What Is The What at Foyles Southbank

what is the what

One evening I was walking along the south bank of the Thames . Joggers, skateboarders, tourists and bussinessmen and women were trying to push me off the Thames Path.

At Foyles, the book shop on the south bank of the Thames, I stumbled in and browsed through

the shelves. I was surprised to find a new title from Dave Eggers, unknown to me until that moment: What Is The What.

I had read Moses Isegawa’s Abyssinian Chronicles and that is an incredible book, and when I had read a page in the shop, I was sold and bought the book for an amazing price of £13.

abyssinian chronicles

At the counter, the assistent (what do you call a person behind the counter in a bookshop) told me he had ordered only 10 copies because the book was not officially announced in the UK, or so. He complimented me on my choice and said half of the London underground literary books junks would now envy me.

I asked him what the street value of the book might be then; he said it could well be £50. I told him I’d give it a try then, after I finished reading it.

reading like a writer

No news that What Is The What is a incredibly great book (review by Francine Prose). I finished it in 2 days and probably could have sold it  for the amount if I would have hustled with one of the Eggers’ addicts. But I am too lazy for that – or probably do not need the money badly enough.

I looked online to read that book review by Francine Prose. It reminded me to finish her book Reading Like a Writer. I started off reading that enthusiastically but got distracted by some novels I was reading at the same time. Reading Like a Writer to me started off as a good book though so I will finish it. (I mean it is not of the category “book that does not hold my attention so not going to spend more time on it” (yet).)

Maybe more on that later.

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Innovation: getting comfortable with chaos

First I got a bit irritated. Thought this is either beyond my intelligence, or it is BS with capital letters.

“People in Rainforests are motivated for reasons that defy traditional economic notions of “rational” behavior.”

Such sentences sound like religious crap in my mind. I hit a few more of these texts in The Rainforest, by Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt.
I was a false start. I admit. But now and then the writers fall in the trap of academic writing, and they follow the “misguided lessons you learn in academia” as Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson call it in “Rework” (more on that in another post).

The book looks at psychological, neurological context of forming innovation groups, and what to look at. It touches open many other aspects of inactive environments (rainforests).

There’s a sociological aspect to it that very much speaks to my heart.

“As veteran Silicon Valley venture capitalist Kevin Fong says, “At a certain point, it’s not about the money anymore. Every engineer wants their product to make a difference.” “

This reminds me of The Soul of a New Machine from Tracy Kidder. Excellent book by the way, a must read for (computer) engineers and other Betas. You will get your soldering iron out.
Anyway in this book also, the goal of money is way out of sight, it is the product that counts. Personal issues are set aside, esthetic issues with respect to the new machine prevail. The team is totally dedicated to creating the new machine. They are in the flow, very similar to the psychological flow that psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has described in “Flow”. The state in which people (typically athletes talk a lot about pushing themselves into a flow) where conscious thinking and acting disappear and a person gets totally submerged in the activity itself.

Back to the Rainforest, where the authors have found that a social context is key for a innovative rainforest to thrive. It’s not just about creating the brain power, but an entire entrepreneurial context that turns this brainpower into a innovative growing organism. The trick is to create a social environment where cross-fertilization takes place.

“Governments are increasingly seeking to spur entrepreneurial activity across the entire system, not just for large companies. Today, countries are ambitiously seeking to create entire innovation economies.”

“The biggest invisible bottleneck in innovation is not necessarily the economic desirability of a project, the quality of the technology, or the rational willingness of the customer. The real cost frequently boils down to the social distance between two vastly different parties.”

“Serendipitous networking is essential because, in the real world, it is impossible for a central agent to do everything.”

A lot of word and advice are spent on the topic. Tools are presented as guidelines for achieving such an environment.

“Tool #1: Learn by Doing Tool #2: Enhance Diversity Tool #3: Celebrate Role Models and Peer Interaction Tool #4: Build Tribes of Trust Tool #5: Create Social Feedback Loops Tool #6: Make Social Contracts Explicit”

I am not sure if Hwang and Horowitt prove in their work that a central organization (government) can really steer this. An analytical approach to culture change is something different from a (working) prescriptive culture change. I may be skeptical, but with me are the Fried and Heinemeier again in Rework about culture (in context of an organisation):

“Culture is the byproduct of consistent behaviour. 

