If you only have time for one post this week: listen in or read my chat with Lee Simpson, legendary improv performer and Improbable director.
I’m co-hosting party with the Chatham House sustainability accelerator on Wed 28 July. I’m going to struggle to put out many invites, so if this is your area and want to come let me know. It will be an evening summer party, central London.
We’ve had to postpone the July 23 UnConference date as logistically was too close and uncertain on government guidance - sad face - and we will look to host the conference in September.
I’ve been on holiday in Whitstable, Kent so I will pass on the usual collection of links and offer 3 reflections on Whitstable and my conversation with Lee Simpson on viewing one’s life through story, and status games.
Lee Simpson is a master improv performer and theatre director. I had a lovely conversation with him which left me dwelling on many things.
Notably on how we view our lives. He made the case that when we reflect on our histories, when we go back far enough in time, we think about our lives as stories and we view and narrate them as such. In the present or recent past, we tend to see life as more a collection of facts and this process of making our lives into story is very important to us.
For better or worse, how we view or use that process is seemingly a vital part of being human and therefore knowing, using or being in control of that process becomes important in understanding what it means to be be human and understand ourselves.
Another point Lee made was about status. Status is a useful technique on the stage or improv about knowing which person has a higher status and if someone is trying to overcome that status. Comedy can arise, or conflict when perceived status is being fought over, especially if an audience might have different views than to the performers.
I think this extends into real life. People in general know that status of people in a room through signals or cues, and comedy or conflicts occur when this is not clear or agreed upon.
It’s also why the little signals like women/juniors being asked to take notes, the order or greetings or seatings or speaking are so important and if you want to push back against any of these hierarchies then knowing them and overturning them become important.
Whitstable has ancient roots. Paleolithic, Bronze and Iron age man lived there. Romans farmed oysters there. Today it is a 30,000 - 40,000 person town. It has more retired and elderly people living there. The whole Canterbury zone (where Whitstable is located) has a GDP/ Capita of about GBP24K lower than the GDP29-32K UK average, but not quite as poor as Ramsgate/Margate (at 19K) to the east.
There is still some fishing, the oyster farm is still there, although my impression is that it is not thriving. The beaches are muddy and stony. Good for beachcombing, not brilliant for swimming. The high street is half-twee for the tourist trade and half for the local populace. A few empty spots, but not seemingly struggling.
The town seems to be muddling through between tourism and some local fishing and industry (tarmac makers, concrete aggregators), and people commuting to Canterbury or London for knowledge worker jobs (eg education, services). I can see how it continues to muddle through, but I mostly see this town stagnating and drifting.
My small data observations. Lots of old people. The 2001 census backs this up with 20%+ >65, much higher than national average (c. 14%) . I spent a fair amount of time on the Triangle bus between Whistable-Herne Bay-Canterbury. It runs supposedly almost every 15 minutes, but it still wasn’t the most convenient. Two buses were missed, and the 5 people in queue were grumbling. At Whitstable train station, I met a lady who had schlepped up to go one stop to Faversham (2 trains an hour) because by bus she’d have to go to Canterbury and then back out to Faversham. All this show me that the car is not going away (ever) as the convenient transport of choice. Making electrification of cars still a top priority for mobility.
I didn’t see so many young people. A few travelling by bus, but it did strike me that there was not very much to do for them. I saw around 5 non-white people. This is still a very white area (though recall the country is still 80 to 85% white). The food is more varied than how I recall similar towns from 20 years ago. There was at least one Thai place, along with Indian and Chinese, and French and Spanish, but Fish and Chip shops and pubs still dominated.
My short time in Canterbury suggested it was much more bustling. More varied businesses, shops, close by university. The influence from its historic cathedral (and thus religion and political nexus) given rise to very long lasting “agglomeration” effects. Money, people, elite, ideas all mixing. My guess is many people around Whitstable commute into Canterbury for work.
Canterbury/Whitstable was a marginal 51% Brexit area. Not as Brexit as Margate, but directionally similar although Labour MP Rosie Duffield marginally overturned Julian Brazier in 2017 after c. 30 years of the seat being Conservative.
