Travel Guide to Minsk

I visited Minsk expecting a Soviet time machine.

I thought it would be like Moscow was in 1992.

But I was wrong.

Yes, it’s architecture and visible insignia reflect the fact that most of the city was completely rebuilt straight after the second world war. Military uniform is everywhere, tractors roam the streets, school children look immaculate. And the absence of a democratic transition casts an intriguing shadow of communist rule. But the city is vibrant, affluent, and spotlessly clean. It feels more like a Baltic city break than an Eastern European industrial wasteland.

Outside of Minsk there’s an efficient train network and the surrounding countryside is beautiful and famously peaceful. I strongly recommend a visit to Belarus, and hope these notes are useful.

Flights

Belarus has connections to most major European cities. The national airline, BELAVIA, do a direct flight from London Gatwick to Minsk several times per week. If you want to travel by train, there’s only one man to ask.

Arrival at Minsk airport

  • Customs officials will ask to see proof of Travel Insurance (and they may also request to see an associated membership card).

Accommodation

    • Using a travel agent used to be a necessity because they could provide a letter of invitation (which was mandatory to obtain a visa). I used MinskLuxx who have an array of city-centre apartments and helpful services.

Getting around

    • Taxis to/from the airport cost ~ €20. Licensed taxis have yellow plates and can be trusted, and Uber is also available. There’s also a bus service to the train station.
    • Trains are cheap and easy to use.
  • The Metro is simple to use and has a regular service. Each journey requires 1 token (60 Kopeks) which can be bought at the ticket office.

Things to see

Minsk itself is easy to explore on foot. I recommend the following:

Day 1:

    • City gates (outside the train station)
    • Independence square (and the shopping centre underneath)
    • GUM shopping centre
    • Victory Square
  • Gorky Park

Day 2:

    • Great Patriotic War Museum
    • Botanic Gardens
  • National Library

For more: http://www.belarus.by/en/travel/belarus-life/minsk-attractions and https://34travel.me/gotobelarus/en/post/minsk-english-guide.

Restaurants

There are clusters of cafes and restaurants in the following places:

  • The upper town (vulica Zybickaja) – this is the main tourist area and contains several bars and restaurants on the banks of the river. 442 is the best place to watch soccer and sample interesting beer. Cherdok do great burgers in a laid back setting. Malt & Hops have a long and classy bar serving beer and many malts. El Pushka is a fun and intimate tequila bar. Beer Cap is a classic Eastern European-style bar – an outdoor labyrinth with interesting beers and a range of customers.
  • Trajeckaja nabiarežnaja (the old town) – the only real area of pre-WW2 buildings, it has a nostalgic feel compared to the rest of the city.
  • Karl Marx street – a number of classy bistros and restaurants with sincere cooking.
  • Kastrycnickaja Street – former industrial units now famous for bright murals and hipster coffee.

For a distinctly Belarusian experience, Rakovsky Brovar is a large, popular brewery serving traditional food in a friendly atmosphere. And watching the world pass by at the bar at Centralny is one of Minks’s cultural highlights.

Typical prices (as of 2017)

Minsk provides a fascinating mixture of standard European ambience and a gripping historical context. Belarus is not quite Poland and not quite Russia – it is something else. Something tangible and settled. But forward looking and optimistic. It’s truly unique.

Also check out Joe Jenkins’ “Postcard from . . . Minsk” Financial Times, April 21 2017

Podcasts

I use Overcast to listen to podcasts. The smart speed setting quickens the pace without you even noticing and I usually listen to 1.2x normal speed. If you want to get into podcasts I highly recommend tweaking these settings to get through them faster. An added bonus is that if you’re listening to a proper series or radio play at normal speed, you “feel the benefit” and get super engrossed. 

Economics

  • EconTalk – the original economics podcast featuring an array of fascinating guests. Each episode is typically over an hour long which can be daunting, but permits a relaxed and casual conversation. As a former student of Russ Roberts, I thoroughly enjoy recapturing some of the intellectual curiosity and excitement of grad school through EconTalk.
  • Macro Musings – David Beckworth is a wonderful economist, and by focusing on monetary macro he provides a consistently high quality conversation on a topic I know I will want to listen to. I think it’s pitched at the perfect level to walk listeners through the career trajectory and major insights of an impressive guestlist.

