And, if it’s good enough for Darwin

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

If it’s good enough for Einstein

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man… I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.”

Rationing effort

Other people’s indispositions (to use Johnnie Moore’s delightfully old fashioned term) are boring, unless one is suffering from a similar condition, when they become compelling reading. So I promise this will be the last entry meditating on my current state of health for, I hope, a long, long time.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, one aspect of my Bell’s Palsy has been intense fatigue. While this is better than it was, it is still something I have to take account of when deciding what to do on any one day.
This form of rationing of effort is, I guess, an extreme form of something we all do everyday. But because it is extreme it thrusts itself into the centre of consciousness in a way that doesn’t usually happen. When one’s decision become, “Shall I go shopping for food or can I prepare the evenings meal with what we’ve got?” and it really is a choice between one or the other, it does highlight the kind of decisions about the distribution of effort and attention we make everyday.
Much of the time management stuff I have read over the years seems to focus on the criteria we use for making such decisions and seems to suggest that we should make important things the priority rather than all the other immediate demands on our time. But, what I have discovered is that daily, routine maintenance tasks have a much higher priority than such systems suggest.
Clearing the dishwasher, making the bed, buying the milk and so on all need to be done or one finds one’s life falling into an unproductive chaos. Were I the kind of person who made a to do list, it is quite likely that I wouldn’t include many of these routine activities and those that I did would have a very low priority. I suspect that many of the “unimportant’ routine tasks in organisational life may be the same.
What, perhaps, is concealed here is that the routine maintenance of the fabric of life, including the seemingly trivial acts to maintain our relationships with other people, may be of much greater importance than we usually give them.
The question then arises that if we want to move in new directions how do we avoid being overwhelmed by the routine. One answer may be that given by John Cleese:
“I’m coming up on 60, and I’m wondering where my life will begin to go. I need to take a slightly different direction. I talked to a very wise man, and he said, ‘If you’re trying to find a new direction, don’t plan it, because this [pointing to his head] has been planning your life up to now. You can’t plan something new with the same old apparatus.’ He said, ‘Leave a gap. Leave a space, and just do things on auto for a while. Just see where these whims take you.’
It’s like creativity. You have to follow it without knowing where you’re going. If you try to control where you’re going, you’re back in the same process. It’s like asking a piece of machinery that’s broken to mend itself.”

Or as I might put always try and leave yourself the time and space to do purposive drift.

A bit like HyperCard

Every so often someone creates something really useful that is so different from anything else around that it is hard to describe in words. Something that has to be used to be understood. That is when you know you’ve found something original.
I remember back in 1987 reading some of the early reviews of Bill Atkinson‘s HyperCard where many of them dwelt on the things that HyperCard did less well than other applications – so, for example, some talked about how it was not a very good database or that it was not a very good drawing programme or that the programming language was not very powerful. What most of these early critics missed was that it was a great software applications kit, which enable non-technical people like myself to build useful things that they couldn’t get any other way.
Or as Atkinson put it in an interview in 1987:
“HyperCard, acting like a software erector set, really opens up Macintosh software architecture to where individual people can make their own customized information environment, and interactive information and applications without having to know any programming language. It takes the creation of software down to the level of MacPaint images that you like, then pasting buttons on top of them to make them do what you want. HyperCard puts this power into the hands of any Macintosh user.”
In so far as HyperCard is remembered at all these days it is largely remembered as the authoring kit used to build some of the early interactive media applications (or hypermedia applications, as we called them in those days), which laid the foundations for the interactive media industry we see today.
Some of those applications, such as some of the things published by Bob Stein‘s Voyager, while they may look a bit crude today, in my view were conceptually more sophisticated than anything that has been produced since. (Here I will avoid mounting one of my hobby horses and just touch on my view that the history of interactive media, or as I still prefer to call it hypermedia, is rich in ideas, which while limited by the technology of the time, could usefully be re-discovered by people working in the field today to produce richer and more satisfying media experiences.)
The other significance of HyperCard was, of course, that it was one of the inspirations that led Tim Berners-Lee to creating the World Wide Web – the reason that you are able to read this today. As he puts it in his original proposal to CERN, his precursor to the World Wide Web, “Enquire”, was similar to HyperCard, but “…although lacking the fancy graphics, ran on a multiuser system, and allowed many people to access the same data.”
Now, while I wouldn’t claim that the project that Ben Copsey and I have been working on for over a year now is as significant as HyperCard, it does share two of the same characteristics. The most obvious one is that it is hard to describe, because it is unlike anything else I have come across. The second, is that like HyperCard, though considerably more limited in scope, it is a kind of “software erector set” enabling people to invent and construct “their own customized information environment”.
This week we launched it in Beta, so if you’d like to take a look and have a play you can download it at:
It is the first bit of software I’ve ever found that allows me to organise my time and activities in tune with my general philosophy of purposive drift. Ben, who has a slightly different approach to life has also found that he can use it to fit in with the way he lives and works rather than following the demands of a bit of software designed around the way someone else thinks he should proceed.
At present it is Mac only, so if you’re a Mac owner, who needs to have some organisation in your life or work, but don’t like programmes that dictate to you how you should behave, why not visit our site ( and see for yourself. The desktop application Memex Trails is free and yours to use for as long as you like. The full Trails Network will be a subscription based service, but for the beta is again free to use for a couple of months.
We like it, we hope you do too.

Management by measure can kill

I make no apologies for once again urging you to read Simon Caulkin’s column in last Sunday’s Observer. As so often he highlights a significant piece of research which casts doubt on some of the crude management clichés that get spouted as if they represent deep wisdom. I have include a long chunk of his piece, because I believe it contains a lesson we need to absorb and act with some speed. So, please read the extract and then go to the source:
“… All too often in a kind of Gresham’s law (which said bad money drives out good), the easy-to-measure drives out the hard, even when the latter is more important. Strategy writer Igor Ansoff said: ‘Corporate managers start off trying to manage what they want, and finish up wanting what they can measure.

What happens when bad measures drive out good is strikingly described in an article in the current Economic Journal. Investigating the effects of competition in the NHS, Carol Propper and her colleagues made an extraordinary discovery. Under competition, hospitals improved their patient waiting times. At the same time, the death-rate following emergency heart-attack admissions substantially increased. Why? As targets, waiting times were and are measured (and what gets measured gets managed, right?). Emergency heart-attack deaths were not tracked and therefore not managed. Even though no one would argue that the trade-off – shorter waiting times but more deaths – was anything but a travesty of NHS purpose, that’s what the choice of measure produced.
As the paper observes: ‘It seems unlikely that hospitals deliberately set out to decrease survival rates. What is more likely is that in response to competitive pressures on costs, hospitals cut services that affected [heart-attack] mortality rates, which were unobserved, in order to increase other activities which buyers could better observe.’
In other words, what gets measured, matters. Measures set up incentives that drive people’s behaviour. And woe to the organisation when that behaviour is at odds with its purpose. Imagine the cost to NHS morale (one of Deming’s unknown and unknowable figures) of the knowledge that managing to the measure resulted in more deaths – the grotesque opposite of its aims. Hospitals are the extreme example of a general case. As such, they allow us a definitive rephrasing of our least favourite management mantra. What gets measured gets managed – so be sure you have the right measures, because the wrong ones kill.”