Innovation

I went to an actual book club tonight run by organised by Sicamp (Social Innovation Camp – they run weekends putting techy and charity people together to solve social problems) and Bethnal Green Ventures (who seem to do something similar). They were looking at Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson (you can watch his great TED talk here about how – amongst other things – coffee shops started the Enlightenment in England because they were where “ideas could have sex”). In true book-club form I hadn’t actually read the book, so the discussion was kind of like my A-level English class where did my best to blag my way through. (Sorry to the other participants!)

Johnson’s big theme is that we have a misleading idea about how great ideas come about. We picture good ideas coming from a brilliant individual cut off from the world (‘solitude is the soul of genius’ wrote Edward Gibbon) being struck suddenly by inspiration. 

Johnson turns this on its head. Ideas fade slowly into view (he calls this the ‘slow hunch’). They are around for years until the circumstances are right for their genesis. And the circumstances can mean that ideas meant for one purpose end up solving very different problems. As the Telegraph writes:

[Ideas] are the result of the right place and the right time; of chance and failure; of letting things mull for a bit; of thinking across borders. He asks us to rethink where we place innovation … [Johnson] looks at how the artistic glories of Renaissance Florence also produced double-entry book-keeping and how the printing press was developed using technology originally designed for winemaking.

The temptation to try and follow this path is highly tempting. (Darwin for example pretended in his autobiography that his ideas for natural selection cam suddenly one day in his office in 1838, yet we know from his notebooks that the ideas had been nagging him for decades). 

Yet the question that struck me from the discussion was, do we need innovation? In this sense: is it the lack of new ideas that is holding us back? So often, it seems to me, it’s not the idea we’re lacking (how about eating healthily? how about drinking water for all children everywhere?), or even the know-how, but the ability to make that idea a reality. 

 

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Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

In August I was at the Edinburgh TV festival being lectured by Eric Schmidt about the need to end the divide in the UK society between ‘luvvies’ and ‘boffins’. As Schmidt argued, ‘there’s been a drift to humanities’ with the result, ‘engineering and science aren’t championed’.

This has meant the UK’s been left behind:

‘The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. (It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops.) Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK’

Brian Cox picked up the theme the next day in a Q&A. He pointed out that while no politician on Newsnight would say ‘I know nothing about economics’ – even though that might be an honest admission –  all too often we hear the same sentiment expressed about science. ‘It should be socially unacceptable to know nothing about science’, he said. (Considering David Cameron claimed last Sunday that the British invented DNA, Brian Cox has got a lot of work to do.)

For me, it was the theme of the festival. So on the train journey I devoured DK’s Science. It’s 500 pages of beautifully illustrated, magazine-sized nuggets and articles. For four hours I didn’t stop, jumping all over the place, scribbling down questions in a notebook.

(I love picture books, and especially those by Doris Kingsley. I have them any number of topics. When I was a primary school teacher, I used to love the school library because it was stacked full of visual, easy to understand non-fiction books.)

I’ve always thought people learn best by going in layers. If you want to learn English history, start with picture books/movies/stories that bring it alive and give you an overview, and then repeat the process in a higher level of complexity (Dimbleby’s 7 Ages of Britain for e.g), and then again and so on.

The next layer of complexity was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’ve heard praise for this book from every quarter for years, so I realise I’m very late to the party in saying that it is wonderful. (See Dave’s post earlier this year) Bryson’s book is packed full of wonderful nuggets and little biographies of extraordinary characters.

Here are some of the little facts I learned:

  • The average adult is carrying around 2 kg of dead skin
  • If the history of the planet is 24 hours, humans appear on the scene 1 minute and 17 seconds before midnight
  • Eighty per cent of the world biomass are microbes
  • Because of the Earth’s spin the west coast of the Pacific is a foot and a half higher than the east coast (like the little wave of water you’d get if you suddenly tugged a tray of water towards you)
  • Lightning heats the air to 28,000 C, which is hotter than the surface of the Sun
  • An atom’s nucleus is tiny in proportionate to the rest of the atom. ‘Like a fly in a cathedral’ as it has been described, except the fly is thousands of times heavier than the cathedral.
  • The North Star might have burnt out 680 years ago
  • Unlike most illustrations in science text books, the planets are extraordinarily far away from each other. If the Earth was the size of a pea, Jupiter would be 300 metres away. Seen from the surface of Pluto, the sun is a pinprick in the night sky.
  • Mastadon means ‘nipple teeth’
  • To see the atoms in a drop of water with the naked eye, you’d have to magnify the drop until it was 24 km across.
  • If you managed to drill a hole to the centre of the earth and dropped a brick down it, (presuming you could dig such a hole, and that our brick wouldn’t incinerate long before reaching the centre of something that wouldn’t melt). You’d expect the brick to take 45 mins to drop the 6,370 km to the centre, but in fact it would slow as the gravitational effect of the mass above the brick took effect, until by the time it got to the centre it would be floating.
I also learnt that far from being ‘invented’ by the British, DNA wasn’t even discovered by Watson & Crick in 1953. In fact it had been known about since 1869 when it was discovered by Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss scientist, who was looking at pus in surgical bandages. Rather, Watson (who was actually American) & Crick worked out it’s molecular structure – still, I’m happy to admit, quite an achievement.

