Showing posts from June, 2020

95. Smart working, no longer a choice?

I attended a talk on smart working in the last few days. Smart working is the concept of working from anywhere, at any time, based on the fact that you have some objectives to achieve and what your employer cares about is that they are indeed achieved. You have no timetable, no fixed place of work, although you do have an office you can go to, to meet any other team members who happen to be there, when you feel like it. The system is based on a mixture of good documentation of objectives and attainment and on trust. The latter is the key and the challenge. Many traditional employers may struggle with this, concerned as they are with counting bums on seats and seeing employees appearing to work, to assuage their doubts. Alas, once companies start smart working, other employers will have no choice but to follow suit. They will otherwise be incapable to attract talent, imposing unnecessary commuting and irrelevant geographical and time restrictions on employees when others don’t Length: 9

94. San Francisco, city by the Bay

A Twitter thread by Martin Varsavsky some days ago compared San Francisco with Spain in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Spain comes off better because of its welfare state, public education, public healthcare, etc. The first thing about San Francisco which he mentions in the thread, and I agree is the most striking, is the staggering amount of homeless people you see everywhere. San Francisco is the 8 th city in the World by number of millionaires and the 3 rd by number of billionaires and it is a paragon these days of entrepreneurial success. It also has 70,000 homeless in a total population of under a million. This is staggering and it is difficult to reconcile both statistics. We are becoming more individualistic by adopting, inadvertently, the way of life proposed by neoliberalism (liberalism is a misnomer, even a red herring, I rather call them neocons). If we don’t change our ways, slowly but surely San Francisco will become the global norm rather than a shocking excep

93. Homelessness, a needless tragedy

The UK has 320,000 homeless people, according to latest Shelter numbers. I had to double take when I saw that statistic. This is 1 in 200. Yet another European statistic the UK leads handsomely, although of course, in this particular case that adverb could not be more misleading. It is a huge social problem, and one that only exists because the fifth richest country in the World has no will to solve it. Many of the World’s billionaires live in London, untaxed. Many corporate financial behemoths are based in London, paying little tax, if any. A small percentage of this wealth, directed to homelessness, would eradicate it, without downsides to the UK population and bringing huge improvements not only to the lives of the 320,000, but to all of us who share (or not, as the case may be) our society with them. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve seen that number quoted anywhere in the media. Yet another silent social problem in UK, another area in which it is diverging from the rest of Europe

92. Truth is tricky

Politicians lie to us. I think I am not shocking or offending anyone by making this statement. Not all the time, but when it suits them. At some point a few years ago, I had this plan of performing an experiment by running for political office and saying the truth, plain, simple and unadorned, every single time. This would of course be my truth, with all its misconceptions and biases, which is already a problem, but I will write about that another time, humour me. I was in no doubt that initially, this would be disastrous, and my popularity would sink to depths not seen since the worst days of Michael Foot. But maybe, when the electorate realised what I was doing, it would eventually soar. Surely, an honest politician would be hugely electable? But I may be wrong. I have observed that many people, most, lie to themselves frequently too. We like some truths, but not others. Honesty could be catastrophic. As an electorate, we may be getting, with our politicians, exactly what we want Len

91. Can GDP continue to be our measure for economic success?

The economic system we’ve built relies on growing consumption to function. Endlessly Rising GDP is a requirement, one that can only be met by a relentless increase in the purchase of goods and services by the population. This is aided by population growth, and even more by slow but steady increases in the standard of living of consumers in developing countries. Africa’s development, combined with its predicted large increase in population, up to 2 billion people by 2050, will be the next growth engine. But It cannot last forever. Global population will plateau at 11 Bn, and there is only so much appetite normal consumers can have for buying things they don’t need and rarely use or engaging with useless services. Resources are scarce and there is a limit to what we can make. We therefore need a new way to measure success, or we will eventually fail consistently. A worrying observation is that no currently credible political option challenges the dominance of GDP as a society’s yardstick

90. Predicting the future

Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game. Not my original thought, though I agree. I am quoting the late, great – not only in terms of physical size – Douglas Adams. Just read ‘The Experts Speak’ by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky for ample proof. But in ‘The Future of Humanity’, Michio Kaku conjures up a beautiful, exciting and, in many cases, credible picture of where humanity’s technological progress may take us. Kaku’s device is to not issue predictions, but to explain what it would take, from a technological and scientific development perspective, to achieve feats that still sound completely farfetched to most of the public. And just to occasionally venture a very rough estimation of when each of these may be achieved. The result is erudite, informative, at times exhilarating and continuously inspiring. It is awe inspiring (sic) to watch someone make some of the most intellectually challenging disciplines we as a species grapple with so accessible, understandable and fun L

