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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:



Adam Smith's impartial spectator

Adam Smith, the great 18th century economist wrote a less well known book called the Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it he named the ‘detached spectator’ as the true guardian of correct behaviour.

The person within- an impartial and well informed spectator- has the ability to stand outside oneself and see one’s actions- the person within- not conscience which is either accusing or patting you on the back- simply an observer. This is a key breakthrough long ignored by other philosophers.

What he meant was the ‘observing self’- the part of you that is able to detach and observe (sometimes) what the rest of you is doing.

Encouraging the observing self is the goal of most mystical and meditation oriented religious practices. The sheer sense of freedom that occurs when you realize that your identity includes an awareness of other ‘selves’ and that you are not merely an externally defined person, this realization comes as a great relief to many. By not ‘holding onto thoughts’ but simply observing each one as it takes up residence in your head you can gain a sense of detachment from the thoughts you previously thought ‘were you’. An angry thought takes possession of you- if you observe it as ‘there is an angry thought’ you have gone a long way to defusing that anger.

When time seems to rush on by it helps to be able to observe the thought that tells you ‘time is rushing by’. Then you can self-observe the structure of thoughts that supports this feeling. It is great way of weakening the grip mechanical time has over you and replacing it with a much more elastic view of time.





zenslacker #5

Zenslacking is a course of therapy for those caught in the riptide of modern is another installment:

1.    Are you happy? If you’re not sure then you need to do more Zenslacking. Stay on the bus a few stops too far and then amble back. If you never take buses, take one.

2.    Sometimes things don’t work.

3.    If you are slightly depressed observe it and revel in it for as long as you can.

4.    Aim to watch a rubbish movie at least once a week. Preferably one you’ve seen and dismissed before.

5.    Whenever you feel competitive strive to win in a way that lacks all subtlety. Keep this nasty display up for as long as such feelings last- though it doesn’t work so well if people don’t get the joke.

6.    Force yourself to stay up late reading a book until it’s finished.

7.    Revel in the Beegees.

8.    Give small tips when you feel a strange and unwelcome vibe from an absent waiter that you should tip big because you are such a nice person.

9.    Call yourself a bastard, think of yourself as a bit of a bastard from time to time. Revel in this bastard self-image as a nice change from always thinking you’re the good guy, the nice guy.

10. Doing good is acting now. Though of course acting now doesn’t guarantee anything.

11. Say nothing when you are asked a question you don’t want to answer. Make no excuse. Just say nothing and smile benignly if you have to.

12. Feel free, when there are punishing consequences on the horizon, to tell a very obvious lie. If discovered elide your way past the glaring falsehood. The important thing is to keep moving, so to speak, not to allow yourself to be stumped- and this fact dwarfs the insignificance at being caught out telling fibs. Just keep talking until the moment passes.







Walking past the butcher on Felastin Street I avert my eyes. Once we were best pals, bosom buddies, but then he realized his red dyed, sometimes fly studded carcases hanging from his shop weren’t drawing me in. I wasn’t tempted when he gave me a spiel on how much cheaper he was (and fresher!) than the plastic wrapped offcuts sold by the supermarket across the road. I thought our friendship would survive my economic nay saying. It did not. He blanked me next time so I thought, OK, fine and this went on until I appeared with my pal Steve in tow and the butcher gave me another burst of friendship. I didn’t tell him that Steve lived mainly on leaves.  Now this is unlike the furniture shop man who always says hello even though I never buy anything from him either- but I’m coming round to that table out back. I may. I just may.

So there you have your two types- well two of several- but they exhibit the psychological basis for the weird version of economics seen in this crazy capital. For a start- the butcher has greed, ambition but also pride. He knows I think his meat is strictly dog meat and he has pride- so he stops being pally- which ultimately is a poor strategy since I am unlikely to buy from a grumpy git nor will I recommend him. Now the furniture man on the other hand has less pride- and maybe it will pay off. It already has in the sense that I have recommended him now- he’s on Road 269 by the way.

I have seen pride at work in such exchanges as paying for photos in the city of the dead, the cemetery squatted long ago and a favourite spot for journalists seeking colour. One family will show off  a skull from the underground sepulcher they squat above, and pose with it for a few pounds. Next door will say no to twenty, to a hundred. Not interested at all. Pride.

