Archive for the 'latent talent' Category

So, I was fretting about underdogs in the last post. This past weekend, the Sunday Times Magazine ran a long interview with Nassim Taleb in which he was described as “now the hottest thinker in the world”, charging up to $60,000 per speaking engagement, with the great and good beating a path to his door — from the world’s leading banks to NASA.

Interestingly, the interview by Bryan Appleyard included lunch and, naturally, had Nassim following Art De Vany‘s dietary prescriptions of evolutionary fitness. Well, some of my most loyal readers will have heard it here first.

For other reasons (and by accident) I found an old email pitch yesterday that I made in 2003 to a magazine on corporate governance; let’s say this was during my ugly duckling phase:-

Also, I have an interview idea which you might be interested in. Have you heard of a book Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb–a maths professor and hedge fund trader from the US? He is in town in a few weeks and I thought I might try and get a hold of him. Although his background is in quantitative trading, he has some interesting things to say about luck and probability in a business context, and it has struck me that this could provide some interesting reflections from a corporate governance point of view. The underlying theme would be that over-remunerating senior executives is even more hazardous than we think if both success and failure may owe more to luck than judgement, backed up by a good dose of sound mathematics of course.

Let me know if you think it a bit too outlandish. My owns sense is that Taleb and others are leading market thinkers and their ideas will permeate downwards in due course.

I didn’t get a commission.

Back in those days, even though Fooled By Randomness was a bestseller, you could still turn up at the now-disappeared Financial World Bookshop in Bishopsgate and hear Taleb talk for nothing to a small and select audience of besuited quants and the odd unshaven, head-scratching scribe. And you try and tell that to the young people of today — will they believe you? No.

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A few weeks ago, at an EBDM seminar at the London Business School, happiness economist Bruno Frey put up a slide entitled:-

Television weakens the will of active people.

I know that feeling. Professor Frey does without television completely, from what he said, as a route to optimising his own happiness function.

I asked Professor Frey if any similar research has been conducted in relation to the internet: as to whether the internet might do the opposite. He was not aware of any. It’s hard to tell from personal experience; I’m still in the process of evaluating whether or not extensive interaction on the internet is a time-sink or a route to more expansive individual productivity. No doubt there is an optimum balance, and discovering it may be more a matter of luck than judgement. The galloping growth of social media is frequently disdained by professionals in the mainstream media; the glib response, shared by a good number of ordinary friends and acquaintances, is that these social media types (to which I now increasingly actively belong) need to get a life.

But a couple of weeks ago I interviewed Matt Mason whose book The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Hackers, Punk Capitalists, Graffiti Millionaires and Other Youth Movements Are Remixing Our Culture and Changing Our World (Allen Lane/Penguin) I’ll be reviewing sometime this week, alongside some interview snippets. You can get hold of the US version here. Matt recommended a new book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (Allen Lane/Penguin) (US version available here) by Clay Shirky.

From the following video, it’s clear why Matt is recommending Clay’s work. Clay quantifies rather neatly in an historical context what is going on in terms of shifting patterns of behaviour, and why Wikipedia is so important to understand in a more positive light than many do. Above all, in a very amusing way, he highlights why the old-media perception of this phenomenon is so often wildly misconceived in terms of how attention is distributed these days. Of course, what Clay does not highlight is the malign possibilities of this cognitive surplus combining in the wrong way.

Thanks to Dave Morin for the pointer.

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With it’s playful green and red cartoon dust jacket, Ed Smith‘s What Sport Tells Us About Life: Bradman’s Average, Zidane’s Kiss and Other Sporting Lessons (Penguin Books, £14.99) could easily be taken for a belated Christmas stocking-filler, destined for a long stay in the bathroom’s literature section. But it deserves to be taken seriously. As the inside cover says:

Sport is a condensed version of life — only it matters less and comes up with better statistics.”

I realised this myself some time ago, and periodically spend more time following sports science than business and finance. And it was one of the thematic reasons for starting the Knackered Hack in the first place, to explore what could be learned from sport in general and my own participation in it in particular, without being glib. The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions…

Smith, who is captain of Middlesex County Cricket Club, offers up sport as an under-used analytical resource from which can be drawn a number of intellectual and practical lessons about education, business, politics, the study of history, etc. The book takes the form of a series of essays, each kicking off from one sporting theme and following where any beam of light is usefully shed.

