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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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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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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
By:
Chris Hughes

 

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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
By:
Lynne Murphy
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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

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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

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