Sleepless in September. The debate that kept giving

September 28, 2016


An Insomniac watches the Clinton/Trump debate but fails to gain respite

In the early hours of Tuesday September 27 2016, in down-town Woodford, England, your editor tried to overcome insomnia by watching the Clinton/Trump shoot-out.

It didn’t work. Confused, and more awake than ever, I stumbled to bed at around four am in our time zone (we have built a time wall around our British borders. A beautiful magnifisplendous wall).

The Pinocchio count

Eighty million people watched the debate in America.  Maybe they were looking for enlightenment.  Or entertainment. For me there was more of the latter.  It was cage fighting, with referees monitoring the truth count. One referee marked it as Donald 34 Pinocchios, Hillary 4.

I know the significance attributed to the event by those who were once regarded as experts.  But who knows in this so-called post-truth, experts are dumb, trust me I’m not an expert, world? So I’m just confused.

The Cage Fight

If I hadn’t been told, I would have had trouble figuring out what was happening. A rather gentle and serious referee tried to get a good clean fight, no gouging, hair grappling, no personal abuse. To little avail. The one in red, the neater more clinical fighter sliced and diced her opponent.  The larger fighter was more aggressive, but seem to leave his opponent unscathed as she smiled in a slightly scary way at his flailing efforts.

Some web-based referees marked the fight a technical KO for the fighter in the red corner.  Others had it for the one with the unique grasp of the English language and more creative hair. He also had a near knock out with a move in which he cried “I’ll show you what’s in my lunchbox if you show me what’s on your iPad.”

Fascinating, dramatic, but the millions wanted a knock-out. In that they were disappointed. For me, the fighter in red was closer to what I thought a winner looked and sounded like. But as a complete outsider, what do I know?

Post Post-truth

The Guardian, that well-known unbiased source of news, spoke much sense (i.e. agreed with me), the next day [September 27]:

By traditional standards, the first televised US presidential debate on Monday night produced a clear result. Hillary Clinton’s experience, grasp and temperament proved superior qualities to Donald Trump’s forcefulness, rambling and egotism. Fears that Mrs Clinton’s recent bout of pneumonia would cause her to stumble proved unfounded. Instead, Mr Trump’s sniffing caused more comment on the night. But the question, in this most unpredictable of elections and in a new media world, is how far traditional standards matter any more.

The Guardian Editorial [September 27 2017]

Service Leadership: The Hospice Biographers

September 26, 2016


A remarkable recent example of service leadership can be found in the example set by Barbara Altounyan , in the founding of The Hospice Biographers this month

My very indirect connection with Barbara comes from a meeting with her father and medical innovator Roger Altounyan , many years ago.

Her innovation is a brilliant one. I have no doubt it will inspire others to contribute to what will be a much-appreciated service to large numbers of families.  Its ultimate scope is global.

In her newsletter, Barbara explains the idea behind the new charity:

As an audio biographer, I record people’s life stories on audio so that their family and friends will still be able to hear their voices and memories long after they’ve passed away. I’ve been an interviewer for radio and TV for the past thirty years so I’m now well able to marshal the very best interviews from my clients.

Once a month, I also volunteer my professional services at a local hospice but wondered if such a service also existed elsewhere, at other hospices in the UK? Does your hospice already offer this to your day patients? If not, would you be interested?

I am currently considering launching a small charity called The Hospice Biographers this September [2016]. if this service proves to be genuinely wanted and needed. The charity would recruit and train volunteer mature journalists like myself to carry out audio biographies at their local hospices across the country, from John O’Groats to Brighton.

If interested, each hospice would be asked to provide a quiet room once a month, somewhere for the recording to take place. The charity would provide the necessary audio equipment. Each interview with a patient would last about 45 minutes to an hour, with patients given a USB or CD recording of their audio interview at a later date to keep or to give to their relatives as an heirloom, a family treasure.

If this is something you would be interested in, please do let me know.

You can find out more about Barbara’s work on her website, or contact her via email at or on 0771 253 4399.


Fixing the BBC Sports website: The start of a conversation

September 23, 2016

Corporal Jones

The BBC is currently asking users to comment on its Sports website.  I will do, but feel that setting out a few thoughts for wider discussion among LWD subscribers may also be useful

Over recent months I have found the new BBC sports website sadly lacking in the information I have relied on it to provide. It no longer can keep up with the speed of information, and the quantity of information generated by the minute.

