My Books of 2013

I missed my goal by four and read 56 books in 2013. Some I had to struggle through for a month (I’m looking at you Advertising Media Planning) and others left me speechless at their brilliance. I’ve put an asterisk next to the books I particularly recommend and given short notes about those and a selection of the other books on this list. (Disclosure: after being berated by my wife for not doing so last year, the Amazon links here are affiliate ones, do with that what you will)

Biography and History

Walden by Henry Thoreau

Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

*The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

*General of the Army by Ed Cray

Are we Rome by Cullen Murphy

The Washington and Franklin biographies were both enjoyable reads, though I left with a poorer impression of Washington and a better impression of Franklin. However, the two biographies I enjoyed most were Morris’ biography of the early career of Theodore Roosevelt which indelibly shows you that you could be doing more in any given day than you are and Ed Cray’s biography of General George Marshall, which was truly excellent. Marshall is probably the greatest leader and manager of the 20th century and I took hundreds of notes.

Business

AntiFragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Different by Youngme Moon

*The Essential Drucker by Peter Drucker

Advertising Media Planning by Roger Baron

*The Feiner Points of Leadership by Michael Feiner

Competition Demystified by Bruce Greenwald

The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

*Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton

If you want to get the core of pretty much every subsequent business book ever written, read Drucker. Everyone else is just repeating him. With that caveat, the Feiner and Sutton books were interesting guides to becoming better at being a manager (something I sorely need), while the Power of Full Engagement (yes a blech title) essentially told me to eat and sleep better. Taleb once again scared me away from investing in the stock market and Greenwald had me spellbound with his book on strategy up until he started saying Steve Job’s attempt to reinvent Apple was doomed.

Fiction & essays 

The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Pastoralia by George Saunders

*Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Phules Company & Phules Paradise by Robert Asprin

*The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts by Louis De Bernieres

*Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernieres

*The Troublesome OffSpring of Cardinal Guzman by Louis de Bernieres

The Magicians & The Magician King by Lev Grossman

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

*The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Dune by Frank Herbert

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Even Cowgirls get the Blues by Tom Robbins

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins

Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

*The Wicked Wallflower and Wallflower Gone Wild by Maya Rodale

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe

If you haven’t read de Berniere’s South American trilogy, stop what you are doing and do so immediately. They are funny, sexy and magical. The Art of Fielding made me give a shit about Baseball for the first time and Winter’s Tale was one of those books that makes you realize you will never be as good a writer as Helprin (here’s hoping they don’t screw up the movie). Maya Rodale (ahem, the missus) captivated with wonderful romances in a brand new series too.

Philosophy

*The Inner Citadel: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Pierre Hadot

*Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot

The Bed of Procrustes by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Musonius Rufus on How to Live edited by Ben White

*Dialogues and Essays by Seneca

Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity by Catherine Wilson

If you are at all interested in Marcus Aurelius, Hadot’s book is a tour de force. In fact, just read everything Hadot has ever written. Seneca is always good value too.

Science, Psychology and Sociology

Drive by Daniel Pink

The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli

A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss

*The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Disappearing Spoon was a wonderful tour through my weakest area of science: chemistry. It made a subject I’d always avoided come alive.

Apocrypha

*The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

*The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallway

Books tome is a beast but it puts forward one heck of a framework for understanding the common threads through English literature. I only care about tennis for two weeks of the year, so thankfully the Inner Game of Tennis was much more about performance and mental composure than anything else, it’s well worth a read even if you hate tennis.

Never Give Up

Gallery___The_Scott_Expedition-3

I should say this is a story about an expedition, a grand adventure, a test of human endurance. I should say that. This is a story about failure.

Right now, one of the people who knows me better than anyone else in the world is sitting in a hut in Punta Arenas, Chile and staring out at a plane destined to take him down to Antarctica and the greatest test of his life. He may be sitting there a while, the weather of the Drake Passage does not play well with aircraft and this is a dangerous journey at the best of times. Every day’s delay makes his dream a little more uncertain, but he’s been waiting ten years for this flight so he has learned to sit with a certain equanimity while the wind blows spiderwebs of snow across the runway. A part of him may even be thankful for the delay; after all this time, all this sacrifice there’s still a part of him that wonders if it can even be done. He’s not crazy to think that. After all, the last team who attempted to do what he is about to do died in the attempt.

Let’s step back for a second. It’s April 2001 and I’m a bowman on the good ship Logica, a 72-ft yacht deep in the Antarctic convergence zone racing from Sydney to Cape Town. One-third of my watch is out with injuries and I’m popping some special pills that our medic, a Mississippi gynecologist back home, has given me after a nasty fall from the mast in a storm had my back screaming with every move. I’m called on watch every four hours and  I went past exhaustion several weeks ago, but below decks, torch attached to my head I’m reading a bedraggled copy of a biography of Ernest Shackleton and I’m in awe. When it comes to the poles, the British have a long proud history of abject failure; the stories of men with frozen feet, indomitable will and inadequate preparation somehow move us more than most and I just a hundred miles north of that last continent could almost taste it.

March 2002 and I still haven’t got the poles out of my head. I’d spend every penny I had  getting myself up to the Arctic on small expeditions and every time I would put on my telemark skis and step out onto the ice I would think about Robert Falcon Scott.

In late 1911, Scott and an eclectic team of scientists and sailors set out from Mcmurdo Sound on the Antarctic coast hoping to become the first to reach the South Pole. They manhauled unimaginable loads for 900 miles across the highest, driest, coldest, windiest continent on earth. By January 1912, they reached the pole to find a black tent buffeted by the winds and inside a letter to the Norwegian King. They had been beaten to the prize by the dog teams of that master polar traveller Roald Amundsen. Morale broken, bodies spent they turned for home. Slowly starving with each passing day, the team died off one by one. None survived.

To this day, no one has ever been able to walk unsupported from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. It is the last great journey left, the longest unsupported polar journey in history and to the 2002 me, fresh off a round-the-world yacht race and slowly going crazy behind a desk in London, it felt like the ultimate challenge.

Once an idea takes you, it’s amazing how fast the world can step towards you and a few months later I was sitting in a Putney curry house talking to Ben Saunders, a guy my age who already had a respectable but unsuccessful North Pole expedition under his belt. Something between us clicked and we decided to finish what Scott started. I quit my job and Ben and I started working together as a team, putting together expeditions that would build our skills and prepare us for the big South Pole expedition we would undertake in 2003 after the small matter of raising the money to do so.

Fancy doing an unsupported return journey to the South Pole? Great! Let’s get started. First, strap a 400lb sledge to yourself and start pulling that across uneven terrain for 1,800 miles. Luckily only the first 900 miles are uphill. Now bring the temperature down to −40 degrees and add a fierce headwind that seeks out every inch of exposed flesh and freezes it within seconds (good luck if you need to pee!). Your body is going to be burning up to 10,000 calories a day and can only absorb about 6,000 so calorifically speaking you’re doing the equivalent of a double marathon every day for four months on a starvation diet. Just to keep things interesting, let’s add the constant possibility that the snow beneath you collapses and sends you hurtling into a crevasse the size of a cathedral that you never saw coming.

