Category Archives: Essays

Letters from my Grandad (Part 2)

Dear Grandad,

Thank you for having Hetty and I over Christmas. It was a pleasure for us both to spend time with you and Grandma.

My two favourite books from the last year should arrive at your house tomorrow.

1. Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind.

2. Steven Pinkley: The better angels of our nature

I hope you enjoy them.

I have also been compiling a list of books that I have either read, bought and read or bought and not read (yet). Here is it, just in case it’s useful:

Simon Sinek – Start with why

Edward Wilson the future of life

Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel

Victor Frankl – Mans search for meaning

Andy grove – high output management

Simon sinek – leaders eat last

Al Ries – Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind

Eric Reis – the lean start-up

Eric reis – the start up way

Richard Rhodes – The making of the atomic bomb

Ryan Avent – the wealth of humans

Rutger Bregman- utopia for realists

Philippe Van Parijs & Yannick Vanderborght- Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a free society and a sane economy

Carlo Rovelli – 7 brief lessons on physics

Tony robbins – unshakable

Jamie Susskind – Future Politics (comes out in 2018)

Seth Godin – Linchpin – Survival is not enough – What to do when it is your turn

Tim ferris – Tools of titans

Robert Cialdini – pre-suasion

Robert Cialdini – Influence: Science and Practice 

Will and Ariel Durant – The lessons of history

Will Durant – The story of philosophy

Ralph Waldo Emerson – The essential writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tim Hartford – The undercover economist

Richard Feynman – Perfectly Reasonable Deviation

Christopher Ryan – Sex at dawn

Nick Bostrom – Superintelligence

Adam smith – the wealth of nations

Charles Darwin – The origin of species

James Watson – The double helix

Randall Munroe – Thing Explainer: Complicated stuff in simple words

Lewis Carroll – Thinking Physics: Understandable practical reality

Matt Ridley – evolution of everything – the rational optimist – Genome – the origins of virtue – nature vs nurture

Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker – Do humankinds best days lie ahead?

Alan Watts – The book: on the taboo against knowing who you are – Psychotherapy East And West – This Is It – The wisdom of insecurity – Become what you are

Further – whilst the internet is wonderful, it can be extraordinarily difficult to find original and insightful content. Here are a list of blogs, videos and podcasts that you may also enjoy:

Blogs

Kevin Simler: http://www.meltingasphalt.com/ 

Seth Godin: http://sethgodin.com/sg/ 

Farnham Street: https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/ 

Blog curator: http://delusiondamage.com/

Tech news curator: https://www.techmeme.com/

Videos

Richard Feynman Lectures

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j3mhkYbznBk&list=PLBxHpsmcxyNghmwd6MJByuhwMr-WkfoB8 

Charlie Munger: The Psychology of Human Misjudgement:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqzcCfUglws

Podcasts

https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2017/02/naval-ravikant-reading-decision-making/ 

(I particularly enjoyed this discussion with Naval Ravikant. As a young man, I find it hard to hear him say that he has given up trying to understand macro economics and his search for a better system of governance. Though both of these topics are arguably unsolvable – I won’t accept that).

Lastly, I enjoyed our conversation about productivity. My current thinking is that leaders throughout history have got people to do stuff – by making them do it. This is because, as you go up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, our natural impulses to ‘work harder’ reduce, because it is not second nature to seek self actualisation.

Therefore the productivity of a safe, democratic country with civil rights is directly related to our our fundamental human nature. It is also no surprise that the most successful companies of the last 20 years have been outliers – big corporates with world hard play hard attitudes, or modern technology companies with ‘mission statements’ and inspiring value driven leaders. These types of companies increase productivity on both sides of the spectrum.

According to my very brief assessment, in order to increase productivity (GDP per capita) – a democratic country with progressive morals should focus on creating the economic environment that supports these ‘outlier’ companies.

However, I tend to think our human nature will soon become irrelevant. Since the beginning of human history, technology has leveraged human thoughts – and productivity has been inadvertently tired to humanity itself. But it is about to be replaced … and a new type ‘superior being’ set to rule planet earth…

I imagine two scenarios:

1. We create intelligence that is superior to our own. Our ‘work life’ is rendered useless and incompetent – and productivity increases 10 fold. Humanity is wiped out by its own creation – or it enslaves it (not sure which is worse).

2. We become cyborgs. By way of an example, Mum has recently got a new gadget that she wears on her wrist. It tells her how many steps she has taken, what her heart rate currently is, how many calories she has burnt – it even vibrates when she gets a message. To someone 20/30 years ago, Mum would be a cyborg! We can now to alter our own DNA and put microchips in our brains that help us hear, see and touch. Soon, Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs will seem like a thing of the past – and our human nature will change during this transition, either organically – or by biological intervention. Perhaps these adaptations of human biology will increase our productivity?

