Lowly Worm, Huckle Cat, My Therapist & The Global Economy

Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 00.00.33My therapist lives on a remote, nameless island with surprisingly good connectivity near Chile or Peru or somewhere. That’s all I’ve gleaned. We only talk via Skype audio so the truth is maybe he’s still living nearby in the Barbican. He says he needs space.

What he didn’t know until last month was that thanks to the wonders of the global economy (of the dark web variety) I’d persuaded the Fancy Bears to build me a program that allows me to *force* call him in times of emergency.

If he’s on another call, or even if the computer is turned off and sealed in a drawer under his desk I can force a Skype call to happen.

Eventually he answered.

“Doc, it’s Richard Scarry all over again”, I explained.

I had loved Richard Scarry books. But eventually, I’d had to face the incontestable truths: I’d never seen a pilot of an aeroplane who was a dog; Never seen a worm driving an apple-shaped car; Never seen a hippo on roller skates. It had taken me years to come to terms with the dull conformity of humans doing everything. I even tried to embrace identity politics to muster some interest in the variety of humans doing things. But I wasn’t THAT immature.

In any event it had dawned on me, during my recovery, that in our strident, divisive, ideological and identitarian times the world needs a new type of picture book; Not like treacherous Scarry but an honest one. If I permit myself to dream I would want one that contains no false promises (cf police cats); just facts and figures and nuanced explanations of the way things are. In fact in a perfect world I would want something written by a calm, measured, unflappable German economist.

And then, as if by magic, I’d heard a thud and found a review copy of a giant picture book for grown ups called The Global Economy As You’ve Never Seen It by Herr Thomas Ramge.

I’ve told a lie. It wasn’t a thud. It was a ping. I had received an html link to a giant PDF of the book.

The downside of a picture book as a PDF is that the words are so small on my little iPad that to read the dense wording you have to zoom right in but to see the shape of the many complex flow diagrams you have to zoom right out. All the zooming, scanning, shrinking was quite a workout. Like playing Rachmaninov.

The good side is that you can draw fat, red electronic lines across chunks of the book with my exhausted, cramping fingers.

Alas, the first thing I drew a red line through was the entire first page which introduced the giant, complex, nuanced global economy by describing employment patterns by gender and race with sub-sections on ‘inequality’ and ‘the gender pay gap’. These are emotive and disputed data points being presented with no context …on page 1. This is the scene setter.

Now, you’re a smart business magazine reader so you know that the gender pay gap arises from measurement of aggregate earnings over a lifetime rather than different pay for the same job (which is illegal). What accounts for that is worth diving into and is at least as complex as, say, the gender gap in mortality at work or homelessness and you wouldn’t kick off the book with either of those. It’s a great subject for starting a debate but it’s not the neutral delivery of clearly understood and undisputed data which I had been hoping for in my post-Scarry traumatised state. I was on guard for the rest of the book.

I generally didn’t need to be. The combination of detailed graphics and explanatory text dealt comfortably with wide ranging subjects; From a flow chart showing how a Volkswagen car is made to a section comparing economic theorists via charts showing the globalisation of the jeans business …and ending with the promise of fully automated luxury communism.

I can attest that it is, as the publicists claim, unlike anything else I have seen before or at least since I started my therapy.

And yet as a recommendable book, why was I feeling that sense of dread and panic? Why had I had force-called my therapist at 5am in Ushuaia ?

The answer was in the electronic red highlighted lines I’d drawn. They were everywhere.

Doc, I sobbed. This is worse than Busy Town’s false promises. The Global Economy book explains where and how everyone works. It shows a world where globalisation and free trade and AI will solve everything. But my red highlighter struck wherever jobs would be automated out of existence and there isn’t much left after that. Not even humans driving apple-shaped cars.

I can’t wait, he said and hung up.

 

I was reading: The Global Economy As You’ve Never Seen It
By: Thomas Range & Jan Schwochow
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Leadership Beyond The Flatulence Question

