Category Archives: extracurricular

Secular hermit

42106984_18c0e2f5c0


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.

i. Scholasticism

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.

In Lubov Bazam’s ‘A History of Belarus’, the author outlines the progressive, positive impact of Christianity (p.60). To build churches you need skilled professionals – architects, masons, carpenters, painters, blacksmiths, etc. A new social stratum, the clergy, is formed, which leads to literacy, education, literature and painting. Monasteries became hubs for the spiritual lives of people, for schooling, and the copying and translating of books. Historically, religion served as the focal point of thoughtful enquiry. Universities took over.

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 with a team should be seen as a conscious 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. This makes it 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

Even economists have started to take mindfulness seriously.

ii. Introversion

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). See “Caring for your introvert“.

As Tim Harford says in Chapter 3 of Messy, “People flourish when they control their own space”. It’s all about autonomy. The chapter is called “Workplaces”.

iii. Paleo

How to be healthy? How about:

  • Get vaccinations
  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t drive while drunk, distracted, or tired.

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 make marginal changes in that direction. Here’s what works well for me:

Diet  Exercise
        • Paleo inspired (see Durant Chapter 8)
        • As little refined sugar as possible
        • Fat is fine
        • 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 more as a brunch.
          • Bureaucrats drink beer or wine at lunch and fall asleep, but since coffee generates alertness it is “the drink of commerce” (Liss, D., (2003) ‘The Coffee Trader’ p. 15 and “the elixir of enterprise” Bernstein, W., (2008) ‘A Splendid Exchange’ p.249.
          • Kerrygold butter instead of margarine
          • Tortilla wraps instead of bread (“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’)
          • Wine instead of beer
          • Alcohol is fine (1-2 drinks a day are better for you than zero)
          • 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 eat meat and agree with Durant’s point that creating a niche market for ethically sourced meat would do more for animal welfare than boycotting it entirely (p.270). A meat eating guideline would be:
          • Make animal welfare part of your buying decision
          • Eat animals with low pain thresholds (e.g. fish, insects)
          • Eat invasive species
          • Eat nose to tail
          • Try lab grown synthetic meat
        • If you can’t resist junk food or a late night snack just throw it all out. Systems > will power.
    • Walk where possible (i.e. < 30 mins) – “it quiets the mind without silencing it completely. With the volume turned down, we can hear ourselves again” Weiner, 2016, p.59
    • Opting for stairs instead of lifts/escalators (and never standing on escalators)
    • Swimming (front crawl)
    • Pilates
    • Cycling
    • Trail running (wearing one layer less than is initially comfortable)
    • Turn down the thermostat
    • Be cool – “far more calories are used to heat the body than to move it” (Durant, p.216)
    • (You should also take cold showers but I am too attached to very warm ones)
    • Annual 10km Monster Race
    • 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 perhaps get a standing desk for my study (see The Economist)
    • Get enough sleep

It’s easy to use weather as an excuse not to get outside, so I like the phrase: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. In England this is mitigated by the fact that so much bad weather is rain, and rain does curtail a lot of outdoor activities. And we need to avoid the temptation to blame our clothes. Hence my mantra is: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.

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 than 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:

_64420550_sleep-illustration-final

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 9:30pm 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:

FullSizeRender

And as best as possible, declutter.

(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 enjoy phoning my parents and siblings. However, generally speaking, the telephone is a horrible way to communicate. You miss out on social clues and have to think quickly (see Cowen 2009, p.72). It’s also 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 is usually the mature and sensible thing to do. But if face to face and email contact are options, I 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 use all three regularly.
  • 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; (2) a wireless link to a WD My Cloud. These two steps protect me from me two biggest concerns (that I accidentally 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 (i.e. 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 own 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 image 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

My idea of heaven is sitting down with a couple of cans of lager and a good book right here:

I think I found this on Twitter, but can’t remember where. It’s a beautiful photo!