Business and management

  • Planet Money – Short (20 minute) episodes that illuminate important economic concepts through interviews. Can’t get enough of them.
  • Stuff You Should Know – Well produced, entertainingly presented, always interesting.
  • Making Sense with Sam Harris – Lengthy and deep conversations with fascinating thinkers on topics such as the multiverse, AI, identity politics, and meditation. (Frustrating when it switched theme music and annoying now that free episodes are cut short.)
  • The Investors Field Guide – I don’t listen to it (yet) but it’s been highly recommended to me.
  • Adam Buxton – on the surface this is a comedy show, where likeable comic Adam Buxton (from Adam & Joe semi-fame) chats with his “showbusiness” friends. I enjoy it because it provides an honest and sincere look at the thought process behind public speaking, professional success, and the art of humour.
  • The Edge with Joey Barton – I have sympathy for Barton and find him a highly engaging character. In this series of interviews he demonstrates his curiosity for what drives peak performance with applications for sport, politics, and all forms of management.

True Crime

  • Generation Why – two American friends present and dissect famous cases in an informal, engaging manner.
  • Casefile True Crime – the Australian narrator, following a well crafted script, provides an engrossing experience.
  • Criminal – somewhat hit and miss collection of interesting cases, but the good ones stay with you.

History

  • Slow Burn (Season 3 Biggie and Tupac) – Engrossing account of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry and the emergence of Tupac as a cultural figure perhaps unrivalled. I couldn’t help imagining being a school teacher listening to the perspective of each side, and simply concluding “grow up”. Fortunately, the civilising force of commercial success means that those still alive have done so.  B.
  • Slow Burn (Season 2 Clinton) – I loved this. Very well presented featuring interviews with key players in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I particularly liked the broader focus on the controversy surrounding Clinton prior to him becoming President, and how that laid the ground for his impeachment. This was a historic event that I remember experiencing, but it was enlightening to do deeper. Especially relevant given the #metoo movement. B.

Self contained series

  • The Last Days of August – Jon Ronson does another excellent job at sympathetically telling a series of tragic stories, providing a few plot twists and narrative intrigue, without losing sight of the victim. B.
  • 13 Minutes to the Moon – released by the BBC to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, the series focuses on the audio recordings from the Apollo 11 mission. Having done a thorough job of explaining what was being said, and the importance of each intonation from those involved, the uninterrupted playback is truly mesmerizing. A. 
  • End of Days – the siege of Waco told from a British perspective, talking to family members of those who went. C.
  • Uncover – Season 1: Escaping NXIVM – a disturbing account of a women’s efforts to escale a cult. C.
  • Caliphate – an exquisite series that reports on the rise of Islamic State and documents the fall of Mosul. It’s a deeply absorbing production centred around an interview with someone claiming to have joined IS, and provides a perfect balance of background information. A. (Update: In December 2020 the New York Times retracted the series)
  • Atlanta Monster – all the ingredients for a fascinating sequence of plot twists and information about a case I wasn’t familiar with. But I felt it dragged on and I gradually lost interest. B.
  • This Sounds Serious – a well conceived and executed spoof of the true crime genre. Some daft comedic moments and surprisingly subtle nods to The Day Today. A.
  • The Butterfly Effect – very touching business history emphasising creative destruction and unintended consequences. High recommend. A.
  • Missing Richard Simmons – originally presents itself as having the ingredients of a unique and enjoyable mystery, but sadly turns into a slightly disturbing hounding. C.
  • S Town – a fascinating and gripping story, but I was somewhat annoyed by the presenter’s self-serving presence. B.
  • Tracks – a radio play that delves into a reasonably interesting conspiracy theory, but ultimately fails to replicate the engagement that comes from a discovery. C.
  • Homecoming – more of a play than a podcast, but one that utilises the medium very nicely. Season 2 was meh. B.
  • Serial Season 1 – a documentary about the death of Hae Min Lee featuring interviews with Adnan Syed, who is in prison for the murder. But did he do it? This helped build the genre of the developing real time podcast, and bingelistening to this with noise cancelling headphones, on a transatlantic red eye, was super sweet. The theme music still gives me shivers. A.