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.55.25The silver haired Senator for Rhode Island raised his head from the document in front of him and stared hard, Columbo style, at the subject of his merciless interrogation. His questioning had been forensic, the attention to detail relentless. His eyes narrowed. The sniper line of his gaze bisected the small gap between the top of his reading glasses and the flop of his fallen quiff.  At the receiving end,  the subject of his blistering inquiry shifted in the cross hairs. The committee room was hushed, electric. Unable to evade the question any longer, the accused leaned toward the microphone and spoke.
“That refers to flatulence. We were 16.”
Now the senator took one more sagacious moment to consider the evidence from Brett Kavanaugh’s high school year book, raised his eyebrows high and asked the follow up: So, had a school friend of the Supreme Court Justice Nominee also referred to breaking wind in the year book?
Clearly, no stone would be left unturned in the search for truth in a matter which, as I write this, remains unresolved. The outcome is impossible to predict from this particular moment in space and time though it is probably known to you as you read this.
In any event what I was doing at roughly the same moment in the space time continuum as the Senate Judiciary Committee examined allegations against Judge Kavanaugh was reading a book by General Stanley McChrystal. Reading the book was a vastly superior experience.  It is terrific and not at all what I expected from a decorated military leader.  I heaved the cover open, anticipating that a General’s book called Leaders would be about unshakeable self-belief, fearlessness, winning above all else,  about conviction, unswerving progress toward a singular goal, brilliant tactics, superior strategy, unimpeachable moral backbone, bombastic oratory,  and zero tolerance for hesitation and equivocation. In short, I wasn’t looking forward to it.
I was wrong. Because in the attempt to create a General Theory of Leadership, McChrystal and his co-authors have delivered an elegantly-written compendium of 13  fascinating biographies which is quite simply a terrific read in its own right, regardless of its superior theorem-building motive. Most of the time I was unaware that a theory was being investigated. This seemed simply a case of great stories being well told.
The structure is explicitly copied from the Greek-turned -Roman historian Plutarch’s book of great lives: Each chapter is a pair of stories such as Walt Disney and Coco Chanel, Albert Einstein and Leonard Bernstein or Maximimilien Robespierre and Abu Musab al Zarqawi. A few observations are made after each. The exception is the first chapter which is devoted to a single leader, Robert E. Lee, a welcome brave decision in these days to tackle a controversial subject neutrally, and Lee’s Confederacy Generalship in the US Civil War is certsainly that.
Plutarch’s Parallel Liveswas a widely read book, the authors claim, until the Great Man Theory of leadership fell out of fashion. A cynic might observe that it was hard for business schools  to make money from leadership training if great leaders are simply born with the X Factor.  What replaced this view of history was the idea of the leader as servant or enabler of their followers.
McChrystal desires not to resuscitate the Great Man/Woman theory but to regard the individual leader as a means of understanding the movement and change that they wrought in the time that they did so and among the people they lived alongside. Rather than compress the biography of Harriet Tubman or Margaret Thatcher into a theory he prefers simply to tell the story as well as possible and then consider what may be drawn from that. Some led by example, others led by power broking or being more ideoligically pure than anyone else. Einstein’s leadership was sourced from a theory of time and space that he suspected only 12 people could properly understand, and yet he was loved around the world anyway. Why is that?
To answer this question requires telling not only of the person’s attributes as a biographer would write it but also of their dramatic relationship with the world as a playwright would have it: We must understand the authentic, flawed human being before we can understand the spotless myth.
McChrystal writes: “Their stories are human and are better experienced rather than read with analytical detachment. No life is lived, no crisis navigated, in anticipation of being an interesting case study.”
At which point in space and time and in my reading  of this book  I paused and watched the TV as Judge Kavanaugh, found the truth of McChrystal’s observation. And while he had never expected it at school his entire life was going to be disected and live-streamed around the world.  His life in fact had become a case study. His voice resigned to the inevitable he said to the senator:  “If you want to talk about flatulence at age 16 in a year book page, I’m game.”
8.82 Newtons
I read : Leaders
by: General Stanley McChrystal
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The Genius of Termite Fungus

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.54.51People with ponds are not to be envied. Sometimes, walking barefoot in the lush grass, on those hot and balmy nights of our record-setting Summer just gone, they accidentally trod on eels.  Yes! Eels!!

I’d overheard a traumatic conversation about it in a coffee shop (traumatic for me anyway) so I looked it up and it’s true. It’s another reason to thank God I live on the third floor of a polluted central London back street.

Pond-dwelling yellow eels, once they have matured after 20 years or so, get bored of living and decide to breed and die. So they  jump out of the pond and slither across land until they find a river, stream or sewer. Provided they don’t get squished underfoot they then turn silver , dissolve their stomachs, their eyes grow big and  they swim downstream to the sea, cross the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea (near Bermuda),  breed and die.

This nature trek of the mind was exhilarating; A blessed escape from reading about start ups,  entrepreneurialism or my sci-fi-ish paranoia about robots (which isn’t paranoia because I’m right).

