About Me

My photo
I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Start With Why – How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek (FP: 2009)

I came across the author on YouTube and was honestly impressed. He talked a great deal of sense about organisations and leadership. He was calm, rational, thoughtful and funny. I really liked him. I added this, his first book, to my Amazon Wish List with the idea that I’d pick it up at some point when I was in the market for something a bit different. Some weeks later I noticed that one of our Management Planning Groups were giving them away to anyone who wanted them. How could I resist a free book!

So, somewhat ahead of ‘schedule’ I read it. Surprisingly, especially after enjoying his presentations so much, I was rather disappointed by the whole thing. Despite its short length (only 225 pages) he repeated himself constantly. His real world examples of inspirational leaders (who knew WHY they did what they did) were few – MLK, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the Wright brothers – but used endlessly to get across the same message that he could have probably managed in 100 pages or less: If you know WHY (yes, in capitals throughout the book!) you’re driven to do something and can keep that WHY at the forefront of your every endeavour then people will pick up on this – because they don’t buy what you produce but WHY you produce it – and become ever loyal customers even when some of your stuff honestly isn’t that good. This explains fanatical Apple users and Harley-Davidson fans who tattoo the company’s logo on themselves even if they don’t own one of the bikes. It’s not about buying a product, a commodity, it’s about buying a lifestyle choice, an attitude a way of being…. And that, in effect, was it. Examples abounded of companies who forgot WHY they existed to fight it out in the margins with new features and money back offers, other companies who lost their way (often after the original inventor died or retired) only to get it back later when they returned to their core values. Then there were others business tycoons who seemed to have everything going for them but were beaten by a shoestring operation who knew WHY they did things and the innumerable companies that never took off because they never figured out their WHY!

After a while it did get more that a little tedious. He did have something interesting to say about advertising which I’ve been noticing since reading this – I can now easily spot companies that don’t know and maybe have never known why they’re in business. I suppose that’s something. All in all this was quite a let-down after watching the author be so dynamic on screen. Regretfully disappointing. 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Clever crows reveal 'window into the mind'

By Victoria Gill for BBC News

24 October 2018

Clever, tool-using crows have surprised scientists once again with remarkable problem-solving skills. In a task designed to test their tool-making prowess, New Caledonian crows spontaneously put together two short, combinable sticks to make a longer "fishing rod" to reach a piece of food. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports. Scientists say the demonstration is a "window into how another animals' minds work".

New Caledonian crows are known to spontaneously use tools in the wild. This task, designed by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, and the University of Oxford, presented the birds with a novel problem that they needed to make a new tool in order to solve. It involved a "puzzle box" containing food behind a door that left a narrow gap along the bottom. With the food deep inside the box and only short sticks - too short to reach the food - the crows were left to work out what to do. The sticks were designed to be combinable - one was hollow to allow the other to slot inside. And with no demonstration or help, four out of the eight crows inserted one stick into another and used the resulting longer tool to fish for and extract the food from the box. "They have never seen this compound tool, but somehow they can predict its properties," explained one of the lead researchers, Prof Alex Kacelnik. "So they can predict what something that does not yet exist would do if they made it. Then they can make it and they can use it. That means that the standard idea that animals try everything at random and improve by reinforcement - that's not enough," he added. "The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations, they figured it out by themselves," added Auguste von Bayern, who designed the study.

"To understand how a mind other than ours can work is a major intellectual challenge," said Prof Kacelnik. "On its own it's fascinating." And this study, he added, has reinforced the evidence that the crows have "highly flexible abilities" that allow them to solve novel problems very quickly with tools they have never seen before. The researchers suspect that the crows might do this by envisaging a simulation of the problem in front of them - playing out different actions in their brains until they figure out the solution. Dr Amanda Seed, from the University of St Andrews, described this as a "really striking finding. It raises lots more interesting questions concerning mental simulation abilities in these birds," she told BBC News, "questions we can also ask of apes and young children [to understand more about its evolution]." The problem-solving demonstrations could also help in the development of artificial intelligence in robots - to discover ways to build machines that are also able to reach "autonomous creative solutions" to new problems. "We are [working with engineers] to give robots the same problems we give the birds," said Prof Kacelnik. "Imagine the possibility of building artificial intelligence that can actually want what you are interested in doing, and can achieve it by a means that you haven't thought of before." He cited the example of an earthquake and a robot designed to "want" to rescue people from a collapsed building, having the capability to work out ways to make that happen. "The animals give us the mountain that we have to climb," Prof Kacelnik explained. "We know a task can be done because the animals have shown us that."

