The Luckiest Room Mate In The World

Fair ShotFate’s spin of the wheel, friends, was not kind to me. And since you’re not reading this on your own Learjet it was not kind to you either. But this is my 630 words so I’ll explain my abject misfortune rather than inquire about yours.
How did life cruelly stab me in the back? By making me choose university house mates who were, I now realise, rubbish.  Consider that all they have done since is to  assume such unhelpful careers as mere professors, lawyers, doctors and one a drawer of pictures.
As a consequence of their mediocrity none have provided the coat tails that a man of ambition might wish to cling to. In contrast the author Chris Hughes’ room mate was Mark Zuckerberg and after three years Hughes made half a billion dollars from a side project called Facebook.
And worse yet, (shaking my weary fist at the heavens)  I have to read his book to earn a crust.
The first question implicitly posed by the luckiest room mate in the world is this : Should I be mad at Mr. Hughes for being so blessed or should I be made at Steve and Jon and the rest of my useless contemporaries? Fear not, comrades, my first instinct was your honest-man-of-toil’s standard issue, green-eyed resentment and I cracked the spine of the book determined to loathe The Room Mate of The Century… but then I made the mistake of reading his book and I ended up liking him. For starters he is refreshingly honest about his business success: “I got lucky”.
He’s also very smart and after he quit Facebook played a key role in getting Barack Obama’s grass roots social media campaign for president off the ground.
The combination of his good fortune and his intelligence have brought him to examine not only how the digital economy generates outsize rewards for the very few but also,  and more crucially, to consider the implications of this.
First he explains his luck.  It wasn’t “just because I was Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate – much larger forces were at work. A collection of economic and political decisions over the past four decades [Globalisation, rapid technological development,  and the growth of finance] has given rise to unprecedented wealth for a small number of fortunate people collectively called  the one per cent.”
As a bynote this explanation (half) exonerates my Manchester friends but that’s not to say I am not still disappointed.
He then imagines explaining to his son, at some point in the future, that “the reason we are wealthy is not because of a gift of brilliance or decades of my own hard work but because a new economy at the start of the twenty first century created massive financial windfalls for a select few of us overnight. I will tell him that the same forces that made our fortune possible made it very difficult for the rest of America to get ahead.”
This book is part of his life mission to make life better for the 99% of people whose jobs have been made “more poorly paid and precarious” by technology. His solution begins with the introduction of a basic income. Hughes supports a “basic income for working people” rather than a Universal Basic Income. The differences are technical – UBI is a state-provided flat rate income for everyone in society. Hughes’ favoured solution is to provide a supplement for everyone below a certain wage level.
I used to be a big fan of a UBI because it tackled the problem of financial survival when careers are disappearing and income is unpredictable. Hughes solution is more pragmatic because a targeted supplement costs less than a universal payment.
With every You tube video of a robot, and every taxi driver who commits suicide, my growing fear is that neither solution addresses the problem that robots (and AI etc.)  may take nearly all the jobs on offer except the most menial. If so, then only a set of values predicated on life beyond salaried work will provide a solution.
For me the solution is to quit work, go back to school and room with the next Zuckerberg and for you lot, well you can get paid for reviewing my book about how lucky I was.
I read: 
Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn
Chris Hughes



