Gore Vidal and the People’s Airplane

March 27, 2016

gore-vidal-2-large

Vidal with President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, 1961 (credit Everett/Rex)

I recently skimmed through a biography of Gore Vidal after seeing it on display at the local library.

An intimate, authorized yet frank biography of Gore Vidal (1925-2012), one of the most accomplished, visible and controversial American novelists and cultural figures of the past century.

At a similar time, I also happened to see a good documentary on him on Sky Arts.

As is often the case, the childhood of these exceptional people is also quite exceptional (I’m always hoping they’ll be mundane, they rarely are).

Here’s a revealing example (see video above):

In November 1933, Gene Vidal announced the Bureau’s plan to make owning a personal aircraft as commonplace as owning a Model-T Ford. The Bureau invited aircraft manufacturers to design a simple, safe vehicle that would sell for a target price of $700. Unfortunately, the manufacturers never thought that was feasible, even though at least one of the innovations that came out of the contest—tricycle landing gear with a steerable nose wheel—did end up influencing future designs.

In 1936, Vidal and 10-year-old Gore were filmed at Washington D.C.’s Bolling Field, demonstrating how easy it was to control one of the competition winners, the two-seat Hammond Model Y (a later version of which is in the Smithsonian collection).

As they say, “supremely confident at an early age”.

Some memorable Vidal quotes:

“I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television.”

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

“A narcissist is someone better looking than you are.”

“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

“The United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.”

“Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an IQ of 60.”

“A good deed never goes unpunished.”

“All children alarm their parents, if only because you are forever expecting to encounter yourself.”

“Fifty percent of people won’t vote, and fifty percent don’t read newspapers. I hope it’s the same fifty percent.”

“The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.”


The Journey and the Destination

March 19, 2016

Journey Bowie

Towards the end of last year I decided to do some planning and when in this frame of mind I came across this quote (there are many variations on it):

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.” – Ursula LeGuin

This made me think that, independently of however much you plan, even schematically, things happen along the way that change you and the way you think about things. A few weeks ago I came across the Bowie quote above which I thought gave another interesting viewpoint!

Photo credit: here.


Igniting Exciting Conversations

March 7, 2016

There are lots of articles on the drawbacks of formal presentations (death by Powerpoint etc). I’ve certainly gone through many presentations that have ranged from boring to incomprehensible.

In a concise article, Jack Welch offers three tips (extracts below):

Rule #1: Keep your message simple. Not simplistic, mind you. Not dumbed down, either. But simple, as in not over-complicated and completely graspable.

It’s quite likely true that if the idea or premise can’t be made simple (but not simplistic) then there’s probably something wrong with it.

Rule #2: Tell your audience something they don’t know. I’m always amazed when a manager comes into an executive or board presentation and basically recites materials that all of us have already received by email.

As you can imagine, this would certainly grab people’s attention. This relates to Rule 1 of course!

Rule #3: Let your passion rip. I don’t get it, but there’s a popular strand of thinking that speakers gain credibility in front of audiences by appearing pensive and logical, almost contained to the point of flatness, like a 3-star general giving testimony before Congress.

This is sometimes more a question of confidence than anything else.

I quite like this extract, which I think gets to the heart of the matter:

“Giving a speech/presentation is not about relating information or a point of view so that people go, “Hmm,” and move along. It’s about igniting exciting conversations that go on long after you’re done talking.”

Consequently it will be invaluable to think through how you’d keep these conversations going and how best to benefit from them.


Reinvention As Personal R&D

February 22, 2016

I’ve (so far) had three types of career: academic (internationally), business manager (in two large UK companies) and as an independent consultant (all in rather different technical areas).

I’m currently thinking about the next phase, which will probably centre around ‘giving something back to the community’, although perhaps not in a traditional way.

Part of this is just my makeup, I like doing and exploring different things, even if changing areas often gets progressively more difficult (a new learning curve each time) although still very rewarding.

In hindsight, it’s clear that my previous ‘reinventions’ were carried out in a fairly haphazard manner – I just got on with it (‘ignorance is bliss’). I’ve often thought there must be a better way. In this context I came across this insightful article by Saul Kaplan which is well worth thinking about if this sort of thing interests you:

Why aren’t we taught how to reinvent ourselves in school? Reinvention is imperative as a life skill. You would think we would at least be exposed to the fundamentals of personal exploration and reinvention while we are in school. Instead we seem increasingly focused on the skills necessary to get a specific job, a job that is highly unlikely to exist five years from now. As a society we highly prize specialty education pathways that track students toward narrow career choices instead of celebrating education pathways emphasizing a broad platform and skill set useful in doing future work that doesn’t exist today. Education and workforce development programs should emphasize foundational life skills that are transferable and enabling the personal confidence and skills to constantly reinvent ourselves.

