Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Vigorous Sieve

The remarkable Hilary Mantel is currently giving the BBC Reith Lectures.

In the advert for the lectures, Mantel offers a wonderful metaphor, suggesting that history is what is left in the sieve after the centuries have poured through.

I envisage that the sieve is not static; there are times when it moves, when it shakes or vibrates.

The shaking has several effects.  It breaks up some existing big lumps of stuff. It accelerates the rate of flow through the mesh. And, because the stuff is sticky and viscous (it consists, after all, of the doings of humans) it forces new lumps to come into being.

Vigorous shaking breaks up old big lumps, and creates new big lumps.

We are living through very vigorous times.  Be careful what you stick with, and what you stick to.

On Grenfell, on foot

Once upon a time I worked with colleagues on a piece of research about social capital in rural areas.  It was full of good stuff but it was years ago and I only remember one thing from it: that ‘social capital’ - particularly the disorganised, hard-to-spot stuff that evades both statisticians and other authorities and which is called by said authorities ‘informal social capital’ - this ‘informal social capital’ is always more prevalent in places where people regularly walk around compared to places where people are usually in their cars.

I’ve long been intrigued by walking.  I wrote a blog a few years ago about the philosophical and political and psychogeographical and health and environmental and sundry other aspects of walking and concluded that it was pretty much the most sustainable thing a person could do.  On all fronts.

And I was pleased last year when, wearing my Brook Lyndhurst hat, I had the opportunity to do some proper research into the evidence about walking (and cycling).  The report was published back in April, alongside the new national Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy.

But it wasn’t until Grenfell that I made a connection that had hitherto eluded me.

I visited the area on Friday, three days after the disaster.  It’s a bit of London I know well.  Thirty years ago I lived at the top end of Ladbroke Grove, just half a mile east from Grenfell Tower.  Since then I’ve lived south, towards Hammersmith, and west, towards Chiswick.  I’ve cycled and driven and walked past and through and around that bit of the world more times than I can even begin to count.  A week or so before the fire I sat outside the pub, just a couple of hundred metres south of the tower (and in sight of the great edifice that is Westfield) where I occasionally play pool with my son or my best mate.

So I felt I had no choice, really, than to be a witness to whatever was or is or might be going on in the strange rectangle described by the Westway, Ladbroke Grove, Holland Park Avenue and the A3320.  I made a special journey. I was on my bike.  I rode around.  From time to time I got off and walked.

I don’t want to spend much time describing what I saw.  What I saw has been widely and accurately described in innumerable other places.  It was awful and amazing and upsetting and overwhelming and incredible and painful.  I didn’t take many photos; it didn’t seem right, somehow.  But this one landed:

It’s something to do, I think, with the juxtaposition: normal homes, normal kids after school, normal car – devastated edifice in the background, appalling symbol of so much.  Of too much.

This one, too, makes a similar point: in the foreground, the Westfield-related development taking place opposite the old BBC building at White City, new homes and jobs for the people who are as mobile and prosperous as the financial capital upon which they depend; in the background, the dark, dark symbol, glowering and castigating us:

I don’t particularly want to make any political or quasi-political remarks about what happened, or what I saw, either.  Again, plenty of that elsewhere.

But as I wandered streets I’d known, and encountered those that know them now, I remembered the report I’d worked on all those years ago.  If you live a life on foot – as you pop out to the all-night shop, as you join the others on the way to school, as you stroll to your church or your mosque or your temple, as you dash for the bus or the tube, as you wait for the elevator on the 20th floor – you inevitably and unavoidably and incredibly bump into all the other people on foot.

Some you nod to.  In time, maybe you chat.  Your baby and my baby have something in common.  Those of us in this queue at the corner store will share a joke.  The group of people over there are doing pretty much what we’re doing over here.  Look: you can see them.

And somehow, magically, a fabric of connections and interconnections, of shared experience and common sense, of – to use Ivan Illich’s great word  conviviality develops.

It has a physical extent, this invisible stuff: you can sense its perimeters very easily.  (It’s a bit like dark matter: we can’t see it, but it’s the only way to explain what we can see.) Just walk south alonSt Anns Road and you can feel it evaporate, its essence extinguished by the ever bigger and more distant homes, the ever more expensive cars, the disappearance of people that ever venture out on foot.

And the power of this physical, bodily, ambulatory, corporeal reality is illustrated, too, by the experience of the politicians and celebrities as they visit Grenfell: look how much trouble Theresa May got into by not walking about.

So I want to say: yes, we need a full enquiry into what happened; and, yes, we need to learn the lessons and to make sure nothing like this ever happens again; and, yes too, we need to question the deep and pervasive political and cultural and economic assumptions that have led us to this place.