Then there’s the apartment blocks. All round the eastern ringroad are stalinesque mini-towns of apartment blocks all built about a metre from each other. And these blocks remain unsold and empty for years-  five years at a time or more- and now there is a recession probably 25 years. This couldn’t happen in the UK. No one can tie up that much capital. But in Egypt greed of a different order is at work. People are convinced that eventually some sucker will turn up and pay a huge amount of money. No one will sell at a loss. They’d rather not sell. And there’s some pride in here too. Taking a loss is also loss of face. Better to do nothing. Buildings are cheaper to build and so is land, so the exposure is less than in the UK or parts of the US, but still, people will sit on their useless building for years.

Then there is bargaining. This reflects neither greed not pride but creativity. All businessmen know that the physical money itself- how quickly it is paid and in what form can also be part of the deal, but this knowledge is restricted to big business mainly- not down on the street. In Cairo they are more sophisticated. In the West the medium of exchange itself does not come into the act of shopping. Money is as liquid as water, but in Egypt it’s thicker, more like blood out of stone. You see, no one has any change. You bargain like a demon to get the cab driver down to 5LE. But your lowest note is a 20. The cunning fellow only has a 10. You either wait and watch him make a song and dance about getting change by snaring a passing cab or you do the usual thing and give in.

Always have change. When I left the airport the other day the cheapest taxi was a mere 80LE- but the guy is guessing I only have a 100- and he factors in the parking and the tip and soon I might as well not wait for his pathetic show of no change. Of course the change is always hidden under a seat or behind the sunshades. My new one is, though, to ask for the change first as if it were part of a different transaction, one that might even prove more profitable than the existing one under discussion. Then, with the currency on display I produce my big note and get my change immediately. Also change appears faster when you refuse to hand over the note in the first place.

What is economics anyway? A series of human responses to situations mainly involving money or scarce resources. Scarce resources- so how do Egyptians behave when things are running out? Rather magnanimously actually. On the plane disembarking there is none of that covert manoevring you get in the UK. Everyone is allowed to get off in front of you- if they indicate as such. If you make a pathetic sign that you must cross the road, cars will wait. If you make no sign and pridefully stride out you won’t be run down but it will feel mighty close. It’s like there are two ways here: the big boys way where you get to act with dignity but it involves a fight or power tussle and the easy way- which involves begging and self abasement. In the coffee shop where I write the main guy is a creep. I love him. He brings me the paper and asks after my family. I smile and give him a good tip. It works. But in another shop the guy is stiff and formal- and rather brusque- he gets no tip- but he doesn’t care- he’s got to act like ‘himself’ rather than an effete toady.

People can also ‘be themselves’ by being creative. A man in Siwa offered to restitch the welts of my Timberland boots with coloured thread. He proudly showed me the special needle he had to perform this task. Why not? I now have the only Timberlands with red and blue stitching in the welts. I saw other foreigners with similar weird looking restitched footwear. Cheap Chinese shoes mean that cobbling skills aren’t needed so he has reinvented himself as a sort of plastic surgeon of footwear. Creativity.

I think one way to unravel strange economic behaviour is see when a financial transaction is in reality something else- like an opportunity for attention, in other words, and this is not meant in a derogatory way, self-expression. In Egypt people inject themselves into their job to the detriment of performance but to the benefit of self-expression. They get to be themselves more- be they minibus drivers or waiters. Now in the developed world we crank down on that- self censor- anything to get that tip.

I admire a people who don’t bend over for everyone bearing the mighty dollar. It’s refreshing- and infuriating too. But that’s life.



the paradox of paths

1. A narrow path, followed long enough, eventually widens.

2. A wide path, followed long enough, just gets narrower and narrower.

3. One solution: just keep walking.



more on Kiteout day

16 June 2009- the day everyone flies a kite!

Everyone loves to fly a kite, and they do so all over the world. In India and Pakistan there is a great tradition of fighting kites- where the object is to saw through your opponent’s kite line.

In China there are dragon kites and in Japan they fly giant kites with many many strings. Below is a brief history of kites courtesy of wikipedia.

