Barren lands

I’ve seen the other side,
been to the other side,
and madness sits there, resplendent.
— James Sallis, Of the Voyage

Nothing makes sense without reference to what went before, and what comes afterwards.
— James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life

Legacy. It seems a concept few modern political or business leaders understand. Their terms in office are but an eye blink in the grand scheme of things. How many genuinely honour and build on the past while seeking to serve not only the fleeting present but the future too?

As a parent, I look on horrified, envisaging what my children are likely to inherit from today’s policymakers and self-interested members of the legislature. What will their legacy be? Divisions and boundaries. Walls to keep some people out and others in. The burden of immense debt even before servitude to the corporate machine has begun. Violation of the world’s natural resources.

Our politicians fuss over spelling and grammar, while environmental damage escalates. Now, I love language, and make my living from writing and editing, but I recognise as well that being able to spell correctly is not going to fix climate change, food shortages, mass migration, economic collapse or military conflicts.

We suffer from systemic failure in education, recruitment and employment. Narrow focus, functional divisions, disjointedness, lack of a big-picture perspective, misguided attention paid to the wrong detail, are all factors that contribute to the empty rhetoric and inanities of wannabe statesmen and captains of industry.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks…

Angel Clarence

The political and social struggles of our time are not concerned merely with external changes and new borders – they involve the very core of our existence. A civil war is being fought inside every soul; and the movies reflect the uncertainties of that war in the form of general inner disintegration and mental disturbance.
— Siegfried Kracauer, Hollywood’s Terror Films

Crime doesn’t disturb this world, it’s foundational to it. Noir stories gave the stage to criminals and their motivations, which range from unspeakable passions to a firm conviction that their particular crime serves a greater good.
— Nicholas Seeley, Noir is Protest Literature

It took a war on a grand scale to shake humanity temporarily out of the economic funk, mass amnesia and ideological brainwashing of the 1930s. As is often the case, we have looped back to what went before. Back to the future; the same but different. Small dark clouds on the horizon rapidly transform into overhead thunderstorms.

During the 1940s, popular culture took our measurements and found us wanting. A film like Citizen Kane dissected the megalomania of a media baron. He closed himself off like an island, built a castle which only his personal invitees could enter, and witnessed the energy fizz away. By life’s end, he was a solitary figure lost in an echoing chamber.

Kane was one of several ingredients that fed the style, form and thematic content of the emergent noir genre during this period in the USA. Other factors were the influence of émigré filmmakers from Europe, the hardboiled fiction of Hammett, Cain and Chandler, the paintings of Edward Hopper and the photojournalism of Weegee. Noir held up a dark mirror to the sociopolitical and cultural reality of America in the 1940s and 1950s. It investigated the shadows.

[Photo credit: Henry Travers & James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life]

Noir narratives were imbued with existential angst and fear of otherness. The questionable ideal of the male WASP was found to be flawed, floundering as it sought to find the source of malaise elsewhere: women who had usurped jobs while men were away fighting; African Americans and Mexicans who had moved into city centres; Communists who apparently were everywhere. The finger of blame always pointed away.

If all this sounds familiar, and the names Trump, Johnson and Le Pen are bubbling around in your mind, it is little wonder that noir – literary, cinematic, televisual – has become such a mainstay of our culture again, not only in the USA but throughout the West. From the dark recesses of our minds, our misgivings, our nightmares, are projected for others to endure and amplify. Occasionally, horrifyingly, such fictions become reality too.

It’s a Wonderful Life is another classic film of the 1940s that dipped into noir territory. George Bailey is a man on the edge, facing financial ruin and disgrace, driven to suicidal action by the machinations of the corrupt banker Henry Potter. It falls to George’s guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, to unveil an alternative reality. This is one in which George never existed, never stood up to Potter and his kind. One in which the corruption and lust for power of one individual infect a whole community.

In this George-less world, it is always night, people are downtrodden and town names are rebranded to reflect the glory of the dictator. The authority and service of Me is all that matters for people like Potter. Clarence’s intervention is enough to clear George’s head, to shift his mindset and lead him to positive action.

So where is our Angel Clarence to wake us up and avoid the impending nightmare…?

The crisis of identity that is at the core of the modern “raging bull” films has no potential for resolution. We simply watch the antisocial behavior of a psychotic figure result in his or her own self-destruction within an inhospitable and uncaring environment.
— Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls

It thus becomes clear that one and the same reality may be split up into many diverse realities when it is beheld from different points of view.
— José Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art


Whether his little brain be quick or slow,
Man everywhere quakes at the mystery,
And looks up only with a trembling eye.
— Charles Baudelaire, The Pot Lid

When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.
— Milan Kundera, Slowness

We have all been too quick to make up our minds and too slow to change them.
— Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner, Superforecasting

To defeat the ill effects of urgency, then, we need two types of tools: those fostering greater awareness of our situational need for closure at a particular juncture, and those that keep the consequences of decisions salient at the right moments.
— Jamie Holmes, Nonsense

A few years ago, on the morning of a friend’s wedding, I went for a bike ride in the wine country to the south of Dijon. Returning back to the city on a circuitous route, I had one of those rare moments when I experienced flow. It is a memory I return to often, a raft of stillness highlighted in the frenetic maelstrom of modern life. I visualise a gentle incline curving through an agricultural landscape, climbing towards a small village atop a hill. Everywhere I look is yellow and green. Rich perfume wafts from the crops that surround me. At my back is both the sun and a light breeze, inducing pleasurable early summer sensations on my bare legs and arms. The act of pedalling feels effortless. Man, nature and machine are at one.

