Thomas Picketty didn’t play the piano

Early in 2014 French economist Thomas Picketty published a book on economics, entitled CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century. The book was a sensation. It rocketed to the higher reaches of the Best-Seller lists and stayed there a long time, assembling all sorts of awards. I have to confess to not having a copy of my own, although I have read several reviews of it …

… actually, because I have read several reviews of it.

Late in 2014 Picketty delivered a TED Talk.

How well I remember, all those years ago at school, our French teacher was exasperated at our attempts to wrap our Anglo-Saxon tongues around French vowel sounds. He would thunder at us that it was thoroughly ill-mannered to attempt to speak a language without applying at least as much effort to pronouncing it properly, so the better we could converse the worse the impression bad pronunciation would give. I remember his words every time I hear French people speaking English. The Hollywood actor, Maurice Chevalier, regarded his French accent as not just his professional trademark but part of his charm to such a degree that I believe while living in California he used to visit a dialogue coach to preserve it.

With my rhetor hat on I couldn’t care less about accents unless they impede intelligibility. Picketty’s accent impedes his intelligibility. So does the speed he speaks. Speaking subjectively,  I have to say that so does his subject matter.

r>g where r is the rate of return on capital and g is the growth rate of the economy.

If you are still awake I regret to inform you that this entire speech (and, for all I know, his book) is devoted to inequality of wealth, inequality of income and what can be done about it. At no point in the speech, though he may have slipped something in while I was dozing or admiring the piano behind him, did I notice him even bother to address why inequality matters.

I know that many people do get exercised that there is wealth inequality, though I don’t share their concern. I have met a few people with huge amounts of money, and they never seem to be particularly happy. I have also met many highly cheerful souls with very little. We are all much richer than our ancestors. And anyway, wealth isn’t just things.

There is only one cast-iron guaranteed way of ensuring that everyone has the same, and that is if everyone has nothing. As soon as any wealth is created, some will have more than others. The greater the overall wealth, the greater the inequality. Show me an unequal free society and I’ll show you a rich one. The richer a free society the richer the poorest in it, and that’s all that matters. How much more proportionately rich the richest have become in the process is irrelevant. Please don’t bleat to me about ‘trickle-down economics’: it doesn’t exist. Free market transactions enrich all their participants. Zero-sum transactions, where one man’s gain is another man’s loss, occur almost exclusively with theft and its derivatives.

Picketty seems to assume that inequality is self-evidently bad, because at 14:45 he begins to address “what can be done about it”; and all his remedies are varieties of institutionalized theft. At 15:10 he explicitly lists “expropriation” which he dismisses only because it is “inefficient”. It doesn’t seem to concern him, or even occur to him, that it is theft.

Proper economists are probably rolling their eyes while reading my clumsy attempts to make a case on the basis of my (at best) sketchy understanding of the science, so I think I had better shut up and go looking for a speech from an expert who can take Picketty properly to task. Watch this space.

Picketty must have made a lot of money from his book. Good luck to him. I wish him well, because I don’t resent another man’s success. I would wish him better if he had played that piano, because it couldn’t fail to have been more entertaining.

Rupert Sheldrake displays appealing eccentricity

On 12 January, 2013, there was a TEDx event at Whitechapel in London. One of the talks was from Dr Rupert Sheldrake, and was entitled The Science Delusion. This is the British title of his book which in the USA is called Science Set Free.

His talk came to my notice because TED later banned it. More accurately they removed the video from their YouTube channel, and someone else promptly re-posted it. There is a discussion on their blog on the matter. No doubt TED carefully considered the possible damage their action would do to their reputation for open-mindedness, and what they choose to include on their channel is their business, but surely someone there has heard what happens when you ban something. When the BBC bans a record it immediately climbs to the top of the charts.

When the equivalent happened to this video I waited a while till the dust had settled, the more calmly to examine it. Shall we now see what the fuss was about?

He’s barefooted! I love eccentricity in all its guises, because it shows a determination to plough your own furrow. It also suggests an inner self-confidence and calmness, though I find other things about his body language tend to belie this. His hands bother me, because they seem to bother him. When they hang at his side, the fingers constantly fidget – a common nerve symptom. I find myself willing him to put at least one hand in a pocket and he appears to hear me because his left hand goes into his jacket pocket. I think that this configuration could be a suitable ‘Happy Home’ for his hands.