Smith takes in some of the old chestnuts such as: are our sporting heroes what they used to be? (the golden age hypothesis says no) or are our sportsmen and women getting perpetually better? (evolutionary theory says yes); is sport too commercial? — you’ve heard these discussed in the pub no doubt. He also covers some remarkable new ground for me, making some startling and insightful connections.

Before we get into cricket v baseball, as Smith himself explores, know that Smith understands both games well, and bigs up baseball as a crucible for pithy life observation, just as obsessive fans would claim. And he critiques the Moneyball strategy of the Oakland As from a player’s perspective. He also reveals baseball to be most likely a French invention, overtaking cricket for popularity in the Civil War (American of course) because of rough pitches, and then being gamed by some 19th century spin doctor called A. G. Spalding, who touted it that baseball championed the egalitarian, in contrast to the effeteness of cricket. Yes, he was just trying to sell more gear. And it worked. Despite the fact that cricket had enjoyed wide social acceptance in the US earlier in the century, it fell into terminal decline as a national pastime.

I’m no expert on Schumpeter’s oeuvre — though I’ve lived through one or two creative destruction episodes. But after 87 pages of What Sport Tells Us, all I could think of was Schumpeter, Schumpeter, Schumpeter. Smith elaborates on the fluctuating fortunes of sport, not just in terms of games and spectacle. He shows how at an industry (and at a national cultural) level the individual sporting disciplines are so rich themselves in creative destruction, confounding the stereotypes that fans, commentators and team owners all too frequently apply. On page 88, Smith finally drops the great man’s name. For the reader like me it was a back-of-the-net moment, as they say in soccer. Well-scored, Ed! When Penguin offered me the book for review, I hadn’t expected to find a discussion of how the free market has worked its invisible magic to raise the salaries of “left tackles” in American football. These hulks go unwatched on the field of play because all eyes follow the star quarter-back; but their presence determines whether the star player makes the goal or ends up face down in the mud. It all made sense to me. Schumpeter, he the man!

Someone should get Russ Roberts at EconTalk to interview Smith for a podcast. Smith is a broadcaster himself, having fronted a BBC programme called Peak Performance, which is sadly no longer in their online archive. In Roberts’ podcast with Schumpeter biographer Thomas McCraw, he highlights that when we observe an economic phenomenon like income inequality, the dominance of particular corporations (or, I’d suggest, the current credit crunch) we tend to see only the present snapshot in time; we miss the continuum. This can be both positive and negative. Bad news and bad money can drive out the good. But, Smith shows us that in the larger sweep of sporting history as well, so much of the hand-wringing of the short run is misplaced.

He also despatches sporting cliches all over the ground like loose bowling. He sends the concept of professionalism for six, hits a homerun against the notion of talent’s primacy, but saves his best shot for the role of luck and our contradictory and mistaken attitude to how it operates both in games, and also how it influences entire career paths.

Believing that ‘you can be whatever you want to be’, on the other hand, is actually a rather easy doctrine. (At least until you realize the idea has led you up the garden path.) The fallacy that desire and determination hold the keys to all success appeals to the inner adolescent in us that cannot bear the thought of hard work going to waste. I try, ergo I succeed; the world is just, so I will prevail; there is a fair distribution of justice, so I will be lauded. Such a shame that it isn’t true.

Of course, that logic is not reversible. Sitting around waiting for luck to come your way is as misguided as thinking that good things always come to those who ‘want it enough.’ The truth is that determination and desire are necessary but not sufficient. We have to try like crazy; we have to retain a relentless sense of determination; we have to make sacrifices and take the road less travelled. And yet still there are no guarantees. Even after all that, we may come up empty-handed. That is the bleak but unavoidable logic of anyone who has deep ambitions.”

But before we get too depressed by the potential tragedy of it all, he has a whole chapter celebrating the need to retain a sense of amateur love for the game, but not in the long out-dated Corinthian notion. Quoting Simon Barnes, quoting Brazilian World Cup Coach Felipe Scolari:-

Scolari said: ‘My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional. Thirty to forty years ago, the effort was the other way. Now there is so much professionalism, we have to revert to urging players to like the game, love it, do it with joy.’

