AI idea-finding: thoughts dancing to a new rhythm

Stop pushing buttons. Start making moves.

Loose strands forming the shape of a dancer making stretching and flowing movements.
Excerpt from Fascia, an artwork by Tobias Gremmler; dance by Lico Kehua Li.

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them! 

—Donella Meadows, pioneering systems thinker and environmental scientist.

Currently, many people are making and sharing recipes for things you can make with AI. Rather than say recipes, you have to put on a serious face and call the play experimentation and the recipes have to be called prompt engineering, in a voice two octaves lower than usual.

I’ve been doing this too and sharing some in Antonym, like making a ordered shopping list or whole presentations and writing up meeting notes.

Recently, I had an experience that made those things feel like basic moves, like practice; suddenly, I’d learned how to strong them together to into dancing. It started with a simple experiment and then spiralled into an adventure with ideas. Once it was happening, I almost couldn’t stop – a sensation like when you start to fly in a dream, or realise you are piloting some strange and wonderful vehicle. A little out of control, but not the red shoes of the fairy tale.

Accelerated inspiration

The following isn’t a recipe, but it does include some of the steps I took, and some of them may be useful to you. I was using ChatGPT for the most part. If you would rather not pay the extra $20 to use this, you may get similar – or “good enough – results with the free standard ChatGPT or its rival Anthropic’s Claude. Apps such as Poe will let you have a few free goes on both platforms. But the tech isn’t the point here; the way of thinking and the possibilities and how it feels are what I want to share.

It started something that sparked some curiosity. My wife, whose passion is garden design, was talking about a famous designer called Piet Oudolf. He creates gardens that are self-sustaining, support wildlife and other wonderful things. The one I knew was the High Line garden in New York, a long, narrow strip of a park made on an old elevated subway track in the Meatpacking District.

The High Line, New York City (20th Street, looking downtown). Credit: (cc) Beyond My Ken.

His planting schemes often look like wild prairies but are meticulously planned systems of systems. The drawings, she said, look unlike any other type of garden design, more like scientific diagrams of mitochondria than planting plans. Here’s an example:

And here’s some detail from a design which expresses the way that different groups of plants interact with each other over the seasons.

Image: Segment of planting design for Hauser & Wirth Somerset garden Credit: (cc) John Lord

The description made me think about systems thinking of course; Oudolf seems like a systems thinker?—?focused on connections and how different elements interact with each other.

Exploring a connection

I asked the latest version of ChatGPT (currently premium, running GPT-4) this: Can you show me some images of Piet Oudolf’s designs and tell me about his design philosophy?. It returned the following, a useful primer on his approach which tallied with and built on what I knew already:

Piet Oudolf is a Dutch garden designer, plantsman, and writer who is renowned for his innovative approach to planting design. He has been a leading figure in the New Perennial Movement, a gardening style that emphasises the use of perennial plants, particularly grasses, and focuses on creating naturalistic landscapes. His approach to garden design is characterised by several key principles:

– Plant-driven design: Oudolf places a strong emphasis on selecting plants for their aesthetic qualities, such as form, texture, and colour, rather than focusing solely on their horticultural characteristics. This plant-driven approach results in gardens that are visually engaging and have a naturalistic feel.
– Seasonal interest: Oudolf’s designs prioritise plants that provide interest throughout the year, not just during the peak of the growing season. He selects plants that have beautiful seed heads, attractive winter silhouettes, or striking fall colour, ensuring that the garden remains engaging even during the colder months.
– Layering: Oudolf’s gardens are characterised by a layered planting approach, in which plants are arranged in a way that mimics the structure of natural ecosystems. This results in gardens with a diverse range of plant heights, densities, and textures, creating a sense of depth and complexity.
– Ecological considerations: In his designs, Oudolf often incorporates native plants and emphasises the importance of supporting local ecosystems and wildlife. He believes that a garden should not only be aesthetically pleasing but also contribute to environmental conservation and biodiversity.
– Embracing imperfection: Oudolf’s gardens are not meticulously manicured spaces, but rather, they embrace the natural processes of growth, decay, and regeneration. This results in landscapes that have an organic, evolving character, which reflects the inherent beauty of nature.

Some of Oudolf’s most famous projects include the High Line in New York City, the Lurie Garden in Chicago, and the Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe Natural Park in the UK. His work has had a profound impact on contemporary garden design, inspiring countless designers and gardeners to embrace a more naturalistic and ecological approach to landscaping

Amazing. Was there much writing about the connections with systems thinking in his approach? ChatGPT said no, but that it did see parallels:

While there isn’t a direct and widely-discussed connection between systems thinking and Piet Oudolf’s work in garden design, one can still draw some parallels between the two. Systems thinking is an approach to problem-solving that focuses on understanding the interrelationships and interdependencies within a system, rather than just focusing on individual components in isolation. It seeks to understand how elements within a system work together and how changes in one part of the system might affect other parts.

In the context of Piet Oudolf’s work, one could argue that his approach to garden design embodies some principles of systems thinking, such as:
– Emphasis on relationships: Oudolf’s designs prioritise the relationships between plants, considering how they work together in terms of form, texture, colour, and seasonal interest. By focusing on these relationships, he creates gardens that have a more cohesive and naturalistic appearance.
– Holistic approach: Oudolf considers the garden as a whole, rather than just focusing on individual plants or elements. His designs take into account the overall structure, composition, and aesthetic qualities of the space, as well as its ecological impact and support for local wildlife.
– Adaptation and change: Oudolf’s gardens embrace the natural processes of growth, decay, and regeneration, allowing the landscape to evolve and change over time. This approach is consistent with systems thinking’s emphasis on understanding the dynamic nature of systems and their ability to adapt to changing conditions.
– Ecological considerations: Oudolf’s emphasis on native plants and supporting local ecosystems is in line with systems thinking’s focus on understanding the broader context in which a system operates, as well as its connections with other systems. By considering the ecological impact of his designs, Oudolf contributes to the overall health and sustainability of the environment.
While these parallels can be drawn, it is important to note that the connection between systems thinking and Piet Oudolf’s work in garden design is not explicit or widely recognised. However, it can be interesting to consider how his approach to design might resonate with the principles of systems thinking and contribute to a more holistic and interconnected understanding of garden design and landscape architecture

Amazement aside, what was going on here? This was better than search engines. Not just the creaky SEO-muddied search results you get from searching for anything, but s going beyond the question and finding synthesis, connections between fields. It was the kind of short article or blog post I might write over a couple of hours, once I’d been able to read enough about Oudolf and consult my notes on systems thinking concepts. Instead, it was right here in front of me. This is — or something similar – is what I would have written.

Combinatorial innovations a–gogo

I felt slightly giddy.

What did I want to do now? Turn those notes into an article? Or go further?

Oh, further?—?of course, go further. Where I was headed was how I might apply some of this as metaphor or inspiration for my own work. What would Oudolf’s approach and lessons from design thinking apply for, say something like designing an organisation, the way that teams or departments fit together. This was something I had found hard in the past and suspected there could be better ways of thinking about it. One stumbling block is that organisation design is not an org chart; but, org charts are useful for some things, and expected by people. As soon as you produce a chart, that’s what humans’ territory and hierarchy-attuned minds go to, and it’s hard to get everyone thinking about other aspects, like how the bits work together.

So, I asked:

Piet Oudolf’s designs are famous for how they express his ideas in diagrammatic form. What might an organisation design visualisation look like if you took that approach – describe the images and components and then again as prompts to create those that could be used with DALL-E 2 or Midjourney to create useful elements and diagrams.

And got another analysis with about eight bulleted paragraphs explaining connections such as:

Emphasis on relationships and interconnectedness: Just like Oudolf’s approach to garden design, organisational design should focus on fostering strong relationships and understanding the interconnectedness of various departments and roles. Designing an organisation with a focus on collaboration and communication can create a more cohesive and efficient system.