He needs to find one, a default location whither to send his hands when he finds himself conscious of them, because if it’s the right Happy Home he will immediately cease to be conscious of them and they will do their own thing. Their own thing is excellent: his gestures are eloquent and strong. Being eager to doff my rhetor hat and just listen, I quickly do so.

He lists ten dogmas on which he maintains science is built, telling us that he will have time in this talk to dwell on only two or three of them. Nevertheless he is already controversial. Science is supposed to be built on open-minded inquiry, and scientists will claim it is so, but immediately we spot that his claim must be correct. Dogma-free doesn’t ban speeches that claim it is built on dogma. Who are these poor dears that made his case for him?

His principal target seems to be an idleness that has caused the scientific establishment to try to simplify science into mechanistic constants that nevertheless seem to defy them by fluctuating. And it looks to me as if I have made the same mistake by trying to summarize the talk in a single sentence.

I think I should stop trying to précis this: I would prefer to trail it. You need to watch it. It is intensely thought-provoking, and already I plan to buy the book.

Dada Gunamuktananda and lessons in humour

At TEDx Noosa, Queensland, Australia, on 30 January 2014, Dada Gunamuktananda delivered a talk entitled Consciousness — the final frontier.

Once the initial surprise, at the apparent mismatch of the gentle antipodean vowel sounds and the speaker’s appearance, has worn off this is a fascinating talk and I commend it. The subject matter is one that I constantly hunger to explore more.

This blog though concentrates chiefly on speakers, their triumphs and disasters, so I feel compelled to make two technical observations. If that aspect of life does not interest you by all means cut to the chase and simply watch the talk.

He is nervous. There is a telling symptom to which I will draw your attention in a short while. Yet something, perhaps his yogic self-discipline, enables him to stand still with his hands hanging at his sides as if completely relaxed. This is very impressive. I usually advise trainees against hanging their arms at their sides because it invites their nerves to show themselves through the finger-tips fiddling with each other – a very conspicuous nerve-symptom. Yet his hands are still.

So what is it that tells me, beyond doubt, that contrary to appearance he is very nervous? He is suffering from dry-mouth. Listen, and you will hear the tell-tale clicking caused by saliva that is abnormally viscous. I could give him an absurdly easy and rapid solution to the problem – in fact he could learn it through my book. By the way, it does not involve water.

The other observation concerns humour. I always tell trainees to avoid overt gags, as they are not stand-up comics nor would they want to put themselves through the hell that is the comics’ apprenticeship. Instead, any humour that they elect to use should be applied incidentally as throw-away lines in the narrative. In this talk he illustrates both points very clearly.

He gets good laughter, even applause, with incidental,.throw-away lines at 0:46 – 0:57, 1:45 – 2:00, 9:45 – 10:00, 10:17 – 10:21 and 10:58 – 11:03. Some of these fly by so fast that they are easy to miss, but still they get laughs.

On the other hand, beginning at 7:15 there is a “funny story” that he actually trails as such. It bombs. There is an important lesson there.

Hans and Ola Rosling: Wizz and Son.

I am so pleased I spotted the title of a TED talk that had fairly recently been published. What caught my eye was the name, Hans Rosling. He has been featured in this blog before. In his previous outing I described him as ‘a wizz with visuals’. I still stand by that. On this occasion he is in double harness with his son, Ola. The talk is called How Not to be Ignorant of the World.

I said that they are in double harness, but actually it’s a relay.  Hans kicks the thing off, and Ola takes over at 8:30.

Hans is not just a wizz with visuals. He is brilliant at conveying statistics in a way that has impact and memorability, and most importantly is very funny. A big part of the secret is the huge amount of energy he pours into the process, but there’s a lot of science (I mean speaking science) there as well.

He piles straight in at the beginning, firing at the audience three multiple-choice questions which they must answer on electronic keypads. I shall not spoil your enjoyment by revealing here what the questions are, nor what the audience’s answers are, and least of all the blindingly hilarious tricks with which he spices up the analysis of the answers. Of these last, one in particular (involving primates) is brilliantly creative, and should inspire any speaker to seek out equivalent ideas. I am desperate not to say anything here to spoil your enjoyment; but in the interest of teaching I will point out that in a fraction of a second he takes the rather banal concept of randomness and transforms it in a way that has his audience in hysterics. This man is fantastic!