And finally:

Classic interview questions

  1. If you had to kill someone, who would it be?
  2. What have you been most wrong about?
  3. When have you spent < £100 on something that gave you an immense amount of satisfaction?
  4. What’s the biggest coincidence you’ve ever experienced?
    • A coincidence is “A surprising concurrence of events with no apparent causal connection.”
    • I like this one
    • Another famous one is a man picks ups ringing pay phone, and it’s a lady trying to get hold of him but she dialled his payroll number by mistake. Then again, it can’t be that good an example of coincidence if David Spiegelhalter has 10 other examples of it happening! (see his website)
    • Luck = chance taken personally
    • We may underestimate the likelihood of chance meetings due to hidden networks
  5. Do you sincerely believe in any conspiracy theories?
    • Note that once something has been proved, it’s not longer a conspiracy theory. As Mick Herron says, “It’s not a theory once it’s proved. After that, it’s just a conspiracy” (Slow Horses, p.147)
  6. Is cunning a good trait?
    • “Instead of following an open, clearly understandable line of behaviour, cunning is calculating how other people will react to certain forms of behaviour which are hiding the end game”… “this ability to assess things rapidly and then to act in a way that is not immediately readable/ understandable by the people around us in order to get an advantage that some people will doubtless feel is an unfair advantage” (Tim Parkes, translator of Machiavelli who, incidentally, was always truthful towards his wife)
  7. Tell that story, the time you did the wrong thing because you were scared. (link)
  8. When were you at your happiest?
  9. Tell me about the time you met the right person at the wrong time. (It doesn’t need to be romantic).
  10. Do you have a favourite joke?
  11. Imagine your funeral, and your family and friends have had a few drinks and are thinking of you. They want to make an idiosyncratic gesture to your memory. What would they do? What should they do?

Performance Review

The underlying problem is that all performance reviews (especially corporate ones) tend to be costly and arbitrary. Deloitte have a new approach that intends to simplify the process by asking 4 questions:

  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus (five point scale)
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team (five point scale)
  3. This person is at risk for low performance (yes/no)
  4. This person is ready for promotion today (yes/no)

I like the idea but not the questions chosen (they are too hierarchical). Mine would be something along the following lines:

  1. Does this person excel at their job?
    • For example, is there documented evidence of other people attempting to learn from them?
  2. Is this person a pleasure to work with?
    • For example, would other colleagues look forward to making a transatlantic trip with them?

I recently became aware of the concept of a Personal Boardroom. I think it is a good way to recognise whether you have an effective support network, and to identify why your career may be stalling. The idea is that you should have people in your life – with whom you are in regular contact – that perform each of the following roles:

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The Krupnik Medal

As an educator it’s a real priviledge to have the opportunity to engage with so many ambitious and intelligent students. My colleagues that teach on PhD programmes tend to have lists of their former students (I even appear on one!) but working in a business school means that I don’t produce future academics. I do, however, look on with pride when I see the achievements of former students in their professional careers.

A Krupnik Medal (🏅) is my way of saying “well done!”

Krupnik Medal holders:

To nominate someone, or reconnect, email me!

Personal finance MOT

john_vernon_lord_ant_grasshopper


In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.

When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

Source.

See Martin Wolf’s re-telling of the Ant and the Grasshopper as a modern fable here.


I endorse Chris Dillow’s four general principles of investing:

  1. Live within your means. The safest way to get rich is to save. How you invest your savings – cash, shares, gold, whatever – is a secondary consideration, unless you are really silly.
  2. Minimize taxes and charges. Most people can save tax-efficiently through ISAs and pensions, and should do so. Also, don’t be tempted by high-charging funds – they are usually not worth it. And if you hold shares directly, don’t trade much.
  3. Remember that high prices, on average, mean low expected returns. Don’t jump on bandwagons.
  4. Remember G.L.S Shackle’s words: “knowledge of the future is a contradiction in terms.” Don’t pretend you can see what’s coming. And don’t pay others in the belief that they can do so. The essential fact about the financial world is risk (and/or uncertainty). The key question is: what risks are you prepared to take, and which aren’t you? This paper by John Cochrane discusses this well.

I also like Harold Pollack’s attempt to put financial advice on a 4×6 index card:

Photo by Harold Pollack

Photo by Harold Pollack

And I like this investment philosophy from Jim O’Shaughnessy.

