Bankers and fantasy land

Main Hall

Guess where we’ve been. No, it’s not an English castle.


That’s me beside the giant chess pieces.

This picture is a give away…

Unicorn Blood

Yes, we’ve been on the Harry Potter studio tour. James gaves us two tickets in thanks for dog sitting.

We both thoroughly enjoyed the tour, though I wonder if – far from being magical – it’s celebration of artifice might undermine some of the mystery of the books and films for younger fans.


In one corner of the studio is the set of Gringott’s Bank. This reminded me of J.K. Rowling’s verse in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone:

Enter, stranger, but take heed
Of what awaits the sin of greed,
For those who take, but do not earn,
Must pay most dearly in their turn.
So if you seek beneath our floors
A treasure that was never yours,
Thief, you have been warned, beware
Of finding more than treasure there.

Alas, it is only in fantasy worlds that bankers pay dearly for their sins.

Over the last few days, commentators have been professing surprise that major banks – including Barclays, Citigroup and Royal Bank of Scotland – could be rigging foreign exchange markets at precisely the moment they were promising better behaviour in the wake of the Libor scandal.

Announcing record fines of $5.7bn (£3.7bn), Loretta Lynch (US attorney general) said the banks exhibited “breathtaking flagrancy” in setting up a group they called “the cartel” to manipulate a market valued at $5trn a day.

It comes as no surprise to me. A few traders will be sacked. Management who make the barrels in which good apples turn bad will go unpunished. Nobody will face criminal prosecution.

How to survive in this age of complex wrongdoing


Back to the topic of whistleblowers for a moment, today’s news brings yet another piece about their vital importance together with yet another story of their suppression.

Reuben Guttman, writing in The Global Legal Post, points out:

The problem is that most sophisticated lawbreakers understand the concept of a smoking gun.  Never create a document that summarizes the wrongdoing for regulators.  Never create a document that lays out the facts leading regulators to pinpoint the wrongdoing. And of course, in a large corporation, never create documents, rules, policies or plans that will cause the average employee to question the propriety of a corporation’s efforts. We live in an age where complex wrongdoing is orchestrated through communications and programmes which, if analysed independently, would seem harmless.

Yet, it is the whistleblower – the person inside the box – who can explain how patterns of innocent conduct, when linked together, amount to wrongful schemes involving fraud, money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion.  Whistleblowers like Falciani [the HSBC whistleblower] are so critically important to regulators and without their help, regulators face a daunting task of fully understanding the schemes and pinpointing and gathering the evidence to convince a trier effect that wrongful conduct has occurred.  Hence, “the importance of the whistleblower.”


Simultaneously, alleged security failings around the UK’s Trident nuclear programme, exposed by Royal Navy whistleblower Able Seaman William McNeilly, have been dismissed:

…as the Ministry of Defence launched its own investigation into the allegations, senior members of the Royal Navy community sought to cast doubt on McNeilly’s claims. Peter Roberts, a former Royal Navy warfare officer who retired last year after 23 years’ service, said the report contained a number of basic factual errors, from McNeilly’s use of jargon to the safe diving level for submarines.

“Most of his claims about on board the submarines are factually incorrect and there’s a degree of sensationalism. For that reason I can’t place too much weight on it,” he said.

Able Seaman William McNeilly

Falciani’s lesson for whistleblowers, like McNeilly, must be: amass still more, still better data.

The police and the navy launched a hunt for McNeilly, 25, when he went absent without leave from the Faslane naval base last week after publishing his report, The Nuclear Secrets, online.

Now a second person, Euan Bryson, 25, has told the Guardian newspaper that McNeilly’s concerns about security breaches “rang true from my experience”. They also “ring true” with my second-hand experience, so I signed the online petition against McNeilly’s prosecution.

Unearth those ‘‘unknown knowns’’


I am, by nature, a happy person. That is, my “psychological immune system” works well, perhaps too well.

For it seems to me that – as in all things – our strengths are also our weaknesses. As a result I endured an abusive marriage far too long, making excuses for behaviour I knew in my heart was intolerable. Such are the experiences that our subconscious knows well but we refuse to acknowledge.

