The Great Wall of China That I Built

IMG_1236For half of each year, if I have totted up and accounted for the days correctly,  I couldn’t care less that every piece of electronica in my life is spying on me.

The rest of the time I sink into techno-paranoia: I put stickers over the cameras on my computers, I unplug Alexa,  I cast aside my Apple watch, turn off the location tracking on my mobile phone,  switch on my VPN and change all my passwords.

And then life gets really complicated. I can no longer shout “what time is it?” from my bed but instead have to reach for the watch that I forgot to wind up. I demand to know how the weather is but like the school disco of yore I am relentlessly ignored. With a groan I am forced to turn my head to the window and look outside. And after all that strain and effort it is still grey.

Eventually I switch it all back on. I mean, really, what have I got to hide? And who cares? Who’s watching and weighing and scrutinising? Get real! I shake my head and embrace the tech. I ask the AI what film I should watch and it says: “I’m pretty sure you’re the kind of person that will like the Edward Snowden film”.

A few hours later I am taping up all the cameras again and longing to go back to a  time when things were more simple. Way back, like that time I helped build the Great Wall of China.

This was in the 1980s. I had taken a bus and a cab and a bicycle from Beijing to the Great Wall. There was a sketchy car park, very few people and a very long line of steps. I climbed the path to the top of the hill and along the ascent posed for photos for people who did not seem much used to exotic folk like your correspondent. When I reached the wall I strolled along the curving, turning, undulating and magnificent path. Once I had passed a few hundred metres I had it all to myself.

I walked past a string barrier with a mysterious sign written in Chinese and eventually came across a handful of labourers who were laying stones on a broken section of the wall. Undaunted by the absence of a mobile phone, an ipad, a smart watch, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, wifi or a google translation app I waved. They waved back.

Not long after that I laid a few stones and played my part in building one of the wonders of the world. It didn’t take long because no-one had ever heard of “Stopping for Selfies”. It would have been a good one, though. But as I say this was the time before Instagram not to mention WeChat, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, Pinduoduo, Meituan, Huawei, Xiaomi, DJI, Ant Financial or any of the other formidably giant and fast paced Chinese tech companies that are making Silicon Valley look sluggish.

If these companies are unknown to you it is not surprising. Just as the Great Wall seperated the Middle Kingdom from outsiders, the Great Firewall (in combination with cultural, political and economic barriers) have kept many of these businesses out of the West.  Such unfamiliarity does not mean they are not enormous or influential. The combined turnover of the first three of these companies alone was about $120 billion in 2018. Like the Paypal mafia in the US, the Baidu-Alibaba-Tencent mafia are at the heart of almost all innovation and investment in China.  So what do they do?

Baidu owns search

Alibaba leads e-commerce

Tencent dominates gaming and social networking

We are, according to Rebecca Fannin’s book and other observers, approaching a technological cold war (Silicon Dragon versus Silicon Valley) so you might want to know more. This is a spare and utlitarian guide to what China’s helter skelter tech industry.  What you learn is that we may be entering a time when what happens in China, rather than America, presages what happens elsewhere.

Not only does this suggest you read the book it also means that you might want to prepare for the all-seeing Chinese social credit system that “judges a citizen’s trustworthiness through technological surveillance and encourages compliance by giving ratings that can determine access to loans, jobs, schools and travel.”

Switch off Alexa while you can…

 

I read: Tech Titans of China

By: Rebecca A. Fannin

7.39 Newtons

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The Martial Path to Peace in the Board Room…

IMG_1237Out of the corner of my eye I saw the glint of one of those sharp tools that dentists use to probe at suspect cavities. “Open wide…”, he said.

“Upper left 7, upper left 6, ok“, he said. “Hmm… looks like you’ve been biting your cheek. Lower left 6, lower  left…Incidentally which way did you vote in the referendum?”

“Ung?!” I said

“Brexit”, said Marcello, waving the sharp sickle probe in the air. “Which way did you vote?”

“Unnng…” I wavered.

“It’s just that I don’t think you normally bite your cheek. Maybe you’re stressed… maybe…well, you know a lot of people have got Brexit Jaw.”

I made throat noises of surprise. And Marcello, as he speared gums, and chiselled at molars, shared news about this unfortunate condition. It seems that Brexit has provoked a nationwide outbreak of aching facial muscles and tendons; A consequence of three years of clenching jaws and grinding teeth. It’s been a mini boom for dentists. Maybe they’re behind all that chaos? Someone had to be profiting. 

