The elusive zone

About six years ago I was hawking my bad student writing around various outlets and the Guardian gave me 300 words on the topic of “How to survive an all-nighter.” I stumbled across it the other day and couldn’t resist re-reading my own twee advice, including dated references to disconnecting the “ethernet cable” and the agonising kicker line, “Turn that all-nighter into an all-righter.”

That aside, I’ve long been curious about working habits and effectiveness — mainly because my own are so variable. I called it the “elusive zone” in the Guardian blog.

Even in jobs widely understood to be “brainy” there is work that will easily survive interruption by email, whatsapp and twitter. And in fact I suspect most of us have successfully re-wired our brains to categorise and split up our “work” into 5 or 10 minute chunks. So I’m not referring to that.

Spontaneous flow” (TW: TED talk) is one academic description of what I mean. It is the mental state of being engaged by one thing only to the exclusion of everything else, including an exact sense of time and place. The upshot is the gestation of original ideas or sheer speed of execution.

The tough question is whether the sacred cows of workplace culture — serendipity, connectivity, collaboration — inhibit or advantage deep, playful thinking. I don’t have the answer. My guess is that though the demise of the office cubicle is a good thing, so is the degree of solitude found in the late-night student essay crisis.

My own 2017 jealousy list

Bloomberg editors compile an annual link-wrap – the “jealousy list” – of pieces published elsewhere that they wish we’d written. I thought that’d be a fun exercise to try myself so here are a dozen picks.

1. The High Street Abduction (BBC)
A tick-tock account of what followed a child abduction in Newcastle in April, 2016.

2. The Rise and Fall of a K Street Renegade (WSJ)
Tragic tale of a D.C. corporate lobbyist who couldn’t keep up with his own greed. The amount of colour – $2000 bottles of wine –  is engrossing.

3. Is the Chicken Industry Rigged? (Bloomberg)
There are *at least* two very fun finance things about this story. First, chicken LIBOR! Second, the vexing question of whether a souped-up industry newsletter (that’s Agri Stats) can be so good that its subscribers violate antitrust laws.

4. My Double Life as a KGB Agent (Guardian)
“It’s as if they had spent time looking at fish swimming in an aquarium, and now they are training you to be a fish,” Barsky says. “But they don’t actually know what it’s like to be a fish.”

5. The pragmatic case for moving Britain’s capital to Manchester (Economist)
A rare take that totally transformed my view.

6. The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks (Bloomberg)
“Many barristers regard clerks as their pimps. Some, particularly at the junior end of the profession, live in terror of clerks. The power dynamic is baroque and deeply English.”

7. The Secret Plan for the Days After the Queen’s Death (Guardian)
To get these kind of details before the event, which few insiders have any motive to discuss, is so impressive.

8. Anthony Scaramucci Called Me (New Yorker)
“I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own cock.” The short-lived WH Press Secretary’s fit of bitchy profanity was toe-curlingly joyful.

9. The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer (New Yorker)
A gentle profile of individuals who carry with them the grief they’ve caused to others. I also like the discussion of “moral luck,” citing Jeff McMahan‘s notion that “people who are not culpable can nevertheless be responsible.”

10. Inside London’s Booming Secrets Industry (FT)
Investigating the (private) investigators. “Its services range from tracing fraudsters’ assets to darker arts that include hacking, infiltration, honey traps, blackmail and kidnapping.”

11. A woman approached The Post with dramatic — and false — tale about Roy Moore (Washington Post)
The Post, New York Times and New Yorker have exposed a torrent of allegations against powerful men in the media, arts and politics this year. The Post was subject to an undercover sting operation seeking to discredit its revelations about Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate. Its failure vindicates the quality of the Post’s reporting.

12. The 100 greatest nonfiction books in English (Guardian)
These were drip-fed by author Robert McCrum through 2017. I like the list because enough titles are familiar to flatter the ego while the unfamiliar blurbs make for delightful discoveries.

Bonus pick because it’s Christmas: the Economist myth-busting the cliche that economists disapprove of all non-cash gifts.


