Friday, December 27, 2013

Is the world weirder than science admits?

The Science Delusion: Freeing The Spirit Of EnquiryThe Science Delusion: Freeing The Spirit Of Enquiry by Rupert Sheldrake

If there’s bias in scientific experiments, it’s usually put down to something subtle but essentially mundane - subconscious cues in the behaviour of experimenters being picked up by their subjects, for instance. In a characteristically radical claim, Rupert Sheldrake suggests we should be looking for much more exotic causes like “mind-over-matter effects or psychokinesis”.

The vast majority of scientists would scoff: we don’t need to worry about effects that seem more like magic than science.

In The Science Delusion, Sheldrake argues for such sweeping changes to the scientific world view that you may find yourself wondering whether it is some elaborate satire intended to highlight the dangers of conventional thinking. If you conclude (correctly) that he’s in earnest, you may wonder if he’s mad.

The chances of that seem small: Sheldrake is a Cambridge scientist with decades of work in plant biology behind him and a string of mainstream academic connections. He is also the author of more than 80 papers in conventional scientific journals. He may be a maverick but he’s not an outsider (unlike the home-based James Lovelock for instance).

The Science Delusion casts doubt on almost everything that conventional science takes for granted. And it is that ‘taking for granted’ that Sheldrake most objects to. He complains that what we now think of as scientific progress is limited to developments on a narrow front sanctioned by the closed minds of the scientific establishment. Research is only funded if it conforms to a series of ‘articles of faith’ – untested and rarely articulated assumptions which add up to nothing more ‘scientific’ than the dogmas of the Christian church in its heyday.

The body of Sheldrake’s book is devoted to questioning ten of these assumptions and pointing to experimental evidence which he believes debunks them.

So, for instance, his first chapter deals with the question ‘Is Nature Mechanical?’. In other words, ‘is there life in life?’ or can it be fully explained by the mechanisms of chemistry and physics, as science today assumes.

Sheldrake’s answer is that at every level of a hierarchy of being, from sub-atomic particles to molecules, to cells, to organs and organisms, and social systems, there are emergent properties that are ‘more than the sum of the parts’. The idea of life forms as machines, he says, is more a metaphor than a testable theory.

Sheldrake’s list of targets is impressive in its range as well as its detail: genes are “grossly over-rated” as the controllers of development; physical constants are not constant; minds can influence each other telepathically; memory will never be mapped in the brain; the promise of biotech industries has already been seen to be over-hyped; medicine is floundering as it tries to continue the progress it was making until a couple of decades ago.

The reader is challenged to decide how far to accept the author’s thesis. Easiest to go along with is the survey of the uncertainties behind scientific dogma and Sheldrake’s critique of the over-reliance on conventional thinking by a self-serving culture.

Then there are the intriguing experiments, including many of Sheldrake’s own: his apparently controlled test, for instance, that seems to prove the popular idea that before they pick up the receiver, people know more frequently than chance would predict, who is telephoning them.

Hardest to follow (in both senses of follow) is the author’s fully-fledged alternative theory that claims to plug the deficiencies of conventional thinking. It’s called morphic resonance: “similar patterns of activity resonate across time and space with subsequent patterns.” So crystals are more likely to form in a particular configuration if that configuration has been common in the past. He has data to support the claim. Human skills become easier if others have learn them before (see the rise in IQ scores over the years). And inherited behaviours that couldn’t be genetic would be explained by morphic resonance between generations.

There’s something disturbingly metaphysical about morphic resonance: the temporal properties of cause and effect become strangely inverted: instinctive behaviour or the growth potential of a plant work “by pulling towards a virtual future rather than pushing from an actual past.”

Sheldrake insists it’s a testable theory - unlike, he says, many of the current assumptions of science. And he’s not backward in the claims he makes for it. Take the way he’d like to give to morphic resononance, some of the jobs we currently attribute to genes. While the correlation between insect mutations and genetic changes is typically taken as a demonstration of the role of genes in ‘coding for’ the form of the organism they sit inside, Sheldrake see it differently. To him, genes are nothing more than the equivalent of the parts of a TV set in relation to a TV programme: their malfunction will certainly affect the ability of a TV set to play a programme properly. But that doesn’t mean they contain within them all that’s required to produce - or explain scientifically - the programme. The programme comes from outside the TV set through a whole different process. In the same way, then, an animal’s form and behaviour are indeed affected by genetic mutations “but this does not prove that form and behaviour are programmed in the genes.” Instead, “they are inherited by morphic resonance, an invisible influence on the organism from outside it.”

The TV analogy is a powerful illustration of the possible limitations of what can be deduced from mutations; and the positive suggestion of morphic resonance is nothing if not a brave attempt to move the debate forward.

Few scientists - whether through fear or genuine scepticism - have thrown in their lot with morphic resonance. But science needs more thinkers who are prepared to try to figure out the big picture - to combine the findings of astronomy and sub-atomic physics with ordinary human experiences and the cultural and social history of science and religion, and to articulate the assumptions that are so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we can’t easily recognise them.

To speak on these subjects from within the scientific and academic establishment is taboo, as Sheldrake sees it - and is the great achievement of his work. He insists on open-minded thinking and that the study of strange and exotic phenomena is the lifeblood of scientific enterprise. We should thank him for putting up with the raised eyebrows he meets on high table as he tries, almost single-handedly, to nudge the compass of the scientific oil tanker.

For non-scientists, the feeling that big mysteries are still being investigated is reassuring and seems to make sense. Can anyone seriously argue that existing theory doesn’t have problems explaining emergent properties - that reducing systems to their components is a complete explanation?

Rather than Sheldrake’s TV set metaphor, I’d go with something more mechanical: there’s a limit to how much the understanding of how a piano works can provide an account of music.

There’s a message of hope at the heart of Sheldrake’s case. We don’t have to try to explain everything with existing theories - especially when they require bending to breaking point to fit what we see around us. I had the same sense of excitement reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. On a somewhat narrower canvas, Kelly argues that an idea of direction in evolution fits the evidence more convincingly than the conventions of Dawkins’ ‘blind watchmaker’.

Of course, the providing of hope isn’t the right measure of a scientific endeavour. But the sense of new ideas opening fresh possibilities for research and the chance to better integrate theory with observed reality must surely be welcome.

When you have read Sheldrake, you will find yourself coming across things that you can imagine him seizing on as fitting right into his world view: in the Times (2/12/13), there was a great report by Rosemary Bennett about a study to be published in Nature Neuroscience in which the effect of experiences is passed between generations. The offspring of parents taught to fear a certain chemical are found to fear it before having been exposed to it; and their offspring have the same reaction. It's as if Pavlov's dogs passed on their responses genetically.

This work is part of the “quiet scientific revolution” of epigenetics, the new field that explores the inheritance of characteristics based on experience: “what we eat, how much stress we undergo, and what toxins we're exposed to can all alter the genetic legacy we pass on to our children and even grandchildren.” Sheldrake has already described the phenomenon, and offered it as an example of morphic resonance.

Is the tide of research and scientific thinking flowing in his direction?

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Is my new bike rack really going to be relaxative?

My new bike rack has been delivered.

I haven't opened it yet, but when I read the back of the box, I remembered the comments I'd seen on Amazon about its instructions being hard to interpret. 

That seems entirely predictable if they were translated - from Mandarin? - by the person who came up with this piece copywriting for the back of the box: 

I have a feeling I recognise the style of Google Translate. 

After the struggle I'm expecting to fix it together and onto the car, I may be looking for some other relaxative equipment for the weekends. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Gosh, I've got ten overlapping devices

Time was when you watched TV on your television, made phone calls on your phone and used a computer to, well, find out how a computer works and make neat records of your gas bills using your newfound expertise with spreadsheets.

