My Books of 2017

I managed to get through 38 books this year. Book of the Year was Bertrand Russell’s mammoth History of Western Philosophy, written by one of the few people who could write about Aristotle as a peer. Most inspiring were the Theodore Roosevelt biographies by Edmund Morris, while most absorbing fiction was Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels. Most disappointing was Yuval Hariri’s Homo Deus, after I loved Sapiens. Janna Levin’s book on the search for Gravitational waves was the best science read this year and had me gesticulating wildly in dive bars.


Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War by Robert Coram

“A commander can use this temporal discrepancy (a form of fast transient) to select the least-expected action rather than what is predicted to be the most-effective action. The enemy can also figure out what might be the most effective. To take the least-expected action disorients the enemy. It causes him to pause, to wonder, to question. This means that as the commander compresses his own time, he causes time to be stretched out for his opponent. The enemy falls farther and farther behind in making relevant decisions. It hastens the unraveling process.”

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the court of Nero by James Romm
Allenby, A Study In Greatness by Field-Marshal Earl Wavell
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

Foreign Offices in Britain and Europe worried that their representatives might not be up to the physical hazards of dealing with Theodore Roosevelt. Junior diplomats campaigned for postings to his court on the basis of common youth and strength. The essential qualification was perhaps expressed by Cecil Spring Rice, Roosevelt’s former best man and now a British commissioner in Egypt: “You must always remember that the President is about six.

Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris


HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2017: The Definitive Management Ideas of the Year by The Harvard Business Review
Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy by Sangeet Paul Choudary, Marshall W. Van Alstyne and Geoffrey G. Parker
The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business by Rita Gunther McGrath
HBR’s Must-Reads on Teams by The Harvard Business Review
Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Tonianne DeMaria Barry and Jim Benson
Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio
Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street
An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, Matthew L Miller, Andy Fleming, and Deborah Helsing


The Housekeeper and the Professor: A Novel by Yoko Ogawa
The Sailor who fell from grace with the sea by Yukio Mishima
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
The Raj Quartet: The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
The Sport of Kings: A Novel by C. E. Morgan
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“What am I dying for? he cried back. I’m dying because this world I’m living in isn’t worth dying for! If something is worth dying for, then you’ve got a reason to live.”

“Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity. Not only did Dr. Hedd have a measure of both, he also possessed an English accent, which affected Americans the way a dog whistle stimulated canines. I was immune to the accent, not having been colonized by the English”

When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel Of Obsession by Irvin Yalom


History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

“Pythagoras is one of the most interesting and puzzling men in history. Not only are the traditions concerning him an almost inextricable mixture of truth and falsehood, but even in their barest and least disputable form they present us with a very curious psychology. He may be described, briefly, as a combination of Einstein and Mrs. Eddy. He founded a religion, of which the main tenets were the transmigration of souls and the sinfulness of eating beans.”

“It has always been correct to praise Plato, but not to understand him. This is the common fate of great men. My object is the opposite. I wish to understand him, but to treat him with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism.”

Creation by Steve Grand
Play Anything: The pleasure of limits, the uses of boredom and the secret of games by Ian Bogost

Psychology and Sociology

Feminism is for everybody by Bell Hooks

“I was an advocate for gay rights long before I knew the word feminism. My family feared I was a lesbian long before they worried that I would never marry. And I was already on my way to being a true freak because I knew I would always choose to go where my blood beats, in any and all directions.”

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Hariri


Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman

“At least 15 percent of human females possess a genetic mutation that gives them an extra (fourth) type of color photoreceptor—and this allows them to discriminate between colors that look identical to the majority of us with a mere three types of color photoreceptors. Two color swatches that look identical to the majority of people would be clearly distinguishable to these ladies.”

The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramachandran
Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow
Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin
The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life by Nick Lane

“Eukaryotes have ‘genes in pieces’. Few discoveries in twentieth-century biology came as a greater surprise. We had been misled by early studies on bacterial genes to think that genes are like beads on a string, all lined up in a sensible order on our chromosomes. As the geneticist David Penny put it: ‘I would be quite proud to have served on the committee that designed the E. coli genome. There is, however, no way that I would admit to serving on the committee that designed the human genome. Not even a university committee could botch something that badly.’”


