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richard newton

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


Lisa Margonelli


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

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


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

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
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