All this is background as to what “levelling up” outside of London might mean. The area is not as poor as Margate - in my view - because it is closer to London and Canterbury. But now that Sandwich (also in Kent) is diminished as technology area (Pfizer/Glaxo had major hubs here before restructurings), really levelling up the coastal towns like Whitstable probably means extending the wealth effects from Canterbury and London out. I can see how just maybe a freeport zone in eg Plymouth might help, but I don’t see there being demand or any particular infrastructure in making places like Whistable or even Margate come back to growth. As I observed a few gaggles of young people in around the beaches there simply wasn’t much to do and I’d wager the best and brightest would leave for the City as they have continued to do these last decades.
It might be possible to do something via government (as arguably has been the case in parts of Germany), but it would be significantly more intervention and investment, and much much more, than this government or any previous has ever suggested.
Maybe there is nothing we need to do with the town. It's fine as place to retire, to visit and as a feeder for larger places.
The town is pretty. I imagine local tourism will continue. Oysters will continue. It’s a fine place to visit. Splash about in the water. Find some fossils nearby. I recommend it for a few days.
From my July letter:
I podcast Leopold Aschenbrenner, who went to Columbia aged 15 and graduated valedictorian this year.
We discussed Leopold’s critique of German culture and whether he’d swap German infrastructure for the American entrepreneurial spirit.
Whether being a valedictorian is efficient, if going to University at 15 is underrated and life at Columbia University.
What you can learn from speed solving Rubik’s cubes and if Leopold had to make the choice today if he’d still be vegetarian.
Thinking about existential risk, Leopold considers whether nuclear or biological warfare risk is a bigger threat than climate change and how growth matters and if the rate of growth matters as much depending on how long you think humanity survives.
Considering possible under rated existential risk Leopold sketches out several concerns over the falling global birth rate, how sticky that might be and whether policy would be effective.
We consider what is worth seeing in Germany, how good or not GDP is as a measure and what we should do with our lives.
Leopold has wide ranging thoughts and in thinking and working on fat tail existential ruin risks is working on saving the human world. Fascinating thoughts.
(1.5 hour podcast and blog, transcript here).
The story of my podcast jingle properly starts in childhood. I had an Amstrad CPC464. This was a UK computer of the 1980s.
The computer came with a language, BASIC and beginner BASIC was taught at my school (via BBC Micro) and magazines provided some tutorials. There was no WWW or internet. You could and did code in BASIC which is a beginner level of computer science but certainly enough to spark interest in a child.
My friend Alex was around. Later Alex is the best man at my wedding, but for now we are children. I show him I have coded a drawing of a square and a triangle in a machine language that is not BASIC. I think it might have been C or possibly Turbo Pascal, some form of Assembly language. Coding didn’t really catch fire in my mind, so I’m unsurprised I have forgotten exactly.
Alex was impressed. Much more impressed that I was expecting. I believe it may have been due to the speed of the drawing which was seemingly so fast as to look almost instant.
In my mythology this was a catalysing seed for Alex to learn coding (C and Turbo Pascal) as a teenager, become a well regarded part of the music coding demo scene (Statix) and as VJ (BlueSpoon) as a teenager and ultimately with Alex (via Natural Sciences via Maths) ending up in Computer Science with an astoundingly impressive degree leading him to expertise in graphics coding (at one point it was all about making triangles and matrices move faster) and co-founding, and selling a computer gaming company (Media Molecule) to Sony and co-creating Little Big Planet (and Dreams) - two of the most remarkable computer games of their generation.
In these later years, Alex who also used to play cello well enough that I saw an audience member cry (although I think that’s perhaps at least as much due to Elgar) has as a side hobby project invented a music synth maker.
What drives people to invention? Anton Howes, innovation historian (My podcast with Anton) has argued that it takes an improving mindset.
Here Alex wanted something that didn’t really exist, and so, why not make it into existence?
From my limited understanding, I’ve gained a surface understanding of semi-conductors, programming hardware, soldering, electronics - the problems of supply chain; why China is so cheap for manufacturing, why the UK (and even the US) struggles with semiconductor fab manufacturing and the niche world of self-made synth music machines.
On top of that is how online communities develop (cf. Discord communities) and the importance of (what we might consider) weirdness or nerdiness but really is creativity and deep knowledge and art.