The kite was first invented and popularized approximately 2,800 years ago in China, where materials ideal for kite building were readily available: silk fabric for sail material, fine, high-tensile-strength silk for flying line, and resilient bamboo for a strong, lightweight framework. Alternatively, kite author Clive Hart and kite expert Tal Streeter hold that kites existed far before that time.[11] The kite was said to be the invention of the famous 5th century BC Chinese philosophers Mozi and Lu Ban. By at least 549 AD paper kites were being flown, as it was recorded in that year a paper kite was used as a message for a rescue mission.[12] Ancient and medieval Chinese sources list other uses of kites for measuring distances, testing the wind, lifting men, signaling, and communication for military operations.[12] The earliest known Chinese kites were flat (not bowed) and often rectangular. Later, tailless kites incorporated a stabilizing bowline. Kites were decorated with mythological motifs and legendary figures; some were fitted with strings and whistles to make musical sounds while flying.[13]

After its appearance in China, the kite migrated to Japan, Korea, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), India, Arabia, and North Africa, then farther south into the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia, and the islands of Oceania as far east as Easter Island. Since kites made of leaves have been flown in Malaya and the South Seas from time immemorial, the kite could also have been invented independently in that region.[13]

One ancient design, the fighter kite, became popular throughout Asia. Most variations, including the fighter kites of India, Thailand and Japan, are small, flat, rough, diamond-shaped kites made of paper, with a tapered bamboo spine and a balanced bow. Although the rules of kite fighting varied from country to country, the basic strategy was to maneuver the swift kite in such a way as to cut the opponent's flying line.[13].

Kite flying began much later in Europe than in Asia. While unambiguous drawings of kites first appeared in print in the Netherlands and England in the 17th century, pennon-type kites that evolved from military banners dating back to Roman times and earlier were flown during the Middle Ages.[13] Joseph Needham says that the earliest European description of a kite comes from the Magia Naturalis written in 1589 by the Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta (1535–1615).[14]



is success quantifiable?


I thought it wasn't; but then I had a brief facebook exchange with a good friend, who adroitly pointed out that the success he achieved at winning the local pub ‘millionaire’ quiz was very quantifiable, especially the answer to question 15 which was ‘how many novels did Anthony Trollope write?’*

And it’s true- getting the answer counts as a success. We all have built in such notions of  ‘public’ success- that probably starts with school and university exam results and all the other nonsense of the job world (it’s interesting that exams as a concept are only a few centuries old- isn’t it amazing that the Greek, Roman and Elizabethan conquest of the world was managed without a single phd?). I digress. Once we venture out of the cocoon of academia or the corporate bubble, we get out into the murky but realer world where we have to ask: does winning the pub quiz ‘beat’ sailing around the world even if the pub winner feels like a hero and the sailor doesn’t?

Because it seems to me that ‘success’ is pretty pointless unless it engenders happiness in the succeeder. If it simply bumps you up a grade in the eye of the public then what’s the point?

We all need attention but making the attention you get hard to get seems perverse. People saying you are great, money, applause- all that is very nice, but if the only way you can get it is to climb Everest in your underpants then it seems inefficient- especially when you can get the same applause from winning the pub quiz.

I have a young friend who justifies doing work for which he doesn’t get paid as ‘looking good on the CV’- and this is a good idea, it’s how he motivates himself. When I was doing aikido and had to face something grueling I used to tell myself that if I wrote a book this would be good material. I guess this is a way of converting something to a higher ‘success’ value by realizing that external success can cause internal success-happiness-feelings.

But who hasn’t berated themselves from time to time for not having been a ‘success’? It seems we are really keen to use this word, and cause ourselves and others grief with it, without actually examining what it really means.

The external part of success is what everyone agrees on- more or less: winning the competition, making X million dollars, writing the blockbuster. But the internal part, the ‘success feeling’ is more obscure.

One friend of mine has a very ordinary job, hobby, wife and children- yet everything he does is couched in terms of huge and lasting success- and he is a happy man. He sells his boat for more than he bought it- you’d think he had just won the lottery. His son gets into a very ordinary university- he’s produced a genius. Contrast this with a millionaire entrepeneur I mentioned in another article who had a distinguished war record, had invented and patented several new products, made several million when that was a lot of money, drove a Bentley with a personalized number plate- and yet thought of himself as a ‘failure’.

