Author Archives: aje

Secular hermit

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According to many, the early hermits were the desert fathers, and are therefore associated with Christianity. But there is a deeper and more widespread spiritual affinity for becoming (not necessarily permanently) detached from society – a walkabout is a contested example from Aboriginal culture, and I assume there’s similar for Native Americans.

I use this page as a think space for a secular hermit manifesto, and I define a secular hermit in the following way:

  • Hermit: thirst for solitude
  • Secular: not supernatural

(1) Intellectual foundations

My secular hermit philosophy is based on three separate movements: (i) scholasticism; (ii) introversion; (iii) Paleo.

Many religious practices had hidden (i.e. evolutionary) meaning, for example Kosher laws and fasting were effective ways to reduce infection. Using them as religious rituals ensures their widespread coordinated adherence, and therefore made them more likely to work. Having said this, there’s obviously lots of religious superstition that is high cost and serves little benefit. Hence we should be open minded about why traditions emerge, utilise the ones where we can understand the value, and drop those that conflict with our scientific explanations.

I believe the link between monasticism and academia is pretty clear. Both involve the study of sacred texts, a detached physical space to think, and ascetic practices (such as silence and in many cases the abstention of physical intimacy). I found it very moving that almost immediately after publishing this article, I learnt that Edward Hugh had passed away,

The economist, born in Liverpool to a Welsh family, never hid the fact that he had wanted to live in a monastery, and this small Empordà hamlet of 60 inhabitants came rather close to this idea of having a place to reflect, read, and write. Satellite television and the internet allowed him to remain connected to the world, while Escaules gave him the peace he needed to work.

My “Thoughts on Administration” makes a conscious effort to integrate monastic practices with programme management. I am a fan of management but working in a team should be seen as an opportunity to develop other people. If you don’t want to coach, then don’t take on such responsibility. Also, I try to be an institution builder, not an organisation builder. It’s easier to respond to sunk costs, and although your output will be less visible you can actually have a deeper impact.

“Rest for a scientist, Vavilov said, should be regarded as another way of furthering creative work” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber, p.137

Quiet (Susan Cain, Penguin 2012) is an excellent survey of introversion. Introverts often feel pressured into conforming with a society that seems built on extrovert principles. The book helped me to understand my own introversion and gain strategies to deal with it. It also gave me confidence to shape my social interactions around my preferences, and to communicate better with friends. I also strongly recommend Create your own Economy (Tyler Cowen, Dutton 2009) which ventures more into the autism debate but makes a compassionate argument for why OCD tendencies should be better understood and the value they serve.

Finally, there’s many points of tangency between being a secular hermit and the increasingly popular Paleo philosophy. For a general overview I recommend John Durant’s book, The Paleo Manifesto. I don’t follow a Paleo lifestyle strictly but I do recommend making marginal changes in that direction. Here’s what works well for me:

Diet Exercise
      • Paleo inspired
      • As little refined sugar as possible
      • Here are some simple substitutes that I make to move in a more Paleo direction:
        • I don’t understand Bullet Proof coffee but breakfast is usually just coffee, maybe a natural yoghurt as well. On the odd occasions I have toast or cereal that counts as brunch
        • Kerrygold instead of margarine
        • Tortilla wraps instead of bread
        • Wine instead of beer
        • Cake on birthdays and major festivals only
      • Full fat milk: be like the peasants of Vologda, who “will not thin their milk even if the world is being destroyed around them” (Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber)
      • “I can walk away from their bread, not needing it at all… I can go into the forest and survive there on mushrooms and berries” Father Ferapont, in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’
  • Walk where possible (i.e. < 30 mins)
  • Opting for stairs instead of lifts/escalators (and never standing on escalators)
  • Swimming (front crawl)
  • Trail running (wearing one layer less than is initially comfortable)
  • Be cool – “far more calories are used to heat the body than to move it” (Durant, p.216)
  • Turn down the thermostat
  • (You should also take cold showers but I am too attached to very warm ones)
  • SUP (my goal is to SUP on a canal)
  • Going barefoot as much as possible
  • Polar bear dips on New Year’s Day
  • At some point I want to learn the Tummo Technique and get a standing desk for my study

I like the phrase: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. In England this is mitigate by the fact that so much bad weather is rain, and rain does curtail a lot of outdoor activities.

Durant (p.231) suggests that for short periods of time in the sun suncream is unnecessary. Indeed applying it can be dangerous because it will prevent the warning signs that damage is occurring without actually stopping it (i.e. it’s better to feel burnt and get out of the sun then to feel bronzed and stay in it). For sunbathing use a broad spectrum cream that blocks UVa and UVb.

