Roald Dahl by David Sturrock

October 18, 2016

“Mr Dahl could tell and write a good yarn but he certainly was a boozy, misogynistic, misanthropic git in the flesh.” (Anon).


Asked by the family to write a biography of Roald Dahl (1916-1990) presents the author with a challenge in selecting and interpreting the facts. Dahl was an enormously talented author of children’s books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while at the same time having a number of less than desirable personal and personality traits. Rather than list these flaws, which can best be grasped by reading David Sturrock’s excellent biography of Dahl (Simon and Schuster, 2010), following are some of the ingredients which are associated with Dahl’s career as a writer. I don’t think it is a formula which can or needs to be repeated, but some may see similarities with other writers.


Any biography of Dahl has to include his Norwegian parents, his birth in Wales and education at English boarding schools with their disciplinary features which included beating, bullying and buggery, plus fairly spartan living conditions. Dahl survived all of these because he was a big boy, six foot six inches when a grown up, and was not the focus of older boys, or even masters, when he was young. He was also good at sports especially rugby, squash and fives (a form of handball played in a squash type court). He did not attend university.


Dahl’s size brings to mind the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where pupil Cook is to be beaten by housemaster Moore for stealing some shoes. After a scolding by Moore, Cook points out that “while you are older and wiser than me, I am bigger than you,” and Moore ends up congratulating Cook.


At the start of WW2, age 23, Dahl joined the RAF and learned to fly. His plane crashed in the North African desert leaving him alive, but badly burnt and requiring extensive plastic surgery. Amazingly this does not show up in later photographs. Much of the rest of the war was spent as a junior RAF officer doing public relations at the British Embassy in Washington, where he met President Roosevelt and played tennis with Vice-President Wallace.


His relationship with the British Ambassador, Lord Halifax, who had been sent there by Churchill to remove him from Whitehall, was strained. Halifax had been a contender with Churchill for prime minister in 1940, and had previously wanted England to make a deal with Hitler. Given the number of Americans who at the start of the war were pro-German, and the reluctance of many in the US to assist the U.K. financially and with weapons, Halifax seems like an odd choice for ambassador. Churchill was more astute in dealing with the Germanophile Duke of Windsor, by sending him as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945. Dahl’s role in Washington was writing PR pieces on behalf of England and attending social gatherings.


While Dahl was accomplished with his pen, he was, from an early age, active and popular with the ladies. He married twice, first in 1953 Patricia Neal (1926 – 2010), the American star who in 1963 won the Best Actress award for her role in Hud. They had five children, one of whom died age seven, and another who suffered brain damage after being hit by a taxi in New York. Neal suffered a stroke in 1965 from which she recovered with Roald’s help and was able to continue her career. The marriage ended in divorce in 1983. Dahl had taken up with Felicity Crosland whom he married in 1983 and who survived Dahl’s death in 1990.


His penmanship (actually he used pencils), while accomplished from an early age, took time to generate much money and it was not until his children’s books took off from the 1960s, and some became films, that he had the funds to pursue the lifestyle that he craved. That included collecting and appreciating wines, gambling, greyhound racing, travelling and meeting important people, especially in the US and UK.


If this combination of personality, interests, behaviour and so on are the necessary ingredients for the creativity that produces books which have such wide appeal to children and many adults, then it seems to be something that happens fortuitously rather than being created.


Dahl was/is an enormously successful author of childrens books. Aside from his own talents, his interaction with the publishing industry is instructive. He worked closely with agents, publishers, editors, artists and publicists to shape and market his written work. While the author often gets most of the credit and public acclaim, it is because he or she has a team of people that helps to produce and distribute the final work. This is not unlike theatre, film, dance and music. David Sturrock’s Dahl is a fine case study of how it can all fit together in the case of publishing. Fortunately for today’s audience much of Dahl’s work is available in some form via the internet. A Roald Dahl museum in Great Missenden, UK, is extremely popular…..especially with children.

Clumping, 23 days and counting, to what?

