Archive for the ‘Observations about life’ Category

The mystery of why you do not see locals in Kyoto eating food while out in public may have been solved. Today, while half-way through tucking into a delicious artisan doughnut in the gardens of the Imperial Palace, a bird of prey swooped down (from the blind side) and deftly grabbed the uneaten portion in its talons, and… I was robbed. 

The hawk in question was a Tombi (below). 

Tombi, or Black Hawk, or doughnut thief!

Luckily, the park had some beautiful trees to make up for the loss. But from now on I will be eating indoors. It turns out that these birds have form in this regard. 



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In the film Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansen’s character Charlotte is shown travelling by herself on the Shinkansen from Tokyo for a day exploring the temples and gardens of Kyoto, Japan’s ancient and atmospheric former capital city. I’ve always wanted to make the same journey, and now have the opportunity not for a day trip but six nights, and not in a hotel but in a Machiya (a small dwelling house with tatami mats in a densely built up area of the downtown, and not alone as I’m travelling with my wife, Gina.

So, is Kyoto…. different?  For any non-Japanese person visiting Japan, EVERYTHING is different, so this place is no different in that respect. 

But Kyoto does have a different vibe from the various and varied parts of Tokyo that we saw. For one thing, it’s navigable in a way that Tokyo is not. Kyoto is built on grids, encircled by green hills, and with several landmarks to make it easier to know where you are. Much more significantly, it is laid back and calm in a way that perhaps other parts of the country find more of a struggle. We are in a quiet neighbourhood, true, but nowhere does. the city feel hyper (under the surface, of course, it may be) ,…. The locals seem very respectful of your complete inability to know how to behave in a civilised manner. Live and let live (in ignorance, if so wished) personified. 

The temples are impressive, especially the gardens, but it’s the mundane, the side streets, the small shops and the woodland walks (as in the picture) where anything like zen is manifest most strikingly. There is much art and craft here, and every transaction is a complete and full experience.  Even buying a bottle of water is a ceremony that leaves you feeling you have just been a most honoured guest. 

Yes, I could most definitely write a book on personal development here. There is even a route near our house called the Philosopher’s Path!

My haiku….

Kyoto June walk,

pass through woodland in the rain.

Moths meet on the wing

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I really enjoyed this funny TED talk by New Yorker magazine cartoonist and staffer Bob Mankoff. The point he is making, however, that nothing is funny in and of itself, is precise. And true for all acts that are communicative or informational, including, of course, management.

We are often convinced that a decision is, in and of itself, good or bad, right or wrong, clever or stupid, but these labels only apply to the relationship the decision has with and in context. It is this fundamental and espistemological point where we must begin Personal Development, too.

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Heathrow 2013

Don’t know why, but these paradoxical thoughts, adapted from Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching really tickle my fancy…

Dark Light
Weak Power
Tarnished Purity
Changeable Steadfastness
Obscure Clarity
Unsophisticated Art
Indifferent Love
Childish Wisdom

It’s not just the presentation of opposites – the deliberate placing together of certain ideas sets them up as contrary, but rather than cancel each other, the thought is one that sheds light on the nature of each.

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It is with great sadness that we learnt this week of the death of the wonderful Ken Bull, known to many on the Henley Flexible MBA from his comprehensive and supportive marker feedback in the PD assignments. Ken was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer last year, and died peacefully on February 6th with family around him in Brighton.

Ken was an incredible person – full of optimism, warmth and humour. He had a long association with Henley as a tutor and worked both as an internal and external member of staff. He was latterly also a personal tutor on the Executive MBA also.  His funeral will be on Friday February 20th.

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cave book signedI’ve been neglecting my blog all summer. The weight of the growing space between my posts has only made moving to break the inertia more difficult. My muse for this post is Nick Cave.

I adore Nick Cave. I admit it.

