Bleak dramas, the new Newsnight and what CEOs can learn from terrorists

Julia Hobsbawm's diary.

Comrade. Colleagues. Conference. I used to spend the early weeks of autumn listening to the three Cs, initially at Labour and then briefly at the Conservatives (somehow I always missed the Lib Dems: although what did I actually miss?). Not any more. Marriage long ago put paid to my bar-propping seaside days. Plus, conferences are for tribes, unless you are a lobbyist or a journalist, and I prefer political polygamy. So, now I follow everything on air and online instead. BBC Radio 5 Live is the best way to hear a party leader’s speech uncluttered by anything but the words. Richard Bacon and John Pienaar always do a pithy analysis against the backdrop boom of diehard applause and anthem-pop cringe.

This year, felled by back-to-school flu, I watched a lot of Labour while lying down. Not a bad thing. Something called “Composite 4” was repeatedly called for from “the floor”. The Tories are a bit better in the jargon department but social media has made everything slightly indecipherable for the uninitiated: do they hashtag #cpc13 in the shires?

You schmooze, you lose

You would think that because I’m a professional who teaches networking for a living, the political season would be unmissable for me. All those receptions. Parties. Late-night drinks. Well, I have a secret to share. Conferences and, indeed, cocktail parties are actually the worst places to network. Too dependent on see-and-be-seen schmoozing and less on what really oils the wheels of good connections: curiosity and conversation. This happens less in big cliquey groups with people hurling business cards at each other and far more in small gatherings.

Publishing philosophy

Publishing is awash with tremendous zeitgeist thinking: Malcolm Gladwell, Jane McGonigal, Noreena Hertz. But when it comes to the philosophy of networking, avoid the cheery how-to books giving you “tips” and focus on the sociologists and scientists, not the salesmen. Charles Kadushin of Brandeis University and Barry Wellman of NetLab at the University of Toronto understand that tomorrow’s world won’t be an old-boy network of tight, self-reinforcing elites but one that is distinctly plural.

In 2007 the political analyst Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing in Foreign Affairs, predicted that supranational governance would hinge not on hierarchies but on lateral networks. Today, terrorists and criminals are ahead of governments and commerce in their understanding of how to transfer knowledge effectively through their groups.

Talking about a revolution

When I took the youngest member of our family away from playing Minecraft on the Xbox to marvel at the Science Museum in London, we learned that early industrial machines of the 1800s were invented by millwrights, “jacks of all trades” who created connections between the workers with skills to build everything from power looms to machine tools. As the Hungarian physicist Albert-László Barabási puts it, networks are everywhere; you just have to look for them. Social network analysis is less than a century old but the politics and economics of human capital will dominate over the next one.

Central Park and Highgate

After visiting the shop (the Science Museum’s biggest manufacturing output these days is its own-brand inventions) we had a gorgeous walk by the Serpentine, past the new Zaha Hadid-designed gallery. Central Park, eat your heart out. I used to go to New York for a cosmopolitan and cultural energy fix, and specifically for the nail bars and gourmand coffee. No longer. The Vietnamese have perfected fortnight-lasting gel nail techniques all over London and you cannot move now for the New Zealand bean aficionados running artisan workshops about crema depths on espressos.

I will return to Manhattan next month for a memorial for my father, who died a year ago. This week, the Daily Mail took issue with him in a venomous editorial about Ed Miliband’s father, Ralph, calling them both “useful idiots” of communism. As an avid Daily Mail reader, I can’t complain too loudly, although it hurts hugely. My father would have shrugged. He was a historian, not a politician.

Disgrace for Damian

He would have admired and enjoyed our friend Simon Schama’s magisterial Story of the Jews on BBC2 all month as well as Peaky Blinders, the 1920s gangster drama produced by the TV genius Caryn Mandabach. Television is having such a good moment.

I like the new Newsnight edited by Ian Katz. It could perhaps be dubbed “Guardian TV”, as it all screams “Very Now” – although have I missed the memo abut Chris Huhne? Is he as “back” as Damian McBride? To me, being discredited politically should be for life, not just for Christmas.

Methed up

Our household also watches masses on Netflix. Most recently we started Breaking Bad. This had two effects. One, we were joined on the sofa for the first time in two years by our teenage son, and two . . . I am waiting to be as wowed as the rest of the world. Give me Nordic Noir angst drama, not crystal meth with bleak jokes. I’ve watched only one episode. I was not, so to speak, hooked.

Appliance of science

Peter Bazalgette was on Newsnight last week declaring Breaking Bad to be superb. He and 60 other luminaries spent a morning at the Wellcome Trust to judge this year’s crop of entries for the annual commentariat prize at our Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. I’m pretty sure the turnout was high because everyone wanted to meet each other. Better than a conference, as more politically eclectic. You could say it’s premium networking.

Julia Hobsbawm runs the networking company Editorial Intelligence and is Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at Cass Business School in London. She tweets at: @juliahobsbawm

Gourmand coffee is now readily available in London. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear