April Cycling BHAG Update

(Meet The BHAG)

April has been close to perfect for the BHAG. It has luxuriated under sunny skies the whole month long and been satiated by many, many miles.

The commute home has become slightly shorter and tougher, thanks to the Olympics. Woolwich common is covered in building works for shooting events, so right at the end of the cycle home I have to take on a big hill. I dreaded it at first, but it provides a fast, tough finish that’s actually quite thrilling. This is especially the case as the rides home in April have been the first time this year I’ve left work in daylight and arrived home in daylight.

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March Cycling BHAG Update

(Meet The BHAG)

Despite the fact this month’s mileage total was ten shy of February’s, it’s easily been the best month’s cycling so far, thanks to the arrival of Spring.

At the start of March, that seemed a long way off. It was still really cold and grey, spitting rain and headwind which caused my front lights to break. Motivation was hard to come by; I try tinkering around with my commuting route; the Greenwich Foot Tunnel is open (sometimes), so I try using that to cut across into the Isle of Dogs and then take one of Boris’ Cycle Superhighways into the city.

A trip to the US in the middle of the month – to Austin, Texas for SXSW, all superhuge blue skies, inspiration and connection – is brilliant, a welcome change from London and the slow haul out of Winter. In terms of the BHAG though, SXSW punches a huge hole in the middle of the month, as I’m away for a week, and then wiped out for four days afterwards, staying up far too late and sleeping in and just generally feeling knocked sideways.

Getting back on the bike was a bit of a trudge at first but then there was a ride where from the first moment I just knew it was going to be great: the bike felt light, taught, ready to roll as soon as I pulled it away from the rack, and the whole cycle home was just fast, smooth, fun and warm.

And then the clocks go back, and all of a sudden it’s easy. On a Sunday, I cycle out to Biggin Hill, the best day’s cycling so far, guided by a brilliant route. It’s Spring everywhere I look, the scenery rushing past packed with budding blossom and magnolia petals, everything heavy with colour and feeling. It’s a half day 40 mile route, out into Kent, to the famous old RAF airfield, and then the huge drop down Westerham hill, the fastest I’ve ever gone on the bike – 37.4mph – an incredible road that twists and turns and sends you rolling out beyond the M25. My legs ache as I cycle back via Orpington, but everything else feels great.

Total miles: 140
Commutes: 8
Total to cycle: 1,633

February Cycling BHAG Update

(Meet The BHAG)

It’s starting to get warmer; I’ve discarded the winter cap from under the helmet and the big thick winter gloves are gone too. The winter riding gear I settled on in November – Rapha Merino underlayer, Berghaus t-shirt and softshell jacket combo – is starting to feel a bit too warm, particularly as I’m trying to get my time on the run home to consistently under an hour.

A great first week of the month meant I thought I might actually manage the 176 mile a month target I worked out when I first made this plan, but week two poleaxed my optimism with two punctures on two consecutive rides. The first was on a Wednesday ride in, and near the cycle shop in London Bridge. They changed the inner tube, and when I rode home on the Friday, a massive puncture – hissing like an angry snake, audible over the cars – finished the ride just as I’d finished the big hill in Greenwich. It was a long, boring walk to the station, and waiting for 20 minutes in shorts certainly soured my mood.

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The 2011 Cycling BHAG

End of the road

At work at the moment, we’re contemplating the BHAG (pronounced ‘bee hag.’) The BHAG isn’t an old crone. It is, perhaps, slightly monstrous. Certainly, it should provoke a small amount of fear, a smidgen, a brief, cold press up against your heart.

Mainly though, it should be inspiring. The BHAG is the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Don’t laugh. It is a real thing. It has a Wikipedia page. A true BHAG should be so ambitious as to be ridiculous – at least when you’re starting. Consider Microsoft’s: a personal computer on every desk and in every home. This, at a time when people still thought of computers as machines that occupied whole rooms, and not too many years after Apple made them out of wood. A true BHAG should, thanks to its audacious, ludicrous character, inspire you to great heights.

While we’re still working on Dennis Media Factory’s BHAG, I did have an idea for my own one. I really started getting into cycling after buying a decent road bike last spring, so I thought about a mileage target for this year. And it seems obvious: 2011 = 2,011 miles.

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The best book I read last year was The Odyssey

2010 was often a rotten year, both in books and out of books. Not that I am blaming the books you understand. If anything, there was comfort to be taken from the fact the pages did not misunderstand me by being full of sweetness and light.

Instead the books I read were often frustrating, full of let downs and wrong turns, the promises made on the first page escaping, slipping away, as if through the holes in the letters. There were books written by people failing to get their great ideas onto the page — or read by a reader who failed to get them off the page, the ink too dry and brittle to make a mark. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris certainly falls into this category, as does Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore. Both are intelligent, curious books which I just didn’t connect with.