October 15, 2016

General Franco and Chairman Mao climbed to power through force. Mussolini and Hitler took the political route of getting elected and then abolished the institutions which gave them power. Mussolini did it first and provided Hitler with a role model. Once in power, Hitler was better able to control events, while Mussolini both lost control and was defeated militarily prior to the demise of Hitler. Mussolini ruled constitutionally from 1923 to 1925 and then set up a legal dictatorship, if that makes any sense. All these events took place in the past one hundred years and many in the past 82 years of my lifetime. Could any of this happen again?

Chairman Trump and some of his supporters sound very much like those who supported Hitler and Mussolini. They are willing to give him the benefit of any doubts, and there are many, that they have in order to bring about political and economic change. They don’t respect the political mechanisms in the US, at least federally, and don’t believe they can be changed without exploding the Trump bomb. These conditions in the US are, in some ways, like those previously in Italy and Germany.

An account of how the US political system became and remains toxic is found in a book by David Daley, Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy. It is reviewed by Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books, August 18, 2016 (available online). Canadians have not reached, nor appear to be on track to reaching a state of political paralysis, and yet are considering changing their federal voting system. Why? There is no unbiased system, and a new one will merely change the biases with the possibility of encouraging paralysis in the future.

Rule or Cruel Britannia

October 5, 2016

Tears of the Rajahs (Simon and Schuster, 2015) by Ferdinand Mount, describes how the British East India Company dealt with the local populations on the Indian subcontinent from around 1600. It was often not a pretty picture and provides more ammunition to British Empire bashers.

I am aware of the list of documented atrocities and Mount helps to confirm them. But there is another side to the story, at least regarding the state of India and the countries which were once part of the Empire. Like most major happenings, there is a good and bad news story to recount. This one links to what is discussed under the rubric of globalization and suggests a good news outcome.

There are several stages and meanings to the idea and process of globalization. A world map for 1905 (I have one on my wall) shows countries of the British Empire coloured red. They include the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar), and numerous places like Malaysia, Singapore and a series of rocks and islands. Until 1776, the thirteen American colonies would also have had a reddish hue, and in many ways still do.

From around 1600, and from a geographic viewpoint, the process of globalization lead to Britain becoming the world’s main superpower. On the way it had to compete with Holland, Spain and France in North and South America, in Africa and in parts of Asia. Naval superiority aided by piracy helped to establish British footprints around the world.

Soon after 1905, the British Empire started to decline, and within fifty years of the end of WW1 it was over in a political, economic and military sense, but not, I would suggest, in a cultural and political sense. Its political institutions had become established in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. No formal empire existed, but in its place the British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth, was formed, reinforcing British views on many issues. English has become established as the common language for international interactions. Even the EU is reported to be considering retaining English as its working language after Brexit.

Another stage of globalization began after 1945, when the US became the main superpower challenged only by the Soviet Union and its satellites. By 1990, the Soviet Union had dissolved and Russian influence diminished globally and especially in central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile China was on the rise following the death of Mao and the reign of Li Peng. While China has become a global economic player, its neighbor Japan has receded somewhat from the global economic scene.

The foregoing is a ridiculously brief summary of how globalization has evolved geographically and politically over the past 120 years, but it does suggest quite a change over a reasonably short period of time. Few if any forecast these changes five years before they occurred. The same is true today and those who make even short term forecasts, say 2-3 years, are usually wrong.

Another dimension of globalization is more economic and technology related. Steam engines, railroads, cars and planes were technological changes stemming from the 19th century. The past several decades have seen the spread of computer-communications technology affecting different areas of economic, political and social activity. Enormous changes have taken place in numerous areas of our lives. These have been rapid and difficult to predict, but entrepreneurs are active around the world, as are criminals who have created a whole field of cyber-security.

In sum, the globalization initiated by the British Empire, although faded in some ways, is still very much present associated with the spread of democracy, certain human values, the English language and many types of sporting activity. How it got there was not always a pretty picture, but in the long run the results have not been too bad. Large parts of the world today still have a reddish hue. Rule rather than cruel Britannia is probably a better summary of many aspects of globalization today.

Clumping Closer

October 3, 2016

Forty days and counting to the US presidential election. It sometimes seems as though the Democrats may be backing a Republican candidate, who harms his chances of being elected and thus favours the Democrats. But Trump’s base support seems not to waiver despite the positions he takes and his manner of presenting them.

