About this blog

This is my personal blog which I began in February 2001. I called it The Obvious? when I wrote anonymously and chose the name to reflect the fact I have to overcome my inhibitions about stating the obvious!

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Current Reading
  • Eating Animals
    Eating Animals
    by Jonathan Safran Foer


Lehigh University Book Chat

This week I had the unexpected pleasureof taking part in a live twitter chat with a group of students from Lehigh University in the United States. It came about when I spotted a tweet about my book by the lecturer Silagh. This led to an invitation to chat to the class via a Twitter hashtag during their lesson.

It was a blast! Approximate 20 students sitting in their classroom, firing questions at me in rapid succession with me trying to keep track and keep up. They were great questions based on the first 20 chapters of my book which the class had been reading as a set text.

This is a great example of what the technology makes possible. The fact that I can make a connection with students 3000 miles away and give them direct access to the author of the book they are studying. Hope I get to do it again sometime.


Why writing matters

"That is what writing is - telling what you think. Telling other people certainly, but primarily telling yourself. And that is why we must write - to find out what we think, to discover what we believe.

Because until we write it down, we don't know what is actually at the root of our lives."

More good stuff from George Sheehan. I am currently reading Personal Best, written at the start of the nineties and mostly on the philosophy of running. I am not usually drawn to writing about sport but this book, really a collection of essays, is great.


Good blogging advice

"Do not tell me what to do, tell me what you do. Do not tell me what is good for me, tell me what is good for you. If, at the same time, you reveal the you in me, if you become a mirror to my inner self, then you have made a reader and a friend."

- George Sheehan


What is love?

The story of Anne Frank, and the injustice of what happened to her, is hard enough to contemplate at the best of times, but when it is written about by your own daughter at around the same age it is all the more unbearable. 

What is love?:

When I was 11 years old I read Anne Frank's diary. It had a very big impact on me, I was left with the echo of the book nestled into my memory for a very long time to come. At the time I was reading it Anne's age was not so far from my own and certainly, from the era in which she wrote it, her maturity was at the same level as mine. This allowed me to relate to her in a very powerful way, and she inspired me a great deal.

She had written about going through things I was also experiencing at the time, growing up, leaving my little girl self behind and entering a new era of my own existence. What she said was very important to me, especially at that particular time in my life.

I felt enormous respect for this girl who had so beautifully captured the essence and momentousness of leaving childhood behind and excepting this new mind and new body that is presented before you. And then anger and sadness that this wonderful, bright young girl had been so wrongly taken when such a future was ahead of her. Such abundance of brilliant life that this young woman had in her path that was cut short so cruelly, and so unjustly it is hard to comprehend.

One thing that was prominent to me in her diary was this wonderful description of what she interpreted love, romantic love, to be. At the time it wasn't particularly relevant to my life but I understood that this piece was so insightful and so beautiful and written by someone of such a young age, I felt compelled to write it down knowing I would want to some day go back to it.

That day has not yet arrived, but I want to share with you the small paragraph I copied out from Anne's diary into my own with an element of intrigue as an 11 year old girl discovering who I was going to be.

"Love, what is love? I don't think you can really put it into words. Love is understanding someone, caring for him, sharing his joys and sorrows. This eventually includes physical love. You've shared something, given something away and received something in return. Whether or not you are married, whether or not you have a baby. Losing your virtue doesn't matter, as long as you know that as long as you live you'll have someone at your side who understands you, and who doesn't have to be shared with someone else."

I can't really explain why I felt the need to remember these words. I just know that I had an inkling these would and do mean something to me. And I understand them completely.

(Via The Fully Intended)


Land Rover Experience

I spent a wonderful day today at Land Rover's headquarters in Solihull. 

As an introduction to The Land Rover Experience we were shown around the production line in the morning and just marvelled at technology, the complexity, the amazing processes, and the sheer vigour of it all. We were then driven around an extremely challenging test track showing the car doing things that no car should really be able to do, especially not one so often used for picking up the kids from school in Kensington.

I almost never write about clients or my time with them, it just makes life easier, but I am making an exception in this case because rarely have I been so enthused about something that I otherwise have little or no interest in. Don't get me wrong I am no car nerd, but I love knowledgeable passionate people doing something with energy and commitment. 

Needless to say I had fun in the afternoon conveying to them the opportunity that I believe the social web offers them to share their infectious passion more widely with others.


End of The Chris Moyles Show

I know many of you won't relate to this but I'm welling up watching the last of The Chris Moyles Show

Over the years I have been late for trains, meeting people, and dropping kids off at school listening to his extended, off the cuff, genius riffs, wetting myself laughing sitting in car parks on my own in the car.

