Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House

September 21, 2018
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Review of Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, by Luke Harding
When I returned from a teaching assignment in Moscow recently, I found Luke Harding’s book waiting for me.  My visit had taken place as relations between the UK and Russia were at a low ebb.  With hindsight, I am rather glad I had not travelled with Collusion as my reading material.
The author has established himself as a leading investigative journalist.  His success might be measured by two movies made from his earlier books, one on Julian Assange and other on Edward Snowden, two of the great whistle-blowers of our times. His credibility as an informed source is strengthened though his expulsion by the Kremlin for his efforts during his time as foreign correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with The Guardian newspaper.
An unfinished drama
Collusion: how Russia helped Trump win the White House, deals with an unfinished story, the rise and potential fall of the 45th President of the United States. Nearly a year after publication, the broad analysis remains fresh, and a useful piece of reporting of a drama still awaiting its denouement.
In real-life, a ‘did he or didn’t he‘ thriller, is morphing into a ‘will he or won’t get impeached‘ one, as the indefatigable investigator Robert Muller picks off individuals closer and closer to the President who are reluctantly seeking plea bargains to reduce criminal charges. Parallels with Nixon’s Watergate affair are obvious.
The book opens with a visit by Harding to a secretive organisation in the intelligence gathering business, aka private spying services. It was gaining unwanted notoriety for what became known as The Steele Dossier. Harding was there to meet its author, Christopher Steele.  The dossier was at the time allegedly circulating in Russia’s security agency the FSB, a post-Gorbachev  mutation of  the venerable KGB, as well among Western intelligence groups, and the leaky world of international journalism.
The Steele Dossier
The dossier, according to Harding  ‘would in effect accuse President-elect Trump of ..collusion with a foreign  power. That power was Russia. The alleged crime – vehemently denied, contested, and in certain key aspects unprovable – was treason.’
The information collected by Steele attracted wealthy clients, seeking it as possibly damaging to Trump’s campaign. Then the unverified material was published on-line with only minor redactions, days before the new President’s inauguration. The genie was out of the bottle. The dossier assessed the evidence as pointing strongly to a acceptance by Trump’s  closest associates of a flow of intelligence from Russian sources. Furthermore the Russians were believed to have compromising materials including the sexual frolics which become one of the lascivious shorthands for the possible blackmail.
Trump’s reaction introduced a pattern repeated through his presidency. The use of twitter as his communication medium of choice. The rejection of adverse reporting as fake news (or, in its emphatic capitalized form, FAKE NEWS!).
The episode sets the scene for the book. Much of the subsequent material will be familiar for those who have followed the daily docudrama. Familiar, although bewildering in the the large and shifting cast, although the story-line is comfortingly unchanging.
The two narratives 
Throughout the book, I found myself disentangling two narratives. The first is the story assembled from the facts as recorded by the author.  It tells of a President increasingly mired in controversies and attempts to defend the indefensible. The broad thrust of this narrative mostly fleshes out the explosive Steele dossier.
It portrays a blustering and impulsive President, concealing his financial status and dubious personal and commercial activities, quick to dismiss staff, and railing against his enemies.
One of the more egregious firings was of FBI chief James Comey.  He was abruptly fired at a distance. Hearing the news in public, Comey believed it to be a joke at first. Ironically Comey’s firing was a factor in the arrival of special investigator Robert Mueller, who had been Comey’s predecessor at the FBI. Mueller has become Trump’s nemesis, In this narrative, a year after the book was published, he is patiently collecting evidence against a range of Trump’s close associates and family.
The second narrative is a near mirror-image of the first.  It is mostly reactions to developing adverse news stories. The rebuttals come from President Trump and spokespersons. It draws on claims that enemies of the state, are engaged in a malevolent conspiracy to besmirch the President, through the so-called  ‘deep state’.
The enemies are led by Crooked Hillary, the Mainstream Media with the exception of Fox  News, and the despicable Special Investigator.
It is tempting but simplistic to conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Or, as some commentators have noted, we may have increasingly to accept relativism rather than certainties in a post-truth world.
With the benefits of hindsight
One of the problems of an account of a contemporary political issue, is that events can quickly render conclusions failing to anticipate the twists in the dramatic arc of the story.
Nearly a year on, Harding’s conclusions have stood the test of time.
Mueller has succeeded in  gaining convictions for key aides mentioned as targets in Collusion. Significantly, most tof them have been ‘flipped, (seeking modest sentences in exchange for collaboration with the justice system.) The book ends with criminal charges against Paul Manafort, the most knowledgable of Trump’s aides about the impeachable activities of the President.
Fake News?
I found Collusion a well-researched account, drawing on a wealth of personal investigations by the author.
The drama continues. My suspicion is we will have to await a few important and unexpected twists to this fascinating tale of leadership. Maybe, as Harding comments about the Steele dossier, the alleged crime of collusion is in certain key aspects unprovable.