Here’s the full response:

Drawing inspiration from systems thinking and Piet Oudolf’s work in garden design can lead to several ideas and principles that might be applicable to organisation design. Here are some concepts that could potentially contribute to better ways of designing organisations:

– Emphasis on relationships and interconnectedness: Just like Oudolf’s approach to garden design, organisational design should focus on fostering strong relationships and understanding the interconnectedness of various departments and roles. Designing an organisation with a focus on collaboration and communication can create a more cohesive and efficient system.
– Holistic approach: In line with systems thinking, organisation design should take a holistic view, considering the organisation as a whole rather than focusing solely on individual components or departments. This includes evaluating the organisation’s culture, values, and objectives, and aligning them to create a unified and purpose-driven entity.
– Adaptability and flexibility: Organisations, like gardens, need to be adaptable and flexible to thrive in a constantly changing environment. Organisational design should incorporate structures and processes that allow for adaptation and responsiveness to external and internal changes, facilitating innovation and continuous improvement.
– Diversity and layering: Similar to Oudolf’s layered planting approach, organisations can benefit from a diverse workforce with a range of skills, experiences, and perspectives. This diversity can foster creativity, innovation, and resilience, and contribute to the overall success and sustainability of the organisation.
– Ecological considerations and sustainability: organisations should consider the broader context in which they operate, including their social and environmental impacts. Designing organisations with a focus on sustainability, ethical practices, and social responsibility can contribute to a healthier and more resilient system.
– Embracing imperfection and learning from failures: Like Oudolf’s gardens, organisations should recognise that imperfection is an inherent part of growth and progress. By fostering a culture that embraces experimentation and learns from failures, organisations can continually evolve and improve.
– Balancing autonomy and interdependence: In a well-designed garden, plants thrive both independently and as part of a larger ecosystem. Similarly, organisations should strike a balance between providing employees with autonomy and fostering a sense of interdependence, encouraging individuals to contribute to the organisations overall success.

By applying these principles and ideas, organisations can draw inspiration from systems thinking and Piet Oudolf’s work in garden design, potentially leading to more effective, resilient, and sustainable organisational structures.

Now show us what it looks like

Then there were the prompts. I tried this one in the DALL-E 2 and Midjourney image generators. DALL-E 2 was disappointing. Midjourney gave a credible and interesting set of images:

I added an instruction to make them appear hand-drawn, like Oudolf’s:

Exactly what I was imagining. Better, maybe.

So, in about half an hour I’d learned huge amounts, explored an untapped area of adjacent innovation in organisation design and mocked up how we might re-imagine org charts.

I was over-stimulated. Excited by the experience. All the dopamine and other hormones fired by my brain sensing new knowledge had me feeling almost dizzy. I had to slow down.

What does this experience tell us about how we can work with AI?

What does this experience tell us about how we can work with AI?

Far more exciting than having AI create content is trying out ideas. When my colleagues in graphic design or creative use image generation AI tool often it if for the mood boards and rough creative territories that would have taken hours or days to produce as part of the process in the past. Writers and knowledge workers can do the same, but aren’t necessarily used to working with multiple possible versions of the same work that are very different from one another.

AI can be a smart study partner or tutor. This was a learning experience as much as a writing or research process. Taking existing knowledge into an adjacent domain is always exciting, what made this different was how fast you could get from question, to idea, to concept to exploration.

The better your questions, the further you go. The chat is more than a simulation, it is a conversation with texts and networks of knowledge. Domain knowledge and curiosity can take you in to other fields fast.

Search engines are so screwed once this catches on. This was a specialised, nerdy, almost academic enquiry, but once you experienced the efficiency and felt the potential of thinking like this, each time I turn to a traditional search engine it feels very limited. Bing has some of this quality, not least because it uses OpenAI’s software. Google could transform this approach.

Reasonably priced, for now. Short-term, the $20 a month for ChatGPT premium seems like a bargain for someone who will use it in their work. Other tools like Claude from Anthropic are similar, and the note-taking app Notion blends Claude and ChatGPT, I believe.

Fancy a go?

The following would be my advice to a colleague or friend who is a knowledge worker or creative and is comfortable, but not expert with using search engines and standard productivity tools (Microsoft Office, Google Worksuite or equivalent).

  • Invest $20 a month and an hour a day to learn to dance with AI. I recommend a month at least with ChatGPT, Notion, or Claude (all of which charge a similar amount) and using it on at least one task where you have a little time to experiment. I’ve found it saves more time than it takes to learn on things like planning, analysis and admin (meeting notes, preparing structures and guides for writing anything from business documents to copy), but this may not be the case for everyone.
  • Keep notes. Take screen grabs and write a little journal of what you notice, what works and what doesn’t. These may be useful to review later on, but even if you don’t, it will make sure you reflect, if only briefly in the moment, on what is happening.
  • Be disciplined about process. This is a topic for another article, but being clear about the steps you will take to create something, even designing a big meeting, or sending a concise analysis of a topic, and creating a check-list for the job will help you see where it will be worth trying working with a generative AI tool.
  • Double check outputs for facts and accuracy. GPT-4 and equivalent generative AIs are more accurate, but still liable to make things up?—?this includes checking links are real and references to articles or other sources actually exist and say what it claims they do.
  • Find your rhythm, make your own moves. Every breathless claim of a prompt or tool that can save HOURS or make $$$$$?—?there are so many on social media currently?—?should be treated with extreme caution. What worked for one person may not replicate for you. Even scientists find it hard to replicate results in some controlled experiments. Instead of looking for magic spells or artefacts, use the metaphor of dance to learn how to give and take with the tools, find what’s possible and what suits your mind. As well as the unpredictable nature of AI sometimes, the different demands of our specific work and our individual brains are all going to require different techniques and use of tools.

In the spirit of that last point, let’s end with a fuller version of the Donella Meadows quote we started with:

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!

I […] learned about dancing with great powers from whitewater kayaking, from gardening, from playing music, from skiing. All those endeavours require one to stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback. It had never occurred to me that those same requirements might apply to intellectual work, to management, to government, to getting along with people.

Let’s dance.

This post was developed from a seed article on Antonym, my newsletter. To subscribe please visit Antonym on Substack.

Learning about short-form video

Gaining insights from the creator of Sustainable Squad on the art of storytelling through video

I like making content. I like photos. I like TikTok. But every time I’ve tried to make anything it’s ended up on the virtual cutting room floor. All of it. 

So I went and talked to an expert. My colleague Katie St Laurence is a client partner by day, and the creative force behind Sustainable Squad, on Instagram, podcast, and events project focusing on sustainability. I was particularly interested in discovering how Katie approaches video content creation, as I’m eager to enhance my own skills in that area.

Katie shared some invaluable advice on her creative process, which can be broken down into a few key steps:

  1. Collect and store ideas: Katie emphasises the importance of being ready when inspiration strikes. She constantly collects content and ideas, storing videos in an album on her phone and jotting down potential topics for a program or video. When the perfect opportunity arises, she combines these elements to craft a compelling story.
  2. Plan the structure: Using the example of a video she created for International Women’s Day, Katie explained how she writes down the key messages, compiles a list of shots, and uses this foundation to build her video. She spends around three hours shooting and editing, a process she clearly enjoys, as evidenced by the enthusiasm in her voice and the quality of her work.
  3. Tell a story: Katie knows that every piece of content she creates must tell a story. However, she also acknowledges that sometimes things just don’t work. Her advice? “If you’re not feeling it, abort.” This resonates with my own experiences in writing, where having a clear plan can save time and effort.
  4. Pay more attention to beginnings and endings: The last piece of advice Katie shared is that the start and finish of a story can be the most challenging part. She admits to spending more time on these aspects than any other, ensuring a strong and engaging narrative.

As I reflect on my conversation with Katie, I realise that many of my own attempts at creating short-form videos have been unsuccessful because I’ve tried to do everything at once – brainstorming, shooting, editing, and adding music. By adopting Katie’s more methodical approach, I’m hoping that I can create content I’m proud to share and that truly resonates with viewers.

If you’d like to check out Katie’s content and learn from her expert storytelling, head over to Instagram or Spotify (or search Sustainable Squad on your podcast app). 


2023. What the hell am I doing here?

It took until now, 30 years after the WorldWideWeb made using the internet easy, for more than half of the global population to get connected to the internet. There were a measly 1 billion people online then (about 16% of the global population). Now there are 4.5 billion (56.25% of people alive today).

The story of internet connections up to 2016. From the gloriously stat-tastic Our World in Data.

It’s nearly twenty years since this blog was set up. What am I doing here?

Thinking out loud on the internet is a different game to a couple of decades ago when blogging became a thing.