The most multilingual dog in the Kingdom

IMG_1182In the Kingdom of Breckenridge, Colorado I encountered a talking dog.  It belonged to the Colombian aunt of my girlfriend and it spoke seven languages. The aunt swore it was not only the cleverest dog ever but it was cleverer than all the humans she’d ever met in her 97 years (apart from her father and “possibly” a novice priest she once loved). The dog spoke only to her because she alone believed in her heart that it could speak. As soon as another human came to visit the dog went schtum. Bark, bark,  yawn, it  would say in regular doggish.  Once the humans buggered off it would be resume its pontifications, chattering away in this language or that.
Sod’s law being what it is not one of the dog’s seven languages was Spanish and yet the aunt spoke no other. We never learned what the dog had to say.
“What?!”, you may be thinking to yourself. “I don’t believe it: A Kingdom in Colorado?” Well, quite. Legend has it that in the 1930s a realtor (estate agent) discovered that this small ex-mining town (now a ski-resort) had been accidentally omitted from the official map of the state and therefore was, arguably, an independent territory.
It so happens that a similar breach of the cartographical Matrix occurs in Norton Folgate, a short stretch of land between the City of London and Shoreditch High Street.  Whereas the republican Americans called their unclaimed patch of land  The Kingdom of Breckenridge the royalist Brits named theirs The Liberty of Norton Folgate.
“So it goes”, as an American novelist might say. “Curiouser and curiouser”, as an English writer could observe right back.
These contrasting approaches to the nomenklature of undocumented land is the least of the differences between the English of the Americans and that of the British.
There’s a good (neat) example in this book. “For years after the Kinks released the song “Come Dancing”’, says the author, “my teenaged American friends and I thought that the line “Now she’s married and lives on an estate” meant that the woman had married a rich man and lived in a manor house.”
For most of us it is enough to know that mis-firings of language and dialect  exist and to laugh at or navigate around the problems when they arise… which is so frequent in fact that I no longer snort when Americans tighten their belts to stop their pants falling down.
Silly Americans, I might say. This arrogant, smug, colonial,  Downton Abbey-ist attitude of mine and my fellow Brits is apparently so widespread that the entire book is determined to destroy it. For  Lynne Murphy, an American-born and -raised professor of linguistics at the British University of Sussex it is not enough to chortle at the mis-cueing  of British and American English and get on with life. For her the pomposity of the Brits must be exposed and the insecurities of American English speakers must be righted.
She may be correct. Or she may just be chippy. The Brits are in a permanent state of irritation about the Americanisation of their birthright, the English language, and it’s gripped us Brits in a stranglehold of fear.  Hmmm, well this is the postulation underpinning much of the book but it’s one  I don’t recognise. It smacks of publishers insisting on fabricated urgency which  is unecessary because wihtout it, the book’s really quite fun.
When I say “quite” fun I mean to use the word not in the American way which means “very”  but in the British way which might mean “very” but it might also mean “not very” or indeed somewhere in between. I begin to see her point.
I read:
The Prodigal Tongue: The love-hate relationship between British and American English
Lynne Murphy

Jazz Bands and Orchestras

IMG_1183A veteran of PLC boardroom politics, a highly rated and wily treader of the greasy pole had been trying to help us and he was in despair.  “The problem with you lot is none of you want to be led”,  he raged at me and the fellow directors of our tech startup. “Business needs leadership! You need to accept that the Managing Director should be able to make the final decision …AND THEN GET ON WITH IT!”,  he continued. He looked around for a full compliment of cowed and nodding heads but didn’t find them.  “Look, here’s the thing. You’re an orchestra and like any good orchestra with lots of individual talent you must let the conductor conduct you!”

The silence that followed was punctured only by the branch of a tree squeaking against the window. Then one of the directors said: “But here’s what you don’t understand: We’re a jazz band.”

Not long afterwards I departed and the jazz band theorist became the MD.

The disconnect between the gameplaying world of careerists at giant multinationals and the cash-starved mentalists who inhabit startups is probably the clash of culture I know best. But the world is not short of other clashes of culture. There’s the clash between my personal trainer and me. He has taken to giving me dietary advice on printed paper because he knows I don’t read the emails. It would be outside his healthiness worldview to even contemplate that they go straight in the bin and nestle among the Mars Bar wrappers.

And there’s Brexit which has done for us all, has it not? Swivel-eyed leavers and sanctimonious remoaners dare not speak about what’s on their mind without carefully preparing the conversational ground first.

And let us not get into the world of generation snowflake who despair of their callous elders just as much as the bewildered others ponder whether the snowflakes’ brains have turned to slush.  And…I wasn’t going to say this for fear of giving offence but I can’t help it,  the carnival of  identity poltiics is the worst clash of the lot. There, I said it. Send your complaints to the pilot in his safe space behind the re-inforced cockpit door.

