Friday, 3 July 2020

The Enterprise Guide to Idiocracy

The Beginning

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The Enterprise Guide to Idiocracy

In the two-and-a-bit years that we’ve been doing Your Wealth, we’ve celebrated the best that humanity has to offer. We’ve crafted paeans to human creativity in music, architecture and film; marvelled at era-defining technological breakthroughs in communications and health; and drawn attention to how people across the planet are responding to the great challenges of our time

This is only half of the story though. For every Guernica there is a Monkey Christ, a Batman & Robin for every Citizen Kane, and an anti-bandit bag for every internal combustion engine. This issue is dedicated to some of the most magnificent failures achieved by the human race: From architectural atrocities and ridiculous inventions to kamikaze corporate decisions and films that require a sensory deprivation tank to truly be appreciated.

The Worst Business Decisions in History

The worst business decisions in history: These are the people who clearly weren’t cut out for the world of business. Some of these may have seemed like a good idea at the time while some were born of stubbornness. Others were made by people whose synapses just weren’t firing correctly.

Edwin Drake: The inventor who most people have never heard of but who should be standing at the summit of the oil industry. Drake was the brains behind one of the most revolutionary technologies in history, drilling the first ever oil well in 1859 and birthing the multi-tn USD industry we know today. His drill-pipe enabled companies to drill into the ground for the first time instead of gathering oil from surface seeps. Unfortunately, Drake was never to realize his fortune: he failed to patent the drill and spent a decade in poverty before being awarded a state pension.

Patents don’t always save you from disaster, as Kodak learned the hard way. The US camera giant patented the first digital camera back in 1975, but in what Forbes terms a “staggering corporate blunder”, they twice refused to mass produce the new product, blinded by its film sales. “They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set,” the inventor of the revolutionary technology said at the time. When the digital age caught up with the photography industry, it was too late for Kodak. The company failed to keep up with the revolution and filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Others can’t see a good idea when it hits them in the face: If it wasn’t so enamored with the telegraph, Western Union could have had a monopoly on the defining technology of the early 20th century: the telephone. Instead, they rejected Alexander Graham Bell’s offer of USD 100k for the patent, calling it an “idiotic” invention. According to them, Bell’s idea to install a telephone in every city was “based on wild-eyed imagination and lack of understanding of the technical and economic facts of the situation, and a posture of ignoring the obvious limitations of his device, which is hardly more than a toy.” Smfh.

One internet company passed on Google acquisition for under USD 1 mn: At the turn of the millenium, Excite was one of the biggest things on the web. They had the opportunity to become something a whole lot bigger when it met with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1999. Astonishingly, they turned down the chance of purchasing the young search startup for just USD 750k. Google has since risen in value to over USD 1 tn, while Excite became an internet nobody just a few years into the new millennium.

Netflix had a similar encounter when Blockbuster passed on an offer to buy the new on-demand service for only USD 50 mn back in 2000. Blockbuster general counsel Ed Stead said at the time that Netflix’s business model wasn’t sustainable and would never make money. Little did he know that Blockbuster would later fit that descriptor to a tee when it filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010.

The Worst Ideas We’ve Ever Had

History is replete with terrible ideas: For every Gutenberg press there is a Smell-O-Vision, and for every steam engine there is a collateralized debt obligation. Some caught on. Others, thankfully, haven’t.

Filling an airship with flammable gas: What could go wrong? Up until the Hindenburg disaster in 1937, no-one seemed to take issue with sending a giant ball of hydrogen gas into the atmosphere. But the Hindenburg’s fateful journey from Frankfurt to New Jersey — which resulted in the deaths of 35 people — handed Zeppelins a new reputation for destruction and were soon grounded.

No more rain-soaked cigarettes: We’re unable to find any evidence that this umbrella for your cigarettes was actually manufactured, but we really hope it was.

The parachute jacket: Guess what happened to Franz Reichelt, creator of the parachute jacket, when he leapt from the Eiffel Tower in 1912?


Electrified water: Go back to the beginning of the previous century and electrified water was actually a thing. People claimed that passing a current through H2O could help with everything from sterilization to curing hangovers. The idea isn’t as life-threateningly dumb as it sounds: Few people were electrocuted due to the charge disippating before people came into contact with it. The main problem was that electrified water didn’t do any of the things that its proponents claimed and the idea quickly fell out of fashion.

Spam email: Does anyone have Gary Thuerk’s email address?