We are a long way from a general artificial intelligence (this ‘superior being’). Many refer to this technological breakthrough as the singularity… there is lots of literature out there on this.

As for the impact of all this on people and work – you may enjoy the following:

Future of work

Philippe Van Parijs http://basicincome.org/news/2017/04/17500/

Albert Wenger – world after capital (online only)https://worldaftercapital.gitbooks.io/worldaftercapital/content/WIP.html

Argument for universal basic income

Philippe Van Parijs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GP4sBGbeF8w

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifDUVj-g-HI

Rutger Bregman 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIL_Y9g7Tg0

Do excuse my ramblings Grandad. I find it easier to vomit words on a page than in person – and I expect no written reply. Perhaps when I am next passing through Romsey (or you through London) we can chat about all this some more.

Please send my love to Grandma.

Love,

Ben

From: Terry
To: Benhenleysmith
Subject: Your Books. My Thoughts.

Dear Ben,

              Thank you for the books you very kindly sent to me, which I much appreciate, and which I will return to you in due course.  I am flattered that you have made me aware of your reading matter, and whilst being interested of course in your selection, I am somewhat puzzled.
              Having explored to a limited extent the contents on the internet, I am intrigued by your seeming preoccupation with the philosophy of decision making, and what I perceive to be, albeit mistakenly, a search for a failsafe formulae for success.
               Original thinking is not transferrable, and is at best obsolescent from its moment of conception. So to use it as a  foundation for your journey is palpably unsafe.  The thirst and search for knowledge is of course a pursuit of both enlightenment and pleasure, and to that end all learning is beneficial, but not just for its own sake.  I have discovered one, and only one mantra in my lifetime, which has never been open to contradiction.  It is not what you have absorbed, or can use at the drop of a hat in order to impress, but what you do with it during your brief membership of mankind, so as to meaningfully contribute to the wellbeing of society.
                Your list is somewhat devoid of fiction and practical content, the one to periodically ease the burden of earnest endeavour, the other to experience the sheer joy of creating something that will last., and can be stroked.  I would urge you to rectify these omissions so as to embrace some practical skills, in order to keep your chosen nest habitable without having to rely on the unreliable when  ‘It’  hits the fan, and be in no doubt, it inevitably will.   Forgive me for my audacity in recommending  just two publications which have stood me in good stead in my search for enlightenment.   Collins Complete D.I.Y Manual, ( it was in danger of outselling the Bible at one time),  and The Face Is Familiar, by Ogden Nash.  The one to hopefully stop you crying when the deluge comes, the other to help you smile through the tears if it does.
                 Now Ben, here are a few comments regarding your thoughts.
 Productivity.
                  I too enjoyed our exchanges but I do not agree with the conclusions you have drawn.  Of course human beings have  ‘done stuff’, as you put it, because they had to, but we are still a long way away from finding an alternative to the survival of the fittest rule.  As  to Maslow’s assumption that our natural impulse to work harder reduces as we get older, this is clearly rubbish, just as all generalisations are when based on the wishful thinking of self appointed Gurus.  There  is an obvious reduction of effort associated with muscle waste and mental fatigue, matched I would say in equal measure at the other end of the spectrum, by the shortcomings of inexperience. What is of concern to me is the apparent decline of the work ethic, with all the problems which might ensue, should technology not fulfil its promise to render such attitude redundant.
                  It appears to me that there is no room for the wisdom of maturity in contemporary thinking, and that only  challenge is valid.  The incessant need to invent meaningless jargon to give credence to justifying a point of view, is not only trite, but clearly designed to influence the unwary.  Add in the preoccupation with abbreviations, acronyms and algorithms, and a dangerous toxic mix is being constantly brewed.  Todays cocktail of “must have” tomes for success, is no different from the Management By Objectives, Just In Time, Pyramid Distribution and Stress Planning Awareness theories of yesteryear. Just revamped editions of largely defunct theoretical waffle.
                   Your observation that human nature will soon become irrelevant may well be manifest, but certainly not in a foreseeable timescale, and only if mankind relinquishes control of its destiny to the doctrine of the superiority it has created in the name of progress.  Work is, and must be hard, for it is the mortar which binds achievement. To eliminate it would, in my opinion, be a disaster, for the biological rule of three would become two, and leisure and sleep would dominate.
                   You cite two scenarios.  We create an intelligence superior to our own.  So what?  Use it, harness it, and control it.  All that’s required is a different set of traffic lights.  Or, we become Cyborgs. Really, you do know that they are just a bunch of stepper- motors and multilayer integrated circuits?  (Poor old mum eh!)
                   Fantasies will always attract, if for no other reason than to lull the impressionable into wishful thinking.  I can see no change to the obvious, and time proven recipe for progress in any endeavour.   Create a need, fill it, and when it’s run it’s course, create another, and so ad infinitum. The trick is, as they say in poker, “know when to hold them, and know when to fold them”.
                   A  domesday prophesy  is the last refuge of religion, inexperience, fear, and patriotism, and should be dismissed by the time we reach puberty.    Whichever way you cook it, a spud is a spud, and no amount of dressing will turn it into caviar. Nor can there ever be winners without an equal number of losers, and no amount of licence or subliminal brainwashing can turn water into wine.
                   I admire your initiative, your search for success, your tenacity, your creativity and your original thinking. Never relent in your quest for new ideas which might underwrite your progress and achievements, for some will inevitably fall by the wayside. However, be aware always that Dame Fortune will be the one factor in your life you can neither  predict nor control; but what you can do in mitigation, is to always include a measure of her serendipity in both your business plan, and more importantly, your life.
                     Of all the emotions, only happiness guarantees contentment and is therefor paramount.  Without it as a constant even the most adroit problem solver will not be able to weather its permanent absence.
                   So trust your own judgement Ben.  Fill the unforgiving minute, and always remember. If it feels right it probably is, and by and large should be the only yardstick you ever rely on.
                    Take and make what you will of what i say, but only with a large pinch of salt!
                   Once again my gratitude for giving me a platform to exercise what’s left of my faculties.
      Love,  Grandad.