In short, a South Pole expedition is pretty much the worst way to spend four months you could possibly imagine, but if you were to ask Ben I don’t think he would say that’s the tough part. The tough part is getting to the start line in the first place. Antarctica is far away from everywhere and doing anything in Antarctica is ridiculously expensive. Imagine if you kept a car in New York but the only way to fuel that car was to charter a private jet and fly fuel in from England. That’s the logistics of an Antarctic expedition and between us we had no cash and no clue how to get any.

We didn’t go to the South Pole in 2003. Or 2004. Or 2005. Living month to month on whatever I could scrounge together, putting together small expeditions or managing other people’s just so I wouldn’t lose my connection to the cold places, I grew to fear and then hate my parent’s yearly Christmas letter to their friends which would explain ‘Anthony has decided to postpone his South Pole expedition for another year to raise more funds’. For Ben and I, we had proclaimed a grand goal. We had told people year after year this was the year we were finally going to go south. And every year we had to look at the nervous smiles as we publicly failed. Again and again.

2006 passes and by now Ben is scratching by giving talks to schools and I am making money holding the boring end of the tape measure for my flatmate as he measures disused office buildings. My parents have started to have very real fears about my future and I can see the strain on their faces as they ask whether I think it’s ever going to happen. I fake a smile and say ‘this year for sure’.

2007 begins. It’s been five years since I decided to go South and I’ve blagged my way to New York on a friend’s airmiles to see if Americans are more willing to fund a crazy dream than the cynical brits. While I’m there, I get talking to some guys running a funded startup and they ask me if I fancy coming in with them. I tell Ben that it will only be for a few months until expedition season starts and say yes. I never go back.

Oh, I tell myself that I’ll go back eventually and that this startup thing is just a phase, but in my heart I know that I was done. Exhausted with a broken dream and the certain, public indisputable knowledge that I had set myself an audacious goal and failed. In fact I had not even come close.

By 2008, while I plunged into a world of media startups and heard phrases like ‘sharing is the key’ come out of my mouth, Ben never lost faith in the dream we had shared. That january, he called me to let me know that he had raised enough money for a bare bones solo North Pole expedition. It wasn’t the South Pole yet, but it was something. Eight days in to the expedition, Ben’s ski binding sheered in two and there was no possibility of repair. It took him two more years to raise enough money to try even that expedition again only for a cracked fuel bottle to contaminate all his food after a fall from an ice ridge. In 2011, while I’m on stage spouting off about the importance of real-time adaptation for superior business results, Ben is sitting in a hut in Resolute Bay, Canada watching a storm obliterate the weather window he has for even a chance at reaching the start point. I get on the satellite phone with him and the anguish in his voice is so great that it makes me well up to even remember it now.

For ten years, Ben hustled, trained, evangelised and dreamed. For years after I had given up, he was beaten and bloodied by the harshest storms, broken equipment, a thousand no’s from potential funders and the sly and cynical smiles of those who have never left their armchairs. He sat alone in a tent hundreds of miles from the nearest human and watched as his dreams were shattered again and again and again. And somehow every day he got back up, faced the sunrise and pushed on.

Early this year, Ben rang me with news. Finally, thanks to the combined efforts of Intel and Landrover he had the funds he needed to go south. The dream that began in a South London curry house a decade before was actually happening.

So now he sits, watching the wind in Punta Arenas and steeling himself for the biggest challenge of his life, the first unsupported journey to the South Pole and back. And I find myself speechless. Well almost. I couldn’t say much to Ben when I saw him off earlier this month. We’re both British and emotions are an awkward bunkmate at the best of times. A simple handshake and a firm ‘don’t fuck it up’ were all I was able to say. This is what I should have said.

Ben, to many the journey you have ahead of you is incredible and impossible. Its success lies on a knife edge of survival and good luck, but it pales compared to the journey that got you here. You are the best man I know and whatever Antarctica throws in your way, whether you reach your destination or not, you are already the greatest inspiration and symbol of hard-won success I could have. Thank you for never giving up, always check for frostbite and I’ll see you on the other side.

……

For those of you struggling with your own startups or other at-times seemingly fruitless challenges I would highly recommend following Ben on his site, twitter and instagram. It will bring instant perspective and hopefully inspiration.

My Books of 2012

Here are the books that devoured my weekends and early mornings this year.

Fiction

I loved Tom Robbins and Gillian Flynn this year, but didn’t see the fuss about Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall. I relished every perfect morsel of Saki’s short stories for the sheer craft that they displayed. Old favourites such as Wilt and Flashman were returned to and still gave every bit as much enjoyment as when I first read them and I was privileged to read Maya Rodale’s fabulous romances before publication.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins

Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser

The Tattooed Duke By Maya Rodale

Seducing Mr Knightly by Maya Rodale

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

1Q84 by Haruki Murukami

The Vanished Man by Jeffrey Deaver

Wilt by Tom Sharpe

The Last Coyote by Michael Connelly

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Dark Places: A novel by Gillian Flynn

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Year Zero by Rob Reid

In One Person by John Irving

A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers

The Complete Short Stories of Saki by Saki

The Racketeer by John Grisham (audiobook)

Business

The Modern Firm and The Future of Management both gave good introductions to the new style of organisational design that is outcompeting traditional command-and-control structures. Predictable Revenue was an excellent introduction to how Salesforce built their inside sales team. Andy Grove is always good value and Marshall Goldsmith’s book was wonderful for its sheer applicability to some of the challenges I’m facing today.

The Future Arrived Yesterday: The Rise of the Protean Corporation by Michael Malone

HBR’s 10 Must-reads on Managing Yourself by Harvard Business School

Little Bets by Peter Sims

On Becoming a Leader by Warren Bennis

Predictable Revenue by Aaron Ross

CEOFlow by Aaron Ross

The Seven Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler

The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig

Business Without Bosses by Charles Manz & Henry Sims

The Modern Firm by John Roberts

Making Things Work: Solving Complex Problems by Yaneer Bar-Yam

The Machine that Changed the World by James Womack

Joy at Work by Dennis Bakke

Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove

Open Book Management by John Case

So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

The Future of Management by Gary Hamel and Bill Breen

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith

Design

Everyone should read Donald Norman, it will make you look at the world differently and become more frustrated with door handles.

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman

Designing for Emotion by Aaron Walter

History & Biography

I loved every history book I read this year. Stephen Clarke taught me something new about England’s relations with France when I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the rosbif-frog rivalry. The Swerve was a nice introduction to Lucretius and just how wonderful the ancient world was. A World on Fire was a wonderfully different perspective on the civil war and Crisis in Bethlehem shed new light on a town I spend a lot of time in these days. Finally David Bodanis tells the wonderful story of Emilie du Chatelet and Voltaire with aplomb: a must for any woman struggling in a male-dominated scientific establishment.

1000 Years of Annoying the French by Stephen Clarke

The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

The Art of War by Sun Tzu (Baron de Jomini version)

A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War by Amanda Foreman

Crisis in Bethlehem by John Strohmeyer

Life of Marcus Cato the Elder by Plutarch

Passionate Minds: Emilie du Chatelet, Voltaire and the Great Love Affair of the Enlightenment by David Bodanis

Philosophy/Religion

My interest in stoicism led me to explore Zen buddhism, Taoism and Shinto this year and I was fascinated by the parallels between Zen and Stoicism in particular. Alan Watts was a fantastic introduction to Zen and a superb writer and Seneca was a great compass to follow.

Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories by Adam Phillips

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery and Enlightenment by Kenneth Kushner

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

The Spirit of Zen by Alan Watts

What is Zen? by Alan Watts

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryo Suzuki

Shinto: the Kami Way by Sokyo Ono

Science

Astrophysics blew my mind this year and Neil DeGrasse Tyson was my dealer of choice. If you ever truly want to feel in awe of our universe, you should read his books. I also continued my interest in Ant and Bee colony development and found the Superorganism tough going but rewarding.

Death by Black Hole by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution by Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith

The Higgs Discovery by Lisa Randall

The Superorganism by E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley

Psychology/Sociology/The Internets

Thinking Fast and Slow had a huge impact in making me rethink the way in which I make decisions and how I can better engage my System 2 thinking. Taleb was at his grumpy best and Johnson is always thoughtful and diverting.

Too Big to Know by David Weinberger

Emergence by Steven Johnson

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemen

The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris

Fooled by Randomness by Nicholas Nassim Taleb

The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs

Miscellaneous

I’ve been a Hitchens fan for years but it’s only when I read his collected essays that I realised the sheer breadth of his learning and intellect. What a tragic loss.

Out of our Minds: Learning to be Creative by Ken Robinson

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

The Art of Being Unreasonable by Eli Broad

When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

 

2011 in Books

In 2011, 41 books taught, challenged and entertained me (down from 43 in 2010, a worrying trend). This was how it played out.

Philsophy

Straw dogs by John Gray
The Enchiridion by Epictetus
The Writings of Musonius Rufus translated by Cynthia King

Straw Dogs was recommended to me by a close friend and it was a book I promptly disagreed with. Its central thesis was that man was still a slave to animal passions and thus, still ruled by violence, had not advanced in any way. I contrast that with the world I see in which slowly, painfully we have consistently enlarged our circle of care from family to tribe to include those who would have once been persecuted for beliefs and practices foreign to ourselves. It is imperfect and unevenly distributed, but, particularly if you read Orlando Figes on the casual brutality of pre-revolution Russian peasantry, that any part of the world we live in today is utterly different to that horror says something about our ability to progress.

Epictetus and Musonius Rufus have had more effect on me than any other writers I think I have ever read. Their outline of stoicism is something I had begun to delve into last year and now consider to be core principles to abide by. As with all philosophy, one should not just put on the full mantle of stoicism without questioning or challenging its parts (and some parts do invite challenge), but as a pathway to a more honourable, happier life it has been supremely valuable. I’d recommend William Irvine’s a Guide to the Good Life as a great introduction to stoicism.

Strategy

Competitive Strategy by Michael Porter
Good, Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
The Strategy Paradox by Michael Raynor

Michael Porter’s classic is incredibly dense with useful information and perspective, so much so that it can occasionally become a challenging read. It’s hugely important for understanding the importance of where you are in your industry with regard to its evolution and your competitors. One of the most enlightening and refreshing concepts was that strategy within an industry is often ideally about making moves that do not have a negative impact on your competitors; negative impacts = retaliation = diminishing margins. Porter’s work also ties nicely in with my stoic reading as his exhortation that the key to every company is that it live in harmony with its industry and environment is almost word for word the mantra of stoicism that man should live in accordance with nature.

In contrast to Porter’s heavy prose, Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy is beautifully written and accessible. It is also iconoclastic and brilliant. Rumelt dismisses most companies mission statements and vision as just so much indistinguishable blather; instead he asks that we focus on the kernel of good strategy: diagnosis of the environment, development of guiding principles and a coherent set of actions that spring from these principles. Michael Raynor’s Strategy Paradox is fascinating, particularly for its placement of uncertainty at the core of managing strategy. He points out that those strategies with the greatest profit potential exist at the edges of the cost leadership-product differentiation continuum. These same strategies are also those most vulnerable to uncertainty and disaster. If his formulations for overcoming this seem less concrete than his diagnosis, it merely exemplifies the seriousness of the challenge.

Sales

SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham
The Leaky Funnel by Hugh Marcfarlane
Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma way by Michael Webb

Rackham’s classic is one of the few sales books based on actual data rather than personal anecdote. It draws upon data gathered from 35,000 sales people to piece together the components of successful sales. It’s dismissive of the aggressive close techniques taught elsewhere and I’ve made it required reading for my sales team. The Leaky Funnel takes a ‘business book as novel’ approach to teach its message. It’s interesting in the way it focuses on the connection of sales to the rest of the business entity and is a fast read.

Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way is interested in sales in a far more macro fashion than SPIN selling and as such is a useful complement. It was the book that helped me to better understand the function of marketing and how much of successful sales is structural rather than based upon personal ability.

History

Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
Skunkworks by Ben Rich
Gotham: a History of NYC to 1898 by Mike Wallace
Where Good ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Rich’s Skunkworks both delve into the history of innovation; Johnson looking at the factors that come together behind innovative advances and Rich giving a detailed history of his time leading the original Skunkworks at Lockheed. However, the beasts that blew me away this year were Gotham and Lies my teacher told me. Be warned Gotham is gigantic, but as a book that constantly surprised and taught me about my adopted city it is highly recommended to every New Yorker. Whenever I think that the pace of startups is frenetic, I can reflect on just how recent so much of New York is and the incredible pace with which it was built would put almost every modern entrepreneur to shame.

Lies my teacher told me takes aim at the way school textbooks have burnished lesser men into heroes and fudged facts in order to get the nod from partisan school boards. Among other things, it outlines the atrocities of Christopher Columbus and the veil that has been drawn for so many over the origins of the civil war (yes, it was principally about slavery, not states rights). Give it to your children and watch them lay down some knowledge on their high-school history teachers.

Management and Organisation

High Output Management by Andy Grove
The Goal: A Process of ongoing improvement by Eli Goldratt
The Fractal Organisation by Patrick Hoverstadt
The Balanced Scorecard by Robert Kaplan

High Output Management is a great practical read for management at all levels. It lays into the problem of co-ordination between departments while ensuring knowledgeable management and makes a good case for a matrix reporting structure within organisations. It also doles out advice on people management that I have found helpful over the last year. The Goal is, like the Leaky Funnel, a business book written as a novel and succeeds well in its mission. It focuses on the Theory of Constraints and condenses the problem of businesses down to Throughput, Inventory and Operational expense. It’s obviously aimed at bricks and mortar industry but I found the lessons valuable for my own more ephemeral business.

The Balanced Scorecard was a whitepaper with 200 too many pages in it, though maybe my harsh judgement comes from the fact that its focus is on far larger businesses than I am involved with. I had high hopes for the Fractal Organisation that were immediately tarnished by the churlish tone the author adopted in his introduction, however looking beyond that there were good nuggets of information around the problems that organisations find when facing the need to adapt to environments of greater and greater complexity.

(Auto)Biography

Scott’s Last Expedition: Journal by Robert Falcon Scott
Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Adland by James Othmer

The debate over Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic still rages, and I’ve read my fair share of the combatants around this, but nothing gave me the same insight as Scott’s own words. His passion for science and his essential humanity burn through and his last words to his family are choking. Johnson’s Big Dead Place gives the alternate view of Antarctica: that of the life of modern day base workers. It’s a highly engaging book that suggests that whatever scientific purpose is proclaimed by the Antarctic authorities, it is stifling bureaucracy (and alcohol) that rules in the south.