Twitter was a place to think out loud for a while, but it lost its charm for me a long time before Elon decided to use it as lighter-fuel for the bonfire of his reputation.

Now that we are well in to ’23, it seems clear that Twitter really is dying. Twitter lost its charm for me a long time before Elon decided to turn into part of the self-immolation of his reputation.

It pushed out blogging as a place that you could share thoughts as they came. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, TikTok is ascendant and simultaneously delightful and malevolent. Facebook is an always on round-robin. LinkedIn is often quite useful, but noisy and lousy with “Ten Things I Learned By Reaching Out To You About My Product”.

Blogs look like home.

But what is this blog for? Nothing, last year, it seemed. In 2022 this one was completely neglected, while I developed Antonym, a weekly-ish newsletter sharing ephemera and thoughts. Kind of what a blog used to be. I have enjoyed learning how a simple newsletter works, and it also helped as a way of reflecting on things I’d read or seen the previous week.

Antonym: An experiment with a weekly-ish newsletter.

It’s also served as a writing flywheel. I’m writing more than I have done in years. Not all of it fits in the newsletter. Not all of it belongs there.

I’m bringing this blog back as its original incarnation: a public notebook.

The Best Books I Read In 2021 – Part 3: Business

This is the third part of a series about the best books I read in 2021. Usually I publish these over the Christmas holidays – this one was slightly delayed by a wonderfully busy and productive January. The posts about fiction and non-fiction books of the year can be found by following the links.

I almost merged the non-fiction and business categories in this year’s review – they seem so close together. The Art of War and Working both have a great deal to say that is relevant here. How To Be Broken‘s advice about resilience is as relevant to the workplace as any other in our lives. So the division is slightly arbitrary, and given another round of editing I’d probably move a few around. However, all of these books were useful to read and apply in my work, and I recommend them to you…

1. Creating Adaptable Teams, by David Webster

We hear about leadership, and sometimes about followership. David Webster has focused on the idea of “teamship” – and it’s a profoundly useful and practical concept.

David Webster is a coaching psychologist, and an expert on how teams work. He’s worked with us at Brilliant Noise for some years. His company, Centre for Teams, is hugely respected by myself and my peers. (He’s also worked with coaching teams at some of the biggest companies in the world and sports teams.) David asked me to write the foreword to Creating Adaptable Teams, a task which I was deeply honoured to take on.

The key to the book is simple but under-explored in business books, how teams really work. As David puts it:

Team leadership is really the forgotten art. There is no more important role in any organisation than those who lead small teams. Given the critical place that teams play in all our lives, learning how to lead them effectively is similarly critical. Without effective team leadership, the teams will falter, and the organisation will fail its team members.

If you lead a team, or aspire to, this book is a gift. It’s published by Open University Press, and while underpinned by academic rigour, it is very much a manual – practical, evidence-based frameworks and processes – for working in teams. As you can see from my copy (below) – it’s a book that works hard, earns its keep, and lives close at hand on my desk.

2. Noise: A Flaw In Human Judgement, by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, Oliver Sibony and Cass R Sunstein

Noise By Daniel Kahneman

Another book whose ideas were immediately put to work at Brilliant Noise this year was the latest title from Daniel Kahneman and his co-authors, who wrote the influential masterpiece Thinking Fast and Slow.

Why do different people make such different judgements? The book starts by looking at judges sentencing and insurance loss adjusters paying out and then works through all of the ways in which “noise” creeps into decision making.

Of particular practical use to everyday business are its application of the concept to decision-making, recruitment and forecasting:

Forecasts are noisy. Professional forecasters offer highly variable predictions about likely sales of a new product, likely growth in the unemployment rate, the likelihood of bankruptcy for troubled companies, and just about everything else. Not only do they disagree with each other, but they also disagree with themselves. For example, when the same software developers were asked on two separate days to estimate the completion time for the same task, the hours they projected differed by 71%, on average.

Although this is a popular science book, Noise sometimes makes you work for the insights, at least if, like me, maths isn’t your strongest suit. I enjoyed this aspect though – it felt like Noise asked something of you in the reading as much as telling you things.

3. Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener

This is an odd book to have here. It’s literary non-fiction, a memoir, but one which is all about living within the tech boom of the 2010s, first in New York and then in San Francisco.  It is a business book though, because it is all about work, a history of business in a strange time and place, though not from the usual perspective of the guru, expert or successful executive. 

I recognise this world, I spent chunk of my career going abck and forth to the America it describes. I even visited Silicon Valley for two whirlwind tours of campuses and technoplexes in the period this book covers, and lived and worked inside its expanding halo for all of that time: the books, the blogs, the businesses and ideas that connected with its coming giants, its technologies and ethos.

Like Nobody Is Talking About This and its mentions of “the dictator” and “the portal”, the book doesn’t use the names of big companies or public figures. Instead it refers to “the social network everyone hated” or “the VP at the search engine giant whose well-publicized hobby was stratosphere jumping”.

I recognised a reference to one of my favourite business books, The Hard Thing About Hard Things in one thinly veiled description:

He was reading a book by one of our investors, he said. I was familiar with it. The book offered guidance on how to navigate the choppy waters of entrepreneurship and conquer the twin demons of self-doubt and external pressure. It spoke of learnings, battles, journeys. Every chapter opened with an epigraph from a rap song. The struggle was real.
The book was good, the CEO told me. If you like this, you’ll love therapy, I did not say. I looked at his phone. He was on the first page of a chapter titled “Preparing to Fire an Executive.”

Ouch. I’d still recommend The Hard Thing About Hard Things to anyone starting a company or navigating its first years as a CEO, but still. It’s a New York book kicking the bloated and over-moneyed San Francisco tech scene. The swipe at “the struggle” is a dig at one of the sections in the book describing how intensely stressful and lonely running a start-up can be. That passage is one that got me through a couple of tough spots. Also not every chapter starts with a rap lyric – the first one is from Gloria Gaynor. But now I’m getting petty.

It was a great read. Not a comfortable one. For me, it was balancing more than balanced. Given how much tech Kool Aid I gulped down over those years, I was nauseous see echoes of my own naivety in its accounts of the time:

Social would bring liberal democracy to the world. Social would redistribute power and set people free, and users would determine their own destinies. Deeply rooted authoritarian governments were no match for design thinking and PHP applications. The founders pointed to Cairo. They pointed to Moscow. They pointed to Tunisia. They side-eyed Zuccotti Park.

The book’s flavour is piquant and complex but with a curious bitter aftertaste. Going back over my notes and highlights the rancour is more pronounced than I recall. Why did I like it so much at the time? One reason is where the book, and social media and the Silicon Valley it portrays eventually led.

I read Uncanny Valley in the first dark days of January 2020, when social media’s ugly side was reified on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. It ends with the author and other confused San Francisco tech workers campaigning on suburban doorsteps for Hillary Clinton and finding more support for Donald Trump than they expected, realising their companies, their culture, had made the Trump phenomenon possible:

We were too old to use innocence as an excuse. Hubris, maybe. Indifference, preoccupation. Idealism. A certain complacency endemic to people for whom things had, in recent years, turned out okay. We had assumed it would all blow over. We had just been so busy with work, lately.

An author I love rated this with one star on Goodreads. I gave it five stars at the time, but I know what they mean. I know why you could hate this book. But Uncanny Valley challenged me and stuck with me through the year, so it belongs on this list.

4. Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness It, by Ethan Kross

We keep being told to try and “live in the present” and “be more present” – but it’s just not what our minds are made for, says neuroscientist Ethan Kross in this book about that constant companion: the voice in our heads. We spend just a third of our lives in the present tense, the rest of the time we are time-travellers, skipping between back and forwards, re-writing the past and drafting possible futures:

Our verbal stream of thought is so industrious that according to one study we internally talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking four thousand words per minute out loud.

Reminding me of to Julian Bagginni’s beautiful phrase from The Ego Trick –  “‘I’ is a verb masquerading as a noun” – Kross explains how our inner voice is we tell to invent ourselves from moment to moment:

Our verbal stream plays an indispensable role in the creation of our selves. The brain constructs meaningful narratives through autobiographical reasoning. In other words, we use our minds to write the story of our lives, with us as the main character.

