The ‘Letters To…’ Project

A few weeks ago, the Stellar Quines theatre company put out a call looking for writers for its ‘Letters To…’ project.

So I wrote a short piece and was delighted to be picked! Here’s the video they made of my work, with the help of Pitlochry Festival Theatre actress Felicity Sparks and director Shilpa T-Hyland who I think did a fantastic job with my words.

Seeing how others interpret your writing is fascinating. No matter how short it is, decisions are made as life gets breathed into the piece. Often they’re as you imagined. But sometimes they’re unexpected. And those are the most exciting.

P.S. You can check out the other winners here – definitely worth a watch! And if you haven’t yet seen the  recent BBC extract from ‘Fibres’ by Frances Poet (which was a Stellar Quines co-production with the Citizens) about the damage wreaked by asbestos on workers and their families in the Glasgow shipyards performed by Jonathan Watson as part of the National Theatre of Scotland project, please just stop what you’re doing and watch it now. It’s stunning.

Social Distancing: Stop Messing Around

For the last six days, with Covid-19 ravaging the globe, I’ve been self-isolating at home. Or I guess I should say practicing ‘social distancing’. Because now – more than at any other recent time in history – the words we use really matter. It’s not overstating it to say that the language we use is now likely to impact significantly on the direct lives of our nearest and dearest (in addition to many others far beyond).

The last few weeks have been wild. From being hit with the realisation of how bad this was going to get, to pulling the kids out of school (which crazily here in Scotland as of 16th March are still open…) to the massive frustration with governments and companies for failing to act decisively… I don’t blame the people as such but I do blame the systems we have in place. Lethargy in action.

It’s been reinforced all across the globe: institutions, countries and organisation simply cannot move quickly enough to make the correct decisions. Without serious advance planning (which we in the West appear to have dropped the ball on – for reasons to be discussed after this), there simply aren’t the feedback loops available to help them to  digest broad sources of information and digest them competently across their hierarchies.

I’m certain this will improve as we move into a full-blown emergency. But it will also take a massive shift in mindset to do so. And we need the people who are able to act decisively to step up to the plate. Even if you don’t care about your own health – think of the ones who you’ll harm if you don’t.

When people who are sworn ideological enemies start to all converge on something, it’s time to start taking things very seriously.

Sticking with the importance of language, let’s be careful with the war allegories at this stage. It absolutely is a global war in terms of impact on the public and potential for disaster. But in some places, people seem to be building this into their foundation for acting in the ridiculous belief that the correct response is to simply carry on as normal. Not to over-react. Whereas the very real human cost of all of these people congregating in bars, gigs and restaurants will be heartbreaking if we are ever able to trace this in the aftermath (don’t be Patient #31).

But – words. Communication. Now, more than ever, it’s crucial. We can’t have people like Trump displaying woeful incompetence (in both words and understanding) reactively across one of the most powerful global publishing platforms history has ever seen. It’s harder to think of a more perfect storm for disaster. I have no doubt that competent and talented people are stepping up there to guide him. But now is not the time to give him too much freedom.

Because if you continue get the words wrong, we have a much bigger problem than the massive mountain we already have to climb.

Stay safe out there.

Deep Work

One of the great books I read last year was Cal Newport’s ‘Deep Focus‘.

If you’ve not yet read the book, there’s a useful article in the NYT that summarises his key arguments in an interview format. In essence, deep focus is simply about ensuring that you build in periods of focus into every day – without any distractions – electronic or otherwise – to put you off.

In a nutshell, the book suggests:

1. Actively schedule (and aggressively protect) this time carved out for deep work in your daily schedule.

2. Embrace boredom – don’t check your mobile out of habit when you have the chance. If you don’t, you’re simply training your brain to seek stimulii when challenged (which breaks your focus).

3. Quit social media – self-explanatory but I’d struggle with this myself. I’d suggest restricting it to scheduled times and batching time on it (with notifications turned off) may be a sensible compromise here.

4. ‘Drain the shallows’ – miminise the shallow (non-focused eg administrative) work you do and be very intentional about when you do it (and how you can become more efficient at it).

None of these are easy – or common – of course. But if you work consistently at it, as Newport says:

“Concentration is like a super power in most knowledge work pursuits. If you take the time to cultivate this power, you’ll never look back.”

Giving Advice Is Easier Than Following It

I came across this quote from Sam Harris in Tim Ferriss’ book ‘Tools of Titans‘:-

“On one level, wisdom is nothing more than the ability to take your own advice. It’s actually very easy to give people good advice. It’s very hard to follow the advice that you know is good….If someone came to me with a list of problems, I would be able to sort that person out very easily.”

How often have you had that experience? Solving other’s problems  usually seems much more possible. Is that because as a non-involved party, you can be objective? Or is it simply because you hold the get-out-of-jail-free card – that you never have to go through with the advice you dish out because, by definition, it doesn’t apply  to you,  in your life, in the same way?

Be More Hume

One of my goals for this year is to read the works of David Hume. Perhaps not all of them (all 6 volumes of ‘The History of England’ aren’t exactly beating a path to my door at this stage). But enough to really start to get my head around some of the key concepts that this giant of Western Philosophy who lived just up the road in the same city as me – albeit some 200-odd years ago – became world-renowned for.

I guess that probably means reading the entirety of at least one of my two copies of ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding‘…

But while I’m in what I like to think of as the preparatory stage (readily identified as being that stage between hearing repeatedly about the book and actually sitting down and working your way through it, when instead the guilt is building that I’ve gone through life without yet reading a book that seems to have shaped innumerable conversations around the globe for a very long time), my mind is tuned to every mention that I come across of his name.