Today, if you stop to think, there is a hugely complex overlapping of functions between the devices we use. I don't think I'm particularly techie, but I was surprised to be able to list ten separate devices which I switch between according to mood and what's appropriate (e.g. not playing Words with Friends on my Kindle on a Monday morning in the office.)

Experimenting with Google Docs' Drawing programme, I have tried to show the similarities and differences between my various gadgets - some limited by technology, others only by habit. I have grouped them under 'computers', 'phones' and 'TV', but the point is that those are pretty artificial distinctions because, if you look at the various capabilities of each, many of them can do the same things: for instance seven out of the ten can connect to the internet and six have internal file storage.

To a large extent, we have moved to a world where, as was being talked about five to ten years ago, content has become operable between devices. For the first time last week, for instance, I watched a whole TV show on my Kindle Fire. It was rather satisfactory, with good sound through the headphones, and a decent picture. It only felt unusual to be able to move the screen around so easily, as one does all the time when reading a book.

It will be interesting to see where this process is going: will the only consideration ultimately be the size of the device, with all devices being capable of much the same functions?

Maybe not: I rather like the fact that my Kindle is more of a receiving that a transmitting device: it's for reading, watching, browsing, even though it could do more if I asked it to. But I don't feel I should be producing stuff when I'm using it - whether emails or documents or even organising photos etc., as I do more on my laptop. So maybe in future devices will appeal to different moods or energy states rather than clustering around functions.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Enrich your life

War and PeaceWar and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Enrich your life with a great book which is also a treat to read. I cannot recommend it too highly.

First of all, Tolstoy's work: it is famously long because it is epic not just in its geographical and historical sweep but, perhaps more importantly, in the distance it covers between the public world of grand political events and the inner world of individual minds and souls. It is as if Tolstoy is trying to capture the essence of human experience by showing how those worlds relate rather than highlighting one at the expense of the other. In the process he gives us an intimacy with all his main characters that allows us to share not just their hopes and fears, but their own puzzlement with the details of experience that people notice but perhaps never mention even to their nearest and dearest. In short, it is fascinatingly real, and, surprisingly to me, had some of the qualities of a good soap opera: you have your favourite characters and storylines which change as events unfold.

Second, the translation: I have tried to read a couple of previous translations, and never got hooked. This one is perfect. The language is elegant without being stuffy, never self-conscious and never trendy. The introduction by the translators helps, showing their passion for what they are doing and their commitment to creating something that somehow sits, as they say, 'between' the original Russian and our English. The physical book itself is beautiful: it's nice to have a design on the hard cover rather than having a paper cover that will soon get worn.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Harvest festival

(A banana helps the tomatoes to ripen apparently I wrote here. Incidentally, good to see that Google ads are on the ball: offering Banana Ripening Rooms as an ad attached to that post.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

How can I get my tomatoes to turn red?

My tomatoes have done very well, producing a healthy looking crop:

But although it's been quite warm and sunny, they've been reluctant to turn red: 

So I was pleased to hear someone on Thought for the Day say that if you put tomatoes in a paper bag with a banana, they'll ripen because the banana gives off ethylene, which is what makes tomatoes turn red. 

I'm not sure what the lesson about life was supposed to be. Maybe something about just because you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket, that doesn't mean you can't put all your tomatoes into a bag, as long as you remember to include a banana.

Well I tried it, with mixed results: one beautifully ripened tomato, one partially ripened, and one that rotted: 

But this was better than leaving them on the window-sill to ripen, which didn't work: 

In fact, there are some more going red quite well outside now, so I'm just going to leave them there unless a frost is forecast, in which case I'll put them into a cardboard box (another idea, off the internet), maybe adding a banana for luck. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My commute along the towpath

This is what one stretch looked like in the misty morning.

And this is what the same place looked like when I came home.

Also on the way there, I saw this view of Chiswick on the north bank. 

On my way home, the sun was setting over Duke's Meadow.

