what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Long Live the King!

So the UK now has a new Prime Minister – if one viewed by the world (and most of Britain) as a total – if charming - clownBut this seems to be part of a world-wide trend (eg Italy, US, Ukraine) which has seen celebrities ascend to such heights
Johnson is actually brainer than he lets on – his buffoonery is a carefully cultivated act he has been honing since childhood, when he first realised that it made people laugh and like him. Most men, when appearing on television for example, will comb their hair – Johnson does the opposite, ruffling it to ensure he retains his trademark image of disorganisation…. John Oliver captures this well with this short sequence.
And this extensive article from the LRB places Johnson firmly in the tradition of British satire
Here’s a youtube discussion Boris Johnson took part in a few years back (2016?) with an Oxbridge Professor on the merits of Greeks and Romans - which gives a measure of that bit of the man… 

How did it happen?
Appointed to his position by a curious system created by the Conservative party (some 20 years ago) but used rarely for the appointment of the country’s Prime Minister, Johnson was the clear favourite from the start – but attracted the support of a bare majority of Conservative MPs. And was then subject (along with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt) to a fortnight of debate within the membership (of 160,000) Conservative party members.
From this he emerged last week with the support of 66% of Conservative party members – and was duly anointed by the Queen on Friday.

What did he then do?
Under the (unwritten) UK constitution, this is enough to allow him to appoint a Cabinet – which he duly did over the weekend. 
It’s been called the most right-wing cabinet ever seen in the UK – and it is certainly one being readied for another election in the autumn – only some 2 years after the last one called by his predecessor Theresa May who had inherited a good majority but lost it in that gamble. 

But Johnson and his government are highly vulnerable to any vote of confidence – a bye-election this week could see the government’s theoretical majority reduced to one! And it is clear that there is no majority in the current Parliament for a no-deal Brexit

So now what? The Institute of Government Think Tank has just published a briefing on the issues which confront him and his government. What is very clear is that Theresa May did her best to keep the UK within the ambit of the EU and that we now have a government which is determined to take the country out of Europe "lock, stock and barrel"!

A Pause for reflection
With my usual serendipity, I had plucked a rather worn-looking book from the library over the same weekend – Timothy Garten Ash’sFacts are Subversive- political writing from a decade without a name” (2010) - one of whose essays bears the title “Is Britain European?”, written in 2001) and is one of the best things I have read on the subject, taking me back to the series of posts I did on British (or English) identity I did earlier in the year……This is one of the last of about a dozen posts on the subject I did then……
Garten Ash’s article has also got a great set of references – including the name of a historian I hadn’t heard of Jeremy Black  who has just produced Britain and Europe – a short history (2019)

A lot of us are looking to historians to help us make sense of this moment in the history of a country about which a lot of us grew up being very ambivalent
As a Scot with a Scottish father and English mother - and educated in a state school - I didn’t absorb much English history so come fairly fresh to the stuff flowing from sophisticated English nationalist academics such as this first part of a series which is presumably being written to put Brexit in "proper" context. Jonathan Storey is a retired History Professor (from the Insead Business School in France) and runs a blog which offers thought-provoking views of the UK and Europe - in posts which are even longer than mine! . 

Monday, July 29, 2019

What is wrong with us?

This blog has recorded 1360 posts in the past decade – mostly on serious social matters. One issue has, however, been curiously absent – namely climate change.  There was, admittedly, a brief reference earlier in the year to The Club of Rome’s report - Come On! Capitalism, short-termism, population and the destruction of the planet; (2018) (superbly summarized in this article in the fascinating Cadmus journal).
But it is all of 5 years since I last did an extended post on the issue – when I summarized a great book with the title “Why we Disagree on Climate Change”

A short, vivid article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books had me pulling some books off the shelves and wondering about this gap in the blog’s musings. It starts by recognizing a twofold problem which confronts those who write about climate change –

First, how to overcome readers’ resistance to ever-worsening truths, especially when climate-change denial has turned into a political credo and a highly profitable industry. ….
Second, in view of the breathless pace of new discoveries, publishing can barely keep up. Refined models continually revise earlier predictions of how quickly ice will melt, how fast and high CO2 levels and seas will rise, how much methane will be belched from thawing permafrost, how fiercely storms will blow and fires will burn, how long imperilled species can hang on, and how soon fresh water will run out (even as they try to forecast flooding from excessive rainfall). There’s a real chance that an environmental book will be obsolete by its publication date.