Political forecasting has become more than ever a mugs game, but one thing seems reasonably sure, and that is, whoever wins, the circumstances that surround the election will remain. They include a visceral dislike of both candidates by many voters, and the conditions that give rise to their contempt.

If Bernie Sanders supporters were added to Trump supporters, they might be a majority of voters. The problem is that they reside at different ends of the political spectrum so that such a coalition will probably not happen. But it may lead to people not voting, or voting for one of the two third party candidates, and how that plays out is a mystery to me.

Another unknown is whether those voting mechanisms, which are electronically controlled, have been hacked into such that some voters may have trouble exercising their vote. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are masters at breaking into secure systems, and the Russians appear to have accessed Colin Powell’s emails and those of other politicians. Remember also that the Stuxnet virus was used to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities. Cyber terrorism exists. How and where it will erupt is another mystery surrounding this election.

As suggested, once the election is over, the conditions remain which have given rise to both disaffected Democrat and Republican supporters. For low income white voters in states like Kentucky and Ohio where manufacturing jobs have been lost, the situation is forcefully described in Hill Billy Elegy by J.D.Vance, a thirty-one year old author who comes from a poor white background, a descendant of Scottish-Irish immigrants from several generations back. I strongly recommend it for both content, and the style with which the situation is explained. Of course there are other problems, such as race relations, immigration and the impact of globalization, but Vance sets out the plight of white working-class families in impressive detail.


What future for news?

October 2, 2016

My gold standard for news reporting use to be the BBC. While still highly rated, PBS Newshour for news and Charlie Rose for interviews now top my list. In Canada, I tune into Steve Paquin and The Agenda on TVO for interview programs. The CBC and CTV are not priorities for me. Although both have some excellent individual reporters, the news programs have political slants. What the Newshour team, Rose and Paquin have is a thorough knowledge of the issues, a willingness to present opposing viewpoints, and to suppress their own opinions on the issues under discussion.


Their competitors in the print but especially radio, TV and online media focus, for commercial reasons, on making the news entertaining in order to attract audiences. It’s understandable, but it comes at a price for the quality and authenticity of the news content. Fox News in the US and Sun Media in Canada are illustrative of the adulteration of news and informed views on particular issues.


The internet is another means of delivering news content. There are now umpteen web sites offering both general and specialized news stories and opinions, so that audiences have an overwhelming number of options including Tweets and Facebook. These range in quality from good to mediocre to awful, with an increasing number in the last category. So how does the reader/listener/viewer choose? Consider the situation.


An audience member works with one ironclad constraint…. there are 24 hours in the day, and only a fraction of these will be allocated to consuming news along with sports, recipes, videos and competing items of possible interest contained in various media. When someone suggests downloading another App, my reaction is why? It may be useful, such as say Uber, but it is likely to divert me from other priorities that I have, and which have to be fitted into the 24 hours. Each has to make their content decisions.


What role does the government have in providing news? Each year the federal government allocates about $1bn to CBC/Radio Canada some of which is used for collecting and distributing news and news-type programming in both official languages for radio and television. The public broadcaster also sells advertising which puts it in competition with commercial broadcasters, a continuing cause of tensions. Note, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation use a different funding model.


The circumstances which gave rise to public broadcasting no longer exist, so that the Canadian federal and provincial governments will have to decide its future. There is no shortage of news sources for Canadians and in my view no need for public support. The audience share of CBC English and French language television programming has been declining, so that unless it is servicing some essential (in someone’s view) market niche, the funds could be better spent elsewhere. What Uber has done to taxi services, the internet has done to distributing many types of media content.

Where are Snowden and Assange when you need them?

September 18, 2016

It seems that the emails of important people can be hacked but Trump’s income tax returns remain secret. There must be a bevy of officials, lawyers and accountants who have seen them and know what they contain. Perhaps they are waiting for an opportune time to release the details. These may be more informative than Dr Oz’s medical reports of Trump.


Only Gilbert and Sullivan or Monty Python could do justice to what takes place daily in the presidential election. Neither candidate is liked or respected by a big chunk of the US electorate. Who gets fewer dislikes may become the winner. The election appears not to be about the candidates and their policies, but about a widespread feeling that all is not well in American society.