Not for want of trying

This is not for want of trying. The BBC new sports website has presumably been changed to meet challenges of delivery to mobiles, iPads as well as PCs. The information is increasingly presented in a format I do not want, such as videos which are not far removed from clickbait.

If you haven’t come across clickbait, it is a means of attracting visits to a location which mainly turns out to be less than was promised. The BBC, ironically, outlines how the system works, and why Facebook is working out how to deal with it

The BBC challenge of sport reporting

I choose as an example tennis, a sport which the BBC lavishes considerable attention to, two weeks of the year, during Wimbledon fortnight. But for the rest of the year, including the other three slam events, tennis is poorly served. When I want to know what is happening, or even what might have happened the day before, I now turn reluctantly to twitter for rapid news.

Typically, the BBC website ‘news’ focuses on a few top tennis stories unable to provide the wider picture. At present (The US Open) the site has been unable to cope with the big stories.  But even the GB players have not been covered, for example Andy Murray’s older brother Jamie in his doubles performances that took him briefly to world No 1.

A web-site design which emphasizes its weaknesses

Even with increased budget constraints, the design seems to have failed to be fit for purpose of delivering what users want, immediacy of news.  The technical challenges are immense. But the chosen design asks too much of the user, too many clicks to get to a sport such as tennis. (I suppose this is the antithesis to clickbait). The design also sends out an obvious signal that the BBC has not been able to provide a complete service.

No market leader

Fortunately for the Beeb, no other site has emerged as the dominant leader in sports information either. In the UK, Sky sports, for example, is hardly ripping up trees, making rain, making the earth move (choose your metaphor). The Sky coverage of the football transfer day on August 31st was mocked for its weirdness. ‘Reached new surreal heightsas the Telegraph put it.

It may well be that such a market leader will emerge from the slick websites of one of the popular red tops such as The Daily Mail, which arrived early into web-based sports news.

Politics and the BBC

The BBC has become something of a political football.  Governments of the right have been sympathetic to the view that the BBC is given an unfair advantage over the poor private sector news businesses such as Rupert Murdoch’s News International.  This has undoubtedly contributed to the travails of the Corporation.  Nevertheless, there is still scope for a creative response to the challenge of delivering news in general, and sports news in particular.  Whether there is time is another matter.

To continue the discussion

Please contribute your thoughts on this matter. There may be someone ready to listen and act somewhere in the BBC, if the posts can attract enough support.

The Deal, by Jon Smith, super-agent

September 20, 2016



The Deal is an autobiographic account by Jon Smith of the life of a football super-agent.  Smith in his time represented Diego Maradona, the England football squad, promoted Mikael Gorbachev on a speaking tour of England, and pioneered various financial schemes not always approved of by the Inland Revenue

His Master’s Voice?

Mr Smith is aided by sporting journalist James Olley, who is thanked gracefully ‘for not only capturing my voice, but also transposing my heartbeat’. This suggested to me the super-agent, maybe aboard a private plane, or waiting for a transfer-day deal, dictating his recollections and providing the recordings for Mr Olley to convert into text.

As Jon Smith concedes, super-agents in football are not particularly well-regarded by other members of what Sepp Blatter used to call the football family. They spend much of time concealing what they really want as part of their professional practice.  This perspective may have influenced my own reading of the book, if my own professional practice had not already disposed me towards looking at books as texts to be examined for the authors’ intentions. The Deal offers a rich set of clues in this respect.

What it says on the cover

The back cover blurbs include one which reads suspiciously as if the busy and well-known football personality it is attributed to had said, “tell you what Jon, I’m up to me wotsits with grief at the moment. You send me the sort of stuff you want me to put down, and I’ll tweak if, OK? Cheers mate.”  But the quote seems more like the handiwork of one of those literary young guns who write press releases for a living. [Note to lawyers: This is a flight of fancy, and in no way is intended to suggest the back cover  blurbs are anything but accurate representations of text supplied by admiring readers about the book.]

Biography as a thriller

The book starts not unlike the style recommended to writers of popular fiction.  Grab the reader’s attention with the first sentence, keep the drama level high, fit the murder in as soon as possible.

