Sunday, December 23, 2018

On cakes and donkeys and philanthropic giving

Sweet charity

I’m forever curious at how we make connections; how a chance happening can seem so pertinent to an article we read this morning; or vice versa, how the ideas we consider today, appear to shape the otherwise random events of tomorrow.  Only yesterday, for example, I was reading how some writers favour long opening sentences, using repetition for effect!

Earlier this week, when browsing the Christmas Radio Times I was struck by the number of adverts from charities persuading us to assuage our festive excess. Between articles on this year’s blockbusters and the perfect party nibble, we’re invited to support refugees, sponsor a pony or leave a lasting legacy to save abandoned pets. The plethora of causes that would appear to move us never ceases to amaze me, as does the thought that so many of these organisations have the cash to advertise in the first place.

Hold that thought a moment, we’ll return to it later.

Meanwhile, I was listening to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, part of his brilliant Revisionist History series, examining ‘things forgotten or misunderstood'. Podcasts are one of my discoveries of the year, and I’ve become mildly obsessed by Gladwell’s slantwise insight and courageous moral compass. The episode concerned philanthropic donations to academic institutions, and in particular, why rich benefactors in the U.S. might donate to, say, Stanford University, which already has an endowment of over $200 billion.

Gladwell’s contention is that the leading universities have an excess of funds, and that greater good would be done by donating to more needy, if less glamorous, institutions. His argument is rich with examples and, as always, driven by a compelling, evidence based, logic. Towards the end of the podcast, he interviews John Hennessy, the then Principe of Stanford, who'd volunteered to try and change his mind.

It’s hard not to agree with Gladwell. His view resonates with my  passionate belief in the unfairness of private and privileged education. As I worked out on the cross trainer - yes I listen to podcasts in the gym - I was as good as cheering him on. There’s an almost comical moment when Gladwell asks Hennessy if Stanford might ever have so much money that he’d consider directing a benefactor elsewhere. Hennessy can’t bring himself to answer directly, and ends up sounding foolish in his evasion.

And yet I wondered if Gladwell was being entirely fair. I’ve spent the best part of twelve years representing the company I work for to its investors. If someone came to me looking to put their money into bio-tech, then in all conscience I’d have to say it's not for us; but if they’ve so much as a vague interest in distribution, my role is to present our case and secure their support. That’s the way competition works - it’s not my job to argue for others, no matter how strong their investment proposition.

Gladwell’s view is that we should expect better of our educators - and I think he has a point. There’s a difference between the goals of business and those of universities: when the prestige of an academic institution comes before its ultimate purpose then something is awry. Gladwell suggest it’s a loss to us all if a handful of wealthy institutions are pursuing ever more marginal projects, while elsewhere, vital research is closing down for lack of cash. And he goes further, suggesting that our collective knowledge is most likely to flourish if we give greater weight to the mass of talent, rather than an elite few.

But while I think Gladwell is right in principle, he’s also idealistic, and I worry his solution might be counter productive in practice.

 Let’s return to those adverts in the Radio Times.  

There’s a part of me that struggles to fathom the mindset of someone who’d leave a legacy to abandoned pets, when according to UNICEF, more than 3 million children die from malnutrition each year. Or for that matter, what motivates a donation to Eton public school (also a charity by the way) when there’s self-evidently greater need in areas of economic deprivation. Or… I could go on, but you get the point, and in any event, what’s the alternative?

There are over 160,000 charities officially registered in England and Wales with the true number estimated to be nearer half a million. Ought we to grade every good cause by some sort of utility index and cajole people into donating accordingly? Many leading charities are effectively a proxy means of funding what should arguably be core public services (the RNLI for example) - and yet would we really be better off taking them into government control so donations could go elsewhere? 

It strikes me that the volunteers who organise a weekly cake sale for our village hall are unlikely to do the same even for a neighbouring community. If I support the mountain rescue because of my love of the outdoors and you are concerned with liver cancer because a friend died recently, isn’t that as good a way to direct our efforts as any? In similar vein, if Stanford University were not to secure the high profile donations it does, who's to say the money would go to institutions elsewhere? 

Inefficient though it is, perhaps the best way to raise funds for good causes is to accept that different plights move different people, and from that cornucopia of interests and motivations - from church roofs to great crested newts, Cancer Research to Greenpeace,  donkeys to refugees - we tap into an ultimately greater well of effort and enthusiasms than we ever would otherwise. 

That’s another long sentence, using repetition for effect - I could probably change it for one that’s technically better, but you know, I rather like it.  Sometimes we’re best to go with the flow.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Breaking with politics ...