The time-travelling mind can also bring comfort if we use it consciously, through its distancing effect:

You can also benefit by mentally time traveling into the future, a tool called temporal distancing. Studies show that when people are going through a difficult experience, asking them to imagine how they’ll feel about it ten years from now, rather than tomorrow, can be another remarkably effective way of putting their experience in perspective. Doing so leads people to understand that their experiences are temporary, which provides them with hope.

5. Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil, by Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger, and Francis de Vericourt

Where Chatter says we can’t “be present” no matter how much eat-pray-love advocates tell us we should, Framers gives the tired old “think outside the box” advice a kicking:

The evolution of human thinking has played a crucial role in all these improvements. Before there is a change on the ground, there is a transformation in the mind. All that is without starts from within. We frame and reframe our world, and civilization advances.

So, less “think outside the box” than “be conscious that you are thinking in a box but you can try a whole load of other boxes to see if they work better”.

We reframe things all the time. Some of us are better at it than others. What Cukier et al do is lay out ways that you can get better at this skill and apply it more deliberately to decision making. Fantastic.

The links in this blog post are affiliate links to, an online bookseller that supports local bookshops. In the event of me making any commission I will be spending the proceeds on more books. All of these books and more curated lists will can be found in my Antonym Books page there.

The best books I read in 2021 – Part 2: Non-fiction

“Surprise” and “convention” engender one another, like a bracelet or a ring, with no beginning or end. Who can exhaust their variations?

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, translated by Michael Nylan

Every year I write about the books I read in the last 12 months. This year I’m posting my top three favourite reads and handful of other recommendations in three categories: fiction, non-fiction and business.


1. Working, by Robert A Caro

…there had been a lot of stolen elections in American political history; it wouldn’t be exaggerating much, in fact, to say that the stealing of elections was an integral part of that history; I wanted to examine, to dissect, a stolen election in detail.

This is a book about writing about power, and a life dedicated completely to understanding and explaining power with a focus and intensity that is inspiring emotionally and practically.

Caro describes Working like this:

It’s about what it was like to imagine that I had, during the years I had been a journalist, learned something about how political power worked—and then to realize, as Robert Moses [the subject of his first biography] talked, that compared with him I knew nothing, nothing at all; that there was a whole level of political power, not what I had learned from textbooks and lectures in college and not even what I had learned as a political reporter, but a level of which I had hardly ever conceived. And, listening to Commissioner Moses, I learned there was a whole level of ruthlessness, too, of which I also hadn’t conceived—learned it the hard way, interviewing the people whose lives he had destroyed, people who lived in the way of his roads, and people—public officials or reformers—who stood in his way period.

He began his career as an investigative journalist, but chose to write biographies. As a biographer, he has only written about two people, and completed five books, four of them about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, (a fifth volume about LBJ is eagerly awaited). Now in his late eighties, Caro has recently pledged his detailed research archive and notes to be catalogued by a New York library1. His papers are already regarded in themselves as an invaluable historical record of the second half of the 20th century.

This is a book I will forever recommend and give to people who write, are interested in power and politics. It is also very manageable 200 pages, unlike Caro’s routinely 1,000 page plus biographies (I’ve started on the Powerbroker for the second time, but goodness only knows when or if I will finish it).

Caro’s respect for the craft of writing, for the importance of good writing is wonderful. Talking about the introduction to his first book he says:

I thought I could have a rhythm that builds, and then change it abruptly in the last sentence. Rhythm matters. Mood matters. Sense of place matters. All these things we talk about with novels, yet I feel that for history and biography to accomplish what they should accomplish, they have to pay as much attention to these devices as novels do.

It’s a book about a life of complete focus on an a topic so huge and so obvious – power – that it is rarely engaged with in a meaningful way (perhaps because, as Caro shows, its something that will take a whole lifetime).

There is also a sense of the connectedness and fractal nature of knowledge, of the difficulty in knowing where to stop. Of his intensely deep research Caro says at one point:

Of course there was more. If you ask the right questions, there always is. That’s the problem.

Robert A Caro

One last thing: I recommend listening to an interview with Caro or an audiobook sample of Working before reading it. His voice is a rich, gravelly New York accent, and it is good to have it in your head when you read the prose and tune in to what he’s saying.

Some other passages I loved:

[…] a row of tiny dots on a map helped lead me to the realization that in order to write about political power the way I wanted to write about it, I would have to write not only about the powerful but about the powerless as well—would have to write about them (and learn about their lives) thoroughly enough so that I could make the reader feel for them, empathize with them, and with what political power did for them, or to them.


When Ina [Caro’s wife and research partner] said to me one evening with real anger in her voice, “I don’t ever want to see another John Wayne movie again,” I knew exactly what she meant. So many of the women in Western movies were simply the background figures standing at stoves or pleading with their husbands not to go out to a gunfight. You hear a lot about gunfights in Westerns; you don’t hear so much about hauling up the water after a perineal tear. But both acts are equally part of the story, the history, of the courage it took to settle America’s frontier. I understood that now, and I remember how badly, when I sat down with my legal pads and my typewriter, I wanted to make others understand it, too. (Location 321)

If I had to pick a book of the year, it would be this one because it is a work of brilliance, about how the brilliant mind that wrote it made a life’s work of slowly, carefully achieving its goal. It’s useful and beautiful and mind-boggling and challenging and full of wisdom.

2. The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt

What a person sees as right and wrong is more of a sensed than a reasoned thing, says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind.

This idea is a threshold concept – a perspective, that once gained, makes you look at the world completely differently, but that is difficult, at first, to comprehend.

Haidt takes the reader through the necessary steps to reach this complex idea and then grasp it. His analogy of our sense of taste and our morality is useful and fascinating, and the concepts of parochial altruism (in-group selfless generosity), group selection (how evolution selects for cooperation) and the apparently contradictory, nested duality of humans’ instincts for self-interest and group-interest, and the need for people to lose themselves (sometimes) in the ecstasy of a group identity (in sports, culture, etc.) is wonderful.

I’m indebted to Steve Moore for his insistence that this book has to be read by everyone. In this age of destructive political and cultural polarisation, we need as much help understanding our own partisan urges and those of others as possible.

Passages that stuck with me:

If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide.

It may sound depressing to think that our righteous minds are basically tribal minds, but consider the alternative. Our tribal minds make it easy to divide us, but without our long period of tribal living there’d be nothing to divide in the first place. (Location 3540)

Good leaders create good followers, but followership in a hivish organization is better described as membership. (Location 4006) leadership

3. When We Cease To Understand The World, by Benjamín Labatut

A late entry to the list, I was given this book as a Christmas gift on Boxing Day by my kind siblings–in-law. When we got home I promptly read half of it immediately.

When we encounter the saying “the truth is stranger than fiction” a legitimate response is “you should really read more fiction”. I mean, there’s a lot of really weird stories. This book feels like fiction but is fact, and it’s the more fascinating and terrifying at times because it is real. I love it so much.

When We Cease To Understand The World is a swirling series of stories and vignettes and facts connected in surprising ways. We open with the chronically opioid–addicted successor to Hitler trying to escape Germany with a suitcase stuffed with 100,000 doses of his dihydrocodeine, but within pages are following the Jewish scientist Haber’s inventions that both kill millions and make possible billions of lives in the 20th century and beyond. The sensation of reading this book is like reading the best page-turner thriller you’ve ever picked up combined with a documentary about scientific and mathematic discoveries that while you don’t fully understand them, give you that sense of the sublime, of our smallness in the universe and the wonder of it.

Frequently scientists in the book come close to discovering great, world changing insights and recoil from them. They become recluses, their minds spin away from their grasp, their bodies destroy themselves, they try to destroy their work – forever haunted by Oppenheimer and the physicists that built the atomic bomb. Sometimes they seem to fear worse. It’s almost Lovecraftian horror, with equations and the workings of the universe instead of indifferent monster-gods.

In case all this feels too distant, one account comes right up to our contemporary doorstep and lets us know there are mysteries and terrible truths we may not want to know being fought over right now – the strange case of Mochizuki, a Japanese mathematician whose work “appears to come from the future” according to some mathematicians who have spent years trying to comprehend his work.

According to Yuichiro Yamashita, one of the few who claims to have grasped the real scope of his Inter-Universal Theory, Mochizuki has created a complete universe, of which, for the moment, he is the sole inhabitant.

