Thoughts On Being The Son Of A Capitalist Running Dog

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 23.01.06Not long after Ronald Reagan said it was “Morning in America” and Margaret Thatcher said “Labour Isn’t Working” and then, thanks in part to their catchy slogans but also due to their radical economic policies, each came to power I caught a train from London to Manchester and learned all I needed to know about economics. Or at least I learned enough to survive this heavy doorstop of a book.

Manchester was supposed to be a grim northern town in decline. Instead it was bursting into music-driven world-leading fashionability. Lesson 1: The markets do not possess perfect information.

At my first economics tutorial we fresh students were asked to introduce ourselves. “I’m from Pontefract and me dad’s on strike. Up the miners!” growled a gravelly-voiced giant on my right .

The chap on his right was also the son of a miner from a fabled mining colliery: “Down with Thatcher!” The next was the daughter of a striking miner as well: “Smash the fascists!” The pattern was set. It turned out that almost everyone in my tutorial was the child of a striking miner. This was either an interesting matter for my statistical analysis class or one for the behavioural economists. Lesson 2: Don’t trust surveys.

In any event one thing was clear; This was a sub-optimal manner of making friends for the son of a financial PR man from Weybridge, Surrey. When my turn came I jumped up and raised my first: “My father is a capitalist running dog. Shame on him. Viva la Revolucion!”

Later that year I took some classes on moral philosophy.

The economics lectures were turgid. Worse yet, each time you applied yourself to understanding one economic theory the following week you’d be told it was no good and so you’d learn another one. We advanced from one economic theory to another and none of them worked. Lesson 3: Economics is not a science.

I switched to politics because there was less pretence that it was a science and thereafter I left economics alone. And then this lump turns up on my desk.

Jospeh Stiglitz is a much-lauded economist. He has won a Nobel Prize as you can see on the dust jacket. But he’s an economist and by my reckoning that means sometimes he might be right and other times and certainly in the long run he won’t. Please let it be at least a fun read, I silently prayed as I opened the book.

On page one the author explains that while he grew up in the golden age of capitalism it was upon reflection rubbish but since then things have got worse. Much worse. That sets the tone folks. If you’re looking for something less dark to read on the beach this Summer I hear there’s a mind—bogglingly gruesome new book out by the author of Hannibal Lecter.

Anyway we plough on. “Trump doesn’t have a plan to help the country; he has a plan to continue the robbery of the majority by those at the top”. There’s a lot of Trump Derangement Syndrome in here. And if you like that sort of thing then this might be for you: You’ll get a little hit of dopamine every time Mr. Stiglitz says something mean about Trump and by the end of each chapter you’ll be high as a kite despite the bleak message therein.

It’s not just Trump, though. It’s not even the Republican Party but it’s anyone to the political right of the author that gets him foaming: “In pursuit of their naked self-interest, the super-rich have thus formulated a three-part strategy: deception, disenfranchisement, and disempowerment.”

An evil strategy? Well, up to a point. That big firms and the rich are turning their wealth into political power to pursue tax cuts and deregulation and economic protection is evident. Are the rich conspiring to disenfranchise left-wing voters ? Is it a plutocrat stitch-up? Personally I don’t buy it but I err on the side of the cockup theory over the conspiracy theory. However, like everything else involved here: it’s a matter of opinion. You can read about the super-rich’s evil plan in the book but you’ll do so knowing by now that the author is very political and thus warned you can take the analysis and his prescription with the pinch of salt you find appropriate. Ah, yes the prescription. What is it?

This is the part I was most interested in because although I found the one-sided analysis unconvincing (in short: the political left in America is above reproach and everything else is malign) the target of his objective focus is not. Namely: how do we fix the growing problem of inequality, the absence of meaning, and the need for self-determination in this fast changing techno-driven economy.

It won’t surprise you that the answer is government intervention and more regulation. The problem began with Reagan and Thatcher’s prioritising of the free market, he says. The answer is to prune it right back. “Progressive capitalism” will increase taxes, spend more, protect the environment through carbon taxes and scale back the influence of the banks

But as I learned in Manchester, economic theories each have their time. And after that time each one is, in the end, found wanting. In the meantime, as Mick Hucknell of the then unfamous Simply Red used to sing as he cycled back and forth past the university student union, “the money’s too tight to mention”.