Alex who has had to deeply comprehend these factors has crystallised all that work into Plinky.
Plinky? Yes. Plinky.
A review from loopop on YouTube in June 2021 has c. 90,000 views and 300+ comments demonstrating to me the strength of this (weird) and wonderful community.
I needed a jingle for my fledgling personal podcast. How could Plinky not give me one? So after a mini-call to the community, and judgement from 9 year old son - we picked upon a short track from Sweet Green Tea, which you can now hear at the start of all my recent podcasts.
And that is how my podcast jingle comes from learning how to code go faster triangles in childhood and showing it to your genius friend.
Links this week:
→Story of plinky, how I found my podcast jingle
→Leopold Aschenbrenner podcast
→Paul Graham on importance of Hard Work. Billionaire VC argues that hard work needed for amazing things but has a lot of nuance about hard work is.
→Brain activity into Bird Song. Scientists turn brain activity back into bird song.
→Criminal Hackers become VC startups. Criminal hackers are investing in one another like startups...
→Flying Cars test flight (BBC). Yes, we have test flighted a flying car.
→Deep Analysis of California wild fires causes.
→NYT looks at CarbonTech, net negative and net zero products.
→Effective Altruism grant funding. Good source of funding for a potentially large variety of impactful projects.
→Ravens are smart (study)
→Autism Dad (John Harris, GU) column on turning awareness into action
Anton Howes is an innovation historian and policy thinker. He’s written a brilliant history of the RSA - the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce - arguably Britain’s national improvement agency over the last 260 years - and is the RSA’s Historian in Residence. My podcast and conversation with him was fun to do.
We discuss raising the prestige of innovators today, but consider it easy to say but harder to enact.
Anton argues for the benefits of a “Great Exhibition” as a direct mechanism to inspire an “improving” mindset - the type of mindset that leads to innovation.
Anton shares what he has discovered about how invention has happened in history; and whether stagnation has happened or not, recently - that it might be good to send a signal on the importance of innovation in any case. Why incremental innovation might be underrated, and why the process of innovation (ideas, iterations) is not publicised more.
Anton discusses evidence that formal education has not been needed for historic inventors (an improving mindset being potentially more important) and whether there are more than enough innovation prizes currently.
We have a strong section on problems with copyright and how rules around copyright might not be fit for purpose today and how to pronounce “gimcrack” - a useless invention - and why having more gimcracks might be a sign of healthy innovation.
A fascinating walk through innovation history. Self-recommending!
In my occasional podcast chat series I talk with birdgirl aka Mya-Rose Craig. We chat about her love of birding touching upon birdsong and the mysteries of migration. We discuss accessibility to nature, activism what in birding terms is a “lifer” and how to “pish”.
Pishing…. “Oh, no, it's a real thing, but I can't even do it very well. So this is going to be very embarrassing, but pishing is basically, birders making a funny sound that makes the birds around you go, what's that funny sound. So they hop out into the open to try and figure out what that funny sound is. And weirdly there are not many sounds that do this, pishing is one of the few that pretty much always works, at least with lots of birds. And this is going to be very embarrassing now, but it's basically like a, pshh, pshh, pshh like over and over louder and quieter. And for some reason that always gets the birds out.” Transcript and video here. And podcast version
I chat with Rebecca Giggs on her new book looking at humanity through the lens of the whale. There is video and a transcript. Self-recommending.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to forward this letter to anyone you think might be interested in signing up.
Archive and repeat words below. Stay well, Stay safe, Ben
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I’ve re-issued my 2006 play, Yellow Gentlemen (4 stars in Time Out and is one of my more personal works about the night immigrant Tommy Lee is dying). Buy it for laughs on Kindle for the price of a coffee. All profits to charity. I’ve only sold a few copies at the price of a coffee - 1.99.
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“...Through a long-term orientation and stewardship, this is the time for active investment managers to show their worth. It starts with asking the right long-term business questions. Some companies are giving us answers, but are we really listening?”
My full opinion article in the FT. (3 mins, behind paywall, but you get a free article or email me and I can send you a copy)
Find out more about my aphorism book and contact me for a copy.
The move to online dating has potentially empowered women as the cost to ghosting is so low.
Notes from a conversation with former Royal Court Lit. Manager.