Trump offers action leading to change, and although the action may be unrealistic, voters like the idea that someone argues the need for change. Clinton has been around Washington for a quarter century, and while she may recognize change is needed, as Bernie Sanders did, she is less believable. And trotting out Bill may not be helpful …….a consummate politician but often on a glide path that gets him into trouble.


Canadians reside smugly north of the border unaware of what might happen, and governed by Donnie and Marie. Canada could be sideswiped by whoever wins. If Trump, there will be a neophyte politician who will try to run the country like the businesses he may have owned. If Clinton, there will likely still be a Republican oriented House if not Senate, and governing will remain the challenge that it has been recently for Obama. Measures like the CETA and the TPP will be difficult to pass, which in my view will be a mistake as trade and investment are the ingredients for improved living standards. Ok, I am aware that the benefits have not always been equally shared, but protectionism guarantees lower living standards.


The final days of the campaign are likely to contain the determining factors, and what has gone on before will be forgotten, at least by the voters, if not by the reporters whose livelihood depends on reporting the news and are in intense competition with social media.

Clumping Along

September 16, 2016

Sixty days to the US presidential election presents a period of uncertainty. Whichever candidate wins, the issues that propel this election will remain. Countries including Canada are far from immune from the outcome and may well be sideswiped by what follows.

My observations at this point are:

1. The US has a first class economy and a third class political system. A danger is that the latter will undermine the former. Respect for the economy is shown by the fact that many if not most people want to hold US dollars, visit the US whether to work there as legal or illegal migrants, do business and study there. It has some of the best universities in the world.

2. The political system was designed to be first class and to address the weaknesses of the Westminster system that prevailed at the time of independence when George III reigned. It has become sclerotic as voters and politicians have learned how to play the electoral process and the steps needed to pass and implement legislation. Elizabeth Drew describes this well in The New York Review of Books August 16, 2016, “American Democracy Betrayed”. I recommend that it be read.

3. Clinton and Trump or Clump, the two candidates reflect different aspects of this political train wreck. Clinton is viewed as having been for the past quarter century an insider and part of the forces that shaped the malfunctioning politics. Trump is seen as a political outsider without the Clintonesque scars, but someone who benefited from the gravy that the political system produced and still produces for some. Thus there are many voters who don’t want to support either candidate and may turn to the two third party candidates.

4. While the winning count of 270 electoral college votes seems to favour Clinton at this stage sixty days out, the voters could upset these predictions. They did that when it came to the Republicans choosing their candidate Trump, out of seventeen contenders.

5. After election day the issues that gave voters the Clump choice will remain, and until a way is found to revise the underlying conditions the US political system is likely to stay either broken or severely damaged.

6. Many Canadians seem to think they are separate and isolated from Clump on one side and Brexit in Europe. I doubt this is the case. How this will all work out is a mystery to me.

Grazing at the public trough

August 25, 2016

Making life easy and rewarding for servants of the people remains with us, although social media may today make it more embarrassing for MPs and government appointees. In February 1960, the board of directors of the Bank of Canada unanimously decided to increase the pension of the Governor of the Bank, James Coyne, from $12K to $25K. His salary at the time was $50K, or around $400K in today’s dollars. At the time, the Governor was in a controversy over monetary policy with the Conservative government headed by John Diefenbaker with Donald Fleming as Finance Minister. Coyne resigned at the time the pension decision was made. He died in 2012, age 102.

I have been unable so far to find on the web the names of the board members at the time, but this should be possible. They apparently had no difficulty in providing what some might consider a generous settlement out of public funds. Scott Gordon, then professor of Economics at Carleton, lead the criticism of a number of Canadian economists of the Governor’s monetary policy decisions which lead to his resignation.

Where will the jobs be – 3

July 18, 2016

Can machines replace humans?

As background to forecasting jobs and education/skills for the future, a McKinsey Quarterly study provides input.

“Michael Chui, James Manyika, and Mehdi Miremadi have been exploring what jobs are likely to be altered more or less by technology. They present some results in “Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet)” in the July 2016 issue of the McKinsey Quarterly.” (from The Conversable Economist, July 11, 2016 posting.)


In order to view this chart please click on:

( I was unable to copy the chart to this posting!)