And Yet…: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows

Looking Back: Seven Years at Chartbeat

I broke the news over on the Chartbeat blog today that recently I resigned as CEO from the company that has dominated my every waking thought for the last seven years. I feel like it’s time to get my hands dirty again in the mess of building a new company. I was able to do this, knowing that I was leaving it in good hands with an excellent team and a strong CEO in my former COO John Saroff.

As Chartbeat looks to the future, this is one of those rare moments where I get to look back and celebrate what the team has been able to accomplish. Chartbeat has always been mission-driven. Tattooed on our hearts is S.S. McClure’s statement that the vitality of democracy requires popular knowledge of complex questions. When we fail at this, we get Trump.

Getting to popular knowledge means it is not simply a journalist’s job to write the important stories but to communicate them. The important story that is weighed down by impenetrable text or hidden behind the wrong headline fails as much as the clickbait pablum masquerading behind a golden lede. Chartbeat’s first job was, and is, to show journalists where they were writing but not communicating.

Now, nearly every newsroom can look at the mirror of their audience and understand if what they wish to say is being heard. Sometimes, the reflection is unpalatable but if we are to do our jobs we cannot look away and fantasize a more pleasing image.

If journalists were to see clearly, they would need metrics that usefully reflect reality. Our competitors and often our customers thought us crazy for refusing to show unique visitors or pageviews, but we felt that a product should have an opinion and if so that that opinion should be clear. We oriented our products around the idea that publishers should care about audience more than traffic and created accurate new metrics like engaged time that endeavored to reward content that did not just attract users but kept them.

Since then almost every modern analytics service in the media industry has adopted these metrics (under various names) and it warmed my heart to see the New York Times, GQ, and The New Yorker among others define their best of year lists through the prism of total attention instead of clicks. It’s a long way from perfect, but the mirror is a little more clear.

Finally, we believed that journalism could not truly be sustainable unless we found some way to quantitatively link the quality of the content to the value of the page. We had no background in advertising, but understood that unless we tried to change the way journalism was funded, we’d always only be tackling one side of the problem. The team took on the Herculean task of defining an entirely new currency and infrastructure for advertising based around attention rather than impressions.

We were immensely lucky that the Financial Times saw something special in what we were doing and worked with us to bring this to market. They subsequently and justifiably won awards for the best commercial innovation of 2015. Now a coalition of publishers and technology companies are showing what can happen when you care more about a person’s mind than their index finger.

I’m under no illusions as to the challenges that remain in trying to change the fundamentals of an advertising industry inured to sclerotic inertia, but the challenge is attracting the brightest minds and the cause is just.

CEOs get to take the blame but they also get to take the credit. Often the former is warranted and the latter is not. That is certainly so in my case. As proud as I am of what the team have been able to accomplish externally over the last seven years, my proudest moments have been watching these people who I love attack each challenge, demonstrate an unswerving commitment to something larger than themselves and grow beyond their own horizons.

It has been the privilege of my life, and I will miss you all.

What we break when we fix for Ad Blocking

I’ve been doing an informal poll of journalists, media executives, ad tech people and VPs of sales over the last few weeks. Each of these people owe their livelihood to digital advertising and yet the overwhelming majority confessed to using ad blockers. At my own company whose mission is to ensure the future of sustainable quality content, ~55% of the people polled used ad blockers. If the people who can directly connect their salary to ads being on the page are blocking ads, then it is highly unlikely that the current raft of appeals to the public’s moral responsibility will have any success whatsoever. The individual action is difficult to connect to the collective outcome even if you won’t make rent as a result.

If we assume that ad blocking will survive and thrive, the interesting question will be whether in seeking their own unilateral answer to their problems, users find themselves with a web they hardly recognize and one in which the hopes they had for a better experience are confounded by their own actions. In trying to make content access easier, it may get harder; in trying to be more private we may be more transparent; and in trying to keep our content unsullied by advertising we may find them even more intertwined.

