Monday, 24 February 2014


Our brain weighs just over 2% of our body weight but it consumes 25% of our calorie intake. It’s a very, very expensive bit of kit. Next time you go on a diet think about those 112 billion neurons howling “more food, more food – how can I think if the fuel tank’s dry?

Well how do you think? The truth is there are lots of good theories but a lot of ignorance. We only think that we know. We have only just discovered that if it was you who had a dog called Fenton chasing deer in Richmond Park two years ago the dog should have responded to your call. Dog’s brains light up just like ours when they hear their master’s voice.

Thinking about thinking is very hard and makes our brains hurt. Marcus du Sautoy, the Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, confessed he could only do an hour or so of maths before stopping. Isaac Newton on the other hand could apparently think for days at a time.

To think like we all think we should be able to think would feel like  a cross between getting into very cold water and climbing a vertiginous rock face. The complexity of thought and the fact we can kill someone for thinking differently to us or have  ‘un coup de foudre’ when we see someone special summarises why being human as opposed to a dog is so exciting.

Our brain roughly comprises a right and left brain or system one and system two – the intuitive bit and the rational bit. The former is impulsive, a bit adolescent, fast thinking, artistic and (mostly) in charge. The latter, our guardian of common-sense is rational, calculating, weighs up odds, is gullible and rather lazy. Our intuition is full of preconceptions and prejudices and is impressed by vivid presentation. In fact Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel winning psychologist discovered in research that respondents preferred the thought of winning $59 in a “big, blue envelope” much more than simply getting the money.

So much for rationality. This proves to me (as though I needed it proving) that good marketing works. We are hard wired to enjoy good and exciting stories. That makes us impressionable and liable to be more in fear of a terrorist attack than of getting diabetes, when the odds of the latter are several thousand per cent more likely to happen.

The realisation that humanity is pretty irrational and sloppy in the way it thinks is demonstrated every time we turn on the news.

But at least we fall in love and do unusually amazing things occasionally – things we didn’t think we could do.
Which is why I’m off for a snack right now; my brain hurts and I think that the reason  it can’t think straight is because it’s starving….not because I’m stupid.

Monday, 17 February 2014


George is in the new film “The Monuments Men”. It’s about a team of curators, museum directors and art historians who are sent into Germany near the end of the Second World War to save Nazi plundered art from destruction as the Germans realise their game is finally up. As Clooney puts it in the film:  "We’re fighting for our culture and our way of life. If you destroy your enemy’s achievements, it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants."

Clooney, a recent convert to the arts, because of the film I guess, has become a lover of Greece and wants us to return the Elgin Marbles to the Pantheon (sic) – it’s the Parthenon, George. He has a point. We should do anything we can to help Greece.

I was there last week helping at a multinational conference. It was at the Hilton in Athens, acres of marble, thirteen floors of luxury, two terrific restaurants and a fantastic conference. As George might have said “what’s not to like?”

It gets better.

Outside it was hot and sunny with those deep, blue Aegean skies. The Greeks it appears didn’t have a word for “blue” but they liked the colour a lot hence Homer’s description of “wine dark seas.” I have a new expression “deep-eyed skies”. Every time I see one of those Greek skies I think it’s like looking into a beautiful girl’s blue eyes. George and I have so much in common.

As I stood on the terrace in one of those conference lulls wondering why I hadn’t packed the factor 30 I realise how I’d missed real sunshine over the recent bleak months and how my mood was lifting. There’s something indescribably sublime about this country. I had a Greek salad in which the tomatoes tasted of sunshine, a fish meal in which the parrot fish tasted of fresh morning waves whilst the waiters argued that the olive oil was not just good but super-premium. And their story about the red wine lasted a solemn five minutes and was about the Xinomavro grapes in it. The word means “acid black” and the grapes, rich in tannin, age beautifully. It’s so smooth they intoned. It was …. and so strong too.

And the economy? Petros Christodoulou of the National Bank of Greece is sounding upbeat as were the Troika on a recent visit. Being a young Greek and out of work – which you probably are – is pretty awful but GDP growth of just under 3% is forecast for 2015, deficit reduction is ahead of plan and  tax receipts are up.

As the sun shone and the strains of last year’s Greek Eurovision Song entry by Kosa Mostra “Alcohol is Free” – it came 6th by the way – filtered into the Athenian air I felt the yearning to spend more time in this amazing country. The service in the hotel and restaurants and elsewhere were of a new, more focused and more attentive style than I recall. So…..welcome back my Greek friends.

“Καλώς ήρθατε και πάλι τους Έλληνες φίλους.”

Monday, 10 February 2014


This is not just about cricket I promise. It’s about management and marketing.

