Monday, 31 March 2014


Joshua Foer is a journalist and writer (“Moonwalking with Einstein”). He became interested in memory and especially the extraordinary feats of memory some achieve some remembering hundreds of numbers in sequence or the cards in several packs of cards. He was intrigued that the seemingly impossible could be memorised. He wanted to know more so he visited the USA Memory Championship. There’ve been sixteen such championships in New York City. His interest deepened. So much so that in 2006, just out of interest he trained for and entered the championship.

There he discovered people specialists in things like remembering as many decks of playing cards as possible, 5min Historic Dates (fictional events and historic years) and memorizing the order of one shuffled deck of 52 playing cards as fast as possible. World record: 21.90 seconds. There are ten exercises in all.
Jonathan was blown away. He realised he was in the presence of mental gymnasts of an extraordinary order. Yet in 2006 he entered just for interest and…and he won it. Jonathan Foer became US Memory Champion almost by chance. How? Well he explains on TED how you have to make things you want to remember meaningful and tangible. He explains how techniques invented 2,500 years ago still work.

The lyric poet Simonides had a wonderful memory.  During the excavation of the rubble of one Scopas' dining hall that had collapsed in an earthquake, Simonides (who’d luckily left before the disaster) was asked to identify each guest killed. Although their bodies had been crushed beyond recognition he successfully finished the task by remembering who was who from their positions at the table before his departure. He later developed what became known as  the 'memory palace', a system for mnemonics widely used until the Renaissance …when things we needed to remember  were printed so are memories weren’t called on with quite the previous urgency.

Today of course our memory is on our iPad or smartphone. Today children at school are not taught to memorise. Today we’ve forgotten about memory. Yet memory today is still a vital thinking tool.
I’d go further. It’s virtually impossible to be a great success without a reasonable memory. Imagine a lawyer who can’t cross reference relevant cases. Imagine a toymaker who can’t recall similar toys to his latest idea. Imagine a writer who couldn’t remember the references that enrich his assertions.

You cannot busk when you have poor memory.

One of our biggest problems is our mind attic is stacked full of rubbish we don’t need. So, in specific areas we really want to focus on, we need to do a “Spring Clean”. Learn some stuff by heart, put some structure around a subject in which you have a keen interest and see
what happens. Look after one of your precious assets.

(By the way the 17th USA Memory Championship was on March 29, 2014 at Con Edison headquarters, 4 Irving Place, New York City.)

Monday, 24 March 2014


Independence is in the air, you can smell the whiff of recession and of rebirth from Padua to Perth. There’s a restless mood of change. Crimea which represents just 5% of the Ukraine has gone home to mother Russia. Scotland is putting its gouty toe into the water of independence and dreaming of “Braveheart” and of Mel Gibson roaring “freedom”.

Just recently I’ve started taking the SNP quite seriously. This is partly because of the lacklustre campaign by the “No” team.  Although to be fair they do have a problem or two. The Tories amongst them know that independence for Scotland means virtually the end of the Socialist party so a large part of their minds would love it to happen. And a whole bunch of ‘schadenfreuders’ in England have a playground attitude of “let them go and see what happens…they’ll be sorry.”
It gets worse…the head of the Chamber of Commerce in Newcastle said compellingly this week that a “yes” vote would be fantastic for them with a migration of business from Scotland south.

But it isn’t any of that that interests me so much as a sense of curiosity as to whether the Scots as a whole, regardless of economic issues, would actually be happier being independent. Too small to survive I hear. Hmm. They’d be bigger than Norway, Finland, New Zealand and Luxembourg who are respectively number 1, 8, 5 and 10 in the “Happiest Nation Index” (the UK, by the way, is 16th).

And who ambitious wants either the been-there-seen-that status quo or the sense of being a small fish in a rather large and unfriendly pond?

Wouldn’t Wales and  Cornwall prefer to be independent – actually come to that wouldn’t London prefer it too – an independent London would be like Singapore only much, much more powerful? The biggest, richest glittery city in the world.

And I see now that Venice is at it, running a poll of ½ million people in the Veneto region of Italy,  voting to secede from the corruption of Rome and the hopeless poverty of the south of the country.