When I first rediscovered a love of the bike as I approached my forties, there was too much focus on the paraphernalia of cycling, the right kit, the measurement of distance, climbs and, above all, speed. Meandering through my forties, those obsessions have fallen away. I am content with the single bicycle I own now, that sees me through all twelve months of the year. I am more interested in the journey than the destination, and anything that measures has been discarded or hidden away. If I need to know the time, then I have to fish my smartphone out of my back pocket. That device is referred to more often for navigation as I venture down the path less taken, or note-taking as the mechanics of the body free up the mind to craft the phrases and paragraphs that end up in my writing.

Of course, all journeys ultimately have a destination, often a deadline too. These can add a little creative constraint and are often helpful. But the path of obliquity, while moving towards that destination, is often far more interesting than that of directness and speed. The journey can be physical, actually moving through space and time, or it can be mental, venturing into the mindscapes of imagination, reflection and memory. The path tends, therefore, to eventually bend back on itself, leading to home, or to the self. Astride my bike, heading out from Whitstable, I can visit the coast, climb up into the Downs, head for the woods or find my way to the nearby city of Canterbury. Walking along the beach, I can plug in earbuds and listen to music or interviews. Either option opens up the possibility of physical wandering and mental flâneurie. Both have the effect of slowing and expanding time.

[Photo credit: Pace of Life, Richard Martin, April 2015]

While writing The Neo-Generalist, I found that I spent almost as much time walking as I did sitting at my desk, chained to a keyboard. Walks along the seafront presented me with the opportunity to listen to and absorb the recordings of interviews conducted by my writing partner Kenneth Mikkelsen. They helped me shape ideas, discovering ways of expressing what I had been grappling with while looking at that blinking cursor on the screen. They were also periods of reflection, allowing for the creative mash-up of the different books, articles and blog posts I had been reading; the fusion of fiction, poetry, art, science, business and sport. The ability to go slow, to wander and ponder, enabled the discovery of intriguing synergies and connections. I doubt that stasis and experiencing the tangible pressure of having to write quickly would have had the same effect.

Extended moments of slow motion and fluid thinking were then punctuated by short bursts of rapid writing, followed by further reflection and intermittent editing. It had a rhythm of sorts, a destination and deadline too. Prevarication was balanced by discipline. Daniel Kahneman’s system 2 (slow) thinking by his system 1 (fast) thinking. Changes of pace were made to match contextual shifts. But always there was a tendency to gravitate back to the slow pace, reading a book or two, allowing ideas and memories to assemble themselves into some kind of meaningful order, frequently corralled by the act of wandering. It was the nourishment of a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of friends and family rather than the quick fix of a snatch-and-grab snack.

Having recently finished writing The Neo-Generalist, these experiences are still fresh in my mind. A beautiful post by Julie Drybrough today on Coaching, Walking, Thinking, Changing cast them in a new light. I see much that I write, whether blog posts, articles or books, as being in conversation with other ideas, other publications, other people. Leisurely discussion is opened up when we choose to click on that publish button. I have already much enjoyed the conversation that has followed Julie’s musings, and now throw this post into the mix as a personal contribution.

If we make the speed of light the constant, then time slows down the faster we move, lengths contract, and masses increase. We enter the world of special relativity.
— Gary Klein, Seeing What Others Don’t

Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.
— Frédéric Gros, A Philosophy of Walking

To be a randonneur, then, is to be a wanderer. Someone on a journey, but in a somewhat random way. The wanderer does not know his course, but discovers it. The path discovers him, as much as he it.
— Matt Seaton, The Wanderer

Because of this at this moment I know
something of the future, how it will
give itself to us slowly, its reticence.
— James Sallis, Trying to Surface

Punctuated equilibrium

That the future’s no calamitous change
But a malingering of now,
Histories, towns, faces that no
Malice or accident much derange.
— Ted Hughes, A Woman Unconscious

You arrive as a ripple of change emanating
from an original, unstoppable,
memory, a then made now
— David Whyte, The Wave

Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change
— James Sallis, Other Conclusions

It is with language and action, enabled and accelerated by technological infrastructure and tools, that we disseminate ideas and make things happen. Language in all its verbalised, encoded and visualised forms is itself a social technology. Yet, with the passage of time, some of its discrete elements, certain images and words, can lose their potency. Round up the usual suspects too often, scoop out their meaning, leave them hanging as empty metaphors, and people soon stop paying attention.