But let us also acknowledge the lessons we need to learn from the response to this disaster.  We need to stay on our feet.  We need to keep bumping into one another.  
We cut ourselves off from one another at our peril. We need to stay in touch, not just through social media, and not just through the formal channels and institutions, but with our smiles and our nods and our hands and our bodies. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Murmurations - the #makechester talks

I am really looking forward to speaking at the Murmurations event on Friday.

My presentation looks like this:

I'm going to be talking about:

* entrepreneurship

* care

* Sisyphus

Fingers crossed it makes sense!

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The costs of a crap boss

We all know how unpleasant it can be to have a crap boss.  

Turns out it's not merely painful, it's expensive.

Looks like having a crap boss, even for a short while, means not only that you earn less now but you may earn less for ever...

5.  Supervisors and Performance Management Systems by Anders Frederiksen, Lisa B. Kahn, Fabian Lange  -  #23351 (LS)


Supervisors occupy central roles in production and performance monitoring.  We study how heterogeneity in performance evaluations across supervisors affects employee and supervisor careers and firm outcomes using data on the performance system of a Scandinavian service sector firm.  We show that supervisors vary widely in how they rate subordinates of similar quality.  To understand the nature of this heterogeneity, we propose a principal-agent model according to which supervisors can differ in their ability to elicit output from subordinates or in their taste for leniency when rating subordinates.  The model also allows for variation in how informed firms are about this heterogeneity.  Within the context of this model, we can discern the nature of the heterogeneity across supervisors and how informed firms are about this heterogeneity by relating observed supervisor heterogeneity in ratings to worker, supervisor, and firm outcomes

We find that subordinates are paid significantly more, and their pay is more closely aligned with performance, when they are matched to a high-rating supervisor.  We also find that higher raters themselves are paid more and that the teams managed by higher raters perform better on objective performance measures.  This evidence suggests that supervisor heterogeneity stems, at least in part, from real differences in managerial ability and that firms are at least partially informed about these differences.  We conclude by quantifying how important heterogeneity in supervisor type is for workers' careers.  For a typical worker, matching to a high rater (90th percentile) relative to a low rater (10th percentile) for just one year results in an increase in the present discounted value of earnings equivalent to 7-14% of an annual salary.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #8 Groundhog Day


We’ve reached number eight in the 2017 series: Groundhog Day.  This is a film, obviously, that we have all already seen.  (And, perhaps, this is a review that you have already read.) Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again.

I have, obviously, already seen the film Groundhog Day over and over and over again, so the clever thing to do – again, obviously - would be to review the film without actually watching it again.

Such was my thinking as I drove to the Hay festival on the weekend that should have been the occasion (according to the self-imposed schedule set back in January) when I watched Groundhog Day.  Again.


The notion of endlessly repeating something is not new, of course.  In fact, endless repetition is one of the most basic notions that we have.  Go back as far as you like into recorded human culture and you encounter fundamental conceptualisations of circularity and repetition: think yin and yang in the east, or the wheel at the heart of the tao, or the ouroboros in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.

(It’s probably to do with the stars.  Throughout pre-history our forebears encountered endless turbulence at ground level, while forever unchanging above were the ceaselessly rotating lights in the sky.  We watched and we measured (well, the priests and their ilk did the measuring) (and invented magic and belief, then mathematics and science) and we discovered that everything changes, yet everything remains the same; everything goes around in a circle and comes back to the beginning again.)

Circularity and repetition continue to attract intense philosophical attention.  The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has achieved cult status (in certain continental philosophical circles, at least) with a philosophy (considered utterly at odds with the entire prevailing western canon) in which everything (and I mean everything - space, time, mind, maths, society, words) consists of some sort of sphere (or, if there are lots together, foam).  Douglas Hofstadter (he of Godel, Escher and Bach) proposes that consciousness itself is astrange loopthat holds itself up as an inherent feature of its being and, in so holding itself, comprises consciousness.

Roberto Calasso, meanwhile, explores the connections between ancient and modern conceptualisations by building from ancient Greek mythology and alighting on the notion of the ring, the bracelet or the clasp as a fundamental metaphor that connects our sense of self (I am that which is held together as me) with our sense of society (that group or set of groups that is held together) with our sense of thought (stories and theories all comprise sets of ideas that hold together).


The best Greek myth about all this concerns Sisyphus Sisyphus was a king of Ephyra who was, by all accounts, a very naughty boy and who was eventually caught and punished by top god Zeus.  Zeus condemned him to push a big rock up a steep hill – but when the rock gets to the top of the hill it rolls all the way back down again.  Sisyphus has to push it up again; and it rolls down again; and he has to push it back up again; and it rolls back again; and again and again and again and again forever and ever.