The chart lists sixteen sectors of the economy in different manufacturing and service sectors. Each row lists seven activities which are broadly common to each sector, thus “managing others” and “data processing” for the agriculture sector are an example of two of the seven activities in this sector.

The size of the circles shows how much time is spent on each activity – a small circle for little time and a large one for much time. Thus a lot of time is spent on “unpredictable physical work” in agriculture and on “predictable physical work” in manufacturing. The colour of the circle shows how easy it is to automate that activity, thus easy to do in retail trade for “predictable physical work” and hard to do in “applying expertise” in finance and insurance. In accommodation and food service, a large amount of time is spent doing “predictable physical work” and this is easy to automate. In general a worker entering a sector where anything is easy to automate will probably have a lower salary and a higher risk of losing that job.

The table provides information to job seekers and counselors regarding employment opportunities. What sectors and skills to prepare for (education and training) can be gleaned from this figure. While some jobs are likely to be lost due to some form of automation, others will be created to provide whatever needs to be substituted. The US Department of Labour lists 800 occupations and 2000 tasks performed in the context of these occupations.

Data on wages and salaries in Canada is another source of what remuneration can be expected today for particular jobs. A web search will locate this type of information for different occupations in Canada.

One example, and there are many more, is at:

This listing shows expected jobs by title, median salary, 5 year wage growth, 5 year job growth and demand outlook.

Where will the jobs be? (2)

July 12, 2016

Those who subscribe to a “lump of labour” view believe that there is only so much work to be done, and when, for example, machines substitute for what was previously done by humans there is nothing more, or something less, for workers of any age, sex or race to do. I and many others don’t believe this is the case, but there are serious questions about what displaced workers will do and, for example, whether they can be retrained for other jobs.

In thinking about this question, consider the following, in no particular order:

  1. In countries like Germany and Japan, the population is ageing and the concern is for a future workforce shortage. This explains Germany’s welcome for refugees and displaced persons from the Middle East and Africa. Japan so far is reluctant to dilute its native population with foreigners, and will reap the consequences if it fails to do so. As people are living longer, the present retirement age can be extended providing partial relief, but there is a limit.


  1. Unemployment due to the need to adapt to changing technology – the Schumpeterian case of creative destruction – that is the introduction of different ways to produce familiar as well as new goods and services, gives rise to the need for retraining. This is easier for some, say younger folk, than others, but is an option that almost always occurs in similar circumstances. How fast workers can adapt is an issue. For example, a change from manual work to engaging with digitized production processes may require more of a generational change than a simple retraining course. If the change is too slow or virtually impossible then other measures, preferably of a temporary nature, can be tried.


  1. Young people have the flexibility to aim for employment in areas where demand is growing in both low and high skilled occupations, and to take courses accordingly. It is pretty obvious that in higher income countries there is strong demand for service sector employees in food and other types of retail operations. The job vacancy signs are posted in store windows as well as in help wanted electronic and other billboards. No, they don’t pay well, frequently offering minimum wage but they exist. Some taking these jobs may decide to experiment themselves by starting their own businesses.


  1. There is an active market for caregivers for old people (like myself) and for children in rich and poor countries as well as for healthcare workers. Where available nationals won’t apply for these jobs, temporary or permanent foreign workers are often hired. The work is there. The locals don’t want to do the jobs. In general, employment is increasing in the service sector in middle and upper income countries. There is no shortage of work, often a shortage of the type of work people may be willing to do.


  1. The educational and training paths may be out of whack with available job opportunities. A higher percentage of the population in upper income countries now go to university than previously, but the available jobs may not need degree training. Often a rewarding career in the trades benefits from attending community colleges where skills required from emerging technologies can be acquired. Past emphasis on the three Rs may now need the addition of skills like computer programming and apprenticeship-type programs. (I learned the basics of Fortran programming in the 1960s, and whereas I never followed this up and could not earn a living at it, I know what is involved. It may now be a necessary and rewarding skill in many industries subject to the use of computers.)


  1. There is considerable research available that addresses the question of where future job opportunities lie. I will refer to these in a future posting.


None of the foregoing suggestions involve rocket science. They do suggest ways of looking at the future labour market and its required skills. They do indicate a willingness to be adaptable and engage in life-long learning, something that recent technology facilitates. In my view, there is no fear of a finite lump of labour syndrome.