“Something about train travel – the rocking motion and the passing scenery, there for you to admire or ignore – lends itself to creative breakthroughs” Weiner, 2016, p.175

In 2018 I took the Caledonian sleeper before the new stock came online, and loved it. See ‘An Ode to the Night Train‘.

 

 

 

 

 

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 anticipated 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). If not at the match, my preferred method of watching Everton games 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.

“For me, cafes are a kind of second home, a prime example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a “great good place.” The food and drink are irrelevant, or nearly so. What matters is the atmosphere – not the tablecloths or the furniture but a more intelligible ambience, one that encourages guilt-free lingering and strikes just the right balance of background din and contemplative silence.” (Weiner, 2016, p.16)

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:

6a00d83451620669e20133f33242af970b-pi


Updated: May 2018

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.

I also like Harold Pollack’s attempt to put financial advice on a 4×6 index card:

Photo by Harold Pollack

Photo by Harold Pollack

I also like this investment philosophy from Jim O’Shaughnessy.

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 mega 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.

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

  • Fill in the date at the top left – 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). Make sure you include a total.
  • Then look at your outgoings. All of the sections in the thin black boxes should be summed together in the 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 there is a row underneath to write down the provider in the left half and the amount in the right.
  • If there are any bills that are paid annually fill in the amount in green (and there is space below to add the renewal month). Divide each green number by twelve and sum together in the separate box called “monthly equivalent”.
  • 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 perhaps that’s a problem. (Although if you’re checking them more than once a year that may also be a problem. Set it, and forget it). 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. For many people most of their wealth is tied up in housing, so you can add the current value of your property less the outstanding mortgage. But I’d keep that separate to the main wealth calculation (it’s hard to shake about).
  • The two grey boxes are some metrics:
    • 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.
    • Include your personal and employer’s contribution to your pension. Make sure you max out any matched contribution and have a figure as hugh as you can afford (>25%)
    • Total wealth is the sum of “Shake it all About” and house equity.

Some general comments:

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 prime 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, but mostly 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. But in richer countries tipping is a horrible practice and I favour an automatic 15% service charge that gets split at the discretion of senior management.
  • I have an annual budget to use for 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. The fact that the Ice Bucket Challenge involved nominations and a deadline involved an amount of peer pressure that I consider to be a form of bullying. I find such expressive gestures self-satisfying and hollow and believe 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.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is community work, and I’ve often wondered if I’ve used shyness as a mask for selfishness. However Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character’ reassured me that we shouldn’t overstate community involvement. He says, “community service is sometimes used as a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life”. He provides an example of asking a headteacher how her school teaches character, and the response was the number of hours of community service. According to Brooks, “when I asked her about something internal, she answered by by talking about something external. Her assumption seemed to be that if you go off and tutor poor children, that makes you a good person yourself”. It isn’t a massive leap to consider “how can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I”. He says (p.133),

Today, when we use the phrase “public-spirited,” we tend to mean someone who gathers petitions, marches and protests, and makes his voice heard for the public good. But in earlier eras it meant someone who curbed his own passions and moderated his opinions in order to achieve a larger consensus ands bring together diverse people.

If you struggle to find the balance between donating 80% of your income to charity and retraining as a doctor to work in a children’s hospital in Africa, versus doing nothing, I recommend ‘Stubborn Attachments‘ by Tyler Cowen. In particular, may this passage reassure you:

fullsizerenderOr, as George Eliot ended Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

 

Decision making framework

6a00d83451620669e20133f351e64f970b

When struggling to make a decision a simple first step is to create three columns and list:

  • Reasons in favour
  • Reasons against
  • Further information required

I like the advice from Jack Reacher,

Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time. Don’t figure out how or why it happened. Don’t recriminate. Don’t figure out whose fault it is. Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you can do later. If you survive. First of all you evaluate. Analyse the situation. Identify the downside. Assess the upside. Plan accordingly. Do all that and you give yourself  a better chance of getting through to the other stuff late.