This morning's Sunday Times carries an article reporting that more than half of voters think British politics is broken. Evidently, only one in seven of us believes that Labour or Conservative represent the views of the public, and 44% say that the response of MPs to Brexit has damaged their faith in politicians.

Seldom have I empathised more. 

At the height of the referendum, Richard Dawkins argued that the vote was ill conceived, citing the inability of all but a few technocrats to fathom the consequences of staying in or out of the EU.  On that narrow point he was probably correct, but his objection misses the rationale of democracy - which is not to arrive at the best answer, but rather, to measure the public sentiment. We each have one vote not because we are equally clever, but because we all have a right to voice our feelings.

Conversely, and at much the same stage in the referendum process,  Michael Gove famously stated that 'people have had enough of experts'.  The statement is logical enough, except that he and every other prominent brexiteer has subsequently quoted any expert they could find who supports their case. The inconsistency is as staggering as it is brazen.

Watching the Brexit debacle unfold has been simultaneously toe curling and depressing, not so much for the direction of travel (distressing though that is) as for the quality of the debate.  It's not the intransigence, the lack of listening or even the on-line shouting that annoys me. What I find so disillusioning, is that, after two years of wrangling, in the face of one of the most significant economic and social decision we will make, our politicians still can't bring themselves to speak the truth about their personal views.

And it seems to me that this absence of candour, more than any difference of opinion, is what lies at the root of our collective mistrust.

Take for example Teresa May's shambolic performance on a recent radio talk-in, when asked if she genuinely believed the UK would be better off under her proposed deal than by remaining in the EU? Her stuttering equivocation was palpable, undermining everything else she said, and rightly it made headlines as a result. 

Why could she not simply say something like:

'It's a matter of record that I voted to Remain.  But the  referendum result was clear that we should leave, and my duty as Prime Minister is therefore to negotiate the best deal possible for the UK. We can debate whether the proposals achieve this or not, but my view on the benefits of remaining in the EU is no longer relevant.'

Even that answer falls short of what I suspect is the unvarnished truth - for which we would need to change the second sentence to  'I still hold the view that we are better to remain, however, the referendum result was clear...' 

But if Teresa May is equivocal, the hard-line brexiteers take disingenuity to new level.

They consistently refuse to answer the conceptual question of whether they would still support our leaving if there were an unambiguous cost to our prosperity?  Instead, they evade the point, replying that they don't believe this will happen, or worse, claiming the question is merely hypothetical!

Someone should tell them that all debate is hypothetical. Every manifesto is hypothetical; every policy proposal is hypothetical, as is every strategy and every claim about future outcomes.  Logically, hypotheticals take the form of 'If P then Q' - note the word 'if' at the start of that statement - politics is all about 'ifs'.

So let me pose what I believe to be the acid-tests of honesty for hard-liners on both sides.

To brexiteers: "If  it were conclusively shown, to your full satisfaction, that Brexit would harm the UK's long term prosperity - then would you still support leaving the EU?'

And for remainers: 'If  it were conclusively shown, to your full satisfaction, that Remaining would harm the UK's long term prosperity - then would you still still support staying in the EU?'

A simple 'from the heart' answer to these questions would tell us more than all the experts could; more than any debate on the pros and cons of Canada plus or Norway squared - for it would transcend any technical analysis and get to the nub of their motivation.  We'd know more of who our representatives are and where they intellectually come from - which in a void of facts, is a vital foundation of trust. That our system makes politicians so wary of answering these types of questions, is what lies behind our disillusion and scepticism.

But if they won't take that leap, we can at least ask these questions of  ourselves - and by doing so, speak truth to power; maybe even set an example.

Here goes from me:

I'm a staunch remainer; I support the European idea and believe our prosperity will suffer outside of the EU - furthermore I warm to the concept of a pan european democracy and don't share the desire for national determination that seems to be at the heart of much Brexiteer disdain for the EU.  Even if  I were convinced that we would be marginally better off by leaving, then I would still wish to remain - for I believe the European ideals of collective democracy, freedom and security are something worth paying for.  

That said, I am not blind to alternative outcomes.  If there was categorical evidence that we would be materially more prosperous outside of the EU (let's say with a 5% greater £GDP), then of course, I would support our leaving, albeit with a view to maintaining close ties wherever possible.  My position is therefore one of principled pragmatism: I would have liked us to stay, even at some cost - but don't hold that view at any price.

There, that wasn't so hard was it.

Any politicians want to follow me?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Heretical thoughts

 'The price of being misunderstood...  They call you devil or they call you god.'
Richard Bach - Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

As I start typing it has dawned on me that I'm about to write a post in praise of heresy - on of all days, Easter Sunday. The gentle irony appeals, for in its original usage, 'heresy' meant to hold a belief or opinion contrary to the orthodox Christian faith. My views would certainly fit that description - though less so than some might assume - but, opening paragraphs aside, it's not religious dissent which interest me.