[What a brilliant finding. Maybe it’ll finally stop people using ‘bird brain’ in such a pejorative fashion in future. At least some birds are smart – very smart. I always had an admiration for the crow family. I guess that’s been substantiated now!]

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Just Couldn’t Finish Reading: Inventing the Individual – The Origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedentop (FP: 2014)

It would be a poor excuse to say that I bought this book by accident because I didn’t. It is, however, almost possible to say that I bought it under false pretences – except for the giveaway comment right in the middle of the front page: A magnificent work of intellectual, psychological and spiritual history. Yup… spiritual history. That I think should have rung a few alarm bells but, sadly, didn’t.

Now what I expected from this book was a start at the transition from religious to secular society in Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and onwards to the Modern age. Instead the book started its exploration of the rise of the individual with Paul on the road to Damascus and him using his conversion to found the Christian church. I’m actually impressed that I lasted around 160 pages before I gave up. I realised I had another 200 to go and, although the narrative had reached Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire at this point, found that I couldn’t bring myself to turn another page.

The book did have an interesting premise – that the idea of God being interested in individual souls and the idea of individual salvation acted like a corrosive force in the Ancient world to slowly, over the centuries, lay the foundations for the concept of the individual - valued for him/her self, self-acting, self-actuating and ultimately responsible for their own actions. What is more that this concept had a number of unintended consequences that helped shape the modern world we live in. On that level it was indeed all very interesting. It was just the early Church history that just wasn’t me. I don’t think that this was a bad book at all. It was closely argued and seemed to make a lot of sense but it was so outside my knowledge, experience or interest that it simply didn’t interest me enough to finish it. Definitely a book for someone far more interested in the founding and early life of the Christian church – just not for me!   

Monday, October 15, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence (FP: 1928)

It was the War. The damned war that ruined everything. Before Clifford Chatterley returned to the Front in 1917 everything was as it should be. He was young, handsome and with a bright future ahead of him. With a new young wife the Chatterley line was assured for another generation and beyond. But fate it seemed had other ideas. Clifford returned to England a shattered figure, unable to walk ever again and, almost unspoken, unable to have children. The Chatterley’s would effectively die with him. The strain on both Clifford and Constance Chatterley was immense. Both dived into depression and both responded in their own singular way. Clifford became obsessed with his coal mines taking great interest in their operation and their future. Constance took a lover, an Irish playwright, who wanted to marry her and take her away from her dreadful circumstance. She knew it would never have worked and stayed with Clifford. But their childlessness stood between them like a reproach. But then fate entered again in the guise of a returned soldier from India – Mellors who had recently become Clifford Chatterley’s gamekeeper. There was an instant spark between them. But the social gulf was just too great. Even as a casual lover such a thing could never be tolerated. As a surrogate father of the Chatterley line it was unthinkable – or was it? But things are never as simple as they seem and we do things we barely understand ourselves. For what world would ever allow Lady Chatterley and her lover to exist in peace for long?

I did start this classic novel with a fair bit of trepidation. I’d heard so much about it prior to turning the first page that I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t like it and that I would find myself slogging through something approaching an occasionally smutty love story. The introduction (in my 1971 edition) by Richard Hoggart assured me that this wasn’t smutty. So far so good. So I dipped my toe somewhat gingerly in Lawrence’s prose and let myself go. I was honestly surprised at the result. Now being the love story this is, with a somewhat deserved reputation of being a ground-breaking novel, there is a fair amount of sex in it (which I honestly skimmed over in the main) as well as a smattering of ‘F’ bombs and a sprinkling of ‘C’ words that must have been supremely shocking at the time. But, apart from the odd raised eyebrow, this hardly interested me at all. What I found most interesting was the window into late 20’s social culture and references – which the readers of the time did not need explaining – to the political happening of the day: basically industrial unrest and the fear of communism. This is hardly surprising considering that Lawrence would have been writing this in the shadow of the 1926 General Strike. Even more interesting was the attitude to class throughout the book. Clifford was pure upper class who despised the lower orders even when he depended on them. His various physical disabilities were, no doubt, metaphors for the moral and cultural weaknesses of his class. Connie’s sister, Hilda, was ridiculed as someone who spoke up for the working class and publically who praised them but who would never actually condescend to sit down and hold a real conversation with them because it would call into question her inadequate understanding of the working class condition and her beliefs about them. Conversely Connie had a far better understanding of the workers and a real, as opposed to ersatz, sympathy for their plight.

