Monday, 21 September 2020

IT'S GOODBYE TO THE WISDOM OF CROWDS

James Surowiecki  journalist and staff writer on the New Yorker wrote his seminal book in 2004. It was called “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”. 

In it he argued (Michael Gove would have loved this) that experts are overrated and that taking the average of the guesses of a crowd of diverse people as to the weight of an ox, it will nearly always be better than that of so-called ox experts. He explored the way that crowds co-ordinate. Watch people walking at pace in a crowded street as they nimbly avoid colliding and the way crowds co-operate. Look how football crowds turn a good match into an electric event with their orchestrated noise. Crowds seem a natural phenomenon of civilisation. Look at the vibrant , busy bustle of pre-coronavirus London. Crowds are affirmations of what is popular and human. 

We are witnessing the end of crowds. The rule of six and the guidelines which deter people from mingling describes a world in which, increasingly, we shall avoid each other. The cries of “getting back to normal” which have always seemed to me as foolishly hopeful seem even less credible as the busy, crowded society of 2019 recedes into distant memory.

We are not going to enjoy busy restaurants as we did, nor will theatres reopen with big audiences or football crowds sing those gloriously silly chants.

“His names a department store
You know that he’s going to score”

of Bury striker Lenny John Lewis sung to the tune La Donna e mobile.

If the joy of strolling, mingling, meeting and celebrating are not going to be part of our lives for a while, what’s the cost going to be?

The pleasure of our civilisation is that it is well-ordered, that timetables work, that it’s generally predictable, that economies grow, democracies work and we have lots of friends (most of us). But the greatest joy is in being spontaneous. In surprises. In unexpected meetings. Of animated conversations over lunch. Of visiting new places.

We shall, of course, adjust; we’re good at that. But the ‘World Happiness Report’ (published every year by the United Nations) is going to take a kicking in 2020/21 (this is updated annually so we see how happy all the countries are - we came a creditable 15th in 2019).

What else will take a kicking? Data Protection that’s what. The basis of Track and Trace is inimical to privacy. Meanwhile the news is that Uber seem likely to retain their licence for London because they share all their data with the Metropolitan Police who regard this data as essential in crime detection.

So, what’s there to be cheerful about? Three things.

Ex Cabinet Minister Hugh Swire ‘s wife Sasha has written ’Diary of an MP’s Wife’ which vividly and indiscreetly describes the behind-the-scenes excesses of the Cameron inner circle in the 2010 Coalition Government. From what I’ve read so far it’s entertaining and revealing. It reassured me that Prime Ministers and leaders of Advertising Agencies (as they were in my day) had more in common than I’d thought. I loved the line “David drinks like a camel” and the reference to the constant downing of “lethal negronis” in number 10.

Secondly, this wonderful Indian Summer. I love this time of year. New school. Going to university. Fall is when we start to think of the future and … “of mists and mellow fruitfulness...”

Finally, having heard it for the NHS now can we hear it for Britain’s supermarkets? If only Tesco ran the Testing Programme. The ability of all of the supermarket chains to change the way they operate, transforming their delivery service and seamlessly fixing their supply chain has been remarkable.

But no more crowds for now. Just peace and reflecting.

Monday, 14 September 2020

SUNSHINE, LOLLIPOPS AND RAINBOWS...

This 1965 Lesley Gore song kept on coming into my head this week on my relentless crusade to cheerfulness. But even I have to admit the next line was rather cheesy

“Everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together.”

Provided, that is, there aren’t more than six of us. I thought this rule of six was sensible by the way – six is the perfect number for a supper. But…big but… we have a daughter and son in law with three children. I plan on sitting in the car outside their house waiting for my wife (or Number Six as she is now known). 

We had a glorious week. I’m reading again, at last – John Le CarrĂ©’s latest ‘Agent Running in the Field’ and ‘Hamnet’ the prize winning novel about Shakespeare’s son who dies when he was 11 by Maggie O’Farrell. 

I’ve walked – not much but the armchair is beginning to regard me now as something of a stranger. We’ve flirted with the idea of a lightning visit to Venice but the risks, as Covid spikes suddenly all over Europe, just seem too great and too unfair. Anyway what’s Venice like right now? 

Clear water in the  canals, emptyish squares. Venice as it was 50 years ago. But public feelings are running high. We read about a young German tourist who tried to board a vaporetto at San Zaccaria near San Marco…without a mask. Here are the rules in Venice and all Italy: “In Italy, masks are mandatory on all public transport, as well as in enclosed spaces. They must also be worn in outdoor spaces between the hours of 6pm and 6am.”

He was seized by outraged passengers and thrown off. Three times he tried to board and was beaten up each time until, bewildered, he fled. 