I was reminded of the book yesterday when reading a Technology Review explainer of quantum computing which – when it works – takes advantage of the phenomenon of quantum entanglement to perform calculations that would be almost impossible for the most powerful “classical” supercomputers to perform2.

Nobody really knows quite how or why entanglement works. It even baffled Einstein, who famously described it as “spooky action at a distance.” But it’s key to the power of quantum computers. In a conventional computer, doubling the number of bits doubles its processing power. But thanks to entanglement, adding extra qubits to a quantum machine produces an exponential increase in its number-crunching ability.

– MIT Review: “Explainer: Quantum Computing”

This is the frontier of what’s possible with computers and even the experts can’t really explain what’s making it work. Without superstition or alarmism, reading When We Cease To Understand The World leaves me wondering if that may be for the best.

Other favourite non-fiction reads

The Art of War, a new translation by Michael Nylan

Notable as the first translation of The Art of War into English by a woman, Nylan’s version has been well-received by academics and critics.

If you’ve read it before, this is an excellent excuse to revisit. If you’ve not, then this is a good place to start. Why read The Art of War at all? It’s a rewarding text on strategy and power with lessons for us all in any age. While The Art of War if still a required text int he world’s largest military force – China’s People’s Liberation Army – and taught in military schools everywhere, its insights are as applicable to any marketplace of commerce or ideas as to a battlefield. Like Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Art of War is tainted for many by its martial or macho associations and by its use as a cultural accessory to say “I am aggressive”. Best to get over that prejudice and not miss out on wisdom that those bozos will have missed even if they have forced their eyes to move over words in a old translation, read without context or expert commentary.

This is a favourite passage of mine from this translation:

There are no more than Five Notes, yet the variations on them can never all be heard.

There are no more than Five Colors, but the variations on them can never all be seen.

There are no more than Five Flavors, but the variations on them can never all be tasted.

There are but two battle strategies, the conventional and the surprise, but, used in combination, they produce an infinite number of variations.

“Surprise” and “convention” engender one another, like a bracelet or a ring, with no beginning or end. Who can exhaust their variations?

A quick note on aesthetics: the pocket–sized hardback edition is incredibly well designed – with this Chinese plated armour pattern – my favourite physical book of the year. Just don’t leave it on your desk at work unless you’re going to explain why it is a wonderful piece of literature and not an Apprentice-contestant affectation to everyone who might see it.

Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

…an archaeological layer can swallow up surprising amounts of time: sediments separating different deposits of artefacts can erode or slip away, leaving a mixed mass of objects. In this way, a hand’s breadth thickness may be a palimpsest of a thousand summers.

There are two great delights in Kindred. First, Dr Sykes gives us the current state of knowledge about what we understand about the close relatives of modern humans – knowledge that has changed, deepened and been enriched by new technologies. The second, is to get a sense of a field of knowledge – giving the reader a sense of scale of the vast timescales and geographical breadth of the evidence that archaeologists are working with. For instance, analysis of the tooth enamel of individuals can tell us what they ate, how thy used some tools, the kind of fires they gathered around in the evenings.

While minds create things, things also create minds in a manner that extends far beyond the individual or even the generation, and can transform whole species. For Neanderthals, new experiences or encounters opened up fresh ways of thinking about the world. It’s not a stretch to suggest that their technological innovations probably impacted other aspects of their lives.

The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020, by Rachel Kushner

After reading the fantastic The Mars Room I picked up this collection of Kushner’s non-fiction writing.

It had a hold on me from the first, exquisite sentence:

What others get from me is then reflected back onto me, and forms the atmosphere called: “I.”

The first essay – an account of an illegal motorbike road race across California and Mexico – is worth the cover price alone. It read like some of the best of Hunter S Thompson’s work. Let this paragraph roll around your palette for a moment:

Sean had a sweet-yet-guilty, girlish smile and long, wavy hair, and he wore black race leathers with the white bones of a skeleton stitched over them. Mounted on a race bike, he looked like a visitation of death.

You go with Kushner into her worlds, very specific times and places, like the bar she worked at in her hometown of San Francisco:

“Those hours at Fascination, and many other corners of my history, made it into a novel of mine, The Mars Room, after I decided that the real-world places and the people I knew would never be in books unless I wrote the books. So I deputized myself world’s leading expert on ten square blocks of the Sunset District, the west section of the Great Highway, a stretch of Market, a few blocks in the Tenderloin. My expertise is not just my knowledge but my permeability. The expert absorbs in excess to what is “useful” for a person to remember.

And thoughts somewhere between insights and questions:

Hard liquor is not the aesthetic or spiritual hearth of a feel-good world, the mirror in which people want to see themselves. Even if liquor does hold some promise of revelry, of escape, the ads for it are a mediated layer away from that. They are corporate fictions that do not ignite privately stored memories from good times, bad times, or any times. Mostly, they ignite memories of looking at the ads themselves— in magazines, on roadway billboards, or elsewhere—giving a sense of déjà vu. (What is being done to me? Something, but I can’t name it.)

How to Be Broken, by Dr Emma Kavanagh

As I write this, I feel a shiver run through me. Because I recognise the truth in it. That I have been broken. But that through this awful, awful year, I have learned to rebuild. And what is there now is far, far stronger than what came before.

Advice from an expert on stress and trauma on living through the first year of the pandemic How To Be Broken3 is a radically blunt mix of personal and professional. Dr Kavanagh is a psychologist who specialises in high stress situations, including training for armed police and the military.

During the pandemic she, like the rest of us, lived through the uncertainty and trauma of lockdown. What makes her book so useful is the labelling and explaining of emotions that so many of us have experienced in the last two years. She underpins this all with an insight that gives so much hope – that post-traumatic growth is possible, common even, and that what we can grow stronger through adversity.

Perhaps there was an entire world of us out there who longed to feel normal, never realising that to feel normal is to feel all these things.”


  1. NYT: What We Found in Robert Caro’s Yellowed Files
  2. Technology Review | Explainer: What is quantum computing?. And how bizarre to think of silicon/electron-based computers as “classical”. I wonder if that term will stick once quantum computing becomes more commonly used.
  3. Please note: How To Be Broken is available only as Kindle and Audible versions – so the link in this section is to Amazon not

The Best Books I Read In 2021 | Part One: Fiction

This is my seventh annual round up of books I’ve enjoyed. The emphasis is on things I read rather than what was published. Although the publication of the lists is consistent, the format is not. This year I’ve tried to name my favourite three books and a short list of others I loved and recommend to others.

Top three

1. No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood

A poem and a tragedy wrapped up in all the poems and tragedies of its age – the time of the dictator, the portal and – after its publication – the plague.

There is no book I read this year – fact or fiction – that surprised me more than No One Is Talking About This. I want to read it again and again. Beginning it tentatively, afraid of the newness and the modernity of the structure, I was worried that I wouldn’t connect, that it would be too important and self-involved to let me in. But then it swallowed me whole, and part of me is still there in it. It’s magic was there from the first sentence: 

She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway. Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.

And this (followed by the author reading it aloud):

Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole. It was not so much the hatred she was interested in as the swift attenuation, as if their collective blood had made a decision. As if they were a species that released puffs of poison, or black ink in a cloud on the ocean floor. I mean, have you read that article about octopus intelligence? Have you read how octopuses are marching out of the sea and onto dry land, in slick and obedient armies?

2. The Netanyahus, by Joshua Cohen

A fictionalised-stranger-than-fiction-true-story about a monster in the shape of a family that calls at a house that is un-equipped to deal with it. 

Whatever you think this book may be, it will surprise you. The experience of reading it is like being on a runaway train that’s gathering speed. Only about halfway through as the pace starts to feel dangerous do you realise you are trapped, it’s going too fast to get off.

I’m grateful for the brevity of this format. It’s pointless to try and describe it to other people, you just have to recommend it.

Some favourite passages: 

So many of my former students—especially those from my last stretch of teaching—were so tolerant of others’ psychosocial fragilities and resentments as to become intolerable themselves, junior Torquemadas, sophomoric Savonarolas, finding fault with nearly every remark, finding bigotry and prejudice everywhere.


The history of every people is also a history of its craziness, and the more science becomes a religion, the more religion must pretend to be a science, desperate for all logical explanations.