The Steve Jobs biography has been dissected by others and we don’t need another one here. Othmer’s Adland was not quite what I expected and thus I got the sense I was reading it for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless it is an engaging look at one man’s journey through the advertising world; here be dragons.

Fiction

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Snuff by Terry Pratchett
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connolly
The Drop by Michael Connolly
11/22/63 by Stephen King

Lord of Light is a classic fantasy I return to at least once a year, and I am fooled into believing I know more about hinduism than I really do every time. What comes through Michael Connolly’s books is his expert grasp of the minutiae of his subjects; this is a guy who knows the LA crime beat. I read the entire Hunger Games Trilogy in one evening, which testifies to its popcorn readability; it was fascinating to see how Collins had brought together utterly disparate worlds with ease (think Project Runway meets Deliverance). Snuff was, as always with Pratchett, a diverting read but not up to par with some of his other discworld novels and 11/22/63 was both a fascinating meditation on time travel and paean to the late 50s and a simpler time.

I finished the year on Skinnny Legs and All by Tom Robbins and it was the best work of fiction I read all year. A fascinating look at art, the divine Goddess and the Middle East conflict.

Startups

Lessons Learned by Eric Ries
Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson

Lessons learned is a compendium of Eric Ries’ blog posts and is full of useful lessons that are probably more ably organised in his latest book. Venture Deals is a useful primer, but if you’re interested in this kind of stuff I would highly recommend The Entrepreneurs Guide to Business Law by Bagley and Dauchy as a more comprehensive read.

Miscellany

Liars Poker by Michael Lewis
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan
Naval Miscellany by Angus Konstam
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
A Geography of Time by Robert Levine
Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown
Talent is overrated by Geoff Colvin
Everything is Obvious (once you know the answer) by Duncan Watts

I won’t go into detail here about all of these. Everything is Obvious was a fascinating look at how we deal with information and The Hero with a Thousand Faces drew some fascinating parallels around our various myths and legends. Michael Lewis is always good value and my wife swears that she keeps me in line with the lessons from Cesar Millan’s books.

 

Looking at these books it feels like this year was dominated by me trying to understand my business better and myself better. I hope I can put what I’ve learned here effectively into practice.

The Problem of Prediction

Here’s a talk I gave at the Mashable Media Summit recently where I attempt to argue that everything you need to know about the real-time web you can learn from a Japanese automotive engineer who was born in 1912 and never saw a web page.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ulKRB9572Y[/youtube]

Four things I learned on a round-the-world yacht race

11 years ago this month, I stepped aboard a 72-foot racing cutter affectionately called The Good Ship Logica and began a 10-month round the world yacht race, the only one to go around the world against the currents and prevailing winds. Below deck, I was the geek, making sure the satellite could broadcast despite 90ft waves blocking line of sight; above deck I was the Bowman, standing at the pointy end and getting the shit kicked out of me by walls of water as our team struggled to take down huge sails that the wind wanted to keep up.

Today I learned that someone mishandled a crane in Portsmouth during a routine maneuver and dropped Logica, effectively killing it. This was the boat that I learned to trust to keep me safe through hurricanes, lightning strikes and the worst the Southern Ocean had to offer. It was the boat that I cursed every time a rampant wave picked me up and tossed me down the deck like a rag doll, slamming me into rigging and stanchions. It was the boat in whose bowels I spent cold hours pumping water into buckets after the electric pump failed, the boat that taught me how to sleep on a rollercoaster while a generator roared next to my head, the boat I loved, heart and soul.  Now she’s gone.

So today I’ve been thinking about the lessons she taught me.

The opposite of fear is not bravery, it’s initiative

When my first hurricane at sea hit, it came out of nowhere. I was delivering a boat (the older, smaller sister of Logica) across the Atlantic from Plymouth to Boston. The boom swung across the deck with such ferocity that it ripped the pulley system that controlled it out of the deck and flung it out to sea; the third wave took the heavily bolted down compass and consigned that to the ocean. Our skipper was up on deck so fast it seemed incredible that he had just been asleep and, screaming above the waves, he got us working to try to bring down the mainsail and control the wayward boom. Our boat was so far over on its side that the mast was dipping into the ocean and water was starting to drag the mainsail and the boat further down into the lifeless grey. I don’t remember being frightened, at least not in the way I had always thought about fear; traditional fear involves some prediction of a future you would rather avoid. At this point, I couldn’t begin to think about a future at all. I just remember feeling utterly drained of initiative. I would do whatever anyone asked me to do, but I was utterly unable to think or to act for myself.

I brooded over that night for months afterwards, dwelling on my own inadequate response when faced with a true crisis. I knew I was due to set out on a round-the-world yacht race the next year and was terrified that I didn’t have what it takes, that I would let down my team when it mattered most.

In October 2000, my skipper came below decks and asked us if we had ever seen the Perfect Storm (It had occurred on the Grand Banks near our position at the time). “Yeah, three storms converging on the Flemish Cap” replied Adam, the bowman on the other watch. “We’re in luck” the skipper replied, “we’ve only got two storms converging on us”. We watched the scarlet dawn rising and remarked upon the sailors motto ‘red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, we’re fucked’.

We had more warning this time, but the hurricane still hit with a vengeance. There’s something about the sea when the wind gets above 70 knots of breeze (80mph), it becomes gunmetal grey, as if not even colour could live in these conditions. Our bow team struggled up to the foredeck to take down the headsails and put up our storm staysail. Orange and bulletproof, we needed it up if we were going to be able to steer a course through this storm at all. This was the moment I had thought about for years, but for some reason I was not the same man who had been so useless on that previous voyage. I was able to think, to act on my own initiative and help my team to survive. It was a revelation and gave me hope that the ability to lead in a crisis was not inbuilt from birth but could be learned, that I could become better. The lesson I took from this is that bravery is a term applied retroactively, after the work has been done and the danger has passed. In a situation that engenders fear and terror, don’t ask yourself to be brave; simply ask yourself to act. The bravery comes later.

Finding fault is a luxury best saved for tomorrow

My first day of training on the yacht and I’d already managed to break something. A sail was tumbling down and the boat was losing speed. The first mate darted across the boat to find out what had happened and I started in on a long and rambling tale of the series of unfortunate events which had, through no fault of my own, caused the damage we were looking at right now. I was barely three sentences in, when the mate interrupted me: “I don’t give a crap whose fault it was, I just need to know what to fix”.

The words hit me like a sledgehammer, my concern had been with my perceived reputation and standing as a competent crewman, his concern was simply that the boat wasn’t working right and yet it needed to be. Identifying the incompetent culprit responsible or working out the precise series of events leading us to here were luxuries that could wait for another time because right now the boat needed to be fixed before we lost too much speed and time. If I was ever going to truly pull my weight with the crew, I would have to learn to be ok with people potentially thinking the worst of me or ascribing failures to me that were not directly my own fault, what mattered was keeping the boat moving. I find thinking of that day instructive when facing a board meeting, finding fault or assigning blame is an idle luxury, what matters is keeping the company moving.