Serena Williams and the fight for tennis equality

September 10, 2018

Naomi Osaka, a new star of women’s tennis won the singles crown at the US Open of 2018. But the headlines were all about the losing finalist Serena Williams, and her battle with Umpire Carlos Ramos.

The match filled the front-page headlines as well as the sporting columns around the world. It captured triumph and disaster, Kipling’s two impostors long associated with tennis and sport. It was raw emotion mingled with tennis of the highest quality.

The setting: Male and Female GOATS.

Serena Williams is crowning a glittering career at the age of 37 by returning to competitive play less than a year after becoming a mother. One final goal eludes her. Winning her 20th singles title at a grand slam event. This would exceed the record set many years ago by the Australian player Margaret Court, and match her 24 total including doubles events.
It matters to Serena. Maybe to add weight to the claim by many players that Serena is the Greatest Of All Time Female (GOAT) tennis player, matching Roger Federer’s claims as the male GOAT. The debate is intensifying as both Roger and Serena find a resurgence in form at an age when less super-humans are planning their subsequent retirement plans.

Maybe the motivation is fuelled in part by a controversy over the stance of Margaret Court over Women’s rights, led by Billie Jean-King, a mentor of Serena Williams, and a formidable champion in her own right. Over time, Serena has also fought vigorously for equal pay and other forms of equality for women tennis players.

The young pretender

Facing Serena is Naomi Osaka, a 20 year old Japanese player little-known outside the world of tennis. Insiders, however, have noticed her arrival among a group of emerging young players who have been able to achieve grand slam tournament successes. This has been assisted by the interruption through Serena’s maternity period. Indeed, Serena faced Osaka shortly after return, in a tournament in Miami, and lost 3-6, 2-6, The loss was largely ignored as happening at a fortuitous time for the young Japanese player. This overlooked the unexpected recent result in winning her first senior event in the Indian Wells tournament.

The Serena Slam

Serena went close to achieving the exceptional feat of a clean sweep of grand slam events in the year 2015. She was already champion of three of the four annual tournaments, the Australian, French, and Wimbledon. The story began to reach beyond the tennis reports.
The climax was to be at the US Open, always held in early September. It became labelled The Serena Slam.
I remember it well, as I decided to follow the entire tournament as it unfolded, from Europe, taking as my theme the tensions facing sporting superstars. The story was as fascinating as I hoped. I wrote a book about it, titled Tennis Tensions. The tensions, as so often happens, upset the happy ending for Serena at the time. She went out at the semi-final stage. I suspect that this experience added to Serena’s motivations to end her career with a slam not a whimper.

The Osaka Serena match

The crowd had already delighted in an American success. In the mixed doubles, the ebullient  Mattek-Sands scraped though with partner Jamie Murray, providing  a satisfactory prelude to the main event.