All of which meandering instruction goes some way to explain why I found an article (‘How to generate ideas: Be more Hume, and stop doing what you’re f****ng told‘ by Clare Barry ) particularly interesting today.

I plan to revisit this post once I do – finally – get round to actually doing the reading. But in the meantime, here’s a couple of my takeaways.

Hume talks about the difference between impressions (the things we hear, see, feel, love, hate, desire or wish) and ideas (the entirely subjective responses we have to those impressions). So “ideas aren’t some divine intervention or a spasm of genius – they are entirely dependent on what you’ve experienced”.

Her conclusions are:

– Stop doing what you’re told: to come up with ideas, you have to reject the ‘usual’ way of doing things.

– Ideas are created by unique collisions of our experiences – so experience as much as you can whilst seeking new ideas. And specifically, don’t consume the same content everyone else looking to be creative is consuming.

– Never dilute a decent idea. Continue in the face of criticism, no half-measures. The path to mediocrity is littered with the accepted suggestions of others.

A few things to think about there. But there are obvious examples of where each of these approaches can be shown to have worked in the past.


Chinese Click Farms

If you want to understand better the madness of the current Web, a good starting point is to think about Click Farms:

Wikipedia defines a click farm as a commercial enterprise that employs a large number of people to repeatedly click on items of online content in order to artificially inflate statistics of traffic or engagement.

In short, every mobile has a unique ID that is required in order to generate advertising revenue. Its not something that can simply be done by firing up thousands of virtual machines on a server somewhere. The more mobiles, the more profitable it is.

From fake clicks to fake social media accounts, much of the Internet today is fake. And as one of the comments in that thread says, “It reminds me of The Matrix when Neo first wakes up“.

As Douglas Rushkoff points out, it’s somewhat ironic:

“Consider the irony: malware robots watch ads, monitored by automated tracking software that tailors each advertising message to suit the malbots automated habits, in a human-free feedback loop of ever-narrowing ‘peesonalization’. Nothing of value is created but Billions of dollars are made.”

There are far better alternatives out there than a system that survives in the shadows without bringing any real benefit for the advancement of our society and culture. Indeed, it undermines it.

When Your Lunch Also Commutes

In a world that is shaped by digital decisions upon platforms that we often don’t control, it’s always heartening to hear tales of traditions that persist. Whilst technology increasingly proves that more efficient solutions are within reach, sometimes that personal, human touch can still survive.

A great example of this is the tiffin lunchbox, predominantly found in Mumbai, India. With so many individuals travelling long distances into the city to work, there is still a demand for good old home cooked food when it comes to lunch. Whereas in this country, office workers may nip out for an overpriced and oversalted lunch at a heavily-branded sandwich joint, many workers there can rely on food lovingly cooked fresh for them at home that morning.

Dabbas are large circular tins with a number of tiers. The freshly cooked food is placed into them at home – and then the real magic begins.

The dabbas are passed across to a human delivery system – 5,000 people (known as dabbawalas), many on bicycles, who then transport some 200,000 dabbas to the trains (each one marked by hand with a system of symbols and colours) where they travel for often a couple of hours before being picked up by local dabbawalas and handed directly to their individual recipients every day.

Now for a couple of amazing facts.

First, the food is never late. Amazing when you take account of the fact that its delivered direct to each individual’s place of work.

Second: the dabbas, once empty then travel back and get returned to the houses from which they came. Incredibly, none of them carry a home address – and yet they all return to the sender at the end of the day. Only to repeat the journey once again the next day.

The secret is the intricate system that is used – a combination of local knowledge, train lines, and dabbawalas’ memories. And the dabbawalas are so trusted that often workers will place their wages into the dabbas for the return journey so that they don’t have to travel home from work carrying precious cash on their own person.

The system was started by a banker, Mahadeo Havaji Bacche, who wanted his home cooked lunch delivered all the way back in 1890. And it’s claimed that the dabbawalas now only make one mistake every six million deliveries – a success rate that shames any other physical logistics infrastructure out there in the business world today when you factor in just how many delivery locations they’re servicing. The system’s been studied by Harvard Business School and is always talked of as being the envy of FedEx.

Sometimes I guess you just can’t beat those home comforts after all.

Pink Flamingos and the American Dream

I’ll be heading over to America later in the year so it feels like as good a time as any to brush up on some American culture. And what could possibly be better then than – pink flamingos!

You may have thought infrequently (never…) about them before. So here’s some pointers:

1. Pink flamingos (the garden lawn type) were invented by Donald Featherstone in 1957. They soon became cultural icons of the US. As Featherstone stated, “We sold tropical elegance in a box for less than $10”.

2. The powerful assumptions that accompany the ubiquitous flamingos have been put to good use. On occasion, people have been subjected to ‘flocking’ – a form of bullying to encourage the target to ‘voluntatily’ donate to a charity when he or she wakes up to find flamingos all over their lawn. Although interestingly, such a tactic clearly only works when the target is someone who would be clearly embarrassed by an infestation of such visible tackiness on their homestead…

3. Bonus fact: Donald Featherstone and his wife Nancy wore exactly the same outfit/clothes design for over 35 years..

Friday Quotes

Five favourite Friday quotes – and today, all of them are from women:

Maya Angelou

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Anais Nin

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

Helen Keller

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

Judy Garland

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I think of this last quote frequently, perhaps twice a week. To me, it’s encapsulates that Stoic ideal perfectly.