[Barnes continues] This is not romantic twaddle. It is a fact that the more important something gets, the harder it is to do it well. We can all walk along the kerbstone in safety, but if the drop were not six inches but six miles, how then would we walk? Football matters too much; it matters to the players too much. As a result, the mattering gets in the way of the playing.”

In Smith’s own words:-

All professional sportsmen battle with their fears and anxieties. And by no means do they always conquer them. We live on the brink of disappointment, of failure, of being dropped, of getting sacked, of retreating back into civilian life with our dreams unfulfilled. That is the parlous state in which most sportsmen usually find themselves. All of us have experienced downward spirals of anxiety and introspection – I am losing form, my place is in jeopardy, my career could be in danger. Often you deny the problem, which secretly increases your anxiety – you are scared of admitting your fears even to yourself – and your form worsens still further.

He continues:-

Remove the obstacles to playing well. Anxiety is one of the obstacles. Worrying is one of the obstacles. Failing to focus simply and only on the job in hand is one of the obstacles [...] Dreading failure is one of the obstacles. Now you are thinking like a player again that is usually a beginning of a return to form.

The exposure to failure that really loving your sport entails is painful. The following paragraph(s) sang out particularly plaintively to the Knackered ears:

Trying desperately hard and not getting what you want is decent summary of what almost all sportsmen go through. The more deeply you compete and the greater the quality of your caring (to lift a line from Larkin), the more it hurts when you lose, or fail, or fall short. Each time a competitor taps into the essence of his personality in an attempt to win a sports match, he takes a risk. The risk is that he will get no reward — in the sense of a win or a personal triumph — for exposing himself to that degree of psychological rawness. It is easy to resent having tried so hard in the first place.

On the other hand, being too disengaged isn’t the answer, as the next paragraph elaborates:-

If it didn’t get us anywhere today, why should I bother to care so deeply next time? One answer is that being prepared and able to experience such deep emotions, and being exposed to that degree of disappointment, is a privilege not open to many. It doesn’t feel like a privilege at the time. It feels like hell. But it makes for a life more fully lived. After ten years playing professional sport, I have come to the startling conclusion that a big part of me actually enjoys caring about sport, even when that caring expresses itself as pain at losing. I wouldn’t rather life was more pallid. It sometimes reminds me that I am not wasting my time — and protects me a little from the resigned emptiness we all dread in sport.”

So don’t be put off from ordering a copy from or to steal a march on any US publication plans that Penguin has. He is good on this stuff, you know. He read History at Cambridge, and because he is younger than me, has been more exposed to counter-factualism, which he uses quite devastatingly to examine some rather controversial sporting triumphs, like England’s unexpected win in the 2005 Ashes cricket series against Australia.

And to show that someone has already deftly combined sport and philosophy, a re-run of one of my favourites. Schumpeter didn’t make the team on this occasion, but then… that was the story of his life.

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toothpaste for dinner

With thanks to

If that were not condemnation enough, I’ve found out that there is a type of guitarist known as a “middle-aged, middle-management escapee” who is thankfully always welcome at the completely inclusive International Guitar Festival.

I was chatting to Phil, who runs the IGF, about this only yesterday. He had me pegged as someone who did not practice and does not progress (another stereotype, don’t you know, but then I have discussed this with him before). The IGF runs one of its festivals locally here July/August, and there are workshops, so maybe it’s time that I picked up the nylon-string Luthier I do own, and just keep the Telecaster idea on the slow, back-burner ;-) waiting for that rich Russian to hit the tip-jar and put you all out of my misery.

But to show that the Knackered Hack as a site is, in fact, both stereotype and at the cutting edge simultaneously, there is a brand new blog out there called The Ones That Got Away especially for those of us searching for that lost guitar. It’s run by a designer whose other creations have included the curiously entertaining Men who look like Kenny Rogers. The blurb for TOTGA runs:-

Every guitarist has that one special guitar that they wished they had back. It might be because it was a sentimental gift, maybe it was sold to pay the bills, or maybe you just didn’t realize how much you loved that guitar until it was gone. These are the stories of the ones that got away. Most of them are my own stories, but I hope to add stories by other guitarists over time.”

The Knackered Hack is now hoping that his own contribution to the oeuvre will worm its way into the canon over there before too long.