Slavoj_Zizek_Fot_M_Kubik_May15_2009_04Slavoj Žižek (he never looks happy!)

Says philosopher Slavoj Žižek:

There are not only true or false solutions, there are also false questions. The task of philosophy is not to provide answers or solutions, but to submit to critical analysis the questions themselves, to make us see how the very way we perceive a problem is an obstacle to its solution. This holds especially for today’s public debates on ecological threats, on lack of faith, on democracy and the ‘‘war on terror’’, in which the ‘‘unknown knowns’’, the silent presuppositions we are not aware of, determine our acts.

In March 2003, Donald Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: ‘‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.’’ What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the ‘‘unknown knowns,’’ things we don’t know that we know—which is precisely the Freudian unconscious, the ‘‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself.’’

If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq are the ‘‘unknown unknowns,’’ the threats from Saddam about which we do not even suspect what they may be, the Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the main dangers are: in the ‘‘unknown knowns,’’ the disavowed beliefs, suppositions, and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.

To unearth these ‘‘unknown knowns’’ is the task of an intellectual. This is why Rumsfeld is NOT a philosopher: the goal of philosophical reflection is precisely to discern the ‘‘unknown knowns’’ of our existence.

First we have to make it safe to talk. Only when we’ve surfaced “unknown knowns” can we “challenge the known”, “embrace the unknown” and begin the move to somewhere better.

This happy breed

Sleeping with Violet

Yes we’re in Hertfordshire again, “dog-sitting” while James is back in New York to receive his Webby awards. He had a good flight over, but Virgin lost his luggage. Oh the glamour of air travel!

Violet, as you see, wants to bond and so is a pleasure to look after. She is a Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen (PBGV). Wikipedia tells us:

PBGVs are extroverted, friendly, and independent hounds. Sometimes called the “happy breed,” PBGVs have tirelessly wagging tails and expressive, intelligent eyes. PBGVs are typically active and lively.

I am reminded that happiness is not inevitable when another dog walker says: beware, my dog is unfriendly, barks or bites.

“This happy breed” is a phrase from Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act ii. Sc. 1):

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands, —
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.

Wouldn’t it be nice if happiness was a trait of all the English, but we are spread across the naturally-happy spectrum just like every other nation.

The only advice I give my children on picking a mate is to try and find a naturally-happy person. Because not everybody is. My first wife was not (my mother described her as a “miser of joy”). I should have listened to my mother. Happily, my second (current) wife is a naturally-happy person (my mother loved her).

Should we take our happiness more seriously?


Huffington Post believes it’s Time to Take Happiness More Seriously. But you need only watch one or two of the (currently 53) TED talks on the subject of happiness, or read a few of the scores of self-help books on the topic, to realise that we don’t know very much about it.

Nobel laureate and founder of behavioural economics Daniel Kahneman warns us “there are several cognitive traps that sort of make it almost impossible to think straight about happiness”, and our “experiencing selves” and “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently.

(I know that’s true of sailors: a brief squall grows to life-threatening storm in our memories… and with it, of course, our heroism.)

Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness shows that we misjudge what made us happy in the past, what will make us happy in the future, and even what is making us happy right now. He suggests that happiness has little to do with what happens to us in our lives, and more to do with how we end up choosing to see things (reframing?).

Gilbert believes we each have a “psychological immune system” – basically a bullshit generator -that explains our past experiences, future projections and current situations in such a way that we always maintain a baseline level of mild happiness. “Mild happiness” because the psychological immune system works both ways. Too unhappy? Your brain will come up with explanations to make you feel OK again. Too happy? Your brain will start to feel entitled and unsatisfied again. It’s this “immune system” that fails when we fall into existential crises.

Thus he says:

We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy… But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our short-sighted, misguided plan.


Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.

In taking early retirement to sail away, we found that we unsettled some members of our family and lost many of our friends who remained behind. They might have no interest in doing like us, but our “irresponsible” actions inadvertently became a mirror in which they caught sight of themselves trapped in the treadmill of daily grind, chasing their tails like OCD dogs.

chasing our tails

Fortunately, the message – Carpe Diem, live now, “gather ye rosebuds as ye may” – does not seem to have been lost on our children.