 

I read: People, Power and Profits

By: Jospeh Stiglitz

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Modern Book Reviews Need No Words

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 23.00.33“The Visual MBA”…

…What a promise! Here is a book that takes the achingly time-consuming and hideously expensive business of studying a two year MBA and  condenses the whole thing into a picture book.

If it works then you save time and money.  What a deal!
“More exciting than that, Tim”, I said to the editor, “If you can replace an MBA with pictures then I can do a review with emojis.”

Here it is.

d_r-2ADg
“No” said Tim, I mean, Mr. Hulse, sir.
He had a point. For one thing, I get paid by the word and emojis are a highly unstable unit of currency.
And yet I feel the simplified approach is very timely. I don’t mean that it is right. But it is au courant. Public discourse has collapsed to the level of football chants.  My side is correct and the other side are nazis. Thus Brexiteers are fascists and remainers are traitors; Men are bad and women are good. Half the country is set against the other half. The abandonment of detail and nuance and the dumbing down of debate and discussion leads inexorably to book reviews in emoji form…..
“Yeah, but no”, said the guvnor. “Nice try”.
So I read the book.
And now I am non-plussed. Some of the most average business people I know returned from their MBAs with new haircuts, wardrobes and Elon Musk levels of bravado. For every question they could suddenly halt the conversation and choose an analytical decision-making tool from a mental filing cabinet fit to burst. “I’ll give you another two minutes”, the barmen would say. And whenever the pressure was on they dropped abbreviations like an F-111 drops chaff.  What had they learned? That’s what I wanted to know.
Well, now I know: Theory, not magic. The question that matters then is how useful it is and in this respect I am reminded of the brilliant book, Thinking Fast and Slow. This best-seller told us how we dumb people fool ourselves in a myriad ways all day long because we can’t think clearly or objectively. In exposing how we get things wrong it taught us how to make much better decisions. In theory. But how many individuals are making better decisions because they read half the book. Or all of it? I suspect it is the same with MBAs. The only way is in the heat of battle. That is why Forbes magazine said, a few years ago, that the new MBA is the 3 month accelerator program for startups run by organisations like Techstars.

This is not to say that all this theory is not useful because that is not my argument at all. In fact if I may be slightly nuanced about things, I think it is invaluable but it is not the whole story and for many a shortcut to the rudiments of MBA content may be all that’s necessary. And for that task then the book you need is this one. The author skilfully steers a path between baffling the reader by assuming too much prior knowledge of MBA abbreviations and being patronising by treating the reader like a dummy. Much of its charm and the effectiveness derive from the sketches and indeed I already find that as I seek to recall ideas from the book it is these that my memory calls on. This is not surprising since, as the blurb tells us, brains process pictures 60,000 times faster than text….👍

I read: The Visual MBA
By: Jason Barron
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Clark’s Commandos And Wayfinders

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.58.44Each month the editor offers up a handful of books. With the passage of time even business books are getting more “woke” and my black heart sinks lower. Fortunately the titles are a dead give away. I plead not  to review books titled something like “The Chief Executive of Feelings: Leadership without Privileging Facts”, “Problematic! The Endless Oppression of Business Plans”,   or “9-5: One Giant Microaggression”

“That sounds good”, I said.

It was called “Paws”

I used to want to be an army tracker. With my robust, hard as teak, leather school shoes you would get, in addition to a compass in the heel of the shoe, a little booklet that told you, well, it told you how to be a six-year old explorer. You had hand signals for silently communicating “gather round”, “go that way”  and “stop”. Basic stuff but I loved it.

There were illustrations of the secret signs you could make – arrows made of pebbles. A cross made of sticks that would tell your imaginary team of die hards not to go down this route because it led to a volcano or dinosaurs.

And you learned how to do tracking. You could tell, theoretically, from the indentations of a footprint whether someone was walking forward or backwards, running or tiptoeing.

And then, best of all, there were paw prints. This one was a wolf, this was a tiger, this an otter, and that one a red squirrel. I checked the flowerbeds. I circumnavigated the woods, scoured the local park and, free from wolves, sat on the roundabout and monitored the ground as I slowly spun. Nothing. It was fruitless. The odd Quality Street wrapper and a few fag ends and that was about it. Either there were no hedgehogs, goats or hippos or they were, by some cunning animal magic, not leaving footprints.

But I was in the flow and time evaporated. Or maybe it stopped. In any event its passing was invisible. As for the tracking, the embers never died. So I looked forward to this book.