Closing the web

Paywalls have been successful for a small few national brands with devoted Superfans and for some local papers with a geographic exclusivity of content. However, most have done little to move the needle for publishers. With the standard paywall set up today around 2% of visitors even see the paywall and around 0.5% of them actually convert. However, the standard dictum of monetise Casualfans indirectly with ads, monetize Superfans directly with subscriptions breaks down in an ad-blocked world. That leads to an increasing rationale for more content to live behind the paywall. Over time you’re likely to see bundling options come about but it does mean that you are dealing with an increasingly closed web.

One of the great things about the web has been that if you could access it then there was equality of that access. If the content that best informs our thinking is increasingly only available to those willing to pay then it has troubling impacts for those living in poverty or countries for whom a $9.95 monthly subscription is out of reach.

Sidebar: Contrary to an oft-espoused opinion, advertising was not the original sin of the web. It was the principal mechanism by which we could ensure equality of access to an open system of global information. A more accurate phrasing would be to say that the original sin of the web was to disconnect the value of ads from the users experience on the page. The data is clear: the better the user experience => the more attention you can capture while an ad may be in view => the greater impact on recall and recognition. Ad-supported pages that prioritise user experience are more effective, but we set up our systems to care about page loads not performance. It’s that early mistake that led us to a web that might be increasingly closed to those who most need it.

The unexpected consequences of a desire for privacy

It’s not just about speed; ad blockers are also handy for those who care about their privacy online. Here’s the problem with that. If publishers can’t make money from ads on their page, then a solution is to make money from ads elsewhere. Specifically, with Facebook Instant Articles or in Apple News where ads are free to roam with a 70/30 split of the takings. If publishers are forced to take refuge with Facebook, then the unilateral actions of those privacy-oriented users lead to the exact opposite of what they wanted. Instead of a private browsing experience, they are forced to access the content they desire in a system that knows more about them than anyone else. In seeking greater privacy, the user becomes wholly transparent.

The scaling challenges of Native Advertising

The final outcome of ad-blocking regularly floated is that publishers will switch to forms of advertising that are not easily distinguished from their normal editorial content. Companies like the New York Times have shown that native advertising can be high quality and this is not the place for that perennial debate. The question is whether native advertising can scale to replace the digital advertising revenues lost. That might be difficult.

Analysts point to Buzzfeed, Forbes, Medium and others that have made content marketing scale. However, almost all that have done so have been platforms where the user sees contributions from a multitude of different voices and thus accepts that brands are as likely to post content as their slightly-racist Uncle Jerry. Publishers that do not pursue a platform strategy and instead aim for a singular voice embodying trust, authority or expertise might well find that native advertising is a piece of the pie, but that users react more negatively to an increasing ratio of native advertising to editorial content than they would with the platforms. As users we may have to ask ourselves whether the frame of the Mona Lisa being covered with Mcdonalds ads is less attractive to us than the idea of a clean frame around a portrait of the Mona Lisa eating a Big Mac.

From all this I’m deriving two maxims:

1) No matter how closely connected to the issue, users will be unable to connect individual actions to global outcomes
2) Users actions to unilaterally create a better web experience will have an equal and opposite effect

It will be interesting to see if either of these hold up over time.

A correction around the death of the mobile web

David Pakman of Venrock recently wrote a good piece on where we spend our attention. He’s absolutely right that attention is the true currency of the media business and drops a lot of knowledge.


He also repeats a common error. Specifically, Pakman says:

First, we spend 86% of mobile time in-app. The idea that the mobile web is a credible channel through which to reach consumers is largely disproven at this point.

Nope. Mobile web and mobile in-app behaviour are not binary. When users are in the facebook app, they spend a tremendous amount of time accessing the mobile web through facebook’s own in-app browser. The same for twitter and others. We enter social apps for discovery and then access the mobile web while still in-app. It is a mistake to conflate time spent on the mobile web with time spent in a traditional browser.