Do your thinking before the crisis

We were deep in the Southern Ocean, one of the nastiest environments on earth and three of us were sitting on the windward side of the deck (the high side) with little to do but endure the waves crashing over us and make sure the helmsman didn’t get hurt. Our skipper came up on deck to take a look around and spotted a trailing rope on the leeward side that he wanted to tidy. He made his way down to where the deck was skimming the water and began to bring in the rope when a rogue wave took him by surprise and knocked him down the deck. All three of us leaped forward to grab him before he was washed overboard, but two of us were stopped short by our safety lines like a dog reaching the limits of its leash.

Only Glyn, had the presence of mind to first unhook his safety line get across to the other side, reattach and reach our skipper before it was too late. While I and my team-mate had been sitting there grumpily bearing the waves and wishing we were elsewhere, Glyn had been running through scenarios in his head and working out potential plans of action should any of them occur. He knew that there isn’t necessarily time in a crisis to stop, assess the best course of action and then enact it, so you have to do your thinking beforehand. Be constantly working through ‘what if?’ scenarios so that your brain has the advantage when an accident happens and you are not left flailing helplessly at the end of a line watching someone get washed away.

Leave it on the Last Wave

Our round the world yacht race involved putting 18 people in a tin can, plunging it in salt water and shaking it violently for 10 months. People hallucinate through lack of sleep, the unconscious tapping of teeth can provoke a knife fight (which occurred on another yacht in a previous race) and one simply can’t avoid someone if you have an argument. The only way for your team to mentally survive in that kind of environment is to embody the motto of ‘Leave it on the last wave’. The argument you had during a sail change? That happened on a wave way in the distant, leave it out there where it belongs. The time you almost came to blows with a team mate over something so minor you both can’t remember, leave it on the wave where it started because the wind has changed and there are new sails to be put up and a new course to take advantage of. The lesson on a boat is clear, you can either let go of slights or negative emotions or you can damn near kill someone. There’s not much wiggle room in between.

These are some of the gifts that Logica gave me, my friends have often remarked upon how the person who joined the race in September 2000 was utterly different from the man who left it in July of 2001. I miss my boat, I miss my team and I will always treasure what I learned on her deck.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXuzy0k9mZQ[/youtube]

 

The right way for a recruiter to cold email

I’m in the unusual position of constantly looking for talent (chartbeat is hiring!) and yet hating to receive emails from recruiters. These are professionals who potentially have what I want, so much so that I’m willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for their services and yet their emails are just as likely to end up in my spam folder as anything else. This is because most recruiters make fundamental mistakes in the cold email:

Don’t tell me about your company, solve a problem I have

Most recruiter emails seem to belong to the spray and pray variety. Standard format is:

“Hi Tony, Just checking to see if you have any positions that need filling. RecruitersRus is a national IT consulting firm that recruits candidates and consultants for contract, contract-to-hire, and permanent, full-time positions. In addition to all the resources and tools our team of 25 recruiters has access to, we have an internal database of over 2 million resumes that we have accumulated over the 13+ years we have been in business.”

What is frustrating about this is that the question posed in this email is redundant. You don’t need to ask me if I’m trying to fill positions, it’s right up there on my jobs page! I don’t care if you have 2 million resumes on file, I care about whether you have the right person for me. You had ample opportunity to prove your value and begin a relationship but instead I got a standard email about how great you are. DNW.

In contrast, the recruiter that I’ve been working most with over the last three months didn’t cold email me with a description of his business and how great they are. In fact their company name is kinda tacky and I might have ignored it. Instead he looked at the jobs I had open and in his first email sent me a resume for someone who was (gasp) actually relevant. He didn’t try to get me to sign a contract before he had proved his value, he sent me resumes without a deal in place, knowing that there was nothing stopping me from finding the guy and cutting him out of the process. That kind of trust in his abilities and my ethics makes a huge difference and I appreciated it. As a result he’s on course to make more than 50,000 dollars from me in the first half of this year.

So recruiters, when trying to approach a company you don’t have a relationship with:

- Prove your value don’t pimp yourself. Show me you can find the right person for the job I need to fill in that first email. Send me a resume or help me in some way.

- If you’re good I’ll want a continuing relationship with you so don’t just push me to sign your contract before you’ve found me someone I think could be good.

- Don’t tell me that if a person has been doing pure Rails for the last five years but mentions C in their resume because they covered it in school that they are a ‘strong’ candidate for my Senior C developer position. It makes me think you’re an idiot.

Thank you!

Why Alfred is the best Launcher I’ve used

I’ve long been a fan of replacing Mac OSX’s Spotlight with other launchers, starting with QuickSilver and then moving to Launchbar when Quicksilver started to go downhill. A while ago, Joe Stump introduced me to Alfred and I downloaded it but didn’t get round to playing with it. Now I have and can say this is the best launcher I’ve ever used. Aside from opening applications and doing all the things you would expect, here’s a couple of other things I do with Alfred

Search LinkedIn, Salesforce, Twitter and Zendesk.

This saves me a ton of time, I don’t have to go to the browser, navigate to the correct page, mouse to the search box and type in my query there. I can simply type ‘linked John Smith’ or ‘sales New York Times’ for a browser window to instantly appear with my results. This is done using the Custom Search option in Alfred’s preferences, here are the custom searches I’ve created for LinkedIn, Salesforce and Twitter:

  • http://www.linkedin.com/commonSearch?type=people&keywords={query}&pplSearchOrigin=GLHD&pageKey=nmp-home&search=Search
  • https://na7.salesforce.com/_ui/common/search/client/ui/UnifiedSearchResults?searchType=2&str={query}&cache=gj36qyva
  • http://search.twitter.com/search?q={query}

Btw, I also use Custom Searches like this to work with chartbeat’s internal admin system. It’s this understanding that there shouldn’t be a divide between what is stored on your computer and what is accessible online that makes Alfred so powerful.

Tweet.

I use and love Tweetdeck (particularly the Chromedeck version) but the only issue can be the time it takes to load when I want to dash off a quick tweet. With Alfred I can set up certain actions within applications like Twitter for Mac so now I just type ‘tweet This tweet was created by Alfred’ and it automatically creates the tweet for me to send.

  • twitter://post?message={query}

I’m looking forward to exploring just what else I can do within applications using Alfred.

There’s a ton of other things you can do within Alfred that they explain far better than I, from emailing, copying or deleting files to playing music to navigating the file system. I highly recommend you go to the site, pay for the performance pack and see just what you can do with Alfred!

2010 in Books

These are the books that kept me company and taught me in 2010:

Business

  • Four Steps to the Epiphany: Steve Blank
  • The Checklist Manifesto: Atul Garawande
  • The Innovators Dilemma: Clayton Christensen
  • The Innovators Solution: Clayton Christensen
  • Positioning: Al Ries
  • Lean Thinking: James Womack/Daniel Jones
  • Perfect Pitch: Jon Steel
  • Complete Guide to Accelerating Sales Force Performance: Andris Zoltners/Prabhakant Sinha
  • Principles of Product Development Flow: Donald Reinertsen
  • Hacking Work: Josh Klein
  • The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Al Ries

If I’d only read one of these books it would be Steve Blank’s, though the books I found myself quoting most were Clayton Christensen’s. Lean Thinking was one of my honeymoon books and got me thinking about my business in a totally different way. Perfect Pitch confirmed all my biases against powerpoint.

Design

  • The Art of Game Design: Jesse Schell
  • The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Alan Cooper
  • Serious Play: Michael Schrage

Jesse Schell taught me about the importance of balancing game mechanics; Alan Cooper’s book was great in many ways but also showed its age in a world of agile methodologies.

