections:

The ‘behind the corporate name’ section provides fascinating stories of the origin of various company names. We learn that Lego comes from the Danish leg godt, ‘play well’; that Starbucks derives from ‘starbuck’, the mate of the Pequod in Moby Dick; and that Volvo comes from the Latin ‘to roll’.

A section on business blunders summarises some tragic – or hilarious? – mistakes and missed opportunities. In 1962 Decca records turned down the Beatles: ‘groups with guitars are on the way out’; in 2004 a Bear Stearns trader entered a $4bn sell contract instead of $4m; and we read about Hoover’s unaffordable offer of two return UK–Europe flights for every £100+ purchase of Hoover products.

Cynics will enjoy gasping through several pages of corporate mission statements and values, trying to work out whether any of them are different. Quiz addicts may like to try allocating the following five mission statements to the five companies Coca-Cola, Ericsson, Gillette, Google, and Tesco:

  • ‘to be the prime driver’ Answer (highlight text): Ericsson
  • ‘to create value for customers to earn their lifetime loyalty’ Answer: Tesco
  • ‘to build total brand value by innovating to deliver customer value and customer leadership’ Answer: Gillette
  • ‘never settle for the best’ Answer: Google
  • ‘exists to benefit and refresh everyone it touches’ Answer: Coca-Cola

Two pages of summary statistics on the national ‘consumption’ of lawyers and accountants provide alarming news: it seems that the UK is the world’s worst pollutant in this respect:

% of percentage Lawyers Accountants Total parasites

Finally (owing to space restrictions here, not owing to a lack of variety in the book), readers may enjoy the several pages of business quotations – featuring such pearls of wisdom as:

  • ‘An economist is an expert who will know tomorrow why the things he predicted yesterday didn’t happen today.’ Laurence Peter
  • ‘The work of the individual still remains the spark that moves mankind ahead even more than teamwork.’ Igor Sikorsky
  • ‘Managers do things right. Leaders to the right thing.’ Warren Bennis
  • It is a highly enjoyable miscellany. Read it!