In my courses I strenuously advocate that if you use humour in your presentations, then throw-away humour is the best type, particularly if early in the talk. Also I made reference to it repeatedly in a recent article on a speech by Black Rod. At 6:03 Hans produces a prop which harvests an enormous laugh. He could have done all sorts of things to try to stoke up the joke, whereas he does nothing at all. He throws the joke away completely, and by doing so I contend that he maximizes the laugh.

He also at 8:30 throws away the introduction of Ola, his son, and thus makes the passing of the relay baton relatively seamless.

Suddenly the comedy warm-up is over, and Ola is delivering the serious academic explanation for what is under discussion – universal ignorance. We stop laughing, but the talk continues to be fascinating. I think Ola is rather too diplomatically charitable to the purveyors of skewed information, absolving them of any guilt, but perhaps that’s my bias.

There we have four paragraphs for Hans and only one for Ola (who speaks for slightly longer), and you might conclude that I am dismissing Ola as boring. Not so: he just isn’t yet as fabulously brilliant as his father; and anyway for the academic lesson to get across, the decorum needs to sober up a bit. Watch, listen and learn.

This TED talk has chalked up more than three million views since it was posted in mid-September, and I am not in the least surprised.

Rose Goslinga triumphs

If you were a very assiduous follower of this blog, and also equipped with a good memory, you might recall this posting from the end of May 2013. Rose Goslinga had delivered a Pop Tech talk about her relatively new business, insuring African farmers against drought. The link will enable you to go back and look at that posting if you wish, but essentially I restricted myself to expressing concern over fussy, distracting visuals, and her own inner confidence that I felt was a little fragile.

In June of this year, in Berlin, she delivered a TED talk.

Inevitably I find myself looking for the vulnerability I spotted previously; and I delight in the dazzling smile with which at the very beginning she bathes the audience. Is it a completely confident smile?

Even before the video started I could answer that. Like every other speaker in history she is experiencing a hump, so there absolutely has to be an element of artifice in that smile. I congratulate her on how well she does it.

Her opening is driven by slides with almost no words on them, so her voice and the pictures complement each other to set the scene and create her required decorum. It lasts a smidgen more than 90 seconds, so her hump will now be receding fast. She swings into ethos, with again wordless slides, and we are given a clear picture of the background to her business. This lasts another minute, so by the time she gets to the nitty-gritty her hump is history and her voice is good and strong.  Excellent construction.

When she is explaining the way her business works, she is much more sparing with her slides, and still they are almost completely wordless. Her visuals never compete with her: that is the key.

I shall not spoil her story by trying to precis it. It’s a good story and she tells it very well. It reaches its punchline with a visual that begins at 8:36 and progresses. That visual, as part of the overall narrative, is simply brilliant. This hardened old cynic actually got the warm fuzzies from it, and it triggered a spontaneous round of applause from the audience.

Her closing is paired with her opening: she closes the circle.

Rose Goslinga is not a trainee of mine, though our having shared acquaintances it is not impossible that she has read my book. If she were my trainee I would be proud as hell.

Clint Smith conveys yesterday beautifully

A friend, and subscriber to my monthly newsletter, emailed me a link to a TED talk by slam poet and teacher, Clint Smith. The talk is currently featured on TED’s own home page.

Is this a talk or a recital of poetry? I went to raise the same question with my friend; and then found that in my haste to click on his link I had skimmed over some of his email and overlooked his asking me almost the same question.

As far as I am concerned, there is no doubt that this is a recital of poetry. If you follow the link I have added to Smith’s name in the first paragraph, you will find yourself on the home page of Smith’s own site. There you will find embedded yet another TED talk, and that is a recital of poetry also.

I have met many whose way of not using paper on the speaking platform is to write a script and learn it. I dislike and disapprove of the practice, partly because they are dealing in written, rather than spoken, words; but more crucially because they are proffering a time-capsule. The words they speak are not of now but of yesterday or last week or whenever they wrote the script that they learned. Without my getting bogged down in the details, let me explain that the paperless technique I teach involves mind-map structures that are so clear and secure that the speaker can shoot from the hip, using words that are genuinely spontaneous.