The identity thing is the worst, I contend,  because it atomises society more than anything else. But this is a business magazine and business folk need no more complaints about business culture; they need solutions. And in this  highly atomised and ever-so sensitive world business leaders need great performances from people functioning as teams. But in this environment how can they ever do this?

Fear not, I am here to tell you that someone wrote a book about it.

And it’s very good!  I expected it to be intolerable because the terminology triggered my snowflake politics sensor.  There are three “secrets “ to building a culture that enables “highly succesful groups” says Daniel Coyle. They are: Build Safety; Share Vulnerability, and: Establish Purpose. Well, you read that lot and think one thing: Pass the sick bag.

Coyle, it turns out, is a master of managing expectations because the book is much better than the list of “secrets” suggest. This is because he’s a good story teller and has found many exceptional stories to illustrate how great organisational cultures are fomented. Drawing on examples of US Navy SEALS, outperfoming basketball teams, world class restaurant chains, Soldiers on the fonrltine at Flanders, the success of Zappos, Google, Pixar, the pilots of spiralling jet aircraft (sorry), inner city schools,  stand up comedy and many more Coyle succeeds in gripping your attention and teaching you many things along the way (and I say this as a cynic).

He even succeeds in surfacing three core rules (I mean, secrets) that can be applied strategically and tactically in almost any organisation. But, and this is a personal problem I should see someone about, the label “sharing vulnerability” just irritates me beyond belief. I would describe the qualities he is seeking as “humility and openness”. That tiny culture clash aside, I would tell you (if I was your conductor) to go and pick this up.



I read:

The Culture Code: The secrets of highly successful groups

By Daniel Coyle


The end of my orange marker pen (and idealism)

IMG_1184“It’s fluorescent orange your book”, observed Paul, who owns the coffeeshop. “It looks like you’ve been colouring it in. Like a mad person with only one colour of pen…who only does straight lines…”


He was exaggerating for effect, just like his “thermonuclear blend” but he had a point. I had underlined so much of the book in preparation for this detailed review that more of it was orange than, er, paper colour. Were a search and rescue helicopter flying above trendy Shoreditch coffee shops that Sunday morning to check up on book reviewers they would have had no trouble locating their rescuee. Who needs a flare gun when you can simply wave your book in the air while flicking the neon pages?


But  there was no need of a book-reviewer-rescue operation. This orangeification of the book was not a signal of distress but the sign of a cracking read.


“This will stun you”, I said to Paul, preparing to read out a passage of the book.


“You did that when you turned the pages”, he replied, putting on some glacier glasses.


I soldiered on: “The billionaires of Silicon Valley, all the geek-billionaires, they’re all mates”. I said “It’s not quite the meritocracy they would have you believe. Most of them went to university together or previously worked together! At Paypal!”


“Well, well. You don’t say”, he yawned and went to serve a customer who wasn’t holding a glowing book.


I had a similar response elsewhere: The revelations of this book only fitted what most people already thought was the case. To be specific, the news I was sharing was that Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ebay, Amazon et al in cahoots with the Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists are hell bent on gathering all the money and power in the world while at the same time declaiming that they do it all for the benefit of humanity; To make the world a better place.


So if gut feel already told most people this, including me, something else had made me proselytise “The Know It Alls”. The writer Ayn Rand is a sort of philosopher queen for the Silicon Valley libertarian meritocratic elite. In her famous doorstopper, Atlas Shrugged a recurring piece of advice is offered every time something fails to make sense: “Check Your Premises”.  Dutifully I went back through the book and realised that what actually made the book such a terrific read was that Noam Cohen lays out precisely why the cynical interpretation is the right one. Now we have facts. Subjective, I grant you. But compelling and very well told.


Cohen structures his tale as a sequence of ten character sketches  beginning with John McCarthy, one of the founding professors of Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University and via Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and the Google founders making his way to Mark Zuckerberg.


As a tech columnist at the New York Times, Cohen has picked up a treasure trove of anecdotes and these leaven and entertain a story which otherwise remorselessly drives toward the dread realisation that you were right all along. It is all these proof points which I realise I have gleefully highlighted with my Stabilo Boss.