History

  • The Ascent of Money: Niall Ferguson
  • Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia: Michael Korda
  • Team of Rivals: Doris Kearns Goodwin

Team of Rivals was another awesome Honeymoon book that gave me some insight into how to manage a team, Michael Korda’s Lawrence of Arabia biography shone a largely uncritical light on Lawrence but was a comprehensive account of his life and achievements.

Fiction

  • The Count of Monte Cristo: Alexander Dumas
  • The Broken Window: Jeffrey Deaver
  • Unseen Academicals: Terry Prathchett
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larssen
  • The Girl Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larssen
  • The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest: Stieg Larssen
  • The Burning Wire: Jeffrey Deaver
  • Breakfast of Champions: Kurt Vonnegut
  • Siddhartha: Herman Hesse
  • The Diamond Age: Neal Stephenson
  • Juliet, Naked: Nick Hornby
  • A Man in Full: Tom Wolfe

Stieg Larrsen’s series were read over the course of four days so I think I must have liked them a lot, but the best fiction books for me were The Diamond Age and A Man in Full (part of my minor stoic obsession).

Philosophy/Psychology/Religion

  • A Guide to the Good life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy: William Irvine
  • Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot: James Stockdale
  • Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • The Evolution of God: Robert Wright

Irvine provided a great intro to stoicism, while the Evolution of God put our beliefs in their proper historical framework. Flow is simply amazing for anyone wanting to understand how to get things done and be happy doing it.

Science

  • E=MC2: David Bodanis
  • Electric Universe: David Bodanis
  • Physics for Future Presidents: Richard A Muller
  • The Grand Design: Stephen Hawking
  • Bursts: Alberto Lazlo Barbasi

E=MC2 and Physics for Future Presidents were the clear winners here. Bursts was intermittently interesting but spoiled by the shoehorning of pointless narrative. Hawking blew my mind but I started to understand less as the book went on.

Apocrypha

  • The Intellectual Devotional: David Kidder
  • Amusing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman
  • Becoming a Writer: Dorothea Brande
  • The Black Swan: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • I live in the Future: Nick Bilton

Amusing ourselves to Death kicked off my year totally changing my position on how we build for the Internet and what it means. The Black Swan provided great material for a future talk. The Intellectual Devotional is the best bathroom book out there and I learned from Nick Bilton that I apparently live in the Future too.

Why I listen to Country

There’s no reason on earth why I should listen to country music. I’m British, grew up in London and live in New York. I dislike music that panders to god or shallow patriotism and country music often does that in the same sentence. It frustrates me when people make a virtue of ignorance (‘a little bit backwards here in the back woods, who cares as long as it feels good’), and a constant harking back to the ‘good ole days’ suggests a strong antipathy towards progress that sits uncomfortably with the tech entrepreneur side of me.

But I love country. And not just the old-timey blue-grass country that might win me some level of acceptance among my New York hipster friends but full-on Sugarland, Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert country. And I find myself echoing the cries of my co-workers when they’ve come in early in the morning to finger-picking guitar and words pronounced with more vowels than they contain and ask myself ‘why, Tony why?’

I think there are two reasons. In country music, when they aren’t talking about a ‘hottie with a smoking little body’ they often deal with themes not so much of young love but of long-term partnerships, a subject that has been much on my mind over the last year or two. There’s far greater reference to love being about building a life together with all the difficulty and decisions that requires than the emotion-dependence of some other genres. Here’s a verse from Terri Clark’s ‘I Just Wanna be Mad’:

Last night we went to bed not talking
Cause we already said to much
I face the wall you faced the window
Bound and determined not to touch

We’ve been married 7 years now
Some days it feels like 21
I’m still mad at you this morning
Coffee’s ready if you want some

I love that last line for everything that it says about long-term relationships, the acknowledgement that no matter how angry or hurt she might be, she’s in it for the long haul and she acknowledges what that entails.

The second reason is far more personal. Country Music is probably the only major musical genre that I had almost no exposure to until recently. I’d never listened to a country song until I met a Pennsylvania girl who, despite my complaints, would play it constantly. I subsequently moved in with that girl and recently, in a triumph of persuasion over her better judgement, married her.

She introduced me to country, and without her I have no frame of reference for the music. Whenever I hear country, I don’t have a thousand different memories of people or places from my past competing in my mind, I only have her. Every country song is our song, because they are all indelibly associated with her. Every time some guy in an over-sized hat sings about love, or family, or a life together, to me he is singing about her, about us. When we’re apart, I can conjure her through my iPod and feel joy, when a country song comes on in a shop I am immediately reminded of her and how truly inexplicably lucky I am to have found the woman who is now my wife and my life. That, more than anything, is why I listen to country.

On manhood, rain and umbrellas

One of the few consistently thought-provoking and enjoyable reads I have each week is Kortina’s weekly newsletter. This week he remarked on the English contingent of our office’s habit of not using umbrellas. In Betaworks, it serves as a clear demarcation between American men who find it incomprehensible to venture into the rain without protection and British men who often turn up looking a little bedraggled but defiant.

I found myself musing on this and wondering where such a distaste for a palpably useful tool came from. Maybe it’s a reaction to a previous generation of bowler-hatted umbrella-toting men that may or may not have existed but should certainly be resisted. However, I think it comes down to something more basic than that, it comes down to environments.

An umbrella is an attempt to create our own controlled environment in the middle of a situation over which we have no control. We don’t try to live within our world, to embrace its unpredictability but instead slide the lock up to the apex and stay safe within an area we control. It’s the can’t-live-without-aircon, mod-con, everything’s-deliverable world in miniature.

One sees the same thing when seeing those used to an umbrella caught out in the rain without one. Their shoulders will hunch, their neck will subside into their body and they look down towards the ground hurrying towards anything that promises respite, enduring each raindrop as a personal affront to their wellbeing and sense of place.

One of the wonderful lessons I learned from my round-the-world yacht race was that (when getting wet was inevitable) one could either make a feeble attempt to hunch away from the rain and hate every minute of the torrent, or one could embrace it and take the rain as a moment to be enjoyed. Now when I find myself battling against the rain for a moment, I remember those days and straighten my shoulders, bring my head up and slow my pace. I enjoy an environment I did not create and cannot control and it usually brings a smile to my face that seems absent from the commuters hurrying by. Next time it’s raining , just try it; you might not think those umbrella-less Brits are so crazy after all.

In the beginning: the Logos and the Church

When stuck in a conversation with a fundamentalist who believes in the literal truth of the bible, it can occasionally be instructional to point out that there are actually more disputed versions of the bible than there are words in the bible. This is hardly unsurprising, given the multitude of different often conflicting sources that had to be massaged into a coherent narrative, the push and pull of different groups within the early church who when creating a new copy would adapt the text to reflect what they believed Jesus ‘really’ meant and in doing so bolster the position of their sect in relation to others; and finally the natural errors that are so visible in the children’s game of Telephone when information is repeatedly imperfectly passed on.

What’s interesting to me in all this is the potential for these often minute changes in translation to have sent Christianity down very different paths than those it currently follows. Of these the most fascinating is the phrase that opens the gospel of John:

In the beginning was the word. And the word was god.