Many people will say that they want to take more control over their current spending and future financial security, but often find it difficult to actually achieve this. I’m not a qualified financial adviser, I can’t demonstrate past success at investment decisions, and do not encourage you to blindly follow my advice. All I can offer is a process by which you can gain a better understanding of your personal finances, and something that seems to work for me.

You probably don’t have time to follow these steps now. So find a date a few weeks or months from now and put it in your diary. Don’t shift it. Treat this seriously. Do it when you have time…

Start

Picture yourself at 65, and make it as vivid an image as possible – not so much what you look like, more where you are and what you are doing (for more see Chapter 9 of this book). A large reason why people are careless with their financial situation (and constantly undermine their future happiness), is because we’re conditioned to focus on immediate rewards. But we need to shift perspective and think about what actions your present self needs to take in order to make your future self happy. What resources do you need to deliver to your 65 year old self? Picture your children at 20. What do you want to be able to give them? Don’t adjust your future goals to meet your financial resources. Adjust your present behaviour to hit your targets.

Practice self-control and delayed gratification. If you want to watch a movie, try waiting a few days. Treat it as a reward.

Create your own version of my Personal Finance MOT (download a PDF here).

  • Fill in the date at the top left – do this at least once a year.
  • Go through your last 6 payslips and use your typical (i.e. not including bonuses) net (i.e. after tax) income. Unless bonuses are a significant part of your regular income treat them as a bonus and save them. This goes in the “In” box (top left). Make sure you include a total.
  • Then look at your outgoings. All of the sections in the thin black boxes should be summed together in the box where it says “Out”. There’s probably some categories that I’m missing out, and so use it as a basis. Check your direct debits to make sure there’s nothing that you’re regularly spending money on that isn’t being captured here. There will be lots of expenses that aren’t on this list (e.g. food, clothes, etc), but I find that if you try to be too exhaustive it becomes arbitrary. These are all essentials and are a lower bound of monthly outgoings.
  • Use a blue pen to complete it. As you can see for the mortgage entry write there is a row underneath to write down the provider in the left half and the amount in the right.
  • If there are any bills that are paid annually fill in the amount in green (and there is space below to add the renewal month). Divide each green number by twelve and sum together in the separate box called “monthly equivalent”.
  • Finally, your wealth is captured in “Shake it all About”. These can be estimates but if it takes a long time to find a current balance then perhaps that’s a problem. (Although if you’re checking them more than once a year that may also be a problem. Set it, and forget it). The dotted line signals that the top part is current wealth, and the bottom is the current value of savings that will be accessible to the children when they’re older. For many people most of their wealth is tied up in housing, so you can add the current value of your property less the outstanding mortgage. But I’d keep that separate to the main wealth calculation (it’s hard to shake about).
  • The two grey boxes are some metrics:
    • Months of imports covered is =(wealth/out). It shows how long you can keep spending money at the same rate if your income dried up.
    • Savings as % of income is =[(wealth/in*12)]*100.
    • Include your personal and employer’s contribution to your pension. Make sure you max out any matched contribution and have a figure as hugh as you can afford (>25%).
    • Total wealth is the sum of “Shake it all About” and house equity.

Some general comments:

  • Get a good credit card. Make sure you pay it off each month but make sure you’re getting rewards for spending. An easy way is to link it with Airmiles.
  • For advice on what type of pension, life insurance, savings vehicle are appropriate for you consult a professional financial advisor (this is helpful). If you don’t think it’s worth paying a few hundred quid to sort out your financial future then you’re an irresponsible idiot!
  • It is really important to start saving early. “Someone who starts saving at the age of 21 and then stops at 30 will end up with a bigger pension pot than a saver who starts at 30 and puts money aside for the next 40 years until retiring at 70“. Also look at the calculators here.
  • Have a look at the interest rates you’re paying. Make sure that you pay off your most expensive loans first (you don’t want the “loans” box to outgrow anything in the “shake it all about” box).
  • Act as though the Efficient Market Hypothesis is true (see the second half of this page). The best investment strategy is a low cost well diversified index fund. Vanguard are the original and remain the best (and even after the turmoil in Spring 2020, if your goals are long term you shouldn’t even be looking).
    • I use the FTSE Global All Cap index
      • The ESG Developed World All Cap Equity Index Fund is very similar but reduces emerging market risk (I think)
      • The Lifestrategy 100 is more UK based, which reduces exchange rate risk

Charity

I don’t enjoy being asked to make donations to charity, and not solely because I’m a tight, selfish bastard. It’s because it’s a form of bullying – you are put under social pressure to make a quick decision.

