Other People

I endured an interesting but disappointing lunch today on the terrace of Aromi, one of Prague’s finest restaurants, just a stone’s throw from my own kitchen in Vinohrady. One of my closest friends had invited me to meet two American IT entrepreneurs who are developing a business software system here in Prague, as we do at systems@work. Our common interests might have drawn us together, perhaps to mutual advantage.

They were two energetic, humorous, good-looking, middle-aged men just a few years younger than me, and they buzzed with excitement about what they were doing. They were eager to tell me and my friend everything they possibly could about themselves – how they came to be living in Prague and how they came to be developing their software. Clearly the project interested them hugely, but I can’t say that I was very much the wiser, after half an hour or so, as to what they are actually doing, except that it is revolutionary and awesome, and everyone absolutely loves it as soon as they see it.

But if I was only a little the wiser as to what they are developing, and what their ambitions are for their product, they must have left the lunch table knowing absolutely nothing at all about me, simply because they asked me no questions at all.

anyquestions

Perhaps I am dull. But surely politeness demands that we show a balanced curiosity about other people as we chatter about ourselves and our own achievements. I know that cocktail party chit-chat becomes ever more insufferable as we get older, but showing no interest at all in others makes the experience even worse than it needs to be. If you have no curiosity about other people you might as well join a queue in Zurich and end it all. You certainly shouldn’t go to parties, or, indeed, to lunches.

From time to time I popped a question, such as about database performance issues, that suggested I might know at least a little bit about the development of scalable business software, but these questions were swatted away in favour of yet another monologue about how great their own ideas, achievements and prospects are.

I cannot think of another recent occasion when I felt so purposeless. I might as well have been a blown-up balloon instead of a living human being. I don’t think they would have noticed. I don’t think that an inability to speak, listen, even nod, would have been any discouragement to them.

But, I wonder, how can you learn anything if you never listen, if you have no curiosity about others?

It ruined my day -that, and getting soaked when the rain poured on me as I made my way home.

Sadly, I couldn’t resist a little barbed email when they wrote a follow-up note to suggest we might meet again sometime (for another purposeless monologue?).

Thanks for your note. It was interesting to hear about your various ventures, including the bicycle story, and especially how your software came into being. It sounds as if the opportunity is a great one and that you’re working with very competent people. I wish you every success. 

And I know very well how it feels to be an entrepreneur and how one’s own immediate concerns and achievements leave little time for curiosity about others’!

One might was well call a spade a spade.

 

The Arrogance of Expertise

I spent the early part of today slamming doors and shouting in the plastic surgery department of Prague’s Vinohrady Hospital. My (excellent) dermatologist had assured me that it’s a world-class unit, so when I went there two weeks ago to have a lump removed from my upper lip I was confident I would receive good treatment.

The fact that the surgeon looked about fifteen years old didn’t initially worry me or ring alarm bells. Surgery is a manual thing, so you might think that children learn it more rapidly, just as they’re better at video games. But when the wound bled and the stitches fell out and she had to repeat the whole procedure a week later I began to have some doubts. I voiced them. ‘I am not impressed,’ I said. I don’t think anyone had ever said anything like that to any of the surgeons at this particular unit before. But I don’t think you need to be an expert to know whether you’ve been treated, and well-informed.

With surprisingly good grace this young surgeon continued to treat me. But the stitches fell out again a few days later, the wound opened, and when I returned today, two weeks after the first operation, I was told by the head of department I complained to that my surgeon was only a trainee. Why they assign a trainee plastic surgeon to operate on a part of the body that moves continuously  (I talk, smile and eat far too much) I don’t understand.

Hence the shouting and the slamming of doors. I am left with a pit in my upper lip.

expert

I am an expert myself, I believe, and I’ve learned that listening is an essential first step in the process of business systems consulting. Not so, it seems, with Czech plastic surgeons. If they had the option they’d probably remove our mouths so that our capacity to ask questions or to complain could also be removed. They behave as if they know our bodies better than we do, and as if our own recall of what they’ve told us is entirely negligible.

We are too much in awe of experts, whether they are doctors, lawyers, surgeons, weather forecasters or fashion commentators. True, they know things that we don’t, just as we know things that they don’t. But I know that my grasp of logic is as fine as nearly anyone’s, and my powers of recall are still entirely reliable, so the fact that I’m under the knife rather than wielding it doesn’t empower the experts I’m dependent on to claim complete infallibility and invulnerability. We should never abandon our own judgement and simply submit ourselves to an expert’s opinion or skill.

I am inclined to sue. Tomorrow I am getting a second opinion (from another expert) and I shall be interested to see if he will allow be to describe what’s happened. The lump turns out to be entirely benign (assuming I can trust the expertise of those who analysed its tissues) but whilst that is an immense relief, disfigurement seems a high price to pay.