Alack and alas, etc. As you can see, I had the phonetics right but the spelling wrong.

This is a book about not doing anything and frankly there isn’t much you can teach any writer about that. It’s 90% of your job. Nevertheless I was intrigued because here was a writer who had been given the task of writing about 35,000 words on how to do nothing. Take away the words and that would be a dream job. How would he tackle it? How could he even get out of bed with such monstrous levels of invention to perform?

Well it’s like this. Step 1. Define the concept of Pause as widely as possible and in that way encompass the entire world of inaction – from hesitating before angrily responding on twitter, to counting to three before entering a room, to having a sabbatical to listening to John Cage’s 4’33” or taking a Bill Gates’ style “Think Week” each year,

Step 2. Having argued that half the world of things you could possibly write about are relevant to the idea of “the Pause”, you then  create a plausible structure that encompasses it all and write about all the different forms.

That’s the formula.

And it works very well.

The author holds a reading retreat in a remote mountain village in the middle of Spain every year. It sounds fabulous. People have to be forced to go because they’re convinced they’re too busy. However once they eventually find time to go they get as committed as Born Again Reformed Smoker. After that they make it a linchpin part of their life. That’s all it takes, having forced themselves just once to take a pause from the hurly burly of freneticism they discover they can indeed put a value on mere nothing and it is so valuable it must be repeated. It just a few days to realise the value of “pausing” is incalculable. Here I should warn readers that inaction, while it is of incalculable value, does not pay very well if you make it the maypole of your career.

Here’s the rub, though. If you don’t buy into the possibility that there is something valuable in taking time-outs, sabbaticals or days off then this book will drive you bananas. If on the other hand you “get it” but need pushing over the edge; some advice on how to fit a pause into your life or even how to justify it to yourself or someone else, then this book is your first injection of pause-heroin.

So beware because it is addictive; I’m still hunting for heffalumps.

 

I read: Do Pause: You Are Not A To-do List

By: Robert Poynton

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The World Champion of Sleep Has a Fear

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.57.47Gorging myself on books as a teenager there was one title I could never commit to: The Bible. What if it made me pious just as life was becoming fun in so many impious ways? It just wasn’t worth the risk.

The same fear gripped me when this book landed on my Proustian bed-desk-sofa. What if becoming aware of the problems other people have with sleeping turned me insomniac?

I have no trouble sleeping whatsoever unless my mean-spirited physical trainer has made me do squats and jumping about in the gym. On such occasions, in the middle of the night, my legs become possessed by the spirit of the roadrunner and I churn the sheets and pillows all about the room like a Nutribullet. Even so, I am not really woken by the festival of activity. When at noon, I hit the 43rd snooze button of the day and finally open my eyes I am upside down, lamps have been smashed to the floor, and my digital watch tells me I have completely my steps for the day …and yet I feel fully rested.

Being such an accomplished sleeper I had a lot to risk. Yet, I have always been intrigued by sleep. My young sister used to cackle in her sleep; Cast iron admission of guilt for all her brazen criminality. “Darling, it doesn’t prove she broke your Lego castle”, my mum would say in her naivety.

My even younger brother once sleep-walked into my bedroom, opened a draw and relieved himself in it. When he walked out he was sleep-smirking.

Let me cut to the chase. I have read the book and so far I am still enjoying the sleep of a fairytale princess. The book has helped, in fact. For while it is short it is dense and casts a sceptical academic-philosophical eye over everything you have ever heard about REM, mattresses, dreams, narcolepsy, Freud, sleep and depression, biphasic sleep patterns, sleep debt and guilt-driven insomnia. And the more you learn the more you realise that we know everything and nothing about sleep. This is fascinating and depressing. But it appears to be the case.

Consider Rapid Eye Movement. It was once thought to mirror the gaze of the subject in the dream. Thus if a sleeper dreamed of watching a table tennis match their closed eyes dart left and right as if they were watching the game in real life.

But that theory was abandoned. Something else is going on.

REM and Non-REM sleep appear in pairs. For an adult REM sleep follows NREM and in very simplistic terms the cycle repeats four times. REM was long considered to be the period of sleep during which memories were stored, cells repaired and ideas formed. Unlike adults babies begin sleep in a state of REM.   So do people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. So REM could be a way of creating systems for dealing with difficult or confusing memories. Babies need to create storage and language systems and PTSD sufferers need to create a new system from scratch.