He identifies two primeval swamps from where the species of geek-billionaire rapidly evolved. The first is Stanford University which turned into a local Silicon Valley hothouse for the conversion of academic computer science into freemarket billions.


The second is PayPal, the online payment firm, whose former leaders are the founders or significant investors in many household names: Facebook, LinkedIn, Tesla, YouTube, Yammer and Yelp.


Some of these moguls never were idealistic in the first place says Cohen. But others were and it is his account of the “re-orientation” of the aims  of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page once they had investors on board that are the most chilling.


The nerds who claim they want to make the world a better place now hold all the cards. And Cohen’s book suggests they chose the path not of Frodo but Gollum. People instinctively know this as my friendly baristapreneur had made clear. But with this book we know how it happened.


I read The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball

By Noam Cohen


What Makes You Tick?

On the day the Apple Watch 3 came out and I was feeling like a sucker as I do every time I needlessly upgrade my Apple products the niece who asks all the questions and does so with extra persistence when I’m speed-reading for an overdue book review, waved her paws in front of my eyes and said: “What do you mean:  “What makes you tick?””
This is what happens when you try to precee a book review. You offer a summary of the summary just to buy some time but it’s not enough. So now I found myself having to explain the book in more detail to someone who was really not very interested but did want help to pass the time. Which brings us to the present moment, reader.
As you know social media makes you feel wretched. Mental health charities warn that  comparing your self-doubting insides with everyone else’s extravagant outsides is masochistic.
You wise up eventually. You still can’t kick the habit of surfing when you shouldn’t but at least you can yell “Fake News!” at your Instagram feed from your seat in the bus or the WC and in this way the space between your humdrum existence (or mine) and everyone else’s sun-kissed-laughing-in-an-open-topped-vintage-cabriolet-in-Tuscany existence can be diminished.
But that’s social media. The trouble with dense autobiographies is they’re probably true. So if the author is brilliant and has a mind-boggling story to tell you can’t shout “fake news” with any conviction. You just have to lump it. Which in this case means that you have to compare the amazing rags-to-riches story of the author with your own Primark-to-Primark story.
Ed Thorp was a poverty-stricken child of the depression which meant he never took anything for granted whether it was an extra penny on his paper round or the attitudes and platitudes of the day.
His extraordinary mathematical ability and desire to test every theory in real life secured prizes, scholarships, a professorship at MIT and an assassination attempt by the mob. The prevailing orthodoxy was that gamblers cannot beat the casino at Blackjack. To test whether this was fact or shibboleth Thorp invented a system of card counting upon which he won a fortune. Which answered that question. When he was barred from the Blackjack tables he published his technique in a million-selling book and moved onto Roulette.
“What makes you tick?” his conspirator asked him when they set out to beat the mob’s casinos with the world’s first portable computer hidden in Thorp’s shoes. “Not an abstract academic life “, he answered by example.
And then the mob spiked his drinks and sent him packing from Vegas in a car with tampered brakes that would have killed him but for but the inevitable quick thinking.
At which point you realise you’re only half way through the book and your own autobiography, like your Instagram feed, is a bit thin. But you’re committed to the journey now and in fact it speeds up. Soon the prof turns up like Zelig at the centre of almost everything. Done with casinos he set up one of the first hedge funds and then invented derivates trading. En passant he warned everyone that Bernie Madoff was a fraud 17 years before his £34 billion Ponzi scheme was exposed. Then Zelig, I mean Thorp, nearly gets brought down as collateral damage by Rudy Giuliani’s attack on Wall Street.  Breathlessly the story runs on and Warren Buffet and Paul Newman appear because Thorp is also an outperforming money manager and they want his help.
Thorp closes by giving advice I don’t need: how to make a large endowment to a University, and much that I do need, how to invest for retirement if you’re not running a hedge fund from your Newport Beach hideaway.
But by then your niece is sighing that you’re boring and your fancy new watch doesn’t even tick.
I read this book:
A Man For All Markets: Beating the Odds, from Las Vegas to Wall Street
By Edward O. Thorp
Published by One World

The girl who grew fur and the Romans’ killer app: Roads.

