Archive for the 'diversity' Category

One of the most unanswerable questions you’re likely to be asked in a job interview is “Do you think you’re tough enough to stand up to Piers Morgan?” Unfortunately I’ve had that question put to me.

Several years ago, by dint of having the two words “managing” and “editor” next to one another on my CV, Trinity Mirror called me in to see them in the possibly mistaken belief that I could help dig them out of a very big hole. I was pretty sure I could help in some way, but I think we had a different view of what type of hole they were dealing with. Given Piers Morgan‘s inexorable rise on two continents as the mean-spirited arbiter of folksy talent, might I humbly propose that this is the mother of all interview posers? Top it if you can.

To be sure, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as usual. There was a small coda to this interview conversation which involved another legendary Fleet Street figure: an experience which finally persuaded me it was time to steer a reciprocal course to the one Fleet Street was headed down and, boat-hook in hand, retrieve my bedraggled dignity. As tabloid journalists allegedly say in potentially compromising situations: “I made my excuses and left.”

Rightly or wrongly, and with rare exceptions, my approach to news management had been unusually low-key: a function of personality combined with the demands of real-time, I think.  I was always more interested in process than result. That’s what I offered in that interview, and I suspect that it was mistaken for weakness and (worse still) inexperience, whereas for them it should have represented a diverse perspective. My interviewer, I could tell, was not convinced.

Mercifully one of us escaped. I think it was probably me, though maybe it was Piers. So, in my sotto voce way, this  knackered hack is finally taking a hyper-linked opportunity to stand up to Piers Morgan: something that in real life only a handful of people seem ever to have done, and the Fates denied me the opportunity to chance my arm at.

Morgan was honoured this week with a slot on the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs: the longest-running music programme in the history of radio. It is the mama of all mixtapes: you get to choose the records that define your experience and broadcast them to the nation. Although Bob Geldof famously said that it is only a radio show, I reckon an invitation to appear is greeted by most in the same way as being tapped by Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s birthday honours.

Piers Morgan’s life is a catalogue of rather ghastly errors, none of which seems to have been a setback to his advances to fame and fortune: a modern day Bel Ami, perhaps?  So it seems like a category error for our public service broadcaster to accord him such high-quality attention. But hey, there goes the neighbourhood. For those who want to see if theirs is a match for his musical taste, this link should do it. Me, I’m averting my eyes.

In at least one of those counter-factual universes of infinite mathematical possibility, the Knackered Hack has himself been granted the honour of discussing his own desert island discs before an eager nation. In this same universe, Piers Morgan blogs and nobody reads.

Here’s a small taste of what my list contains. Until a few weeks ago Haydn would not have been on my modest mixtape.  For undisclosable reasons he has now hopped in.  The words, courtesy of the ChoralWiki, are below.  And for those who read me for stuff on decision-making, Haydn seems to have been on to heuristics and biases long before any of us.  You may have to think about this one a little bit.

Insanae et vanae curae invadunt mentes nostras,
saepe furore replent corda, privata spe,
Quid prodest O mortalis conari pro mundanis,
si coelos negligas,
Sunt fausta tibi cuncta, si Deus est pro te.

Vain and raging cares invade our minds,
Madness often fills the heart, robbed of hope,
O mortal man, what does it profit to endeavour at worldly things,
if you should neglect the heavens?
If God is for you, all things are favorable for you.

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As heuristics go, just as the most expensive wine on the wine list is not to be trusted, writers should be given a wide berth if they quote the first lines of books, especially if they are quoting Marx paraphrasing Hegel.

At the start of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, a book which I probably have read in its entirety (but don’t quote me), the bearded one says this:-

Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

IMG_2592.JPG

Chevy Tahoe, first a gas-guzzler, then a hybrid?

I risk getting into even deeper water with the mathematicians for suggesting there is something of the self-similar in Marx’s statement, and then with historians for invoking the idea that history repeats itself.  Perhaps I’d be safe with Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again”.

Yesterday General Motors announced it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  This is on a grand, publicly-listed, credit-fuelled scale (GMs’ annual revenue was $149 billion last year, and it’s lost more than $80 billion in the past four years, its market capitalization collapsing from a surprising $26 billion in October 2007, when the credit crisis was well underway, to next to nothing.)  The German and US governments have intervened to save jobs.

My own experience of Chapter 11 in 2001 was a less remarked upon affair (less than $1billion in revenue).  But at their respective times, within their respective universes, the two Chapter 11 incidents share significance: the words “too big to fail” were uttered in both instances.