The most interesting character in the whole book, which really surprised me, was Mellors himself. From the bits of the movies I’ve seen he was essentially a stud – a bit of ‘rough’ – to engage with Lady Chatterley and allow her to escape her dreary life with Clifford. There is certainly that element going on in the narrative but there is much more too. Although from solid working class stock – his father being a miner – he won a scholarship to the local Grammar school and read extensively in his spare time. Eventually rejecting his new found life he re-trained as a blacksmith and gained status within his community because of that. Joining the army in WW1 to escape an unhappy marriage he travelled to South Africa and finally to India where we became an officer. Never really fitting into that life he returned to England to discover he no longer fitted in there either and struggled to ‘return to his place’ as Clifford would say. He was a complex, multi-layered and essentially tragic figure who I could help but feel for. Overall, putting aside the sex for a moment, I found this novel to be culturally very interesting indeed. Certainly much more than I thought I would. I’m not sure if I’d rush out to read any more of his works but this outing certainly hasn’t put me off the idea. Recommended but not for the reasons you might expect.   

Saturday, October 13, 2018

US weapons systems can be 'easily hacked'

From The BBC

11 October 2018

Some of the most cutting-edge weapons in the US's military arsenal can be "easily hacked" using "basic tools", a government report has concluded. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found "mission-critical" cyber-vulnerabilities in nearly all weapons systems tested between 2012 and 2017. That includes the newest F-35 jet as well as missile systems. In the report, Pentagon officials said they "believed their systems were secure", NPR reported.

The report's main findings were:

the Pentagon did not change the default passwords on multiple weapons systems - and one changed password was guessed in nine seconds

a team appointed by the GAO was able to easily gain control of one weapons system and watch in real time as the operators responded to the hackers

it took another two-person team only one hour to gain initial access to a weapons system and one day to gain full control

many of the test teams were able to copy, change or delete system data with one team downloading 100 gigabytes of information

The GAO added that the Pentagon "does not know the full scale of its weapons system vulnerabilities".

The Pentagon has not issued a detailed response to the 50-page report but the document quoted officials as saying that some of the security test results "were unrealistic". Ken Munro, an expert at security firm Pen Test Partners, said he was "not at all surprised" by the findings. "It takes a long time to develop a weapons system, often based on iterations of much older systems. As a result, the components and software can be based on very old, vulnerable code. Developers often overlook 'hardening' the security of systems after they've got them operating, with the philosophy, 'it's working, so don't mess with it'. However, that's no excuse. This report shows some very basic security flaws that could easily have been addressed by changing passwords and keeping software up-to-date."

[Sometimes you just have to laugh otherwise you’d spend your life either horrified or in tears. These are highly sophisticated and brutally lethal weapons systems that look to be hacked by a moderately able 8 year old. Billions of dollars are being spent on making us safe – all undone by a kid with a laptop in Pakistan. Brilliant.] 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Just Finished Reading: Lords of Finance – 1929, The Great Depression, and the Bankers who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (FP: 2009)

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 is arguably one of the most important events of the 20th Century and is directly implicated in being one of the sparks that 10 years later led to the Second World War. But it was not a simple collapse of the New York Stock market nor was it a simple financial crisis. With origins dating back to the start of World War One and high level players from around the world in the Bank of England, France, Germany and the Federal Reserve Banks in the US the Crash itself was the result of a myriad of decisions (not all of them bad, short sighted or selfish) taken by the pre-eminent experts of the age. Unfortunately for them and the rest of the world they were in uncharted waters after the financial strains of a World War stretched institutions to breaking point and beyond and succeeded in pushing countries off that great hope for stability – the Gold Standard.

The global financial sector – still somewhat in its infancy – might have stabilised after the war ended in 1918 except for the elephant in the room: Reparations against the Central Powers in particularly Germany. With the US unwilling to ‘write off’ the Allies war debt they could hardly write off Germany’s. Indeed the French had no intention doing so, no matter what. With a broken Germany tottering between being unwilling and unable to pay the debt forced on it by the victorious Allies its economy slumped and then collapsed into hyper-inflation. When rescue plans failed and the currency became worthless the German government hoped to at least restructure if not wipe out it’s yet to be paid reparation bill. Meanwhile the British economy, deep in austerity, limped along with high unemployment and lowered expectations. France, meanwhile, despite its never ending criticism of Germany’s failure to pay damages was doing well and acquiring gold at the expense of other European nations. But gold liked to be one place above all else – the US where gold reserves blossomed and the economy boomed. Month after month the NY Stock Exchange rose to historic levels and kept on rising. Some experts where even predicting a never ending boom period – and an end to the boom and bust cycle. Despite fears that the bubble would eventually burst the US government did too little too late to stop it. Rather inevitably in later 1929 the long expected burst happened with, it seemed at first, little down side except for a few overextended investors who lost everything.