The Undoing Project

Unusually for me, I’ve read a just-published hardback (props to the friend who pilfered me an unwanted copy from his magazine’s literary department).

It’s Michael Lewis’s latest about the remarkable friendship of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, The Undoing Project. The two Israelis — each eccentric and brilliant in their own way — discovered or seeded much of what is now known as behavioural economics, the family of claims whose central insight is that we are less rational than we think. Kahneman and Tversky discovered that heuristics, the rules of thumb with which we make decisions under conditions of uncertainty, often lead us astray. If this sounds familiar, that’s because these two and their progenies made it so.


It’s almost three decades since Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker and he remains the greatest living writer of narrative non-fiction. The Undoing Project is impressive because academia is a rather more doubtful milieu from which to spin a rollicking bestseller than sports (Moneyball) or the financial crisis (The Big Short). Lewis didn’t write this one for the film rights.

That said, this is a classic Lewis book delivered in lucid, biting prose. It identifies the misfits, draws the dividing line between them and the retrogrades and tells amateurs like us why it matters.

Aside from its being a concise and authoritative guide to behavioural science, there is a gently recurring irony which makes the book a pleasure to read. Kahneman and Tversky detailed holes in human judgement wide enough to drive a bus through, but their own personal relationship was hobbled by serious character flaws. An initial closeness in Israel — they flipped a coin to decide whose name would appear first on published research, it being impossible to distinguish their respective contributions — weakened as their careers in North America diverged. Tversky’s personal success, stemming from his enormous charisma, made the shy Kahneman envious and — being acutely aware of human feelings, not least his own — deeply unsettled. Tversky repeatedly failed to recognise and act on the obvious tension.

Tversky died young in 1996 and so didn’t live to share his partner’s 2002 Nobel Prize or co-author his 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which synthesised much of the pair’s workLewis of course was only able to give Tversky a voice through contemporary writings and the recollection of others, a sad fact that limits his story to a “recommended” rather than “must-read”.

Mac & Wild, W1W

Food-writing is a crowded market. And I’m wary of the idea that writing about food is, to corrupt a phrase, like dancing about architecture; that is, pointless and weird and….worth a go? Let’s see. As a rule there will be no prices or pictures.


It’s a swell feeling, to decimate Mac & Wild’s deep-fried haggis balls on the evening before a workday and know that everything is going to be ok. The Scottish game & whisky restaurant in Fitzrovia is very good — good enough even to forgive their homepage video, Made in Chelsea: Caledonia.

Service is superb. The waiters know exactly what’s on the menu. Ours directed me away from the cocktail I chose (Anna had it instead; whisky-vermouth charged with soda) to one I preferred, the ‘Auld Pal’, a Negroni-inspired aperitif.

The Scotch list is extensive, if a little expensive. A cheaper option to picking dishes with the suggested single-malt accompaniments is to wash down the ‘Veni-moo’ burger — two patties: beef and venison; plenty (too much?) béarnaise — with a hoppy lager from Glasgow brewer Drygate. Sides are extra but keenly priced. Green beans with butter and black pudding was inspired. The Australians next to us tucked into juicy-looking venison chops. Dessert was a dense chocolate mousse with salted-caramel ice cream, essentially flawless.

Cautionary notes: a couple of things were sold out, always a shame. The decor is cosy and Scottish, but arguably the crates of neon-orange Irn Bru are trying too hard. And the basement, a spillover not in use on the bank-holiday Monday we ate, is decidedly inferior, a sparse afterthought to the bonhomie of upstairs.

Most restaurants pass the ‘bucket test’ — good enough to relish for novelty value without actually returning. Finding a place that’s good enough to go back is harder. Mac & Wild passes.

Corporations writing the news

Supposedly this is a bad thing. This week the reaction to the news that City AM, the London business freesheet, will open up its website to paying content-producers was hostile, at least among those who work in the media. Clients “will be given direct access to the content management system (CMS) of the newspaper’s website,” according to Ian Burrell.