 Thanks to a very clever team for brightening up many, many starts to many days. Morning car journeys will never be the same again.


Uppers and downers

I tweeted tonight that I was "Allowing myself to descend into a slough of despond as I know I will emerge all the quicker if I don't fight it."

This comes about every month or so and is a result of trying to be good for too long. Trying to be successful, trying to be healthy, trying to learn as much as I can, and trying to be liked by everyone. After a few weeks of this my bad fairy has had enough and starts saying "fuck it".

Way back I used to handle this by going out on my fast motorbike and scaring myself and a few car drivers. Then for too many years I handled it by drinking myself to a standstill (which was a not inconsiderable feat).

Nowadays, having given up biking and drinking, all that is left to me is to eat crap and surf the web too much. Thankfully I am much more aware of the process and by not fighting it come out the other end quicker!


Musing about Yammer and Sharepoint

I know this will come as a shock to many of you - to hear me expressing an opinion about technology and on top of that recommending a Microsoft solution - but it occurred to me that the combination of Yammer and Sharepoint might just be the best thing for people trying to make social happen in their businesses. 

I have been wary of the platform solutions like Jive and Tibbr for some time. They feel over engineered and over complicated - trying to do everything. I reckon users find interfaces that try to do too much confusing and that keeping things simple really matters. Being new to most businesses these platforms also take a lot of investment of time and money, requiring considerable effort to sell to your bosses worried about integration and security issues. 

In contrast Yammer and Sharepoint make sense for a couple of big reasons. You still have the issue about using Yammer's servers but most IT departments are comfortable with Microsoft so you won't have to fight all the battles necessary to convince them to go with something new. You will also satisfy those who feel the need to manage and control. They can be kept busy fighting with Sharepoint while you can get on with generating viral fun in Yammer.

Maybe at some stage in the future Microsoft will make the two tools join up usefully but it doesn't really matter. You will have got going, generated some energy, and hopefully shifted the culture in the meantime - and for a lot less pain than might be the case otherwise.

I nearly didn't post this because I am genuinely not that interested in the tools and if you can make things happen using Jive or Tibbr then that is much better than them not happening at all. I just found it interesting that the combination of Yammer and Sharepoint might have become the lightweight, trojan mouse, alternative.


Little boxes, little boxes

I have been writing text in little boxes on the interwebs for twenty years. Used to be called usenet, then bulletin boards, then blogs, now social. Still little boxes.


A slap in the face

"Don't vote it only encourages them" has summed up my attitude to politics most of my life. I used to think it was smart. This quote from Bertold Brecht is like a slap in the face:

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn't seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of rent, of medicines, all depend on political decisions. He even prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn't know, the imbecile, that from his political non- participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational corporations. — Bertolt Brecht


Meaning and dogma

Looking at a small Turkish navy vessel anchored out in the bay I find myself wondering how they keep themselves motivated. Small boat, baking heat, no one to fight.

During this holiday I met a British serviceman who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq and was now working in the British embassy in Ankara. We chatted about the British army, it's culture and traditions.

I wondered what culture and traditions held the Turkish navy together and how they maintained them.

Following on from my previous post about dogma, and the earlier one about our need for meaning, this made me wonder about how much tradition, how much structure, how much shared culture is needed to stop things falling apart - and how much tips you into dogma.

Maybe, as with so many things, it is a question of intent - and how shared that intent is?


Thinking about religion

Watching young, traditionalist, Muslim women swimming in fully enclosing, hooded, swimming costumes here in Turkey I find myself yet again thinking about religion and my attitudes to it. My thoughts follow these steps:

I am anti dogma because it is closed, constraining, and always about elites exercising power over others. It makes it easier to avoid taking personal responsibility for your thoughts and actions, and constrains learning and growth.

Spirituality, to me, is an acknowledgement of, and interest in, the beauty, wonder, and inexplicability of much of life. It is the antithesis of dogma and rewards allowing things to stay beautiful, wonderful and inexplicable.

Religion - organised religion as distinct from mankind's religious inclinations which I would include under spirituality - relies heavily on dogma.

Therefore I worry a lot about religion.

I also believe that, as with politics, the power of networked thinking affords us the possibility of a collectively more spiritual outlook on the world with less risk of resorting to dogma.


Finding the right words

I am currently struggling with what to do about friends in online communities who post stuff that I find really objectionable. Things like outrageously sexist, racist or homophobic comments - or calling for the return of capital punishment. Things that come out of the blue, that reveal something about the person that you struggle with, but that you had no idea about before. 

