Where Are We Now?

No not another post about the  David Bowie album, but a first look at tai chi, which I have practised for ten years now. World Tai Chi Day takes place this Saturday, with millions of tai chi players practising around the world at 10am local time.

My teacher is Angus Clark, whom I first met at La Serrania in Mallorca in 2003.

I stayed there for two weeks half way through studying for my MBA, taking advantage of a five-week break before the second term exams to have a holiday. I was a work scholar for the first week, and helped La Serrania owner-director Tim Pennell (a Stanford MBA) around the place. Angus arrived to lead the second week, and thus began my study.

I got there by a circuitous route. In 2001 and 2003 I stayed a few times at Nigel Shamash’s inspirational centre La Roane in southwest France. Nigel is a peripatetic philosopher – after spells as a banker and a university lecturer, Nigel founded Cortijo Romero in southern Spain in 1986, now “Spain’s leading centre for personal development holidays”.  Moving to France in 1992, he slowly developed La Roane as a low-key alternative, its 10-hectare site on top of the Aveyron gorge providing a spectacular location amid the woods and fields of Tarn-et-Garonne north of Toulouse.

Nigel’s friend Philippe taught qi gong (and shiatsu) there – his sessions provided my introduction to this ancient Chinese art of movement, the basis of tai chi. Angus had also led tai chi weeks at Cortijo Romero, so when I discovered La Serrania, and saw that Angus would be there, it looked like a great opportunity.

So it proved. A week of daily practice and I was hooked. I have subsequently participated in courses and workshops, classes and camps in many corners of Devon and further afield. I have also been fortunate to be taught by other excellent tai chi teachers along the way, but keep coming back to Angus to develop my practice.

Angus is based near Chagford on Dartmoor in Devon, and the majority of his classes and events take place in this beautiful part of the world. But that’s not really what this post is about.

Where Are We Now? is the apposite question. Angus explains his philosophy of qi gong and tai chi clearly in his teaching, on the website and in his books and on his DVDs. You can also see Angus’s tai chi videos on Vimeo.

Angus’s core principles of tai chi are: “freeing, aligning, focussing, sensing and being”. For me alignment is the key at the moment – which way am I facing? Where am I going? What’s coming towards me? Behind me? Above and below me? To each side of me? How do I wish to respond?

Having trained to a basic level as a mathematician, using the tai chi reference point to ground myself makes perfect sense – I’m at the centre of the x, y and z axes at the beginning of the form, and every move in the form is along one of the axes, the points of the compass or the diagonals.

The practice of Mountain Top is also an excellent way to start the day, ideally outdoors and with a clear view of the horizon in all directions. Grounded to the earth (yin), connected to the heavens (yang), the tai chi player surveys the four directions to see what the day might bring and prepares accordingly.

The terms yin and yang are often tossed around, yet their meaning is specific in the Tao, and is clearly expressed in the movement of the tai chi, which is both feminine (“emphasising the passive, solid, and quiescent qualities of nature”) and masculine (“the active and energetic (qualities of nature)”). The balance of Yin and Yang is described thus: “Know masculinity, maintain femininity, and be a ravine for all under heaven.”

Or as Keats described it:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”

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“It’s the economy, stupid!”

We’ve heard a lot about immigration in the wake of the Eastleigh by-election, particularly from the UKIP scaremongers and their fellow-travellers. But I’ll bet people are still more concerned about the flatlining economy. The UK needs stimulus in order to recover. If you keep cutting, you remove the opportunity to grow. I’m better on microeconomics than macroeconomics, but it seems clear to me that if you invest in both analogue and digital infrastructure, especially the digital, the economy will recover quickly. Companies seek debt or equity, or both, when they want to develop or expand – why doesn’t this country do the same?

Today’s Guardian features a letter from Michael Meacher which outlines several possible steps to the UK’s economic recovery.

“Patrick Diamond, former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, is right to focus on Labour’s economic policy after Eastleigh (One Nation? Not Yet, 1 March), but is still fixated on “fiscal discipline” (for which read “cutting less far, less fast”) without any obvious plan for growth. Nobody is going to recommend fiscal incontinence, but merely tweaking the disastrous Osborne cuts agenda a bit won’t remotely produce recovery. With a worse recovery than even in the 30s, a deficit in traded goods now exceeding £100bn a year, a 6% fall in real incomes and an imminent and unprecedented triple-dip recession, the emphasis must now be overwhelmingly on a real growth strategy.

