From Manchester to Moscow: A tale of two visas

June 18, 2018

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“We would like to invite you to Moscow this May, to address our students on creativity and leadership.”
I accept the offer to swap Manchester for Moscow for a week in the late spring as a great deal. The attraction of the assignment fades, as relationships between the two governments cool after the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. I discover later that even Roman Abramovich is having similar visa problems, but from the opposite direction.

An announcement on the Russian visa website makes the official position clearer:
“As a result of the irresponsible actions of the UK Government, which lead to an expulsion of 23 diplomats of the Russian Embassy, the consular service for applicants has been seriously affected.This leaves us no option but to temporarily limit the number of all visitors. The Embassy is doing its best to reestablish the ordinary workflow.”

Days before the proposed visit, I am seriously considering a fallback position. I find myself muttering that nothing is decided before everything is decided. My fall-back is to walk away. They need my goods more than I need their visa, I argue with myself. Withdrawal means withdrawal.
As in all good dramas, there is a final twist. After two journeys from Manchester to London, and with one last bound, I am free to travel. The visa page in wonderful Cyrillic characters is pasted into my passport. It now offers a conversation point with border guards on my next visit to the land of Trump.
The journey to Moscow is eventful. A fifty minute transfer at Frankfurt proves as impossible as it always seemed, and I arrive at my hotel at 2am.
Later that morning, I blearily discuss my proposed lectures. More like workshops, really, I explain. We will work together collectively to explore a living case of the creative options open to a leader.

With some trepidation, I choose Brexit and its leadership choices as my main theme for discussion at the workshop. To my pleasure, I find that the students are remarkably well-informed about the topic. Without prompting, they quickly home in on the most intractable problem, that of the Irish border. We examine the possibilities such as a technological fix, and even the impossibilities such as a virtual border and abolishing the border completely . I feel I am more engaged in authentic discussion than after all the ersatz debates I have suffered for over a year on Newsnight (bad), Question Time (worse), Peston, (frenzied) and Daily Politics (unspeakable).

I learn a lot about the way a country can take control of its borders. During my visit, I surrender my passport around a dozen times at various checkpoints. The ritual is almost identical. Each page is carefully scrutinised. I am also carefully scrutinised.

Back home, I am not surprised to see that the Government is still persisting in its public assertions of the vital importance of a granite-hard Brexit. I witness the unedifying sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg reading ‘evidence’ from his smartphone (surely a blow against his carefully-crafted victorian undertaker image). He is facing reasoned arguments from a distinguished Cambridge lawyer. “Experts” he sniffs, “I had to listen to nonsense from an expert just last week”.

The Mail continues its hysterical headlines, adding to its list of traitors. This now includes high court judges, unelected peers trousering their daily expenses for blocking the will of the people, communist agitators led by the evil Corbin and the Svengali figure of McDonnell. All are plotting for the downfall of capitalism. I retain a hope that I might also be elevated to that band of brothers and sisters. Maybe by drawing the Mail’s attention to my role as, at best a useful idiot, and at worse a sleeper preparing for my defection to Moscow. Jeremy Corbin consciously or otherwise clings to the Blairite idea that a creative fudge may be possible.
The slightest of contacts over a week in Moscow suggests to me that the young people in the capital there have much in common with those in London and Manchester. There is an openness to change, and a willingness to see beyond platitudes expressed as universal truths.

I live in hope.

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Brexit remains mired in political incompetence

June 6, 2018

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After my recent visit to The State University of Moscow I return to find Brexit still mired in a morass of political incompetence.

Theresa Villiers as Northern Ireland Secretary in the run up to the referendum insisted nothing would change after a Brexit. Nearly two years later, The Government persists in its public assertions of unity over the vital importance of a granite-hard Brexit.

On the Daily Politics programme, I witness the unedifying sight Jacob Rees-Mogg reading ‘evidence’ from his smartphone (surely a blow against his carefully crafted victorian undertaker image) against reasoned arguments from a distinguished Cambridge lawyer. “Experts” he sniffed “I had to listen to nonsense from an expert just last week”.

The Daily Mail continues its hysterical headlines, adding to its list of traitors, which now includes High Court judges, unelected peers trousering their daily expenses for blocking the will of the people, communist agitators led by the evil Corbyn and the Svengali figures of McDonnell.

I retain a hope that I might be elevated to that band of brothers and sisters, maybe by drawing their attention to my role as, at best a useful idiot, and at worse a sleeper preparing for my defection to Moscow.

For what it is worth, I have no valuable insights into ‘the evil empire’ (copyright, America’s last celebrity president Ronald Reagan. Nor have I returned with a message “I have seen the future and it works.” Unless the future I have glimpsed is one in which it becomes widely realised that Brexit as it is being defined is ta fantasy, a Unicorn, an uncreative idea unconnected with any assessment of its feasibility, or if achieved its consequences.