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Police, Crime & 999

I am an avid reader …but mainly of first chapters. It takes something special to get me really into a book and on the surface ‘Police, Crime & 999’ looked to be just another cop book. Sure, it promised to give me the inside track as to what REALLY goes on behind the scenes in the British police service …but don’t they all?

What I didn’t expect from a police officer was such a refreshingly different style of writing. It is rare to come across a book that so happily bucks the same formulaic trend for the genre. There is also an artistic freedom that seems to prevail throughout the book. Maybe this is because Donoghue himself does not conform to society’s norms.

After serving as a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy and then in the British Army, he became a successful businessman.  Then, rather unsurprisingly, he got bored – so he just handed back his company car and keys to the executive loo – and in his early 40s, started yet another career, this time in the police.

‘Police, Crime & 999’ chronicles the true story of a year in his life as a front line response police officer. His sharp observational humour and wit are evident from the off (along with the odd corny one liner). He is a natural story teller, and Royal arrests, ‘celebrating’ corpses, irate barber shop customers, bungled burglaries, Tourettes’ afflicted pensioners, mad axe men and pornographic snowmen all get the Donoghue treatment.  Humour,  warmth, intelligence and humanity abound in the book  …along with plenty of wonderful little asides.

Although achingly funny, utterly absorbing and very eloquently written, it is also deeply revealing. This is a part of society that (thankfully) most of us never see. What I also loved was seeing the gradual transformation in PC Donoghue over the course of the book – in his own opinions and outlook on life.

This is a treasure trove of a book – a wonderfully informative, self-mocking and addictive read, full of belly laughs. Utterly brilliant.

By Joanne West

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Waxing Lexical

I’ve just finished reading a book that I never knew I simply had to read about a subject that I had no idea I was interested in.  Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or, The Whale is a strange mix: partly autobiographical, part history of whaling, partly an in-depth study of Moby Dick and its author, and partly a love letter to whales; words mixed with grainy monochrome pictures.  Yet far from being fragmented and confusing, this strange combination is utterly compelling.

Hoare flagrantly romaticises the whale, writing about these creatures with an often mystical and spiritual tone.  He tells the tale of how as man developed technology, we became more and more brutally efficient at slaughtering a creature which to this day, we have a fairly limited understand of.  He speculates on how man’s intervention has quite possibly destroyed whale culture; knowledge that was somehow passed down through generations before the whale population was so comprehensively disrupted and brought to the brink of extinction.  He traces the history of man’s encounters and those that sought to document them in fact and fiction.

The real power of this book, however, is not in the subject matter but the strength of its writing.  Book lovers will know that a book – merely words – can be more immersive than any other form of media.  Immersive doesn’t begin to describe this title.  This is truly a book to be experienced.

“It was as if I were looking into the universe.  The blue was intangible yet distinct; untouchable and all-enveloping, like the sky. I felt like an astronaut set adrift, the world falling away beneath me.  Floating in and out of focus before my eyes were a myriad of miniature planets or asteroids, some elliptical, some perfect spheres.  Set sharply against the blue, the glaucous, gelatinous micro-animals and what seemed to be fish roe moved in a firmament of their own, both within and beyond my perception.

I was moving through another dimension, suspended in salt water, held over the earth that had disappeared far below.  I could see nothing ahead.  The rich soup on which those same tiny organisms fed combined to defeat my sight, reducing lateral visibility as they drifted like dust motes caught in the sunlight.

Then, suddenly, there it was.

Ahead, taking shape out of the darkness, was an outline familiar from words and pictures and books and films but which had never seemed real; an image I might have invented out of my childhood nightmares, a recollection of something impossible.  Something so huge I could not see it, yet which now resolved itself into reality.

A sperm whale, hanging at the surface.  I was less than thirty feet away before I saw it, before its blunt head, connected by muscular flanks to its infinite, slowly swaying fukes, filled my field of vision.

…I could not believe that something so big could be so silent.  Surveyed by the electrical charge of her sixth sense, I felt insignificant, and yet not quite.  Recreated in her own dimension, in the dimension of the sea, I was taken into her otherness, my image in her head.  As the whale turned past me, I saw her eye, grey, veiled, sentient; set in her side, the centre of her consciousness.  Behind it lay only muscle, moving without effort.  The moment lasted forever, for seconds.  Both of us in our naked entirety, nothing between us but illimitable ocean.”