This has often been used to argue that the word of god (the bible) is indivisible from God itself and thus forms the basis of fundamentalist’s literal interpretations. However, in the original text the (greek) word used is logos:

In the beginning was the Logos. and the Logos was god.

This gets interesting, because while ‘word’ was certainly a possible translation of Logos, it was by no means the most common. In fact much had already been said about the nature of the Logos. The most common way to define it in Greek thought was as some kind of overarching reason; possibly usefully described as directions for a computer program of sorts. We had a certain free will as agents within the bounds of that program but were unable to breach it.

In the beginning was the program. And the program was god.

This program or ultimate rationality not only governed the physical world but was also a part of us, replicated within the structures of our brain defining our behaviour and morality.

What is truly fascinating about the different path for the Church that a more nuanced understanding of this one word might have meant is that it potentially resolves so much of the conflict between religion and science.

The problem of the Bible being unreliable and at times in complete contradiction to established fact is no longer an issue as the anthropomorphic God and his unchanging Holy book fade from view and are instead replaced with what might be first manifested as the Physical Laws of the Universe. Thermodynamics, relativity, motion: all laws that govern our lives and are, as far as we know, unbreakable. This means that Physicists search for the underpinning laws of the Universe becomes a search to better understand the nature of God.

There is also no need for scientists to discard or contradict the idea that this Logos is imprinted in ourselves too, defining our behaviour and morality. It has been repeatedly shown that morality does not principally come from us being read stories from a holy book as young children but from thousands of generations of evolution in which the actions we call moral today are simply those that made us more successful as survivors. Physical laws defined our world, moral imperatives evolved as the most effective pathway to survival within those boundaries.

Robert Wright talks about much of this far more eloquently than I in his ‘Evolution of God’ and the key point he makes is that as a result of the Logos we have been living within over time we have continuously been exposed to more and more beings in which applying those moral imperatives aids our success and survival. First ourselves, then our family, then our tribe, then our country, then our species, then even other species (vegetarians of the world unite!). Our moral circle is slowly widening over time to embrace more and more diversity.

Think of the church we would have had if they had embraced that definition of the Logos. A church not just in tune with science but proselytising it, a church that believed its mission was to accelerate the expansion of our moral circle and thus embrace equal rights and tolerance rather than quash them. That’s the kind of church that I might join.

(Some great books on this in addition to Wright’s include: Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker and the very long but utterly incredible How to Read the Bible by James Kugel)

How Streams might be killing our culture and Haiti might save it

In ‘Amusing ourselves to Death’ Neil Postman wrote one of the great books necessary to understand the internet. All the more impressive a feat because he wrote it in 1985. His work foreshadows emergent problems as the web begins to define its language and our culture for the first time, and just possibly points to the seeds of a salvageable future.

Postman wrote that the early 20th century brought forth two competing visions of the future: Orwell’s 1984, in which we are oppressed by a totalitarian regime and Huxley’s Brave New World in which our fascination with personal amusement means that we choose to oppress ourselves. Orwell’s dystopian vision was dying even by 1985, a year past its sell-by date and mere moments before glasnost. Huxley’s vision however, seemed only to have become more real.

Postman premise was  was that technological advances within media do more than give us new tools for the expression of our culture, they mediate it, changing not just what we think about but how we think at all.

The printing press ushered in a typographical epistemology; when thinking and creating we did so through the construct of the printing press. One of the elements of this construct was the sheer amount of information that could be imparted through print, it lent itself to volume. With volume came nuance and argument, challenge and careful refutation. Our minds were shaped through this typographical prism and it affected the entire culture even beyond the printed page. As I have noted before, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were seven hours long in which a crowd would be expected to follow an intricately constructed argument on a single point for hours at a time. Early novels were happily gargantuan (which author would even attempt to equal Richardson’s Clarissa now?). This is not to say that every work was one of volume (this was also the age of pamphleteers), but that the principal technology through which we expressed our culture also defined our ability to think within our culture. The technology was suited to expressing depth, and thus our culture reflected it.

The second aspect of this culture was that it was, in general, geographically limited. News was truly local, and as a result often actionable. The news they read had an intrinsic effect upon people’s lives. This is important; the news was something that was used as a guide to action, it had a purpose. This meant that the press were held to a certain standard of utility.

This largely changed with the next great technological epoch, the invention of the telegraph and photograph. The telegraph ushered in an incredible transition in our culture, news organisations raced to be the first to have the telegraph from Washington to New York and then across the country. Our media was no longer limited by geography, recency became prized over actionable information. An earthquake in California, or flood in New Orleans was now news that the people of brooklyn might expect and demand to read, but it was no longer information that they could do anything about. News was divorced from action and now flirting with entertainment.

The photograph intensified this transition, no longer was the printed word the principal carrier of our culture, it had been superseded by the image. And it turns out that a picture is worth far less than a thousand words, it merely paints a portrait from one man’s vantage point that brooks no contest or refutation. The media we received had ceased to be actionable and had become entertaining, it had ceased to be nuanced and open to challenge; it had become a statement of unalterable fact: a picture never lies.

Postman believed this reached its apotheosis with television. Television demanded that everything be entertainment, no action required but to consume. What’s more, that technology mediated towards brevity. A 30 minute newscast on average contains less words than a single newspaper column. This meant that only the most simple concepts could be delivered and it changed everything.

It was from the television preachers that we saw the rise of a fundamentalist christianity that preached that every single word of the bible was literal and true, no other message would have survived and thrived in minds built by television. Education, which had previously been supposed to have been a challenge to the intellect was now judged on how entertaining the teacher or materials might be. Instead of seven-hour debates we saw in the last election an endless stream of 30 second soundbites masquerading as debates. No thought too small, no challenge beyond the flat denial or wisecrack. Television had (and has) defined us, and we sit staring at Huxley’s Brave New World.

Postman never got the chance to see the Internet flower, and he might have thought the future he saw confounded. When the Internet was young, poor connection speeds and the sub-culture from which it was born meant that typography seemed to rule the day again. The language used to define how we interacted with this new medium were lifted from that typographical era, we ‘browsed’ ‘pages’ our default home was often index.htm. A medium in search of itself drew upon the metaphors of the past and sustained itself.

As if reliving history, the image and then television encroached upon this new typographical world and overtook it, but these were still in large part borrowed concepts adapting to a new environment instead of being created by it. The first change in epistemology that has truly been born out of this new technological change is the stream. It has no ubiquitous analogue within our former culture. Fragments of information, often unrelated flowing past in a vast ungraspable river of information into which we dip. Information has become an ambient part of our awareness, rather than a point of focus.

This new change might have made Postman fear ever more greatly for the future he left to us. We are not even given the luxury of a story beyond the headline; recency becomes not just the most important thing, it becomes the only thing; we know 140 characters about everything but have trouble reading a post as long as this one. Yes the stream brings each of these fragments together, but a thousand competing headlines do not equal a carefully constructed argument. Yes, the stream contains links that bring the reader to longer texts, but the impact of the stream on our culture means that our ability to delve to even this depth. We look in awe to those normal people who could sit through a seven-hour lecture 150 years ago, but I wonder whether the stream means that future generations will look in awe upon even our meagre efforts to focus on depth.

Just as with television we have less and less time with which to hold attention and get our point across, and thus must naturally lean towards emotion and away from intellect as the most effective and loyal respondent. Could streams give birth to the same level of intellectual enlightenment as the printing press? It seems more that we are exchanging being enlightened for being informed.