This now raises a new problem for me, because it’s got me thinking about the first bass guitar I ever bought. It was not an iconic instrument, but — you guessed it! — there are sites for those too.

PS For film fans who spotted the cadence of Woody Allen in the headline, you were right — it’s from Annie Hall. Your prize: dinner for two in the Catskills ;-0 .

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Apocalypse Now culminates in a meeting with a large, terrifying man in a forsaken place that few normal humans would dream of venturing into of their own free will.

I was reminded of this narrative when listening again to a BBC Radio 4 documentary by my friends and former co-workers, Andy and Grigori, about their trip to Russia’s Norilsk nickel mine several years ago. The eponymous town is a byword for extremity: bad extremity, at that. Lying within the Arctic circle and the permafrost zone, it is Siberia’s northernmost city: a grim, black stain on the white tundra. In 2003, when my friends visited, it was still a closed city, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officially designated one of the filthiest places on earth, Norilsk offers it’s residents a life expectancy 10 years shorter than the national average. I can tell you’re itching to book yourself a ticket.

When I worked in Fleet Street, Andy ran commodities coverage for me. The uninitiated within mainstream journalism will tend to regard commodities as a Cinderella profession. But you don’t succeed in this highly investigative area of reporting by being a shrinking violet. It touches the whole world, and the more difficult parts of it to boot. There is a darkness to it that is never far away; places like Norilsk epitomise that shadiness. Commodities is an environment in which a tradition of buccaneering still survives; there were moments when you kind of knew that the wrong decision of what to cover — and how — could cost somebody their life. I reported metals for a while, and so could only marvel at the depth of knowledge and range of contacts that Andy and Grigori managed to construct over the years.


Norilsk Nickel Plant from the air (Google Maps)

Andy and Grigori between them had long had to report the ins and outs of industrial activity at Norilsk because it dominates the world nickel market. As the documentary makes plain, this was no easy task. And it is important because, yes, we probably all own something that came out of the ground there. Based on what Wikipedia has to say here, you are breathing some of it each day too:-

The Blacksmith Institute included Norilsk in its 2007 list of the ten most polluted places on Earth. The list cites air pollution by particulates (including radioisotopes strontium-90, and caesium-137 and heavy metals nickel, copper, cobalt, lead and selenium) and by gases (such as nitrogen and carbon oxides, sulfur dioxide, phenols and hydrogen sulfide).”

Andy and Grigori’s programme, though, was a personal attempt to visit the human story that is Norilsk, rather than the statistical and commercial that had shaped their own long relationship with the place. The sense of environmental and other dangers is palpable, particularly as they descend into the heart of darkness that is the unlit mine 1km below the Siberian surface. There, in a 300km network of underground shafts, huge diesel vehicles manoeuvre in and out of side tunnels, sometimes at speed: behemoths looming monster-like out of the shadows. Andy and Grigori are provided with emergency supplies in the event that they get separated from their guide and lost in the labyrinth.

Knowing both men, the programme also highlights and reminds me of the themes in yesterday’s post about diversity and collaboration within teams; I touched on this before in my essay about Twitter. Andy and Grigori were essential parts of a real-time network of reporters that coordinated their daily activities across the globe using instant messaging, in particular the mIRC tool, reflecting the need for rapid coordination to break and respond to financial market news events. Unlike the telegraphese-based message wires that characterised inter-bureau communication in the old newswire days, which were terse and sometimes highly politicised, IM was particularly beneficial where remote bureaus and the very general skills needed by the staff in them, were routinely pressed to cover highly specialized beats. This required expert supervision from the main reporting centres, and mutual trust.

The blogosphere is often referred to now as “The Conversation”. But the beauty of the mIRC chat service we used back then was that the remote bureau could become an active part of even the water-cooler conversations in major bureaus like London. The diversity of the organization, that would otherwise have been latent, became active.

Anyway, I think you can hear the nature of the working friendships forged in action in the podcast.

Andy has written a book about his experience — Siberian Dreams – which is available from the usual suspects or via Knackered Hack Booksellers Inc. So reserve your signed copy now, by email, for when new stocks arrive.

You can find out more about the BBC/Royal Geographical Society’s Journey of a Lifetime broadcast series here.

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