There must be a way of sidestepping this mental morass without getting sucked in, without having to take sides and either be ‘for success’ or ‘against it.’

A friend once advised me: ‘if you’re going to self-publicise, self publicise- but don’t publicise the fact that you aren’t self-publicising’. There’s something in this. Don’t downplay your own successes. We shouldn’t have to shy away from success just because public conceptions and media estimates of success are crude.

How much success does a man need?

Perhaps the gravest error is  believing that success is a person rather than a particular achievement. It would be less confusing if it was seen as grammatically incorrect to state ‘he or she is a success.’ Instead people would be coerced into saying he succeeded at that, she succeeded at that. That would make it easier.

But we’re stuck with the realer world.

Maybe there’s another way of looking at this. Author Christopher Ross suggested to me that the basic unit of activity was the success pay-off. A success pay-off is the burst of inner energy you get when something you do succeeds. Now, the trick is, to design your life so that you maximize the success pay-offs. Make your to-do list ten items long, do them all and you get the pay-off. Make it twelve and fail on one- and you get no pay-off- even though your external ‘success’ rate was higher.

The millionaire probably saw anything less than ten million as a failure. My boat selling friend sees making twenty quid a success. One is happy the other isn’t.

But is one deluded?

That’s the nub. And the second nub is: if we settle for ‘lesser definitions of success’ we won’t be driven on to succeed at bigger things.

But a desire for success is a pretty blunt motivator. Pretty dull and rough and injurious to mental health. ‘Success’, as in some vague conception of a ‘better inner state than I now have, which will be miraculously provided when I win the big prize’, never occurs.

I thought that after I had published a book, won a prize, made money writing I would feel different inside. Of course I didn’t. I say ‘of course’ because if you had questioned me BEFORE I would have denied that I was aiming to feel different. It was only afterwards when I felt a bit flat and ordinary did it come home that I had been expecting some kind of existential salvation, a shift to a higher plane, as a result of ‘success’. This superstition lurks in our culture of fame and celebrity. Kids sense it- which is why so many answer that they don’t care what they do when they grow up as long as they are famous.

But if ‘success’ won’t make you feel any different why aim for it? Because success pay-offs provide the nutritive energy we need for living. And if you start too low (a day’s success being to buy a stamp at the post office- believe me I have been there) -all you need to do is set yourself a rising scale. If you achieve ten things today easily on your to-do list aim for twelve tomorrow, if you wrote 500 words easily try for 1000.

The pleasure you feel at such successes are the same as any success engendered pleasure- such as winning the pub quiz- as long as you heartfully enjoy it and don’t let your mental critic knock it and mutter ‘it’s nothing’.

We live in a ‘success’ oriented society. People think that the luck of ‘winners’ will rub off on them. We touch the clothes of the successful just as in previous more religious ages people visited shrines. Famous (in the Hello Magazine sense) people often report that when they are interviewed knick knacks go missing- an ashtray, a comb, even a packet of cigarettes. Knick knacks nicked to leverage luck.

This gets back, kind of, to my comments on writing. A goal is a target expressed in numbers. Success is vague and useless. You have to quantify what you consider counts as a success. You have to set up a success pay-off situation with numbers as your guide. Instead of hoping your book, music, film or product is a ‘success’ quantify what would count in your eyes as a success. Selling 5000 copies? 2000? Obviously you are going to have to balance unbridled optimism against realism and experience- but remember, you can always up the numbers next time. There is no need to be in a hurry.

*Answer: 47.



five axioms of walking

First axiom of walking

The interest of the walker’s thoughts increase in direct proportion to his load being lightened and the day cooling. Gradient is only important at extreme ends of the spectrum.


Second axiom 

Nothing beats walking along a contour high above a great evolving view.


Third axiom 

The second axiom can be entirely nullified if your boots are hurting you badly.


Fourth axiom

Racing downhill with a load on will damage your knees eventually even if you think it won’t.


Fifth axiom

Passes beat summits every time on a multiday hike.