I’d love a standing desk but I need depth when I’m working and elevating it would be ludicrous. If only there were a standing desk that folds down…

An addendum to the “exercise” plan is a sleep plan. I try to nap and also have a sleep plan based on this cartoon:

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I am a big fan of the Gro clock and it’s amazing how many years it’s taken to suspect that an adult version might be useful as well. I do appreciate a key difference in that the former intends to make morning a binary issue, whilst the latter does the opposite. But still, it’s about the light – make sure that nightlights are yellow (i.e. sunset) and only use blue tones for morning.

I also have an evening alarm clock – my watch beeps at 9:45pm which is a signal to avoid electronic devices, stop consuming food, and consciously start winding down.

I intend to do a monthly 20 hour fast using the following schedule:

Finish a meal by 6pm

Sleep

Have a 2pm lunch

(2) Advice for social interaction

Here are some steps on how to become more of a secular hermit:

  • Don’t be afraid to ghost
  • Avoid phone calls
    • A phone is fine for interacting with complete strangers (I quite enjoy battling with customer services and sabotaging nuisance calls), and I like phoning my parents and siblings. However, generally speaking, the telephone is a horrible way to communicate (see Cowen 2009, p.72). You miss out on social clues and have to think quickly. It’s very hard to say “leave that with me and i’ll think about it” and so a business call in particular can generate tension (I’d love to see experimental evidence on negotiations conducted via phone vs. face to face). Over the phone I am concentrating on not committing to something I don’t want to do, and therefore I find it very difficult to establish where mutual gains are.
    • In addition, you are left without a record of what has been said. If like me you follow up a business call by taking notes and sending agreed to do lists over email, the call is a waste of time.
    • Having said this, if you are frustrated that emails aren’t being responded to, have an urgent query, or are hitting a stalemate, picking up a phone may be the mature and wise thing to do. However if face to face and email contact are options, I just struggle to see the purpose of a telephone call.
  • Social media: Facebook started out as a way to track down acquaintances (the first rival that it killed was Friends Reunited, after all) but is now like calling home (it really is about “updating” friends and family). Twitter is the type of side-to-side conversation that occurs if you’re in the pub (Cowen 2009, p.78). You just shout a few things, a couple of people might respond, and a few more will listen to it. Message boards are like a pub when you’re drunk. They are perfect for in jokes/banter but also confrontation and love ins (depending on whether you’re an angry drunk or happy drunk).
  • I don’t believe in the cloud (“not quite visible, not quite tangible, but awfully real; amorphous, spectral: hovering nearby, yet not situated in any one place”, (Gleick 2011, p.395)) – instead I opt for a well-ordered vault.
    • My backup strategy is threefold: (1) a constant USB link to a hard drive; and (2) a wireless link to a WD My Cloud. This protects me from me two biggest concerns (that I accidently delete a file and need to recover it, or that my computer gets stolen). Since I don’t feel fully protected against the risk of a natural disaster (if my study floods or burns down my wireless back up would be affected), I (3) copy an annual backup onto a portable drive and store it in my office. This seems a more reasonable strategy than using a fireproof safe. All three are WD products and they integrate seamlessly with a Mac. They are much better than Apple’s products.
  • This quote from Arcadia terrifies me:

    “We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”

  • I keep all of my photos within Photos for Mac, categorised into albums and folders for each year. I don’t believe in a “Photostream” and shake at the thought of having a single file outside of my purview. My computer is well ordered and I spend a lot of time filing electronic and physical documents. I’m fighting against a tide when it comes to photos, but I have a system that I like:
    • A selection of photos from some albums are posted onto Flickr and shared with friends and family (and all of my photos on Flickr must be in an album).
    • An even smaller selection of photos are shared on Facebook. I make use of the albums in Facebook, but I “keep” them in Photos

Thus I don’t shed as I pick up, at all. I don’t have a stream in the cloud, I have a well-ordered reservoir in a vault. For me it is: archive and share.

(3) Travel & epistemic architecture

The advantage of travel is that when you move between time zones, you lose touch with each. Consider this account of the Trans-Siberian railway:

“In the great, monotonous spaces, the measures of time are lost; they cease to have any force, cease to have any meaning. The hours become formless, shapeless, elastic like the clocks in the paintings of Salvador Dali. Moreover, the train passes through various time zones, and one should be constantly adjusting the hands of one’s watch, but what for, what is there to gain by this?” Kapuscinski, R., Imperium, (Granta, 1994) p.32

Or Rachel Polonsky,

Russian literature is full of trains, because (like prostitutes, who also populate the literature) they bring together places, social worlds and life stories that would otherwise never touch. Trains are vehicles of plot and destiny, adventure and tragedy, surprising thoughts and conversations, uniting the squalid and the sublime, iron and plush, making intimacy possible across the great reach of space” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber

The key ingredients for travel are the mode of transport and the hotel room (see My Guide to Travel). Whilst train journeys are my preferred mode, they are usually prohibitively costly. So my staple is to pass through airport and hotel. These spaces are much maligned, but I love them.