No sooner did I develop this appetite for respite than a book about Termites landed on my desk and, dear reader,  it is so good that it came within a whisker of achieving the full weight of a maximum 9.8 Newtons.

Eels, are nothing. For over a week I thought they were a big deal but they are no more than a gramophone record  compared to the Spotify that is the mighty termite.

In my ignorance I had thought that termites were merely a strain of cockroachy-anty type insect that built those enormous nine foot high earth mounds. You’ve noticed them. They’re the ones that Attenborough glances at when he’s scouring  the world’s deserts for creatures which are more showbiz.

I was so wrong it’s hard to know where to start. Consider this: Termites survive on wood and grass and dung. A lot of it, in fact so much that in parts of Australia 80% of the trees are hollow. Turning wood, grass and excrement into an energy source is alchemy and like turning lead into gold it is beyond our reach. If we could do it at scale a whole lot of other problems would be solved. So governments and businesses  (and the military) have invested a lot of money into termite investigations. Following the twists and turns of the eccentric scientists is the path taken by this excellent book.

Here’s another thing: There are lower termites and higher termites. Higher termites cannot themselves process the cellulose in wood. Their trick is to maintain  a zoo of tiny creatures called protists in their guts who do possess the secret. The termites forage and swallow the grass and then protists digest it and excrete sugars. The termites are dependent on the protists and vice-versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship that goes back tens of millions of years. But like the chicken and the egg no-one knows which came first.

Lower termites don’t have such an internal gut zoo so they do their digestion on the outside. They farm fungus at the bottom of their termite mounds.  The fungus feeds on the grass and wood brought by the termites. In return the fungus breaks down the cellulose and makes it digestible by the termites. The termites depend on the fungus and the fungus in turn depends on the termites.

Which is why scientists long ago asked themselves whether the creature they are studying is not the termite, or the fungus, or the protist but actually a super-organism which is made of everything. Consider this: An average fungus-powered mound which contains 11 pounds of termites eats as much dead grass as a 900 pound cow.

So why not the full 9.8? Well, it’s my robot paranoia from which even a book about termites could not provide a break. To understand how millions of termites with no central planning department could be the architects and project managers of very complex mounds with hundreds of precise passageways scientists decided to build robot termites. These became the prototypes for swarms of tiny airborne drones . The defence industry is both terrified of the implications of this and enraptured. A cloud of insect sized drones would be almost impossible to intercept and could carry all sorts of death and havoc in their robo-claws. The growing fear is that these are becoming weapons of war more deadly than nuclear bombs.

So in studying how termites can perform such wonders as making clean energy and turning the desert fertile we may have unlocked another means of Armageddon. So, not 9.8.

 

I read: Underbug

by

Lisa Margonelli

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Work is Play and Play is Work …allegedly