Euan Semple, that admirable digital cage-rattler, catalysed and facilitated a useful discussion on the topic yesterday when he blogged about his misgivings regarding the word transformation. Euan has long been an advocate of an incremental approach to change, founded upon Trojan Mice, or risk-free, small-scale experiments, the effects of which impact over time. Another friend, Anne Marie McEwan, has taken up the baton with her Tiny Triumphs project.

The effectiveness of the gradual, accumulative approach is something that we have witnessed in sport. As Clive Woodward guided the England rugby team to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, he often observed that improvement ‘was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better’. Dave Brailsford followed suit during his tenure with both the British track cycling squad and the Team Sky road-racing outfit, advocating ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. Their respective success indicated the attractiveness of this approach. It made risk management and the size of the tasks ahead more palatable. Small steps were contextualised in relation to a grander vision.

Of course, one size does not fit all. Our corporate, governmental and societal institutions are often stubborn beasts. They are entrenched in their ways because there are usually many who benefit from the established methods of doing things. They fight hard to protect what they know, activating antibodies to resist the virus of change. Their world is one of tradition, rulebooks and ‘best practice’. The latter is the factor that really sucks the air out of the room. It allows no freedom or space for experimentation and emergent practice, which are essential to the marginal gains approach. It is characterised instead by stasis. There is no requirement for improvement, as the ‘best’ has apparently already been achieved.

Such a mindset is highly damaging. Founded upon the myopia of expertise, it inhibits and demarcates, creating a closed system. Inevitably, entropy has its way, energy is lost, and everything ossifies. Sometimes the only way to shake things up again in such a scenario is with large-scale and rapid transformation. That can seem really counterintuitive to an advocate (and I am one) of small experiments. As with so much else, however, there are lessons that can be learned from the natural world.

While Kenneth Mikkelsen and I were researching The Neo-Generalist, we were introduced to the concept of punctuated equilibrium by conservation biologist, artist and textile designer Susy Paisley-Day. The theory was developed in the 1970s by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, who noted that the fossil record of many species offers little evidence of gradual evolutionary change. Instead, change appears to have happened very rapidly, at the edges, often when a small group has become isolated. Following rapid evolutionary change, the new species variant settles down into a steady state. It suggests, then, that transformation is intermittent, rather than perpetual. Stasis is normal.

This biological analogy casts a new light on human behaviour and action. Often we witness the rebel become part of the establishment, the cause institutionalised in the process. Cultural, political and sporting history serves up many examples. Vivienne Westwood, a leading figure in London’s punk scene is now one of the grandes dames of the fashion world. Dylan Hartley, the recidivist rugby player, is now captain of his country. Lech Wałęsa, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Václav Havel all graduated from the status of activist, dissident or revolutionary to that of political leader. Massive change soon fades into the past, and a steady state is resumed.

What Euan’s post stirred up was recognition that, personally, I have a preference for a particular approach to change, but acknowledgment that there are others ways too. The challenge is to ensure that the words associated with these ideas retain meaning, and no longer ring hollow with the empty rhetoric of the self-styled business guru.

The word “transformation” is beginning to worry me. It implies a total change, a radical departure from the status quo, a discarding of how you currently do things. It also implies an idealised end state.
— Euan Semple, Transformation

Change the words and you begin to change the way you think. That in turn changes the way you behave.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

Under phyletic gradualism, the history of life should be one of stately unfolding. Most changes occur slowly and evenly by phyletic transformation; splitting, when it occurs, produces a slow and very gradual divergence of forms. We have already named our alternative picture for its predicted extrapolation—punctuated equilibria. The theory of allopatric speciation implies that a lineage’s history includes long periods of morphologic stability, punctuated here and there by rapid events of speciation in isolated subpopulations.
— Niles Eldredge & Stephen Jay Gould, Punctuated Equilibria

The specialist–generalist continuum

The Greek poet Archilochus observed that the hedgehog knows one big thing but that the fox is curious about many things.

His anthropomorphic distinction between specialism and generalism appealed to the Renaissance scholar Erasmus who included the idea in his Adages.

Isaiah Berlin popularised the concept further as he assessed the writings of Tolstoy and his Russian compatriots. He recognised the distinction between personal preference for one tendency and the lived reality of its alternative.

Philip Tetlock applied the hedgehog and fox distinctions to expertise. He realised that there was a continuum between the two. Nothing was black and white. Hybridisation was possible. Context was important for determining where one found oneself on the continuum.


The hedgehog and the fox, however, only told part of the story. The extremes of the continuum are the domains of the hyperspecialist and the polymath.


When the continuum is transformed into a circle, a funny thing happens. The hyperspecialist and polymath nestle alongside one another. Initial surprise gives way to understanding: the polymath, in effect, is an individual who hyperspecialises multiple times over. They are serial masters.


The line and circle misleadingly suggest some form of step-by-step progression. The reality is more complicated than that. As the context shifts, so does the individual. We experience hyperlinked, disjointed travels on the continuum. Sometimes we specialise, sometimes we generalise, regardless of where our preferences lie. The Möbius strip or infinite loop better reflect the experience.


