Alcohol, health and windswept islands

Alcohol has been on my mind a lot recently. Perhaps it’s the New Year and the media coverage around ‘dry’ January, but I’ve also just read Amy Liptrot’s wonderful book The Outrun which like H is for Hawk combines a story of recovery with a story about nature. In this case it’s the story of Amy’s recovery from alcoholism in her early 30s, via an addiction clinic in east London and returning home to her native Orkney for two years. Aside from making you want to visit strange, beautiful, desolate, windy Orkney it also makes you think about addictions.

Then there’s been the co-ordinated campaign to reduce levels of drinking in the UK that has taken the form of updating the guidance for the amount we should drink. It hasn’t gone down incredibly well because the evidence around exactly what level of alcohol is ‘safe’ is patchy to say the best. Michael Moseley talks through some of the issues here as well. While setting guidelines is part of the equation it’s not the only thing that will change behaviour.

There are some signs that younger people today have a much healthier relationship with alcohol than my generation did in our 20s. But alcohol is one of the three biggest behaviour related causes of death in the UK (the other two being smoking and obesity, predominantly through diabetes) so is an important social issue. One thing we’ve done at BGV is funded Club Soda and they’re doing some amazing things using behavioural science. It’s not just about quitting but also helping you cut down a bit or stick if that’s what you’re looking for. They have a great online community and also run a lot of events which you can find here.

Electric sheep


I for one can’t wait to get my hands on an electric car. Faraday Future’s concept (see picture above) fits the recent trend of manufacturers trying to outdo one another from a desirability perspective. In the beginning there was Tesla — with the Lotus designed Roadster and then the Model S and Model X — all aimed at typical buyers of luxury and sports cars, particularly when Elon Musk added ‘Ludicrous’ mode. Then there was the brief shooting star of Fisker Karma, and more recently the mainstream car companies have got involved — the Porsche Mission-E is still a concept but is one of many high end electric cars that will hit our roads in the next few years.

Of course, I have no hope of being able to afford any of these cars. I’m a huge fan of Tesla (and own shares) because I think they’ve built for the long term and will reach the mass market in the end. The key inflection point will be the Model 3 which will be unveiled this year. If it’s under £20,000, has a range of 200+ miles and desirable, I think the switch to electric amongst ‘ordinary’ car owners will be very fast.

Having said that I want one I don’t see the need to buy a car though. We use cars quite often, but generally by renting them from Avis, Zipcar or (more recently) DriveNow. DriveNow have a few electric BMW i3’s in their fleet but they never seem to be in the right place. If one of the major hire car firms made renting electric cars affordable, I’d start using them in a heartbeat.

With most of London being street parking, I don’t quite see how charging will work. If we had a garage (a rare luxury in London) then it would seem easy but I remember visiting the Google offices in California and seeing the rows of charging points in the car parks and realising we’ll need something similar in London boroughs. If a local authority was to help make this happen, I’d even think about moving there.

I think it might be urban air pollution that swings it in the end with major cities realising they can save lives by switching to only allowing electric vehicles into their central areas. If either of the two main candidates for London Mayor committed to making central London zero emissions only by 2020, I’d vote for them.

Basically I’m a bit of an electric sheep at the moment. I really want to be able to use electric cars and I’ll follow the companies and people that make that possible.

Technology and inequality

A few years ago I wrote a blog post called ‘How to stop geeks becoming the next bankers’. At the time I was worried about technology exacerbating the job losses created by the 2008 financial crisis. I wrote “We need technology to solve the difficult problems we face… technology should be creating new and better institutions rather than just gradually eroding old ones and leaving a vacuum in their place.” But the motivation behind the post was my belief that technology has real potential to make the world a better place and I didn’t want to see it highjacked by people who just wanted to get rich off the industry.

So posts like Paul Graham’s at the weekend make me pretty angry. Whether he meant it quite like that or not, sticking up for inequality is at best a bad PR decision for him personally and at worst going to strengthen the backlash against the tech sector and Silicon Valley. In my darker moments I think we’re completely failing at stopping tech becoming as toxic as banking.