The article looks at two recently-published books on the ecological crisis – the first The Uninhabitable Earth based on an article which had attracted the usual criticism for scaremongering when it appeared in 2017

Its critics have largely been subdued by infernos that have laid waste to huge swaths of California; successive, monstrous hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—that devastated Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico in 2017; serial cyclone bombs exploding in America’s heartland; so-called thousand-year floods that recur every two years; polar ice shelves fracturing; and refugees pouring from desiccated East and North Africa and the Middle East, where temperatures have approached 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and from Central America, where alternating periods of drought and floods have now largely replaced normal rainfall.
“The Uninhabitable Earth” has become a best seller – and taps into the underlying emotion of the day: fear. This book is meant to scare the hell out of us, because the alarm sounded by NASA’s Jim Hansen in his electrifying 1988 congressional testimony on how we’ve trashed the atmosphere still hasn’t sufficiently registered. “More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades,” writes Wallace-Wells, “since Al Gore published his first book on climate.”

How many warnings do we need? It’s 30 years since the American Congress received that warning from James Hansen; and almost 50 years since the Club of Rome’s “The Limits to Growth” explosive report in 1972. I had thought that was the first such warning but a book I’ve just been reading (“The Wizard and the Prophet”) tells me that 1948 saw the publication of no less than 2 prescient books – “Our Plundered Planet” by F Osborn and “Road to Survival” by W Vogt (who figures as the “prophet” in the book (see list below)

Naomi Klein is a well-known Canadian journalist who, like most of us, had tended to hide her head in the sand on this issue – with justifications that equally explain my own blog silence on the issue - that
- it was too complex; 
- others were dealing with it; 
- technical change would sort things out; or 
- a few personal changes in life-style could at least salve the conscience….

In 2009 a chance encounter changed that – and she started to write This Changes Everything which became a bestseller in 2014.  A couple of reviews give excellent and detailed summaries which will help you select the most appropriate part of this rather sprawling book (the link in the title gives the entire text). I had read the book a few years ago but have now gone back to it to read more carefully – along with the second book on the reading list I’ve developed below. 
Hopefully this goes some way to make up for my failure to give this life-and-death issue the priority it warrants…..

Climate Change Resource
TheUninhabitable Earth – life after warming; David Wallace-Wells (2019) This highly readable book from a journalist who has compressed his extensive reading into a series of short, very punchy chapters can be accessed by clicking the title. 

https://www.catherineingram.com/facingextinction/ - written by someone who believes we really are nearing the end... 

Change – why we need a radical turnaround; Graham Maxton (2019). Written to try to persuade the ordinary citizen of the need to take this issue more seriously – and therefore without the copious referencing of an academic book. Would be even better with a few carefully-chosen references..Full access the usual way  

Come On! Capitalism, short-termism, population and the destruction of the planet; Club of Rome (2018). This is the definitive text (in full here) for anyone who wants an up-to-date overview of the point we’ve reached. These are the people who first alerted us in 1972 and were pilloried mercilessly by the corporate elites for their audacity.
The report probably falls into the category of “not give up hope completely” and the technical options described in detail in the last part of the book do give the impression that things might still be fixed….But the politics suggests otherwise  

Drawdown – the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warning; ed Paul Hawken (2017). The title may be a bit over the top but the scale of research undertaken for  a superbly-designed book was impressive 