3. Klara and the Sun, by Kashuo Ishiguro

An AF – artificial friend – tells her story as she is bought as companion to a girl with a terminal illness, in a world which is close to coming apart.

Ishiguro plays the amazing trick of telling a story so vivid and strange that you feel like you have implanted memories from it mixed up with your own. Sitting in a shop window waiting to be bought, trying to navigate something as simple as a field when your perception can’t process the complexity of the long grass. It doesn’t explain itself or all of its world, but you are there, looking through the eyes of a machine.

Some favourite passages: 

what was becoming clear to me was the extent to which humans, in their wish to escape loneliness, made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom, and I saw it was possible that the consequences of Morgan’s Falls had at no stage been within my control.

The trouble is, Chrissie, you’re like me. We’re both of us sentimental. We can’t help it. Our generation still carry the old feelings. A part of us refuses to let go. The part that wants to keep believing there’s something unreachable inside each of us. Something that’s unique and won’t transfer. But there’s nothing like that, we know that now. You know that. For people our age it’s a hard one to let go. We have to let it go, Chrissie. There’s nothing there. Nothing inside Josie that’s beyond the Klaras of this world to continue.

‘Hope,’ he said. ‘Damn thing never leaves you alone.’ He shook his head almost resentfully, but there was now a new strength about him.

Other fiction I loved this year: 

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The guards had been forced to undergo sensitivity training and were furious about it.

A women’s prison novel by the San Francisco writer, Rachel Kushner, self-described “world’s leading expert on ten square blocks of the Sunset District, the west section of the Great Highway, a stretch of Market, a few blocks in the Tenderloin”. It set a theme for the fiction I read this year. Something that sounded like a worth literary premise that turned itself into a thriller and left me resonating with its power.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

I’d always wondered how Virginia Woolf could be so flippant about the 1918 Spanish flu in her journal, slipping it in as a joke between Lytton Strachey’s sore finger and Lady Murray’s invitation to lunch, when the death rate in parts of London was higher than it had been in the trenches and people who had been well at breakfast were dead by bedtime and deadly as plutonium to everyone who saw them in between, but I think I understand it now. When you’re not dead, life goes on and there are buses to catch and lamb to cook.

This year, stories about being marooned in the cold North held a gripped imagination. Oddly, and in the wrong I order I watched the TV series The North Water (and then read the novel – see below) and, later, The Terror (which I’m reading now, at the time of writing this post). Contemporary where the previous two are historical, Cold Earth felt related in place and themes; a suspense story that builds to an almost unbearable pitch of tension by the end. Told in the form of letters from the six members of an archaeological expedition to Greenland, it shows people losing their grips on their various certainties when a pandemic begins and they lose contact with home. The isolation and the fear read like emotional prophecies of the current pandemic (it was published in 2010).

Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld

“There are two kinds of marriages,” Barbara said. “The ones where you’re privy to how messy they are, and the ones where you’re not.”

A high concept alternate history yarn and political thriller that works on so many levels: “What if Hillary never married Bill?”

I read this on holiday (a holiday I never really expected to be able to take in 2021) and it was everything I’d want from a book to read on the beach: the character and voice of the fictionalised Hillary Rodham feel completely real, the clever play with alternative timeline is familiar and unexpected. You find yourself rooting for Rodham, of course, but she doesn’t present as simple hero – the twists in the story playing out alongside our remembered reality without losing sight of the evolving complexities and contradictions of the politics of race and gender in the last 50 years.

The North Water, by Ian McGuire

Drax shrugs. ‘I do as I must. Int a great deal of cogitation involved.

It’s the end of the era of sail and the boom years of artic whaling are coming to an undignified end. A boatful of lost souls and one very dangerous sociopath head into the ice with various plots and hidden agendas crammed on board with them. 

I read this after watching the TV adaptation. The book was very similar I could see how well the production had adapted the text. It’s a great thriller, but the character of Drax – a bundle of needs and urges and violence wrapped up in the shape of a man –  was the thing that set it apart. There’s a sickening plainness to his evil that makes him utterly believable. Colin Farrell did a superb job of playing him.

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

Of course they’d never heard a noise like that before. You didn’t hear such a noise; you experienced it, endured it, survived it, witnessed it. You could fairly say that their lives could be divided into two: the period before they’d heard that noise and the period after.

A simple premise, a brilliant realisation. A family are on holiday in a remote cottage when the owners arrive unannounced saying the power is out in the city – it begins as an awkward situation and twists into the end of the world.

The feeling. Then the dread of something coming grows more intense. We know more than the characters, but are still unable to see the full facts. And what’s happening begins as a known dread, becomes mysterious and then as it becomes truly known is too horrible to comprehend.

That’s all the fiction for this year, folks. The non-fiction and business books will follow shortly.

All links are to which supports local bookstores (and book reviewers who publish affiliate links).

Every leader needs a fool: Antonym No. 10

This was originally a newsletter on my Substack.

Guaranteed royal news-free reading since last week

Dear Reader

A year ago today we shut the office after one of us started showing symptoms. A few days later the UK was locked down, and then I fell ill with the virus as well, the first of two bouts.

A friend of mine who also had it and I exchanged what reliable information about Covid-19 we could amongst find over WhatsApp a couple of times a day. Around a week after symptoms first showed there was a credible rumour from a GP friend that anosmia – the lack of a sense of smell, one of those pandemic words I didn’t know a year ago – was a symptom. I tried smelling some Branston pickle in the fridge and… nothing. A complete blank. I knew for sure.

As my “Covid buddy” and I approached day eight, he a little ahead of me, billed as the day where you either got worse and headed for ICU or started getting better. Knowing that as late-40somethings with a bit too much tummy for comfort, we might go either way, we waited and hoped and lay still in bed. he got through, then it was my turn. Right on cue, the much-warned-of band of tightness around my chest came on. I Netflixed and drank fluids and tried to ignore it and slept and then… it went. The next day I was a little better.

Meanwhile panic raged and business got ugly for a little while. Some people and organisations were very helpful (clients reassured on plans where they could, furlough bought breathing space, a deeply valued executive coach pitched in with emotional support pro bono while we gathered our wits). Some weren’t, but c’est la vie.

A year on we’re still fighting that hydra-like challenge of business-in-the-Covid-times, but the tide seems to have turned. The vaccinations, the adaptations in society and in our organisations are bringing results and rebuilding the sense of optimism that was kicked out of me at the start of the year with the resurgence of Covid in the UK and elsewhere.

Allora. Here we are then, in March 2021 and here is a list of things I recommend you read.

“Every leader needs a fool. And the fool should tell you you’re full of shit, on a regular basis.”

– Manfred Kets de Vries, management thinker. From his recent Lunch With The FT interview.

The cover of Time magazine from April 2m 1965. The main prediction that was accurate was the diversity of those in tech leadership roles.

Award-winning us

It was such a boost at Brilliant Noise a year after the shizzle hit the fizzle that to be given this lovely honour from The Drum this week. Doubly sweet as it was largely won on the basis of feedback from our clients.

Pink background with an image of a trophy

Highly re-targeted digital emperor’s apparel

Speaking of pipe dreams, the FT asked “If Big tech has our data, why are targeted ads so terrible”.

As one former Facebook employee said in a court filing that was recently released “more than half the time we’re showing someone other than the advertisers’ intended audience”.

“Yes! Facebook spends $14bn a year on R&D but it can’t stop me being stalked by the pair of underpants I’ve already bought.”

“Because we are way more complex that “hard” data scientists thought we were :-) (they should have asked soft scientists).

Because if they have inventory they will sell it even if it’s a bad fit.

Because brands employ social ads managers on the cheap that don’t really know about building a highly targeted audience.

All of the above from experienced (20 years+ marketers). Sigh…

Google’s killing cookies, but you can bet they won’t be killing “targeted” advertising. There will be a whole other billion-dollar box of tricks one can buy to make sure campaigns are missing the mark but with authoritative data to explain why they’re actually doing a great job.

So it goes…

How close the past looms, circling the present like a dead moon, lifting slow repetitious tides on the living planet.”
– Terry Bisson, Fire on the Mountain

You need a friend. Possibly, 5.

Friends by Robin Dunbar, he of the Dunbar number, sounds like an excellent read. I’ve ordered a copy to sit atop the teetering pile of must-reads.