Spontaneous words have a sound and feel of their own; and they also carry an invaluable subtext of sincerity.

I believe Smith is relaying a time-capsule. We are listening to the words of yesterday. The words may be just as true today, but they are not today’s words.

They are beautiful words. I love the energy and staccato urgency that he generates through the use of asyndeton – there are numerous examples, not least the four core principles he lists at 1:08. I love the iambic rhythms that repeatedly appear. I love the tone colours in his words and phrases. I just don’t think it is spontaneous, in which case it is yesterday not now.

I may be wrong: I readily concede the possibility that when you live, breathe, dream and teach this medium you could develop the ability to generate it spontaneously. It doesn’t feel like that to me, but if that is what he is doing I take it all back.

No I don’t: I don’t take back what I said about the beauty.


Peter Lovatt – cerebral terpsichore

I have a nephew, Dr Oliver Robinson, who lectures in Psychology and is the author of Development through Adulthood: An Integrative Sourcebook. He it was who alerted me to a wild TED talk by fellow psychologist, Peter Lovatt.

Lovatt is not your run-of-the-mill academic psychologist. His having been a dancer, and now doing research into the psychology of dance, his audience was in for a spot of exercise.

His hump shows through in his opening, which is a little clunky. He talks his way to his speaking position, which is good, but what he says is lame. “Amazing, amazing!” is red-coat talk, and too fluffy at this stage for this audience. Worse is that he devotes half a minute to telling us what he is not going to talk about – a classic error. I know why: this is an attempt to establish his ethos, but he needs to do that another way.

He asks the audience to shake their shoulders. Some do: too many don’t. It’s too early in the proceedings. He is madly trying to entrench a decorum, but it’s not working as well as it should. There’s going to be much more of this, with the audience on their feet being lead through a series of simple dance moves. They’re going to enjoy themselves, but right now they are in their own hump and resisting him. He needs to revamp this opening.

There’s a serious core to all this terpsichore. He has researched the effect of dance on the hippocampus, looking at possibly arresting or even reversing the way it shrinks with a person’s age. His focus is the effect that shrinkage has on Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. This is valuable stuff, and makes all the audience’s dancing important as well as fun, but it doesn’t get mentioned till 2:30.

If I were advising him I would get that serious significance to peep through sooner, as the corner stone of the ethos building. It needs only a tiny peep – holding back proper discussion of it till 2:30 is actually wise, as 2:30 is typical hump-length (his evaporates at 2:30). All the early loosening up stuff is a hump-busting routine,and I applaud him for that, but it needs adjusting.

His opening begins to work at 0:57. The decorum drops into place as soon as he introduces groovy music – his audience is more prepared to move with it. When he asks them at 1:40 to stand up, they all do – whereas they didn’t all shake their shoulders a few seconds earlier. This is not only because their own hump is receding, it’s because it is easier to sit still while others are shaking shoulders than it is to keep your seat while all around are losing theirs and blaming it on you. His having got them on their feet they merrily follow him through a simple preliminary routine that they enjoy so much that when at 2:25 he invites them to sit back down he gets wild applause.

Thereafter he’s away!  The talk is a roaring success – with one small exception. At 14:00, just before the dancing climax when all the routines are going to be strung together, he invites anyone who wants to join him on the stage. No one does. I would bet big money on there being several people itching to do so, but not daring to be the first. He handles that wrong. He should have started building that invitation twelve minutes earlier.

At 2:00, when the groovy music first starts, he picks out, and congratulates, ‘a groover’ up in a gallery – excellent! He should also have picked out one (or more!) near the front of the stalls – and ideally near an aisle. Thereafter he should repeatedly have referred to how good they were – “if in doubt, follow the lady in the pink shirt – she’s brilliant!”  Or better still, develop a relationship with the lady in the pink shirt – ask her name. Thereafter, “Come on guys: see if you can do it as well as Yasmine!”

Then at 14:00, instead of issuing an open, and relatively cold, invitation it should have been, “Yasmine, are you going to join me up here to demonstrate? Anyone else going to join us? Yes, come on up sir! etc.” Working an audience is not easy, but he is already good at it. He just needs a nudge or two to be brilliant.

Enjoy this speech: the audience did!

So did I.