This is why when media sites talk about the astonishing growth of mobile they are generally not talking about their own apps where traffic behaviour tends to show a loyal but small and slow-growing audience. Instead the traffic that is swiftly breaking the 50% of total traffic mark is mobile web traffic of which more comes from social sources than anywhere else, and most of that is in-app (and depressingly for twitter, by an order of magnitude mostly facebook).

A more valuable analysis of whether the mobile web is a credible channel to reach consumers would be to:

– Separate time spent within the facebook/twitter/whatsapp/etc mobile browsers from native in-app behaviour and then combine them with traditional browsers to get a true picture of the mobile web’s share of attention.

– Remove from the pie chart the categories where, by their nature, brands do not have a meaningful opportunity to reach consumers (utilities/productivity/non ad-supported gaming etc).

Then one could analyse what share of the available channels for brands to reach consumers on mobile the mobile web represents. I’m willing to bet Mr Pakman a good steak dinner at the restaurant of his choice that it will surpass the credibility bar quite comfortably.

Now all this may change. The mobile web experience is a shit show. Facebook is pushing hard with its instant articles, Snapchat is experimenting with Discover. However, today, to analyse the mobile web without accounting for in-app mobile-web browsing is about as useful as trying to understand national infidelity rates by sampling Ashley Madison users.






On Writing Well by William Zinsser: selected notes

These are some of the highlights for me from Zinsser’s book. RIP.

 – But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. 

 – How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English. 

– Writers must therefore constantly ask: what am I trying to say? Surprisingly often they don’t know. Then they must look at what they have written and ask: have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery.  

– Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.

– Don’t worry about whether the reader will “get it” if you indulge a sudden impulse for humor. If it amuses you in the act of writing, put it in. (It can always be taken out, but only you can put it in.) You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.

– The secret of his [Mencken’s] popularity—aside from his pyrotechnical use of the American language—was that he was writing for himself and didn’t give a damn what the reader might think. It wasn’t necessary to share his prejudices to enjoy seeing them expressed with such mirthful abandon. Mencken was never timid or evasive; he didn’t kowtow to the reader or curry anyone’s favor. It takes courage to be such a writer, but it is out of such courage that revered and influential journalists are born.  

– Also bear in mind, when you’re choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But in fact they hear what they are reading far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence.     

– As for what point you want to make, every successful piece of nonfiction should leave the reader with one provocative thought that he or she didn’t have before. Not two thoughts, or five—just one. So decide what single point you want to leave in the reader’s mind.   

– For the nonfiction writer, the simplest way of putting this into a rule is: when you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.  

– Prune out the small words that qualify how you feel and how you think and what you saw: “a bit,” “a little,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “rather,” “quite,” “very,” “too,” “pretty much,” “in a sense” and dozens more. They dilute your style and your persuasiveness. Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed. Don’t hedge your prose with little timidities. Good writing is lean and confident.  

– If a phrase comes to you easily, look at it with deep suspicion; it’s probably one of the countless clichés that have woven their way so tightly into the fabric of travel writing that you have to make a special effort not to use them.   

– As for substance, be intensely selective. If you are describing a beach, don’t write that “the shore was scattered with rocks” or that “occasionally a seagull flew over.” Shores have a tendency to be scattered with rocks and to be flown over by seagulls. Eliminate every such fact that is a known attribute: don’t tell us that the sea had waves and the sand was white. Find details that are significant.   

– The hardest decision about any article is how to begin it. The lead must grab the reader with a provocative idea and continue with each paragraph to hold him or her in a tight grip, gradually adding information. The point of the information is to get readers so interested that they will stick around for the whole trip. The lead can be as short as one paragraph and as long as it needs to be. You’ll know it’s over when all the necessary work has been done and you can take a more relaxed tone and get on with your narrative.   