My response is to have an articulated approach to charitable donations, which serves as a defense mechanism and means I can avoid treating each request as something that requires my attention. I prefer to have a charity rule, rather than have to judge each request on its case-by-case merits. In a nutshell here it is:

charityPerhaps some points of explanation and elaboration are in order:

  • I believe that the best way to help people out of poverty is through economic liberalisation. I find the empirical and theoretical evidence compelling, and devote my career to pursuing it. This sounds glib and self-satisfying but writing a book about the power of markets is my chief contribution. Economics is my Ikigai and when my children ask me what I’ve done to make poverty history, my response is “public education”. And I sleep well at night.
  • Of course, I can do more. However I’m very concerned about inefficiencies within the charity sector. Since they exist largely outside the profit and loss framework that I deem to be the cause of the success of markets, it is to be expected that they are subject to bureaucratic inefficiencies. I suspect that the charities I’m most familiar with, are not necessarily the most important. I suspect that the causes that generate most media coverage, are not necessarily the most pressing. So I try to discount charities that have good branding, good PR, and are emotionally draining.
  • I think it’s important to have direct debits to charities that you believe in. I set a percentage of my income that I feel is appropriate and split that between a few well known charities. One is focused on democracy and basic human rights. One is focused on humanitarian assistance and medical aid. If another charity wants me to contribute to them, they’ll need to convince me either that (i) they are more deserving than a charity I currently support; or (ii) I should increase the percentage of my income I assign to charitable giving. A Tithe requires 10%, but I already donate more than that to the UK government to administer charitable giving on my behalf. So I don’t give 10%. Less than that. If the state shrank, I’d give more.
  • I never donate based on cold calling, be it at home or in the street. This is a rule and the more you encourage me to break it, the more resolute I will be. Don’t bully me!
  • I regularly make donations of clothes, toys, DVDs etc to my favourite local charity shop.
  • Whenever I bet on beliefs I suggest to donate proceeds to charity.
  • I am not as skeptical of government-to-government foreign aid as most free market economists, because I believe that even with large scale bureaucratic inefficiencies the end result could still be beneficial. If for every £1 that gets sent abroad 50p is lost to bureaucracy, 25p goes to prop up a bad regime, and only 25p goes to intended recipients; that may be better than 0. But there’s important incentive effects that should be considered.
  • As an alternative to foreign aid, I’m delighted that the practice of giving cash transfers is generating more coverage. The economic logic is simple, and it seems that it’s working. Yes, they may spend it on booze. But as Chris Blattman points out this pessimism and paternalism is pretty unfounded (do read that whole article). Other good articles on cash transfers are this one and this one.
  • There are also important incentive effects with direct charitable giving. I don’t give money to beggars or homeless people. It’s not because I believe that they’re most likely to be under cover police officers. But if there are rents, I expect rent-seeking. I also expect beggars to invest resources to acquire prime begging locations. And I don’t want to encourage self-mutilation. I assume that any dogs I see are borrowed or rented, and whilst I am tempted to give warm clothes or a cup of tea I find this to be too much hassle. That sounds awful, but I also try to place more weight on the needs of starving people in underdeveloped countries than those where I live, so I don’t feel too guilty from walking on by.
  • I try to tip generously, but mostly when abroad. In many countries the service providers you encounter – taxi drivers, waiting staff, housekeepers – will be on low incomes, and so it’s directed at deserving people. This is a nice way to administer cash transfers. But in richer countries tipping is a horrible practice and I favour an automatic 15% service charge that gets split at the discretion of senior management.
  • I have an annual budget to use for friends that ask for sponsorship. I don’t keep a close record but this generally means that if it’s someone dear to me I will sponsor. This is a nice way to ensure that I have a wider range of giving than if I chose the charity myself.
  • I don’t wear ribbons and resist social media gimmicks. The fact that the Ice Bucket Challenge involved nominations and a deadline involved an amount of peer pressure that I consider to be a form of bullying. I find such expressive gestures self-satisfying and hollow and believe that genuine charity should be understated. Having said that, I’m also aware of evidence to suggest that the more public people are about their charitable activity, the more it encourages other people. Which is why I wrote this post.
  • Don’t conflate environmental concerns and other forms of “doing good” with charity. Avoid virtue signalling, which occurs when you value the image your project more than the solving of a problem. As an example, What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong (e.g. lazy compost is worse than landfill). And understand the benefits of packaging before lamenting the costs.