Sleeping is difficult in the safe house‘. Yes, that works nicely. The author is in fear of his life in Odessa. A ‘monstrously imposing man’ bursts into the room accusing him of murder. Yes, still on message. The prologue ticks the click bait requirements of the holiday thriller.

Subsequent chapters are more subdued in tone. Jon Smith appears as a person offering a series of personal anecdotes which offer a plausible account of the deal culture in football and its complex, sometimes shady nature.

I have a fondness for stories of adventure, and adversity overcome. The really good ones transcend fact and fiction, and help the reader escape from or postpone any critical faculty. The not quite-so-good ones still engage me, but at a level of an autobiography (I am who I am; I am widely misunderstood). The Deal, for me, falls into the second category. It allows the reader to assess how accurate the story is, without necessarily accepting it uncritically.

We were spared the revelations

I found the entrepreneurial and creative requirements of deal-making particularly interesting. We were spared the juicy killer-revelation about some celebrity’s sex life, which is too-frequently built in as to plug a book in the author’s round of Radio and TV interviews. I have no doubt Jon Smith could have found at least one such bit of grime from his experiences.

I could have done with more about the business of football deal-making and less about the private semi-confessional sections about the author.  My  recommendation is not quite as fulsome as the ones on the back cover. For all the professional editing support, Jon Smith might have been better advised to slim it done quite substantially.

However, I finished the book, even scanning the index, to see if I might have missed some of the mentions of the footballing greats it mentions.

One for the football fans and wannabe super-agents?

Bill James, The Principals, Seven House publishers, 2016

September 8, 2016


Book Review

Bill James is one of a number of pseudonyms written by the Welsh Novelist James Tucker, best known for his televised works about the exploits of the detective duo Harpur and Isles. The Principals is a Campus novel

The Campus Novel

What is a campus novel?  David Lodge, himself no mean exponent of the genre, neatly captures the ingredients, sex and power, in a conveniently located self-contained bubble. His close friend Malcolm Bradbury helped shape the work of a generation of writers as mentors through their pioneering  reative writing courses.

This Campus Novel takes the reader into the familiar territory of the Machiavellian  intrigues of University life. The action in The Principals pivots between Thatcherian Britain of the 1980s, and the present day.

Its title refers to an existential battle between the heads (Vice-chancellors in all but name) of two Universities co-existing uncomfortably in the same city.  The central theme has been echoed in real-life as painful ‘mergers’ have taken place for political as well as educational reasons.

Personal Interests

To declare several interests, The author of this review writes with personal experience as an alumnus of one institution on which such a fate was visited, and many years later as  a faculty member directly involved in the contortions at another which had more than a few striking unintended parallels to the plot twists in James’ new book.  He is also author of a recently published campus novel which comes with the required declarations that the  characters  in it have no intended resemblances to real-life person unless explicitly mentioned.

The eccentric leaders

In James’s book, the protagonists are admirably eccentric. Lawford Chute of Sedge University is a distinguished scholar in the still-fashionable celebrity mold.  He heads a seriously reputable Victorian institution aspiring to a place among the ranks of The United Kingdom’s Russell Group Universities. Across town lies the upstarts of Charter Mill, led by his bitter rival, the equally unhinged Victor Tane.

Chute’s grandiose plans for Sedge University have ignored the financial consequences of his actions, not least of which is the cost of the shiny new concert hall honouring an internationally-famed alumnus. Out in the sticks, the less academically recognized former community college is attracting money and student popularity for its American-style sporting achievements and its courses on hair-dressing.

Dark humour

The genre lends itself to irony and dark humour. James does not depart too far from the well-beaten path, the cover blurb relating it to Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue.  I enjoyed the familiar story-line, which beguiled me enough to accept the occasional doubtful note.  The author never completely convinced me of the relatively high-esteem in which Sedge is held in academic circles. The ease with which an academic working group can lose all grasp of realities of the world outside the committee room is far more convincing and amusing.

How to choose a Formula One driver

September 5, 2016


[Image from wikipedia Formula One entry]

A top formula one driver announces his retirement.  His organization faces a decision with potentially huge financial consequences. Decision theorists line up to offer their expert services

This week [September 2 2016] Felipe Massa announced his retirement from the Williams Formula One racing team at the age of thirty five.