– What struck me most powerfully when I got to Timbuktu was that the streets were of sand. I suddenly realized that sand is very different from dirt. Every town starts with dirt streets that eventually get paved as the inhabitants prosper and subdue their environment. But sand represents defeat. A city with streets of sand is a city at the edge. Notice how simple those five sentences are: plain declarative sentences, not a comma in sight. Each sentence contains one thought—and only one. Readers can process only one idea at a time, and they do it in linear sequence. Much of the trouble that writers get into comes from trying to make one sentence do too much work. Never be afraid to break a long sentence into two short ones, or even three.   

– Now, what do your readers want to know next? Ask yourself that question after every sentence.   

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.


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.


*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.


*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.

My Books of 2012

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


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)


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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.



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:


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.


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 American rebellion by Rudyard Kipling

Twas not while England’s sword unsheathed
Put half a world to flight,
Nor while their new-built cities breathed
Secure behind her might
Not while she poured from Pole to Line
Treasure and ships and men –
These worshippers at Freedom’s shrine,
They did not quit her then!

Not till their foes were driven forth
By England o’er the main –
Not till the Frenchman from the North
Had gone with shattered Spain
Not till the clean-swept oceans showed
No hostile flag unrolled
Did they remember what they owed
To Freedom – and were bold!

Ironman John

Last year I wrote about my friend John Lake, who battled his way past brain tumours, depression, suicide bids and time in mental institutions to run the London Marathon and in some way find his purpose again.

John took something from that day and, to abuse a pun, he ran with it. On September 7th at 6am, John will zip up his wetsuit and enter the water for his first ironman triathlon. He will swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run 26.2 miles, a marathon. For someone who, two years ago, couldn’t run to the end of his block just getting to this stage is an awesome achievement. He will feel very different when he crosses the finish line.

When John ran the marathon he broke the record for money raised for the Brain Research Trust, with ten days to go he has already raised £7,300 and is aiming for £10,000. John is going to go through 13 hours of pain to show his support for people going through brain tumours, the least we can do is click on a link; please sponsor him now.

Two Poles

sunset over naples

The last six years of my life have been so singlemindedly focused on the poles, so caught up with snow, cold and ice that I sometimes manage to forget that there is a polar opposite to this world. Recently I was lucky enough to head briefly down to Naples, Florida where i met some incredible and inspirational people. I experienced the boundless enthusiasm and vigour of true entrepreneurs and enjoyed my first taste of southern hospitality, both exceeded every expectation.

But sometimes it is the simplest of things that take your breath away and for me that came when I walked down to the beach, took off my shoes and felt the sand beneath my feet for the first time in almost six years. Seabirds were whirling and diving; a group of friends threw horseshoes and two men stood with the lines of their fishing rods stretching out into the dappled sea. I asked them what they were fishing for and they cheerfully replied ‘shark!’.

In my normal travels, the sun setting and rising is a rare and ponderous occasion, but here the sun set so fast that I, engrossed in the conversation of my friend, almost missed its fall; as if it too could not resist the call of the water it illuminated. It made me long for the sea and old friends.

For now though, the Arctic has resumed its call upon me and as I do my best to help Rosie reach the North Pole I study weather forecasts and satellite images to track and forecast the Arctic’s mood and intentions. Today’s infra-red was a beauty and seemed an admirable counterpoint to the picture above. A high pressure zone is currently keeping the skies clear over the pole, though it is also pressing down upon the ice. One can see widening leads beginning to make their presence felt to the west as the season pushes towards summer, while in the south-east a particularly nasty storm boils furiously. I hope that neither come to affect Rosie before she reaches her goal.
Arctic in May

Talent in context

There is always a question for me as to how we perceive talent when it is something that is difficult to measure mathematically. With a sprinter we can measure his time, but it becomes progressively more difficult with more abstract things such as musical talent that rely on perception.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he notes that an orchestra had to erect a screen at auditions between the musician and the judges in order to prevent external appearance (or the sex of the musician) influencing the perception of talent. As an interesting addition to this problem, the Washington Post persuaded the world’s greatest living violinist to take his Stradivarius down to a DC subway plaza and busk for a while to see if anyone appreciated the sheer quality of performance in such an unlikely venue. The results were instructive. . . .


