Friday, 30 June 2017

Mini-review: The Lost City of Z

Riveting account of Colonel Percy Fawcett’s last expedition to find El Dorado (or "Z" as he called it), how the circumstances of his life led him to it and the various attempts to find out what happened to him.

 Fawcett, perhaps more than anyone, can claim to be a real Indiana Jones. Not just because he was an explorer interested in finding ancient treasure - but also because he seems have been able to pull off extraordinary and inhuman feats of endurance and survival including near starvation,  avoiding fevers that crippled similar explorers and maintaining an incredible pace of exploration and mapping.

 Unsurprisingly, his adventures were the inspiration for The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.

 Loved the (ultimately untrue) idea of the amazon rainforest as a counterfeit paradise i.e. while giving the appearance of abundance, it is actually rather barren in terms of providing food and shelter due to the canopy and poor soils preventing undergrowth and so removing many opportunities for fauna to thrive.

Thought: The book as a souvenir for ideas

I really liked this thought I recently discovered on Seth Godin's blog:

A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.
 as it seems to provide a reason for physical books still existing in a world where ideas travel at the speed of light, are chewed over by millions wanting a quick burst of dopamine and then quickly spat out in favour of a newer one.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Mini-review: Last Man Off

Straightforwardly written true story of a small fishing boat caught up in an Antarctic storm, and the disaster that befalls it.  Enough brio to allow you to picture the harsh reality of shipboard life, but not too much that the story loses pace. I particularly liked the economy of character drawing and the description of the monstrous sounding sea.  Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, the thinking behind some decisions of some of the characters isn't really clear although one is left with the impression of complacency tinged with sheer unbelief of the situation they face.

I raced through this one in under 24 hours which I suspect is how it's supposed to be read rather than savoured and reflected on.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Review: The Innovator's Mindset

This was an odd choice. I was looking for something to read on innovation and rather than take the easy route of looking for a book in my sector or field - I picked a book on developing a culture of innovation in schools.

There was some method in my madness.  

My role for the last few years has been to help drive digital transformation at the organisation where I work - and initially I took the obvious route. I read a lot of material on digital transformation.  That was good in one sense, but I soon found myself regularly coming across the same old case studies and reasons why it was a good thing (tm) but with little practical advice on how to actually do it.  It took a chance discovery of HBR's 10 Must Reads on Change Management to realise that leading organisational change was a well trodden path - if not in the digital transformation context. I figured it is better to read a good book on innovation than a poor one on digital innovation or charity innovation.  

Similarly, I've often got the most ideas for innovation from attending conferences that were adjacent to my sector i.e. rather than go to a digital charity conference, I'd go to a digital media conference instead.  So I chose this book because I figured it would force me to sit up and pay more attention if I was reading about how to build a culture of innovation in a completely different context. 

Sorry, this is all getting a bit meta. 

Review of The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros

This is an outstanding read on innovation.  Admittedly, I haven't read that many books on innovation but this covers building a culture of innovation in a very practical way with lots of implementable examples from getting started to building momentum.  It can be applied to yourself or an organisation. 

As a result my own copy is now battered, dog eared and full of scribbles and highlights.  That in itself is a new approach for me as previously I've regarded books as something to be kept pristine, but often found things just won't sinking in as much as I'd like.  With this book, I've highlighted bits, posed questions to the author in the margins, corrected text so it fits my context, done mini-brainstorms and generally abused this poor extract of a dead tree. 

The one downside? It contains no index. 

What I've applied (so far):

I've used the definition of innovation in a recent presentation: a way of thinking that creates something new and better. 

It's inspired a new definition of digital transformation that I will start testing out on colleagues:
Digital transformation is about recognising the opportunity and danger of rapid technological change. 

I've started using this blog as a reflective learning tool in my professional and personal life.

Proposed a project around trying out some of the ideas with to our senior leadership team. 

It has inspired a recent activity in my team around adopting a design thinking approach to creating a better learning experience for contributors to our website - including asking them what their most profound learning experience was so we can hopefully model that in any prototype we develop.

Did the Strengthsfinder 2.0 exercise (after finally digging the book out of the depths of my home library). More about this in another post.

Contributed one of George's models - 8 things to look for Today's Classroom as an example of learning best practice for the aforementioned learning experience development. 

Phew. Finally, I've used one of the quotes for an internal newsletter - and expect to mine it for a few more in the future!