This is Hammersmith Bridge using the clever panorama effect that my phone can do if you move it slowly to the right while the picture is being taken (click the picture to see it at a better size).

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dickens' business epic reports on London and finance - and is strangely familiar

Dombey and SonDombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Dombey and Son is 814 pages in my 1907 Everyman edition. By the time you get to the end, it’s the epic scale that impresses most: the panoramic view of London life and the huge cast of characters, each with their own story, linked together as a seamless whole.

At several points in the last few hundred pages, I thought it could have finished. But Dickens was right: there were more reconciliations required and more justice to be dispensed in order to leave everyone happy, dead, or deservedly miserable.

No scene is short-changed. If the reader occasionally wonders at the length and endless detail, the writer shows no sign of impatience. The plot’s sometime clunky coincidences are more than excused by the way its characters’ actions are fully accounted for by what we already know of them.

The most complex and fascinating character, is Edith, Mr Dombey’s second wife. She is torn between destructive pride, self-interest and a streak of moral purity that’s vital to the plot in letting her heart soften to Dombey’s neglected daughter Florence.

Dombey himself, his English coldness and formality only just concealing a huge self-regard, and Florence, perhaps too much the flawless angel who will put up with anything, are only brought together in his adversity. His tragedy gives a welcome darker note to the conclusion of the story.

But it is in the perfectly realised minor characters that Dickens shows his extraordinary ability to bring a figure to life with one or two deft strokes, whether in their appearance or speech. There’s the self-effacing Mr Toots with his inability to stop adding “it’s of no consequence” to everything he says, and the boastfully plain-spoken Major Bagstock with his constant commentary on himself and his family as “J.B”, “Old Joe” and “the Bagstock breed”.

Mr Dombey is something big in the city but we never find out much - beyond what’s revealed in the full title of the book: ‘Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son, Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation.’ But the workings of the business are nonetheless convincing, and its eventual problems, when it is “urged beyond its strength” are familiar to today’s reader: “undertakings had been entered on to swell the reputation of the house for vast resources.” A negligent proprietor, an over-ambitious manager, a desire to make financial results look good rather than a prudent concern for the future of the business: it’s all there and all could have come from today’s papers.

For the cynical twenty-first century, Dickens’ ‘good’ characters, like Florence, seem the weakest - little more than ciphers, acting out their duty, the happy recipients of the love of those who recognise their purity.

Our reaction is no doubt little more than a reflection of our age. G.K.Chesterton, writing the Introduction to the 1907 edition, reports widespread criticism of Dickens’ aristocrats. It seems to have been the conventional wisdom at the time, at least among the well-heeled, that Dickens “could not describe a gentleman.” Chesterton disagrees, saying that gentlemen simply disliked criticism: “he could not describe a gentleman as gentlemen like to be described.”

Interestingly, Chesterton sees this as only one example of more general reservations about Dickens. He acknowledges a public “who feel that there is about his books something intolerably clumsy or superficial.” Chesterton’s answer is that Dickens is, essentially, a reporter: “all his novels are outgrowths of the original notion of taking notes, splendid and inspired notes, of what happens in the street.”

That makes sense when you remember that so many of Dickens’ early works were called Sketches, and the list of his fiction is interspersed with pure factual reportage from the United States (1842) and Italy (1846).

One of the most ‘Dickensian’ of present day novelists, Tom Wolfe, whose epic A Man in Full is nothing if not a sketch of American society at all levels, is also a former reporter.

That Dombey and Son is part reportage is clear from the vivid description of the despoliation of Camden (originally Camberling Town according to Dickens) by the construction of the railway:

“Here a chaos of carts, overthrown and jumbled together lay topsy-turvey at the bottom of a steep, unnatural hill; there, confused treasures of iron soaked and rusted in something that had accidentally become a pond.”

There’s pages of that kind of thing, proving that if he were around today, Dickens could have written a great colour piece on the impact of Cross-Rail at the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street.