There is no shortage of animal spirits evident in either, some interesting uses of expenses, and for those observing closely (perhaps that’s just me in my Chief Brody hat ;-) ) the one may have heralded the other. Did the one in fact scale into the other?  GM is now perhaps the most iconic victim of the credit crunch, which through my long-path-dependent-tinted spectacles was hinted at way back when, in the perennial struggle between debt and equity.

The Chapter 11 that dissolved the news organization I worked for merited very little press comment; ironic  given that 600 global journalism jobs disappeared more or less overnight. Almost without exception those jobs were engaged in purely factual reporting: the scrutinizing of financial markets, banking and economic and monetary policy.  Instructive perhaps, given the current collapse of news businesses the world over, that they were entirely online, publishing by corporate subscription, and over internet protocol for several years already.  They could not be saved because the consensus then was that this market was already oversupplied.  News was a commodity, and only so much was necessary to lubricate the inner workings of global financial markets.

I’ve long since given up the conceit that the factual information output of my professional career met some fundamental human need (except the feeding of my family).  This was a way that I used to comfort myself: as a journalistic form, economic and financial newswire reporting could legitimately claim a fourth-estate function of representing important facts about the world, even if it was bounded in its day-to-day ability to call policy-makers and financiers fully to account.  It was not the sharpest instrument, but it was probably a lot sharper than print journalism which in effect fed off some of its by-products.

I’ve already described how, in my own attempts to refinance this organization — as I moulted my middle-management plumage and temporarily tried on the peacock feathers of the imagined future CEO — I submitted with my colleagues a restructuring that would focus news reporting resources on the growing and mostly under-reported market in credit derivatives.  That market was the one that made sense to my diverse rescue task force: whether their personal focus was Whitehall, currencies, commodities or companies, Essex-boy, anarchist or Etonian.  In retrospect, it is clear that transparency and scrutiny of those complex markets would have been useful in the post-9/11 world.  But in the summer of 2001, investors came there none.  The lesson, as ever, seems to be: if you’re going to fail, fail big. Don’t pin your hopes for rescue on a knackered hack, but a newly minted Barack.

This takes us back to Robert Shiller and George Akerlof’s qualification of capitalism: “It does not automatically produce what people really need; it produces what they think they need, and are willing to pay for.”  Since 2001, it is clear that a great many people, and at the same time too few, thought they needed GM’s Chevy Tahoe SUV.  President Obama agrees that they need more.  Me? I’m not so sure.

Photo credit Chevy Tahoe: anthonares

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toxic waste

12Feb09

Lifeblog post

Anyone who has read Gerd Gigerenzer’s Gut Feelings will recall the description in Chapter 10 of how the pressure to conform creates moral hazard. A powerful heuristic or default seems to operate: “don’t break ranks”. Failure to adhere can result in peer hostility. The experience of Paul Moore in trying to restrain HBOS executives reveals just how powerful and enduring a force that can be, assuming he is an accurate witness to his own experience at the bank. It goes some way to explain how groupthink can operate in the face of compelling contrary evidence. To quote from his memo to Tuesday’s Treasury Select Committee hearing:-

I am still toxic waste now for having spoken out all those years ago!

This might also reflect why today’s FT report leaking of an “independent inquiry” into Paul Moore’s allegations contained the following observations from the HBOS directors of his behaviour. A case of shooting the messenger?

They told KPMG that while Mr Moore’s technical abilities were “recognised as strong” and he gave his team a “strong sense of purpose”, they doubted his ability to work with his colleagues. His behaviour in one meeting was described by people interviewed by KPMG as “ranging from prickly to ranting to extraordinary to outrageous”.

For those not following these events, Moore was the head of Group Regulatory Risk Management for HBOS until 2005. He alleges that he argued with the board that HBOS’s sales culture was running out of control, creating huge risk for the bank should the economy and housing market turn downwards, and that there was a reluctance on the part of executives to have their decisions or behaviour challenged. At the time, HBOS CEO James Crosby dismissed his concerns and terminated his employment. Crosby then moved on to become deputy chairman of the Financial Services Authority. He resigned yesterday morning.

The full text of Moore’s memo is here. For the time being, it may be one of the most readable and historic documents of modern finance. One suspects there will be others.

Well, in his deposition to the Treasury Select Committee Moore mentions it, but I doubt that this five-minute module is mandatory yet at any business school. Let me know if I’m wrong.