The singles final started with the high-tension Flushing Meadows crowd in even more high-tension mood than usual. Overwhelming support for the last American hope of another victory of the tournament. Williams conceals any nervousness with customary ferocious body language which can reinforce feelings of inadequacy in opponents. But this opponent matches her in physicality and shot-making.

The unlikely starts to happen. Williams is rattled. Fails to deal with the aggression and sprays losing shots. Osaka plays with the freedom granted to the player no one expects to win. Breaks. Then breaks again to take the first set. Pundits expect Serena to reestablish the rightful order of things.

Except it works out quite differently. Serena is now visibly unsettled. Ready to find pressure release valve. Which she does with misdirection of her energies towards the Umpire.

What follows is documented accurately in many reports. What is less clear is the assessment of what happens. Serena receives a warning for (illegal) coaching from her coach. Serena is incensed and demands an apology of the umpire.
Play continues, Serena is unable to gain control, loses serve, smashes racquet, receives a second correct code violation.
The match is drifting away, and Serena redoubles her invective directed at the umpire. Receives third correct code violation of loss of a game virtually gifting the match to her young opponent who manages to look as nothing untoward is happening, and it it is, it really is nothing to do with her. Remarkable composure.
No good can come of this.
The match still requires winning. Osaka finds the mental resources to finish with a strong service game. The match ends. Recriminations begin. What should be a joyous victory ceremony ends in tears from the winner. Serena pleads with the crowd that they treat the winner with respect.

The wider issue

The wider issue is hotly debated. Although the term debated is to strip what happened of its intense emotions and beliefs asserted.

Broadly, there is support for Serena, who states in her press conference she was fighting for women’s rights. Others, including Billie Jean King agreed that there are double standards at play. The alternative view is that the unfolding events left the Umpire with little choice.

Truly a dilemma of leadership. Perhaps it is the dilemma facing the umpire that offers most learning opportunities. What might have happened differently. Is it possible or desirable to ignore context? The context of the importance of the match? The long experience of a top umpire including Serena’s celebrity status, and at times her melt-downs at perceived injustices to her, and in her view to others?img_08401


Is Coca Cola a good match for Costa Coffee?

September 1, 2018

This week the most powerful global soft drinks conglomerate acquired the second largest chain of coffee shops in the world. A perfect match?

The announcement has been met with near-universal enthusiasm from business and financial commentators.

According to The Guardian, Alison Brittain, the chief executive of Costa Coffee’s owner Whitbread, said the coffee chain had been approached by a number of potential buyers but Coke’s desire to snap up the 4,000-store chain was a “dream deal” for investors.

“The other suitors weren’t wearing the right suit or driving the right car,” explained Brittain of the other approaches it received. “It’s Coke we decided to go up the aisle with, with a very large ring on our finger.”

 

There is an easy-to-understand logic in the move. There is growing movement against sugary drinks as a contributing factor in the growing problem of obesity (bad pun intended). Coffee, while still suspect for its caffeine, is successful in decaf versions with only a few pedants frothing at the mouth about oxymorons. Overall, Coca Cola is investing in a healthier future.
It avoids the years of denial required of the cigarette manufacturers over links between its product and assorted life-shortening impact on consumers.

Coca Cola Innocent

 

Smoothies

The logic adds to an earlier case studied in LWD and at the Alliance Business School’s Executive MBA programmes. Coca Cola revealed its longer-term acquisition policy when it snapped up Innocent, the environmentally fragrant smoothies business.

How to screw up a good deal

Superficially, then, it’s a good deal. Onward and upward. Whitbreads are making reassuring noises that they will spend the cash responsibly and not just in helping fat cats get fatter. Shareholders will benefit. Some money will go to plugging a hole in the pension funds. So at least employees will get some benefit (even if they were already entitled to negotiated pension rights.)

Leaders we deserve has examined similar acquisitions in which a larger organisation introduces a strategically promising unit to strengthen or diversify. The process is much loved in Business Schools for providing yet another case for the Mergers and Acquisitions component of its courses. Kraft/ Cadbury; Pfizer/Astra Xenica are two important heavyweight examples.