There are all sorts of potential problems with that, well-stated here. But it’s not the end of the world. City AM’s idea differs little from the Huffington Post’s blogs or Buzzfeed’s ‘community’ site. What’s more, companies are already producing content on their own platforms. Migrating to more popular news sites in itself isn’t a problem.

Watch Goldman Sachs’ video: ‘Artisanal Appeal: The Rise of Craft’. It’s, um, quite good? Informative, well-produced and edited. If Goldman wants to pay City AM to publish this on their website, then who is being badly served?

Corporations “have some of the biggest experts in their field, much better than probably any journalist in London,” Muncaster, City AM’s managing director, told Burrell. I think that’s fair — and not every story requires a journalist to intermediate.

Clearly though, a lot do. Here’s a new website — — set up last month by representatives of Bayer, a German agricultural giant, to promote its proposed $63 billion+ acquisition of Monsanto, a U.S. rival. The site features information and a filmed interview with Bayer’s CEO.

Like most M&A, the takeover resembles high-stakes poker and there is skepticism about whether it makes sense. Bayer isn’t going to say that, so they shouldn’t be the only guys writing the news. If Bayer were to pay City AM to publish their take, cool. But if it were paying to replace the journalists’ coverage of the deal with its own slick reporting, maybe that’s not a good thing.

The worry about paid content in the news industry in recent years is that its value to clients lies in the opaque understandings between publishers and advertisers that the rest of us don’t realise. The question is whether there is enough space for the free media to raise cash without going into that grey zone.



Recently I moved to a new place within walking-distance of work. That’s great, not least because ambling across and back over the Thames every day amounts to several hours a week of uninterrupted listening time. Here are a few recommendations of things I’ve enjoyed:

Odd Lots — I’m not just putting one in for the team. It’s a smart but breezy take on business and markets. It doffs its hat to whatever is in the news that week but typically goes off-piste into the more esoteric stories and themes. Try the March 7 edition, an interview with Eric Balchunas who wrote a terrifically thorough history of the ETF industry, which has been around for a while but is now rapidly uprooting traditional, expensive forms of asset management.

FT Alphachat/Alphachatterbox — probably the brainiest series I regularly tune in to. The FT’s financial bloggers including Cardiff Garcia, Shannon Bond and Matthew Klein run an interview-based show that is *not* concise but doesn’t lose itself in waffle. The quality of the guests is high and they are permitted to answer at length. Try Matthew Klein’s hour-long interview with Jim Chanos, the famed short-seller.

Germany: Memories of a Nation — a short and sweet audio catalogue following the book/exhibition of the same name by Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum. It amounts to a potted history of Germany built around its most famous people, places and objects.

The History of Rome — I’m only about a dozen episodes in to a 179-chapter narrative-dominated account. That’s great for me, because I know only the bare bones of the ancient world, but it might be too familiar for those who’ve studied it. Mike Duncan, the man behind it, has since created a second monster-series called ‘Revolutions’.

You Are Not So Smart — the tone is a bit labored and corny, but it does the job: namely, telling you stuff you didn’t know, including about topics you thought you knew well. The series is ‘a celebration of self delusion that explores topics related to cognitive biases, heuristics, and logical fallacies,’ according to the iTunes precis. Those who’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s seminal Thinking, Fast and Slow will find much to chew over here.

Otherwise I’m listening to BBC classics including In Our Time and Desert Island Discs; and my friend Anna co-hosts SRSLY, the New Statesman magazine’s take on popular culture for highbrows.

A whine//magnum opus about London renting

I briefly became a fervent Jeremy Corbyn supporter today after a nasty surprise from our letting agents.

Hours later, that’s subsided. But the exchange did crystallise a few thoughts.

I’m moving out of my north London flat this week. Today an employee of Jigsaws, the lettings agent just a stone’s throw from Corbyn’s north Islington home, told us of their £162 exit fee and £210 (minimum) cleaning fee. The unspecified charges are alluded to in the small print of our contract. It was our responsibility to discover the detail and ask what the charge was likely to be, the agent said when I called her later.

