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'Nearly all the problems facing society today cannot be attacked by single disciplines.'

Dr Alexander King

This blog contains hundreds of original articles. 


And book a talk and buy my new book MICROMASTERY

"I couldn't stop telling people about this book. Wise and joyful, it genuinely changed the way I thought about learning - and it left me bursting to put it into action."  - Tim Harford, author of Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy

"Micromastery is a triumph. A brilliant idea, utterly convincing, and superbly carried through." Philip Pullman.



Go and get it from a bookshop.

Or Buy online! Micromastery - learn small, learn fast and find the hidden path to happiness is published by Penguin books (UK) in May 2017. It will be published in China, Taiwan, USA, Germany and South Korea in the months after that.

You can get it at Wordery- click below

Or for those amazon junkies click this one:



angry emails

Write the angry email. Keep it as a draft for a few minutes. THEN Delete it and write the same message in a cunning way, with humour and self-deprecation but still firm, still achieving the same result.


what you need to know about new technology

1. Technology goes through three phases: inventing, developing, maturing. Once a technology is mature it rarely disappears forever. Even wooden ploughs are still being used because they have a utility in places where welding is difficult and costly. The notion of obsolescence is replaced with that of increasing breadth of option. Technology in the inventing and developing phase moves forward, but in the maturing phase it just moves sideways, fanning out, ever increasing our options. 

2. Recognise when a technology is entering the maturing phase. New versions show ever smaller improvements. They answer non-universal problems or even non-existent problems (a parking camera?). Disproportionate cost goes into small improvements. The technology moves slowly- predictions replace actual developments. This is the key moment- when you cease to be surprised by a new technology - it just appears in the market place- and have to be told to wait until 2020 or some other date, then you know the technology has entered a fanciful immitation of development- when actually it is either mature or even a failure. Think driverless cars and nuclear fusion here.

3. The internet is now a mature technology. Already people are working around it, putting up with its intrusions, using it, sure, but not being used by it.

4. New technology is always beneficial at first and then increasingly negative in its effects. Sometimes terribly so, sometimes not.

5. To predict the future better think of technological developments as spreading ever wider in a widening front that faces the future and yourself at that widening front looking out. The technology is vastly secondary to other concerns you may have about the unknown facing you...


what car design tells us

Cars over the last ten years have got harder and harder to see out of.

They resemble increasingly chopped and squashed hotrods with tiny perfunctory windows and lowered roofs.

In the past - starting in the 1960s- we saw a move towards more and more visibility. Huge acres of glass- the old Mercedes 350SL, the humble cortina, the mini metro and early Nissan Micra. There were glitches- the Ford Capri and later Cortina were a step back towards less visibility- but generally the move was: better visibility equals better safety.

This assumes the burden of safety is mainly on the driver. An active view. But now cars are increasingly like padded boxes. Egg boxes for people yet to be even chickens. Less visibility, not more. Passive safety not active safety.

Increasingly the mainstream culture sees people as not to be trusted....


developing ideas

Lots of people have ideas. Writers develop ideas.

I have just finished a book about computing, by a computer expert, not a writer. It was long winded and didn't say much because the ideas, and there were some, were buried, thrown away, not developed. One was: what if you designed an operating system without files. Are files as integral to computing as we think? This idea- which is interesting and kind of amazing (apple's very first OS tinkered with a no files concelt until Steve Jobs decided to embrace them) is just left hanging out to dry.

Taking an idea and turning it over in your palm, as a diamond cutter turns over a gem, looking for lines of interest, where it will crack open, what potential jewel is hidden within- all this the work of the writer.

Often writers have LESS ideas than normal folk. But they are good at spotting good ones, stealing them and running with them. Unpacking is mainly what writers seem to do.


the database problem revisited

I am very indebted to my friend Rob Walters, a computer telephony engineer and author, for telling me all about the 'database problem'. Indeed it is one of the founding laws of creating databases: there shalt only be ONE database. You have a calendar in your office and one at home. You update them both, kind of, but sooner or later one slips ahead...and then you get real problems. Neither database becomes absolutely reliable. Things start getting stressful...