If I was into drawing graphs for this sort of thing there would be one axis with degrees of friendship and another of with degrees of unacceptability and where the two crossed would determine what I do about the issue. With a low level of friendship and and a high degree of unacceptability it is easy - you just "unfriend" the person. But with real friends it is not so easy. It is a bit like when a sweet old lady, maybe a relative of a friend, comes out with an outrageously racist comment. You know it is partly her upbringing, you know at one level she doesn't really mean it, and you know that to make it an issue would really cause her embarrassment and hurt her - but you also know that to say nothing is wrong too.

I understand that online I should comment, explain my discomfort, and engage in a conversation about our differences but, just as in real life, this can be a real challenge. The potential for kicking off a flame war at worst or of hurting feelings at best is very high. Given the inability to use body language or facial expressions to modify your message you have to be so conscious of your choice of language and tone.

I kind of know the answer to this but still struggle. How do you deal with it?


What The Olympic closing ceremony meant ...

… is up to us. 

The positive impact of The Olympics on the mood of the country, and especially the city of London, has been palpable - even to someone as disengaged from the events as myself. Several journalists have written about the positive impact on the spirit of the country and the possibility of shrugging off our sometimes cynical, pessimistic outlook. For many of us this mood has been evidenced and enhanced by our online conversations.

Last night, giving in to pressure from my family, I watched the closing ceremony and, in company with many if not most, found myself wondering what the hell it was all about. Again like many I was following events on Twitter and loving the witty and often very funny commentary going on there. Clearly many enjoyed the musical extravaganza but equally many found its apparent messages disturbing.  Even while it was happening people were commenting that our Twitter back channel was returning us to our cynical selves, some I know even choosing to censure those knocking the ceremony for not keeping the spirit going. 

The negative view of the event was captured in this post from Chris T-T. I have to say that while I may agree with many of the comments he makes in his post I fundamentally disagree with his overall point that we can be put back in our place by the underlying messages of the spectacle, returned to a facile celebrity culture of dominatrix and plastic pop. If we were being cynical in Twitter it was about the attitudes the ceremony appeared to be reverting to - not to the games themselves. We wanted to hold on to the messages of hope and possibility not have the sullied or weakened. 

For the first time since the dominance of mainstream media we can decide for ourselves on a national scale what the closing ceremony meant to us thanks to the web. In fact the inappropriateness of the ceremony may well have reinforced our ownership of the meaning of the games rather than weakened it. Thousands if not millions will have thought "screw you - this wasn't what the games were about nor what made us proud".

Like I said - what the closing ceremony "meant" is up to us. 


Meaning matters

I sit on boards for a couple of organisations and therefore have to read what I would call conventional paperwork. More often than not I struggle with this. Not that I can't read the words but that I can't for the life of me work out what they mean, what the story is behind them.

The possibility of an alternative is what I find so exciting about the use of blogs in business. The way you can string together multiple perspectives on a topic. The way topics can be covered obliquely and in passing rather than in an attempt to provide a definitive version. And the way you can use rich context to help determine meaning.

Meaning matters.

This moving passage is from the wonderful Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and is from his grandmother's explanation of her attitude to food:

"The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn't know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me."

"He saved your life."
"I didn't eat it." ....
"You didn't eat it?"
"It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork."
"What do you mean why?"
"What, because it wasn't kosher? "
"Of course."
"But not even to save your life?"
"If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."

I struggle with this, to me, arbitrary meaning but am humbled by the strength of conviction behind it. Humans seek out and cling to meaning - even in the most adverse circumstances.

What a shame we have sanitised meaning out of so much of our communications. Wouldn't business be more exciting, and more effective, if we sought more meaning and got better at expressing it?


Blogging and the Heart Of Darkness

I sometimes wonder what it is that bugs me. What is it that drives me to do the work I do - because it does feel driven, something I am passionate about. Who or what am I reacting to? What windmills am I tilting at? What itch is it that I am scratching?

A heavy clue lies in the fact that my favourite book is Conrad's Heart Of Darkness and my favourite bit in that book is when he portrays a company man, a bureaucrat, who runs the operation at the head of the river the narrator is about to travel along into the heart of darkness.

“I let him run on, this papier-mache Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe. He, don’t you see, had been planning to be assistant-manager by and by under the present man, and I could see that the coming of that Kurtz had upset them both not a little. He talked precipitately, and I did not try to stop him.

[and later]

You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.

I often think of that man, the papier-mâché Mephistopheles. I used to think of him a lot when I worked in a large bureaucratic organisation, I think of him often when being shown around client organisations. I once teetered on the brink of becoming like him out of a fear of being different and a desire to fit in. On a bad day I can still envy him.