89. The obvious cure to the unemployment disease

As we are being hit by another recession, the scourge of unemployment looms large. For some countries, such as Spain, it is endemic, we coexist with high structural unemployment, oscillating between 10% and as high as 27% depending on the point of the economic cycle, and hitting particularly the young at a time when they should be building the foundations of their life. The cause is simple, there is not enough activity to create enough jobs. The solution is also simple. A 4 day working week would spread the same activity amongst 20% more workers, eliminating the problem. And there would be other benefits, such as better work-life balance and increases in productivity and demand, as the longer weekend break would result in a more energetic workforce with more time to consume the goods and services produced. Henry Ford introduced the 5 day week in his factories knowing that workers on a 7 day week would not buy a car, as they could not enjoy it. It is high time we take a leaf off his boo

88. Experts and pundits

It is fair to say that experts have had a hard XXI century. Vilified for their failures during the 2008 recession, attacked by populist politicians peddling magic potions to remedy society’s ills and ignored by the general public. Being an expert is tough. If your advice fails to predict a crisis, this is obvious to everyone. If it succeeds, the opposite is not true, nobody sees the alternative World that would have resulted from the lack of expert warning. In most cases, experts work quietly, serving society or their masters, getting it right, which is the norm. Errors stand out as they are infrequent and therefore weigh more in the public consciousness. Nowadays, to add to confusion, pundits get given the same podium and asked the same questions even though they have no expertise or qualification to answer them. The public often confuses both. We expect experts to be perfect, unfailing, which is unreasonable, whilst we forgive pundits and populist politicians, as a society, everythin

87. The days when businesses were about making a good living, not about making a fortune

There is a shop in Hereford, UK, called Fodder. It markets itself, if at all, as a sustainable, eco-friendly food shop. Refillable cleaning products, locally sourced organic veg, fruit and eggs, an amazing range of grains and pulses in refillable bags, locally made bread as well as a great choice of high quality comfort foods. You get the idea. It’s tiny but incredibly well stocked. I can do my whole shopping in it but for fish and meat. They even had toilet paper every day of the lockdown. Because they don’t much advertise themselves and most people don’t know they are there. They have a great concept and no apparent interest to grow it or franchise it to achieve massive wealth. They remind me of my childhood, when shops and restaurants were individual, family run, had their character and were not about becoming rich, but about making a decent living as part of a community. Do I miss that because age begets melancholy, or because it is so much better than the Tescos and B&Qs of to

86. The Marmite phenomenon

I have written a couple of times already on Twitteretter about the strange phenomenon which drove many in the UK, at the start of lockdown, to accumulate unreasonable supplies of toilet paper, pasta or flour. This behaviour is, first of all, selfish. But it is also downright weird, revealing strange fears. However, we should not be surprised by this reaction by the Brits. We are, after all, talking about a nation whose people have, for many years, packed items such as Marmite and teabags when travelling on holiday to even nearby destinations. It seems that irrational lack of supply fear is a national trait. The unsettling panic of having to spend a day of the holidays trying local breakfast fair (such as, for example, delicious freshly ground coffee and exquisite Iberico ham on a bed of fresh bread toast with fresh tomato spread) must no doubt be related to the panic of having to use water to wash your rear end. The British spirit is assuaged by the most unlikely comforts Length: 986 c

85. Local businesses. Do we need them? Do we want them?

I have written already, in post 34, about the ‘Todos tus libros’ platform, which aims to help local Spanish bookshops survive financially during the lockdown. And there are others helping different businesses, such as ‘Cuando volvamos’, much more global. I’m not aware of the same in UK, which is material for another post, but I may have just missed them. But do we really need to save local businesses? Are they important? This I guess depends on how you understand them. Most consumers see them as a means to buy goods and, therefore, fully replaceable by global behemoths with optimised distribution networks which can deliver the same goods to your door. But surely they are more. They are local employers. Maybe local outlets too for local producers (of food, art, toys, whatever). They can be local meeting places, where you bump into those people who it is nice to occasionally bump into and have a chat. Even shelter from the rain when out in town. What are they for you? Do we keep them? Le