The neo-generalist is an inclusive term that incorporates all the different types that appear on the continuum: the specialists, the hedgehogs, the foxes, the renaissance men and women, the multipotentialites, the multi-hyphenates, the jacks of all trades, the Pi-shaped, the comb-shaped, the T-shaped (even if they are often miscategorised, misunderstood) and the polymathic generalists.


In The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how those with preferences for the WWW curve of the continuum nevertheless find themselves practising all over the map, responding and adapting to context. We illustrate our argument with stories drawn from interviewees, historical figures, business, activism, science, sport, the military, art and popular culture. We even delve into our personal experiences to explore how they correspond to the continuum. Here is my learning–working story distilled:


We have had great fun researching and writing the book, and have been gratified to encounter so many fascinating people along the way.

The Neo-Generalist will be published by LID in September.

Neo-Generalist Cover

Balance fallacy

Today we put everything in containers. Even people. Even ourselves.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

One search, with a sole objective: home, a world to call my own.
— Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

As people accelerate through the years of middle age, it is common to find themselves becoming increasingly intolerant of anything that wastes their time. In my case, I am quick to impatience with, often irritated by, the sanctimonious, self-satisfied platitudes that pass as business literature. Take any idea expounded by the self-titled ninjas and gurus of today, wind back the clock some twenty, thirty or forty years, and you are likely to find that it has been examined in far greater philosophical and compelling depth by the poets, novelists, artists and filmmakers of the day. Occasionally, a Drucker or Handy emerges who are trailblazers, ahead of their time. But such business examples are vanishingly rare.

One tired old concept guaranteed to have me wincing in frustration every time I hear it is that of work–life balance. The logic of the phrase suggests that you have to be deceased in order to undertake any endeavour but alive to do anything else, which is clearly a nonsense. It has been a common theme in too many conversations of late, both in person and online, during which interlocutors have expressed their bafflement with the distinction. Why is it that the obvious escapes the attention of so many others?


Try this when next confronted with the work–life fallacy. Let’s call it the Venn diagram test. Draw a large rectangle. Within it draw two overlapping circles. Label one work, then confuse your audience by labelling the second play. Add another circle. Call this one childhood. Another travel. Then relationships. Add family, friends, parenthood, study, sport, reading, walking, eating, charity, retirement, gardening, art, and so on. How large each circle is really depends on you; your experiences, your preferences and prejudices. When you are finished, point out that it is the rectangle that is life. Everything else is contained within it. Including work.

Why, then, do people feel the need to separate work from the rest of existence? Is it to laud it or to stigmatise it? Should we not just treat it as one piece of the bigger jigsaw puzzle? Like many other aspects of life, work is an opportunity for learning and connection, for making a difference and serving others in however small a way. It does not stand alongside but is intertwined with the other circles in the Venn diagram. It is not one weight on a scale required to be balanced and measured by all other aspects of our lived experience. It is about time that was recognised instead of being shrouded by fatuous statements and meaningless corporate policies.

I was aware, not in some remote, faintly acknowledged manner, but physically aware, with a rise along my spine, that simultaneously we all inhabit two worlds, the one we carry within our minds and the external (or projected) one, and that these two meet, the “real” and “shadow,” only selectively, like the scant overlapping lips of Venn diagrams.
— James Sallis, Renderings

so many selves(so many fiends and gods
each greedier than every)is a man
— e. e. cummings, i six nonlectures

Galactic Discomfort

No answer then
but the ache
of that wanting,
no answer then
but the innocence
of a growing
need to know,
enlarging and
— David Whyte, Who Made the Stars?

The period spanning the late sixties through the mid-seventies was one of the most fascinating in the history of mainstream Hollywood cinema. The industry itself was undergoing fundamental structural change. New technology was being incorporated into filmmaking practices. The literacy of the cinema-going public was enhanced by their informal small-screen education via television. A new generation of film school-educated writers, directors and cinematographers were beginning to find their feet and get personal projects backed by financiers. With them, they brought ideas and techniques developed away from the Classical Hollywood machine. These were introduced in the European new waves and the cinema of Japan.

Formal experimentation was but a vehicle, however, to explore questions of a cultural and ideological nature. Society was in flux, and the established military-industrial complex, as well as its supporting political infrastructure, was being challenged and questioned. This was the era of Vietnam, race riots, assassinations, Watergate, high-profile investigations, oil crises, economic stagflation and a counter-culture fuelled by popular music, drugs, feminism and youth disenfranchisement. From Bonnie and Clyde to Nashville, The Conversation to Taxi Driver, The Wild Bunch to Chinatown, and Network to All the President’s Men our screens were filled with images of institutional corruption, impotence, gratuitous violence and futile attempts to make sense of things, to make a difference. The private investigator and reporter were our anti-heroes, doomed to failure and harm even before they embarked upon their quest for knowledge and understanding.