There’s a certain blog paralysis that creeps in after a certain amount of time has passed that makes going back to the blog yet more difficult. The urge to precis events is suffocated beneath yet more events, none of which necessarily make for a particularly coherent story. On reflection, I have decided to provide some bullet points and then continue on as though nothing has happened. Since I last posted on this site I have:

  • Put together a major solo North Pole expedition
  • Simultaneously tested new polar equipment while entertaining a small five-year-old boy with my monster/giant impressions.
  • Spent time in Toronto, Ottawa, Iqaluit, Resolute, Montreal, London and New York
  • Performed two snowmobile rescues for individuals stranded on the sea ice (mentally playing the Ride of the Valkyries all the while)
  • Had my name appear on the inside cover of a major label album release.
  • Moved continents and set up in New York
  • Met Barbara Bush (the twin, not the Granny)
  • Learned what shuffleboard is
  • Screamed at UPS “just who the hell do I have to wake up in which country to get this package delivered on time”
  • Learned that my street is the major route of choice for all night-time emergency services in New York
  • Tried Ashtanga yoga
  • Met the Inuit grandson of one of Roald Amundsen’s flings
  • Competed in a Scotland 10K in Central Park
  • Written a soon-to-be published piece for the Grauniad

And met innumerable interesting and warm-hearted people along the way.

Riding our luck

Yesterday, our flight experience consisted of getting upgraded, blagging our way through fast-track with cheeky smiles and not being blown up. This was a good start to the day. Heathrow apparently shut up shop shortly after we left because of a massive terrorist attack attempt that would have either cancelled or massively delayed our flight. This was a little crazy to read the morning after flying to New York.

Back in my favourite town, we raced from the airport to our first meeting on the roof of Soho House with a wonderful publisher called David and the incomparable Ariane de BonVoisin and didn’t leave for about 12 hours. With Michelle Rodriguez of ‘Lost‘ sitting at the next table we proceeded to meet a barrage of incredible people who all brought new and refreshing ideas to SOUTH.  It’s hard to explain how it feels to hear bright, brilliant people becoming engaged with an idea you had stuck in a boat in the Southern Ocean, it’s hugely exciting and a little unnerving at the same time.

We are just about to head off for our first 7am meeting and if our schedule is even remotely accurate, the pace won’t let up anytime soon. But right now I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Closer to Greenland

We got the all clear this morning for a flight into Greenland at midday. It’s hard to say how I am feeling at this point so I will let John Masefield have a go for me.

“I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.”

Ok, so he is talking about sailing but you get the picture.


Sunset over the mountainsLife has taken a turn for the hectic here as I once again get into expedition mode. Ben and I are off to Greenland for a month for our final test and training phase before we go SOUTH and I am juggling phonecalls, kit orders and eccentric email servers.

In mid May we are taking a helicopter from Ammassalik and will do two round trips out onto the ice cap. One with SOUTH expedition-weight sledges and full skins where we will lay depots and one with backpacks and short skins where we will eat the aforementioned depots. One of the key elements of SOUTH will be our ability to switch to backpacks at the South Pole and use skis with short skins and more glide for our return to the coast and we are looking to fine tune our calculations to see how far and how fast we can go. Getting these as accurate as possible is crucial: too optimistic and you force yourself to ration, limiting the body’s ability to recover, too pessimistic and a heavier-than-necessary sledge will slow you down, compromising your chances of success. It’s a pretty fine line and when you are out there on the very edges of human capability, there’s not much room for screw ups.

We’ll also be testing out a range of equipment from solar water heating systems to backpacks to special mp3 players and making our final choices as to our nutrition strategy. Testing expeditions like this are always fun because they are a huge spur to creativity as Ben and I question every process and every action we take; could we do it better, more efficiently? It’s amazing how you can find little areas to improve even after all this time.