REM was commonly thought to be the period during which the sleeper dreamed while NREM was dreamless. But later analysis found that the deepest sleep, the fourth wave of NREM was as abundant with dreams as any REM phase.  NREM4 for example is the period during which children have night terrors. Further experiment suggests that REM is the phase during which the mind encrypts scary ideas and memories into less disturbing idiosyncratic subconscious symbolism. In that case dreams during REM, because they are disguised by symbolism are less scary than dreams during the NREM deep sleep. The deeper you sleep, the less encrypted and symbolic the dreams become. Consequently REM sleep may be less fraught and thus mentally quieter sleep than deep sleep. This seemingly endless fractal breakdown of each element of sleep is characteristic of the book. There are no answers.

Except these:

My brother was awake and my sister broke the Lego.

And for giving me license to claim this is absolutely so because I now know more about sleep than 90% of everyone else this book gets the thumbs up.

 

I read: Why Can’t We Sleep?

by: Darian Leader

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The Secret of Burning Celluloid and Getting Rich

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.57.11In the 1970s I had an idea, or an insight as marketeers like to say, that would later become Snapchat.
Life was analogue then and I was nine years old so I didn’t execute the plan. Nor write one. What I realised, however, was that watching my dad’s 8mm cine films of Summer holidays and birthday parties was nowhere near as fun as the slapstick wailing and panic caused when the film got jammed in the red hot projection unit and you could gaze in wonderment at the frames melting on the projection screen.
To my father’s chagrin I considered that the erasure of the film was more entertaining than the film itself; Such was the insight that a few decades later could have made me rich. Instead it was a bunch of kids from Stanford University (where else?) which had the idea. And let’s face it, their idea was inferior to mine. For while I recognised that it was the burning of the film that was great fun, they only conceived that it was the disappearance of the image that was novel. Nevertheless, the implications of this were profound for a generation raised on selfies.
And now that I finally know what it does and why on the first day of trading on the NYSE it closed at a valuation of $34 billion I’m kicking myself for letting a really big one wriggle off the hook.
Until 255 paperback pages ago this was all I knew about Snapchat:
* It was a social network for teens
* Pictures that were sent to you by friends disappeared shortly after you’d received them.
* Something like five minutes after Snapchat was set up Facebook tried to buy the business for $3bn (which meant the guy who made a dating app was trying to buy a sexting app. (Boom boom. And yet true.))
Now I know better. I’m going to work on the basis that you are nearly as ill-informed as me and will therefore enjoy gasping at the truth of this social media behemoth.
A couple of things mark Snapchat as very different to other social networks. First; the primary medium is the camera. You communicate with photos and videos frequently and these artifacts generally vanish within 24 hours or less. Secondly, your communications are usually one-to-one or within very small groups (like Whats App chat groups). Consequently,  you don’t leave much of a trace. In contrast to the carefully curated profiles on other social networks (constructed from photos, videos, check-ins, like, follows and comments) Snapchat is not a proxy for you. It is rather a means of  communication which isomer instant, less polished and less constrained because it is shared with small groups of friends and then expires. It is then about conversation.
Here’s what I know now:
* Snapchat reaches 41% of all 18-34 year olds in the USA.
* Snapchat is used not only for photo-driven conversations between friends but also for consumption of entertainment. Over 40 million people watched Snapchat’s Live story from the Coachella music festival in 2015. In comparison the finale of the box-set thriller Breaking Bad scored 10.3 million views.
* Through the use of “lenses” Snapchat is a pioneer in the mass use of Augmented Reality. A lens puts a filter on top of a selfie.  For example to promote a film 20thCentury Fox enabled users to put a lens on their selifes which made themselves look like an X-Men character. Is this big business, you ask? Sit down to reveive the news that Taco Bell created a lens which turned users’ heads into a giant taco shell and the lens was viewed 224 million times in a single day.  Similarly a Gatorade campaign allowed users to pour a Virtual reality barrel of Gatorade over their heads. This was done 160 million times.
* Snapchat has made countless people into stars . Apparently there’s DJ Khaled (who he?). There’s Kylie Jenner (who she?). And let’s get even more obscure: In 2016 a certain Dr Miami was receiving over one million views per day of the explanatory videos he made about plastic surgery operations. This added up to $8m to his income.
Turning something into nothing, like my Dad’s projector did, is clearly big business. It’s also a cracking read. “How to turn down a billion dollars” is written by a fellow Stanford student of CEO Evan Spiegel who is superbly connected and meticulously thorough and has written is one of the best narratives of Internet startuppery I have read.
I read: How to Turn Down A Billion Dollars
By: Billy Gallagher
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The Utter Misery and Horribleness of Hurt Feelings