There were two things I came across this week following the Kevin Pietersen debacle. The first was from my wife who having a very sharp sense of the zeitgeist said:

“It’s ridiculous they’ve fired him. He’s our top scorer and he’s cute.”

The second was in an article by Simon Barnes lamenting the folly of his departure. He quotes from an English swimming coach:

“He faced his swimmers and asked “who here wants to be mediocre?” It seems to me had the same question been addressed to the England cricket team they would have been holding up their hands.”

So to a non-cricket fan it’s talent, sex appeal and charisma that counts. And to a highly intelligent pundit the standards have deliberately been lowered to read “England lose harmoniously”.

Let’s lament the following disruptive influences – Ian Botham, Shane Warne, Fred Trueman, Ian Poulter, Nick Faldo, John McEnroe, Steve Jobs, Vincent Van Gogh and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The world would have been better, would it not, without these show-off virtuosos?

I used to work with a talented advertising man called Richard French. He believed the role of management was to manage the unmanageable. I realise now he meant me as well as others. Interesting that Pietersen, who ranks as a self-preening, adolescent genius – but maybe the best batsman to have played for England since Hutton – has divided the ranks so clearly between journeymen and stars. Of course he was a pain and a challenge. The sort of challenge Mike Brearley, the England Captain, faced with Botham in 1981.

If calm, reasonable, group-think HR ran the world none of the mavericks above would have been allowed near a cricket pitch, golf course, tennis court or boardroom. Because talent when it reaches the level of a Jeff Bezos (head of Amazon) or a Steve Jobs (late head of Apple), spills over into outrageous behaviour. Indeed one questions whether a Lloyd George, JF Kennedy or Bill Clinton would have been allowed anywhere near high office in the 21st century.

More to the point why do we all let people with such genius get backed into an isolated corner of disapproval from which disgrace or dismissal seems the best solution? The two jobs of management are to manage these unreasonable people with oodles of talent, not to be scared of them.

And to inspire winning performances whilst marketing is there to delight audiences with spectacular achievements.

I don’t think either course was necessarily best served this week.

In fact I think we settled for bronze.


Monday, 3 February 2014


I came across the word “neomania” this week. Well, that overactive excitement derived from innovation seemed spectacularly absent from Demis Hassabis this week. He’s the Brit who’s just sold his artificial intelligence company DeepMind Technologies to Google for £400 million. He was photographed clutching a vintage ZX Spectrum in his hand as if to make the point I’m about to make.

Nowadays we get so thrilled by breakthroughs. Do you suppose Hero of Alexandria got as excited in 10AD? You haven’t heard of this Hero – hero in fact in every sense? Me neither but he is regarded as the most prolific inventor of all time – sorry Leonardo.

He was a Greek mathematician and engineer and many of his inventions were used in the theatre which he loved. These include: the first steam engine (see above), a railroad system for transporting boats across dry land, ‘robots’ – these figures controlled by strings and pulleys and powered by a rotary cylinder appeared in a 10 minute automated play, a wind-powered pipe organ, a coin operated wending machine, the syringe and the extraordinary list goes on. 2000 years ago. Yes, 2000.

As we get very excited by that next new thing over our next lunch we might just think about Hero and wonder where our next Hero is because sorry he isn’t going to be another Steve Jobs. Actually it’s probably a she (but that’s another story). Because one thing is for sure. New isn’t as much part of our life now as we like to believe.

At that very stimulating lunch in a restaurant (over 2,500 years old are restaurants) we’ll be wearing shoes that haven’t much changed in their design for over 5,000 years, eating food cooked by fire (discovered over 1,000,000 years ago), using knives and forks (over 5,000 years old), drinking wine (over 8,000 years) in glasses (3000 years although drinking vessels date back 11,000 years). The point being, and I’m sorry to go on about it, some of the most basic day to day things haven’t changed much at all for a very, very long time.

Nassim Taleb whose extraordinary book “Antifragile” inspires and informs much of this blog has a law which is that for non-perishable things their robustness is proportionate to the length of their life. In other words we can expect Coca-Cola to go on for another hundred years or so and Facebook for another ten. And that feels about right. Richard Gott the physicist has shown something similar in studying how long an existing West End or Broadway play will run; he does this to an accuracy of 95%.

In the intoxication of looking at change and the thrill of technological innovation we sometimes forget this game is being played out over a long time. It matters less whether it’s new than whether it works and is useful.

Interestingly Taleb thinks wheels on suitcases (invented 40 odd years ago) maybe one of the great inventions in our lifetime. So according to Gott and Taleb we can expect them to be with us till at least 2057 long after Twitter has been reclaimed by ornithologists.