Learning: My bias towards Conscious Competence

A few months ago, I did the latest iteration of our in-house management training covering staff management.  It covered the Four stages of competence:

It wasn't exactly unfamiliar, but this time we were given a number of staff management scenarios together with a selection of options against each one.  We had to select the option we would select for each scenario.

Almost without fail, I chose the option which was in the Conscious Competence segment.

Obviously, I wasn't varying my management style as much as I thought. But why?

I figured it was probably something to do with being a remote manager.  I trust my team to meet their goals with a fairly high degree of autonomy - and tend to hire on that basis. But doing so, meant I was probably hobbling some team members, while not supporting others enough (especially new recruits - who will inevitably be incompetent about some things - even if only how the organisation works).

I'm now making a more conscious (!) effort to adapt according to which stage I think they are at for a particular task etc.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Mini-review: Children of Time

Epic hard sci-fi. If you don't like spiders, this one is definitely not for you as it features large super-intelligent arachnids together with plenty of gruesome details on their feeding and mating habits.

Health warning aside though, this is lengthy pacy read covering millions of miles, thousands of years and the rise/fall of two civilisations.  The arachnid evolution is highly imaginative and particularly well told. So much so, that it could well force you to consider them in a new light.

There are fascinating ideas here, e.g. the possibility of inheriting knowledge as new instincts or understandings as well as how a civilisation would work in the absence of certain inventions like the wheel, but with strong knowledge of biochemistry. Finally, there are also ethical dilemmas like can you really take a planet where a sentient species already has a home - even if you can't understand what they are saying?

Thought: Why you should share your ideas

I have a lot of time for Derek Sivers' work, and recently came across this:

It reminds me a lot of what a mathematician friend of mine once said, "Once you understand something in mathematics, you think of it as trivial". So even the most complicated and only recently understood theorems are immediately relegated to the "trivial" - and so it seems to be with ideas you carry around in your own head.

His books are worth a read too. Full of lots of similar simply expressed wisdom.

Notes: Digital leaders conference

I went along to the Digital Leaders Conference last week, and made a few notes.  Strong government representation there which may have biased it in a particular direction. 

Key themes
  • Acute digital skills shortages – both in specialists & general staff with digital skills – across all sectors.  Brexit likely to aggravate.
  • Diversity remains a problem eg only about 16% of digital specialists are female.
  • Hardest challenges are keeping up with changing customer wants and needs. Benchmark against Amazon rather than others in sector.
  • Staff – Culture (focus on encouraging Lean, Agile & Innovation behaviours), Skills (Continuous investment in staff digital skills because they go out of date quickly)
  • Consider who our digital frenemies are.  One bank cited regulation, tech giants & fintech. What are yours?
  • Imminent need to figure out and apply morals & ethics for AI and algorithms.  Is this a debate environmental organisations should be contributing to?
  • Green tech remains hugely growing sector.
  • Public sector concerns include sharing economy, online radicalisation, automation related job loss, community networks.

Honest quote of the day:

“Digital transformation? First reaction is panic.”

The organisation whose representative  said this was actually doing pretty well, but I'll spare their blushes anyhow. 

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Mini-review: Doctor Who - World Enough and Time

This one sees the return of not one, but two, big bads. While there's a clever bit of time twisting in this episode, it's not the kind we're familiar with. The result is a creepy claustrophobic thriller with the occasional shocker. Gomez' Missy on top form and there's some fun fourth wall breaking too.

As for the big bads? For one of them, possibly one of their most effective outings yet with a return to their roots in more ways than one.  Actually, reading that line back would equally apply to the other big bad - so chose your enemy.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Mini-review: Wonder Woman

The origin story is now a familiar template for superhero movies, but Wonder Woman breathes new life into the old formula through blending Greek mythology, a more vulnerable but still strong titular character and a World War I setting. The deft touches of humour are also a welcome introduction to the DC universe which has suffered from a distinct lack of fun in recent decades. The humour also adds realism to both characters in their response to Diana Princess of...ahem...Prince.  Gadot is something of a revelation - having managed to bulk up her previously slender frame (cf Hugh Jackman for Wolverine) while showing she can both act as well as project real screen presence.

Mini-review: Nikola Tesla: Imagination and the Man That Invented the 20th Century

A curious read this.  It's short - only about 40 pages long, and a good quarter of those are concerned with the elements that make up genius. The author draws on Alfred Barrios' 24 Qualities That Geniuses Have in Common as well as concepts like 10,000 hours of deliberate practice being a prerequisite for mastery.   I admit I nearly bailed. 

