Games of Life

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Unlike most seasons, when a single sport often dominates attention, summer offers a range to choose from – making it a great time for sporting analogies.

So, which sport does life most resemble?

Football, according to New York Times columnist David Brooks. Though baseball and football are both team sports, baseball…

“is basically an accumulation of individual activities… In soccer, almost no task…is intrinsically individual.”

People might think they are playing baseball in their daily lives, he says, but in fact their decisions are influenced by their surroundings – more like football.

Everyday thought and language are packed with analogies. They can help explain things by comparing something hard to picture with something more familiar, like the picture of atoms we learn at school, where electrons whizz round the nucleus like the planets revolve around the sun.

Metaphors, the most common sort of analogy, trigger images in a listener’s mind and give body to something hard to picture (“bubbles” or “froth” in markets, “landslide victories” in elections…), so they’re particularly common in news and business communication. Often the aim is to add drama to something mundane: a “financial meltdown” sounds more urgent than “falls in some prices”.

You have to be careful though. An analogy is not a substitute for reality, just one way of looking at a particular aspect of the world. Atoms, you learn later, are much more complicated. And inappropriate comparisons can get people into trouble. A former UK government minister was criticised for saying she could see “a few green shoots” of economic recovery. The metaphor was seen as inappropriately bright at a time when people were losing their jobs.

Brooks was being light hearted, and there’s a lot of truth in his comments and those he links to here on how it’s “a game about occupying and controlling space.”

However, I’d like to add a couple of points.

In one respect, football is more individual than baseball. Baseball (like American football) consists of a series of plays, so coaches can issue instructions during the pauses. But a footballer with the ball at his feet is on his own: he decides the next move.

Arsène Wenger struggled with this when he worked in Japan (where baseball was the dominant sport), and told players they needed to take decisions rather than looking to the coach for instructions. (See my book Japanese Rules, referenced here.)

Second, how about cycling as an analogy for our dependence on others?

In the 15th stage of the 2014 Tour de France, two cyclists quickly broke away from the peloton. This was risky. Cycling tactics are based on minimising wind resistance, and riders in a group can take turns working hard at the front, while spending most of their time sheltering behind others.

But New Zealander Jack Bauer and Swiss Martin Elmiger split from the peloton early on in the 222 km race, after which each was without any wind shelter for about half the time. By the end they were spent, and the peloton caught them just 50 metres from the finish line. The heartbreaking last kilometre gives an idea of how it might feel to be chased by a pack of wolves.

Breaking away from the pack is often admired, and popular culture makes heroes of those with the courage to do so. But sometimes the pack catches up with you.

Then again, that’s just cycling, and just one way of looking at a particular aspect of the world.


Blair promotes British role in EU


The terms of Britain’s endless discussion over the EU are generally set by the anti-EU camp, which cooks up false accounts of the cost of membership and makes vague, indignant assertions over the loss of national sovereignty. Though their policies would be disastrous for the UK, the antis at least have a coherent vision that attracts some people. That’s something many mainstream British politicians appear to lack. Prime Minister David Cameron, afraid that his Conservative Party is losing support to UKIP, tries to appease Europhobes, in Brussels and a few days later campaigning in England  acknowledging their prejudices, rather than challenging them:

We need a Europe that respects nation states, a Europe that gets the message from last week’s election that the EU has become too big, too bossy, too interfering.

So it’s good to see an old pro making a return (for whatever reason) and speaking far more persuasively than the current leaders of Britain’s main parties. In a few opening sentences of a speech before the CBI, the UK’s biggest industry group, former Prime Minister Tony Blair pointed out what’s wrong the current talk:

We in Britain must make the debate more than about the repatriation of certain competences and rules. It has to be a debate elevated to a Europe wide level, with Britain playing a leading role in the reform of Europe, not just a negotiation of Britain’s terms of membership. It has to be about what is good for Europe as well as what is good for Britain.

He then recast the debate in his own terms, by providing vision and specifics – and he thus gave a lesson in effective argument. Accepting the terms of the debate as defined by UKIP and others, and then trying to cope with the resulting noisy grumbling – that’s politics as management. But Blair was always a leader. He takes on board prevailing opinion, and then offers a new way of thinking – one that leads to a solution rather than continuing a zero-sum squabble, such as the one over “more” or “less” Europe. And he backs up the vision with concrete suggestions. In this case, his vision is all the more persuasive for being quite modest. The origins of the EU lay in Western Europe’s need for peace and to resist the Soviet Union. Now, the EU’s role is in the benefits of size – a large single market and a framework for wielding influence.That means the role of the EU needs to change. However:

Governments struggling with getting out of recession, still fragile and under intense political pressure, have no desire at this moment for such a root and branch debate.

Instead, Blair picked on very specific jobs that only work on a pan-European level (see my op-ed for Friends of Europe): the single market for services, trade, energy policy (whose “impact would be transformative”). In other words, stop kvetching about who decides what, and come up with ways to make things better for Europeans.

In each area, Europe should focus not on the process for making decisions; but on the decisions themselves. What is it that we want Europe to do to make people better off, more secure, more confident about their future?

Finally, he took flight a little and gave the coup de grâce to the Little Englanders: Britain is open, outward-looking and adventurous, he said – meaning that failure to participate constructively in the EU would go against the British spirit.

We, the British, engage with the world. We don’t retreat from it.

Map: Quizimodo

Obama Tries to Rally Europeans


Some people hoped that President Obama’s March speech in Brussels  would produce a concrete move to help resolve the crisis in Ukraine. It didn’t, leading to criticism  that the speech didn’t do much.

One factor was the nature of speeches, which don’t have a direct role to play in the kind of chess game being played out between Russia and the West. Speeches can arouse interest, inspire and mobilise and audience. But using a speech to demand more of allies, as some would have liked, would have given an impression of division. Read More

Warning on Economic “Timidity”… Again

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Paul Krugman, known for his strongly-held view, is also a great writer to study because he puts these views across with force and humour.

Here, he writes about a favourite topic: why austerity is the wrong economic policy, even for countries with a lot of debt.

His challenge is to do this while sounding fresh, even though he’s written about this countless times before. Read More