You and I are not the first to observe that the the hub of London’s startup scene and therefore everything that is obsessed with the “new” is located on a road called Old Street. But is it really “Old” you may wonder.  Yes it is.
Unlike the broad, automobile-oriented streets of, say, Silicon Valley, the roads around Silicon Roundabout were first laid 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
In this difference of origin lies an important variation in perspective between the two tech hubs.  This thought occurred to me when I walked underneath the magic roundabout and learned the strange  tale of a girl who grew fur on her body.  I shall explain.
Beneath Old Street Roundabout lies a small maze of shops. Half of them are pop up stores that come and go as brands , big and small , bravely test their new concepts with the rush hour commuters who stream in and out of  the London Underground station.
Dealing with this lot strikes me as a hopeless task. These people are hurtling through the underground corridors of Old Street roundabout like kayakers through whitewater rapids. To such stony-faced, speed-walking, desk warriors would you be brave enough to flog your new line in yoga pants or hand made gluten free chocolates ? Not me. I barely go down there ever at rush hour. For any concept store it is a severe test. But Darwin’s brutal observations apply and somehow the fittest of the retailers do survive;   So the other half of the underground shopkeepers are those who are not pop ups but have taken up permanent residence and they   include a bookshop, a newsagent, a florist, a soup restaurant. And , it goes without saying, a key-cutting, shoe repair shop.  When it comes to retail, the key-cutting, shoe -repairer genus is the cockroach.  No environment is too brutal.  The more difficult it is to turn a coin the harder their shell  becomes.
Nevertheless, despite my clammy aversion to confined spaces, I recently found myself walking  through the guts of Old Street roundabout and while getting some keys cut, learned that this mini-labyrinth has a name. It is called St. Agnes’ Well.
St Agnes was one of the first women beatified by the Catholic church. Among her range of alternative fact miracles was something extraordinary which might inspire both the fashionable hipsters of Shoreditch and also  the cybernetic human DNA modifiers  of tech startup world.
You see in the fourth century AD, when she was thirteen, as a punishment for her belief in the forbidden religion of Christianity, she was going to be hauled naked through the streets of her Roman hometown. After praying for relief she suddenly grew hair all over her body and her modesty was preserved. Believe me, as POTUS would say. It’s a miracle.
Anyway long before the invention of the roundabout, let alone the construction of the ugliest gyratory in the world, there was a Roman Road  which became known as Auld Street. And at one end of what we call Old Street was a holy spring which was named after our modest friend, St. Agnes.
A Shoreditch startup once diverted some of the water from the spring to make its product: beer. This was in the 1620s. Unfortunately the spring, which surfaced in a small pond near where Old Street roundabout stands today, would all too frequently become polluted by dead animals and humans.
Because rotting flesh was bad for the beer some entrepreneurial folk had a smart idea to protect the water and built a wall around the well where the spring surfaced.  The well was called St Agnes Well in honour of the saint whose determination saved her purity from the Romans.
Leap forward to today and St Agnes Well is a small shopping mall above an underground station but below a roundabout. The spring itself is a short distance from Old Street roundabout but its actual whereabouts shall not be revealed by me today because the thing that interest me isn’t any particular history but the abundance of it.
Because in this heart of neophilia, invention and disruption there is layer upon layer of history. Sediment upon sediment. for example Fifty yards south of Old Street is the graveyard of  the writer John Bunyan, the  mathematician,Thomas Bayes  and the artist William Blake. This sits opposite the chapel where John Wesley preached and invented Methodism.  Fifty yards north of it is a street so new that it shines. This road is called Silicon Way.
Old Street itself was built by the Romans in a straight line to connect two North-South roads they had built as they colonised Britain.  Road building was one of the Roman Empire’s killer apps.
And what this gives is perspective. While the giants of Silicon Valley are tempted by their success and influence to believe now is the unique  moment for technology to strike, Silicon roundabout is steeped in reminders that now is but another moment in time for technology to make the world better.
And  the real test is  will it be remembered in 2000 years time?
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