Multiple access points for communication are a form of database problem. You have the mobile, you have the home phone, you have twitter, facebook and email- and maybe instagram, linked in and pinterest too. Each one allows communication. Of course you can keep everything on your mobile and keep checking through all of them- kind of like having four calendars on the wall all next to each other- still overkill and still room for missing things.

Many people I know have given up having a home phone and the mobile becomes the main portal for everything. The problem is- it's never off. And there is no hierarchy of communication. Everything from the utterly trivial to earth shattering is 'normal' for it. Noise increases. Stress increases.

Always aiming for one database is an ideal worth striving for. Unattainable perhaps, but all steps in this direction are useful. Communication technology 'uses us' more than we 'use it' when we service multiple databases, wasting our time keeping them all updated.


What robot wars can teach us about design

Robot wars is hard to resist. A bunch of engineers and fabricators of machines compete to build a robot that can kill all other robots. What’s interesting is to see the evolution of design- which is part determined by the robot arena and partly by the opposing robots.

The arena is a caged off zone- maybe the size of a squash court with a few tethered house robots that are larger than the competers but fairly predictable. They stick to their patch so it’s important not to break down within their ambit. There are various hazards- a hole that appears- which once you are in is very hard to extricate yourself from.

But the major design influence is the opposing robot.

At first the robots looked cool and robot like. This changed over time as top heavy robots proved easy to flip. So new ones became flip friendly- able to right themselves or even run when upside down. They became sleek and wedge shaped with hidden wheels – and all had wheels- none have legs which I guess would make it too hard to be an evenly matched game.

The robots defeat each other either by smashing, cutting, flipping or electrocuting the opposite machine. For a while no technology prevailed then it became apparent that a bit of each didn’t work. Your robot had to commit to one tactic or another. Hammer wielding smashers worked for a while. Then wedge powered flippers were the rage. Then a team looked at the rather feeble circular saws on some robots and built a spinning rotor- like a mower rotor- out of turbine steel. It was lethal and virtually unbreakable. Just getting the tip of your robot caught by this killer device could result in it being spun out of the arena.

Of course you need speed, manoeuvrability, armament and the ability to react to being flipped- but at the end of the day you need unstoppable firepower that is fast. A hammer or even a taser is a bit slow. A rotating blade is like a gatling gun- devastating. Momentum is what halts another object- Mass multipled by velocity. Mass is not enough. And speed is not enough. Thinking about devices that raise both of these easily (things that spin rather than oscillate, stop-start) is a good way forward.

Even when designing other products think about its momentum, think about ways of making it spin so as not to need constant inputs of energy to keep starting it again. Think of a book, instead of being launched (with the inevitable return to earth), being put in a series of low orbits that just keep rising. What a ‘low orbit’ would be or what form this spinning would take would obviously differ for each product.


the return of the cheapskate adventurer

I was in my bikeshop today, I mean the local one, not one I own and the owner was trying to persuade me not to buy puncture proof mountain bike tyres. The thing is, the trails in my neck of the woods are puncture paradise. I don't really care if the tyre is heavy and hard as long as I don't have to wheel home a beast on rims. But the puncture proof tyres are a tad pricey...and it made me think about when I was a kid and doing adventures for the absolute minimum of cash. In fact pretty much everything was determined by what I could find in my dad's shed or in my pal's garage. We built a coracle and covered it in the trailer cover. We used his dad's ex-army aluminium outrigger canoe to go down the river stour. We built shelters from groundsheets and built treehouses from wood found in a dump. I was a real cheapskate when it came to victualling my boyhood expeditions too. On one, my stingy control of finances led to a mutiny when two tins of meatballs were purloined and eaten in protest at my meagre rations. 

Being a cheapskate, though, is a good way to get things moving. Too often we hold back for exactly the right kit. Go with what you've got. Now I know that really cheap kit can be worse than useless- unless you bodge it into shape. I did a 350 km hike with a rucksack with no frame carrying initially a 25kg load- killer! But I made a frame from sticks and cord and it worked pretty well. If you're not in too much of a hurry cheap skate adventuring can be fun.

My new maxim: go with what you've got. If you haven't got it, check the pound shop first. And only ebay as a last resort...