Why chess and snooker require similar skills

May 8, 2018
A heroic snooker battle shows why chess and snooker require similar sets of skills
In May 2018, Two former world champions John Higgins and  Mark Williams meet in the final of the most prestigious snooker tournament of all.  They did not disappoint the crowd packed into the tight little Crucible arena in Sheffield. There is added interest, because each player is a veteran, now rated as well past his best. Both had given serious thought to retiring, and at the start of the tournament admitted they had no serious confidence in winning the world championship again. The unfolding story grabbed my attention.
Evidence of great motor skills and calculation
“He’s thinking six moves ahead for that shot”. The comment from a professional commentator could have been made by a chess analyst. The difference: in some (but not all positions) chess masters would have been expected to deal with the uncertainties. Computers now show how remarkably quickly and deep the mental work usually is. “Thinking about” happens in all positions. In contrast, calculation of lengthy numbers of moves takes place more rarely, usually in so-called ‘forced’ sequences of moves  such as re-captures, or direct king threats.
Chess as a metaphor for other sports
Chess is often used as a metaphor for other sports requiring more motor skills. I noted it  first in an analysis of tennis matches.  Later, in a work of fiction, I suggested chess could also be compared with boxing and snooker.
Pressures to succeed
In Tennis Tensions, I looked at the buildup of pressure at vital moments in tennis, when routines broke down. Higgins and Williams in this match resisted such pressures the vast majority of people are prone to.
Errors
There were errors. Infrequent and unexpected. In chess they are called blunders. moves far weaker players would not have made (unless of course subjected to the same sorts of pressure!). These seemed to be to be from a lack of concentration, a slight increase in speed of play. Is it too much of a stretch to see similarities with the hassled state of mind in chess players under time pressure?
Age shall not weary them?
Ageing commentators agreed that the standard throughout was as high as the great clashes of the past. Much was made of the 43 year Williams and the 42 year old Higgins. There were those infrequent lapses of concentration. At a low level, my own chess experience is that the frequency of my blunders increases with age.
The Drama
The drama unfolded over three days, (first to 18 frames). It’s a mix of slow and fast play. Williams (seeking his third championship) surged ahead. A few uncertainties resolved in his favour. Then Higgins fought back when all seemed lost. Then Williams fought back again, sneaking it at 18/16
Worth reading about it. 
To go more deeply
I turned some of of my ideas about sporting excellence into fiction in Seconds Out, which has snooker, chess, and boxing themes, together with the obligatory super-villain, and a village bat-woman with sci-fi features. Other sporting publications can be found on my website

Creativity in action

May 2, 2018

Winter of discontentThe Government suffered a defeat yesterday (appropriately, the 1st of May) brought about by the creative actions of two former ministers.  

The vote was over the proposed measures against money laundering by the Government, and considered by opponents to be weak on disclosures from well-known territories including the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands. This in turn followed revelations in what became known as the Panama papers.

The leaders (or ring-leaders, from another perspective) of the opposition were an unlikely couple, a former labour cabinet member, and Andrew Mitchell, a former conservative international development secretary. Both are currently out of favour.

Both have reputations of independence of thought and strong enough characters to take on all-comers in causes they believe in. However, without context, it is hard to imagine them plotting together.

The context, and the creativity of their actions deserves study. According to The Guardian, [May 2nd 2018] Mitchell ‘has frequently worked across party-lines’ , requiring independence and resilience in bucketloads. Hodge was a powerful and outspoken chair of the publics account committee for five years.

The strategy they adapted was aimed at protecting recent back-bench MPs from rebelling, as they were easier targets for political influences from the Government heavies (aka Whips). Instead, they concentrated on influential former ministers who were less vulnerable, and some with experience as members of the awkward squad opposing government policy. Mitchell was able to deploy an extra argument, that their proposals were a reviving of plans under preparation in 2015 by the former conservative leader (David Cameron).

In a nutshell, this was no knee-jerk reaction by two discontinued ex-ministers. It was a well-thought out plan which required both creative thinking and a lot of grunt work in the background.

 

 

 


The society we deserve

April 6, 2018

 

 

Politician David Lammy gives a new twist to the maxim Leaders We Deserve
This week [April 1-6, 2018] has seen an outbreak of violent deaths through knife crimes in London. It became a national story with social and political dimensions.
Grieving relatives told harrowing stories of children killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sociologists vied with politicians to extract some morsel of digestible sense. Mostly, the views were as old as the problems of violence. No-one mentioned the story of Cain and Able, although it is not difficult to construct an explanation about the uncontrollable and wrathful anger of a spurned child in later life.
I did not expect much from radio-chat shows running out of the need for new experts, and short on fresh ideas. To my surprise, the labour politician David Lammy exceeded my expectations.
David Lammy is MP for Tottenham, a socially deprived  inner London constituency where he was born and grew up. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 he pointed angrily at the four violent deaths this year in his own constituency, and the failure of government and authorities (in his opinion) to act. He is seeking  consensual all-party commitment to action.
His long campaigning have led him to conclusions about the impact of availability of drugs on London’s streets (‘as easy as ordering a pizza’,) gang culture, no social prospects for young people on the Capital’s poorest estates, and leadership which seems to be arable to act. His anger is as much against London’s socialist mayor as against the Conservative and former Conservative/Social Democratic governments.
His abilities helped him win scholarships and eventually places at London University and Harvard. He has supported Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, while preferring to remain a back-bench MP, seeing it giving him more independence in his political campaigns. on behalf of his constituency and his passionate campaigns against social inequality.
In the radio interview, The vivid turn of phrase which caught my attention was that in a democracy ‘we get the society we deserve’. Subscribers to LWD will see the fresh insights this provides to the many posts on Leaders we deserve, over the last decade.