84. Modern myths, efficient markets

Markets are efficient and perfect. They find equilibrium if left bereft of regulation. They are the most effective method to optimise outcomes. I miss the times when legends and myths were about Greek gods, romantic vampires and universal floods. They may not have been accurate, but at least they were beautiful and conjured up the imagination. Our modern liberal markets myth is nearly as inaccurate and much more prosaic. The pandemic crisis is showing, some say, that regulation is needed as markets break when an unexpected catastrophe happens, and hence the PPE or ventilator crisis. But this implies that, in the absence of catastrophe, markets work. It ignores the over 1 billion people living in abject poverty, the 600 million who will suffer diabetes by 2050, the unprecedented destruction of habitats and the impending climate change catastrophe. If we need regulation in times of crisis, then we need it all the time. A silent crisis is not in-your-face obvious, but it is a crisis Lengt

83. The art of not being average

 I went for a bike ride today, taking advantage of the modicum of freedom afforded to UK residents by the once a day exercise allowance during current lockdown. On the way back home, I overtook a runner who was wearing a t-shirt with a big lettered slogan on the back. It read: ‘Fuck average’. First of all, let me say, the language is inappropriate, unnecessary and disrespectful of the interest of minors who may be old enough to read but not yet old enough to use such language, and who share the street with this t-shirt wearer. But what is even more striking is the irony. Is there anything more average these days than wearing this kind of t-shirt? It may have worked in the 60s, but today, it pretty much defines you as average. If you don’t want to be average, read the classics, write poetry, fight (I mean really fight) climate change, help the poor, be politically active, think before retweeting or watch some Stanley Kubrick or Coppola movies. Whatever you do, don’t climb Everest, thoug

82. Shared tribal myths

Social events have the potential to leave the observer dumbfounded and shocked. Brexit had that effect for me, as did the election of Donald Trump, a professional liar, in the US. Today, it is the inhabitants of the Barrio de Salamanca, the poshest and most rancid area of Madrid, demonstrating against the lockdown or, more accurately, the socialist government. How can these people have views so diametrically different to mine? The reason is history revisionism. We all believe we know history, that history is factual, imperturbable and singular. This is not the case. Our histories are very different. These groups are brought together by shared tribal myths, legends which are so different to those I have believed that we could never share a World view. Their myths and legends (for this is what revised history is) tell a completely different story to mine. Grievance where I see justice. Victory where I see defeat. Other nations and tribes are brought together by lies different to our own

81. Did Trump voters already exist in the XIII century?

A tweet just reminded me of a great quote: ‘You can beat 40 scholars with 1 fact, but you cannot beat 1 idiot with 40 facts’. It is attributed to Mevlana Rumi, the XIII century Persian poet and Islamic scholar. It seems the problem that so much preoccupies us today, the fact that many in the voting ranks choose to ignore fact and base opinions and votes on unsubstantiated slogans, was already an issue 800 years ago. Despite this persistent malaise, we are still here and generally making progress. This is a hopeful thought. The concerning flipside of the coin is that nowadays idiots can have much graver impact. The denial of fact, be it creationism, climate change denial, ignoring pandemic threats or fostering unregulated markets despite ample evidence that they don’t work for most citizens are not new. The consequences, given our population growth and the evolution of our technologies, may be. The more powerful we become, the more important facts are and the more expensive idiots can b

80. The Good Ancestor

This is a very interesting concept presented by Roman Krznaric at Hay Festival a few days ago. The idea is simple. When making decisions, we need to not only think about our interest in the immediate future, but also about the interest of those who will follow us, our descendants. Many of the decisions we make today will impact them heavily, more heavily than they will do us (think climate change, or biodiversity destruction, for example). But they have no representation in the decision process, they aren’t here to defend their interest, to have a voice. There are a number of initiatives that can be undertaken to ensure their interest is respected, such as having Ministers, or representatives, of future generations included into our political process. We will, after all, when we are gone, be judged by what we left behind and, as a generation, our record is beyond disappointing. This is something we can still fix, if we tackle decision making with the Good Ancestor principle in mind  Le

79. New challenges, and opportunities

The coronavirus pandemic has brought about the extended use of different kinds of disposable facemasks, anywhere except the UK, where the government is suggesting the use of face coverings which, as the WHO tells us, do not protect the wearers or those around them. So, facemasks are helping us control the pandemic, but they are giving us a new problem, we are now adding these products, in large quantities, to the waste that we already generate and we don’t know what to do with. The problem should not be exaggerated, after a few quick calculations I have concluded that facemasks add around 2% to the volume of waste generated in my household, but still, it is significant. Facemasks seem eminently recyclable, which would not only prevent additional waste, but further agricultural exploitation to produce the materials. They have become an everyday product overnight and we must use them sustainably. A recycling process with a high recovery yield should appear soon, or does it exist already?