Dombey itself is a towering feat of literary engineering, an Olympic-standard demonstration of construction and control.

Dickens’ peculiar magic is somehow to be able to comment on his characters – with laugher or contempt - while in the very act of describing them. In sharing his emotional response so intimately he makes us feel we are watching at his side rather than facing our story-teller - so much so that we almost believe we should share credit for his creation, simply by virtue of understanding so completely his view of the action he has set before us. It is a remarkable sleight of hand that binds us into the story and makes us co-spectators and sometimes co-conspirators.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

A beautiful day for Barnes Fair

But in Richmond Park, it was too hot to do anything except keep in the shade: 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is this the world's biggest Special K?

UPDATE: apparently not. @MySpecialK_UK has tweeted me a competitor, here: but there's no ruler, and the hand that's holding it could be tiny. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Flights and Fights: Inside the Low Cost Airlines

Hope you might catch my programme on BBC Two tonight: Flights and Fights - 9pm. 

I have written about my experiences making the film here, and there's more background here, and a feature for the BBC News website here.

Here are some of our publicity shots for the film: 

And here's one from behind the scenes: 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Gates' family holiday

Now this is what I call an imaginative family holiday. It comes with the ultimate in classy holiday videos - complete with sophisticated graphics to explain financial points.

Bill and Melinda Gates took "the kids" down the Panama Canal.

Bill had read a history of the Canal before they arrived. And as you can see here, he was allowed to operate the "Windows-based computers" that open the locks.

I'm just sorry the video didn't make use of the palindrome, which would have fitted nicely:

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama

Saturday, June 15, 2013

London bus routes never change

A hundred and thirteen years after this picture was taken the 33 bus still crosses Hammersmith Bridge every ten minutes or so.

The bicycles are probably safer today, but the effect is balanced by having to cycle among more traffic.

It looks like the wooden boards have been covered with sand here. Today, they're covered with tarmac which is alway getting potholed and revealing the boards beneath.

Source: via John on Pinterest

This bridge, completed in 1887, was the second on the site. According to Wikipedia, it cost £82,000 - a great investment, if true.

Here are some pics I took of the bridge one evening, and the flyover which now dominates the Hammersmith side.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

New Heathrow plan: who would suffer from a Stanwell Moor runway?


The plans submitted to the Davies Commission by Heathrow Airport yesterday put the Stanwell Moor runway a little further south than I'd estimated on the map below, but not much. 

If you click on the map for a bigger view, the runway would be just to the left of the words "King George" on the reservoir label on the left side of the map, at Stanwell Moor. 

The incoming flight path would therefore be parallel to my black line, but further south. It would go through the word "Whitton" and would be directly above Richmond Park, crossing the road in the park between Roehampton Gate and Richmond Gate at its most southerly point - in other words, slap bang through the middle of the park.

If you look at the table at the bottom of the BBC's feature on the Heathrow submission, of the three runway options Heathrow discusses, from the point of view of passenger capacity, noise impact and cost, I fear this one must look the best bet to them. 

(The rest of this was posted on June 8:)

Last week the Standard and the Independent ran a story about a new plan for Heathrow - to build a third runway south west of the existing two, near - or possibly instead of - the village of Stanwell Moor.

Understandably, residents were appalled at the idea. And they wouldn't be the only ones affected. 

Most planes at Heathrow land and take off from East to West because of the typical wind direction. That means residents to the East of the runways suffer the most noise. (Taking off, planes can turn much closer to the airport than the distance needed to line up to the runway when landing - so takeoff noise is dispersed over a wider area than landing noise.)

The Standard story noted that "there could be more noise over Feltham, Twickenham, Ham, Richmond Park and Wimbledon Common."

