The Library of Mistakes

Quite a few years ago, I remember coming up with an idea for a new conference. It would be one that celebrated failures – specifically in business, but I thought it could be expanded to cover multiple areas of both work and just life in general.

It started as an idea around entrepreneurship , where learning not to repeat the mistakes made by those that got there before you can be the difference between a highly stressful period of being not-dead (the realistic best-case scenario for an early stage business) and simply sinking beneath the surface, never to be seen again. The whole point of such an event was, in fact, that you would be seen again. Or at least heard from.

Like many ideas, it never came to fruition. At least not from me. Plenty of other people have since had the same idea – which proves that other great truth of entrepreneurship: ideas are irrelevant. It’s all about execution. So now you’ll know why that well-known novelist didn’t bite off your hand when presented with your kind offer to supply her with an amazing story idea you had in return for which you’ll accept a very equitable 50/50 share of the profits….

So you can probably imagine then that I’m a big fan of the Library of Mistakes in Edinburgh. It’s a niche library set up in the aftermath of the financial crash which has the goal of collecting all the material possible about the financial system and how it has failed in the past.

It has a great motto as well: mundum mutatu errore singillatim – which as I’m sure you’ve already guessed means ‘changing the world one mistake at a time’.

I’m a big believer that the financial system today is too complex for anyone to understand. And anyone who claims that they do – from economists, to central bankers, to politicians – whoever – is either lying or (even worse) doesn’t realise the limits of their knowledge. But however impossible it might be to understand how the financial system will evolve and react in the future to certain actions, it can’t hurt to be constantly reminded of just how many times in the past people thought they’d understood the system – before going on to in fact prove (mostly with other people’s money) that they didn’t.   

Advice For Students

I enjoyed the post put up by Richard Koch on his blog today (‘Ten Commandments For Students’). It’s worthwhile reading – but if you’re too lazy to do that (which, let’s be honest, isn’t a great sign to start with…), here’s a quick outline:

1. Do your own thing.

Don’t follow that traditional / expected / boring career path. If you’re looking for exceptional results, by definition you need to be doing things differently (or you’ll just end up with the same results as everyone else).

2. Deliver Exceptional Results

That doesn’t mean the highest marks of anyone. It means the highest marks using your approach that only you are capable of achieving.

3. Take Your Time

Take your time, experiment and learn from failures. Never be afraid to spend time thinking and preparing – and building you.

As Abraham Lincoln used to say: “If I must chop down a tree in four hours, I’ll spend the first three hours sharpening the axe.”

4. Get Ideas from People

Meet lots of different people from lots of cultures. See what results they’re applying – and then adapt those ideas to your circumstances.

5. Get ideas from books

Pretty obvious. Don’t spend your time with magazines or online. Read real, physical books. With paper you can mark up and scribble your notes on for future use.

And remember: usually the oldest books are the best (the Lindy Effect).

6. Enjoy Your Work

Without enjoyment and/or passion, you’ll never stand out from the pack. And never do anything you don’t enjoy – regardless of pay.

7. Learn to Collaborate

Choose people who have skills that you don’t to increase the chances that so that the end result will be stronger than what you could have ever achieved alone.

8 . If something isn’t working, quit

Don’t be a martyr. Life’s too short.

9 . Thrive on Failure

Or should that be: strive to expose yourself regularly to situations that you can learn from.

10. Be Generous and Warm-Hearted

You get what you put in. Pay it forward – and help others with no expectation of reward. You’ll never know when one of those seeds from years ago will bear fruit for you in a big way in the future.


Sybil The Fake

In the project that takes up most of my time, Sybil resistance is a big thing. The name comes from a well-known attack vector in computer science whereby an attempt is made to gain control of a distributed peer-to-peer network by someone who maliciously creates many nodes in order to take control of the system overall.