78. The demise of Desert Island

There was once upon a time a radio programme called Desert Island. I think it may have preceded Desert Island Discs. Its construct was to invite a famous or popular person, often from the arts, but also from other paths of public life, and ask what they would choose to take with them if they had to go to a desert island. I think it was 3 things. This allowed the guests to talk passionately about their favourite books, artworks, music, etc., and allowed the audience to learn interesting things and get to know this personality better. It was a good program and its narrative device really worked. I wonder how far it would have got if every second guest had chosen toilet paper, pasta and flour, which, in the light of stock shortages during coronavirus lockdown, are the favourite things for most humans. How long can you wax lyrical about each of these objects whilst still hoping to keep your audience entertained? John Cleese or Douglas Adams may have made a go of it, but not many others Len

77. Coronavirus is contagious, but what about solidarity?

In post 63, I saluted the EU Commission’s recovery plan, which at first sight addresses many of the problems which arose after the 2008 recession and brings solidarity back to the heart of the EU project. This plan still has treacherous waters to navigate, but its proposal by the Commission is already a great step. Many would benefit from its solidarity, if finally approved. What remains to be seen is whether those beneficiaries will, in turn, understand the value of solidarity and show it to those others that need it. Anyone keeping a cursory eye on the news will be aware of challenges posed in Southern Europe by illegal immigration and by inequality. The moral imperative in those countries receiving support from this recovery fund would be to, in turn, offer support and change attitudes towards those less fortunate. I am not holding my breath as that may be unsafe, but we may be surprised and see these winds of change sweep across Europe. Solidarity and kindness can be strong forces

76. Fake news and lies

I have been having some discussions, in the last few days, about political fake news and lies or misrepresentations by politicians. Both of these are quite frequent and, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, for example, we are being exposed to our fair share. Of course, this is not exclusive to the pandemic, the same happened with Brexit, and just wait for the next US presidential election. Are they the same? What is the difference? Accountability. When a politician lies or misrepresents, for example dressing up the successful handling of the pandemic or covering up PPE availability problems, facts can be checked, the lie challenged and the politician made accountable (in a hypothetical World where electorates still care about honesty and truth). Fake news are insidious because of the lack of accountability. Their origin is unknown, they are spread by a combination of bots, gullible members of the public and desperate presidents and therefore there is no accountability Length: 987 c

75. The positive effects of lockdown keep on coming

I’ve already written about positive effects of lockdown in several previous posts. This doesn’t mean I regard it as positive, but all cloud has a silver lining, as the saying goes. In the last few days, I have noticed yet another one. As a result of lockdown, presential meetings are not possible in many institutions which conduct their business that way. One of these is the EU. The consequence, in this case, is that, as presential meetings are not possible, decision makers negotiate and discuss on a daily basis, whilst in normal times they would have waited for their next big scheduled summit, in which they then would frequently run out of time to reach agreement, as starting positions would be too disparate. Not so nowadays. Online meetings progress faster, without procrastination for the preferred face to face. The result? A huge, ambitious and strategic Recovery Fund, of unprecedented proportions, delivered and agreed in record time. Some processes gain productivity through lockdown

74. Solidarity, where are thou?

Remember the word? Not a Polish trade union operating in the 80s, but a value that has been at the core of communities for centuries. I rarely see it printed, or hear it, these days. The coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences will really test our appetite for it as a society. Many will suffer financially, both at personal and national level. The richer will manage contention measures better and recover quicker, the poorer will suffer most. We will be called upon to help others who are worse off than we are, at a time when we feel we are struggling. Our response will define the society we’ll exit into. It is a deceiving crossroads, where short term considerations could take us down the wrong fork. To the left (intentional) a more equal, more united World, better ready for the next crisis. To the right, an archipelago of wealthy islands in the midst of an ocean of destitution. Islands can be beautiful, but they are unsustainable when, in the long term, a tsunami is guaranteed