The received wisdom is to avoid messing with the brand assets of the acquisition. This is easier said than achieved, as some of the anticipated gains call for re-organisations, consolidation of back office staff and computer systems. It helps, if there is a rationale beyond rescuing an ailing brand by liberating its potential. In this, I leave readers to decide whether project Brexit might be an example.


Ingerland win historic penalty kick drama amid scenes of mass hysteria

July 4, 2018

 

St George

Yes, I can remember where I was when ….fill in the gaps: Princess Di was killed; Johnny Wilkinson kicked that penalty to win the Rugby world cup for England; Barack Obama was sworn in for the first time …

And last night, where I was when England won a penalty shootout for the first time in the world-cup of football.

Like many others I was alone. At home. A deliberate choice. I could have bonded at the Northern Tennis Club which where for once Wimbledon coverage took second place to the footie. I could have joined the football-scale crowds in Manchester’s public viewing areas, or cheering on the football at the other Old Trafford, where the spectators were more interested in the news from Moscow than in the cricket where England were taking a right pasting from India in a T20 match.

My voice of viewing may have meant I was partly isolated from the hysteria which appeared to sweep the nation. Yes, the nation of Inglerland, Motherland of parliaments. There even appeared to be support, even in bastions of nationalism in the Celtic fringes of what is for the moment  still a United Kingdom of Ingerland, Wales, Northern Ireland,(and for the purposes of any referendum, the Rock of Gibraltar).

The match seemed to be heading to a close Ingerland victory, thanks to wonder-striker Harry (Hurricane) Kane after a close and very illegal encounter with Carlos Sanchez. Then the (inevitable?) drama of a last minute equaliser by the colossus Yerry Mina imported from Barcelona along with forty thousand fans from central casting.

And so to extra time

Extra time which was always destined, as was the penalty shootout at which Ingerland is spectacularly bad. It’s when we do, part of the brand. But that is only an absolute and universal law when we are playing against Germany.

And so it unfolded. The great football script-writer in the sky arranged for Columbia’s goalkeeper Ospina (on loan from Arsenal)  to save Henderson’s penalty kick brilliantly. The tragedy unfolds.

Dier only has to kick the ball into the net to save Ingerland from a fate worse than a hard Brexit.

But there is another twist. A Columbian miss onto the crossbar.  That twist was from Ingerland’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford whose trailing leg keeps the ball out. Eric Dier, who had slipped on the the field unnoticed during one of the frequent late skirmishes, steps up and only has to kick the ball into the net to save Ingerland from a fate worse than a hard Brexit.

OK, then. A breathless nation watches. Time stands still.  At 21.22 Ingerland Mean Time. He steps up, he kicks he scores. The heavens open. The Gods roar. The earth spins on its axis located in St John’s Wood.

Being partially protected, (and more than partly a member of one of the Celtic outcroppings), I am not completely and utterly swept up in an exultant surge of nationalistic pride. The unworthy thought occurs to me that the moment might be historic, but it is even more so a hysteric one.

The moment might be historic, but it is even more so a hysteric one

A celebrity showing signs of chemically-aided exultation sent a semi-coherent message to the world from his kitchen. The next morning, BBC Radio 5’s Nicky Campbell, left behind to look after a deserted studio in Salford, found a way of morphing his love of all things Scottish, with a new fervour for Ingerland. He was even unable to find time to mourn the reported murder of a giraffe by an American trophy hunter who had claimed she was helping the giraffe gene pool by giving young bulls a better chance to mate.

It’s a funny old world. Or, as another of the Guardian journalists put it “Do not adjust your reality. This is really happening”.