Reinvention is a journey not a destination. It doesn’t have to be a scare word. You don’t have to know what you’re reinventing yourself to in order to work on reinventing yourself. It isn’t about stopping one thing in order to do or be something else. It’s about spending time every day, every month and every year constantly reinventing. It’s about personal R&D to explore and test new possibilities. It’s about experimenting all the time to uncover latent opportunities. It’s about continuing to strengthen our current selves while simultaneously working on our future selves by actively engaging in new ideas, environments and practices. You don’t have to stop doing what you’re currently doing you just have to allow yourself the freedom to try more stuff.

He then goes on to give a list of 15 practical ways to help ‘build your reinvention muscle’. It’s interesting that I already do most of them so I guess that’s a built-in character trait.

However perhaps the main point is the thinking about it all the time and trying some small experiments in new directions rather than waiting until you’re totally fed up and desperate for a sudden change (or worse, when a change is forced upon you).


Theories Of Everything, Mapped

February 3, 2016

Theories of EverythingClick here

I started my career as a theoretical physicist working on the problem of quark confinement and related matters. I still try to keep my general interest up and nowadays there are a number of excellent semi-popular resources for this.

Quanta is one of them. Here’s a really impressive pictorial overview of the current ideas and theories in our fundamental understanding of the universe – a very slick web site!

The map provides concise descriptions of highly complex theories; learn more by exploring the links to dozens of articles and videos, and vote for the ideas you find most elegant or promising. Finally, the map is extensive, but hardly exhaustive; proposed additions are welcome below.


Explorers, Alchemists, Wrestlers And Detectives

December 10, 2015

An interesting article from the mathematician David Mumford:

“I think one can make a case for dividing mathematicians into several tribes depending on what most strongly drives them into their esoteric world. I like to call these tribes explorers, alchemists, wrestlers and detectives. Of course, many mathematicians move between tribes and some results are not cleanly part the property of one tribe:

  • Explorers are people who ask — are there objects with such and such properties and if so, how many?
  • Alchemists, on the other hand, are those whose greatest excitement comes from finding connections between two areas of math that no one had previously seen as having anything to do with each other.
  • Wrestlers are those who are focussed on relative sizes and strengths of this or that object.
  • Finally Detectives are those who doggedly pursue the most difficult, deep questions, seeking clues here and there, sure there is a trail somewhere, often searching for years or decades.”

It makes you think about how you and others go about their work, particularly in a research setting. Just what are the aspects that most fascinate you and why and can you think of a catchy word to summarise your approach.

The detective connection, in a more general setting, is also mentioned here.


Cooking Up Failure

December 7, 2015

I’ve been developing my cookery skills over the last few months and (fortunately for all concerned) it’s starting to pay off. As part of this I’ve been reading lots of books and articles for tips and insights.

As an interesting link to R&D (which I’ve spent most of my professional life doing), here’s an illuminating quote from the well-known chef Jamie Oliver:

Some people think I am a businessman or massively strategic,” he said, speaking with PR chief Richard Edelman at the Cannes Lions festival. “[But] I worked out the other day, I took a little review of my 17 years – we’ve done all right, I’ve sold a few books and we’ve made a few quid – I realised that I think I wasted and fucked up about 40%.”

Oliver, who the Sunday Times Rich List estimates is worth £180m, said while the failures have been “painful” he has come to consider the learning curve as research and development.

“I don’t know if that is acceptable or not acceptable,” he said. “That 40% is quite painful. But then I sit back and look at it: Would I change anything? Did the mistakes not teach me powerful lessons? I’m trying to turn those mistakes into what maybe you guys call R&D. What is the percentage of turnover that is right for innovation? What is healthy? Is it 10%, 20%? Is 40% reckless?

It’s a really interesting question. Of course, fixing the budget to a set number is not the point, it’s more it’s use as a rough indicator and to motivate people to think and talk about ‘sustainable innovation’ (even if that goes against vested interests).


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