I first discovered the concept when I stumbled across the Bitcoin White Paper all those years ago. I spent many hours solidly reading, researching and re-reading that paper repeatedly as I was struck by a growing belief about just how seismic the repercussions of those eight pages could be. And in true Bitcoin fashion, this area was simply yet another that was touched upon in passing (Proof of Work in Bitcoin makes Sybil attacks much more expensive as it increases the costs and difficulties substantially for anyone who’s trying to take over the network), rather than the full story.

Preventing Sybil attacks is a challenge that must be faced by every open, permissionless network – and solved. But you might wonder where the name originally came from in the first place.

The answer is a 1973 book called ‘Sybil’ which recounted a case study of an individual who suffered from dissociative identity disorder (i.e. multiple personalities). Her psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and the book’s author, Flora Schreiber ended up rich from the book’s success. But it turns out that Shirley Ardell Mason‘s 16 different identities may in fact have have been fabricated. Partly because the patient was administered strong drugs over a long period of time, some of which were well-known to produce hallucinations.

If you’re interested, there’s a book that explains the story in much greater detail. But you have to admit, it’s somewhat ironic that a term which is used today as a shorthand for malicious activities in a networked society is in fact based on dishonesty at its core – albeit not the creation of pseudonymous personalities after all.



One of the books that gets mentioned consistently near the top of any book list for writers is ‘Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’ by Anne Lamott.

The title comes from a family story of hers in which she recounts how her older, ten-year old brother was struggling to complete a written report on birds for school the next day despite having had three months to prepare. In the midst of his despair, she remembers her father sitting down at the table with a son who was panicked by the immensity of the task that faced him. He put his arm around his shoulder and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird”.

How accurate for anyone who’s struggled to battle the blank page in the creation of any form of writing. And if you want to understand why it’s so popular, just read how she describes perfectionism as being the enemy of all:

“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

It’s much more than just another book about writing. It’s funny, instructive and just a great read. Well worth buying.

War Talk

I seem to have randomly spent the last few days immersed in the Iraq & Afghanistan Wars.

First of all, after listening to an interesting episode of the Econtalk podcast, I read ‘War’ by Sebastian Junger one day this week. It’s a hugely powerful piece based on the fifteen months that a couple of journalists were embedded in an area know as the deadliest place in Afghanistan during the height of the war. Then discovered that there was a documentary based in the book called ‘Restrepo‘ on Netflix. Rather uniquely, despite being focused on the same raw material, both present entirely different experiences and I’d recommend checking both out.

Next up, I’d heard a podcast Tim Ferris did with General Stanley McChrystal – who basically headed up the US army’s operations at the time – a while back and stumbled across another podcast which I listened to during a few runs this week.

All of which leads somewhat randomly to what I think is a prime piece of amusement for anyone who’s spent any time themselves deeply embedded in any form of organisational hell…

Self-lacing Trainers (Bluetooth Dependent…)

There’s technology that will change the world.

And then there’s technology that has evolved through the application of innovation for the sake of gimmickry.

At this point in time, I’d argue self-lacing Nike’s fall firmly into the latter category. Attempting to replace a technology that’s been around for (the shoelaces) perhaps illuminates the fine line between being visionary and foolhardy. Particularly when the app fails to sync and you’re left with a pair of useless loose trainers

I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of change to footware does ultimately catch on. Hell, once we have flying cars and jetpacks, I’d be pretty disappointed if I had to bend over to deal with my laces at least twice a day. But somehow that all feels like a long way off yet. I wonder if Nike agree.

The Current State of Podcasts

I’ve written a few times about the explosion in podcasts during the last two or three years. It feels like a huge shift in the consumption of information, at least by a significant proportion of certain communities across the globe.

I was reading this Medium post (‘State of Podcasts 2018: Takeaways from Podcast Movement 2018 on monetization, diversity and discovery’) with interest earlier in the week. It’s pretty old now (July 2018 which is light years in podcasting terms) but it’s a fascinating insight from the huge Podcast Movement conference from last year.