I think what I’m really looking forward to is just being out there on the ice again. East Greenland is one of my favourite places, when the weather isn’t trying to kill you it’s stunning. Each view is enhanced by the knowledge that you are the only person in the area for hundreds of miles and all you have to do is lean into the harness, check your bearings and haul. There’s a saying that East Greenland isn’t scenery, it’s savagery, but to me, sometimes, it’s a little bit like heaven.

Rachel Corrie


This week I went back to Gaza. I sat watching a young American woman on a barely-lit stage exploding old memories with each name she uttered against a background of bullet-ridden concrete. My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the writing of a young American observer killed by an IDF bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, is a hugely powerful piece of work, even more so for me because so much of it seemed so familiar.

In 1997, I ignored the advice of my tutors and arranged to study at Birzeit University in the West Bank for a semester. I went looking for a real understanding of what was going on in that fractured land and came away possibly more knowledgeable, but also more confused. The Palestinians are without doubt the most friendly, generous people I have ever met. Their kindness to me, even though I was an Englishman who had ‘stolen their country’ was overwhelming. At the same time, I would visit the old Jewish market in Jerusalem after a suicide bombing and watch the blood drain from the soiled bandages as they burnt.

I met Palestinians who wanted to push the Israelis back to the sea and others who more than anything just wanted their children to see their 18th birthday. I met Israelis who thought that the only good Arab was a dead one and others who risked their safety and reputation to reach out to Palestinians in the name of reconciliation. I learned how to talk my way past military checkpoints, I learned what it is to live where politics is not just a matter of which collection of suits decides your tax level, but life itself. I fear I did not learn as much as Rachel Corrie, nor did I pay such a heavy price for my knowledge.

Corrie writes with coruscating force and it seems amazing that the only intended audience for her words were her parents and friends. Whether you agree with her politics or not, she is someone to be admired because she cared enough to stand up and do something about what she believed to be an injustice in this world and that is all too rare in our generation. See this play.

The little blue passport

Let me start with a disclaimer: Bribery is bad, really bad. In fact, it should only ever be used with small children. The trouble is, when you sometimes operate in areas that have a morally ambiguous  business environment combined with a weaponised bureaucracy, the requests can get pretty persistent and persuasive.

Having had to get past military roadblocks, petty bureaucrats and dodgy customs officials in various somewhat remote countries, often carrying stuff they don’t want me to take through (ranging from people to, in one memorable instance, high explosives), I’ve learnt that handing over money can sometimes be circumvented by charm, talking about football (or whatever sport they are most passionate about) or mentioning your close personal relationship with their boss. However, if all else fails there is one thing, more highly prized than money, that will always open doors and persuade bewhiskered military types to look the other way: the little blue passport, Viagra.

If there is one thing that your average machismo-ridden border sadist wants more than the ability to buy the expensive kind of vodka, it is the mythical status that they believe Viagra can supply. They can always get money from the next poor sap, but only you can turn them into a love god. In short, Viagra opens doors and should always be part of your travelling kit. Moreover, today I find out that it can improve physical performance at altitude. Truly, is there anything that little blue pill can’t do?


Today is my father’s birthday. 59 years ago today in a mudhut on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), he came squealing into this world and became the scion of the Haile family. I have always been fascinated by his childhood, spent in an alien country during the sunset of the British Empire and for many years have pestered him to take me back to where he was born. Maybe, when I have the ice out of my system, we will finally go.

Though I would find it hard to admit to his face (I am English), I do seem to have inherited more than just the gene for height and blonde hair from the chap. He was an Oxford Blue in Fencing and apparently was pretty handy at the Butterfly and that combined with my mother (who would be upset if I didn’t mention she was an Oxford Blue in Rowing), seems to have given me a little natural ability in the physical stakes, which is helpful considering my current profession.

Moreover, as I get older I do find myself drawn to interests that once were his alone. I now read less fiction and more history, I have started to devour books on philosophy, religion and science. One of his many admirable qualities is that he can talk fluently about a wide range of subjects and this is certainly something I aspire to. His support for some of my more crazy career decisions has always been unstinting (and at times financial) and I don’t thank him enough. Happy Birthday Dad, and thank you.