Retirement

Barbara (anxious colleague): Do you think that you’ll by OK when you retire?

Joan: Oh yes. I’ve been reading about life without work and it’s lovely.

Barbara: What have you been reading?

Joan: Jane Austen

Chris

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Film Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Claire Foy)

There’s nothing so attractive to Hollywood as a money-making franchise. The Scandi-noir novels about the idiot savant Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) has definitely come of age. Their version has all the tropes deemed necessary for a serious money-making film. The title sequence is heavily CGI driven, which I personally enjoyed. There is an action scene at carefully spaced intervals, which included (in a tragic lack of imagination) diving off tall buildings/cliff edges on four separate occasions. Lisbeth also has numerous opportunities to show her spectacular motor cycling skills.

Hollywood isn’t finished yet. They introduce an American Special Agent to ‘help’ the Swedish security forces. Following diversity training for producers he’s black. So Hollywood can now tick two boxes. An action movie starring a woman with a black American resolving issues. Dropping into the ridiculous this American is also a super hero with tremendous skills. He, and none of the dozens of Swedish police, security forces or firefighters, can see the box video camera that Lisbeth has perched on a wall. That he promptly destroys evidence appears to be an example of American exceptionalism- It must be right because an American has done it! The denouement is a combination of his sniper skills and a Swedish geek.

Hollywood has a final fling with the boy idiot savant Augustus reunited with his mother at a Swedish airport. Needless to relate Lisbeth disappears in a cloud of motor cycle dust and the franchise lives to fight another day.

Why you should see this film: Americans and Swedes defeating Russian baddies is a rare combination.

Why you shouldn’t see this film: You’ve read and loved the Larsson trilogy.

Chris

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The Meaningful Vote

With just days to go
Mays’ future might end
Her Brexit deal dead
Well soon we will know.

An example of, “please only one”,
Ostracized all blindly
Take out objectivity
Maybe, please some.

Logic demands another way
Chaos looms clearly
Poor to suffer
Without a say.

EU is not perfect
Stability had been, established
Forty years of security
foolishly, by rich liars.

Tory’s have pulled themselves apart
Over Europe for years
Major, Thatcher, even Heath
Battled almost from the start.

How ironic, Ireland, be the catalyst
That invaded country –
The Boyne created “the troubles”
Was a fool then, their analyst.

Stupid, describes this madness
At this time, it is nonsense
Ordinary people, will be worse off
The U.K. will be consumed in sadness.

It isn’t too late
Sanity could be restored
Withdraw our demands to exit
The EU would help in our fate.

The rich don’t care
Consequences, will not be theirs
They have enough
But they wouldn’t share.

Mike

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Canada: a very civilised country

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Alexey Stakhanov: the most famous coal miner in history

 

Stakhanov and assistant

Stalin introduced a whirlwind of industrialisation in a series of Five Year Plans beginning in 1928. These plans centralised control of every part of industrial production. Every mine had productivity targets which had to be met or exceeded. This translated into individual targets for miners. Failure usually led to denunciation as a wrecker, which could lead to imprisonment in a Siberian Gulag, or a death sentence. Stakhanov was, in 1935, a true believer in the importance of exceeding targets. The scene was set for a coup de theatre. Stakhanov’s stupendous record-breaking achievements were carefully choreographed. Once achieved, Stakhanov epitomised Soviet industrial man.

In August 1935 Stakhanov exceeded the individual target for miners by a massive 14 times by digging 105 tonnes in a single shift. The following month he broke this record with 227 tonnes. His achievements weren’t happenchance. Stakhanov’s record breaking efforts were choreographed. His equipment was properly maintained, unusual in Soviet mines in the 1930s. He was hewing a thick seam, which is ideal for coal miners and he was assisted by two experienced miners. (In the subsequent publicity their role was ignored.) Performing like an Olympic athlete, Stakhanov broke world records and was rightly lauded across the world. A peak performance in a moment of time.

Stakhanov as a world famous Soviet worker

Stalin awarded Stakhanov the Order of Lenin.1 Much more importantly he became a motivator for workers throughout the Soviet Union. His dedication was emulated in the Soviet Union’s industries. The momentum he created became known as the Stakhanovite Movement.2 Stalin created a personality cult around Stakhanov complete with ideological interpretation. Stakhanov, however, couldn’t possibly have broken records during a normal working day. That was irrelevant. What mattered was a Soviet worker had demonstrated that Soviet man motivated by patriotism had produced a stupendous level of output. It was a coup for the Soviet Union.

Poster for the Stakhanovite Movment

The Stakhanovite Movement attracted many workers who were motivated by the idea of fame and fortune in addition to patriotism, although that shouldn’t be underestimated. Everyone saw that Stakhanov had become a celebrity and this was a very attractive incentive. But record breaking attempts distorted the day-to day organisation of the industries involved. Such attempts depended on specific planning to make sure that there was a possibility of success and therefore, perversely, hampered productivity. Record breaking attempts had to be organised which disrupted day-to-day production. They were a distortion.