Arguing that inequality doesn’t matter is just daft. I’m all in favour of people getting rewarded for creating great companies but to argue that the point of creating companies is to get richer than other people is completely misguided. Making enough money to be considered ‘rich’ should be a side effect of creating something that improves peoples’ lives. And I don’t think anybody is arguing to eradicate inequality — it just shouldn’t continue to be so extreme. Society is a lesser place for every obscenely rich billionaire who does nothing with their wealth other than tickle their own ego.

I don’t believe that extreme inequality is inevitable — it has happened because of the rules and norms we’ve chosen and we need to get serious about changing them. Tim Harford, writing about some of the controversies around the ‘gig economy’, says that the relationship between state and the technology industry needs to be completely rethought:

“ … here is a far more radical approach: we should end the policy of trying to offload the welfare state to corporations. It is a policy that hides the costs of these benefits, and ensures that they are unevenly distributed. Instead we should take a hard look at that list of goodies: healthcare, pensions, income for people who are not working. Then we should decide what the state should provide and how generously… Call it libertarianism with a safety net.”

That safety net of course will come at a (taxation) price — something that a lot of people and companies in Silicon Valley resist. Listening to people at the more Ayn Rand end of the spectrum you get the feeling they would love Silicon Valley to float off into the Pacific away from the United States and all its pesky taxes and poor people. Or maybe the only plausible endgame is that the rich jump on the rockets they’ve built for themselves and leave behind the detritus of planet Earth.

Although it annoyed me, I’m glad that Paul Graham’s post has got a debate going. He partly rolls back his own argument at the end of the post, admitting that he’s really just made a semantic argument, suggesting, “Let’s attack poverty, and if necessary damage wealth in the process. That’s much more likely to work than attacking wealth in the hope that you will thereby fix poverty.” I think he underestimates how closely poverty and inequality are linked.

Mark Suster posted the best response from an investor I’ve seen. He ends his post, “I believe in income inequality in so much as it’s an obvious consequence of capitalism. I have no problem when success is rewarded with riches. But I don’t celebrate income inequality. It pains me.”

I would add that it’s something that pains me and that I want to change. The technology industry has created huge wealth and with that comes responsibility. I hope in the future it can create wealth as well as large amounts of social value — and hopefully do that with the benefits distributed more equally.

Good books of 2015

Just thinking back over the books I’ve read in 2015, there have been some good ones. These are the ones I enjoyed the most — in no particular order (not all published in 2015 obviously but I read them in the last 12 months):

  • H is from Hawk has scenes that have stuck in my mind like a brilliant novel but it’s actually a non-fiction book. Helen Macdonald’s memoir of buying and training a Goshawk intermingled with what she learned from reading accounts of other peoples’ attempts is a wonderful book.
  • Seveneves — Neal Stephenson’s most recent is an epic story that spans generations trying to survive the Moon shattering and the subsequent meteor storms obliterating life on the surface of Earth. It’s the best new, original science fiction I’ve read this year.
  • Holacracy — I’d seen a few articles about the idea of ‘the opposite of hierarchy’ but it was watching how Fairphone put it into action that got me to read the book. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll see lots of new technologically enabled ways of organising companies in the next few years.
  • Ready Player One — Ernest Cline’s love letter to 1980s computer games is all good fun. It’s a really well done page-turner of a cyber fiction novel and no surprise that it’s going to be a film in the next couple of years.
  • To The Edge of the World — we had a fantastic time on the Trans Siberian railway in June travelling from Moscow to Beijing. I read Christian Wolmar’s history of the building of the line along the way and learned a huge amount about Russia.
  • Humans Need Not Apply — there have been a spate of machine learning and artificial intelligence books this year and this was my favourite about the implications. There’s an emerging — and slightly annoying — voice common to books by current and former Silicon Valley executives that this one does fall into, but I think many of the predictions are sound.
  • The Master Algorithm — another book about machine learning, in this case an attempt to actually explain how some of the algorithms work to a lay reader. It’s not always a straightforward read but helped me understand things much better.
  • Postcapitalism — I was sceptical about this one because I thought it was going to be about protest movements and how if we all just lived like them society would be fine, but it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a much bolder more ambitious attempt by Paul Mason to link the failure of our financial system and the rise of information technology. Definitely the best book I’ve read this year about the current situation economically and politically.
  • The Sense of Style — I’m a sucker for books about writing but this one is excellent. Steven Pinker puts his scientist’s eye and years of experience as a writer to work to create a wonderful guide to writing in the twenty-first century.