There were books that just didn’t pan out in the way I wanted. It’s too easy for new novels to get to a certain status on little more than fumes. Have a link between author and topic that’s easy to summarise, strengthen with topicality and a certain obviousness and you’re away. That’s certainly how I felt about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an easily blurbable book thanks to its concept and direct opening, which sees the fundamentalist of the title beginning an unctuous monologue with an impassive listener in a cafe in Lahore. Said listener is an American capitalist pigdog, easy in his skin, silent with his Amex and keys to the world. The narrator quickly becomes deeply irritating, the plot is full of soft contrivances. The result is a book which lacks the confidence to indict either the American or the Fundamentalist, never getting up the guts to really howl, or to get as dark and difficult as the subject demands.

Laura Cumming’s book on self-portraits, on the other hand – A Face To The World – absolutely has the courage of its convictions, and it’s impossible not to connect to them. It’s a series of luminous essays giving a close-reading to a wide range of images, its thematic chapters sweeping with an easy grace through over five hundred years of art history, but never forgetting to bring you up close to the pictures. You finish the book feeling as though you’ve not only seen the self-portraits, but are so convinced by the psychological insight of the writing, you’ve become the blank canvas sat before the painter, looking at him while he paints.

The Lost City of Z was terrific too, a book about a dangerous journey into the Amazon by the last of the lunatic Victorian gentleman explorers – the kind of gent who considered a well-waxed mustache and a sense of God-given grace was sufficient protection against one of the world’s most hostile environments. I bought myself a copy, and then one for a friend, and then one for my brother and I’ll keep on buying it.

I enjoyed The Leopard, particularly after watching a BBC 4 documentary about it. It’s one book where I think a good Google before, and during, reading, really helps. David Mitchell continued to be the contemporary author I find most in tune with what I want from literature; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was great. Colonialism. Capitalism. Japan. Lost love. Ninjas.

But the best thing I read this year was The Odyssey. Not much of a recommendation, really, because not a single person will likely read it as a result. I mean, it’s The Odyssey. No-one actually reads The Odyssey any more. There’s no link between the author and the text, no link between the story and the world now, no momentum at all. It’s like the giant stone fragments of the Pharoahs in the British Museum: it’s amazing that they’ve survived, but they’re not the kind of thing you want in your lounge. They’re just not relevant.

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Added to the wishlist: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

[Book] Via a review that’s interesting in and of itself, in the FT:

“Fish is a sentence connoisseur who describes his enthusiasm as akin to a sports fan’s love of highlights, and relishes the craft… [The book shows] the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In 1863, when General Grant took the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last hindrance to free passage of Union supplies along the river, President Lincoln wrote in a letter to be read at a public meeting: ‘The father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.’ It’s a poem of a sentence, ‘The father of waters’ and ‘unvexed to the sea’ perfectly balanced on the unexpected pivot of ‘again goes’ rather than ‘goes again’, and all in the service of a metaphor that figures the Union as an inevitable force and the Confederacy as a blight on nature, without mentioning either.”

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

Books I’ve Read, 2011


Kicking this year off with a selection from The Big Book of Dick(TM), a birthday present from a friend with an equally tawdry/literary sensibility. I’ve never never actually read any Philip K. Dick before, so looking forward to it. As before, this post will be updated throughout the year with brief impressions of the books and a slightly less than arbitrary star rating.

6th Jan – 24th Jan. The Man In The High Castle, Philip K. Dick. Took a while for me to get into it; more me than the book, I think, but once done, its takeover of my imagination was total. The completeness of its world is amazing: unlike a lot of “what if” fiction, it’s air tight. There’s no leaking in of our world – the characters are completely part of the nightmare. The scene in the hotel – jagged, missing half the obvious words, but packing in such extremes of feeling – held me completely.

25th Jan – 2nd Feb. Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The story of an incredible achievement, a American mountaineer single-handedly creating an NGO dedicated to building schools for girls in remote areas in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. His approach – hands-on, building trust with locals – yields terrific results, and so as a book, despite being overlong and the writing lacking a certain something, it’s moving, heart-warming and important. Worth looking at the website for more, particularly this interview with Mortenson [PDF].

3rd Feb – 14th Feb. Cadence & Slang, Nick Disabato. A beautifully produced book about interaction design, interfaces and the feel of digital products. As a newcomer to the field, I found it incredibly useful. It’s full of practical advice, delivered in a straightforward manner. This does mean it’s not the most fun book to read – it’s didactic, split out into very short sections and gets straight to the point. In some ways, I think it would have benefited from a little more poetry to both the writing and its approach; on the other hand, I can see that this may well have ruined it, diluting the advice – which is applicable to a wide range of people and situations – and making it too idiosyncratic.