If you’ve never given a cash transfer before, I recommend https://www.givedirectly.org. Here’s what I used to think of charity.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is community work, and I’ve often wondered if I’ve used shyness as a mask for selfishness. However Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character’ reassured me that we shouldn’t overstate community involvement. He says, “community service is sometimes used as a patch to cover over inarticulateness about the inner life”. He provides an example of asking a headteacher how her school teaches character, and the response was the number of hours of community service. According to Brooks, “when I asked her about something internal, she answered by talking about something external. Her assumption seemed to be that if you go off and tutor poor children, that makes you a good person yourself”. It isn’t a massive leap to consider “how can I use my beautiful self to help out those less fortunate than I”. He says (p.133),

Today, when we use the phrase “public-spirited,” we tend to mean someone who gathers petitions, marches and protests, and makes his voice heard for the public good. But in earlier eras it meant someone who curbed his own passions and moderated his opinions in order to achieve a larger consensus ands bring together diverse people.

If you struggle to find the balance between donating 80% of your income to charity and retraining as a doctor to work in a children’s hospital in Africa, versus doing nothing, I recommend ‘Stubborn Attachments‘ by Tyler Cowen. In particular, may this passage reassure you:

fullsizerenderOr, as George Eliot ended Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

 

Decision making framework

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When struggling to make a decision a simple first step is to create three columns and list:

  • Reasons in favour
  • Reasons against
  • Further information required

I like the advice from Jack Reacher,

Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time. Don’t figure out how or why it happened. Don’t recriminate. Don’t figure out whose fault it is. Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you can do later. If you survive. First of all you evaluate. Analyse the situation. Identify the downside. Assess the upside. Plan accordingly. Do all that and you give yourself  a better chance of getting through to the other stuff later.

The following is a great template for requesting decision rights within an organisation:

  1. Describe the authority that is being requested
  2. Provide a background and summary of the value proposition
  3. Outline the objective with the strategic fit
  4. Prepare an economic summary with the base case, as well as other plausible scenarios that could make the project much better or worse
  5. Identify the key value drivers
  6. Describe the key risks and mitigants
  7. List alternatives considered and why they’ve been ruled out
  8. Project the timeline for future steps

See Koch, C., 2015, Good Profit, Crown Business

And all those points should be evidence-based. Not necessarily extensive, but easily digestible. As management guru Joey Barton points out, three key points are “the limit of relevant, easily digestible information”.

Rejection

photo

In May 1997 I applied for the Everton managers job, and received a nice reply from Peter Johnson. Over the next few years I decided to apply to as many Premier League managers jobs as I could, and eventually built a collection of rejection letters. I rediscovered them in November 2015 and here they are:

I still live in hope.

Update: here’s my pitch for the Everton job 2016

 

My Guide to Travel

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I make a solo trip around once a month and have created a set of routines that serve me well. I find travelling to be an important component of being an academic because it provides time and space to concentrate and reflect. Some of the advice below is a little haphazard, but it’s a work in progress.

(1) Packing

For very short trips I’ll use a hold all but for anything more than 3 nights I’ll take my Rimowa Topas. This has the benefit of holding everything I need (I’ve used it for 2 week beach holidays) but small enough to fit as carry on if necessary. This can be handy if there’s a queue for bag drop but I prefer to check it. I’ve only ever had my suitcase go missing once and so I wouldn’t keep critical documents in it, but they are hassle to carry around with you (especially if you like to spend time at the airport). I very rarely clear customs before the bags are at reclaim so I don’t feel that checked baggage slows me down. And for connecting flights it makes things significantly easier.