All the time, and especially at home, we all have a mental “to do” list. Even if not tempted to do anything on this to do list, we must still spend mental energy deciding not to do it. One way to escape this pressure is to find a neutral territory where there isn’t much that we can do. Airports, the plane itself, and hotels perform this function admirably. The decor is uniform and predictable and you could be anywhere. But that is the point. That is their beauty. Their neutrality is sophisticated because it wipes clean your mental fatigue and allows you to concentrate and focus on the book that you’re reading, or the thought process you have. It is very hard to replicate this at home, when the burden of “other things to do” is so strong. And it’s almost impossible to replicate it at the office, when interruptions are expected, and note that interruptions per se aren’t productivity killers, it’s the threat of an interruption. I’ve always recognised that I am at my most productive late at night (typically 10pm – 3am) or when there’s few students or staff on campus (i.e. after classes or during holidays). I’d previously attributed this to being a night owl, but now realise that these are times when the potential for interruption are lowest. Once you enter the airport/airplane/hotel realm the potential for interruption falls dramatically.

These days the constant connectivity of social media and email means that a chief source of potential interruption is your phone. So recognise that flight safe mode works on the ground as well. I routinely turn it on if I know there’s little chance of a genuine emergency (e.g. if I’m at home with my wife). If I need to keep a possible communication line open I’ll use “Do Not Disturb” (and ensure that close family would still come through). My preferred method of watching Everton games (other than being at the match) is to turn flight safe mode on at 3pm and then wait until the 10pm extended highlights without knowing the score. Routinely disconnecting every Saturday is a nice way to find focus on other things (such as writing, or spending time with family).

On average I make a foreign work trip once a month and this isn’t enough to be productive. So I supplement the airplane/hotel room dyad with train/coffee shop. When booked in advance off peak train journeys are cheap and quiet so every month I try to take a 1 hr + journey with a book. There’s a very good independent coffee shop near where I live but my go to place is Starbucks. Starbucks is brilliant – loads of chairs, good coffee (and flat white pioneers), subtle design, not chaotic, great app and loyalty programme. I love it.

Ultimately, though my travel dream is to spend time on a container ship. I first had the idea when I saw Michael Palin “repeat a day” on Around the World in 80 Days, and it combines two of my passions in life – global trade and detachment. There’s a fascinating photo-journal called “Live and Work on a Container Ship” (via Things Organized Neatly):

For almost five months now, I have been living and working as a deckhand on a 906 foot container ship making 57 day runs from New York to Singapore, while hitting many ports in between. We are importing/exporting goods from the Middle East, Asia, and America. As I am writing this we are making our way through the Gulf of Aden on what will be my last trip. Here is a little description of what its like to go to sea in the merchant marine.

I thought the photo of the Emma Maersk was mind blowing, but take a look at this:

01.Cargo

Enlightened Management

“Progress is sustainable, indefinitely. But only by people who engage in a particular kind of thinking and behaviour – the problem-solving and problem-creating kind characteristic of the Enlightenment. And that requires the optimism of a dynamic society” (Deutsch, 2011, p.423)


I believe that management matters, and that we can teach it. There is strong evidence that MBA programmes generate social value:

  • “companies that use the most widely accepted management techniques, of the sort that are taught in business schools, outperform their peers in all the measures that matter, such as productivity, sales growth and return on capital.” The Economist
  • Some 98% of corporate employers report that they are satisfied with their MBA hires, a figure that has not changed since 1998.” The Economist

The purpose of this article is to assemble some resources to argue that management can and should more fully incorporate the principles of scientific discovery and the optimistic outlook upon which the enlightenment occurred.

According to David Deutsch the basic regulating principle of the enlightenment is the quest for good explanations. This implies that we should not judge scientific merit as being akin to accurate predictions, and also that we need should cultivate a tradition of criticism and the rejection of authority. He advocates that we deem something to be real if it is part of our best explanation of something.

The mark of a good theory is that it is hard to vary, and not if it is testable, “bad explanations are equally useless whether they are testable or not” (p.25) and “we do not test every testable theory, but only the few that we find are good explanations. Science would be impossible if it were not for the fact that the overwhelming majority of false theories can be rejected out of hand without any experiment, simply for being bad explanations” (p.25). We cannot know what constitutes truth, but we can know that it exists:

“Scientific theories are hard to vary because they correspond closely with an objective truth, which is independent of our culture, our personal preferences and our biological make-up” (p.353)

These methodological positions resonate with me because of my background in Austrian economics, and there are very important interplays between Austrian economics and strategic management.