This was challenging cinema. Provocative, thoughtful, technically innovative and radically different from what had previously been served on the mainstream conveyor belt. Even saccharine fare like Grease could have an edge, weaving tales of teen pregnancy, simmering male violence and tribal belonging and alienation into its musical love story. But its release and popular success in 1978 really coincided with the death knell of mainstream experimentation. As a new decade dawned, independent filmmaking would become home to those who wanted to play with form and technique, or who were drawn to the more provocative material. The success of Jaws, Rocky and Star Wars pulled the mainstream in another direction, launching decades’ worth of franchise cinema and product tie-ins. The commercial imperative was supplemented by an ideological shift to the right, first confronting the term of the Carter administration then underpinning the policy and actions of the Reagan–Bush years.

It is intriguing to compare the sprawling chaos and mythical-psychological journey of Apocalypse Now, for example, with the simplified vision of Star Wars. Both borrow from archetypes and the examination of myth, fairy tale and religion by the likes of James George Frazer, Vladimir Propp, Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell. Whereas Star Wars (and the later Indiana Jones series) returns to the style and content of the film serials of the 1930s, however, Apocalypse Now is more reliant on literary sources like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and an early treatment of it by Orson Welles. Francis Ford Coppola’s film is messy, anarchic, challenging. George Lucas’s is straightforward, apparently uplifting in its recycling of a Christ-like narrative, but politically unnerving. The empire is defeated, the monarchy is restored, and the victors are assembled in images that resemble the ordered masses filmed by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will, a cinematic document of the Nuremberg rallies of 1934.

The Nazi message was one that boiled everything down to a simplistic essence. It promoted fear of otherness, the primacy of a certain kind of super being and the belief in a single right answer. That should be anathema for anyone with liberal tendencies, a fondness for diversity in all forms, a comfort with ambiguity and a reluctance to accept that there is any such thing as ‘right answers’. That such ideological undertones find their way into the original Star Wars film is disturbing. It is why I have never been able to share so many of my contemporaries’ passion for the film or for several other franchises that appeared in the subsequent decade.

I guess I will just have to be a cinematic Grinch this holiday season.

Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you’ve heard me crying,
and admit you’ve seen my tears.
— Maya Angelou, Equality


And there
in silence I celebrated departures,
all these revelations and masks
dredged down from the day.
— James Sallis, Memory at 3 A.M.

The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go
— David Whyte, Finisterre

From at least the time of the Renaissance onwards advances in scientific understanding and our ability to measure accelerated and expanded. They enhanced our understanding of time and space, our diminishingly small place in the universe, our history, the fragmentation of our days and our servitude to the clock. It resulted in what Douglas Rushkoff termed present shock, the modern-day obsession with now, unmoored from ‘desire, reasons, or context’. The now of digital ephemera; the Snapchat message or Instagram image, barely apprehended and lost to the immediate past.

As the Industrial Revolution prompted changes in people’s behaviour, regulated by the mechanical clock rather than the rhythms of the seasons and an agricultural life, so an interest in time began to permeate other aspects of our culture too. The novel, for example, gained a firmer foothold during this period, and by the early twentieth-century notions of time had become a dominant motif, influencing and being influenced by the work of poets, painters, photographers and filmmakers. As Milan Kundera argues in The Curtain, where the scientific approach to history relates to progress, when ‘applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them.’

The first decades of the last century were a great melting pot of ideas. Mathematics and geometry feeding Picasso’s art. Music and philosophy inspiring Einstein’s science. Mythology and psychology infusing the work of novelists and poets. The working of the mind, of its apprehension of time, its expansion and elision, proved a source of fascination, shaping the work of Joyce and Proust, among others. Their successors remain enthralled by the notion of memory, of how with the passage of linear time, there was an uncoupling of lived experience from the emotional, the sensory. The latter informed memories that could be shaped into new narratives that carried greater meaning than any factual recording ever could. These were personal stories, linked to inner feelings and sentiment. It is an idea beautifully captured by James Sallis: memory is forever more poet than reporter.

[Photo credit: Departure, Richard Martin, October 2015]

This sense of personal narrative being informed by emotive memories has really been brought home to me in the last fortnight, triggered by the deaths of two people with whom I had worked but did not know well, Lisa Jardine and Jay Cross. Lisa was the Chair of the HFEA during several of the years I worked there. My enduring memories of her, though, have nothing to do with the domain of IVF regulation or embryo research, but rather of discussions relating to literature and technology. Jay was someone who I was aware of for some time, but had only connected with this year, when we began to work together on his latest book, Real Learning. It was a brief acquaintance of Skype conversations, texting and email exchanges, focused on readying his book for publication next month. Yet in such a short time, I was impressed by his restless explorer’s energy, whether that was seeking to help others learn, travelling or following his enthusiasm for classic cars.