Feelings of both anger and embarrassment that are characteristic of such ‘gotcha’ charges followed. It’s the sort of drive-by shooting that leads to a loss of faith in my brand of happy-go-lucky liberalism. I’m over the hump but now I’m sort of interested in it all.

We got fleeced because of two inequities or asymmetries. One, of information: when we sat down to sign our contract a year ago, the agents knew the hidden charges buried within. We didn’t. Two, of care: to middle-income tenants like us, the fees are a nuisance and a forgettable financial discomfort; but in London’s low-yield rental market, they are crucial to the agencies’ business model.

Researching whether we had any recourse to action I came across the property ombudsman’s website. From May 27 (after we signed), it says, agencies were obliged to “display a list of all fees, charges and penalties.”

That’s encouraging. Transparency should encourage competition between agencies, mollifying and/or formalising the rip-off fees. It may even lead to disintermediation. If prospective tenants knew about hidden costs upfront, they might push to strike deals with landlords directly. If the Airbnb for long-term rentals doesn’t exist already, someone will invent it. And existing players like SpareRoom may take market share.

I’m venting of course. Dodgy estate agents are nothing new and we should have done our homework more carefully. But my (naive?) guess is that by the time my younger siblings and cousins squeeze into the London property market, agencies’ mercenary tactics will be on the way out.

Ad Blocking

In a few weeks Apple will release the latest version of its iPhone and iPad software, iOS9, to users. It’ll include an ad-blocking feature for Safari, Apple’s internet browser, similar to the plug-in that laptop and desktop PC users have been able to install for a while.

Publishers have good reason to worry. Here’s PC Mag:

Blocking ads on our site, for example, directly impacts the bottom line—and puts our site, our staff, and our future at risk. The same goes for thousands of sites, including big names like The New York Times and Fox News. These large outlets have a huge audience, yet still make a pittance online, so imagine the outcome for a bunch of smaller, online-only venues.

Still, ad-blocking has largely been relegated to the desktop. Moving ad-blocking into mobile creates a new wrinkle.

The case against ad-blocking is straightforward: if you enjoy free news, video, comment, whatever, then be prepared to hack your way through the pop-up adverts that pay for editorial, product design etc.

I want to agree but as a recent adopter of ad-blocking software on my macbook I can’t without admitting hypocrisy.

The problem with this moral argument against ad-blocking is that publishers and advertisers increasingly demand much more than that from their readers. Jean-Louis Gassée and Frédéric Filloux, who co-author the excellent Monday Note, have shown that news sites “are fatter and slower than ever.” A simple text and picture article now comes with dozens of ‘trackers’, video adverts and the like. That leaves users loading several megabytes of data for content amounting just a few dozen kilobytes. For those on fixed data plans — most of us — we really do pay for free content.

Here’s Gassée:

We feel cheated and rightly so. As users, we understand that we’re not really entitled to free browsing; we pay our bills with our selves: When The Product Is Free, We Are the Product. The problem is that we feel betrayed when we find out we’ve been overpaying. We’re being exploited — and it’s not even done nicely.

Again I don’t want to agree. But publishers shouldn’t take the users, or their data allowance, for granted. Apple, who like to think of themselves as custodians of the user experience, seem to have decided that they are.

For more inquisitive souls: a good long read on the topic by Charles Arthur, former Technology Editor at the Guardian.

The Power Broker

Robert Caro is the author of the wonderful Lyndon B Johnson biographies, of which there is one more instalment to come.

The Power Broker – a Pulitzer winner – came first. Its subject is Robert Moses and the story is relentlessly one of the awe-inspiring, and terrifying exercise of bureaucratic power. Moses became the most powerful – and for a while the most popular – figure in New York state despite never achieving elected office.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 01.06.54Unsurprisingly the parallels between Moses and Caro’s subsequent study, LBJ, emerge frequently. Both possessed huge intellects, knowledge of the law – which they used to selectively break it – and a willingness to employ huge sums of money in their cause. (Unlike Moses, LBJ also had charm, good fortune and none of Moses’ conceited sense of noblesse oblige).