Heresy, in a secular context, means to question the established order of beliefs. My dictionary describes it as 'views profoundly at odds with accepted opinion', and that's as relevant to politics, the pub or the workplace, as it is to the chapel or cathedral.  More to the point - in a world as resistant as ever to those who venture outside the stockade - I think we need a little more heresy in our lives.

For as long as I can remember I've been interested in why we think as we do - and troubled by how flimsily many of our beliefs seem to be built. As a child I struggled with the platitudes that were offered as rules of behaviour; the supposedly right and wrong ways of seeing and being in the world. 'You'll understand when you're older,' my maternal grandmother would say...   Well, I'm fifty-six now, and at times I still don't get it!

To be fair, my father didn't tow the establishment line. One of my earliest memories is being allowed a day off school rather than wave flags at the queen when she visited our town. On the other hand he held some ridiculous views - everything in the universe is made with carbon - to which he would allow no counter, because he'd heard (and misunderstood) something of the sort on a BBC2 documentary.

Which is not untypical, because chief among our opinion formers is the media. The press and broadcast channels curate which issues we consider important, and more subtly, they promote how we should think about them. Social media makes a dent and occasionally gives voice - not least in blogging - but mainstream opinions and tastes, remain, almost by definition, as orthodox as ever.

The workplace too is awash with conformity - from the quasi-religious faith in 'colleague engagement', to the economists' disconnected pursuit of 'rational man', corporate orthodoxy is founded on the flimsiest of evidence. But to challenge risks ridicule or exposing the folly of those in charge.... no wonder most keep quiet.

And much the same is true of the pub, the golf club, our schoolyards.. even the writing and creative community of which I'm a part. In all walks of life we find opinions so embedded or popularised they resist any counter. I've heard it said that a non believer in the USA could never be elected president; in the UK, I'd suggest the same goes for any politician questioning the efficacy of the national health service. These are not good things.

But for all this, little corners of hope exist.

My long time colleague at work has one of  the best 'antennas' I've ever encountered. On sensing any hint of management bullshit, no matter how eloquent the soundbite I've crafted, she'll raise her eyes to say, 'Really, Mark...?'  -  and invariably I change the sentence and smile.

For this is exactly the sort of heresy we need more of. Not flat earth theorists or holocaust deniers - but the gentle probing of what's taken for granted, and which, with a little reflection, doesn't stand scrutiny, or need to be so dogmatic.

The kind of everyday heretics I like are those who might say, Excuse me for asking, but...

-  you know these local libraries which I keep hearing are essential bastions of learning... could you tell me where I'd find one.

of course, we all love Rugby... but isn't something awry when the England Captain has been banned for a total of 60 weeks... 

-  leave the skin on my kiwi fruit please; they really do taste better that way!

These statements are not meant too seriously, however, they illustrate a point. The value in heretical thoughts is not that they need be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing ...  but that in asking them at all, we become open to different, and sometimes better possibilities.

Conformity is the scourge of reasoning - and no more so than in the stories we tell ourselves to bolster our prejudices and intuitions. Over the last forty years psychologists have revolutionised our understanding of why we do this, and how difficult all of us find it to deconstruct our embedded modes of thinking.

I recently read the Nobel prize winner, Daniel Kahnemen's, brilliant Thinking Fast and Slow -  a sort of psychology equivalent to Hawking's Brief History of Time - and realised I fell into almost all the traps his work exposes. Orthodoxy exploits these failings, promoting only evidence which shores up the norm; heresy confronts it - and is open to change in the light of its discoveries.

So I say lets have more heretics - even at Easter. Apart from anything else I'd have more mates, because the people I like most are invariably those with interesting and different views - some of my best friends have profound faith, nearly all have lifestyles at a tangent to mine. We can't all be Copernicus or Picasso, changing the way the world sees itself  - but in our own little hefts, we can at least make a difference to ourselves. Amen to that.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Six months, no beer and a crossword

The other day I realised it was more than six months’ since I’d drunk any alcohol. The milestone had passed without my noticing, and I might have gone longer unawares had it not been for the morning crossword. 

Its final clue posed: Result of multiplication - 7 letters. 

The answer, for those who can’t wait, is given below.

Quite why the solution should trigger thoughts on sobriety says as much about my lateral mindset as any inherent logic - but it’s instructive nonetheless. For what I've discovered these last six months, is that quitting alcohol is a bit like putting money in the bank - at first there’s not a lot to show, but after a while, the interest compounds.  

And in my experience, I'd say the rates are pretty high.  