The eulogies that have appeared in the media, in print, online, on social platforms, offer a more rounded picture of the people with whom I had brief acquaintance. More tellingly, they also capture the sensory memories of those who have crafted these written pieces or selected certain images to share. These past two weeks I have learned so much more about both Lisa and Jay, their broad interests and their effect on those they touched during their short time with us. Both achieved a degree of celebrity in their respective fields. Lisa as a polymathic academic comfortable in both the humanities and the sciences, as a radio personality and as a member of various societies and public boards. Jay as a pioneer of informal learning, and as someone who disregarded lazy generational labels and demonstrated what it was to be a septuagenarian digital native. They both showed others how to live a life of curiosity and constant learning, consolidating their own learning through guiding and teaching others.

Both Lisa and Jay live on through the memories of those they befriended, influenced and guided. I am grateful to have known them, however fleetingly; grateful too to have access to those memories shared by others. Departed but not forgotten.

Inspire them with such a longing as will make his thought
Alive like patterns a murmuration of starlings
Rising in joy over worlds unwittingly weave
— W. H. Auden, O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven

an ancient pomegranate tree
gnarled and twisted and the dark bark shredded
the rings inside it holding its long story
and the sap still climbing to make
another life as I sat there by the wall
— W. S. Merwin, Can Palat

Fork in the cat

This post is a contribution to the #twistedpair series instigated and curated by Steve Wheeler. The challenge is to write about an unlikely pairing that helps illuminate how we think about learning. The subjects I have opted to entangle are physicist Erwin Schrödinger and rugby player Jonny Wilkinson.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
— Robert Frost, Road Not Taken

the world
is a mental activity,
a dream of souls,
without foundation, purpose, weight or shape.
— Jorge Luis Borges, Break of Day

Surely we dream the world, and ourselves into it. But to say that the world is illusion is not to say that it is not real, only that it is not what it seems (and who ever believed that it was?), that it is constantly becoming, constantly being made.
— James Sallis, Renderings

Trinitarian, or third-angle, thinking is always looking for solutions which can reconcile or illuminate the opposites.
— Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat

Erwin Schrödinger, often afflicted with tuberculosis, was a regular visitor at a sanatorium near Arosa in the Swiss Alps. A Professor of Physics at the University of Zurich, he took the opportunity during a visit in the mid-1920s to exercise his mind while his body underwent its regular cure. Schrödinger conjured with ideas put forward by fellow scientists, Albert Einstein and Louis de Broglie. Early in the century, Einstein, when introducing the concept of photons, had posited the notion that while light is usually considered in terms of waves, in some cases it can behave as if composed of particles. In 1924, de Broglie had built on Einstein’s evolving ideas and proposed that all matter consisted of particles that can be considered waves. The challenge with which Schrödinger was confronted was to devise an equation that described how such waves moved.

Schrödinger’s solution was published in January 1926 in the first of a series of papers that year which advanced the understanding of quantum mechanics. His discovery and ongoing exploration of wave mechanics and atomic theory earned him international recognition, as well as the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933. Inevitably, his ideas did not always rhyme with other schools of thought, with other explorers in the field. For example, Schrödinger took issue with what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was based on work by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, among others. In 1935 he devised a thought experiment to illustrate the problem he saw in their interpretation. In doing so he posed a conundrum with which scientists, philosophers and artists still grapple today: Schrödinger’s cat paradox.

In the scenario Schrödinger sets out, a cat is locked in a steel container. Free from interference by the cat, but also within the same container, there is a geiger counter contaminated with a small amount of radioactive substance, a flask of hydrocyanic acid and a hammer. The latter will break the flask if an atom of radioactive matter is released by the geiger counter. How does one know if such an atom has been released without opening the container? How does one know whether the cat is alive or dead? For a period, therefore, there is a superposition of states during which the cat is both alive and dead. It is only when the container is opened, and measurement, observation, is applied that this state of superposition collapses into one of two alternative states. The cat follows the fork towards either life or death. A continuum of alternative realities suddenly freeze-frames.

[Image credit: Schrödinger’s Cat, Christian Schirm, November 2011]

Let’s consider another freeze-frame, familiar to many English rugby enthusiasts. It is the evening of 22 November 2003. A ball bisects the uprights, kicked by a young fly-half with his right foot, the one he does not favour. England have just won the Rugby World Cup, defeating Australia 20-17 in the last moments of extra time. In numerous alternative realities, the kick misses, England never achieve the correct field position, someone knocks the ball on. The lottery of an unprecedented drop-goal shoot-out then looms. These are the vagaries of sport, illustrated again in the 2015 vintage of the Rugby World Cup in the quarter-final match between Scotland and Australia. There alternative realities see the referee award a scrum rather than a penalty to Australia in the last minutes of the game or decline to issue a yellow card earlier in the game. Another alternative sees Australian fly-half, Bernard Foley, kicking all his penalties and not allowing the Scots a scent of victory. In another quarter-final, one alternative sees all of Ireland’s injured players restored to full health, but still being outplayed and outscored by a rampant Argentina.