In 1934, Caro writes, Moses featured in New York papers more than J Edgar Hoover, the sensational mobster-busting FBI chief. He was the subject of 29 flattering New York Times editorials and hundreds of articles that year.

In those years Moses was a genuine reformer with a shrewd understanding of how to, well, broker power. Gradually that skill would become all-consuming. It took too long for newspapers to realise that the man they had built up was busily tearing New York City apart.

And it took too long to put the brakes on his perverse vision of urban development, which accounts for a fair chunk of New York City’s problems to this day. Through his public authorities Moses accumulated all the power of high elected office, including the power to evict tenants and raze whole neighbourhoods to the ground to make way for ugly highways, with little accountability.

Those public authorities, quasi-state entities, were initially granted by elected lawmakers as efficient means to get infrastructure built. Moses turned them into his own multi-billion dollar empires – all the while projecting an image as a frugal public servant. The special status provided by U.S. law to bondholders’ rights left those authorities, and Moses, immune to outside pressure for decades.

I’d recommend the book – at over 1,000 pages, it’s a summer project – to those interested in cities or power or both.

Trevor Kavanagh on the Sun’s influence two decades after it ‘Won It’

It may once have been ‘the Sun wot won it’ but in this year’s general election campaign, the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid’s support for the Conservatives is unlikely to prove decisive.

That’s the takeaway I got from a Media Society event at the Groucho Club last week with Trevor Kavanagh, the political editor of the Sun from 1983-2005.

Two decades ago the Sun said that its support for Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1992 had swung the outcome of that year’s election, which pollsters expected the opposition Labour party to win.

The newspaper, which then had a print circulation of almost 4 million, told its readers that if Labour’s then-leader Stephen Kinnock won, “will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?” Two days later, with Major back in 10 Downing Street, the paper published a front page proclaiming “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”.
The Sun, April 1992 Now the Sun sells roughly half as many copies, though it remains the U.K.’s most popular newspaper.

“The difference between then and now is we don’t have the circulation we once had,” Kavanagh said.

But the paper still holds huge influence because “Sun readers tend to move more,” said Kavanagh, who first met Murdoch as a young reporter in Sydney, Australia, and still talks to him about British politics.

Contrast that with readers of other Tory-supporting titles including the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph, who more reliably vote for the Conservatives.

Particularly in an election where neck-and-neck polls show neither party winning a majority, the Sun’s swinging readers – and therefore the Sun itself – still matters. And it doesn’t pull any punches.

“Labour’s sham manifesto is an insult to voters’ intelligence,” the Sun judged in an April 14 editorial the day after Labour launched its manifesto. “If your motivation is that Miliband will run the economy more sensibly than David Cameron, you should google psychiatrists in your area as soon as possible,” the editorial said.

60 per cent of the UK’s national newspaper market leans towards the Conservatives, an analysis of British newspaper coverage by the Press Gazette suggests. Just 12 percent favour Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

Rupert Murdoch, worth about $13 billion, later described the Sun’s ‘wot won it’ claim as “tasteless and wrong” in testimony to the Leveson inquiry in 2012.

“We don’t have that sort of power,” Murdoch said. The inquiry, set up in 2011 to consider press ethics in the wake of phone hacking allegations, represented a turning point for Labour’s relationship with the News International titles, which endorsed Tony Blair before each of his three election victories.

Miliband broke ranks with other front-bench politicians, pushing the scandal – which engulfed Andy Coulson, the No. 10 communications chief – onto the political agenda.

In a Channel 4/Sky television interview last month Miliband said his criticism of Murdoch showed he was “tough enough” to be prime minister. “Thanks for 2 mentions,” Murdoch replied on twitter “Only met [you] once for all of 2 minutes when you embarrassed me with over the top flattery.”

This academic paper from the late 90s takes a look at some of these issues in more depth. Personally, I don’t think newspapers do much direct persuading any more – if they ever did.

But in so-called “agenda setting”, influencing what topics politicians, broadcasters and people in general talk about, their influence is probably still larger than any other column in public life.

Update, May 1: The British Election Study has this bar chart graph breaking down the political allegiances of newspaper readers.
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