This Changes Everything – capitalism v the climate Naomi Klein (2014). 
This book by the Canadian journalist is written for those who are already convinced about the need for urgent action. Those new to the issue should first read books such as “The Uninhabitable Earth” and Lynas to get a sense of how bad things are. 
A couple of reviews give excellent and detailed summaries which will help you select the most appropriate part of Klein's book (the link in the title gives the entire text).  The first is here. The second review gives a useful summary of the scientific issues at stake and then of each chapter. Another review gives a more selective summary
Part 1,“Bad Timing,” explores the political context in which the battle against climate change has been fought, and the political dimensions and implications of climate change policy. The “bad timing” she is referring to is the way that the need for collective action on climate change came into public awareness at almost exactly the same time as neoliberalism become the dominant political force on the planet.
Part 2, “Magical Thinking,” explores the various attempts to address climate change that Klein argues haven’t worked: large green groups partnering with big business to find market-based solutions; billionaires and philanthropists attempting to solve the problem on their own terms; and geo-engineering and imagined future technology. This is what Klein refers to as “magical thinking.”
Part 3, “Starting Anyway,” contains six chapters that explore forms of grass-roots resistance to the expansion of the fossil-fuel industry, and community-led solutions to climate change.  

The Wizard and the prophet – science and the future of our planet; Charles Mann (2014)
A detailed study by a journalist of two figures at opposite ends of the climate debate.

The Carbon Crunch; how we’re getting climate change wrong – and how to fix it”; Dieter Helm (2012). This by an economist – and the subtitle is the giveaway to his optimism

Why we Disagree on Climate Change – understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity; Mike Hulme (2009). An environmental scientist Professor takes a rare and deep look into our cultural disagreements – using anthropological insights

 Storms of my Grandchildren – the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity”; James Hansen (2009). A powerful story of how one scientist has tried to warn us

Blessed Unrest - how the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice and beauty to the world; Paul Hawken (2007); Beautifully-written history of the environmental movement, with particular emphasis on the contemporary aspects. Very detailed annex.

Six Degrees – our future on a hotter planet”; Mark Lynas (2007) A detailed examination by an environmental journalist of what happens when the planet heats up – one degree at a time. Bear in mind that our present increase of 1.5 degrees is already causing havoc – and that reputable organisations such as the World Bank predict a 4 degree increase

The revenge of Gaia – why the earth is fighting back – and how we can still save humanity”; James Lovelock (2006). One of our most famous scientists (just turned 100) who coined the Gaia concept

The Carbon War – global warming and the end of the oil era”; Jeremy Leggett (1999) from an entrepreneur and writer passionately committed to alternative energy

Slow Reckoning; the ecology of a divided planet”; Tom Athanasiou (1996) by an activist and writer. Still worth reading 20 years on for the breadth of its references

The End of Nature – humanity, climate change and the natural world”; Bill McKibben (1989). McKibben was one of the early environmental writers – and this is his classic book

Update; https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/the-politics-of-climate-change-is-this-time-different/

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Know Thyself?

When I was working in Central Europe in the early 1990s I used to buy multiple copies of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989) by Stephen Covey in the local language - Hungarian, Slovak and Romanian – since it was about the only book of its sort I knew and respected which had already been translated into these languages and therefore useful as a means of finding some common ground. The principles are - 
- be proactive (don't blame others; take responsibility)
- begin with the end in mind; 
- put first things first; 
- think win/win; 
- seek first to understand - then to be understood; 
- synergise; and, finally 
- "sharpen the saw" - ie keep mentally and physically fit.