Seeking good explanations is what constituted the enlightenment – it was “how they began to think. It is what they began to do, systematically for the first time. It is what made the momentous difference to the rate of progress of all kinds” (p.23).

The implication for management: seek good explanations and cultivate a tradition of criticism. 

Deutsch presents an optimistic scenario of where a focus on finding good explanations might lead. He refers to the beginning of infinity as “the possibility of the unlimited growth of knowledge in the future” (p.164).

Some insights for management

  1. Go easy on motivation

I like motivational sayings but mainly the ones that I have written for myself. Ones that are meaningful. I sometimes hear other people’s sayings and they resonate with me, but this is rare. I feel that corporate slogans are worrying purely because they seek to impose their meaning on you. And I have a deeper concern, which is that slogans are a form of propaganda, and serves to stifle freedom of thought. In Imperium, Ryszard Kapuscinski writes about how “interrogative language was appropriated by the police” (p.146), leading to people asking fewer and fewer questions:

“In their place appeared an infinite number of sayings, catch words, and turns of phrase expressing approval of that which is, or at least indifference, lack of surprise, humble consent, resignation… A civilization that does not ask questions, one that banishes from within its compass the entire world of anxiety, criticism, and exploration – the world that expresses itself precisely through questions – is a civilization standing in place, paralyzed, immobile. And that is what the people in the Kremlin were after, because it is easiest to rule over a motionless and mute world” (p.146)

2. Go easy on meetings

Why do large companies have so many meetings?

I think it has something to do with a movements from hierarchical organisation to network organisation, and (clumsy) efforts to maintain monitoring because incentive structures have become anachronistic. Here are some excellent comments from the team at 37 signals.

3. Be a Secular Hermit

4. Be grumpy

“An Australian psychology expert who has been studying emotions has found being grumpy makes us think more clearly.

In contrast to those annoying happy types, miserable people are better at decision-making and less gullible, his experiments showed.” Source.

5. Don’t be afraid to contradict yourself

6. Plan

I tend to dislike plans but I like the mental clarity that comes when planning. Behaviour gap have a wonderful article on the distinction between the two:

Think of this as the difference between a flight plan and the actual flight. Flight plans are really just the pilot’s best guess about things like the weather. No matter how much time the pilot spend planning, things don’t always go according to the plan.

In fact, I bet they rarely go just the way the pilot planned. There are just too many variables. So while the plan is important, the key to arriving safely is the pilot’s ability to make the small and consistent course corrections. It is about the course corrections, not the plan.

7. Information needs to be filtered

We are living in an information age, and as T.S. Eliot said,

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

According to James Gleick, “Strategies emerge for coping. There are many, but in essence they all boil down to two: filter and search”  (see Gleick, 2011, p.409-412). The blog I co founded in January 2004 was called “The Filter” and our slogan was “the Liver on the web”. This was a homage to the city of our adoption and affection, but also the function we intended to provide. One of my best academic publications was on the differences between search and browse. The main point was that search theory was trivial because people actually acquire information through browsing. But you can only browse things that have been filtered.

Note that Apple music is about curating. Newspapers are about editing. We wish to browse content that has been filtered. We don’t search for information, we browse.

As Clay Shirkey has pointed out, the modern problem is not information overload but filter failure. We need to spend time choosing the right filters.


The key texts for Enlightened Management are:

  • Postrel, V., 1999, The Future and Its Enemies, Free Press
  • Cowen, T., 2009, Create Your Own Economy, Dutton
  • Deutsch, D., 2011, The Beginning of Infinity, Penguin – in particular “Optimism” (Chapter 9)
  • Ridley, M., 2011, The Rational Optimist, Harper
  • Gleick, J., 2012, The Information, Fourth Estate
  • Fisman, R. and Sullivan, T., 2013, The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, Twelve – in particular “What Management is Good For” (Chapter 5)

Favourite puns

Here are some of my favourite shop names:

  • Tanarife (Sunbeds, Liverpool)
  • Foamula 1 (Car wash, Liverpool)
  • Fry Days (Chippy, Watford)
  • Injeaneus (Clothes, Radlett)

Personal finance MOT

john_vernon_lord_ant_grasshopper


In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

Source.

See Martin Wolf’s re-telling of the Ant and the Grasshopper as a modern fable here.