Letters from my Grandad (Part 1)

I am slightly taller now*
The below is an email from my Grandad, summarising his thoughts on Peter Thiels Zero to One. It is one of my favourite reads (this email that is).
Date: 21 April 2017 at 12:02:44 BST
To:smith.ben@me.com
Subject: Thiel Spiel
Dear Ben,
              Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to exercise what few brain cells I have left.  Luckily the subject matter has not imposed an undue demand on my capability, so let’s get on with it. 
Thiel  Spiel
This tome to me is cluttered with trivia.  If I strip out the hyperbole, historic dross, wild assumptions, celebrity references, glaring inaccuracies and meaningless jargon, then it doesn’t ammount to much more than a can of beans.
               Where he has allowed himself to simplify, e.g. his reference to common sense, he hasn’t been able to resist the temptation not to leave it at that, but has gone on to muddy the waters by trying to define it.
                His reference to the three day week during the economic problems of 1974 are nonsense.  During that period many companies, mine in particular, saw productivity rise by some 12%, so much so, that we adopted a four and a half day week as a permanent feature,when the so called crisis was over.
                 The claims he makes for technology to be seen as a holy grail per se, is naive to be charitable, as is his ridiculous assumption that nothing innovative ever came, or could come from a large organisation.  (Don’t they have a reference library at Stanford?)  The thirst for knowledge is, and always will be a constant, but the harnessing and application of such gained, needs considered thought.  In practical terms, it is useful to remind ourselves that everything new technology supercedes was at one time the new technology, so should it therefor be discarded?  If such culling could in any way be justified, then how come we are still so reliant on the humble wheel, the bicycle chain, and a piece of rope etc.?   There are no absolute answers here, nor is it likely there will ever be.  Many questions will remain, such as ‘Ccould technology ever provide a bedside manner, an emotion, or a charitable act of kindness?’
                  There is no mention of the need for time to think, to ponder, or mull over possible ramifications in this homily to never ending success that I can detect.  That the entrepreneur is a vital element in encouraging innovative thinking is without question, but long term economic stability remains a pipe dream despite the best efforts of visionary thinkers.  In any case, should the future of mankind (sorry, peoplekind) be put at risk by the casual acceptance of building on the quicksand ofmandatory innovation?
                  The only meaningful utterance I can find here is his astonishing eureka conclusion that the first step on the road to success is ‘to think for yourself’!    Now that overwhelms me!   (Where the hell  has he been?)    Nonetheless, you won’t be surprised to know that on this I totaly agree with him, but such profound wisdom must surely render the rest of his text to be rather superfluous!   With which, I would also agree.   
Well that’s it Ben, but I can’t help thinking that the good students of Stanford might in future consider a cheaper option to enhance their learning, by going on a half day trip to Disneyland.
Lots of love.
As ever, your opinionated Grandad.