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Deadliest Killer in the Home? Stairs

Stairing death in the face

One of the big themes of John Lanchester’s Whoops is that people are terrible at understanding risk, but that modern economic theory does not account for this (amongst a number of other basic psychological basics).

He illustrates our crude understanding of risk by pointing out that stairs kill around six hundred deaths every year. That’s roughly the same as the number of murders every year. And yet no-one feels particularly scared of stairs.

It’s a chance for Lanchester to indulge in another wonderful little aside.

“A warning about the government mortality statistics: if you are of a nervous or hypochondriacal disposition, avoid them at all costs. Here are some of the categories of deaths: ‘Accidental suffocation or strangling in bed’ (eight deaths), ‘Contact with plant thorns and spikes and sharp leaves’ (one death) and ‘Drowning and submersion while bath tub’ (eighteen deaths). Interestingly, only one person died after being bitten by a rat, but ten from being ‘bitten or struck by other mammals’. But which mammals? Dogs? If so, why not say so? Badgers? Dolphins?”

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Gangland by Tony Thompson

I’ve read Tony Thompson’s books on crime before. They are always marketed in a low-brow tabloidy way but are brilliantly written. They are gripping and informative: basically, my definition of the perfect nonfiction book. One technique he always uses is to bring his personal experience into the writing. In Gangs – an earlier book – he describes getting high on crack cocaine and heroin, and in this book he recounts almost getting beaten up by bouncers whilst pursuing an interview, and selling drugs in Camden. This could be annoying, but done with restraint and a bit of self-deprecation – as Thompson does – it adds a real thrill to the ride. (The most amusing story is getting arrested by police for firearms he’d bought over the internet. He arrives home one morning to find a police squad searching his flat:

“The living room is a sea of chaos. There are papers and clothes and books and boxes everywhere. It is as though a tornado has torn through the place, destroying everything in its path. It is exactly as I’d left it the night before.“)

There are many interesting parts to the book (the chapter on how important mobile phones are in prison was particularly eye-opening – it includes a story of one con who had to go to hospital to have a bit of his rectum removed, after hiding a phone up his bum during a routine room inspection) but one little note stood out because it confirmed something in another book I’d read recently.

In Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, in one chapter titled ‘Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?’ the authors look at how many drug dealers make little money. Drug dealing – like music or film – is a glamour industry: a few people at the top earns piles of money supported by scores of ambitious younguns who’ll do anything to make it big. In the book Thompson cites a  Joseph Rowntree study that gives the example of two runners, employed by a relative who had to sell 200 bags of heroin and 200 rocks of crack a week between them to earn £150 a week. As Thompson notes:

“considering how often teenagers protest they have no choice but to work the streets because ‘it’s better than flipping burgers in McDonald’s’, a sixteen-year-old working a forty-hour week at the fast-food chain would actually take home £163 after deduction of tax and national insurance”

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How the Baby-Boomers Wrecked Music

I’ve written about the power of the boomers in shaping the political agenda, but it seems that that’s not the only marketplace in which they’ve been exercising their clout.

James Harkin is a “futurologist” and in his book, Niche, he describes how as the general audience declined, the companies he worked for became interested in particular demographics. After chasing teenagers and young people, companies realised that the money was in catering to the baby-boomers.

“Bugger youth culture, went the new mantra: a generation that once promised to die before it got old was now living out a middle youth, and it was up for us to help them feel good about it. Only two years after I had been hired to write fevered reports about the temperature of global youth, I was working for ad agencies and think tanks in New York and London to find out who older people really were … whole days flew by in a research haze of Steppenwolf songs, day spas, and Stannah Stairlifts”. [pg 69]

One business that made the shift was the music industry. In the early 2000s, it had become obsessed with teenagers investing in genres like rap, hip-hop and teeny pop just as the teenage audience was working out how to download things for free. By 2004 in the UK, more middle-aged people were buying albums than teenagers. That was all soon to change, though how the shift begun took everyone a bit by surprise.

“In retrospect, it would be easy to blame everything that happened next on a twenty-three-year-old jazz-piano crooner. In February 2002 Norah Jones, the daughter of Ravi Shankar, had released a folksy album called Come Away With Me. The album won some admiring reviews but no one expected it to sell very well, and it duly chugged along at the bottom of the charts. As the year progressed, however, sales began to quicken. The album seemed to have become ethe unofficial mood music for coffee shops and bookstores frequented by a discerning older clientele. Despite a lack of publicity, it was obvious that Norah Jones had somehow acquired a devoted army of fans. … By February 2003, a full year after its release, Come Away With Me has ascended to No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, where it remained for three weeks. In the same month it took five Grammy awards, including pop album of the year … it sold an incredible six million copies – most of them, a little research reveal, to music lovers at least two decades older than the singer herself.” [pg 67]

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