I endorse Chris Dillow’s four general principles of investing:

  1. Live within your means. The safest way to get rich is to save. How you invest your savings – cash, shares, gold, whatever – is a secondary consideration, unless you are really silly.
  2. Minimize taxes and charges. Most people can save tax-efficiently through ISAs and pensions, and should do so. Also, don’t be tempted by high-charging funds – they are usually not worth it. And if you hold shares directly, don’t trade much
  3. Remember that high prices, on average, mean low expected returns. Don’t jump on bandwagons
  4. Remember G.L.S Shackle’s words: “knowledge of the future is a contradiction in terms.” Don’t pretend you can see what’s coming. And don’t pay others in the belief that they can do so. The essential fact about the financial world is risk (and/or uncertainty). The key question is: what risks are you prepared to take, and which aren’t you? This paper by John Cochrane discusses this well.

Many people will say that they want to take more control over their current spending and future financial security, but often find it difficult to actually achieve this. I’m not wealthy, and am not promising you riches. All I can offer is a process by which you can gain a better understanding of your personal finances.

You probably don’t have time to follow these steps now. So find a date a few weeks or months from now and put it in your diary. Don’t shift it. Treat this seriously. Do it when you have time…

Start

Picture yourself at 65, and make it as vivid an image as possible – not so much what you look like, more where you are and what you are doing (for more see Chapter 9 of this book). A large reason why people are careless with their financial situation (and constantly undermine their future happiness), is because we’re conditioned to focus on immediate rewards. But we need to shift perspective and think about what actions your present self needs to take in order to make your future self happy. What resources do you need to deliver to your 65 year old self? Picture your children at 20. What do you want to be able to give them? Don’t adjust your future goals to meet your financial resources. Adjust your present behaviour to hit your targets.

Practice self-control and delayed gratification. If you want to watch a movie, try waiting a few days. Treat it as a reward.

Dashboard

Create your own version of my Personal Finance Dashboard (download a PDF here).

  • Fill in the date at the top – do this at least once a year.
  • Go through your last 6 payslips and use your typical (i.e. not including bonuses) net (i.e. after tax) income. Unless bonuses are a significant part of your regular income treat them as a bonus and save them. This goes in the “In” box (top left). Put the total in the yellow box.
  • Then look at your outgoings. All of the sections in the thin black boxes should be summed together in the yellow box where it says “Out”. There’s probably some categories that I’m missing out, and so use it as a basis. Check your direct debits to make sure there’s nothing that you’re regularly spending money on that isn’t being captured here. There will be lots of expenses that aren’t on this list (e.g. food, clothes, etc), but I find that if you try to be too exhaustive it becomes arbitrary. These are all essentials and are a lower bound of monthly outgoings.
  • Use a blue pen to complete it. As you can see for the mortgage entry write down the provider in the left half and the amount in the right. If relevant, put the interest rate being paid above the amount (in red).
  • Finally, your wealth is captured in “Shake it all About”. These can be estimates but if it takes a long time to find a current balance then you’re not checking it often enough. The dotted line signals that the top part is current wealth, and the bottom is the current value of savings that will be accessible to the children when they’re older.
  • The three yellow circles are some metrics that I like to monitor.
    • Months of imports covered is =(wealth/out). It shows how long you can keep spending money at the same rate if your income dried up.
    • Savings as % of income is =[(wealth/in*12)]*100.
    • Pension % is your monthly pension contribution as a percentage of monthly salary. This can be calculated from your payslip and should be >10%.

Some general comments:

  • Get a good credit card. Make sure you pay it off each month but make sure you’re getting rewards for spending. An easy way is to link it with Airmiles.
  • For advice on what type of pension, life insurance, savings vehicle are appropriate for you consult a professional financial advisor (this is helpful). If you don’t think it’s worth paying a few hundred quid to sort our your financial future then you’re an irresponsible idiot.
  • It is really important to start saving early. “Someone who starts saving at the age of 21 and then stops at 30 will end up with a bigger pension pot than a saver who starts at 30 and puts money aside for the next 40 years until retiring at 70“. Also look at the calculators here.
  • Have a look at the interest rates you’re paying. Make sure that you pay off your most expensive loans first (you don’t want the “loans” box to outgrow anything in the “shake it all about” box). For that reason the “Adult 1 and Adult 2” sections in “savings” is blank because we’d rather pay off mortgage than add money to ISAs.

Charity

I don’t enjoy being asked to make donations to charity, and not solely because I’m a tight, selfish bastard. It’s because it’s a form of bullying – you are put under social pressure to make a quick decision.