Eventually, you arrive at the meat of the book - a very concise biography of  Tesla's achievements and life story.  Sean Patrick's passion for his subject is clear and it does make for a breezy read.   The shortness of it does feel slightly unsatisfying, but you are left in no doubt as of the generous imagination and spirit of Tesla himself - as well as offered a few hints as how such an imagination emerged.  It's very much the same school as Steven Johnson's Where Do Good Ideas Come From (crashing together ones from lots of different places). 

Overall, it felt like a good taster biography on Tesla and the qualities of genius - but it's a starting rather than an end point for both of those topics.

Mini-review: The Secret Life of Bees

Deeply spiritual and profoundly moving tale of a young white woman growing up in a household of black ladies in the southern states immediately after black suffrage is introduced.  I have never had a faith, or really felt the need for one, but here the process of its emergence and redemptive power is richly described.  Reading The Secret Life of Bees as I did during one of the hotter days in the UK, the heat almost comes across as another character as indeed do the bees themselves - you absolutely feel every vibration of their wings.  It's not all deep and meaningful though, there are wonderfully funny moments and characters in this and more than an element of Joanne Harris - fairy tale like playfulness -  and Harper Lee - how it captures the south at a time of change - about the whole endeavour.

Lastly, I loved the device of quotes from non-fiction bee books at the beginning of each chapter as an act of foreshadowing.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Mini-review: Floatation tank

I have wanted to try a floatation tank for close on a decade now, but a mixture of cost and availability had put me off.  As someone fairly interested in exploring inner-space, I have wondered about its benefits as a relaxation, visualisation and mindset changing tool.

Last week, London Floatation Works sent me a discount code for 50% off on the grounds it was my birthday (I must have registered in an idle moment previously) - and since I was due to be in London for work, I figured I should finally give it a try.

What is a floatation tank?

Essentially, it's a capsule roughly the size of a double bed which has been filled with water to about six inches deep. The water is salt rich meaning, like the Dead Sea, you can float without any effort.  Further, the capsule when the lid is down is also completely dark and silent.

Open the pod bay door, Hal

In the one I tried, it had a panic button on the right hand side inside the tank and another to turn the lights on the left hand side. A water sprayer was also available because it turns out the one thing you really don't want to do is rub your eyes with a hand covered in very salty water.  I didn't try it - but I imagine it would be very bad.  By the way, unlike the cryosleep chambers in Alien which the floatation tank resembles and the promotion literature - you float naked.  To protect the innocent, I will spare you any pictures of my ageing birthday suit.

You go naked. Something about the field generated by a living organism

So what's floating like?

I admit my first thoughts as I closed the lid was " What on earth have I done?" as mild claustrophobic panic began to well up inside me - I was willingly enclosing myself in a dark, muggy space where no-one could hear me scream...

A deep breath or so later and I was OK. My pod plays music for the first and last ten minutes of your one hour float. It's the vaguely atonal techno-hippy sounding stuff you might expect.

Then there's another trust exercise you have to play with the pod which is allowing yourself to float without having to work for it. This, and pardon the cliche, I took to like a duck to water.

Temperature wise, it was just slightly the wrong side of perfectly comfortable throughout - and that was mostly down to the air temperature combined with humidity. Occasionally, I'd lower a limb to cover it in slightly cooler water.

Sound wise, all you can hear is your breathing and then your heart beat appears. Personally, I found my heart beat difficult to tune out and it became annoying. I ended up discarding the supplied ear plugs in a semi-futile attempt to reduce its volume.

Then I became aware of a dull ache in my shoulders and neck. The one in my shoulders slowly disappeared, but the neck one remained. This is apparently normal as floating is unlike lying on a bed or any other everyday activity.  Supposedly, it will disappear in follow up sessions if you do them.  Another factor might be that it is actually impossible to work out where your head is in relation to your body. Is it titling back or forward? I couldn't tell.

There were a few periods - how long I couldn't guess - where I experienced something of what I'd hoped for - a marvellous sense of an empty mind (meditation induced) combined with partial bodily disassociation (I lost awareness of some of my limbs and their position in relation to the rest of my body).

Getting out only added to the sci-fi experience as the salty water is almost syrupy in consistency leaving your skin feeling like it had been a little slimed.

After thought
As suggested by the post-float literature, I did sleep pretty well the following night - and dinner at a friend's that evening tasted absolutely amazing. Quite often by the time I get to evening my taste buds have been jaded by the day. This time, the effect was something like eating something after my daily 14-16 hour intermittent fast - but lasted the entire meal rather than the first few bites.