73. When our generation discovered uncertainty

Most humans hate uncertainty. It unsettles us. We live our day to day with an illusion of certainty. This has been destroyed by coronavirus. We know very little about this illness yet, and this is a feeling we are not used to. This does not apply to scientists and entrepreneurs, who thrive, survive and toil in an uncertain World. But for others, this is upsetting. How can we not know yet whether we will develop immunity if we are infected, or when a vaccine may be available? Why can politicians not tell us when lockdown will end? We lash out in fury at government. In fact, your life is uncertain. As an individual, a thousand things you do not think of could destroy your life today. An accident. An attack by a crazed armed terrorist. A heart attack or a serious case of the flu. This is just very unlikely to happen, but it will happen to many people today. We choose to ignore this and keep an illusion of certainty. With coronavirus, for the first time, we cannot get away with this Length

72. Christianity's R0 number and the Roman attempt to flatten the curve

It’s interesting to draw similes between history events which may, at first sight, look very different, but may also have extremely informative and curious commonalities. The coronavirus pandemic has given us some clues as to how important ideas may be spread in the World, raising hopes that we can, even as individuals, increase our impact on global problems such as inequality or global warming. After all, patient 1 managed to start a pandemic. I’ll write about this separately, but this thought led me to the simile between early Christianity and coronavirus. As an ideology, early Christianity was thought highly dangerous by the roman establishment and had an R>1. The Romans tried to flatten the curve, their version of ‘Stay at home, save the NHS’ was ‘Crucify Christians, save the status quo’ (methodology was more brutal in those days). Alas, the attempt to flatten the curve eventually failed, there were several waves and, when emperor Constantine contracted Christianity, the game wa

71. The age old fight between emotions and rationality

A petition was started, a few days ago, to see Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s closest advisor in the UK government, fired for flouting lockdown rules. It reached nearly a million signatures in 3 days. This is staggering for something not that important, particularly when you consider that petitions relating to much more globally important issues such as climate change action languish on much lower numbers. The secret to the success of the Cummings petition is that it is driven by anger and hate, the two strongest emotions driving human decisions, as the Brexit vote and the elections of Trump and Bolsonaro taught us. Cummings is easy to hate, arrogant, aloof and weird looking. And so the petition rides on. We need to change focus from these basic feelings to hope, aspiration and rational self preservation, to devote energy to important issues. An eventual Cummings sacking would satisfy petitioners, but would make no real difference, not even to his influence over the Prime Minister L

70. Calling me a coronavirus survivor is most likely overegging

I am struck, in the coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, by one unusual description. Those who have had the illness and recovered are called coronavirus survivors. This in my mind is an overdramatization, and I think I can say this as I did have coronavirus. Survivor is a word typically used when people overcome an event, illness or otherwise, which has a high likelihood of killing them. Those who made it through Nazi concentration camps and came out alive are survivors, those who made it through the II WW at home are not. I have, as most of us have, had over the years several flus, one case of mums, one pneumonia as well as a few other illnesses I cannot even remember, and I am not normally referred to as a survivor of any of them. Coronavirus is not different. Healthcare professionals are heroes, recovered patients are survivors and I guess hospitals are battlegrounds. This rhetoric may raise morale and align efforts, but it also shows the great majority of us have not been in a war

69. The cathartic positive impact of the coronavirus pandemic

Evolution and progress are often presented, when graphed, as a continuum, a straight upward slope. This is an oversimplification, as most history is. They are better depicted as a sloping saw edge, with fast change peaks inserted into longer, nearly flat periods. Fast progress tends to be the result of the catharses that follow catastrophes. Technological progress has been mostly driven by war or scarcity. Social progress, by famine or unbearable inequality. Today’s pandemic could have similar aftershocks. The first obvious effect of the lockdown is the incorporation to the digital world of most of those who had so far shunned it. Old Age Pensioners joining web meetings, Zooming and Skyping to keep in touch. Vaccination, virus detection and disinfection technologies are progressing at breakneck speed. Companies are replacing business travel with web meetings, improving efficiencies and finally adopting flexible working. Humans don’t change willingly, nature oftentimes has to coerce us

68. The Belarussian experiment

Most countries in the World have been fairly orthodox in their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Not surprising, as one expects epidemiology experts to issue similar guidance independently of nationality, and sensible governments to follow it. The downside of such cohesive response is that we have to rely on experts to tell us what might have happened should we not have responded. And we all know how much credence many in our populations give expert opinion these days. However, one government has stepped up to the breach, risking the wellbeing of its people to provide such valuable experimental benchmark. Belarus. Whilst the rest of the World locks itself down at home, the Belarusians congregate in the streets, in the height of the pandemic, to watch thousands of soldiers marching through their cities. This is irresponsible and highly dangerous for their people. It will, however, provide a benchmark for the rest of the World of what the pandemic might behave like without lockdown