I post the following video because it features a boat like ours, the Bowman 40, though after ten Atlantic crossings ours now looks rather more weather beaten.

Should we take happiness more seriously? I still don’t know.

But I am reminded that in our present happiness we must guard against the smugness of that fine fellow!

It’s no good having the inclination if you don’t have the time


… said the man who put the clock in the leaning tower of Pisa.


We feel very lucky to sit here among deserted boats in the marina, the only ones to live aboard. Being at this interface makes us marginal – a part and apart. Put on branded sailing togs – Sperry Topsiders, Musto salopettes, Gill oil skins, HellyHansen shirts, Quba bags, whatever – and people greet us with “good morning”. Walk down the pontoon in jeans and a fleecy, and they won’t say hello. Haves don’t want to see have-nots.

Marginality helps us see certain patterns of behaviour perhaps more clearly than others.

People, for example, buy these boats to “live the dream”. Happiness, so we are told, is rarely as good as we imagine it to be, and rarely lasts as long as we think it will. “The two happiest days in a boat owner’s life”, it’s said, “is the day you buy your boat and the day you sell it”… because “buyers’ remorse” very rapidly sets in.

Owners forgot (or didn’t know) that their sleek, modern, light-displacement boats would slam when going to windward and require extra skill and attention to trim and helm downwind. That’s OK until – tired or seasick – they get it wrong, yell at the wife, scare her and convince her and the crew never to sail with them again.

So their boat now sits in a marina, good enough for coastal hops in fine weather and great for entertaining, all the while its leading-edge electronics and complex systems (computerised fuel injection, bow-thrusters, autopilots, water maker, microwave, freezer) fail expensively, one by one. This is the sad background to Persig’s Cruising Blues.

Our boat came with two electronic autopilots (one electrical, one hydraulic) and a wind vane (Monitor) also for self-steering. The second autopilot was a backup. However the first time we were hit by lightning (mid Atlantic) we lost both autopilots. With difficulty, we got them repaired. Raymarine told us they were obsolete but we found a little man in Jersey who’d fix them, at a price. The second time we were hit by lightning (in a remote lagoon in Belize) we lost them both again. We haven’t repaired them, trusting far more to our Monitor.

Why do we let ourselves be duped by those who sell such vulnerable devices?

“Lying is a cooperative act,” says Pamela Meyers. You need others for a lie to work. Lies feed on the fact that everybody is hungry for something. Lying is part of our culture, part of our DNA.

I know it may sound like tough love, but look, if at some point you got lied to, it’s because you agreed to get lied to. Truth number one about lying: Lying is a cooperative act. Now not all lies are harmful. Sometimes we’re willing participants in deception for the sake of social dignity, maybe to keep a secret that should be kept secret, secret. We say, “Nice song.” “Honey, you don’t look fat in that, no.” Or we say, favourite of the digerati, “You know, I just fished that email out of my Spam folder. So sorry.”


Deception is actually serious business… Henry Oberlander, he was such an effective con man, British authorities say he could have undermined the entire banking system of the Western world… He was interviewed once, and he said the following. He said, “Look, I’ve got one rule.” And this was Henry’s rule, he said, “Look, everyone is willing to give you something. They’re ready to give you something for whatever it is they’re hungry for.”

And that’s the crux of it. If you don’t want to be deceived, you have to know, what is it that you’re hungry for? And we all kind of hate to admit it. We wish we were better husbands, better wives, smarter, more powerful, taller, richer — the list goes on. Lying is an attempt to bridge that gap, to connect our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were, how we wish we could be, with what we’re really like. And boy are we willing to fill in those gaps in our lives with lies.

Most boat owners are hungry to become intrepid sailors. Yet one in a hundred of them will cross an ocean, and one in a hundred of those will circumnavigate. For if they did they’d very soon realise the dangerous inadequacy of their vessels.

So an industry grows up around marinas comprising chandlers to sell exotic, expensive and unnecessary devices and skilled shipwrights to sell the services necessary to keep them maintained… aided by boat owners who cooperate in the lie. We meet their customers over and over again in our sailing, waiting in ports for parts. Hence the cynic’s definition of cruising: “a series of repairs in exotic locations”.