With its etymological overtones of worship, supplication and confession, ‘adoration’ is not too strong a word. Not only does to describe Cave’s approach to his art and well-spring for inspiration and imagery in much of the content of that art, but it sums up the feelings that his art (especially in its live performance) engenders in others.  I’ve seen the Bad Seeds play four times (all in Hungary) over the years and they are – far and away – the best live band I’ve come across. Thanks to the generosity and planning of my younger daughter during a festival where the band were playing, I have been the proud owner of a dedication written in a copy of  Cave’s book The Death of Bunny Munro (see photo) since the occasion of my 50th birthday. I’d frame it, but one must keep books where they can be touched, flipped through and occasionally read.

Then this week I went to see 20,000 Days on Earth, a new film about Nick Cave and his music/identity/past/present beautifully made by (and for) Cave fans.The film contains documentary elements, but is more a creative act than a chronicle (although the act of archiving, chronicling and in particular remembering are central themes). It follows Cave and several band members while they write, rehearse and record the album Push the Sky Away, but really this is a look at how Cave’s mind works and how different types of collaboration help feed his creativity. There are some beautiful lines in his voice-overs and a few devices such as the conversation with a therapist and another with some archivists. Some of the most interesting moments come about in conversations he has with charatcers from his past as he drives around Brighton in his Jaguar. These include Ray Winstone (on performance and acting), Blixa Bargeld (on the Berlin days) and Kylie (on that duet). And then there are snippets of songs at rehearsal and in concert, ending with just about the whole of Jubilee Street, a crescendo performed at the Sydney Opera House.

Cave was born on September 22nnd 1957 (happy birthday to him!) and has been involved in music, art and literature (but mostly music) for many decades. I was aware of, but not attracted to, the Birthday Party in my early 20s in London, so my adoration begins during the late 1980s with the Bad Seeds and has remained steadfastly devout ever since. But I think you have to see Nick Cave perform live and then you have to decide whether that is what moves you.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Dutch Proverbs", 1559

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Dutch Proverbs”, 1559

I’ve been revisiting a book that has been on my shelf now for about 15 years (and fairly well thumbed in that time). It’s by Scott Plous and is called ‘The psychology of judgment and decision-making’.  An interesting read, covering the ways that psychologists have devised to test, experiment and hypothesise about how we perceive, think and come to decisions. It is built around practical and academic examples of the results from cognitive psychology research, so that narrows the presuppositions of its thesis, but the chapter I’ve been reviewing is about ‘behavioral traps’ in decision-making, and I thought it would be of interest to the readers of this blog.  A behavioural, or social, trap is

“a situation in which individuals or groups embark on a promising course of action that later becomes undesirable and difficult to escape from.” (Plous, 1993,  p. 241).

Speaking of behavioural traps (that is, erroneous action), Plous used Cross and Guyer’s (1980) taxonomy of ‘countertraps’, in which sometimes we avoid certain useful behaviours (sins of omission) and ‘traps’, in which sometimes we undertake potentially harmful actions (sins of commission). He then presents 5 types (these are seen as individual thinking traps, as opposed to group traps such as groupthink) which may intertwine or overlap but which have distinct origins:

  1. Time delay traps              as a trap, this would be doing something you see as positive in the short-term  but which will have negative consequences in the future. As a countertrap, this would be avoiding doing something  which in the long-term would have a positive benefit (such as, for example, going to the dentist for a check-up) because it is unpleasant in the short term. Time delay traps are often known about.
  2. Ignorance traps               Here the negative consequences of one’s actions are not known or cannot be easily predicted at the time. Plous here cites the use of DDT in the United States in the 1940s and follows the ‘unforeseen events’ that followed from this, namely the effect on the food chain of the mass use of pesticides. The premises of this behavioural trap are problematic from a systems thinking perspective (see critique below).
  3. Investment traps             Plous includes this kind of trap as an illustration of how people tend to adopt certain behaviours after investments of time or money, or other sunk costs, have already been made. You’ve just spent 10 months of your life and 90% of your budget preparing and planning to launch a brand new product with a feature that no-one else in the market has got. You hear that an unknown competitor, with a superior product that has exactly the same new feature that your product has. Do you abandon your project, or do you push on regardless? Or, let’s say that you’ve paid full price for your MBA tuition. Will you be more committed than someone else in your group who was given a 40% discount? Research, says Plous, tends to show that the higher the investment the more likely there will be commitment to action.
  4. Deterioration traps        similar to investment traps, but when what starts out as what was rewarding at first gradually becomes less and less so, sometimes with disastrous results. The example given by Plous is of heroin use, but one wonders whether the current debate around the growing use of pay-day loan companies in the UK has some common ground with this idea. Whenever we find ourselves with a kind of dependency on the chase for the original “thing”,  when the chase replaces the reward and becomes it, then we are in a deterioration trap.
  5. Collective traps            involving more than just you, a collective trap is where the “pursuit of individual self-interest results in adverse consequences for the collective” (p. 246) and has, according to Plous, been much studied.  The tragedy of the commons is perhaps the most well-known example, though another classic example given is that of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I have used a variation of this, called Red-Green, with groups in workshops on occasion, though now do so only rarely because it is just so incendiary if you use it only once.

These all present us with a convenient way of slicing the world of behaviours up, and perhaps also of explaining these behaviours also. I can see the first but doubt the latter unless the thinking behind seeing the world as needing to be understood these ways is also under scrutiny.  And there is the real problem. The people who pronounce on what people do, and why, are just as prone to the same biases in their thinking, and just as laden with filters, as their subjects upon whom they experiment. So there is more work to be done, and more reason for all of you to keep an open mind.


Cross, J. G., Guyer, M. J. (1980) Social Traps, University of Michigan Press

Plous, S. (1993) The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, McGraw-Hill

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Kidney stones are the closest any man will get to experiencing the pains of bearing a child.

I have as my authority on this a female member of Oxford’s JR Hospital A & E nursing staff, so it’s not just male exaggeration.

This blog post, like the wretched stone that decided to descend in mid November, has been sitting dormant for quite a while and I am publishing it now only because:

1. the memory of writhing around in agony on the floor in the waiting area, writhing around a lot more in the treatment bay in the Accident and Emergency before and after triage and then (mercifully quickly) receiving treatment and palliative medicine – all that has by now faded to a rather pleasant sepia mental image, and yet

2. the polite and professional conduct of the staff at the hospital, and all the processes (reception, handovers, trolley rides, scans, blood tests, examinations, cups of tea and biscuits)  that dealt quickly (though the morphine helped with any sense of time passing) with diagnosis and treatment  – the fact of all this just needs to be broadcast in praise of the people at the sharp end of our health care system.

I’ve never broken a bone, never stayed a night in hospital, never really had a life-threatening illness, but I’m very glad that if any of those things happened we have an organisation, and complex and imperfect it might be, that will without question act immediately to treat me, and treat me no differently to anyone else earning more or less than I do.  So, I think Danny Boyle was quite in order to make celebration of the NHS a part of the Olympic opening ceremony. For what it’s worth, I have experienced misery of the phoney public health system of Hungary (where staff are hardly paid, and treatment is invariably bought with backhanded, back-pocket payment), and it doesn’t compare.

Mind you, I’ll also be very content never to repeat that particular need to be rushed in the back of a car to the hospital…

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At Henley, especially during Spring and Autumn, some mornings are more glorious than others, and the light and air combine to leave you feeling thoughtful and uplifted. Below are a few pictures taken on the campus this morning.

Thames 1

Thames 2

Thames 3


And then I wandered a bit further along the bank of the river and found Jack – a fugitive on the run – sitting placidly under a tree, enjoying the morning sun.

I have since found out that Jack, a capybara, escaped first in 2010 from a wildlife park. He has been captured several times and always gets out again. In fact, he is a bit of a celebrity and the subject of local publicity (this report was evidently premature in its news of Jack’s final capture) a familiar visitor to Greenlands.