I was well aware that, as an American self-help book, it would strike most of my audiences (who had just emerged from communism) as hopelessly optimistic if not naïve - but still felt that some of its messages – eg the one about important change coming from within ourselves rather than thro' manipulation of others – were sufficiently powerful to have a chance of sticking with at least a few people. How naïve I was in those days! Some 20 years on I’ve been looking at the book again - and have to say that it still makes for an important and worthwhile read 

As the new millennium dawned, I started to use a book on “Behaviour in organisations” in my project work – it was indeed only through the Belbin team role test and strategic thinking exercises that I began to understand that we all look at (and think about) the world in different ways. 
Postmodernity tended to pass me by – although I was aware of Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation (1986) and Baumon’s Post Modernity and its discontents (1997)….
Of course, as we get older, we do tend to go beyond systems and look to the personal. As I tried, a couple of decades ago, to repair the huge deficiencies in my understanding of the personal world, I  noted the different ways our behaviour was classified viz -
  • age
  • gender
  • culture
  • psychological type
  • socio-economic position
  • politico religious values
How different writers try to explain our behaviour -
Defining Variable
Classification system
The crude message
The deeper message
1. Age
W. Bridges
Gail Sheehy
Ronnie Lessem
7 stages
4 stages
Young and old inhabit different planets
Each stage of life brings its own crisis – which we should see as a learning opportunity
2. Gender
John Gray
binary! – represented by Venus and Mars planets
Men and women are from different planets
time and effort needed to understand and show respect for others
3. Culture

F Trompenaars
4 - Points of compass

Societies will never understand one another
People from different countries value things differently from us.
4. Psychological


Introvert - extrovert
9 team roles

We have internal dispositions to behave in very different ways.
The world works because each of us can potentially complement the other. We should not try to mould people in our image
5. Socio-economic position
A Maslow

C Handy?
Hierarchy of need (5 levels)

4 organ types
Those with basic needs are selfish and aggressive
Do not expect those poorer and richer than us to see the world the way we do
6. Values
A. Etzioni


R Ingelhart

Theory X and theory Y
World values
Some of us are kinder than others
What we think will work in society depends on the assumptions we make about people
7. Organisational metaphor
Gareth Morgan (Images of Organisation)
9 (unconscious) ways we all think about organisations – like a physical body; brain; prison;
Nothing is real! Everything is in our minds!
What we think will work in an organisation depends on the images we have in our mind

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Human Nature

Human nature is something we talk about as if affected only other people – but not us!
Robert Greene is one of these authors – like Alain de Botton – many people are reluctant to admit to reading. They write well and often thoughtfully – but they’re popular damn it!
You can read Greene for yourself via this post from a couple of years ago about his book on the “48 Laws of Power”.
He does, admittedly, use a basic formulae for all his books – find some historical characters to illustrate your theme; select one incident and/or characteristic; generalize; and draw out some lessons for the reader’s own behavior. In that sense his books can be placed in the “Self-help” category – never a serious one! But they come beautifully designed with red text in the margin summarizing the basic incidents and lessons.

His latest book, The Laws of Human Nature, (he offers 18) notes how often we are disappointed and undermined by the behaviour of colleagues and bosses; offers us early warning signs to identify – as well as tactics for dealing with perverse behavior. It starts with a typical story about Pericles to illustrate a point about irrationality and ends with a couple of important explorations of generational differences and the fear of death which I’ve excluded from this table. And I've now discovered the full book here 

The Behaviour

Historical example
Many people tend to focus on and admire themselves more than others. This hinders their success when interacting with others
You need to transform self-love into empathy. This will make you more successful in your group
Role playing
People tend to wear the mask that shows them in the best possible light. They hide their true personality.

Milton Ericksonan American psychiatrist and psychologist of 20th centurywas paralysed when he was young and became a master reader of people;s body language.
Master the body language by transforming yourself into a superior reader of men and women. At the same time you must learn how to present the best front
Compulsive behavior
People never do something just once. They will inevitably repeat their bad behavior
Train yourself to look deep within people and see their character. Always gravitate toward those who display signs of strength, and avoid the many toxic types out there.
Coco Chanela French fashion designer and business womanbecame so successful by understanding that people desire what they don’t have and creating an air of mystery around her work.
Become an elusive object of desire
People tend to overreact to present circumstances
The South Sea Companya British joint-stock company founded in 1711became known as the South Sea Bubble.
Think both near and long-term future
People don’t like when someone is trying to change their opinion.
Lyndon Johnsonthe 36th president of the United Statesgained his influence and power by focusing on others, letting them do the talking, letting them be the stars of the show.
Soften people’s resistance by confirming their self-opinion.