My response is to have an articulated approach to charitable donations, which serves as a defense mechanism and means I can avoid treating each request as something that requires my attention. I prefer to have a charity rule, rather than have to judge each request on its case-by-case merits. In a nutshell here it is:

charityPerhaps some points of explanation and elaboration are in order:

  • I believe that the best way to help people out of poverty is through economic liberalisation. I find the empirical and theoretical evidence compelling, and devote my career to pursuing it. This sounds glib and self-satisfying but writing a book about the power of markets is my chief contribution. Economics is my Ikigai and when my children ask my what I’ve done to make poverty history, my response is “public education”. And I sleep well at night.
  • Of course, I can do more. However I’m very concerned about inefficiencies within the charity sector. Since they exist largely outside the profit and loss framework that I deem to be the cause of the success of markets, it is to be expected that they are subject to bureaucratic inefficiencies. I suspect that the charities I’m most familiar with, are not necessarily the most important. I suspect that the causes that generate most media coverage, are not necessarily the most pressing. So I try to discount charities that have good branding, good PR, and are emotionally draining.
  • I think it’s important to have direct debits to charities that you believe in. I set a percentage of my income that I feel is appropriate and split that between a few well known charities. One is focused on democracy and basic human rights. One is focused on humanitarian assistance and medical aid. If another charity wants me to contribute to them, they’ll need to convince me either that (i) they are more deserving than a charity I currently support; or (ii) I should increase the percentage of my income I assign to charitable giving. A Tithe requires 10%, but I already donate more than that to the UK government to administer charitable giving on my behalf. So I don’t give 10%. Less than that. If the state shrank, I’d give more.
  • I never donate based on cold calling, be it at home or in the street. This is a rule and the more you encourage me to break it, the more resolute I will be. Don’t bully me!
  • I regularly make donations of clothes, toys, DVDs etc to my favourite local charity shop.
  • Whenever I bet on beliefs I suggest to donate proceeds to charity.
  • I am not as skeptical of government-to-government foreign aid as most free market economists, because I believe that even with large scale bureaucratic inefficiencies the end result could still be beneficial. If for every £1 that gets sent abroad 50p is lost to bureaucracy, 25p goes to prop up a bad regime, and only 25p goes to intended recipients; that may be better than 0. But there’s important incentive effects that should be considered.
  • As an alternative to foreign aid, I’m delighted that the practice of giving cash transfers is generating more coverage. The economic logic is simple, and it seems that it’s working. Yes, they may spend it on booze. But as Chris Blattman points out this pessimism and paternalism is pretty unfounded (do read that whole article). Other good articles on cash transfers are this one and this one.
  • There are also important incentive effects with direct charitable giving. I don’t give money to beggars or homeless people. It’s not because I believe that they’re most likely to be under cover police officers. But if there are rents, I expect rent-seeking. I also expect beggars to invest resources to acquire primer begging locations. And I don’t want to encourage self-mutilation. I assume that any dogs I see are borrowed or rented, and whilst I am tempted to give warm clothes or a cup of tea I find this to be too much hassle. That sounds awful, but I also try to place more weight on the needs of starving people in underdeveloped countries than those where I live, so I don’t feel too guilty from walking on by.
  • I try to tip generously, especially when abroad. In many countries the service providers you encounter – taxi drivers, waiting staff, housekeepers – will be on low incomes, and so it’s directed at deserving people. This is a nice way to administer cash transfers.
  • I have an annual budget to use for sponsoring friends that ask for sponsorship. I don’t keep a close record but this generally means that if it’s someone dear to me I will sponsor. This is a nice way to ensure that I have a wider range of giving than if I chose the charity myself
  • I don’t wear ribbons and resist social media gimmicks. I find these expressive gestures to be hollow and that genuine charity should be understated. Having said that, I’m also aware of evidence to suggest that the more public people are about their charitable activity, the more it encourages other people. Which is why I wrote this post. (Indeed just after writing it I went into town and would have ordinarily bought a Starbucks coffee. Instead, I realised that I’ve fallen below my voluntary “Tithe” and set up a new Direct Debit).

If you’ve never given a cash transfer before, I recommend https://www.givedirectly.org. Here’s what I used to think of charity.

Decision making framework

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The following is a great template for requesting decision rights within an organisation:

  1. Describe the authority that is being requested
  2. Provide a background and summary of the value proposition
  3. Outline the objective with the strategic fit
  4. Prepare an economic summary with the base case, as well as other plausible scenarios that could make the project much better or worse
  5. Identify they key value drivers
  6. Describe the key risks and mitigants
  7. List alternatives considered and why they’ve been ruled out
  8. Project the timeline for future steps

See Koch, C., 2015 Good Profit, Crown Business

Rejection

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In May 1997 I applied for the Everton managers job, and received a nice reply from Peter Johnson. Over the next few years I decided to apply to as many Premier League managers jobs as I could, and eventually built a collection of rejection letters. I rediscovered them in November 2015 and here they are:

I still live in hope.