If you’re going to a conference don’t forget:

  • Non iron shirts – not because you don’t need to iron them (you do), but because they take less time to iron than normal ones.
  • Running shorts (for working in the hotel room, or running).
  • Swimming trunks (hotel will often have a pool).
  • A decent bar of soap.
  • A bluetooth speaker.
  • Tea bags (I used to hate green tea or fruit infusions but now I take a stash of tea bags that don’t require milk).
  • Plug adaptor.

I carry a charging station whenever I have a bag with me. The main items are a spare battery (handy for on the plane) and charging cables. I love the design of the Mu classic for when I’m in the UK but prefer to use a European or US charger (instead of taking an adapter) when abroad. I also include a small torch for blackouts.

A good wash bag should be light and adapt to the contents. There’s no point having a bulky item of luggage that is only half full. I pack the following:

  • Toothbrush (don’t forget a cover)
  • Travel size toothpaste
  • Razor (you don’t need shaving foam/cream)
  • Indigestion tablets
  • Aspirin
  • Deodorant
  • After shave bullet (note I refer to is as an “after shave bullet” rather than a “perfume atomiser”)
  • Chewing gum/mints
  • Cuff links
  • Contact lenses – switching to daily disposable ones has made a big difference because you don’t need to pack contact lens solution, and can swim in them

Note that all of these items are easy to duplicate. Therefore have them in your wash bag and keep them at home. What is the point in having to remember to pack and unpack your toothbrush before and after every trip? Duplicate!

(2) The airport

Yes, I know Tyler Cowen’s advice that if you’ve never missed a plane it means you’ve spent too much of your life at airports. But I do not understand this because time at an airport is highly productive. As Craig Mod says,

You are hacking the airport by arriving early, knowing that all the work you could have done at home — the emails or writing or photo editing — can be done at the airport.

Airports are outside any conventional time zone and so embrace this detachment. They are one of the few places where it’s socially acceptable to have a pint before 10am. Embrace this idiosyncratic! I plan to arrive at least 2 hours before my flight – even if I’m checked in, have my boarding card, and taking carry on luggage. For most people 30 minutes at home is better than 30 minutes at an airport, but once you pass security anxiety drops. Those extra 30 minutes you could have spent at home are fraught because you need to remember to remember your passport; consider traffic; wonder about queues, etc. Once you’ve cleared security you can relax. I don’t use lounges and am perfectly happy to just buy a coffee, find a seat, put on ear/headphones, and read a good book. For most people a 1 hour arrival is plenty of time, but I only do this if it’s less than a 30 minute drive to the airport; it’s a small airport; I know there won’t be a pleasant cafe beyond security; I’m really tired/hungover.

(3) The airplane

Try to stick to one airline. The benefits of a loyalty programme are worth being loyal for.

I need an aisle seat. Not just so that I can get to the toilet easily (which incentivises me to drink more water, which is good) but it also means that I can go for a walk to stretch my legs (also good). BTW it’s usually fine to use the toilet when the seatbelt sign is on and here are some excellent tips for getting more legroom.

Obviously if you are in an aisle seat you should be sympathetic to letting people get out. I will sometimes try to sleep and have no problem at all with being woken. The problem I have is people who are constantly getting things from their bags in the overhead locker. Those people are inconsiderate and evil. Even before having kids I was sympathetic to parents travelling with infants. Although they should stay in Economy.

What to wear on a flight:

  • A hoody is cosy and protects your head against unhygienic seats, but if you won’t wear it at your destination it is too much hassle. In which case wear a baseball cap. Or both.
  • A gilet is a clever way to have small items like mints, earphones and a mobile phone close to hand whilst being seated – you can get them for < £20.
  • Avoid a cold/sore throat from the poor quality cabin air by wearing a lightweight neck warmer.
  • High quality comfortable noise cancelling headphones are a must.

Embrace no wifi and read:

  • I like something light for takeoff and landing – The Economist, The Week, The Spectator, or New Statesman. Not a newspaper. I do not want newsprint on hands. The in flight magazine is usually a worthwhile backup.
  • Then a book. If you like kindle fine but I don’t get it. Who reads so much that they can’t carry hard copies? I often read “big” books. But I won’t get through more than 2 on a trip, so they are not prohibitively cumbersome. Even on a 2 week holiday pre kids I would get through 3 or 4 books, but someone else would have one I wanted to read. Books are portable. Durable. Enchanting.
  • Or, I may be reading some academic articles. I can see the point of an e reader then because a stack of papers is heavy. But I like to take notes in the margins, and I enjoy the process of throwing away articles once I’ve read them. So even if your hand luggage is a burden on the outbound journey, it will be much lighter on the return.

