What we’ve been reading: Retail collapse, being disliked, and planet Xby
Welcome to What We've Been Reading, the AccountingWEB editors’ weekly round-up of the stories that have caught their attention.
Enjoy the roundup of stories from our editors, and let us know if there's something that caught your eye or if you'd like to disagree with any of our choices.
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From the pages of the occasionally scurrilous IT publication The Register, this long read on the demise of the electronics giant Maplin is a fascinating reflection on the treacherous nature of business in the 21st Century.
Formally a highly profitable business, Maplin collapsed earlier this year after sales fell and repeated buyouts and successive private equity and venture capital investments saddled the business with unsustainable debts.
“It's quite something that a retail business with extremely high gross margins, successful in early years and knowing exactly where its strengths lay, should succumb in such an ignoble way,” writes author Eddie Pacey, and later states “the fact remains, where there is repeat private equity or venture capital interest, or when ridiculous valuations are met, ignominious failure is so often the result, especially in retail, where the likes of Toys "R" Us is another classic example.”
As a business journalist, I know all too well how hard these pieces are: having to pour over the accounts, dredged up historical record, speak to the right people (some of whom are understandably not keen to talk) and piece everything together takes an awful lot of time. So the breadth and depth of this piece is certainly something to applaud.
Richard: Property by Lionel Shriver
Reading Lionel Shriver’s collection of short stories entitled Property, I was struck by one of the opening novella’s themes: the experience of being disliked.
Shriver’s protagonist Jillian finds the whole concept bewildering. I am sure many practitioners are equally as mystified when a client suddenly chills towards their services, as the countless Any Answers questions noodling on this client detractor scenario will attest.
As Shriver writes, “For an intrinsic facet of being disliked was racking your brain for whatever it was that rubbed other people so radically the wrong way. They rarely told you to your face, so you were left with a burgeoning list of obnoxious characteristics that you compiled for them”.
Try as accountants might, they are probably left in the same position as Shriver’s Jillian: where a clear voice was heard by the detractor as a merely loud, while suppressing volume to minimise offense would lead to complaints about being inaudible.
Now, of course, there might be perfectly good reasons why a client might decide to move on. But in some mysterious cases someone might just dislike you because of your very existence. “There was no remedy, no chance of tempering an antipathy into forbearance or healthy apathy… even if you killed yourself, your suicide would annoy them, too. More attention seeking,” wrote Shriver.
So, what should you do if you’re shackled with this feeling of being disliked? You can shrug it off, but as much as you try, unfortunately that’s easier said than done.
I visited the Lowell Observatory in 2013. It’s in Flagstaff, Arizona, a buzzing university town and when I took the tour I had a blistering hangover, so I don’t recall much. But I do remember the story of how Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at the observatory.
As always, there’s more to the story. The observatory was built by one Percy Lowell, a wealthy man of Boston Brahmin stock, as a HQ for his astronomical investigations. In his latter years, Lowell became obsessed with the mystery of why Uranus and Neptune don’t seem to be following their predicted orbits.
His theory: the erratic misadventures of our Solar System’s ice giants are caused by the pull of another, unseen large planet. Lowell christened it Planet X and theorised that it was 7 times bigger than Earth. The hunt for Planet X, according to a friend, basically killed him.
When Tombaugh spotted Pluto, fourteen years after Lowell’s death, it appeared as if the Planet X theory had been proven true. There was indeed a planet beyond Neptune! But there was a problem: Pluto is 500 times smaller than Earth, far from the gargantuan Planet X that Lowell envisaged.
Now we know that Pluto is nothing special. It’s one of thousands of trans-Neptunian objects orbiting our Sun, mostly situated in the icy desolation of the Kuiper Belt. So Lowell’s Planet X theory was relegated back to the realm of theory.
But the anomalies of our Solar System that plagued Lowell persist. The orbits of Uranus and Neptune are still off kilter and, more generally, the orbits of the eight major planets are tilted six degrees off centre relative to the Sun.
Something is clearly up, and according to a few scientists, the cause is Planet X. But how the hell have we missed the presence of a giant planet in our midst? Well, conspiracy theorists reckon it’s a giant cover-up.
Just the other day, outside my office, I saw a poster about the ‘Nibiru Cataclysm’. This rogue, mysterious planet called Nibiru - or Planet X - is on a collision course with Earth, and we’re all being lied to. Or so the conspiracy theory goes.
It would be more than unfair to lump the serious scientific search for Planet X in with the wild-eyed conspiracies of Nibiru. This excellent Wired article examines this hunt for the potential ninth planet.