An individual all too familiar with the highs and lows of sport is Jonny Wilkinson, the fly-half who kicked that drop-goal in 2003. As a young man, Wilkinson was so intense, so driven to be the best he could be, that he found it difficult to enjoy that victory. In media interviews, he came across as a young soul tortured to the point of incoherence. He was in thrall to the pursuit of perfection, in his own words, ‘piling on layers of achievements’. But such a pursuit, ultimately is a fool’s game. If nirvana is ever attained, one’s notion of perfection fulfilled, then entropy soon sets in. Stasis is quickly followed by decay. The team of which Wilkinson was a member in 2003 was a good illustration of this. During their summer tour that year, England did the unthinkable, defeating the All Blacks on their home patch, holding out even when temporarily reduced to 13 men. Then, the following week, the English team went on to issue a masterclass in its match against Australia. The team then declined rapidly, rather than ascended, towards its World Cup victory.

The period between the World Cups of 2003 and 2007 was one of physical and psychic fragmentation for Wilkinson. One injury followed another. The running joke became which part of his body has Jonny Wilkinson not injured during the past couple of years? He became rugby’s Schrödinger’s cat: both/and. The record points scorer who was not adding to his tally. One of the most capped players, who was not winning any more caps. The national captain who was not captaining. The long pause was only temporarily interrupted by the occasional appearance for his club or the British Lions. Wilkinson fought the effects of depression. But he also read, he learned, he thought.

It was during this time that Wilkinson came across quantum mechanics. A rudimentary grasp, a curiosity for some of the Eastern philosophy that had attracted the likes of Schrödinger and Bohr, as well as many of their Modernist contemporaries in the fields of art and science, led him to Buddhism. The fragments formed a whole again. Wilkinson reassessed what was important. ‘Just shed the layers, go back to the beginning, stop viewing everything I do in comparison to others.’

Victories can happen. Injuries can happen. They both did. But the non-player became a player again. He featured in another World Cup final, losing to South Africa this time around. He moved to France, playing club rugby for Toulon, blossoming as both a rugby player and a more rounded man. 2011 saw him sharing a stage with a Nobel Prize-winning physicist talking, in fluent French, of his interest in quantum mechanics and Buddhism, reflecting on the effects they had had on his life. 2014 saw him retire as a rugby player, having just led Toulon to its second consecutive European champion’s title, as well as the French league title.

Wilkinson’s discovery of the work and ideas of Schrödinger and his contemporaries did not transform him into a Nobel-winning scientist. If pressed, it is likely he would confess to grasping the essence of some quantum theory rather than understanding it in its entirety. What is illuminating about his encounter with the quantum world, however, is the way it gave him pause, made him rethink his approach to life, prompted him to follow his curiosity. This is the essence of lifelong learning. The constant acquisition, processing, internalisation and acting out of knowledge and experience. An open invitation to have our worldview challenged and expanded upon.

A fixed viewpoint – a single line of thought – can be a trap – where we see only what we’re looking for. Blind to other possibilities.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

We can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity

In the quantum world, everything is potentiality, a lottery in which outcomes depend on who (or what) is running the show.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

For Fichte, the mind of God is in everyone. Similar notions led Schopenhauer to Eastern philosophy; Schrödinger and Bohr followed later. People highlight parallels between quantum theory and Buddhism, forgetting those similarities were built in from the outset.
— Andrew Crumey, Mobius Dick

Increasingly, I am inspired by Buddhist philosophy. I want to understand more about who I am and why I seem to be fighting against the world I live in instead of working with it. In order to do that, I realise I need to learn more empathy, and be more flexible with my views and my values.
— Jonny Wilkinson, Jonny

Middle Vision

The wide-eyed child in love with maps and plans
Finds the world equal to his appetite.
How grand the universe by lamps,
How petty in memory’s clear sight.
— Charles Baudelaire, Voyaging

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
— Edgar Allen Poe, A Dream Within a Dream

I no longer believe in a Theory of Everything, or in the possibility of perfection. Paradox I now see to be inevitable, endemic and perpetual. The more turbulent the times, the more complex the world, the more the paradoxes.
— Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat

We need specialist, expert teams to function in a complex world. But we also need to have a joined-up, flexible vision of life. Mastering silos requires us to walk a narrow line between these two contradictory goals.
— Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect

In mathematics, the first theorem of graph theory has its basis in a puzzle posed in the eighteenth century. The Prussian city of Königsberg was sited on the banks of the Pregel River. It included two islands, which were connected to the rest of the city, north and south, by a network of seven bridges. The challenge was to devise a route that required each bridge to be crossed only once from beginning to end. In 1736, Leonhard Euler offered a negative resolution, an exercise in abstraction, that will be familiar to anyone who maps networks today.

Landmasses, topography and location were elided, rendered as nodes on a graph. Connectors ran between the different nodes, either suggestive of the bridges or ignoring them entirely. Like the underground map that denotes stations and routes in London, excluding as well as including, playing impressionistic games with geography, this offered an alternative interpretation of the reality many people had become familiar with. This was both mathematical and subjective. Euler was looking at the world around him in a very different way to his fellow citizens.

