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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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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