Eddie Jones and why leaders over-reach

March 15, 2018

Eddie Jones

A video of England rugby coach Eddie Jones addressing a group of sponsors has reached the public. It makes an interesting case of a successful leader setting himself up to fail.

 

Background

The video was recorded several months ago. Eddie Jones is currently the coach of the England (male) rugby team. His appointment in 2015 was controversial. The premier national teams of the northern hemisphere have increasingly selected from coaches the most successful rugby nations. In practice this means coaches from New Zealand and the other Southern Hemisphere countries Australia and South Africa.

After a period of relative under-performing, England chose Eddie Jones, a colourful character of Australian, Japanese and American origins.
Jones played rugby to state level in Australia.. He then embarked on a coaching career mostly with spectacular successes, but not without the occasional setback. As coach of Australia he stared well but a series of successive losses ended his contract. His last loss was to Wales, a point which may have some further relevance.

He achieved success again as national coach to Japan. In rugby-playing terms, Japan is a minor nation. It also lacks an adequate supply of monstrous players in a game which has evolved to require high bulk and mobility. His style is a passionate one, invoking pride in his teams of national and cultural values. Rather than import hefty Samoans, he introduced a fearless flyweight style of play which brought shock wins and delighted spectators during the World Cup of 2015.
This track record, and Japan’s showing resulted in his appointment as England coach.

His initial impact was spectacular, and the team began to show potential to become a serious challenger for the next world cup. At the time of the video Jones could point to a remarkable turnaround of fortunes in results. His leadership impact was clearly a significant factor.
A run of twenty three matches was ended by a firy Irish team, which was also progressing well including a win over the near invincible New Zealand All Blacks.
In this summary I draw attention to the loss to Wales which coincided with Jones losing his Australian post, and then to the recent loss to Ireland which ended his winning streak.

The video

In the video, Jones is heard lauding his own success in converting Japan into an exciting new force in world rugby. He then turns to the defeat by Ireland.

“We’ve played 23 Tests and we’ve only lost one Test to the scummy Irish,” he told his audience. “I’m still dirty about that game, but we’ll get that back, don’t worry. We’ve got them next year at home so don’t worry, we’ll get that back.”

Jones was also recorded discussing Wales in the context of Japan Under‑20s losing 125-0 against their Welsh counterparts shortly after he took over as the Japan head coach in 2012. “Wales. Who knows Wales? Are there any Welsh people here? So it’s this little shit place that has got three million people. Three million!”

Dilemmas of leadership
Another dilemma of leadership. When a leader starts believing his or herself-constructed story. It has contributed to the aura around the leader. Some might call it the evidence of charisma. The leader flushed with success, acts out the self-image in terms which become dismissed as bluster or dismissive of others.

Remind you of any other leader?

Do these words remind you of another leader, often in the news for his provocative statements?

“I’m still dirty about that game, but we’ll get that back, don’t worry. We’ve got them next year at home so don’t worry, we’ll get that back.”

If so, what more general conclusions can we draw from the case of Eddie Jones? And is it coincidence that his team plays that “scummy team Ireland” this weekend, a team which has already won the six-nations championship from England this year, regardless of the result?


Who will challenge mighty Magnus?

March 6, 2018

 

 

Next Saturday, [March 10, 2018] eight top Grandmasters will start their Candidates Tournament in Berlin. The winner will gain the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the World Chess Championship crown, in a match to be played in November in London.

Magnus is the successor to a line of great players, often childhood prodigies, to become world champion, While there are others of his own generation, and emerging wunderkind able to complete, will any be strong enough to wrest the crown from him?

It is possible, but would be a surprise. The long-established ranking system at chess works pretty well.

If you think chess is boring and time-consuming, so do some innovators inside the game, who are playing around with the rules to cope with the invasion of technology into the game (or sport, as it controversially likes to term itself). Gone are the matches in which after a day’s play,, one of the papers would seal and move, and spend much of the night analysing what next to do. A century ago, chess clocks were introduced. Then all-night study was carried out replaced by seconds doing the hard-lifting. Then with the advent of powerful chess computers, overnight play withered and died.

Now, if a game seems to be in danger of extending into the night, the speed of play is increased, leading to a survival of the most agile and intuitively gifted. Matches are increasingly tailored to audiences watching on the web.

Today, I came across a humorous account of ten rules for introducing morality into computers (whose programmes are already capable of beating even Magnus). One of the computer programmes did a silicon bladed destruction job on the great champion Gary Kasparov. One of the rules of morality was for the IT chess computers to ‘let Gary win from time to time’.

Don’t know if the computers are quite ready to appreciate the humour.img_08241