Actually, there’s a few. It’s not just Brexit Jaw, there’s also Brexit Bones (the stress of it all has caused the afflicted to lose bone density which is good news for calcium suppliers); there’s Brexit Brow (the demand for dermatological wrinkle fillers has shot up to address the permanent crease of fury in the foreheads of the electorate) and needless to say there’s Brexit Heartburn (Reflux acid is at flood level and manufacturers of chalky tablets are rejoicing).

But you know all this. You probably have Brexit Throat (And Brexit Eardrum) from screaming so much. That’s why I’d vowed never to write about the dreaded B-word but then this book landed. “Look, man”, it argues, in the hippy voice of Neil from the Young Ones. “There must be another way, yeah?”.

The other way that it proposes is the way of Wing Tsun, an ancient Chinese martial art. It’s presented first and foremost a business book but I think the lessons can be safely extended to the B-word. The promise of “Winning Not Fighting” is that by incorporating the central tenets of Wing Tsun into your business –  or your national psycho-drama – you can achieve your ends without conflict. If so, I’m in. 

Wing Tsun, one learns, is a martial art that strives not to create conflict. Think of a a restaurant that doesn’t want to serve food but if it is forced to then the food’s amazing. It seems to be something like that.

The world of business is harmfully possessed by the idea that business is engaged in a war, say the authors. The mental models and the language used in business at large are based more on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt”) than anything collaborative and constructive. Competition must be annhilated, markets must be conquered and targets must be smashed. This approach fuels tension, conflict and fear and results in unecessary pain, waste and destruction.

And Brexit Jaw. 

What if we could approach business, negotiation and management differently? If, just imagine (and pass the peace pipe) it could be pursued without conflict. This seems naive, 51.9% of referendum voters will tell you so. And so will a further 48.1%.  The solution is philosophical and much stems from the definition of winning created by the Wing Tsun masters round about 500 AD. It’s a combination of:

1. Enjoying the present

2. Achieving longevity

3. Being yourself

Alas, this seems to have little to commend itself in the heat of battle, business and B-.  However, I think the authors have a point. One is a master of Wing Tsun and the other is a co-founder of the “healthy fast food” chain Leon. This philosophy has been applied to Leon apparently with success and many examples of how it has been applied in practice abound.

Of course, applying the eight wisdoms of Wing Tsun in a healthy food chain may be a different kettle of fresh fish to say, running a courier firm or construction company.  To me this feels more like a manual for living a peaceful life than a business book. And that’s no bad thing. Unless your business is reliant on a stressed out populace. I’ll recommend Marcello leaves the Art of War on the waiting room table, not this one. 

I read: Winning Not Fighting

By: John Vincent and Sifu Julian Hitch

7.84 Newtons

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If you are surrounded by idiots you are an idiot

IMG_1238Poor, young Yossarian. In World War 2 the young bombardier is drafted into the US Air Force to fight the Nazis. From the small Italian island of Pianosa his squadron launch bombing raids over theAxis powers. Friend after friend is killed each night. 

Yossarian, of course, is the main character in Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s black comedy about the absurdity of war and the perverse bureaucracy that it gives birth to. Captain Yossarian is desperate to get home but the flyers must complete 35 combat missions before they earn the right to leave. Yet when he approaches 35 raids the threshold is lifted to 40, then to 45 and so on.Yossarian is constantly thwarted by the bureacratic war machine that needs young men to lay down their lives to stay in motion. 

His friend Orr tries to get out of active duty by claiming that in the face of almost certain death he would be crazy to fly more missions, and if he’s crazy he should be grounded. Sure, agreed the authorities, except for just one thing… 

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

Which brings me to “Surrounded By Idiots”.

Despite the promising title the book argues that the people all around you are not morons, they are merely different to you. The differences in their behaviours, reactions and communication are such that, understandably, you could mistake them for idiocy. But this assessment is a two-way street. Your behaviour is just as inexplicable to them.The best way to get on with other people in business and in life is to understand these personality types. 

There are four primary categories and the author associates these with colours. Analytical personalities are blue; Stable ones are green; Dominant are red; And inspirational are yellow.

Very few people are pure of colour. Almost all of us are a blend. You, like most of the people on this plane, almost certainly have a good deal of green. Most people do. 