15th Feb – 21st Feb. A Grief Observed, CS Lewis. I read Joan Didion’s Year Of Magical Thinking last year and couldn’t get into it; similarly with Lewis’ meditation on loss. It’s written in a way that’s plain and elegant, and which clearly narrates the author’s attempts to come to terms with his bereavement. But again, it just wasn’t what I was looking for.

21st Feb – 26th Feb. In A Strange Room, Damon Galgut. A terrific book; three stories, sharing a similar theme — travel — written in a way that’s spare and beautiful. Sounds very literary, but what makes it emotionally successful is it’s just so empathetic in a straightforward, direct way. Only connect; this one does.

27th Feb – 3rd March. Smart & Gets Things Done, Joel Spolsky. Short, sharp and full of good advice about hiring developers.

4th March – 30th March. The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, Zachary Mason. Retellings of the Odyssey – alternate endings, different takes – some of which are just fragments. Fascinating, inspiring that it got into print, and parts of it are just deliciously clever – the chess story in particularly – that you can’t help smiling in pure delight.

31st March – 13th April. A Distant Neighborhood, vols 1 & 2, Jiro Taniguchi. Japanese Manga about a 48 year old salaryman who is thrown back in time to his 14 year old self, months before his father mysteriously disappears. I love time travel stories, and while this was melodramatic in places, its mostly simple, effective and affecting.

14th April – 1st May. Designing for the iPad, Chris Stevens. Written by the designer of Alice for the iPad, there are some good practical lessons here, although if you’ve done a lot of reading in the field, some of it will be preaching to the converted.

24th – 28th April. Elements of Content Strategy, Erin Kissane. Good overview of the field, but it would have really benefited from more specific examples – particularly as CS is so nascent.

1st May – 4th May. Cobra’s Heart, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Short selection of his writings on Africa; a bit random and lacking in context but then it’s a tiny volume. I’d be interested in reading The Shadow of the Sun, which is the full book they come from.

4th May – 12th May. Just Kids, Patti Smith. Terrific ramble through 70s NYC as Smith and the photographer Robert Mappelthorpe find their way in life and art. Avoids too much name-dropping and it’s a curious blend of the lyrical and the naive which keeps it fresh and intriguing. Throughout, there’s a tremendous and constant faith on both their parts in ‘the work’, which is inspiring.

13th May – 17th May. Some Hope trilogy, Edward St Aubyn. You just have to read this. It sounds so dislikeable and dismissible – posh English people being horrid to each other. Rah rah rah. But it is at the end just devastatingly beautiful and sad in such a rich, full emotional way. It’s funny and vertiginously daring, thrilling stomach churning about the heroin and addiction and beautifully patterned – these ripples, patterns repetitions – phrases, situations – echo down through the characters. Stunningly good.

18th May – 8th June. In The Plex, Steven Levy. Better than his iPod book which I read previously, this offers a terrific insight into Google. The interviews and direct quotes are its strong points; the context, less so, as it’s hopelessly one-sided.

9th June – 18th June. Mother’s Milk, Edward St Aubyn. The problem of high standards – it’s basically not as good as the Trilogy, and while it’s full of fine writing, that fall from grace rankles. There’s not enough Patrick, it’s too psychological and Freudian – and Eleanor is too passive, plus there’s too little continuation of the older characters. Iraq war stuff feels awkward. It only really takes flight when Patrick is allowed to riff on Seamus.

19th June – 9th July. The Good German, Jospeh Kanon. Enjoyable, pacy thriller set in Berlin, 1945. The setting is the strongest point as the desperate city is really brought to life. At its best it’s like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. More action packed and flabbier though, it could do with honing in areas.

10th – 13th July. Miracles of Life, JG Ballard. Brief and mostly flat; Ballard lacks the interest in nostalgia required for a successful autobiography. There’s no sense of the sadness of time passing and no sense of character. That said, it’s clearly an incredible story, and I left Miracles feeling perhaps I just haven’t found the right Ballard book – I want to like him, because there’s something deeply admirable about him and his approach.

14th July – 6th August. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera. DNF. On a line by line basis, it’s very finely written. I found myself folding the corners of pages over to remember passages, but I found the book itself dragging. I didn’t connect with the main characters and their dilemmas. Each time I closed the book, it was easier and easier not to pick it up again.

7th August – 17th August. How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran. She’s one of my favourite columnists, and a woman who single handedly makes the Times worth reading. No surprises that her book is possessed of the same blend of wisdom and surreal anarchy that she brings to the columns, and the chapter on abortion is particularly moving. I would have preferred more about her, I think – the most enjoyable parts are more personal than her journalism, and her own stories give it more depth.