(In case the unbearable, incomprehensible agony of this situation doesn’t grab you with sufficient immediacy, recall instead the moment when you realised the plight of the AI inside the wee gizmo at the end of the Christmas episode of Black Mirror when the man sets the dial to 1,000 years per minute…)

To understand this properly it’s important to realise that Sisyphus is not merely a king – he is a human being.  He is not a god.   There are other people (for example Prometheus) who get punished for all eternity by Zeus, but they are gods or in some other way mythological.  As a human, Sisyphus represents humans generally.  He was greedy and deceitful and murderous and generally unpleasant – but he was also cunning, resourceful, clever, crafty.  These latter attributes are the very skills upon which humanity’s success over the past few millennia has depended – and the former are the baggage we seem to bring with us.

So the story serves to remind us – as Albert Camus, arch nihilist and general miserable bastard, points out in his wonderful The Myth of Sisyphus - of our bleak condition: no matter how much work we put in, no matter how clever we are, we end up getting nowhere.  We end up exactly where we started.

So what’s the point?


Which gets us back to Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… except that – for one thing – it’s not actually the same day (since, whilst it is always 2nd February, the Murray character behaves differently every day, so the day’s events are always different) and – for another, and more importantly – (spoiler alert, ho ho) at the end and eventually he wakes up in the next day.

How does that happen?

Actually – how does anything happen?  Isn’t that a question that lies behind even the fundamental metaphors from ancient eastern and western cosmologies I mentioned a moment ago?

Well, there are only two possibilities really: either things change because it’s an inherent feature of existence, or of the things that exist, that things are as they are and it is mere necessity that things change; or it’s because it’s just random, just a nothing and a something, things change at random, by pure chance.

(In case this blunt assertion is insufficient to persuade you, try Democritus, who said this first and who, some two and a half thousand years before it was confirmed by others, formulated the atomic theory of the universe.)

So is it chance or necessity that there is a book called ‘Chance and Necessity’ by the Nobel-prize winning biologist Jacques Monod, a book about the way biological evolution occurs within the framework of a conceptual [and mathematically tractable] space based on the interaction of chance and necessity) and a book that has been on my wish list for simply donkeys’ years?  Is it chance or necessity that a first edition of the book ‘Chance and Necessity’ (a first edition! for just £6!) presented itself to me on the very day I had been wondering how I would conduct a review of the film Groundhog Day (a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again…) without watching it again?

Is it chance or necessity that the opening quotation in the Foreword to ‘Chance and Necessity’ reads:

“At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning towards his rock, in that slight pivoting, he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which became his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death.  Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, is still on the go.  The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again.  But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.  He, too, concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

These are the closing paragraphs from The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus.


Hang on a minute.  Albert Camus, being optimistic?  What’s that about?  I thought he was the arch nihilist, the miserable bastard?  What’s he doing finding hope in Sisyphus’s awful torment?

And isn’t this the same optimism that we encounter – experience – at the end of Groundhog Day?  At the end of Groundhog Day – a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… – our hero achieves redemption.

This is – I think – why the film has endured, why it has achieved the cultural status of ‘classic’: it is an updated, ancient myth.  In the ancient myth - and the ancient mind – there was no prospect of redemption, there was simply fate; in the modern mind, we have autonomy and we can be saved, and we need myths to tell us so.

This is emphatically not a Christian myth (though Christianity has made an exceptionally good fist of appropriating the notion of redemption to itself).  The redemption offered by Christianity remains an externally authorised redemption; it is God who saves.

But in Camus’s image it is Sisyphus who finds his own salvation, who figures out an accommodation with his plight; and in Groundhog Day (a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again…) our hero figures something out – learns something – and makes progress as a result.

And here we reach the kernel.  The myth-update in Groundhog Day is the Enlightenment It is the idea that we can learn.  And by learning we can progress.  The universe is not an endlessly repeated cycle, empty of meaning, because we can learn, and the learning is a process of climbing what Iain M Banks calls (in Matter) a cliff-face: there is a ridge up there, not a single peak; and there are many ways up, not just one (or even two).  The physical universe may proceed in a way remarkably like the endless cycle imagined by the ancients; but the mind is somehow at right angles to the physical universe and there are opportunities aplenty to climb.

Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… It is a film about a man who, like all of us, wants to be better than he is.  Groundhog Day is a great film because, in its humorous and well-crafted way, it tells the story of a man who achieves this ambition.  Groundhog Day is a truly classic film because it provides a truly modern myth - and, as a result, gives us hope.