As I have written elsewhere, I find the bridge an attractive metaphor, suggestive of both connection and choice. Standing on a bridge you are in two places at once, either side of a river, for example. But you are also in no place, hovering above the Thames or the Seine. A bridge serves to breakdown the simplicity of either/or, replacing it with a more complex notion of both/and. This is more reflective of the world we live in, the societies of which we are part and the communities with which we interact. Computing languages aside, the options presented to us on a daily basis are rarely binary. Rather they form part of a continuum. Each step across the bridge contributes to this.

A useful challenge is that both/and thinking is lazy thinking. That has certainly given me pause. On reflection, however, I stick by the both/and approach as long as it is thought of in terms of a continuum. That is, we are not talking about one or both extremes of the continuum but are including everything that lies in between, every shade, every flavour. Each is viable in the right context. To set up camp permanently on one extreme is to follow the path of fundamentalism. To stand at both extremes and ignore all that is in between serves up the possibility of cognitive dissonance. To accept, however, that there is a continuum between the poles, that they are in fact connected, and that there is much middle ground to be traversed and considered, is more in keeping with the notion of integrative thinking.

In Blending, I suggested that there is no right answer. Context – personal, societal, political, educational, economical, environmental – always has a part to play. It helps determine where we stand on a continuum at any given point in time. I can be a hyperspecialist in one context, a comb-shaped generalist in another. I am father in any interaction with my children, but son with my parents. I can take the lead on one project, but follow the lead of someone else on another. I can be confident in my knowledge on one topic, but embrace the state of not knowing on many others. However, as I push at those boundaries of not knowing, exercising curiosity, learning through interaction with other people, I can also bring into play the perspective gained from my prior knowledge. My position on the continuum shifts. Such shifts can be discontinuous too. Space and time can be warped so that the bridge takes on more the shape of an infinite loop than an arch over water. Passage is not so much linear as hyperlinked.


Wherever we stand, though, context and subjectivity both constrain and shape our perspective. We can only ever serve up answers, therefore, that fit with that context and that subjectivity. What we see is informed by what we know. Euler, for example, arrived at a negative solution to the Königsberg bridge puzzle because of what he knew already about mathematics and his own pushing at the boundaries of this knowledge in the eighteenth century. But would he arrive at the same conclusion today with the benefit of accessing all the advances that have been made in scientific and mathematical knowledge since then? Would quantum theory, for example, lead him in another direction? The answers we offer are not right, then, but they are holding answers, waiting to be challenged, overturned, expanded upon as further forays are made into the realm of not knowing. There is always a middle ground, a blank space, where something new will be found.

The constraints and enabling effects of one’s vision is something that fascinates me. In The Eye of I, I argued that we all sit at our own labyrinth’s centre. Any network we can think of that contains us, we tend to look at from our own perspective. Inevitably, therefore, we find ourselves at its centre. A friend mapping a similar network will find themselves at its centre too. Their map will differ from our own. It is impossible to escape our own subjective point of view. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to go off-grid from time to time, to explore the labyrinth in full, its cul-de-sacs and apparently dead spaces. We need to broaden our perspective, discovering third ways that offer an alternative to the different poles of a continuum.

As I have entered the middle ground of the birth–death continuum, this has really been brought home to me in relation to my own eyesight. Since my mid-teens I have been short-sighted, wearing spectacles to correct my vision. In recent months I encountered difficulty focusing on the text in books and on computer screens. I now find myself requiring reading glasses as well as distance ones. But what of the middle ground? The ill-defined territory? Walking down the local high street this past week all that was familiar took on a slightly different focus. Clarity was lost, faces were hazy, objects and buildings misty, in the middle ground and beyond. I had forgotten to switch from reading glasses to distance ones, and I found myself in a liminal state. It was eerie, intriguing; a sense of feeling temporarily unmoored. I had to recalculate my relation to objects and people. The high street lost its familiarity, became a new place to visit.

Of course, I have enjoyed returning to the high street with my eyes restored to their former state. But I know now that there is a parallel experience to explore whenever I please. Which is the correct view of the high street? Both/and as far as I am concerned. But what about something like a 3D film? My children have several of them that require the wearing of special glasses. Whenever I have tried to watch one, I have found it an unpleasant experience, undoubtedly because of the state of my eyes and the need to correct them. Often the images I see are blurred and in black and white. Surely not was intended by the filmmakers. But what do they see? When Hollywood was first enamoured of 3D technology in the 1950s, one of the more successful productions to take advantage of it was the horror film House of Wax. It was directed by André de Toth, a man who only had one eye. What did he see, compared to you and I? The likelihood is that we all see something different, one of many answers on the both/and continuum.

Our stereoscopic vision is the creation and integration of two views.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

[Integrative thinking is] The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.
— Roger Martin, The Opposable Mind

In the face of complexity, our default mode is multiple choice—we prefer shopping to creating. We’ve been trained by Industrial Age marketers to believe anything good is already on the shelf.
— Marty Neumeier, Metaskills