Or, just watch a movie. Apparently Baz Luhrmann began planning his screenplay for ‘The Great Gatsby’ whilst necking wine on a train through Europe. It reflected this speed and dizziness. I watched it whilst necking wine on a plane over the Pacific, and with proper headphones and a dark cabin I find the audio and picture quality perfectly engaging.

I’ve also started listening to more Podcasts whilst flying. They can be a good way to get through a drama series.

(4) Hotels

Try to stick to one hotel chain. The benefits of a loyalty programme are worth being loyal for.

The mark of a good hotel room:

  • A bath wide enough to shower in.
  • Electrical socket on the desk and on the bedside table.
  • A desk lamp with a switch on the base of the lamp (as opposed to on the wire, and therefore hidden behind the desk).
  • Blackout curtains.

(5) Transport

Uber is a game changer for domestic transportation. Whilst I don’t mind using public transport it can be almost impossible in the US, and I think it’s wrong to be insensitive to being ripped off on the grounds that you’re using expenses. When reliant on local taxis I’d often prefer to stay at the hotel, but Uber have made it cheaper and easier to get around. Critically they have removed the cultural uncertainty regarding appropriate fares and tipping; reduced suspicion about appropriate routes; avoided the need to carry cash; and lowered prices.

I totally agree with Michael Jennings’s account of “Why a traveller loves Uber“.

(6) Hospitality

Once upon a time I was fascinated by the amazing set of instructions that Richard Stallman sends his hosts. I have simple preferences (e.g. a working shower, mineral water) but put great weight on them being satisfied. One of my preferences is alone time. As Stallman says,

Many people assume that because I am traveling, I am having a vacation–that I have no other work to do, so I can spend the whole day speaking or meeting with people. Some hosts even feel that they ought to try to fill up my time as a matter of good hospitality. Alas, it’s not that way for me.

There are a few cities that I travel to frequently and will often try to spend time with friends. But there is an odd tendency from some cultures to feel obliged to “entertain” you, or to treat your whole schedule as theirs. If I’ve been in a classroom all day I may need the evenings to respond to emails and do other work. Learning that a mysterious person will be at my hotel room at 9pm to take me for dinner is my idea of hell.

When abroad I like to tip, and usually leave a tip when I check out of a hotel room. If I’m not sure what an appropriate tip is I use the price of a pint of beer in local currency as a good benchmark (and multiply accordingly).

If you want a mantra, here’s mine. Top line is when I’m leaving the house, bottom for when I’m leaving the country. Tickets usually means “have I added my boarding card to Passbook?” Money includes foreign currency. Passport includes ESTA/visa. Easy!

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I am a creature of habit and get great benefits from the epistemic shortcuts of returning to the same place year after year after year after year after year after year. And recently I realised that I struggle to recollect anywhere that I’ve only been to once. It was only on my second trips to Perth, Bucharest, Turin, Sofia and Minsk that I felt I could piece any of those great cities together in my head. There is something about a return visit to confront your first impressions, and permit yourself a passage of time and circumstance, that makes it a necessary part of travel. It means you can’t get too far ahead of yourself, dipping in and out and passing through. For me, at least, I need to relate a city to my own past experiences. Going back to favourite places can also serve as a restorative niche, where you return to your true self.

Finally, when travelling, go that little bit further. I’ve realised that many of my most meaningful travel experiences are when I’ve ventured slightly farther than my original plans. In 2014 I visited Atlanta and on a whim decided to rent a car and drive to Montgomery. It was exciting and felt like genuine adventure. When I visited Minsk in 2018 I took the time to jump on a train north. It gave me an additional reference point, heightening my understanding of the country, and providing an opportunity for independence. As much as I love the routine of travel described further up the page, all the more reason to seek out the circumstances for surprise. It’s precisely because I stay at Holiday Inns so often that a local hotel, in the right circumstances, becomes exciting.