According to The Guardian:

In this pleasantly chatty book, a miscellany of modern research on sociableness, he rehearses this argument and his other famous idea – that language evolved so that gossip could replace time-consuming mutual grooming – as well as citing lots of other social-science experiments.

Some, to be sure, will not amaze anyone who is not a literal extraterrestrial: “We gain a surprising amount of information from the nonverbal cues that we wrap around our words when we speak,” for example, though it’s not surprising at all. Others are more interesting: the fact, for example, that people who sing together in choirs subsequently enjoy an increased pain threshold, or that conversations involving more than four people are unstable and will usually split into two

Some writing advice from Colson Whitehead

In an interview for 60 Minutes, the author of The Underground Railroad and many other fine books said:

“Write for yourself, because time is short. [I write] really for me, which sounds very selfish. Should I have written a zombie novel? It made perfect sense to me. I grew up loving horror movies and then horror fiction. Is that something I should be doing as a literary author? I don’t know . . . if it gives me pleasure, if it’s exciting, you know, our time on earth is pretty short. I should be doing what I feel like I should be doing”

Source: LitHub

Zone One is Whitehead’s Zombie novel. I enjoyed it hugely.

Tom Ford’s OK

Some fashion and creative project consolation from Tom Ford. The best-dressed man of his generation, and a creative fireball across our heavens, Ford is both a brilliant designer and a director of exquisite cinema.

We can take courage then from his admission that he is going to find it hard to stop wearing “indoor clothes” and also that lockdown has not been the creative opportunity some hoped for:

I’ve been wearing these same dirty jeans with holes in them and this same dirty jean shirt for, it seems like, months. As soon as we can go out again, we’ll want to dress up. It’s only natural.

I have two things I’m working on: an adaptation and an original screenplay. To be honest, I thought that during Covid I would have time to work on these. I’m so lucky, I have everything in the world, but I think everyone has felt a certain depression. It’s been a very turbulent year. And I have a child at home who hasn’t been to school in a year. So, unfortunately, I have not felt as creative as I thought I was going to feel.

[Interviewer] what do you do in that situaiton?

I go to bed. Maybe I drink some coffee and lie in the bathtub and probably watch way too much CNN and MSNBC and just make myself even more agitated. I try to get some sleep, which I never get. I just lie in bed and stare at the ceiling.

Fair play, Tom. Me too…

Talking of fashion. This is what Rick Owens revealed as post-lockdown inspiration:

The look fits perfectly with the New York Times realisation that New York has actually become the set of Blade Runner.

Pun of the week is from Science Daily

A year on it looks like ambulance teams have some serious PPE, thank goodness.

Quick links

Quote of the week

Robert Shrimsley on lockdown beards:

“Chins it seems are Covid’s invisible casualties.”

Made me laugh because my beard is now at a new peak and I have no idea what its fate will be when The Great Return begins in a few weeks.

My chin has succumbed to a lockdown beard.

Well, I leave you with that image to haunt your dreams, and wish you the very best of weeks to come. I hope there was something here of use, interest or amusement.

Your ballistic epistlistic,


Leave a comment


P.S. Spent some of this week moving offices. I’ll talk some more about it when we’re properly in and up and running, but this is the building – the new Plus X Innovation Centre in Brighton. It’s quite an incredible space and community.

The flipping gorgeous Plus X innovation centre in Brighton – our new home.

P.P.S. Most of the links this week are from the Financial Times. I appreciate it is an expensive subscription, but if you can find a way to make it work, it is incredibly good value for its business, politics and culture coverage. Otherwise, you can get some free articles by registering.

A map of things we cannot see: Antonym No. 9

This post originally appeared my Substack newsletter Antonym.

People ask ‘Who am I?’ and expect to be told a story. The first thing you need to know about yourself, is that you are not a story.”

– Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Dear Reader

Stewart Lee, pro-grump pot and favourite comedian of annoying, self-righteous liberals like myself, has a section in his some-time emails to his fan-base called: “I Arrogantly Recommend”. That’s what this newsletter is – a bunch of arrogant recommendations of things find fascinating and think you should too, even though you have a completely different set of tastes, perspectives, needs and interests. It’s a passive-aggressive challenge to how you spent your attention this week with an implied instruction about how you should spend some time today. If you demur, you will just confirm my worst suspicions about your vacuousness and unsuitability to belong to this mailing list. I suggest you unsubscribe now, and download TikTok which should kill some time until the kids go back to school for little more cost than carpal tunnel syndrome from your thumb obediently scrolling and like for little dopamine squirts like the good lab rat in the Zuckerwelt complex that you know deep down you are.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. It’s been a tough week.

Here are some links and quotes to interesting things that I humbly offer for your clicky pleasure… (DON’T FORGET TO LIKE AND SUBSCRIBE)

Nerd on this: personal tech stats

This from a letter to my company this week indulged in some technology advance vertigo:

I’ve got the keys to the new office. They magically appeared in my email inbox and I downloaded the app and – Voila! – there they are!

Full disclosure: I love technology. I grew up at a time when pocket calculators and digital watches seemed like the cutting edge. My Dad won a competition for – wait for it – predicting the future of the office, and the prize money went on a ZX Spectrum, one of the first affordable home computers when I was about ten. OMG it was amazing.

The Spectrum had memory of 48K. To give that context, 48 kilobytes is enough memory to hold 23,000 words in a plain text document. A third of a novel. My watch has about 350,000 times more memory and cost about the same, adjusting for inflation, as the Spectrum did in 1982.

While we’re nerding out about tech. The app that opens all of the doors at I’ve got the keys to the new office. They magically appeared in my email inbox and I downloaded the app and – Voila! – there they are!

Full disclosure: I love technology. I grew up at a time when pocket calculators and digital watches seemed like the cutting edge. We weren’t that well off, but my Dad won a competition for – wait for it – predicting the future of the office, and the prize money went on a ZX Spectrum, one of the first affordable home computers when I was about ten. OMG it was amazing.

The Spectrum had memory of 48K. To give that context, 48 kilobytes is enough memory to hold 23,000 words in a plain text document. A third of a novel. My watch has about 350,000 times more memory and cost about the same, adjusting for inflation, as the Spectrum did in 1982.

While we’re nerding out about tech. The app that opens all of the doors at Plus X is 21.8MB. It would take the combined power of 458 ZX Spectrums to let me into my new office.

My phone has 5.6 million times more memory than my first computer. X is 21.8MB. It would take the combined power of 458 ZX Spectrums to let me into my new office.

Read this post: Brian Morrisey on unbundling the events industry

Brian Morrisey, the former AdAge journalist and editor at Digiday, has a useful analysis of how industry events will emerge from the pandemic in his The Rebooting newsletter. These events serve a whole bunch of different purposes – sales, inspiration, networking, market intelligence, training, entertainment – all wrapped in a big, ugly package and plonked in Cannes, or Earls Court, Las Vegas, Singapore, or wherever:

The problem of this bundle is the same for every bundle. Many of the features don’t apply to different audience segments. Sales people have no interest in the programming — most would be out by the croissants buttonholing people — and top executives had no interest in being pitched by vendors. The CFOs hate the boondoggling. And so on.

Early on in the pandemic, at a company meeting, I urged our sales team to skip mourning the loss of in-person events and find ways instead to solve for the needs of clients because those didn’t go away. Events are a means to an ends — most are about fostering relationships between attendees — and inevitably, the adaptions of the past year will change events, as they’re reformulated to serve different purposes. Just as you don’t need a full cable subscription to watch live sports programming, new models will emerge that reconfigure the benefits of in-person events.

Sign up for this free thing: Caroline Webb on how to have a good day despite the pandemic

Caroline Webb wrote the amazing How to Have a Good Day, which uses sound findings from neuroscience to help understand how are brains work during a typical working day. (There’s a character called Anthony in it who may be a thinly veiled version of yours truly.) Now she’s running a series of webinars every Wednesday to talk about practical things we can do to work while dealing with the emotional turmoil of these pandemic times – “How To Have A Good Day in Uncertain Times.”

Every Wednesday on LinkedIn, at 10am Eastern Time time, I’ll pick one practice you and your colleagues can use to stay centered, upbeat, productive and clear-headed, whatever life is throwing aat you right now. Each video will outline practical science-based tips you can apply right away. The first one will be on March 10th.