In stark contrast to such depressing news, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness tells us that “events and outcomes which we dread may when they come about turn into new opportunities for happiness”.

Ice Blink

This is the encouraging message of David and JaJa Martin’s film Ice Blink: most of us spend our lives avoiding risk, experiencing things at about 5, 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10; only when we are ready to expose ourselves to the risk of a “1” (a bad passage, say) are we likely to experience the “10s”.

This was also what Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)  meant when he recommended we live not just at the top of a mountain, but at the top of a volcano (The Gay Science, aphorism 283):

For believe me! –the secret of realizing the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships out into uncharted seas!

Concludes Meyers:

“Character’s who you are in the dark.” And what’s kind of interesting is that today, we have so little darkness. Our world is lit up 24 hours a day. It’s transparent with blogs and social networks broadcasting the buzz of a whole new generation of people that have made a choice to live their lives in public. It’s a much more noisy world. So one challenge we have is to remember, oversharing, that’s not honesty. Our manic tweeting and texting can blind us to the fact that the subtleties of human decency — character integrity — that’s still what matters, that’s always what’s going to matter. So in this much noisier world, it might make sense for us to be just a little bit more explicit about our moral code.

When you combine the science of recognizing deception with the art of looking, listening, you exempt yourself from collaborating in a lie. You start up that path of being just a little bit more explicit, because you signal to everyone around you, you say, “Hey, my world, our world, it’s going to be an honest one. My world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsehood is recognized and marginalized.” And when you do that, the ground around you starts to shift just a little bit.

What happens when we don’t work together

Slapton Sands Slapton Sands, yesterday

We’ve made progress towards readying our boat for sailing. We eventually got round to taking the Yankee and Staysail to sail makers in Dartmouth to have the UV strip replaced with new Sunbrella that we bought in Panama. Sunbrella is a UV resistant canvas. The UV strip is sown over the front (“luff”) and bottom (“foot”) of a foresail to protect it from sun damage when rolled up (“furled”). Sail_layout Last time we replaced the UV strip was when we arrived in St Martin in the Caribbean after a 32-day (very slow) crossing from Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. The old UV strip had shred into strips, ribbons of canvas snaked out and around our standing rigging. It looked as though both foresails were in tatters, like baggy wrinkles, destroyed no doubt by horrendous storms.

Baggywrinkle is wrapped around a steel cable Saturday, June 18, 2011, aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle in London.  Baggywrinkle is wrapped around metal cables aboard the ship in order to protect the sails from chafing, which causes tears in the sails. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class NyxoLyno Cangemi
Baggy wrinkle

It happened that we motored into St Martin’s lagoon, through the raising bridge, on a Friday afternoon, happy hour in the nearby Yacht Club. Someone noticed the mess our sails we were in… and we were greeted with a standing ovation, cheers, and laughter. We waved back royally, ashamed no more to appear quite so scruffy amongst all the immaculate super yachts. Sint-Maarten-Yacht-ClubYachts queue to go through the bridge in front of St Martin’s yacht club

Yesterday, having dropped our sails off for repair, we drove to nearby Slapton Sands, and my wife snapped the heading photo for her facebook page. It shows the lovely weather we are having and is a reminder of how we choose to live: at an interface. In this picture, it is between sea and land. Once at sea, it is between sea and sky. I use the word “interface” more broadly than its narrow technical sense. I will describe the power and potential of interfaces to expand this topic of making it safe to talk. Moral conflict, for example, is all about an interface: that point where social worlds collide. Where I define interface as: a place where people need to work together to get things done. Amaerican troops at Slapton SandsAmerican troops at Slapton Sands

Slapton Sands, coincidentally, is infamous for Exercise Tiger, a terrible incident in World War Two, that was “hushed up” at the time:

Coordination and communication problems resulted in friendly fire deaths during the exercise, and an Allied convoy positioning itself for the landing was attacked by E-boats of Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine, resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen.

A brutal reminder of what happens when people fail to work together to get things done.