Coal mines have thick, easily worked, seams but they also have dangerously thin seams prone to roof falls. A 55 year old Stakhanov, working a thin seam, definitely couldn’t have achieved his basic target, never mind exceed it 14 times. In a metric dominated society where the price of failure could be death, managers were incentivised to game the system (see addendum). Targets were hard baked into the Soviet system. Soviet managers only increased targets, regardless of whether they were achievable or not. Impossible targets created to irresistible pressure leading directly to deceitful reporting. Basing productivity benchmarks on elite workers working in optimum conditions is a managerial fallacy.

Stakhanov and the Stakhanovite Movement are a fascinating insight into Stalin’s rule. Grotesque carrots and sticks led to productivity gains but more could have been achieved with a Soviet version of Taylorism3. The Soviet inferiority complex and Stalin’s paranoia about those around him prevented new ideas, except that belonged to his world view. Stakhanov endorsed Stalin and Stalin endorsed Stakhanov. The Second World War prevented the inherent flaws in the Stakhanovite Movement from being revealed and so it retained its cache for many years.

Postscript

The dying embers of the Stakhanovite Movement happened in 1978 when the town of Kadiyevka changed its name to Stakhanov.

 

Addendum: Distortions caused by target based managerial systems

1) The Soviet Union circa 1980

Perhaps the crowning glory was the Uzbek cotton scandal, wherein local Party boss Sharaf Rashidov and a slate of Party and government officials in the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, including the local KGB, were involved in a decade-long scam that embezzled some three billion rubles in payments for cotton that was never harvested, from fields and farms which did not exist. Claiming uncharacteristic efficiency and discipline, reports flowed back to Moscow of new irrigation networks dug, new fields planted and productivity records shattered. No wonder cotton was known as ‘white gold’, as thanks to the connivance of co-conspirators in Moscow… they were able to conceal the minor detail that none of this alleged harvest actually existed.

2) The USA- currently

In New York State, for example, the report cards on post-operative mortality rates for coronary bypass surgery, that is, what percentage of the patients operated upon remained alive thirty days after the procedure. After the metrics were instituted, the mortality rates did indeed decline- which seemed like a positive development. But only those patients operated on were included in the metric. The patients who the surgeons declined to operate on because they were more high risk- and hence would bring down the surgeon’s score- were not included in the metrics.4

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_Lenin

2 For an interesting short discussion of the Stakhanovite Movement go to http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1936-2/year-of-the-stakhanovite/ See also the connexion with the Great Terror 1935-8 https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/stalinist-terror/stakhanovite-movement-the-background-to-the-great-terror-in-the-factories-19351938/8369F48E144C411664BFFF1C85378820

3 See https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMM_Taylor.htm

4 Galeotti, Mark. Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia (Kindle Locations 1853-1859). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Stefan Collini reviewing The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z Muller in London Review of Books 8th November 2018 p35

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The Good Fairy and an Ungracious Husband

A married couple in their 60s were visited by the good fairy who granted them a wish each.

Wife: “I want to travel round the world with my darling husband.” And two tickets magically appear in her hand.

Husband: “Sorry but I’m going to have to be selfish. My wish is to have a wife 30 years younger than me.”

Magically he became 92.

Moral: Ungracious husbands should remember that fairies are female.

Chris

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Book and Film Review: Raymond Chandler ~ The Big Sleep (1939) and (1946- film)

The doyen of American pulp fiction is Raymond Chandler. I knew this even though I’d never actually read his work. I relied on the brilliant, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, film The Big Sleep (1946). So I was unprepared for a clever plot driven story and was well rewarded with snappy dialogue. Laconic, insightful and benchmark setting. Chandler’s The Big Sleep features Philip Marlowe as a character. All the usual tropes associated with British ‘detective inspector’ novels are in place. A loner, alcoholic, straight-forward, trustworthy (but ready and willing to bend rules for the greater good), sexy but seemingly impervious to women, recklessly brave, with limitless confidence in his own ability. Chandler’s Marlowe is an act of genius and Bogart immortalised him.

Sample Quotes

Nobody came into the office. Nobody called me on the phone. It kept on raining.

Norris appeared… His acid-blue eyes were as remote as ever, his greyish-pink skin looked healthy and rested, and he moved as if he was twenty years younger than he really was. I was the one who felt the weight of years.

What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.

Astonishingly Chandler went to the same sleek expensive private school as P G Wodehouse when his family lived in London. The notion that Chandler is merely an American pulp fiction writer massively understates his ability. Like Wodehouse you can read him for the sheer wonder of his writing.

Why you should read this book: It’s a terrific read

Why you shouldn’t read this book: It’s inevitably dated and that might put you off.

The film: Usual sources. It’s brilliant and Bogart has a stellar performance but it is dated. You might worry about passive smoking and alcoholism as there is heroic smoking and drinking throughout.

Buy it at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Big-Sleep-Phillip-Marlowe/dp/0241956285/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1542217849&sr=1-1&keywords=the+big+sleep

Chris

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