Thesis supervision

This page is intended to provide information for students that are considering asking me to supervise their dissertation.

thesis

I think there are three ingredients for success:

(1) Choose an insightful research question in an interesting topic

You can see an overview of my research interests here. In addition the + questions from the Markets for Managers problem set could be a source of inspiration.

I consider the power of economic reasoning to stem from its applicability, and therefore take a broad and eclectic position of what would constitute suitable subject material. For a general management thesis I don’t require students to work on the same research topics that I do. Indeed, there are several topics that I have thoughts and ideas on which I’d be delighted to see students run with. It is important to stress that an interesting topic is a necessary but not sufficient condition. You also need to identify an interesting research question within that topic. I’ve provided some examples of potential topics below:

(2) Utilise the right methodological framework

Although I’ve created an online course on Analytics my methodological interests are in qualitative and comparative methods.

There are also a few techniques that I am willing to work with students interested in using, regardless of the topic:

Indeed I advise you take the time to really consider methods. I highly recommend the following articles:

(3) Demonstrate competent project planning

This is crucial because it determines whether the experience is enjoyable or not. The following are necessary (but not sufficient) characteristics I would look for:

  • Enthusiasm for the research question
  • Genuine desire to have research published
  • Ability to self-motivate
  • Swift communication

Here’s a great template for writing a research article. Also see the list of “How to” on the right hand side of this website.

Baylor University research planner guide.

Grading

These are only general guidelines and there’ll always be a gap between my judgement and your understanding of my judgment. But just because the grading is subjective does not make it arbitrary. I will assign an A, B, C or D grade to the following dimensions:

  • Purpose – are the aims and objectives clearly set and have they been met?
  • Originality – is this new? Interesting?
  • Focus – is the work precise?
  • Literature review – is the thesis aware of and able to critically discuss existing literature?
  • Methodology – are the methods chosen appropriate?
  • Analysis – has the entire process been transparent and correctly interpreted?
  • Implications for management – does it have relevance to the professional community?
  • Quality of presentation – is it clear and does it add value to the written work?
  • Quality of written work – are there any errors?
  • Quality of communication with supervisor – were the expectations of the supervisor managed effectively? Was help asked for when necessary? Was it an enjoyable experience for all?

For more details on grade ranges see page 8 of my guide for students, however you should adjust the passing grades such that what I deem to be a C grade for a thesis would get a mark of 55-60; a B is 70-80 and an A is 85+. Don’t make me send you this.

 

My Guide to Travel

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I make a solo trip around once a month and have created a set of routines that serve me well. I find travelling to be an important component of being an academic because it provides time and space to concentrate and reflect (i.e. travelling helps me to be a secular hermit). Some of the advice below is a little haphazard, but it’s a work in progress.

(1) Packing

For very short trips I’ll use a hold all but for anything more than 3 nights I’ll take my Rimowa Topas. This has the benefit of holding everything I need (i’ve used it for 2 week beach holidays) but small enough to fit as carry on if necessary. This can be handy if there’s a queue for bag drop but I prefer to check it. I’ve only ever had my suitcase go missing once and so I wouldn’t keep critical documents in it, but they are hassle to carry around with you (especially if you like to spend time at the airport). I very rarely clear customs before the bags are at reclaim so I don’t feel that checked baggage slows me down. And for connecting flights it makes things significantly easier.

If you’re going to a conference don’t forget:

  • Non iron shirts – not because you don’t need to iron them (you do), but because they take less time to iron than normal ones
  • Running shorts (for working in the hotel room, or running)
  • Swimming trunks (just in case)
  • A decent bar of soap
  • A bluetooth speaker
  • Tea bags (I used to hate green tea or fruit infusions but now I take a stash of tea bags that don’t require milk)
  • Plug adaptor

I carry a charging station whenever I have a bag with me. The main items are a spare battery (handy for on the plane) and charging cables. This is all you need because usually there’ll be a USB socket in the back of the TV. However I love the design of the Mu classic and the phone charges much quicker from a wall socket. I tend to think that an adaptor is not worth the added hassle but perhaps Mu can change my mind. I also include a small torch for blackouts.

A good wash bag should be light and adapt to the contents. There’s no point having a bulky item of luggage that is only half full. I pack the following:

  • Toothbrush (don’t forget a cover).
  • Travel size toothpaste
  • Razor (you don’t need shaving foam/cream)
  • Indigestion tablets
  • Aspirin
  • Deodorant
  • After shave bullet (note I refer to is as an “after shave bullet” rather than a “perfume atomiser”)
  • Chewing gum/mints
  • Hand cream (that’s probably just me)
  • Cuff links
  • Contact lenses – switching to daily disposable ones has made a big difference because you don’t need to pack contact lense solution, and can swim in them

Note that all of these items are easy to duplicate. Therefore have them in your wash bag and keep them at home. What is the point in having to remember to pack and unpack your toothbrush before and after every trip? Duplicate!