So instead of us going to Venice, Venice came to us. I decided we should have Fegato alla Veneziano – Venetian style calves liver strips in onions. If you don’t like liver you just won’t understand. Cin Cin. Yum Yum.

We also went to the glorious Leonardslee at Lower Beeding and drank in the tranquillity and glory of their trees especially those glorious Redwoods. So tall they put everything into perspective. It was like giving your soul a languorous, hot, soapy bath I suggested. My wife eyed me suspiciously at this with a “have you been drinking again?” look. So I modified it to “Pleasant here isn’t it?” Suspicion allayed.

My joys of the week were, first of all, the threatened prospect of the Shetland Islands declaring UDI and leaving Scotland. With a population of just 22,000, GDP over £1 billion, per capita income over £38k, rated the 3rd most desirable tourist destination by National Geographic Magazine, having a huge fishing industry and oil reserves shoving it up alongside Norway this is such a great story. Not for Nicola though.

My second was to learn very belatedly that John Lennon had a lengthy affair with Alma Cogan singer of songs like ‘You must never do a Tango with an Eskimo.’ Imagine! 

My week like all weeks had its lows as well as highs. The first was the reaction to the US election with so many people lamenting even the possibility of Trump winning again.  Why I asked if you all cared so much did you end up with a potential loser like Joe Boden, nice man as he may be? I felt vindicated as, in the polls the Latino vote in Florida seemed to be slipping to Trump. But I also felt sad and irritated. With the lead they had months ago this is the Democrats election to lose. And it’s getting closer.

Secondly it was the horror show of Philip Green in shorts on his monster yacht. Men in shorts seldom please the eye. Philip least of all. 



Monday, 7 September 2020

GET RID OF LOCKDOWN LETHARGY

Yes, I’m back - a bit like Coronavirus. You thought I’d gone away and that my blogs were a thing of the past but here I am, exhaustingly cheerful and optimistic. Guardian readers must hate my jollity, marooned as they seem to be on an island of grim disapproval.

First of all was my break good?

It was horrible. It compounded all that was worst about the lessons of lockdown. A collapse in my IQ to that of a grunting teenager. Dissatisfaction. Nothing to do and virtually nowhere to go. I was aimless and grumpy and according to my wife less than my usual convivial company. So I cut the break short. Started working a bit. Checked my emails. Had a couple of lunches. Met some people. Laughed. Listened. Became more human.

We have become trapped through a mixture of uncertainty, fear and mixed messages in a purgatory of anti-social caution. We, who are older or who have underlying-health concerns or are hypochondriacs, have flipped over into an extremely socially-distanced coma.

Well that’s history for me. I “who am” (to misquote Shakespeare’s Richard III), “shaped for sportive tricks” wish to

“caper nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.”

My wife looked and me and said “don’t be silly you’re far old for that sort of thing …. have you put the rubbish out?”

But we agreed that we needed to meet more friends, eat out more and generally become active physically and intellectually. 

Although I’m very dispirited by the economic prospects, with the rest of the world and us facing massive unemployment, with whole sectors declining, rusting and fading away, there’ll be pockets of innovation and opportunity: DIY. Home-Improvement. Gardening. Home offices and technology. Refurbished old office space. Medicine. Wine. Casual clothes.

Self-education programmes. Fitness programmes. New restaurants designed from scratch. New conference-technology (I predict the demise of the hateful Zoom). Re-invention after re-invention starting with retailers like M&S and John Lewis who’ll have to reinvent …or die.

Most of all we’ll see new businesses start up and whilst some will make it, many won’t. The atmosphere will be febrile with innovation and endeavour; resourcefulness will get us through - as it always has.

Out of catastrophe surprisingly good things will happen if we stop staying in and hoping we can get back to where we were. Groundhog-day thinking is useless in today’s world.

Making the best out of a mess was illustrated last week when one of my best friends had her work computer hacked (it happens) and hundreds and hundreds of bogus emails went to clients, past, present and potential.

So far… so awful but as she reached for her proverbial revolver to end it all the phone started to ring and lots of these clients and potential clients phoned to say “you’ve been hacked but how are you? We must talk”.

An ostensibly humiliating disaster became a hugely effective new business tool.

The lesson is an old one. A complaint is an opportunity. A problem when solved is a cause to celebrate. Forget algorithms. We are human and for the last five months we have discarded our humanity and responded to computer-speak commands - “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives”.

Here’s my version – “Meet more people. Enjoy their company. Make life better”. Yes, give each other space, wear a mask, wash your hands and follow those guidelines … we’ve got all that … but stop being paranoid and anti-social.



It’s nice to be back. Drink anyone? How about a Chinese, Indian or Mexican?

After this summer I feel hungry for life.