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.54.08We inched forward in a surreptitious phalanx. Every time the teacher turned her back to write on the blackboard we advanced. At the noise of a hundred desk legs scraping on the class room floor she suddenly spun around and glared. We were mesmerised (it was half the reason we did it ) because she’d be staring not at us but …at the ceiling.  In her rich Welsh preacher’s voice she’d intone: “I knooow you’re up to something boys… so STOP IT!”
“No, we’re not miss”
“Nothing going on here, miss”
“Not me…”
“This is a such an interesting class, miss”
There’d be a silent stand off for as long as Mrs. Smith felt that we or she could bear. Her attention was on us but her eyes were beseaching higher powers to contain her fury. Then she’d turn her attention from the ceiling back to the blackboard.
Immediately we’d shuffle the desks forward another foot. She’d swivel round once more. She’d raise her voice and we’d again swear innocence. Our eyes interrogated each other  and the ceiling for the clues that only she could see there, and then once more Mrs. Smith would turn her back to scribble geometry on the board. And each time, of course, we shifted onward.  Soon we were all in one half of the room,  like tanks surrounding an enemy position. There was no point to it, we just wanted to play instead of working.
Without turning she exploded her full powered panto voice at the blackboard. It bounced back at us,  rebounded back off the walls and the sound filled the room. “BOYS!”, said the voice of God., “Playtime is after the bell. Sooo right now…..stoooop PLAYING!”
“Yes, miss”
 “Sorry, miss”
“Won’t happen again, miss”
That would be the first half of the class. In the second half we’d retreat in the same manner to the back of the room and one by one remove ourselves and our desks into the corridor.
School days were simple; there was play and there was work and the difference was as plain as night and day. Play was what you wanted to do. Work was was what the teachers wanted you to do. When the school day ended there was more play but you could do so with a good conscience only after you’d done your homework.
Then one shocking day you grow up and discover you have bills to pay and in order to settle them you need money so you go to work. And then someone invents the Internet so that even when you get home people are still asking you to do work.  And with a heavy heart you realise you will in fact work until robots take your job and you can’t get any work and then things will be even worse.
WRONG!  Work is Play. And Play is Work.  This is the hopeful message contained in this month’s book of sage advice (which I have playfully read for this column).  To be playful is almost a prerequisite for being succesful in work it argues, especially I suppose, if your definition of success includes enjoyment. Defintitions are important.
To turn their manifesto for playful work into an argument and indeed a business book the authors deliver a sophisticated definition of playful. Playful work is underpinned and made real by four “noble behaviours”: Grace, Craft, Fortitude and Ambition. Each of these requires their own definition. Which may sound dry but actually it isn’t and this is because the authors choose to make their case through telling terrific stories of scores of successful men and women. It is in the telling of the stories that this book itself is richest and is most entertaining.
From the near shooting of the soon-to-be German Kaiser by Wild Bill Hicock’s circus sidekick prior to World War 1 to the surprising back story of Josef Schumpeter, the lesser known stars of Bletchley Park and Thomas Heatherwick’s triumph at the Shanghai Expo 2010 this book has a terrific supply of entertainment and thus met its own sine qua non to be at the very least, playful.
Only the dreadful-sounding morning team dance sessions at IDEO made my eyes rise towards the ceiling.
I read: The Playful Entrepreneur
by: Mark Dodgson & David M. Gann
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Huey The God Of Surf

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.53.16Huey the God of Surf was right where we had left it. The rusted paintwork, which we’d plastered in Hot Tuna and Quicksilver stickers, was a bit dustier but the surfboard was still on the roof and, most importantly, the boot hadn’t been jimmied open. We couldn’t recall how this old car, a Valiant Regal,  got the name but being 21 and far away from home it seemed funny at the time.

Our aboriginal guide came round the back and when he saw what was inside the cavernous boot his eyes lit up and he roared with laughter. We did the deal.

For three days he had guided us around a national park and told us about the termite mounds, the kangaroos, the snakes and crocodiles, the stories of the Dreamtime and the value of the walkabout. In turn I spent three days persuading him that rather than cash maybe he would consider payment in the form of board shorts.  I had a lot of them. Two thousand pairs.

In fact I had cornered the board shorts market in Bali and brought all the shorts from every store on the island to Australia. It was a stroke of business genius or so I thought. After three years in the Manchester rain I had lain on the hot Balinese beaches and marvelled at just how cheap their shorts were. That was when I had the brainwave.

Before setting off  to travel the world I’d watched the 1980s hit film, Trading Places. At the end of the caper Eddie Murphy, playing the rags to riches hero, outwits the scheming blue-blooded bankers by cornering the market for Florida orange juice.

The sunset and I re-drew my plans. Rather than working my way round Oz I would buy all the absurdly cheap shorts I could afford on my emergency credit card and sell them in Sydney for a mind-boggling profit.  It was hot in Australia wasn’t it? Millions of Australians needed shorts ergo I would be rich and travel in style; Hotels not hostels. Business is a cinch.

A few weeks later a customs and excise officer introduced me to customs duties and the crushing of my own dreamtime. It took four months to negotiate the taxes down to a non-critical level. The trick was bringing them into the following year’s quota (and lots of pleading).

Then came the rain. It wasn’t always sunny in Australia and my background research recalling episodes of Neighbours had been sub-optimal.

I re-re-drew my plans. I would barter my way around this wretched not-always sunny island with its heavy-handed customs duties. I bartered sailing trips around the Whitsunday Islands,  diving lessons in the Great Barrier Reef, campsites in Byron Bay, underground hostels in Coober Pedy, kayaking in the Katharine River and guided walks in the outback. Huey left each one with a push start and a cloud of dust and when it settled the locals were dressed in fluoro board shorts. It was like a backpacker verison of Mr. Ben.

Through some mysterious black magic the volume of boot space occupied by the shorts never seemed to diminish and after circling the country and returning to Sydney, Huey was still heavy with the loot.

I revised my opinion about entrepreneurship and resolved to learn more. Item one: Don’t take business advice from Hollywood comedies but it take it from someone who has been there and done that.