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

And all those points should be evidence-based. Not necessarily extensive, but easily digestible. As management guru Joey Barton points out, three key points are “the limit of relevant, easily digestible information”.

Rejection

photo

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.

Update: here’s my pitch for the Everton job 2016

 

My Guide to Travel

parrot


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 (hotel will usually have a pool)
  • 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
  • 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.

Airports are outside any conventional time zone and so embrace this detachment. They are one of the few places where it’s socially acceptable to have a pint before 10am. Embrace this! I plan to arrive 3 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. For most people a 2 hour arrival is plenty of time, but I only do this if it’s less than a 30 minute drive to the airport; it’s a small airport; I know there won’t be a pleasant cafe beyond security; I’m really tired.

(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). BTW it’s usually fine to use the toilet when the seatbelt sign is on and here are some excellent tips for getting more legroom.

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. In which case wear a baseball cap. Or both.
  • 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 are 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.

I’ve also started listening to more Podcasts whilst flying. They can be a good way to get through a drama series.

(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:

  • A bath wide enough to shower in
  • Electrical socket on the desk and on the bedside table
  • A desk lamp with a switch on the base of the lamp (not on the wire, hidden behind the desk)
  • Black out curtains

In terms of security I bring a door stop with me.

(5) Transport

Uber is a game changer for domestic transportation. Whilst I don’t mind using public transport it can be almost impossible in the US, and I think it’s wrong to be insensitive to being ripped off on the grounds that you’re using expenses. When reliant on local taxis I’d often prefer to stay at the hotel, but Uber have made it cheaper and easier to get around. Critically they have removed the cultural uncertainty regarding appropriate fares and tipping; reduced suspicion about appropriate routes; avoided the need to carry cash; and lowered prices.

I totally agree with Michael Jennings’s account of “Why a traveller loves Uber“.

(6) 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!

photo

I am a creature of habit and get great benefits from the epistemic shortcuts of returning to the same place year after year after year after year after year after year. And recently I realised that I struggle to recollect anywhere that I’ve only been to once. It was only on my second trips to Perth, Bucharest, Turin, Sofia and Minsk that I felt I could piece any of those great cities together in my head. There is something about a return visit to confront your first impressions, and permit yourself a passage of time and circumstance, that makes it a necessary part of travel. It means you can’t get too far ahead of yourself, dipping in and out and passing through. For me, at least, I need to relate a city to my own past experiences.

Finally, when travelling, go that little bit further. I’ve realised that many of my most meaningful travel experienced are when I’ve ventured slightly farther than my original plans. In 2014 I visited Atlanta and on a whim decided to rent a car and drive to Montgomery. It was exciting and felt like genuine adventure. When I visited Minsk in 2018 I took the time to jump on a train north. It gave me an additional reference point, heightening my understanding of the country, and providing an opportunity for independence. As much as I love the routine of travel described further up the page, all the more reason to seek out the circumstances for surprise.


Updated: September 2018

Game practice

We think that games have an important place in cultivating good strategists, and that now more than ever games can give executives an edge over their competition.
Reeves and Wittenburg, Harvard Business Review


In addition to my online (and offline) course on Game Theory, I also offer students the opportunity to enjoy some “Game Practice”. Get in touch if you would like me to organise sessions of any of the following:

  • Carcassonne
  • Settlers of Catan
  • Dominion
  • Hive
  • Biblios
  • Risk

I also recommend Eleusis, which is a great game to understand inductive reasoning. And Tic-Tac-Toe is just fun!

Lifehacks

I don’t define a lifehack as a shortcut or “good idea”, but as when you productively use a tool for a task that it wasn’t intended to perform.