Self Sabotage
Our attitude determines much of what happens in our life.
Anton Chekhova Russian playwright and short-story writerhad a tough childhood but in spite of that was able to change his life by changing his view of the world from negative to positive.
Change your attitude
People are rarely who they seem to be. Lurking beneath their polite, affable exterior is inevitably a dark, shadow side consisting of insecurities and aggressive, selfish impulses 
Richard Nixon had a positive image in the public. Everything changed after the Watergate scandal which revealed his hidden personality.
Be aware of your dark side
Mary Shelleyauthor of the novel Frankensteinwas betrayed by her close friend who envied her.

Learn to deflect envy by drawing attention away from yourself. Develop your sense of self-worth from internal standards and not incessant comparisons.
Even a small measure of success can give us an unrealistic sense of superiority. This can make us lose contact with reality and make irrational decisions.

Michael Eisner had to resign from the CEO position of The Walt Disney Company. In the author’s opinion the cause is Eisner’s grandiosity elevated by previous successes.

Counteract the pull of grandiosity by maintaining a realistic assessment of yourself and your limits. Tie any feelings of greatness to your work, your achievements, and your contributions to society.
Gender rigidity

Caterina Sforza was a powerful an Italian noblewoman whose masculine qualities helped her to achieve her influence.
You must become aware of lost masculine or feminine traits and slowly reconnect to them, 
People become most successful when they have a sense of purpose in their life
Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience. His calling directed his actions and helped him go through many failures in his life.

In the group setting, we unconsciously imitate what others are saying and doing. We feel different emotions, infected by the group mood. We are more prone to taking risks, to acting irrationally, because everyone else is.
Mao’s Cultural revolution
Gao Yuan tells a story in his book Born Red showed that people in groups behave emotional and excited. They don’t engage in nuanced thinking and deep analysis.

Develop self-awareness and a superior understanding of the changes that occur in us in groups. With such intelligence, we can become superior social actors, able to outwardly fit in and cooperate with others on a high level, while retaining our independence and rationality.
People are always ambivalent about rulers
Elizabeth IQueen of England and Ireland in 16th centuryhad to constantly prove herself as the leader of the country. She never relied on her royal blood for this.

Authority is the delicate art of creating the appearance of power, legitimacy, and fairness while getting people to identify with you as a leader who is in their service. If you want to lead, you must master this art from early on in your life.

John D. RockefellerAmerican oil industry business magnateused aggressive strategies to gain power and control.

The dangerous types depend on making you emotionalafraid, angryand unable to think straight. Do not give them this power. When it comes to your own aggressive energy, learn to tame and channel it for productive purposes

Generational Myopia
You are born into a generation that defines who you are more than you can imagine. Your generation wants to separate itself from the previous one and set a new tone for the world. In the process, it forms certain tastes, values, and ways of thinking that you as an individual internalize. As you get older, these generational values and ideas tend to close you off from other points of view, constraining your mind.
Awareness of this will free your mind from the mental constraints placed on you by your generation, and you will become more of the individual you imagine yourself to be, with all the power that freedom will bring you.

Fear of Death
The inevitability of death should be continually on our minds. Understanding the shortness of life fills us with a sense of purpose and urgency to realize our goals. Training ourselves to confront and accept this reality makes it easier to manage the inevitable setbacks, separations, and crises in life. It gives us a sense of proportion, of what really matters in this brief existence of ours. Most people continually look for ways to separate themselves from others and feel superior. Instead, we must see the mortality in everyone, how it equalizes and connects us all. By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.

By way of comparison here’s a very short little article on “the 10 essential virtues