He has earned a reputation as a great driver and also a superb role model in the way he dealt with injuries and other setbacks.  He earned that least-wanted accolade of the greatest in his chosen sport who never won the highest prize.

He was thwarted for much of his best years by the supremacy of the great Michael Schumacher. Massa thought he had won the world championship in 2008, in his home Grand Prix in Brazil. Seconds after he crossed the finish-line his celebrations were cut short. Lewis Hamilton had squeezed out a fifth position in the last corner of the last of the season’s races.

Who will replace Massa at Williams?

Now the Williams outfit has to find a replacement.  In some ways the decision is relatively straightforward.  There are a handful of the most gifted drivers already driving who might be attracted from their existing places for various reasons. To these might be added the next ‘greatest racer in waiting’, who has been outperforming his contemporaries from pre-teenage events.  Lewis Hamilton was one such figure.  The eighteen year old Dutch prodigy Max Verstappen is the most recent one, albeit already pugnacious enough to have upset his more experienced rivals

Enter the decision theorists

The impressive Claire Williams of the Williams racing organisation has to reach the decision for Massa’s replacement.

Many years ago, I acquired a comprehensive set of notes being taught at the time at Harvard by the great decision-theorist Howard Raiffa. They anticipated later developments in statistical decision theory, game theory and negotiation analysis now taught at Business Schools. Maybe Claire Williams is already fully tooled-up with access to the best theorists whom money can buy. Her explanation of their intended process (interview with Sky Sports, September 3 2016) was a model of clarity:

There are many criteria, and we know what they are and the value we attribute to them, she said. At the appropriate time we will announce our decision. [My quote from memory of the interview given to Sky Sports by Claire Williams]

Bounded for success

A simple decision?  Not really.  But a nice example of a decision-maker pragmatically reducing the uncertainties by ‘bounding the rationality‘ of an important decision. The question ‘which available driver will maximize returns on investment?‘ would require a pit lane of quants Profs. The question ‘which driver meets our criteria best?’ is one from which it is easier to arrive at an answer.

Brainstorming Brexit

September 1, 2016

Image result for last supper wikipedia
As Teresa May’s Cabinet re-assembled this week,  reports suggested it would ‘brainstorm’ to review progress towards Brexit.  Here’s why that didn’t happen:
Media reports surfaced this week [29 August 2016] accompanied by official images of the cabinet room, chock fulla ministers surrounding the Prime Minister, and looking like a version of The Last Supper as portrayed by Banksie.
The Guardian lampooned the suggestion by asking a few creative thinking and team-building consultants how brainstorming might work:
Get them out of the the Westminster bubble, was one Guardian suggestion.  More audaciously, dress them up as penguins, was another.
All the gurus agreed the location and the composition of the team were both serious inhibitors to success in an attempt to create useful and imaginative ideas for Teresa May’s most serious political problem in the absence of dealing with a functional opposition.
I recently suggested how brainstorming might work. The topic is important, such as finding a new advertising slogan
Various earlier posts in LWD have looked at the scope and limitations of brainstorming as a means of creative problem-solving.
Technically, a brainstorming provides a structure and a few principles which help individuals (or more commonly groups) to challenge and go beyond old beliefs and ideas.
Newer versions such as electronic brainstorming are appropriate for ‘virtual’ groups operating remotely.
Anyone interested will find information in the most recent edition of my textbook Dilemmas of Leadership, and its chapter on creative leadership, which provides a good starting point for studying the subject.
Misunderstanding of brainstorming is widespread.  Politicians and business people us it as any attempt to dream up ideas.  (My favourite misunderstanding was a well-known politician who made the perilous journey from Westminster to the bandit territories of the North to take part in a brainstorming. Unfortunately he had accepted because he imagined he had been invited to make a barnstorming speech about his department’s achievements.
Brainstorming: a personal view
After much effort and numerous publications, I have reached a view that brainstorming in the narrower sense  requires:
a topic to be considered,
a structure which tries to overcome preconceptions participants interacting to overcome social and psychological barriers
a person experienced and skilled in facilitatating the process
and a physical space conducive to new ideas.
These conditions do not completely  preclude the possibility of a Cabinet meeting carrying out a brainstorming. But they do make it highly improbable to function effectively.  The more guarded and invested in a prior idea the participants are, the less likely there is of a positive result.
And with that, I rest my case.

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