But the market had been so good that almost everyone had a slice of the pie. Unfortunately many had borrowed money in the certain hope of being able to pay it back. Now they couldn’t. At first a few of the smaller banks reported difficulty and some of them were allowed to fail. Loans dried up and investment crashed with the market. Cash poor businesses cut back on investment and laid off workers. Panic spread, production dropped and a sudden hike in interest rates just made it worse. Another bank failed and then another. Massive amounts of money poured out of the banks and under people’s mattresses. Confidence was gone. The ‘Crash’ spread across the country and across the world. Banks in Europe began failing. Governments tried to bail them out but the demand for cash readily outstripped supply. The downward spiral accelerated. Nothing like this had ever been seen before and no one knew what to do. The rules of finance put together over decades no longer seemed to apply. Fear stalked the financial capitals of the world and it seemed that Marx was right after all. The contradictions inherent in the capitalist enterprise where about to kill it.

I am honestly fascinated by the Wall Street Crash. It is such a seminal moment in world history. Until reading this excellent book I thought I had a pretty good handle on it but I was most definitely abused of that notion. Now, after reading this deserved Pulitzer Prize winning history, I understand a great deal more of what happened, why it happened, who was responsible and what happened afterwards. It might sound a bit odd when talking about Economics – even the economics of the 1929 Crash – to call the tale gripping but that’s exactly what this was. Told through the eyes and the actions of the four leading bankers of the age this was a detailed depiction of experts out of their depths, of arrogant assumptions that reality could be bent to the human will, of prejudice against those who are not ‘our sort’ and of intellectual upstarts (like John Maynard Keynes) who were ignored until they could be ignored no longer. If you ever wondered why Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 or about the world’s obsession with gold, or why the dollar is (presently) the world currency or even why the world is the way it is today you could do much worse than reading this great work of financial history. Highly recommended and more Economics to come...               

Monday, October 08, 2018

Snakes & Ladders…

There is much talk presently about Social Mobility and the encouragement thereof. Both sides of the political spectrum speak of it as their most sacred idea – that as many people as possible should be enabled to climb the social ladder for their own good as well as the good of the country. Anything that stands in the way of such things should be removed or reduced to let people’s natural ambition flourish. Underneath it all though is something else. Something rather less noble than simply improving people’s lives.

Social Mobility implies a hierarchy of social levels. It’s not simply an idea of moving from one group to another – separate but equal – but of moving up the social scale or social ladder. It’s what used to be called ‘moving up in the world’. Of course moving ‘up’ implies that higher is naturally better. Seen in Class terms the Working Class (a term you hardly hear these days) is at the bottom, the Middle Class is – the clue is in the term – in the middle and then we have the Upper Class at the top. Now the aim seems for as many people as possible to enter the Middle Class. After all it’s almost impossible to move into the Upper Class unless you marry into it. Likewise those unfortunate enough to be born into the Working Class by an accident of birth are expected to recognise their inferior position and do everything in their power to change their fate by moving up into the Middle – usually through a University education. That is the defining paradigm it seems.

Of course the notion of Social Mobility originated in the Middle Class itself. Naturally those who proposed the idea assumed (without questioning their assumption) that everyone should want to be just like them. They knew that advancement into the Upper Classes was virtually impossible so, they assumed, the Middle Class was where it was ‘at’. Those able enough in the Working Class would inevitably join them and those left in the Lower Orders essentially deserved to be there because of either lack of talent or lack of effort. Those lucky enough to be born into the Middle Class essentially had it made. Although it was at least theoretically possible to fall into the Working Class through bad luck or bad judgement those who fell could simply climb back out suitably energised (AKA frightened) to do better in future. Eventually the Working Class would become a rump of the talentless and feckless who could be marginalised and ignored by the smug Middle. The tiny Upper Class, of course, had already arrived at this opinion.