You only have to look at recent news, like Spotify’s acquisition of podcast companies Gimlet and Anchor a few weeks ago to see the money starting to stream into this sector. Edison Research from a year ago showed that (only) 17% of Americans were listening to a podcast each week. Now, the US is vast compared to the UK bubble that I live in but I’d be utterly astonished if that number doesn’t bounce up by the time in surveys this year.

It’s hardly surprising that discovery of episodes was seen back then as one of the biggest issues. Compared to any other form of information discovery online, podcasts can be almost invisible. It’s improving but there’s a whole load of room for improvements to be made. Clearly, the situation’s not great at the moment – but at the same time, I suspect the risks are pretty good that the situation will be far worse once audio does more readily searchable. Perhaps we’ll move into an age controlled by audio search algorithms in which podcasters actively change their content in order to rank more highly in search etc. I wouldn’t be too surprised if we see the equivalent of keyword stuffing in some way, shape or form. Which doesn’t sound like the best way forward for conversational content.

It’ll also be interesting to see what happens this year when it comes to monetisation. Would you pay to access your favourite podcast? Put up with adverts (at the start / middle / end?). It’ll be interesting to see what happens.

Listen to this space…

Nineteenth Century Technology

I like this piece of Jamie Bartlett’s book, ‘The People vs Tech: How the Internet is killing democracy (and how we save it)”:

“Sometimes relatively innocuous inventions open up new possibilities for social organisation. In the mid-nineteenth-century America, the settlement of farming communities in the West was impossible because roaming cattle kept destroying the crops. But the invention of ‘barbed wire’ meant that huge swathes of land could be enclosed. Roaming buffalo were doomed, which in turn destroyed the Native American way of life.”

A great of example of technology destroying and creating at the same time.

The Universe (And 9,000 Glaswegians)

Tonight I went along to watch Professor Brian Cox at The SSE Hydro in Glasgow. As I’ve written about before, it feels like there’s something different in the current climate these days when 9,000 people turn up to hear a scientist speak:

I learned a lot tonight. Many different avenues for further study just opened up out of nowhere. And any night which combines Einstein’s Theory Of Relativity, wormholes, the 4D Space Time Continuum, photos of the Big Bang, a simulation of an Event Horizon by the guys who created the Interstellar Gargantura black hole is A Good Night…

But here’s my favourite.

We’re all made up of stars.

Quite literally. Pow.

Simple and (Less In)secure

One of the principles that seems to be constant no matter what endeavour you’re engaged in is – simplicity is your friend.

When it comes to eating plans, exercise regimes, cooking lessons, writing practices – whatever – an imperfect plan consistently practiced will always beat the perfect plan inconsistently followed.

Success is found that way mainly because of the incredible power that comes from building habits (no matter how small).

But simplicity has another very distinct benefit in another specific area – writing secure code. Or, more accurately, less insecure code (as security can never be an absolute).

To look further into this, it’s worth reading this thread by Sarah Jamie Lewis about the proposed Swiss online voting system. It’s hard to believe that this could ever be a good idea – for a whole number of reasons. But for the present purposes, let’s just focus on the security implications:

There’s been a lot of criticism about the project so far. But it’s impossible to disagree with what she’s saying here. No matter what kind of rockstar genius coders you might have, to date no one has ever written perfect code. Their will always be errors – and when the system is critical (even when it isn’t, to be honest, it’s just the stakes are much higher), you want to be using things that have been demonstrably proved to work together in ways that are robust.

Once you have complex code in play, not only does the code have to be written perfectly itself but the different packages etc also have to be integrated perfectly.

You’ve just massively increased the chances of causing problems in the future.

The easier it is to fix things, the more chance you have of getting it right. That’s why all important code has to be auditable. Because no-one can expect to get things right the first time around. And when when you start playing around with individual’s democratic rights, the stakes have just gone through the roof.