The trick is to identify which traits dominate the people you are with. Greens are great to hang out with but won’t press their case which means it’s not always clear what they want. It’s the opposite with reds who will argue their case impatiently and loudly, if not with much forethought. But fear not, the thinking will have been done by the blues though as introverts they may not tell you what the answer is until you ask. Yellows will happily tell you the answer, any answer in fact, and in their creativity they may invent several others which are complete fiction .

Success in any enterprise, comes from identifying and harnessing these different strengths.  

Yet here’s the conundrum; it is yet possible that the one person on this plane who is not an idiot is you… but you would have to be an idiot to believe it. This appears to be Catch-23.

Erikson’s argument is that people seem like idiots only because they are different from you. The wise person, then, tolerates this and concludes that only one thing is certain: If you think you are surrounded by idiots then you are the idiot.

By this logic if everyone on the plane (except you) thinks that everyone else is an idiot then in fact , despite all Erikson says, you are surrounded by idiots. The one person who is not an idiot is you because you incorrectly believe you are not surrounded by idiots. Which makes you an….

I read: Surrounded By Idiots
By: Thomas Erikson

7.84 Newtons

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How to always be on time (and beat transit-time-cognitive-blindness)

IMG_1239You’re born with, on average, 42 million minutes available (less 2.5 million minutes if you have what the kids call male privilege).
After using up about 28 million of mine I realise I am rather wasteful. A small part of this is due to my condition. Not long ago I was (self) diagnosed with “transit-time-cognitive-blindness”. It is untreatable. The symptom is lateness. No matter how much positive self-talk I attempt, no matter the flow charts, the project management and the sticky notes on the mirror, nor the concentration applied to timetables… when it comes to attending a meeting, catching a flight or seeing a movie it is impossible to factor in the transit time.

Friends who suffer from migraines tell me that they can be chatting to someone and suddenly their face disappears from view. It sounds bizarre and hard to believe. But apparently it’s quite common and they just carry on talking to their headless counterpart.

I have the time-keeping equivalent. It drives people potty but as Frankie Howard said, you shouldn’t mock the afflicted.
What always, always happens is that I cannot but assume that as soon as I tie my shoe laces I’ll be at the appointed place. As I have discovered after ten thousand shoe lace tyings, the moment the double-bow is pulled taut my transit-time-cognitive-blindness vanishes and I realise I have a distance to travel.

Consequently, life is a mad scramble and I have never walked to the tube station. I always run, always panicking and always yelling curses at myself.

Being stupid when it comes to measuring time is not unique to me. Dan Hamermash has spent thirty years studying how we spend time and we are all getting worse at it.
The reason we are getting worse is that we have such wealth and technological abundance that we are overwhelmed by the possible things we could do with our time and this generates enormous time pressure. When we had nothing to do but invent the wheel and hide from dinosaurs we measured every minute like a dog.
But now there are washing machines and calculators and power drills which bless us with the gift of time which we fill with Instagram, and Twitter, and EBay.
Hamermash writes: “Our ability to purchase and enjoy goods and services has risen much more rapidly than the amount of time available for us to enjoy them. The more rapid growth in income than in the time we have at our disposal creates a problem for us; it makes it difficult to stuff all the things that we want *and* can now afford into the growing , but increasingly relatively much more limited , time that we have available to purchase and to enjoy them over our lifetimes.”
His  counter-intuitive point is that because we have more dollars per minute of life than our grandparents did, time has become scarcer, it has become more valuable.
What can we do to spend and appreciate our time more sensibly?
His conclusions deal mainly with the great difficulty of imposing government policies on work time in the USA and the limited incremental changes that might be imposed without having the opposite effect to the one intended. This is for wonks only.
At the personal level, which is all you’re able to actually effect immediately here’s what he recommends: Exercise; Spend more time doing genuinely relaxing activities such as taking an un-rushed bath; Impose routines that protect your less stressful non-work activities from being invaded by work such as imposing a “no work” rule between 9pm and 6am (He’s American…who works at 6am?!); A few times a week walk to work if you live within 3 miles of the workplace, Make an extra effort to spend some time with friends or family, Try to slow down a bit during your non-work activities (eating, preparing food, cleaning up after meals….keep it relaxed).
Time to go. I have to be the other side of town as soon as I put my shoes on.

I read: Spending Time

By: Daniel Hamermesh
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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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