This idea of Social Mobility is put forward as a more Liberal and Enlightened alternative to the older idea that people are born into and should happily remain ‘in their place’ accepting their fate (often ordained by God). This is why Revolution was looked upon with such horror in the past. Not only was it endangering the Upper Classes and overturning the social order it was going against Gods Plan. It can hardly get worse than that. A successful revolution was clearly the work of Evil Forces which would be, inevitably, overturned by God eventually when people had suffered enough and learnt their lesson. The socially mobile always carry the taint of being previously a member of a lower order. Their speech, clothes and manners highlight where they came from all too recently – hence the effort to ‘speak properly’ and know your etiquette. Etiquette is that wonderful invention for keeping people in their place most especially when they ‘get above their station’: what do you mean you don’t know what spoon to use!?! Social Mobility naturally and inevitably taints a whole Class with being inferior or for missing some vital ingredient for success. Those born into the Working Class may be unfortunate but those who choose to stay there? You have to ask yourself ‘What’s their problem? Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to think.

Now it must be said that I have absolutely no issue with people improving their lot in life. People have every right to be in a better position next year than this one. Likewise it is absolutely to be expected that our children should have better lives than we do. That, I think, is an unarguable given. What gets me though is the idea that by doing so you must inevitably move from one group to anther – inferior to superior – and take on the mind-set and ideological paradigm of the new group (and denigrate where you came from) as part of that move. It is not enough to be designated as Middle Class you must believe you are Middle Class, act like it and internalise the belief system that binds them together. To really be Middle Class you need to reject your Working Class roots and embrace the new reality. Given time your children and especially your children’s children will no longer look back with embarrassment at their origins. They’ll be Middle Class body and soul.

As we approach the middle of the 21st Century the idea of Class – even if hardly talked about in those terms – is still alive and well in this country. It may (slowly) vanish eventually as the traditional Working Class occupations vanish but there will always be those who need to look down on others and there are apparently enough who need to look up to others too. Maybe the Class system is just an historical institutionalisation of humanities natural need for a pecking order writ large? If so it’ll be here forever. Meanwhile I’ll be doing my very best to ignore it where I can and subvert it when I can’t. If nothing else it passes the time….     

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Saturday, October 06, 2018

Even SpongeBob knows............. 

James Bond 'probably' will never be a woman, says producer

From The BBC

6th October 2018

James Bond will "probably" never be played by a female actress, the film series' executive producer has said. Barbara Broccoli, who is in charge of casting 007, told the Guardian: "Bond is male. He's a male character. He was written as a male and I think he'll probably stay as a male. "And that's fine. We don't have to turn male characters into women." Current Bond star Daniel Craig, has suggested the next film, due out in 2020, will be his last as 007. Idris Elba has been one of the actors rumoured to take on the role, after posting a cryptic tweet earlier this year.

While others have wondered whether a woman could be cast in the role. Last year, Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly said "one day there should be a female James Bond". Meanwhile, actresses Gillian Anderson and Vicky McClure have both joked they could be in the running as the next Bond incarnation. Anderson suggested she might rename the character Jane Bond, while McClure said it was "genius" to think of a "Nottingham girl playing Bond".

However, Ms Broccoli, 58, said instead of lobbying for a female James Bond, filmmakers should "create more female characters and make the story fit those female characters". She said the Bond character had "transformed with the times". "I've tried to do my part, and I think particularly with the Daniel [Craig] films, they've become much more current in terms of the way women are viewed." However, she said because the film was written in the 1950s there are "certain things" in the secret agent's DNA that my never change. Ms Broccoli, whose father Albert "Cubby" Broccoli produced many of the Bond films, has previously shown support and mentored women working in the film industry.

She said she would "of course" like to see a female director or screenwriter on the next Bond film. Filming for the next Bond film will begin at Pinewood Studios on 4 March and the film will be released on 14 February, 2020. Last month Cary Joji Fukunaga was named as the director of the next Bond film, replacing British filmmaker Danny Boyle who dropped out because of "creative differences". The most recent Bond film, Spectre, came out in 2015. Previously, actress Rachel Weisz - who is also Craig's wife - said she was not in favour of a female actress playing Bond, because women "should get their own stories". And former Bond girl Halle Berry has also said the role should not be turned female, adding a new Bond character could be created especially for a woman.

[There is a kind of ridiculous idea at the moment of remaking male lead films as female lead films with little or nothing else different. Why this is the fashion of the moment is beyond me – rather like the idea of remaking a foreign language film as an English language film word for word. What’s the point really? Women should not simply imitate men at the box office. Women are more than capable of making their own mark and treading – indeed blazing - their own path. Don’t copy, do something original, something new, something different. There are plenty of ideas out there that can be made into movies with great female leads. Go make them.]