Then there’s Catalonia, Brittany and so it goes on. So it’s better to be independent and it’s better to be small is it? This seems to be the mood. Small is beautiful. Welcome back the apostle of the doctrine…

And that’s why there were 300,000 start-ups in the UK last year and already this year a further 120,000.

As regards size, business units of around 150 seem to be the perfect size. A size where there’s spirit, obsession and energy. This is where creativity seems to peak. Forget about scaling a business; a lot of business thinkers are beginning to wonder if big and bureaucratic isn’t just beastly and unwieldy.

Imagine countries with a population of 5m. and businesses of 150 employees? Maybe this really is the future rather than corporations of thousands or Shanghai’s of 20 million.

This …. and, of course, that bit of freedom.

Monday, 17 March 2014


I heard a story recently about some people eating in a restaurant in Helsinki. The food when it arrived was not what they’d ordered. They pointed this out to the waitress who said :-  “I know”. Thinking perhaps that she hadn’t understood them they said again :- “this…is…not…what…we…ordered”. “I know” she said “I made a mistake. Eat it please”.

It sounds like Saga in the Bridge. An unforgettable putting-you-in-your-place tactic.

Last Sunday we had our own “I’m so cross I couldn’t eat it now if it was free and served by BeyoncĂ©” experience. We went to this idyllic country gastropub for lunch. The sun had brought out unusual crowds but there was no reason to believe they couldn’t cope (oh yes there was – the addition of the six letters GASTRO doesn’t change the fact it’s a traditional British Pub…old Britain…they don’t do service). Anyway (what do mean anyway…you didn’t stay did you?) – yes – well anyway we’d booked for 2.30 and we ordered and actually I ordered smoked salmon and they did say it might take up to 40 minutes which seemed a bit long (they were lying weren’t they?) Yes. We were still waiting after 1 ½ hours. And we walked out with them begging us to stay as we were next. (So you won’t be going back will you?)  No we won’t.

Spot what’s missing here

Customer service is always top of my list.

In London, in particular, standards have improved dramatically. Today we expect smiling, attentive, the customer-is-our-first-concern-and they -are-always-right attitude. We do not want or expect fawning servility. We want New Britain. The Ivy not the CafĂ© Royal. BAA not British Rail. New not old. And if you love your customers, really love them, it’s not that hard.

It was what I most enjoyed about advertising – cooking up great creative work – serving it to needy clients and watching it do their business good. They even paid us for having this much fun.

Which brings me to two RIPs for old Britain.

To the always infuriating and yet curiously entertaining Bob Crow. Like an old Music Hall comedian he strutted the ticket halls of London Underground defending the indefensible.

And to the Co-op. I love my local Co-op. Great staff. Good product but underlying it all a perverse Royal Mail-ness. Horror after horror has unfolded as it’s become clear the organisational terrorists within who leak and brief against management – Al and Frieda rather than Al-Quaeda – want to revert to the old Co-op.

Sadly I fear this is a vote for suicide. Whilst Mr Sutherland was well paid for sure (too well? – well, there’s an important cultural debate here) no one would dispute he’s been trying to pull off a massive rescue and turnaround, probably in so doing shortening his own life. In effectively ousting him his uncooperative colleagues will, as I said at the outset, sadly be served right.

New Co-op HQ – old Co-op attitudes

Monday, 10 March 2014



The poem by 17th century poet Andrew Marvell starts
“Had we but world enough and time
this coyness, lady, were no crime”

It’s a blatant try-on, though as knicker-dropping appeals go it’s pretty compelling. But since we now live in a global environment we have plenty of “world”, few of us are coy (indeed if you read the Times this week you’ll have seen one night stands are all the thing at the University of Oxford – they call it recreational, consensual sex – with Exeter College as the naughtiest and least coy place of all….check it out.