Jack the escaped capybara, October 30th

Jack the escaped capybara, October 30th

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new yorker you are here

“It’s in our DNA…”

This is an expression that is much in circulation these days. So much so, in fact, Private Eye magazine now has a regular feature called ‘DNA Testing’ which has plenty of examples culled from journalism. I figured that it will surely follow that the people who manage organisations and (far more dangerously) the people who write theory about how organisations should be run, will become tempted to follow suit and use the same idea as a logical form of explanation.

And sure enough, in Blackwell’s, which is a fine bookstore in Oxford, I found evidence* of just such a trend in Rhea Duttagupta’s 2012 book “Leadership: It’s in your DNA” (Bloomsbury Press, available – evidently – in many fine bookstores).  By way of mini review, the book appears harmless enough at first glance, and is written using a reflexive, folksy style. I’m sure it is well-intentioned in its central assertion that Leadership can be defined in 10 key ingredients. Be warned, the list consists of a set of concepts which are drawn from a rag-bag of the usual suspects in central casting, such as “Self”, “emotion”, “fear”, “dark side” and “intuition”… you get the idea. There is nothing new here, though.

One first sees that this list is built around an assertion that these elements are innate traits. This is the long-standing pop psychology mantra of “you have all the ingredients for success as a leader inside you”, is a well-worn path to an individualist and reductionist notion of the person. Second,  there is an equally well-worn path to a behaviourist tradition in the realisation of the self in management practice. It is within the paradigm of these grand antecedents that the logic of the metaphor ‘these 10 ingredients = the DNA for Leadership’ is selected. This feels like  a worryingly literal, not to say absurd, suggestion. It’s a shame, really, because using an abductive form of inference could have been a really good way to try to understand this phenomenon we call leadership. The problem is that there are no ‘things’, no nouns, no ‘instinct’, no ‘self’ etc. in our DNA, despite many of us finding this a useful way of processing what we think DNA really does. DNA must operate, if it can be said to operate in an isolated way at all, in a system of relationships. It functions relationally, in dynamic and complex arrangements of contexts, boundaries and thresholds, and not in terms of coded properties which are embedded as traits. It is incorrect, though tempting, to say that DNA contains ‘information’, because information is always a matter of relationship and ratio. A trait-view of genetics, however, fits nicely with a trait-view of human beings. And this, despite the humanism evident in the choice of the 10 ingredients, is what I think Rhea’s book is claiming.

Doubtless anyone using this phrase will be aware that they are employing it as metaphor, but I suspect that paradoxically it is a message of the book that the metaphor be understood literally. It would follow that  all the incredible technical advances in neuroscience and in our understanding of the biological functioning of the brain is also  the explanation of how we think and act. The basis for this claim is flimsy, but not because the examples Rhea uses in the book aren’t any good, or aren’t interesting, or that she lacks conviction. All three of those things are there. The real problem is that this is just, to borrow a phrase from Bateson, ‘shoddy epistemology’. In other words, when the way we think we know things is not in line with the way we know things, the results will end up being catastrophic because our ability to use technology and abuse our intelligence in pursuit of short-term domination of our situation is always unsustainable.


I found my thinking got a bit knotted in writing this, and I’m not sure the main point comes across. So, I’ll re-state what I think it is I’m trying to say:

1. it is a trap to take metaphor literally.

2. Metaphor is the key to understanding how the world actually is (it is just a shame to say it).

3. To confuse the properties of the referents of a metaphor with the metaphor itself is to make a categorical error in thinking.

*A quick review of Amazon books later showed me that the use of this DNA metaphor is spreading… see also Judith Glaser’s “The DNA of Leadership: Leverage Your Instincts To: Communicate-Differentiate-Innovate” (Platinum Press, 2007), or Thomas Harrison’s “Instinct: Tapping Your Entrepreneurial DNA to Achieve Your Business Goals” (Business Plus 2005), or Silverman and Honold’s “Organizational DNA: Diagnosing Your Organization for Increased Effectiveness” (Davies-Black Publishing, 2003)…

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