(2) The airport

Yes, I know Tyler Cowen’s advice that if you’ve never missed a plane it means you’ve spent too much of your life at airports. But I do not understand this because time at an airport is highly productive. As Craig Mod says,

You are hacking the airport by arriving early, knowing that all the work you could have done at home — the emails or writing or photo editing — can be done at the airport.

I plan to arrive at least 2 hours before my flight, even if I’m checked in, have my boarding card, and taking carry on luggage. For most people 30 minutes at home is better than 30 minutes at an airport, but once you pass security anxiety drops. Those extra 30 minutes you could have spent at home are fraught because you need to remember to remember your passport; consider traffic; wonder about queues, etc. Once you’ve cleared security you can relax. I don’t use lounges and am perfectly happy to just buy a coffee, find a seat, put on ear/headphones, and read a good book.

(3) The airplane

Try to stick to one airline. The benefits of a loyalty programme are worth being loyal for.

I need an aisle seat. Not just so that I can get to the toilet easily (which incentivises me to drink more water, which is good) but it also means that I can go for a walk to stretch my legs (also good).

Obviously if you are in an aisle seat you should be sympathetic to letting people get out. I will sometimes try to sleep and have no problem at all with being woken. The problem I have is people who are constantly getting things from their bags in the overhead locker. Those people are inconsiderate and evil. Even before having kids I was sympathetic to parents travelling with infants. Although they should stay in Economy.

What to wear on a flight:

  • A hoody is cosy and protects your head against unhygienic seats, but if you won’t wear it at your destination it is too much hassle.
  • A gilet is a clever way to have small items like mints, earphones and a mobile phone close to hand whilst being seated – you can get them for < £20.
  • Avoid a cold/sore throat from the poor quality cabin air by wearing a lightweight neck warmer.
  • High quality comfortable noise cancelling headphones and a must.

Embrace no wifi and read:

  • I like something light for takeoff and landing – The Economist, The Week, The Spectator, or New Statesman. Not a newspaper. I do not want newsprint on hands. The in flight magazine is usually a worthwhile backup.
  • Then a book. If you like kindle fine but I don’t get it. Who reads so much that they can’t carry hard copies? I often read “big” books. But I won’t get through more than 2 on a trip, so they are not prohibitively cumbersome. Even on a 2 week holiday pre kids I would get through 3 or 4 books, but someone else would have one I wanted to read. Books are portable. Durable. Enchanting.
  • Or, I may be reading some academic articles. I can see the point of an e reader then because a stack of papers is heavy. But I like to take notes in the margins, and I enjoy the process of throwing away articles once I’ve read them. So even if your hand luggage is a burden on the outbound journey, it will be much lighter on the return.

Or, just watch a movie. Apparently Baz Luhrmann began planning his screenplay for ‘The Great Gatsby’ whilst necking wine on a train through Europe. It reflected this speed and dizziness. I watched it whilst necking wine on a plane over the Pacific, and with proper headphones and a dark cabin I find the audio and picture quality perfectly engaging.

(4) Hotels

Try to stick to one hotel chain. The benefits of a loyalty programme are worth being loyal for.

The mark of a good hotel room:

  • Electrical socket on the desk and on the bedside table
  • Black out curtains

In terms of security I bring a door stop with me and check for two way mirrors.11377275_10153538737846840_6984857104217500178_n

(5) Hospitality

I have a reputation for being demanding when I am a visiting lecturer but I am nothing compared to the amazing set of instructions that Richard Stallman sends his hosts. I have simple preferences (e.g. a working shower, mineral water) but put great weight on them being satisfied. One of my preferences is alone time. As Stallman says,

Many people assume that because I am traveling, I am having a vacation–that I have no other work to do, so I can spend the whole day speaking or meeting with people. Some hosts even feel that they ought to try to fill up my time as a matter of good hospitality. Alas, it’s not that way for me.

There are a few cities that I travel to frequently and will often try to spend time with friends. But there is an odd tendency from some cultures to feel obliged to “entertain” you, or to treat your whole schedule as theirs. If I’ve been in a classroom all day I may need the evenings to respond to emails and do other work. Learning that a mysterious person will be at my hotel room at 9pm to take me for dinner is my idea of hell.

When abroad I like to tip, and always leave a tip when I check out of a hotel room. If I’m not sure what an appropriate tip is I use the price of a pint of beer in local currency as a good benchmark.

If you want a mantra, here’s mine. Top line is when I’m leaving the house, bottom for when I’m leaving the country. Tickets usually means “have I added my boarding card to Passbook?” Money includes foreign currency. Passport includes ESTA/visa. Easy!

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