An organic Roomba: For those parents who really want to socialize their children into accepting a life of hard labor: We give you the Baby Mop.

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Your top 5

Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in June:

  • IMF <3 Egypt: The IMF approved a one-year USD 5.2 bn standby loan for Egypt to help plug a balance of payments shortfall and finance its budget deficit.
  • Inflation at six-month lows: Inflation fell to a six-month low of 4.7% in May from 5.9% in April.
  • Gov’t imposes healthcare price cap: The Health Ministry introduced a price cap on covid-19 treatment on all healthcare providers. The cap was initially set at EGP 10k/day but later allowed companies to raise prices by another 20%.
  • Private sector activity slightly less bad in May: Non-oil private sector business activity fell at a slower rate in May, a month after the covid-19 pandemic caused the private sector to suffer its deepest contraction ever.
  • The Enterprise Covid-19 Poll: One word characterizes the Egyptian economy right now: uncertainty. This is what you told us when we asked our readers in the days before the Eid El Fitr holiday how you’re coping with covid.

The Greatest Military Blunders in History

Greatest military blunders in history: Armies throughout history have been led by individuals who, had meritocracy been a thing, would sooner have been demoted to kitchen assistant rather than relied upon to defend against a siege. Others were fatefully overtaken by pride and pipe dreams, leading to some truly magnificent battlefield blunders.

Napoleon’s flight from Moscow: Some knew him as the Colossus of the Nineteenth Century for his aptitude at conquering western Europe, but Napoleon is remembered by many for his decision to invade Russia in 1812; one that would go down as one of the worst calls in military history. The campaign took the lives of nearly 1 mn people and ended in a ruinous defeat for the emperor that would later snowball and result in his forced abdication two years’ later.


Nothing illustrates the disaster that was Napoleon’s invasion of Russia better than the Minard Map. We’re not plugging this just because we’re suckers for infographics: this map, created by civil engineer Charles Minard in 1869, is truly one of the best graphics ever created. It’s a painstaking visualization depicting the French army’s course, size, and direction and the geography, time, and temperature of the nearly 2,000 km march from modern-day Lithuania to Moscow. As the graphic shows, Napoleon lost a little over 75% of his forces by the time he had reached Moscow, only for the Russians to resort to the ultimate scorched earth tactic and burn the city to the ground. Left without a city, Napoleon had no choice but to retreat. In the months after, his army was slowly picked off by cossack raids, sub-zero temperatures, and food shortages. Of the 420k+ army that rode with Napoleon into Russia, only a mere 10k ended up surviving.

Downfall of a jealous Roman: Marcus Licinius Crassus, a general often known as “the richest man in Rome,” led a disastrous advance into the Parthian Empire, fueled by his desire to match the glory of his rivals Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Crassus’ incompetence was evident from the off, losing a number of ships en route to Syria due to his determination to sail through a storm. Things only got worse once on land as he needlessly soured relations with his Armenian ally, and marched into the middle of the Mesopotamian desert in defiance of advice to stay beside the Euphrates river. Days later at the fateful Battle of Carrhae, Crassus’ legions were routed by the Parthians. Double-crossed by an Arab spy, the Roman forces were led into a trap and were overwhelmed by General Surena’s men. Crassus met an inglorious end, murdered by the Parthians after being tricked into travelling to their camp to discuss terms of surrender.


Chinese warlord single-handedly dooms the Han dynasty: The Han dynasty, which presided over one of the most prosperous periods of Chinese history for almost four centuries, came to an ignominious end in 208 AD thanks to the cretinous decisions taken by a single warlord. Cao Cao, a northern commander trying to reunite a country plunged into civil war, personally oversaw the fall of the dynasty at the Battle of the Red Cliffs. The engagement should have been a cakewalk for Cao, whose forces vastly outnumbered those of the southern warlords. But in a series of now-infamous brainfarts, the general killed his chances of a unified China. The bulk of Cao’s army were wiped out in one fell swoop after he decided to put his infantry and cavalry — men not known for their ability to cope with seasickness — onto boats. Realizing his mistake, he then saw fit to tie his ships together to help his troops overcome their sickness, enabling the allied forces of Liu Bei and Sun Quan to destroy the entire fleet with a few burning ships. Cao was to never recover from the defeat, leading to the effective dissolution of the Han dynasty and the birth of the Three Kingdoms period.