For example:

  • When you are at a picnic or the beach use a shoe as a drink holder
  • Use a latte spoon to dispense and spread mayonnaise from the jar
  • Use an empty complementary shampoo bottle from a hotel as a razor holder in the shower
  • Use a boot bag in the car boot to organise your emergency rain coats
  • Depending on your type of car, Vegemite jars can make excellent change holders for parking (use a Sharpie to write the currency on the lid)
  • Use the postal service as a substitute for a bag (i.e. if you don’t want to bring the book/papers you were reading on a journey back with you, put them in a prepaid envelope and spend the rest of the evening with nothing to carry)

Don’t forget though, habits > hacks.

The English wine industry

thealefoundersreserve2004In 2007 a Theale Vineyard Sparkling Chardonnay 2003 was in the top ten of the Effervescents du Monde (sparkling wines of the world). The English wine industry is getting better all the time.

Here’s some recent coverage:

Whether English wine wins awards or not isn’t really the point. I’m an anti-wine snob:

  • We believe that expensive wine tastes better than cheaper wine but only if we know that it’s more expensive. And if we don’t know the price, cheaper ones taste better (see this video).
  • Even professional wine tasters will often fail a Triangle Test.

Be a productive drunk!

Missing Puddy

IMG_0019_4On Saturday 7th February, 2015, we noticed that Puddy hadn’t appeared for his breakfast. It was common for him to be out overnight, but come 7am he’d almost always be waiting in the lounge. And he never missed his breakfast. We soon began to fear the worst, and considered him missing. As the days passed our concerns grew and we made concerted efforts to find him. This was the first time we’d had a missing pet, and we learnt a lot about what to do. This is my attempt to summarise what we should have done.

Prevention

– Get a collar with a contact tag. Our cats are constantly losing their collars, and so we gave up trying to keep them with a contact tag. But I do wonder if someone who suspects he might be lost would be more likely to phone the owner, than take him to a vet to be scanned for a chip.

– Get him microchipped. This makes it highly likely that if someone finds him, and knows that he’s missing, you’ll find out. We use PetLog.

– It is really tempting to use GPS as this would solve the mystery element of working out where he is. Ethically, I’m not sure it’s a good idea. But I’d be very tempted to hook up some surveillance just to get an idea of how far your cats roam and where they like to go.

Rescue plan

Once you’re confident that something is amiss, it is worth considering if there’s been any changes that might explain the absence. On Friday 6th February we’d been out to a few pubs in the local village and walked past the house. We did wonder whether Puddy had found our scent, and tried to follow us. But otherwise we couldn’t think of any reason that would cause him to leave, or to not want to return. We tried to consider the various scenarios, and what our response should be:

  • Trapped in a garage, shed, wheelie bin or car – likely to be local, possibly within a few doors either side of our house
  • Lost and unable to find home – could be quite far from home, and people may have noticed him
  • Injured – likely to be by the side of a main road, taken to a vets, or possibly discarded into a wheelie bin
  • Stolen – if thieves are intending to sell him on then at least they have an incentive to feed him, and a potential new owner is likely to take him to a vet

Rather than consider which of the above was most likely, we wanted to cover them all. But some of the possible situations were less urgent than others. This would be my advice:

  1. Notify the microchipping company. They can send out an alert to their database and will notify you if anyone finds him. Make sure your contact numbers are all up to date. This covers the possibility that he’s taken to a vet, or dumped in a wheelie bin. It could be bad news, but that would end the uncertainty.
  2. Hit neighbours early. Don’t let them say “we’ve not had the shed open so he can’t be in there” – ask them to look anywhere they can think of. Remind them that if he’s scared he won’t bolt out, and could be trying to hide.
  3. Create posters. These should contain several recent photos (including a side on shot which is how people are likely to observe him), and a contact number. It is a good idea to use a number that people could call anonymously. The Cats Protection League may help. Don’t offer a reward. Put posters up around the local area and be especially conscious of places with high foot traffic such as newsagents, supermarkets, pubs, community noticeboards, school gates.
  4. Call for him. He may be close to home but discoordinated. Make sure you call every morning and evening, and leave items with his scent on in the garden (such as cushions, clothing or the contents of the vacuum cleaner).
  5. Look for him. Go out for a walk and shout for him. Take a leaflet and show it to people that may have seen something – especially dog walkers and people on building sites. Take a torch to be able to see in alleyways and woodland. Make sure you wear high visibility clothing and be considerate to people who may think you’re acting suspiciously.
  6. Use social media and local newspapers. Friends may offer to help, and if so get them to. Ask them to take a leaflet and show it to their social groups (e.g. schools, church, community classes). Ask them to share your social media appeals.