You can sign up for the series here for free. If you’ve not read her book, I really can’t recommend it too highly, we very often include a copy in the induction pack for new joiners at Brilliant Noise.

Get your hit of the sublime with this map of black holes

As Tim Harford explained in the FT, amazing ideas are often overlooked:

In 1928, Karl Jansky, a young radio engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, began researching static interference that might obscure voice transmissions. Five years later, after building a large rotating antenna and investigating every possibility he could think of, he published his remarkable conclusion: some of the static was coming from the Milky Way.

It was ten years before scientists stopped scoffing at the idea and radio astronomy was born. This week we have what Nature charmingly called “the best-ever map of supermassive black holes” (full paper here). Literally a map of things we cannot see.

Believe a human wrote this

The Drum carried a piece on AI-powered creative:

In the near future, the smartest creative teams will be those that can use A.I. writers in productive ways, as a computer assist to a creative session and a source of ideas that might spark better ones.

That makes sense. I’ve not heard anyone seriously worried that humans are going to be out of a copywriting or creative job soon because of machine learning tools. The lazy thinking approach to this kind of analysis is that AI it’s an either or choice, when in fact thinking will be supported by new kinds of tech. See the concept of centaur chess for the model for this, sometimes more helpfully called Advanced Chess.

Doug Engelbart and JCR Licklider are two of the people who thought deeply about what competitors should be able to do for us and our cognitive work. If you want to see someone trying to invent the future and largely succeeding, watch Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos (or some of it, it’s about 100 minutes long. Here’s a taste of the first mouse and outliner apps being demonstrated in 1968.

AI used well, like all tech, will boost our ability to spend time on high quality thinking. According to Howard Rheingold in his book Mind Amplifiers

Licklider had been a psycho-acoustician before World War II. Returned to his scientific investigations after the war, Licklider grew frustrated with the long hours that he, as a scientist, spent “getting into position to think.”34 Like Engelbart, Licklider imagined that computers might evolve into machines to help scientists — if only there were a better way to link scientists with computers than punch cards and printouts.”

“Getting in a position to think” is what we should ask of all of computing tools, including the ones we use today.

Quick links

That’s it for this week. I hope you found something interesting here.

Hasta luego


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Being clever: “How’s that working out for you?”

Two of the books I’ve been reading this week – Thinking In Systems and Wolf Hall – connected in a surprising way.

Let’s start with the thoughts of a furious Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, confronted by the tactical success one of his enemies:

Christ, he thinks, by my age I ought to know. You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook; somehow he thinks that’s what Norris is, and he feels an irrational dislike taking root, and he tries to dismiss it, because he prefers his dislikes rational, but after all, these circumstances are extreme, the cardinal in the mud, the humiliating tussle to get him back in the saddle, the talking, talking on the barge, and worse, the talking, talking on his knees, as if Wolsey’s unravelling, in a great unweaving of scarlet thread that might lead you back into a scarlet labyrinth, with a dying monster at its heart.

Cromwell should suffer from imposter syndrome. A Hackney lad with an informal education he got on the road running from a violent father and on the job as a soldier and then a city trader in Italy. He understands things those with the money and the power don’t because he has seen behind the curtain, how the system of the world really works. Where the nobility have been raised on ideas of nobility, courtly love and glory through war, he has fought in the wars and then seen how they were financed.

In this passage above we see a brief flash of his deepest fears, the fear of being dragged back into the wreckage of his origins. His master, Cardinal Wolsey, is being taken down by the establishment and it could well ruin him as well. He has risen so far by applying his insight and practical knowledge about how the world works and – “he likes his fears rational” – suppressing the emotional. Through skills in practical professions – law and finance – he makes himself valuable to the establishment. While playing this game has helped him achieve massive success and a growing reputation, he is reminded that his is not the only game, the strategy does not always work. The idiots sometimes win, the game of favours and hereditary privilege and courtly intrigue will sometimes be won by the wrong people with the wrong ideas and whom history is not behind. Just because he is smarter and in many ways better than his enemies, doesn’t mean they can’t bring him down.

At the end of Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems: A Primer, she talks about understanding the limits of being original, being bright, perhaps of being right. She wrote the book in the 1990s but was thinking back to when she was early in her career and part of a cohort of clever systems thinkers who were advancing the field in the 1970s. Fired with the zeal of their insights and a desire to make things better they went out like missionaries to fix the systems around them:

Our first comeuppance came as we learned that it’s one thing to understand how to fix a system and quite another to wade in and fix it. We had many earnest discussions on the topic of “implementation,” by which we meant “how to get managers and mayors and agency heads to follow our advice.”

Having an insight feels great. It gets you a bit high. You do stupid things sometimes. Like think the idea will win because it feels so damn good.

Naive leaders act as if the idea itself is the ultimate selling point. Experienced leaders, on the other hand, understand that the process is just as important, if not more so.

– Act Like a Leader Think Like a Leader, Herminia Ibarra

Advice to my younger self, then: Smart isn’t enough. It’s one of the reasons you should pull your head out of your rear and read Machiavelli, himself a prime example of why being right and being smart doesn’t mean you get to win.

The Covid-19 crisis is a shape-shifter

One job of a leader in a long crisis like the pandemic is to explain what’s going on – offer a frame, a narrative about what is happening and how we can deal with it. The first challenge, you discover, is that that means explaining things to yourself.

Just when you think you have the measure of the crisis – the nature of its threats to the business, your sanity, you’re health and your family – it changes into something else.

The FT has started a monthly series called Leaders’ Lessons, asking a “global panel” of CEOs about their experience of the pandemic. This week’s question was about making mistakes:

With the exception of perhaps one, the respondents offer candid and helpful admissions of error and how they have adapted since. One quote has stuck with me from Jaelle Ang, CEO of a co-working space in Singapore, who said that she focused on the wrong things at first:

Months on, it struck me that this [crisis] is a shape-shifting, forward and backward, infinite round of games. We may or may not know when the whistle blows. Focusing on cash flow is like focusing only on the scoreboard — and not on each pass or each play.

I know exactly what she means. Cash flow isn’t unimportant – the only inviolable rule of business is do not run out of cash – but it was only one of the games we would have to play over the coming months. Those first two sentences distil the crisis perfectly – I’ll break them down a little here:

  • Shape-shifting: A year ago, with the Cheltenham Festival just finished and Boris was shaking hands in Covid wards the discussion was – seriously – whether business would be affected at all. Then, it was about whether the recovery would be v-shape or u-shaped. The lockdown – three weeks or three months? Then panic set in. Things were delayed. The world changed. It was not a crisis, but a series of challenges and mini-crises that we faced – how and if to use furlough and loans, how to forecast, how to keep projects going that would have been happening in other countries.
  • Forward & backward: Q4 last year seemed like a recovery. Revenue lifted and bookings returned, we finished the year in high spirits at Brilliant Noise. Intact, proud of the work we were doing, proud of the resilience of our colleagues. While we craved to see one another and work around real tables and real whiteboards, we’d got really good at remote work. In some ways, our skills had got better and the cost of delivery, especially for international work, had lowered. But Q1 has been a sharp reverse. Literally hours into the first workday of the New Year it was clear the Government would be locking down the country again and that the disease was getting much, much worse. Our plans, once again, had to be completely changed.
  • Infinite round of games: The idea of games is perfect. Business can often be a hard game – “This isn’t checkers, this is m*******n’ chess”, as Ben Horowitz says in The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Business in the pandemic, though, isn’t a game of chess. It’s a long series of games of chess, in different formats – now speed chess, now timed, now against three opponents, now a single game over a week – and you never know which type of game, or games, you will be playing next.
  • We may not know when the whistle blows: Where the game metaphor breaks down is that games usually have a defined endpoint. While we may have “Freedom Day” provisionally booked in for the 21st of June in the UK, for instance, things aren’t going to be magically easier for most businesses the following Monday. Even with government support, many have had to dig deep into personal and corporate reserves of energy, cash and goodwill to get through to now. Many will face insolvency once things get back to “normal”. The after-effects of Covid-19’s worst phase will last for years, and even then we will be facing new challenges. We’ll raise a glass if we get to end lockdown fully, no doubt, but it won’t be the end of anything as much as the beginning of the new game.