 

Even the snowflake-whiteness of The Guardian was temporarily red-blooded in its joy for the boys. (“Joy and review as England break curse of the penalty shootout”). In that same illustrious newspaper in its new shrunken tabloid format, news of the Tham Lung rescue attempt can be found on page 8, and news of Brexit left to a column from their sublime satirist John Crace. Football 9 Brexit 1.

It’s a funny old world. Or, as another of the Guardian journalists put it “Do not adjust your reality. This is really happening”.

 

 


From Manchester to Moscow: A tale of two visas

June 18, 2018

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“We would like to invite you to Moscow this May, to address our students on creativity and leadership.”
I accept the offer to swap Manchester for Moscow for a week in the late spring as a great deal. The attraction of the assignment fades, as relationships between the two governments cool after the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury. I discover later that even Roman Abramovich is having similar visa problems, but from the opposite direction.

An announcement on the Russian visa website makes the official position clearer:
“As a result of the irresponsible actions of the UK Government, which lead to an expulsion of 23 diplomats of the Russian Embassy, the consular service for applicants has been seriously affected.This leaves us no option but to temporarily limit the number of all visitors. The Embassy is doing its best to reestablish the ordinary workflow.”

Days before the proposed visit, I am seriously considering a fallback position. I find myself muttering that nothing is decided before everything is decided. My fall-back is to walk away. They need my goods more than I need their visa, I argue with myself. Withdrawal means withdrawal.
As in all good dramas, there is a final twist. After two journeys from Manchester to London, and with one last bound, I am free to travel. The visa page in wonderful Cyrillic characters is pasted into my passport. It now offers a conversation point with border guards on my next visit to the land of Trump.
The journey to Moscow is eventful. A fifty minute transfer at Frankfurt proves as impossible as it always seemed, and I arrive at my hotel at 2am.
Later that morning, I blearily discuss my proposed lectures. More like workshops, really, I explain. We will work together collectively to explore a living case of the creative options open to a leader.

With some trepidation, I choose Brexit and its leadership choices as my main theme for discussion at the workshop. To my pleasure, I find that the students are remarkably well-informed about the topic. Without prompting, they quickly home in on the most intractable problem, that of the Irish border. We examine the possibilities such as a technological fix, and even the impossibilities such as a virtual border and abolishing the border completely . I feel I am more engaged in authentic discussion than after all the ersatz debates I have suffered for over a year on Newsnight (bad), Question Time (worse), Peston, (frenzied) and Daily Politics (unspeakable).

I learn a lot about the way a country can take control of its borders. During my visit, I surrender my passport around a dozen times at various checkpoints. The ritual is almost identical. Each page is carefully scrutinised. I am also carefully scrutinised.

Back home, I am not surprised to see that the Government is still persisting in its public assertions of the vital importance of a granite-hard Brexit. I witness the unedifying sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg reading ‘evidence’ from his smartphone (surely a blow against his carefully-crafted victorian undertaker image). He is facing reasoned arguments from a distinguished Cambridge lawyer. “Experts” he sniffs, “I had to listen to nonsense from an expert just last week”.

The Mail continues its hysterical headlines, adding to its list of traitors. This now includes high court judges, unelected peers trousering their daily expenses for blocking the will of the people, communist agitators led by the evil Corbin and the Svengali figure of McDonnell. All are plotting for the downfall of capitalism. I retain a hope that I might also be elevated to that band of brothers and sisters. Maybe by drawing the Mail’s attention to my role as, at best a useful idiot, and at worse a sleeper preparing for my defection to Moscow. Jeremy Corbin consciously or otherwise clings to the Blairite idea that a creative fudge may be possible.
The slightest of contacts over a week in Moscow suggests to me that the young people in the capital there have much in common with those in London and Manchester. There is an openness to change, and a willingness to see beyond platitudes expressed as universal truths.

I live in hope.


Brexit remains mired in political incompetence

June 6, 2018

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After my recent visit to The State University of Moscow I return to find Brexit still mired in a morass of political incompetence.