Photo credit: Tim Penn

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A recent controversial report from the University of Buckingham found that UK schools specialising in music produce better physics results than those specialising in science. And then education watchdog Ofsted reported that half of the schools it had inspected lacked adequate provision for music education, that music teachers felt marginalized or isolated and did not receive the developmental opportunities they needed.

A couple of years ago Howard Goodall — who in this country is fast becoming to music what David Attenborough is to natural history — was given £10 million to expand the use of singing across the curriculum in primary schools. It was highlighted then that singing could be instrumental in the learning of a variety of subjects but that many teachers lacked confidence to deliver any musical experience at all for their students. A further £40 million or so seems now to have gone into the Sing-Up campaign.

Where teacher confidence is absent, I understand there are cascading techniques to spread music from older to younger children. Perhaps the Sing-Up promotional video hints at that:-

When something’s not working, or some kind of competitive differentiation is needed, there is a strategy (described by Scott Page) called “do the opposite“. So here’s a wild idea. Why don’t we give Howard Goodall the entire national education budget, not just £50 million, and then see what happens? I’d bet things would not get worse. And there’s an outside chance we’d solve many more of our educational difficulties than our current pragmatic approach, in particular the social problems that arise from the inability of barely literate children to take their proper place in an increasingly knowledge-intensive economy.

A whole chapter in a book of knackeredness could be devoted to the brokenness of modern musical experience. Music tends these days to be consumed rather than practised. The neat thing about Sing-Up is that it seems to be using technology to reverse this.

The institutions for participation in music are rightly or wrongly mostly organized by the classical music tradition, because that is where the majority of skills to perform and teach resides. But there exists now a kind of philistinism that has separated this world from the bulk of the population, as parents (and I suspect many teachers) prefer something more familiar and accessible (to them) from the world of pop. But in the past, whether it was colliery bands, or church choirs, quite serious music could be a source of social cohesion and, for the able person, a technology for social mobility.

Teaching children songs is a gift they keep for a lifetime, but the repertoire on offer seems to be diminishing. Sing-Up has its own Song Bank of high quality musical assets, which parents as well as schools can draw on. No matter how much music of whatever genre gets played at home, when a child really learns a song so that they can sing it out loud, and with others,  something more than just notes and words are rehearsed: a whole neurological, physiological and social complex gets activated. (Don’t tell anyone, but computer games, even I suspect Guitar Hero, don’t do that.)

When I was in primary school, the very flamboyant cathedral organist cruised in once a week in his rather incongruous metallic lime green Ford Mustang Mach I complete with thunderous tailpipes. We crowded his arrival, and believed, apocryphally, that this exotic vehicle (for small-town Yorkshire c1972) contained its very own mobile phone. He taught us folk songs from across the centuries, and from a standard school songbook. What a breath of fresh air if every child these days could sing the following paean to human fragility; it was my favourite.You wouldn’t catch a self-respecting pop musician touching that material these days, now would you?

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slow trains

03Feb09

fragment of map, Blandford cropped

1935 Map of the Somerset and Dorset Railway

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Moretehoe
On the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road
No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street
We won’t be meeting again
On the slow train.

I used to live near Blandford Forum, and for the past forty-three years have had some reason to pass through regularly or visit.  My grandmother was born there; my aunt and her husband ran a market garden from Blandford St Mary (it fed the town for two generations at least); my wedding reception was held there. But in the past 12 months it has ceased to be a node in my life.

I remember when they tore up the line, because it ran behind our home (see map).  It was part of the Somerset and Dorset Railway, the “Slow and Dirty” as it was  known colloquially.  I got into trouble for accepting a short ride between Charlton Marshall and Spetisbury from the workmen on their tractor and trailer.  My mother banished me to my room in disgrace, without any tea.  I was only four.

A few weeks ago, when I heard Joe Stilgoe’s version (right mouse-click open in new window, play track) of the Flanders and Swann classic Slow Train, my ears pricked up. This sounded special. The song is about the controversial closure of the local British railway network in the 1960s, of which the S&D formed a resonant part.  Where the original song is light opera, the cover is all cool jazz ballad.  Joe’s management put it up on Myspace especially for us.  Enjoy.

BromptonThere’s an argument — should it become necessary to mobilize a vast army of unemployed — to rebuild the railways.  If I put on my counterfactual-tinted spectacles, this network would never have been closed had the Brompton Folding Bicycle been invented earlier.   And there might not be a huge car industry now to drag us all into an even deeper crisis.  Just a thought.

Photo credit: Brompton Danny McL

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