Inequality, Oligarchs and Faith

A couple of weeks ago I shared a beach with an oligarch. Actually, shared is the wrong word. From the moment of his arrival, the oligarch, together with his wife and family, servants and bodyguards, entirely dominated the beach.

I was at the Aman Sveti Stefan, a wonderful resort hotel on the coast of Montenegro. In my defence I can only say it was a late season deal (they closed on the day we checked out) and the cost wasn’t anywhere near list price. I’m rarely on shoulder-rubbing terms with oligarchs, royalty and tennis stars (Djokovic got married there last year). It’s just not my sort of thing and I don’t have the clothes for it.

svetistefan

Though it was late season, and the beach was almost empty, the early Autumn sun was just about strong enough, and the sea just about warm enough, for a northern European like me. It was a good time and place to sunbathe incognito if incognito is your thing.

That, I suppose, is why the oligarch chose it. His motor yacht, reputedly the most expensive in the world, at more than 300 Million USD, and certainly one of the largest, was anchored a mile or so out to sea, so the party arrived by motor launch. The beach, being a private hotel beach is firmly closed to non-residents, but, as I heard later that evening from the hotel manager, the oligarch simply bought a few rooms to earn the right to an afternoon on the beach.

He and his family lounged in the sun and took the occasional dip in the slightly chilly water. Their servant stood behind them, and their bodyguards sat in the shade of the trees. A minimum of fuss.

When they marched onto the beach (around ten of them altogether) they did so without acknowledging either the other hotel guests or the hotel’s beach attendants, and they remained in utter isolation for the entire afternoon. The beach attendants were instructed not even to approach them. It was my last day and I took some photographs of the cove as I left, only to be informed by an anxious bodyguard that his clients were ‘sensitive about photography’. That is what I mean by ‘dominated’.

This oligarch, as I later determined, is amongst the two hundred richest men in the world. Indeed for the last few years he’s been in the top ninety. He’s many thousands of times richer than I am and could probably have bought the resort and its beaches that afternoon without really noticing it.

I’d been chatting with the beach attendant earlier. Most of the staff at the Sveti Stefan resort are students or recent graduates, and speak many languages. This young man was studying to become a corporate lawyer.

‘Perhaps you’ll be a guest here one day,’ I said.

‘Never,’ he said, though whether because he believed he wouldn’t ever have the money or because he knew too much about the place to want to be a guest, I don’t know. But I pointed out that twenty-seven years earlier I’d stayed in the village next door and had walked by the beach, a private beach even during Communist times, never imagining then that I might be a guest a few decades later.

Inequality, at least financial inequality, that afternoon, was stark. The spending gulfs separating beach attendant and me (a more or less prosperous guest), and me and Russian oligarch, were vast.

Inequality is very topical, almost more so than poverty these days, and it’s striking how economic ‘scientists’ put forward starkly different theories as to why inequality has grown in recent decades and how it might be addressed (I suppose most people, except the trickle-down theorists, believe it’s generally a bad thing).

There’s Thomas Piketty, who thinks it’s the result of policy, and can be addressed by higher taxes on assets rather than income, and there are others who believe it’s a matter of demographics. The latter argue that as the baby-boom generation came of age and as new markets opened up in Eastern Europe and China there was a glut of available labour and the proportion of those of working age supporting those of non-working age rose, peaking in 2012. Wages at the lower end fell, in consequence, but will rise again now that populations are ageing.

I don’t know who’s right, but what’s fascinating is that from the dismal science of economics (if science is what it is) can emerge such radically different theories. How do we decide between them? It’s not as if it doesn’t matter. Policy follows from theory and explanation.

Thomas Piketty certainly assembled a wealth of evidence in his vast Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but his opponents counter with equally compelling counter-evidence, for example, that comparable inequality can be found in nations where very different taxation policies have been applied.

People often say that of the three huge theories of the nineteenth century (the Darwinian theory of evolution, the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis, the Marxist theory of economics) only one has survived. I am schooled to believe that science must be ‘predictive’, not just in terms of what you might go out and find but in what the result of experiment might be. It must also be explanatory in terms of underlying mechanisms. Bacteriology is science, homeopathy and acupuncture are not (even if they work).

Darwinism isn’t exactly an experimental theory, because time moves too slowly, but certainly its conjectures have been subsequently strengthened by plausible underlying mechanisms (genes, mutations, and so on).

Psychoanalysis fails on every count. The ‘evidence’, even that recounted by Freud, is dubious, it’s unsuccessful as predictive theory, and there’s no underlying mechanism to point at (where exactly can we find the ‘id’?).

Economics fails, perhaps, because its subject matter, human choice, is too elusive, and the underlying mechanisms are too complex. It’s predictions are insufficiently precise, and conditions are never controlled enough for proper experimentation. So whether you end up believing in tax or demographics as an influence on inequality would appear to me to be a matter of faith.

I doubt it is such uncertainties that disturb the sleep of the oligarchs.