My black line on Google Maps shows where the flightpath would run. Although I'm making a guess about the exact position of the runway, there's not much choice as it would need to be a significant distance south of the existing southern runway, but, presumably north of the reservoir next to the village (click on it to make the map bigger):  

That puts the flightpath straight above the A316 bridge at Richmond, then almost directly above Richmond town centre; a little south of the Upper Richmond Road towards East Sheen; and then just North of Sheen Gate at Richmond Park. 

Bad news, in other words, for anyone living in Richmond, or on the supposedly desirable 'Park side' of the Upper Richmond Road in that stretch.

My line isn't going to be accurate every day (even if I knew the position of the runway) because wind conditions make planes fly in at an angle to the direct flightpath. But the line would certainly cover areas affected by extra noise. 

The only consolation is that according to the most recent report in the Independent, the runway "would be used exclusively by smaller jets – the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 series – which are quieter than wide-bodied aircraft."

Oh, and that it's still just an idea. We know how long it takes to make these things happen. I confidently expect to have been deaf for years before any new runway opens.  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Can British Gas be trusted with gas?

They do complicated things with pipelines and transport explosive stuff through every urban neighbourhood in the country. And yet...

I got two identical letters from British Gas this morning. 

They were apologies. On the recent "personalised tariff comparison" they'd sent me, "unfortunately, due to a technical problem, it didn't include the cheapest tariff available at that time." 

Oh well, these things happen. But thanks for putting it right... 

The letters went on to explain that the new, cheapest tariff is called the Online Variable May 2014 tariff. And "everything you need to know about this tariff is over the page."

I turned the page...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

10 things you might not know about the London Underground

What We Talk about When We Talk about the Tube: The District LineWhat We Talk about When We Talk about the Tube: The District Line by John Lanchester

This is one of a series of short Penguin paperbacks, commissioned to celebrate 150 years of the London Underground. Lanchester was assigned the District LIne, and his elegantly written 87 pages are an engaging mix of the historical, the personal and the journalistic. He books himself a ride with a train driver all the way from Upminster to Richmond and back, a three and half hour trip, noting that the driver's job is so solitary that it makes even being a writer seem sociable.

Here's some of what I learnt:

1. The Tube is properly the name of the lines that were tunnelled - so not the earliest, which used the 'cut and cover' method for those parts near the centre of London where they had to go underground.

2. So "the Tube is a tube, but the Underground is by no means all underground." In fact, only 45% of the whole network is underground, including more than half the stations on the District Line.

3. The various lines were originally run by different companies, often hostile to each other. A ticket for one line could not be used on the others.

4. The District LIne is the only line that crosses the Thames by bridge (at both Kew and Putney). It also goes under a river: the Westbourne (no, I hadn't heard of it either) runs above the platform at Sloane Square station, through a pipe.

5. The driver has to keep a hand on the lever to make the train move, twisting it to a horizontal angle: once let go, it springs back to the vertical and the train stops. This is the famous 'dead man's handle'.

6. Underground drivers are given their work schedule 110 weeks in advance: they know when they'll be on and off shift two years ahead.

7. At its busiest, the Underground network carries more than 600,000 people - more than the population of Glasgow, the fourth biggest city in the UK.

8. The earliest line, the Metropolitan, opened in 1863. This was before electrification, so steam trains went through the tunnels. It was followed by the District (1868) and the Circle (1884).

9. The Paris Metro didn't open until 1900, and was a more centrally planned system, with everywhere in the centre of the city deliberately within range of a station. But London's more chaotic early start kept the city's lead over Paris in population and prosperity.

10. The tunnels in the tube have a diameter of 11 foot 8 and a half inches. There is no room for air conditioning so if the train stops on a hot day, the temperature in the carriages can quickly exceed the 35 degrees Centigrade, which is the legal limit for the transport of livestock. If the train is really stuck, the power in the line will be switched off, the lights in the tunnel switched on and the passengers led to the next station through an opening in the front of the driver's cab.