It may, however, just been her great cooking!

Like early bouts of mediation, I'd say it has potential - and maybe, just maybe, I might give it another go to find out.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Mini-review: Dreams Before the Start of Time

Multigenerational family saga serves as a vehicle for examining the societal and ethical implications of current and future fertility treatments. As in her previous work, Anne gives her characters recognisable and everyday hopes, dreams, dilemmas and anxieties as well as a plausible world to inhabit. What is different is the width of the palette, it feels quite epic at times - historically, geographically and the cast of characters who people it.  Inevitably, some vignettes and characters are more appealing than others - but most felt like they’d captured an essential  truth of the human experience.

Mini-review: Doctor Who - The Eaters of Light

A return to the monster of the week format which when coupled with a little known mystery - the disappearance of Rome's ninth legion - makes for a satisfying tale. It's also a rare change of pace and format. This one is a lot more talky and slower than usual further evoking the feel of a classic series episode.

There are lots of fascinating and throwaway lines. For example, Nardole explains the mystery of the Marie Celeste in passing as the result of an interplanetary misunderstanding.  That's not the first time Doctor Who has solved this particular conundrum.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Mini-review: Casino

Scorcese's Las Vegas epic is as deep as it is wide and details a "golden" age when the mob ran the town's casinos. It's occasionally a little too misty-eyed as result although it doesn't pull it's punches on occasion - particularly whenever Pesci appears on screen. Elsewhere it gives you almost a documentary like insight into how mob control of a casino works while slowly unveiling to keys to its ultimate downfall. De Niro's is a slow burn contained performance befitting his character, but it's Stone's who stands out most. A superlative portrayal of a complex, damaged and damaging character.  A word also to the cinematography. I doubt Las Vegas has ever looked this good.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Mini-review: American Pie

Somewhat dated coming of age teen sex comedy that's not without a few moments of charm and laughter. Surprisingly good cast contribute to making it feel heartfelt and well meaning.

Mini-review: Doctor Who - Empress of Mars

Gatiss turns out another pastiche drawing heavily on Victorian sci-fi like Men in the Moon. The result is a lot of fun and provides a wonderful showcase for the Ice warriors who have never looked better.  One oddity, Bill seems to have become something of a cult sci-fi film buff as she rattles off references to Terminator and the Thing. 

Watch out for the fun cameo at the end.

Mini-review: Edge of Tomorrow

Cruise plays slightly against type in this sci-fi actioner which owes more than a little to Groundhog day.  It's an imaginative premise which is well realised and Blunt more than holds her own against Cruise as fellow traveller. I also enjoyed the sprinkling of well-defined British characters, dark humour and London/France setting.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Mini-review: The Mummy

Handsome action packed remake of the Universal horror classic. Inspired casting, tight plotting and witty script helps make this a worthy inheritor of the Indiana Jones mantle.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Mini-review: Doctor Who - The Lie of the Land

And so to the final part of the Monk trilogy. Who's take on fake news together with the effort in world building meant this felt like a step up over previous Earth invasions.

Having recently read Homo Deus, the idea of humans collectively constructing reality and it being able to be changed just by us agreeing on a different one was something that resonated with me.

The resolution while similar to one of the Russell T Davies era episodes did at least feel more plausible.

Lastly, I'm enjoying the additional range Gomez seems to have been given for Missy in this series. It's not just the setting which makes her performance feel Hannibal Lecteresque.

Mini-review: To Kill a Mockingbird

Perhaps the quintessential coming of age film that seems to be almost timeless. It deftly combines light humour with serious themes to create a spellbinding atmosphere. Peck excels as the 1930s small southern town lawyer called to defend a black man on a rape charge. But really it's the kids, and in particular - Badham as Scout - who steal the film.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Mini-review: T2: Trainspotting

Older but not much wiser, the gang mostly reunite for a long awaited sequel to the iconic 90s movie.  It doesn't recapture the original's magic - never mind its anarchic energy.

But, it's a worthwhile outing that taps into this fan's nostalgia for the original and the times. Pleasantly surprised to find it including a few laugh out loud moments.

Mini-review: The Rocket

Story of Laos boy apparently cursed with the bad luck of being a surviving twin who tries to win a local village rocket competition. The result is an earthy, funny, sad and ultimately optimistic tale populated with some fantastically surreal characters such as a local James Brown enthusiast called Uncle Purple and a goat travelling in the side car of a motorbike combination.