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.56.36“Look at that beast!”,  guffawed  a personal trainer across the gym floor as he strode past the rowing machines and bikes while pointing at me.  I plodded over, heavily, my New Year’s eve hangover still  echoing around my head two days after the the year had begun.
“What the heck is that?” He gleefully pointed at my belly and laughed again. I had over-indulged  at Christmas it was undeniable. Familiar gym faces on running machines nodded smugly and sweatily in agreement .
Josh, is a 20-something surfer dude from Cornwall and has no idea of the tribulations involved in trying to stay fit enough to do your own shoe laces as life gets properly long. And now he was mocking me. My own personal trainer. I pay for this abuse!
I was going to tell him about this book on emotions and how the truth is I might respond better to a quiet and supportive chat about “calories in” versus “calories out” ,  preferably over a large cappuccino. The first problem was I hadn’t read the book  and the second problem was he’d directed me onto a treadmill and was turning the button toward lightspeed.
After an hour of not giving a damn about my emotions the session was over and I felt euphoric and clinically dead.
In the changing rooms my zombie state was interrupted  by a text message from the editor of this magazine :  “Where’s the massively *****overdue book review you unreliable,  **** lazy ***** . Happy new year “
“I’m not sure that’s an emotionally sensible way to get the best out of your writers. Duh! Where’s my psychological safety, you ****” I wrote back and turned the phone off.
When I wrote for my first Sunday newspaper I got sacked after a couple of months for not getting any scoops. During my notice period I got scoop after scoop and saved my job. No amount of emotional sensitivity would have got me into gear like getting sacked. But this is mere anecdote.
As I waited for my legs to uncramp I wondered about the emotions at really successful organisations. When Manchester United were underperforming  Sir Alex Ferguson would unleash the halftime hairdryer at players. The hairdryer was a hurricane of shouting and abuse of such force that it terrified even multimillionaire teenagers. It was described as putting your face in front of a BaByliss Turbo Power 2200. Horrible but effective.
Come to think of it there seems to be a correlation between the disagreeableness of legendary leaders and their success. Steve Jobs was famous for his prickliness, Bill Gates threw tantrums, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer threw chairs, Andy Grove of Intel was so fierce that a subordinate fainted during a performance review, Anna Wintour of Vogue is said to direct “Nuclear Wintour” at out of favour staff, and Jeff Bezos, is known for going into rages that his Amazon colleagues call” Nutters”.  Bezos’ notable put downs include: “I’m sorry, did I forget to take my stupid pills today?”, “If I hear that idea again I’m gonna have to kill myself” and the straightforward “Why are you wasting my life?”.
Bezos is said to abhor “social cohesion”, the natural impulse to seek consensus. According to a gazillion studies, friction and discomfort generates creativity and innovation where consensus creates mere mediocrity.
In any event, I made it back to my sofa before I became fully immobile, a post-workout condition which, it turns out, is ideal  for speed-reading a book while being menaced by a despairing magazine editor.
“No Hard Feelings” is less concerned with how to be the next Bezos or Wintour and more about how to manage your emotions if he or she is your boss and your experience is of rather “safer spaces”.
If that’s you then you’ll love this book. If it’s not then some of the advice might grate. Much of the counsel is I suspect next level-marmite in its binary appeal. For example here are two suggestions which will  be simply adored by some and eye-rolled by others: “Save kind or funny notes in a folder you can revisit when work gets tough” or claim some work-time sovereignty  by “grabbing a few coworkers and heading to the cute coffeeshop on the corner for a quick break”.
My advice to you as a potential book buyer is audit your emotional response to such advice and act accordingly.
“By the time you finish this book,’ promise the two authors, “you’ll understand whyyou might feel something and you’ll know what to do with that feeling”.
Which is true. The next time I went to the gym and the smug marathon runners on the treadmill smirked at me I exhaled like an emotional zen master (because it was okay to feel hurt) and then I rammed the dials on their machine to max and then reader, I felt much better.

 

I read: No Hard Feelings

by: Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy

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