There's a lot to be said for finding out a bit of basic information about the world that's around you every day. Perhaps earlier generations were more aware of the wonder of the Underground, as we are today with the Internet. Here's a small piece of evidence of that, quoted by Lanchester: T.S.Eliot's acknowledgment of the difference between the tube and the Underground, in his poem East Coker:

Or as, when an underground train, in the tube,
stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades
into silence

The underground, not in the tube: the Central Line on the way to South Ruislip

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The cliché market

What it says on the tin - SELL
How xxxx is that? - SELL
To be honest - SELL
Back in the day - BUY
The clue is in the name - HOLD
One size fits all - SELL
What part of xxxx do you not understand? - BUY
Cherry-pick - SELL
Tell me about it - HOLD
You know what? - SELL
Customer facing - HOLD
Are you OK there? (the new "Can I help you?") - BUY
I'm running late (why does this sound like less of an offence than simply "I'm late"?) - HOLD
Literally - SELL (I heard someone discussing a TV programme: "I was literally glued to the sofa.")
I was like: "...." - HOLD
I'm on it - BUY
...Whatever - HOLD
Not a problem (the new 'no problem') - HOLD
Back in the day - BUY
No pressure then! - SELL (or preferably BURY)

Where are they now:

Know what I mean?
At the end of the day
Going forward
360 degree

Politicians only: 

Hard-working families
Up and down the country
Schools and hospitals
I take the view that...
Aspiration Nation (cp Trident Gum: Mastication for the Nation)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The meaning of life, courtesy of Harvard Business School

How Will You Measure Your Life?How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen

There’s an interesting idea behind this book: a prof from Harvard Business School, having overcome a life-threatening cancer, considers how we would live our lives if we used the business lessons he teaches his high-flying students to apply to companies.

For instance, just as a business often makes the mistake of focusing on the product it could make rather than the needs of its customers, so in our relationships, instead of assuming what selflessness would be for our partner, we need to explore their needs – which may be very different from our assumptions.

Christensen apparently has the perfect marriage, and is a committed Christian - so committed that, as a young man, with great strength of character/bloody-mindedness, he refused to play an important football game on a Sunday, threatening his team’s success in a championship. (The team won anyway: make of that what you will.) This aspect of his life is somewhat unhelpful to his readers, because what he tells us about himself – which is quite a lot – is obviously hugely influenced by his faith in God, rather than in the principles of business.

But there is some real meat here. I liked the idea that a person’s capabilities are the product of their Resources (talents, learning, material goods, time, for instance), Processes (ways of thinking, experience of situations, skills) and Priorities (values, decisions). In providing Resources for our children in the form of special classes and other ‘outsourced’ experiences, are we denying them the ability to develop their own Processes and Priorities through having to organise their own time?

Look at Dell (the computer company), Christensen says: they let Asus grow from their outsourcing manufacturer to becoming their product development centre – until Asus took what they’d learnt and grew their own computer business. So don’t outsource the key capabilities on which the future of your business – or your life – will depend. If parents want to shape their children’s priorities, they need to be there when the kids are developing their Processes and Priorities.

In the end, Christensen’s religious insights – such as how he prayed for an hour every night as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford before dedicating his life to God – rather get in the way. And beside the honesty and openness (including the admission of failures) there is slight but unavoidable smugness. Try this:

“My wife Christine, and I started, when we were newly engaged, with an end goal – a specific family culture – in mind …We wanted our children to love each other and support each other. We decided we wanted our children to have an instinct to obey God. We decided we wanted them to be kind. And finally, we decided we wanted them to love work.”

Although he tries to avoid sounding too preachy by adding that “every family should choose a culture that’s right for them”, that doesn’t quite ring true. If I said, for instance, that I don’t believe that I'll be able to give my children “an instinct to obey God”, wouldn’t that necessarily be a challenge to his values, rather than just another choice?