For starters I've lost ten kilos. In not drinking I’ve foregone tens of thousands of 'dead calories’; add to that a reduction in associated snacking, and compound the gains by taking more exercise because I have more energy -  and the net result is the easiest diet I've ever been on.

There’s a noticeable financial benefit too. It’s harder to be precise here, but I reckon in my case the saving is around thirty pounds a week after including the odd drink in the pub and wine at restaurants. On that basis if I stay dry for a year, all our utility bills are covered. 

Meanwhile, I’m sleeping better, worrying less, and haven’t had a head ache in months. The icing on the cake - or more accurately, ’off my scalp’ - is that my persistent eczema has almost gone.

None of this should be a surprise.  

We all know that alcohol is a mild poison; that in quantity it induces weight gain, diabetes, cancer.. and in some cases, grips with an addiction that can be life destroying. Second to smoking, giving up alcohol is just about the best thing you can do for your health. 

But let’s face it, that’s not the way most of us view a few beers or a bottle of sauvignon on a night in. 

Rather we see booze as harmless fun; it helps us to relax; it’s part of a good night out - and it tastes great too, doesn’t it?  Even after six months abstinence I’d concur with most of that - so feeling this positive about not drinking is somewhat of a surprise. 

And let’s face it, abstaining is bloody hard - even for people like me who didn’t drink a great deal in the first place. Not only are there habitual cravings to deal with, there are disruptions to our social patterns, and impacts on our partners and friends…  The consequence I found most difficult to deal with was Jane saying how much she missed us not sharing a bottle of wine together.

Alcohol is now so central to our culture that giving it up also invites a surprising amount of resistance. Why not just cut out wine - how about drinking only at weekends - when are you starting again; you’re making us feel bad…  The pressure to justify sobriety is a phenomenon so universal that support websites regularly offer tips on how to ‘come out’ as a non-drinker.  One I read recently  advised telling friends that you’ve taken up a year-long challenge for charity… Really?

But this is a time to celebrate not to analyse.

For despite the challenges, having stuck with it, I’m more motivated than ever to keep going. I guess it’s like any achievement - what at first seemed improbable, gets easier over time. The cravings subside more quickly than you’d imagine (about 60 to 90 days is key); real friends quickly accept your decision (and those few that don’t, well…); there’s even a slight danger of smugness. For in viewing the world unfiltered by booze - especially in the mornings - I've discovered a joy as intoxicating and as achingly more-ish as any good malt whisky.  

And that’s a very fine product* indeed.


*  Result of multiplication (7): Product.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Passing thoughts.

This week I learned of two deaths - they could not have been more different.

On Tuesday I was told that my ex father in law had died.  He must have been ninety or thereabouts; a kind man, gentle, with a wry sense of humour.  I’d not seen him since I separated from my first wife nearly thirty years ago, but I’m grateful still, for the care and support he gave me when starting out on adult life. I hope, that we didn’t speak says as much about distance and life moving on, than any lasting anger on his part.

When I heard of his passing I didn’t shed tears. Death at any age is sad, but there is comfort in the knowledge of a life well lived. We can celebrate what the person gave us, rejoice in shared memory, and - especially if there are descendants - take comfort in a sense of their contribution to the greater life journey.  

For my part, this is as close to faith as I get. 

Yesterday I learned too of the death of one of my son’s best friends. More accurately, I should say ‘had confirmed’, for we knew through the grapevine, and in our hearts, that the skier reported to have fallen 650ft in Oz-en-Oizans, was Jordan.  One slip on the ice and…

As I write these few words, my fingers are tensing at the keyboard; my eyes are wet and it hurts to swallow. I am thinking of the time he came to our house and we played table tennis in the garden -  so vital, so competitive, such fun to be with…  Twenty years of the life force embodied in physical form.

And because of that, and because he was such a good friend to my son, I feel anger as much as grief. Anger at an industry that pretends the mountains are a helter-skelter ride; which revels in putative adventure but diminishes the risks. Its apologists will cry otherwise, but they are wrong… and the litany of deaths every year gives evidence to their self deceit. There’s more to be said on this, much more… but now is not the time.  

Every night this week I have slept badly; troubled in a way by my own distress.  After all, Jordan was my son’s friend not mine; I’d met him only a handful of times. I know that in part, it’s a dread of ‘what might have been'; a parental unease at events that feel too close for comfort - 'but for the grace...' as they say.  But there’s more to my sadness than that. 

For if I’m honest with myself, the first line of this piece isn't strictly true. To a man of no faith, all death is the same - an oblivion, regardless of when and how it occurs. That void is beyond our knowing, and as such, I can just about bear it. What’s harder to reconcile, are the memories cut short, the potential lost - the link to life’s journey, more severed than stitched.

That will take time to pass.