Architectural Fails

Architectural fails: Public and expensive reminders of poor taste, judgement and design. While some failures can be happily consigned to the annals of history, architectural disasters tend to be a bit more prominent and hard to forget. Just look at London’s USD 976 mn Millennium Dome, an immediate flop when it opened in 2000. Twenty years’ later and it’s still a byword for failure.


Some failures — like the Tacoma Bridge collapse — are spectacular. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was a suspension bridge in Washington that opened to the public on 1 July 1940. At the time, it was the third-longest suspension bridge in the world and cost an estimated USD 6 mn — which, allowing for inflation, is the equivalent of almost USD 1 bn today. But in an effort to reduce construction costs, the bridge was built with ineffective girders, leaving it vulnerable to strong winds. It collapsed in spectacular fashion four months after opening, under the pressure of 40 mph wind, in an incident that thankfully saw no human fatalities.

Others — like the Leaning Tower of Pisa — have become iconic. While Pisa’s famous tower is by no means the only one to lean, it is certainly the world’s most famous. Built between 1173 and 1372, the tower survives in its current form because of both good and bad luck. A shallow foundation and soft ground made it unstable from the beginning, but war between Pisa and Genoa resulted in a 100-year construction break, which gave the foundation time to settle. Fun fact: the tower was closed for repairs for the first time ever in 1990 because it was leaning too much. Its tilt was reduced by about 18 inches, but not straightened entirely — because what would be the point of a Tower of Pisa that’s perfectly straight?


North Korea fails at totalitarian tourism: Almost three decades ago North Korea showed the world how not to implement a prestige project. The Ryugyong Hotel was supposed to put Pyongyang on the map: tourists would come to the city in droves to stay at what would have been the world’s then-tallest hotel, complete with 3k rooms and five revolving restaurants. Unfortunately construction was never finished: originally scheduled to open in 1992, the rocket-shaped concrete hulk continues to loom over the city. Orascom was brought in by the government in 2009 to give the building a facelift but it remains shuttered to the public to this day. More than 30 years after breaking ground, the building has succeeded only in breaking the less-than-prestigious world record of ‘tallest unoccupied building in the world.’

Can we agree on the worst building in the world? While there are several strong contenders for this dubious accolade, Boston’s City Hall repeatedly tops the lists of the most unattractive buildings ever constructed (see image above). It’s regularly compared to an upside-down wedding cake, and there were calls for it to be demolished even before it was completed, in 1968. But one person’s ugliest building is another’s brutalist masterpiece, and some architects have praised its immensity, expressiveness, novelty and influence.

The Worst Films Ever Made

The worst films ever made: By the time the credits roll on John Travolta’s harrowingly stupid Battlefield Earth, there is really only one question that demands an answer: What, exactly, did we do to deserve this? Yes, these are the films so bad, the viewing experience so traumatizing, that consenting to Chinese water torture quickly becomes the preferable alternative. We’re not just talking about irredeemable BE-esque atrocities here: Think offensively outdated social attitudes (see: Disney’s notoriously racist Song of the South), hopelessly off target humor (pretty much everything Adam Sandler has attached his name to) and hilariously shoddy production values, (Birdemic, anyone?). These are our picks for some of the worst films ever to grace the silver screen.

Battlefield Earth (2000)

Bottom-of-the-barrel bad. “A cross between Star Wars and the smell of a**” is how comedian Jon Stewart described John Travolta’s passion-project adaptation of the sci-fi novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Collectively battered by critics as one of the worst films ever made, the futuristic triumphalist tale of enslaved humans rebelling against their alien oppressors hasn’t aged well, it’s just aged, to the unshakeable embarrassment of its makers. With the (oddly dim-witted) ruling aliens dressed up as molding rastafarian rockers, actors refusing to blink as they strain to emote, and every other shot inexplicably filmed at a 45-degree “Dutch” angle, it’s no surprise this box-office flop bankrupt its production company. You won’t be able to unsee it, so do yourself a favor and steer clear of this colossal mess.


Gone With The Wind (1939)

A classic fit to cancel? Critically acclaimed and a runaway financial success when released in 1939, Gone With The Wind was recently pulled by HBO Max in the wake of the race-focused civil unrest currently sweeping the US, prompting a discussion on the merits of “erasing” problematic or dated culture, and a reexamination 75 years later of the treasured classic itself. The production value is top-shelf and the pace of its four-hour runtime is well managed, even if the film is tonally inconsistent. The issue lies in its glorification of the slave-owning antebellum south and “painful stereotypes of people of color,” as screenwriter John Ridley notes in his petition to HBO for its temporary removal. Against censorship, Ridley argues for the film to be restored to the platform with extra material to better inform audiences of its historical context. Sure enough, a few weeks later the film returned to HBO with an added introduction by film expert Jacqueline Stewart who calls it “a major document of Hollywood’s racist practices of the past.”