In the end, this is a book with its heart in the right place, and, what drew me to it, the question ‘how will you measure your life?’ is surely worth thinking about, however much or little of Christensen’s answer you take on board.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

10 things I didn't like about Richard Ford's highly acclaimed Canada

Canada had amazing reviews. That’s why I read it (and because I like Canada). There’s plenty to admire about the book: it has the kind of narrative intensity - particularly at the beginning - that refuses to let you doubt its tightly constructed world. It has precisely-drawn characters, action, atmosphere, period authenticity and a Hemingway-like sparsity of prose – with not a word or phrase that a diligent subeditor could lose.

And if I hadn’t read the reviews, I probably would have appreciated it more. As it was, I kept wondering whether this really was a “masterpiece” (Mail on Sunday) or one of the “first great novels of the 21st Century” (John Banville).

Without wanting to dismiss the good points that reviewers raved about, here’s my list of ten annoying things about Canada. (And if you are planning to read it, you might not want to read on.)

1. Big fat, airport-style paperback from Bloomsbury, weighing a ton, with print too close to the centre of the book, making you choose between strained wrists and breaking the spine of the book.

2. An obsession with smells. Long sections where almost every page includes comments about what people or things smelt like. Just too many “smells”: “I could smell an odor on the man – a meaty smell and a medicine smell at the same time. After he left, I smelled it on our father.”

3. A wrenching transition between the first and second parts of the story, almost as if the first part (203 pages) wasn’t long enough to count as a novel. Maybe I was missing something, but the different world and largely disconnected story in Part Two were an unsatisfactory follow up to the gripping Part One.

4. More on that: each part revolves around a very unlikely crime, the two having no connection. The sheer unlikeliness of the central character being caught up in both stretches credibility to breaking point.

5. Gratuitous incest: an episode in Part One, with apparently no consequences. Also, there’s a male character in Part Two who wears lipstick and rouge. No explanation or effect on anything else.

6. The narrator’s voice: the story is written as the words of a boy. But as it progresses, his increasingly sophisticated commentary on the action begins to be explained as being an account of what happened as recalled in his mature years. Either perspective would work but there are times when we are caught between the two, with naïve voice and mature reflections sitting uneasily together in the same paragraph or sentence.

7. You need to know that a Quonset is a kind of pre-fab military hut.

8. The second crime is even more unlikely than the first: two men, years after a terrorist incident, seek information and perhaps revenge. The subject of their quest, we don’t know how, gets word of their mission, and, for no conceivable reason, confides the details to one of his workers. A cold-blooded murder is performed with no thought for the presumably inevitable consequences. Beautifully described, but does that make up for such a lack of plausibility?

9. Part 3 is a mere 23 pages, and is a look back from what turns out to be the present. It feels more like a ‘where are they now’ footnote than the inevitable end of the narrative. If the movie rights are bought (and I was convinced in Part One that the book is practically a film script already), this final part could be a kind of Life of Pi style framing device in which the incredible tale is told, but in the book, can you really frame from one side only?

10. Acknowledgments. Call me a fusspot, but I don’t like to find them at the end of a novel. Tolstoy managed without them in War and Peace. There’s a sense of self importance here: “certain books and certain writers, in ways both apparent and less obvious, were instrumental in writing Canada.” At least that’s at the end. Do we really need to be warned in a note before Part One, about the liberties Ford has taken with the facts, such as “Highway 32, for instance, was unpaved in 1960, although as I’ve written it, it is paved.” Well thanks for warning me!

But, as I said, all these points might not have struck me if I had been surprised by how good the book is. For instance in the first section, I enjoyed the wonderfully subtle moral drawn about the tiny difference between momentous but socially approved decisions (getting married) and momentous but disastrous ones (robbing a bank). They’re just different examples of how we write the script for our lives without knowing what we’re getting into, Ford seems to suggest.

The narrator is strangely unemotional, through provoking circumstances big and small. But we do feel as though we know him by the end, and that we’ve travelled a long way with him.

I wonder how Canadians feel about being so obviously a metaphor for escape from the more ‘real’ world of the USA?

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 20, 2013