18 – 27th August. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. Curiously, everyone I mentioned this book to had a similar reaction: a sort of eye-rolling ‘yeah, read that in school’ dismissal. It’s a shame to be so closed minded about it, because coming to the book fresh, it didn’t seem dated or overly bombastic. Obviously, authoritarian dystopias all live in the shadow of 1984, but I felt The Handmaid’s Tale made a strong case for itself, and still does, as a book with an independent vision. I really liked the framing device too – the end skips forward several hundred years, and creates some interesting ripples going back through the text.

28th August – 1st September. Alchemy of Stone, Ekaterina Sedia. DNF. It’s rubbish; there’s just no sense of drama to the lifeless proceedings at all.

1st September – 27th September. The Little Book of Economics book, Greg Ip. Lots of American examples, but it’s a pretty good primer for understanding The Economist, which is itself a decent recommendation. 

28th September – 3rd October. The Cello Suites, Eric Siblin. Fascinating book about the the rise to prominence of Bach’s austere, beautiful and mysterious cello suites. Beautifully written, evocative and well told, it’s an ideal intro to the music. 

4th October – 16th October. The Bicycle Book, Bella Bathurst. That rare and wonderful thing; an overview of a topic that’s deeply knowledgable but with a lightness to its curiosity.

17th October – 21st November. 1Q84, Books 1 & 2, Haruki Murakami. In parts you worry it’s deeply terrible but just a page or two later and it’s irredeemably wonderful. Combines the bizarre and the mundane in a compelling and convincing way. Utterly unique and brilliant. The ideas shine through; an alternate place, doppelgängers, love and things not being right. 

21st November – 27th November. 1Q84 Book 3, Haruki Murakami. In parts it really drags; some will argue it doesn’t need to be this long but then it’s a novel, and if it’s a good one, it has its own logic, determines its own needs. This one certainly does; beautiful ending, it might be predicatable but it’s really earned it, and some beautiful writing too. Unique. 

28th November – 11th December. Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson. Disappointing. Of course, it’s full of great stories, but there’s very little analysis, or sense of understanding about the why and the how. 

12th December – 24th December. The Greenhouse, Audur Ava Olafsdottir. Strange, slim, light and yet strong enough to really pull you through its pages.

24th December – 28th December. Zero History, William Gibson DNF. Yikes, this was truly terrible – and yet the writing is so technically beautiful, but with so little to say. The story is meaningless (a marketing agency hunts for someone who designs jeans), the plotting lazy, and the characters empty. Whereas Gibson once created worlds where you never knew where you were, and always felt in challenged and threatened, here you get to watch a few idle rich kids travel the world in search of nothing at all. It’s hard to discern anyone’s motivation, harder still to share it – Gibson himself only seems enagaged when delivering parapgraphs of description or discussion about the conflation of military and casual clothing design. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that there is brilliance here – the absences of characters taken away by screens, the strange loneliness of cites – but that instead of creating, he, like the marketing firms he writes about, is content to package up a little technical and otaku knowledge and sell it back to the dumb literati who shower him with plaudits. Woeful.

Where you come from, where you go

In the phone's gallery

I went to New York last week, mostly for work, but I had two free days at the end to explore the city. I took, as always, a Lonely Planet guidebook, but most of the time I built a list of places to go from going online. It strikes me now how easy the world has become, and simultaneously, how difficult.

It’s easy to find places in a new city now. I wrote ‘in New York’ on Facebook and people sent me bits and pieces of information. I looked at I suppose what you would call conventional review sites, places like Tripadvisor and Chowhound. I had places bookmarked and saved in a list on Simplenote, restaurants and shops and bars that had been mentioned in RSS feeds the few months previous to the trip. There were some saved bookmarks (Pinboard now Delicious is dying), and I went for a coffee at La Colombe Torrefaction in Soho because Joanne McNeil posted a photo of a beautiful coffee on Instagram just the week before I was due to go, and of course, everything on Instagram is neatly geo-tagged.

It’s hard to work all this out. It’s hard if you’re someone who doesn’t live on the internet; conventional search is just so bad at getting to it. I’ve built this delicate web of connections and conduits over years. Ways of filing information, having it there and ready. Ways of trusting people, too – I’ve never actually met Joanne McNeil, just swapped a few tweets and read her blog for a long time and yet that picture was all I needed to know that La Colombe Torrefaction would be selling one fine cup of coffee. Typing “best places in NYC for x” into Google is weak compared to all this, but it’s all most people have.

And it’s hard to work out if you’re talking about advertising. One of the chimeras on the web is stats: you get some numbers and you think they describe the world perfectly, completely. Entry pages, exit pages. Conversion rates. Numbers leave no room for the messiness and the softness, the permeability of the real world. Advertising played a role in where I went: it was on the sites I visited, and to take the coffee place as an example, the look and feel of its own site was important to me. But accounting for that? When, as a commercial person, you’re doing your reports for the money you spent? That would be hard. So much of the research for that trip wasn’t caught in the numbers – or to give the Google argument maybe it was, it’s just buried very deeply.