Which brings me finally to Julian Richer. In this book he wants to move the needle of capitalism significantly away from the inequality of todayto achieve a more even distribution of wealth. The system is broken not bust and his book is a manifesto for rectifying the imbalances of wealth and income before they become so savage that it cannot be fixed. Throughout he names and shames (a tactic he encourages) countless companies that have transgressed the ethical behaviour he espouses. No matter what particular issue vexes him on any page he summons with ease a househald name that has repeated that sin. So widespread is the demonstrated malaise that it is no wonder that he has to start the book by stating he is a staunch defender of capitalism. This book is is about getting it back on track and at the heart of this are two steps:  Better regulation and, more critically, a different set of values at the heart of business than today’s selfish approach.

Unlike, say an academic or an international arbitrager of board shorts, Richer has been very successful for decades. Consequently the text is flecked with real life examples of how Richer Sounds has been ever more ethical in its operations and the consequences of this on the business, its customers and suppliers. It is this which makes the book a strong recommendation for those tryingto reconcile businesses and ethics.

Incidentally,  if any readers are interested, I have the key to a lockup Sydney and can do a very good price on some vintage board shorts.

 

I read:

The Ethical Capitalist

by: Julian Richer

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A Bowl of Eyeballs

Screenshot 2019-07-09 at 22.51.55On a steam train in China I was required to eat a bowl of eyeballs . Afterwards everyone cheered and laughed, including me. Then I was sick.
Why do it? For what possible benefit ? Well, although she wasn’t there I blame my mother. When I was little she used to tell stories of her exotic childhood in Africa, Iraq, Egypt and Persia (as it then was). Once upon a time she was introduced to a Princess and for want of something well-mannered to say the little girl told the Princess that her necklace was beautiful whereupon  “She just took it off and gave it to me! And to be honest I didn’t reallylike it, I was just trying to be polite.”
You see, our mum explained to us,  this was the custom. Different country; Different culture. The lesson was clear: Be careful who and what you compliment when you’re travelling.  I tested this theory to the limits.
Whenever we visited family friends in the country I’d beseige specific adults with compliments.  I’d tug their sleeves and say: “What I said was that’s a beautiful shot gun! …. Really, really lovely.” But it was to no avail. ”…I’m complimenting it. Do you understand?” I would patiently explain but they didn’t get etiquette the way I did.
Many years later I found myself in the restaurant carriage on a 40-hour journey in the middle of 1980s China. I was surrounded by Red Army workers wearing a combination of green or blue Mao tunics. A very smug man with an awful lot of gold on his cap had sathimself opposite and jovially shouted at me in Chinese. Everyone laughed. Neither of us spoke the other’s language. He reminded me of my grandfather and ordered all sorts of strange food and pushed it at me. The crowd grew and grew until I knew exactly what it is to find yourself inside a cave made of laughing faces.
I had a go at the marinated bean curd, the snake and other strange  meats. And then, to gales of laughter, came the bowl of eyeballs. At my mother’s knee I’d learned that it might be dangerous to compliment people when abroad . But what was the rule about turning down gifts? Or food? I couldn’t recall. Was it death? Surely there would be a price to pay.
Thus I ate the eyeballs.
I was reminded of this as I read :“Play On, How To Get Better With Age : The new science of physical longevity.” As someone who is old enough to have visited China when the tourists were the rich ones I was gripped by the promise of getting better with age. On the basis of the title, if I’d started earlier I could be amazing by now.
There are 11 chapters extracting applicable insights from the study of elite athletes. I skipped straight to the one on eating, hoping to learn the snacking behaviours of elite athletes watching Netflix. No dice.  It turns out there are very few eating short cuts: In one of the very few low points in this well-written book, an athletic hero “credits his longevity to yoga and strength work as well as to his early bedtimes and clean eating habits.” Sigh.
But have you heard of the “Hyena” diet? It seems that if you do like Hyenas do and eat cartilage, gristle and bone as well as meat and fat then your joints will serve you well into old age.
Really?…As you know I once took a massive dose of eyeballs but even so I had to wear specs to read this book which is why I have my reservations. But I’m not a scientist and maybe knees and shoulders are different to eyeballs, and that’s why the Hyena diet works and the eyeball diet doesn’t.
Good read, different subject matter, and lots to learn from dna-tested diets to creative training regimes. I say: go for it – before  it’s too late.
I read
Play On: How To Get Better With Age 
Jeff Bercovici
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