That does not mean balancing the books by a further growth-destroying orgy of cuts, but rather by a radical reduction in today’s grossly excessive unemployment level of 2.5 million. That would hugely cut the benefits bill (it costs £7bn a year to keep a million people on the dole), increase government tax receipts to pay off the deficit, and provide much-needed social housing, enhanced energy and transport infrastructure, and lay the foundations for the future low-carbon economy. And this is quite consistent with fiscal prudence.

Instead of handing another £50bn of quantitative easing to the banks, the same sum could be directly invested to generate over 1.5 million jobs within two years. Or RBS and Lloyds (82% and 43% state-owned), instead of being privatised could be instructed to prioritise lending for an agreed manufacturing strategy. Or the £155bn wealth gains of the 0.1% ultra-rich over the last three years could be taxed to fund a million jobs. Or borrowing £30bn at today’s 0.5% ultra-low interest rates would cost just £150m, but still kickstart growth and put a million or more back to work. Even the markets would approve of that.

Michael Meacher MP
Lab, Oldham West and Royton”

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Digital Connectivity – Men waving red flags

Great piece from Bob Lefsetz today, one of the more important commentators on both the entertainment and digital businesses.

“Algorithms are important. But even more so is the speed within which their results can be executed. Let me make this perfectly clear. If you’re trading from Kansas, you just can’t compete with someone in New York City. It takes too long for your message to get through.

So there’s been an arms race in communication. Fiber optics. Straight pathway. Tower to tower communication as opposed to underground, because data flows faster above ground.

And you know nothing about this. But it’s hiding in plain sight.”

We have our own version of this in the UK, a digital policy which plans to deliver a broadband speed of 2 Mbps to all by 2015. Which doesn’t mention that this might give you an upload speed of 100 kbps. Not a lot faster than the old dialup speeds, for those who remember the stone age of digital.

So private enterprise (BT, Virgin Media et al) will improve provision to the UK’s cities and large towns, but the rest of the country will benefit from having men waving red flags walking along in front of their computers, phones and tablets, never mind obscuring the view of their connected TVs. And for executing such a wonderful policy, the UK’s “digital champion” is due to be elevated to the House of Lords. You couldn’t make it up.

This policy will create a Digital Divide, where some will have reasonably fast connections (24 Mbps is the government aspiration for 90% of us) and some will still have 19th-century connectivity. The economic consequences of this could be catastrophic.

Why? It’s wrong to talk of 2 Mpbs (or even 24 Mbps) as the connection speed. This might be your download speed, but typically with an ADSL service, which most people have, your upload speed will be perhaps 5-10% of your download speed, which is not much use if you’re trying to run a digitally-based business. And with 9% of the UK economy already digitally-based, and 15% of all retail transactions taking place online, being able to transact business digitally is vital to the future of many UK enterprises and service providers.

Now explore B4RN, an enterprise started by a rural community who decided they weren’t going to accept this Digital Divide, and have struck their own blow in the Big Shakeup. Not content with having men with red flags arriving in their area by 2015, they decided to build their own pipe.

This rural community in North Lancashire now offers their service to local residents and businesses for a £150 connection fee and £25 (+VAT) per month subscription. Not cheap you might think, but they guarantee speeds of 1 Gb down and up – that’s 500 times what the government is promising down, and 5-10,000 times the likely upload speed – and of course you don’t need to pay extra for a phone landline. You can also use your fibre line for a VOIP phone service, of course – usually much better voice quality, and cheaper calls, than a traditional copper phone line.

There will be Wall Street and City finances houses unable to get that speed or quality of service. Why? Because the providers still don’t understand their customers (no news there then), and the government don’t understand what the economy needs and think people are happy with having men with red flags in their homes and workplaces.

Britain has one of the world’s biggest digital economies pro rata – it’s now more than 9% of GDP and more than 15% of all retail – but pipe speeds are painfully slow. Depending on what survey you read, we’re ranked about #20 in the world. Akamai’s most recent survey puts us at #17 in the world for average national connection speed, just behind Romania, while the government seem more worried about Romanians wanting to live in the UK than they are about our pitiful digital infrastructure. Sadly, we’re all in this together. Unless of course you live in the rural uplands of Lancashire!

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Welcome. This site brings together my work and my world, my passions and my experiences. As with most of us, my life and career cover several different areas. Rather than publish a CV on Linkedin, share on Facebook or Twitter, or set up or join websites to cover specific interests, I will work here on bringing most of it together in one place. Feel free to explore, and to contact me if you’re moved to.

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