Sometimes not wanting to be like him feels like running away. Trying too hard to be different, finding too much fault with the norm. When I first read the book as a teenager I wanted to be Kurtz. I wanted to scare myself and others by going deep inside - seeing and understanding things that others backed off from. But Kurtz, who the narrator eventually meets deep in the jungle, has been running away in his own way - indeed has gone mad running away.

My big fear for myself, and my sadness on behalf of others when it happens to them, is the risk of becoming that hollow shell. Being the company man who relies on the outward trappings of power - the title, the office, the salary - and who has lost his soul in the process. But like the narrator in the novel I want to protect myself and others from the heart of darkness, to avoid the chaos and terror of losing all grip of reality.

This might seem gloriously disconnected from the world of blogging but it is not … trust me. Social tools allow us to navigate along the river, to keep talking to each other as we leave the hollow men behind. To build a collective narrative as we go inwards and loosen the grip on a normality that is already crumbling behind us. With any luck it will also help us to stop short of losing our grip, falling apart and not finding our way back.

But who knows - we have a way to go yet ...


Feeling scared

DSC 0137

Earlier in the year we took our family on an excellent adventure weekend at Okehampton Youth Hostel. One of the four days of activities included a high ropes exercise where, wearing safety harnesses, we carried out a variety of challenges at what felt like a scary height. The hardest of these was to climb a thirty foot high pole and then clamber onto a precariously fixed three foot square platform. Even though I was roped up, my brain was still screaming at me that this was a dangerous thing to do. I was OK with climbing the pole, and even sort of OK levering myself onto the platform, but became less OK when my friend Tim arrived beside me, clambered up my legs and then proceeded to cling to me as if his life depended on it!

I get scared a lot. In fact as you can see from this story I sometimes seek out being scared. This is partly why I like climbing hills and why I love my job. I get a little scared every time I write a blog post, I get an amazing rush of adrenalin when I press send on a newsletter going out to thousands people, and often, when I am about to speak in public, I get so scared that I fantasise about pulling a sickie or finding some other excuse to back out!

Being scared can feel good, overcoming your fear feels even, better but avoiding being scared is the scariest thing you can do, and is, I am beginning to believe the root cause of anxiety. Being anxious is different from being scared. That creeping, grey veil of doubt that rots away at your confidence has little to recommend it. We know what we are not facing up to, we know the things we could do but are ducking, and if we keep letting anxiety constrict our lives long enough we start to die.

Anxiety is the smell of rotting lives.


The Olympics - building culture one tweet at a time

Many years ago, while our staff forum at the BBC was in its heyday, someone commented that the forum had done more to build a "one BBC" culture than any of the corporate initiatives under the same name. It wasn't mandated, it wasn't managed, it wasn't even particularly anticipated or planned. People did it themselves one conversation at a time, one post at a time.

In advance of the Olympics I had seen the games as the equivalent of those corporate initiatives - a jingoistic, over managed, orchestrated, corporately funded, modern equivalent of bread and circuses.

BUT ...

With the Olympics, as with our forum at the BBC, we are seeing people come together one tweet at a time, one Facebook update at a time, and building something really special. We have been learning as we go that social tools are capable of more than just updating the world as to what we had for breakfast. They are capable of helping us build and share culture. To rub shoulders virtually and to take collective ownership of how we see the world and what we do about it.

These social games have in fact proved to be a wonderful celebration of a culture of which I am actually very proud. A multicultural, tolerant, energetic Britain that I believe could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about how to build and sustain a civilised way of living together. Even some of the uncomfortable moments detailed in my previous post have been learned about, understood and reacted to collectively online.

The BBC has done a wonderful job of covering the games but at the same time we are shrugging off the need for the media or politicians to tell us what things mean, and are getting better at working it out for ourselves.

Even if I still don't get the sport - this is really exciting!


Advice I should heed ...

… from the very smart Steve Chandler:


It isn't how many books you read, it's how many you apply.

You are better off, therefore, reading one book four times than reading four books one time each. Most people try to accumulate knowledge.

But it doesn't accumulate, it makes you fat and paralyzed. A friend recently told me of 100 books to read.

Rather tell me the ONE BOOK I should read 100 times. The difference is between a life that is changed, and a life that is weighed down with heavy immobilizing knowledge.


What I think

We all have the ability to think seriously
We all have the right to say what we think
Sharing what we think has never been easier
We are on the brink of working out new ways to productively combine what we all think
Doing so will make the world a better place