Theresa Villiers as Northern Ireland Secretary in the run up to the referendum insisted nothing would change after a Brexit. Nearly two years later, The Government persists in its public assertions of unity over the vital importance of a granite-hard Brexit.

On the Daily Politics programme, I witness the unedifying sight Jacob Rees-Mogg reading ‘evidence’ from his smartphone (surely a blow against his carefully crafted victorian undertaker image) against reasoned arguments from a distinguished Cambridge lawyer. “Experts” he sniffed “I had to listen to nonsense from an expert just last week”.

The Daily Mail continues its hysterical headlines, adding to its list of traitors, which now includes High Court judges, unelected peers trousering their daily expenses for blocking the will of the people, communist agitators led by the evil Corbyn and the Svengali figures of McDonnell.

I retain a hope that I might be elevated to that band of brothers and sisters, maybe by drawing their attention to my role as, at best a useful idiot, and at worse a sleeper preparing for my defection to Moscow.

For what it is worth, I have no valuable insights into ‘the evil empire’ (copyright, America’s last celebrity president Ronald Reagan. Nor have I returned with a message “I have seen the future and it works.” Unless the future I have glimpsed is one in which it becomes widely realised that Brexit as it is being defined is ta fantasy, a Unicorn, an uncreative idea unconnected with any assessment of its feasibility, or if achieved its consequences.


Why chess and snooker require similar skills

May 8, 2018
A heroic snooker battle shows why chess and snooker require similar sets of skills
In May 2018, Two former world champions John Higgins and  Mark Williams meet in the final of the most prestigious snooker tournament of all.  They did not disappoint the crowd packed into the tight little Crucible arena in Sheffield. There is added interest, because each player is a veteran, now rated as well past his best. Both had given serious thought to retiring, and at the start of the tournament admitted they had no serious confidence in winning the world championship again. The unfolding story grabbed my attention.
Evidence of great motor skills and calculation
“He’s thinking six moves ahead for that shot”. The comment from a professional commentator could have been made by a chess analyst. The difference: in some (but not all positions) chess masters would have been expected to deal with the uncertainties. Computers now show how remarkably quickly and deep the mental work usually is. “Thinking about” happens in all positions. In contrast, calculation of lengthy numbers of moves takes place more rarely, usually in so-called ‘forced’ sequences of moves  such as re-captures, or direct king threats.
Chess as a metaphor for other sports
Chess is often used as a metaphor for other sports requiring more motor skills. I noted it  first in an analysis of tennis matches.  Later, in a work of fiction, I suggested chess could also be compared with boxing and snooker.
Pressures to succeed
In Tennis Tensions, I looked at the buildup of pressure at vital moments in tennis, when routines broke down. Higgins and Williams in this match resisted such pressures the vast majority of people are prone to.
Errors
There were errors. Infrequent and unexpected. In chess they are called blunders. moves far weaker players would not have made (unless of course subjected to the same sorts of pressure!). These seemed to be to be from a lack of concentration, a slight increase in speed of play. Is it too much of a stretch to see similarities with the hassled state of mind in chess players under time pressure?
Age shall not weary them?
Ageing commentators agreed that the standard throughout was as high as the great clashes of the past. Much was made of the 43 year Williams and the 42 year old Higgins. There were those infrequent lapses of concentration. At a low level, my own chess experience is that the frequency of my blunders increases with age.
The Drama
The drama unfolded over three days, (first to 18 frames). It’s a mix of slow and fast play. Williams (seeking his third championship) surged ahead. A few uncertainties resolved in his favour. Then Higgins fought back when all seemed lost. Then Williams fought back again, sneaking it at 18/16
Worth reading about it. 
To go more deeply
I turned some of of my ideas about sporting excellence into fiction in Seconds Out, which has snooker, chess, and boxing themes, together with the obligatory super-villain, and a village bat-woman with sci-fi features. Other sporting publications can be found on my website