The Room (2003)

One room not to get stuck in: In 2003, the elusive Tommy Wiseau wrote, produced, directed and starred in the now-famous disaster that became The Room. It set out to be a moving melodrama about a love triangle, but with a flimsy narrative, subplots that went nowhere, and an off-key over-the-top performance by Wiseau, it ended up being a barrel of laughs instead — and not in a good way. In an attempt at shrewd revisionism, Wiseau tried to market it as a black comedy, but audiences saw right through the conceit. Five years down the line, the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” had gained cult status as a midnight screening favorite, with rowdy audiences yelling “Focus!” at blurry shots or poking fun at Tommy when he stares into the camera. Actor James Franco immortalized the film’s making in 2017’s The Disaster Artist, earning himself a Golden Globe for playing Wiseau himself.


Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

So bad it’s good? Notorious hack Ed Wood’s sci-fi classic about an invasion of aliens that raise the dead to take over earth (Plan 9) set out to be a bone-chilling horror film, but its cheap production values elicited nothing but giggles from viewers. With spaceships made of paper plates, pillows to cushion an actor’s fall clearly visible, several screams emanating at once from another actor’s mouth, and the boom mic making a repeat guest appearance, to name just a few gaffes, it’s a fun fest that was never to be. As Rotten Tomatoes aptly put it, it’s “one of the worst movies ever to disgrace the screen,” and its status as a camp cult classic has been cemented. See Tim Burton’s underrated biopic “Ed Wood,” with Johnny Depp in the title role, for a glimpse into the life of this gloriously weird filmmaker.

The Worst Ad Campaigns Ever

Those marketing execs who were a few brain cells short of an inoffensive ad campaign: We can’t do an issue on human ineptitude without dedicating a segment to some of the truly awful advertising campaigns that we have had the misfortune to grace our screens. The fact that any of these ads weren’t immediately thrown on the scrapheap continues to amaze us, and amounts to nothing less than a spectacular misreading of what stands for acceptable messaging.

Kendall Jenner solves all of America’s social problems with a can of Pepsi: In an audacious bid for relevance in 2017, Pepsi attempted to score some woke points by sending bn’aire supermodel Kendall Jenner on a protest march towards some unusually friendly police officers. In an attempt to capitalize on a wave of social unrest sweeping the US, the soft drinks giant cast Jenner as a sort of Tiananmen tank woman armed only with a trusty can of Pepsi — a simple sip of which is able to dismantle structural racism, end the militarization of the police, and finally stamp out police brutality. Unsurprisingly, the cynical play at revolution earned no favors with swathes of the American public, and before long both Pepsi and Jenner were out with statements apologizing for the ill-thought-out ad.


It’s 2020 and for some reason ad execs are still getting into hot water for using overtly racist marketing to flog products. Some geniuses over at VW’s marketing department earlier this year thought it necessary to impress upon their white customers that the new VW Golf 8 was not created with black people in mind, in a fairly horrific Instagram ad that made use of explicitly racist imagery and references to colonialism. The German automaker at first insisted that it was simply “misunderstood” before later making an embarrassing climbdown, admitting to being “horrified” at the ad.

It was a similar story with Heineken, which was forced to remove a commercial that seemed to imply that light skin is preferable to dark. The 31-second advertisement showed a bartender pushing a beer can across the counter where it proceeded to roll by many dark-skinned individuals before stopping in front of a white-woman and the tagline “sometimes lighter is better” shows up on screen. Chance the Rapper was one of the reasons why the ad was finally removed after he tweeted that it was “terribly racist” and accused companies of releasing incendiary ads for more views.


Procter & Gamble bring the unabashed misogyny: Procter & Gamble’s cleaning products company, Mr. Clean, released an advertisement of a mother and her daughter wiping a surface with the tagline “This Mother’s Day, get back to the job that really matters.” The ad came under fire for being sexist and the company made sure to amend the matter in future ads such their successful super bowl ad with the tagline “You gotta love a man who cleans.”

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