If you are reading this having lost your own pet, feel free to use our poster as a template: MISSING Puddy.pdf

Anecdotally it appears that these situations often end with the cat returning of their own accord, possibly several weeks later, and you never find out what had happened. Making overly concerted efforts to find a cat can alienate people close to you and drive you up the wall with anguish. We received several possible sightings and spent a lot of time surveying those areas. I’m not sure how likely it is that you will ever “find” a cat that gets lost. They are robust creatures that can survive by themselves for a long time. I also believe that strangers will treat animals with kindness. However I do think the six points above can increase the chances of being reunited, and it is important to feel that you are doing something. But try not to conflate activity with accomplishment. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do.

Update (Saturday Feb 14): It’s now been a week. The lowest point was on Sunday night, walking around the village. It was very cold, dark, and I had visions of him trapped somewhere, very hungry, and scared. Now, I feel that if he’s alive then he’s worked out how to stay alive. And hopefully someone will see our posters, social media will come to the fore, and we’ll see him again soon.
Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 17.55.47
Update (Sunday Feb 15): We made a map of potential sightings, and tried to focus our efforts on those areas (our house is at the bottom of the map in the middle). However these seemed contradictory. Someone thought they’d seen him in Combe St within a few hours of a sighting in St Nicholas Mt. I raced over to Combe St, which is near the Watergardens, and spent an hour or so walking around, calling. I noticed some geese and ducks by the river bank and wondered if he might have been tempted to try to catch one. I used my torch to look under the bridges but couldn’t see him. It was right next to a curry house called “Bengal Spice”. Later that evening Faith went for another look and found a duck with an open wound. Given that I hadn’t noticed it the injury seemed fresh. She shouted for Puddy, and we speculated that he was in the area. However she followed a trail of blood back to the main road, and surmised that it’d been hit by a car. When she got home I wondered if it was my car.

We did notice that two sightings had occurred near Shrub Hill Common. However not since the previous Tuesday. Then, on Saturday evening, I received a message from someone at Valleyside. We both felt that he was there. The previous evenings of aimless wandering now felt as though they were useful. I had a much better understanding of our local areas, and when people mentioned roads I knew where they were, and why it was plausible that Puddy might find himself there. Then, on Sunday morning we got a voicemail from someone at Ridge Lea. He’d seen Puddy at 9am. Now it seemed like too many independent sightings to be a coincidence. And given that he’s a such a distinctive cat, and that they’d all reported a red collar, we went to the Common. I took the kids on the swings whilst Faith searched the woodland. We then drove around the estates backing onto it, and went door to door along Ridge Lea. We met the gentleman who’d phoned us earlier, and thanked him. Faith put up a “Missing Puddy” poster on a lamppost.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 19.21.24

We returned home, and I switched off the engine. I immediately heard that my phone was ringing. It was the same man. He had *just* seen Puddy. We raced off and drove up Northridge Way. I turned left towards Ridge Lea and we were trying to see if the poster was still up: “There he is!” said Faith. Not the poster! Actually him!

He looked skinny and scared, and was walking along the main road. Faith jumped out, picked him up, and we had him in the car. He was meowing louder than we’d ever heard him, and was clearly disoriented. But we brought him home. He’d lost 10% of his body weight but seemed unscathed. It was a mighty big adventure. We are so grateful to the people who phoned us with sightings. Leaflets and social media built up a map, and we managed to locate him. Who needs GPS!

10396278_10155203932645521_7971098431339523004_n