And the tone of the poem would have meant young Mr Marvell having his ruff fingered by officers from Operation Yew Tree if he tried this ploy on today.
As for time we live in a do-it-now, hurry-hurry, get-‘em-off world where the default speed is warp drive.
That’s the world of now, the much vaunted “mindfulness” arena in which we are performing and making our decisions. The trouble is human beings are hopeless at predicting the future and are congenitally over-optimistic. This leads to over runs, missed deadlines, embarrassing statements in parliament and overall disappointment.
The consequences of what we do now (the mindful place) in this hurry-hurry world also has a nasty habit of coming back to sting us. Hence the headline from hell for the Met in Friday’s Times:
“You can’t trust Police”

Twenty years ago some decisions and catastrophic judgements were being made in the Lawrence enquiry that will continue to stain reputations for years to come. It’s beyond quick fixing.
Operation Yew Tree again. Foraging into the mental dustbins of the Andrew Marvell’s of the 1970s is leading to some unsavoury stuff and some weird court cases.  What probably started as a series of fumbles has resulted in a long drawn out set of nasty consequences.

And here’s my big problem with mindfulness. Whilst carpe diem is quite the zeitgeist thing, it’s also very dangerous. Being body conscious and in the present was just what Andrew Marvell was getting at in the 1650’s.
But what we should be learning is the need for “thoughtfulness” not mindfulness; the need for understanding the learnings from history and the potential impact in the future of the actions and decisions we make now. The Richard Branson philosophy of “screw it let’s do it”, which sounds like the anthem of the grubby recent past, won’t do at all.
We live in complex times and the unravelling of the reputations of all our institutions – parliament, police, church, media, banks and big business have been induced by a “screw let’s do it” attitude.
Unless we start to think a bit harder and guard against being randomly impulsive we’ll have to sweep up a lot more reputational debris as we rebuild trust.

And that rebuilding of trust and reputation will take time – a very long time.

Monday, 3 March 2014


The diagnosis was rather depressing:

You are what we call intellectually obese. Your symptom is constipation in using the word ‘why’ brought on by a diet of junk-literature ….there’s only one treatment.”

She slid a card across the table. 

P.O. Box 17
8127 Forch

Authorities view physical obesity as the most serious public health problems but no one is talking about an equally serious issue.

‘Obesity of the mind’, by which I mean having neglected one’s “thinking-diet” so badly that one becomes unable to think quickly, stops being inquisitive and becomes reliant on sound bites.  Politicians are full of concern about our children’s exam results but not about their capacity to think. 

Exams are easy to fix. It’s thinking that’s hard. 

Right now we are being bombarded with stuff on mindfulness. Gwyneth Paltrow even talked about it at Davos. Hopefully everyone there felt their feet on the ground, attended to their breathing and ‘noticed’ their thoughts. No, I’m not being sarcastic. Much of the mindfulness liturgy makes sense….we should live for now rather than dwelling on the past or speculating about the future. 

But as well as being ‘mindful’ we also need to be ‘thoughtful’.

Being thoughtful means taking nothing for granted. It means being a bit contrary. It means being prepared to ask “why” rather more than we are used to. It means saying “not necessarily”.  And it means accepting that in a rapidly changing world the old way may be the wrong way but equally the new way might be entirely misguided too. 

Nassim Taleb, a contrarian and passionate radical, is very expressive on what he calls the insanity of “neomania” -   believing that all things new are not necessarily great. 
The thinking person’s kit includes a large pinch of curiosity, voracious reading and a cheerful refusal to be bamboozled by anything. 

What’s strange about all this is we have, through technology, a better set of thinking tools than we’ve ever had. We have access to more information and more chances of asking “why?” but sometimes we seem disinclined to take advantage of them.

There are exceptions like the astonishing success of the Khan Academy – a not-for-profit website that’s the hottest educational phenomenon in the world.

No obesity here….just a constant muscular “why” driving the whole enterprise.
And finally my grandsons who asked after me reading them a story about a sausage destined for their tea escaping from the house followed by peas and fries:

“Grandpa what do you think?”

‘What do you think’ are the four most turbocharged words I know, meaning ‘what’s your opinion?’ or ‘what’s your decision?’ or ‘what’s on your mind?’ But from 5 and 7 year olds there’s a need for being direct with simplicity, clarity and honesty in your answer. No frills, waffle or sidestepping. 

With questions like that being asked there’s simply no chance of mental obesity.