However, there is something here that makes the future seem brighter and the earthquake in Haiti in part points to this. The telegraph took away our proximity to news and our ability to act upon it, but the Internet of streams may yet bring it back. Geography no longer precludes our ability to act and the fragments of news we receive may engender micro actions and it is there, far more than in the stream, where the cumulative effect can mean something. The Haitian earthquake is potentially no longer something of interest primarily as entertainment, but is once again news that I can act on. As the web brings forward new ways for people to collaborate through micro-actions, such as kickstarter or If we ran the world it has the potential for each of us to make the news more than morbid entertainment, but a tool for action again. If we can nurture that crucial link and make those actions more implicit to how we interact with the web then over time we might just regain what was lost.

Observing the tech sabbath and running manhattan: my 2010 resolutions

After reading Kortina’s great list of his resolutions, I was challenged to do my own. I’ve never really been serious about resolutions before, they were always spouted half-heartedly and swiftly discarded. This year I wanted to start to really set out some major goals for myself. The intent in this is as much to exclude as to include: becoming proficient at archery and horse-riding are both goals of mine that I have shelved for this year, I want to focus on a few goals and execute them well. So here’s a selection of my resolutions:

Personal

Observe a tech sabbath: At social foo last year, Michael Galpert of Aviary spoke about reconciling his always-on tech role with his life as an observant jew and the process of switching everything off for 24 hours once a week. Ever since, the idea has resonated with me more and more. I’m utterly addicted to the dopamine fix of every tweet, email and foursquare check-in and I think that it’s taking me down a short-attention span path I don’t wish to follow. As a result, I’m going to try and turn off my internet access, close my laptop and leave my phone in a drawer every Sunday. I want to see what it’s like to go for a walk without music, go to a restaurant with only the people who are with me and have serious time for reflection.

Learn the ancient skill of focus: I kicked off this year with Neil Postman’s 1985 book ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death‘, which looks at how the changes from a typographical culture through the telegraph and photograph to television have shaped how we interact and behave. While we’ve certainly gained much from technological advances, we’ve also lost something. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, crowds would sit and listen to two speakers discuss dense and nuanced positions for seven hours. Seven hours. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t think I could do that, but I want to. I want to reduce my often constant flitting from document to email to twitter and back and learn how to focus again. I’m doing this with a simple timer, setting a period of concentration on one item and not letting up until the buzzer goes. Over time I want to extend that concentration so that I could one day sit through the kind of discussion that previous generations thought commonplace.

Improve my memory: The missus has oftentimes pointed to my hazy memory for things she has perfect recollection of, such as meeting, proposing etc. I’m keen to try to improve this and delve into the loci system to see if that can help.

Get married, go on a honeymoon, learn how to dance: and importantly don’t screw any of these things up for the other person with whom I have planned these things.

Physical

The marriage/honeymoon bundle is going to take up a fair amount of time this year and preclude doing too many farflung events. However, I’m keen to:

Run the circumference of Manhattan: This to me seems like something more fun and illuminating than a straight mileage distance. I am often accused of rarely straying from the West Village and I hope this gives me a sense of the parts of Manhattan I rarely see.

Swim two miles/do a century ride/run a marathon: I might not be able to fit in an ironman this year but I want to get back up to the level where I could. Would also love to run the New York marathon as a good pal has assured me it’s the best in the world.

Get back into cross-country skiing: I was lucky enough to get a pair of bomb-proof back-country skis for xmas and I’m keen to get back into it again. New York and Pennsylvania have numerous places where I can really get going and I loved it too much to let it slip.

There’s a few more resolutions related to my professional life and other new projects, but I’ll keep those closer to my chest for now.

The tools I use @betaworks

(Update: The awesome Ted Roden has just drawn my attention to Concentrate.app, which seems definitely worth a test drive.)

There’s a few different applications that really make a difference to my productivity at Betaworks. I thought I would share a few:

Partychat – Turning Gtalk into Yammer

One of the key issues that I’ve come across is a lack of transparency even in small teams. Information can often not find everyone it needs to and sometimes the person with the answer is not the one you might have thought of. I initially used Yammer to try and surface a lot of these conversations, but it was always one more medium of communications to layer on to a team and didn’t seem to gain much traction. Despite the name, Partychat has made a real difference in keeping everyone up to speed. It basically adds group chat functionality to Gtalk (which I use in Adium) and it’s where we have most of our conversations even those that would normally by one-to-one. The advantage here is being able to insert a transparent way of communicating into mediums that people are already using and it’s well worth a try.

Pivotal Tracker

At last years Social Foo, Pivotal Tracker was the tool we all thought was our secret until we realized the others were all using it too. Quite simply, it’s the best tool for managing an agile product development process I’ve found, and it’s free!

Fluid SSB

I use the Fluid Single-Site Browser to turn a lot of web applications into desktop apps. Having Gcal, Mindmeister, Pivotal and Google Docs as separate applications rather than tabs in a browser has made them easier to manage and I’m sure I’m more productive.

Omnifocus & OmniOutliner

Some people prefer the somewhat simpler Things as their To-Do list manager of choice, but I am an omnifocus addict and can’t see myself moving. Omnifocus enables you to manage tasks by project or by context. I make heavy use of omnifocus’s perspectives tool, which enables me to filter through to the most apposite tasks for the day, whether it’s due soon or just tasks that I estimate will take me less than 30 minutes. Also, everyone I work with has their own context so I know exactly what I have to cover with them every time we meet. Take a look at the helpful tutorials on the omnifocus site.

The one issue with omnifocus can be when it starts to become a note-taker rather than task manager. To avoid that I also use OmniOutliner. It’s hierarchical document structure means that I can keep almost all the information on each of the companies in one document. Meeting Notes, product roadmaps, brainstorms, basically everything that is useful information but not an actionable task goes in here.

Notable mentions

1Password: An awesome password and other secure information manager. With one click I can fill in forms on the web and use ultra secure unique passwords without having to worry about remembering them.

Apimac Timer: I use this countdown timer to give myself sprints of productivity. It helps you realize just how much you can get done in the ten minutes before that meeting if you focus.

Skitch: I love this free tool for taking screenshots and marking them up. Absolutely invaluable.

Scrivener and Ommwriter: I’ve used Scrivener for years and it’s a great app for getting real writing done. Full-screen editing and great organisation features. Recently, I’ve also been enjoying Ommwriter as a new and peaceful way to focus on the task at hand.

Let me know what other tools you use.

We’re all connected

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGK84Poeynk[/youtube]

(via Ze Frank)

Hitchens wipes the floor with this guy

I would hate to be on the other side of the debate to this guy.

You gotta love Hitchens sometimes

By Popular Demand

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuoqbXwJ5_Q[/youtube]

Amazing Basejump

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXSdLf9lPiM[/youtube]

via Alastair Humphreys

Josh Porter on Designing for Social Traction

Science meet waterslide

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkwh4ZaxHIA[/youtube]

You don’t want to get the calculations on this wrong…

The best talk at PDF by far

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09gR6VPVrpw[/youtube]

Polyface farm

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxTfQpv8xGA[/youtube]

I’ve got to put this in Haile Manor

[vimeo]http://vimeo.com/5606758[/vimeo]

Put it in HD and full screen. Let it buffer a little first…