It isn’t a policy. It isn’t the Christmans party or the company picnic. Those are objects and events, not culture. And it’s not a slogan, either. Culture is action, not words.”

The Rainforest continues and brings together Deming’s approach to maximize quality of product procedures by an organization with the entrepreneurial approach towards innovation. This so serve as a model to evolve innovative, informal and entrepreneurial spirited organizations, a kind of primordial soup into mature structured organization.
(In this soup of entrepreneurial elements, a “flow” should be created igniting an entrepreneurial life form.)

“We surmise that one of the major reasons large corporations often fail at innovation―whether they create venture arms, new product divisions, or otherwise―is because they typically create new business divisions in a formal sense without the “cultural walls” separating the Deming and the Rainforest communities.”

Interestingly this is also what Christensen speaks of in “The Innovators Dilemma”. Christensen makes a similar claim. Organizations fail at innovation because they manage innovation the same way as they do there mature business units. This inherently fails. There is a lot of similarity between the thinking of Christensen and Hwang here. These guys should talk. And invite Fried and Heinemeier to the party.

I conclude managing innovation in an existing (large) organizations can only be successful if it is operated in a completely separate entity. With their own culture that is free to grow, and in a social environment that is not constraint by bureaucratic “efficiencies”.

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The greatest All American Guitar band of all times

In the car I listen to podcasts (James Altucher, Tim Ferriss, The Candid Frame, Freakonomics, …).

Or I listen to music. For that I have an SD Card that I load with a random “smart playlist” from my iTunes library. 8GB of musical history. (Spotify is for the gym.)

Today I hit this fantastic Thin White Rope song, It’s OK. I had not listened to them for quite some time. Somehow they must have been missed by the randomization algorithm in iTunes.

They are still fantastic to listen to. The greatest All American band of all times. Grungy guitar rock from the desert. John Wayne, Billy the Kid, saloons, cowboys, buffalos, oversized vehicles, overloads of street signs, New York, Lincoln, guns, George Bush, Apaches, Ernest Hemingway, hamburgers, Dear Hunter, slavery, baseball, Texas, NASA, the electric guitar, Rock & Roll, FDR, IBM, obesitas, white sneakers, kaki trousers, Elvis, Omaha Beach, Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (Karl May himself jawohl), revolver, Ford Mustang, getto’s, Fox News, CNN, every 10 minutes advertising on tv, Star Wars, Joseph Heller, John Irving, William Eggleston, You Kill It We Grill It, Apollo I, II, III and following, Tom Peters, J.D. Salinger, The Blues Brothers, Apple, Casablanca, … I give up, but sure there are a few others.

And Thin White Rope.

The Quietus has written a very good article about the band, and their music. Can’t improve upon that one.

“‘It’s OK’ blasts down the synaptic highways, a thing of both terror and awe, before locking into a monumental end groove that the band proceed to demolish with searing feedback and a hammering counter-riff. This is one of those tracks it’s simply not possible to play loud enough.”

Classic. Listen.

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Badges of Horror in The Dutch Virgin

After all the reading of self help and entrepreneurial help type books see below, I felt a need to read something like a novel again. Too much self help can make you feel helpless, in the sense of: wow, I have a lot to improve. What have I done the past x years – thrown half my life away?

I tripped over Marente de Moor’s De Nederlandse maagd (The Dutch Virgin), and purchased it on my new kindle. The story plays largely in Germany, during the interbellum. The main person, a Dutch adolescent girl, is sent on a training camp for fencing in Germany. The training teacher is an German WW I veteran and the story plays against that background, and the approaching WW II.

Interesting setting that reminded me of Céline, whose work covers the same period. But what intrigued me especially in the book where the dark sides in this story.

One of the days during her stay, the girl attends a Mensur fight. I had never heard of such a ritual in Western civilisations, where opponents quite deliberately wound eachother in the face.
I got interested in this Mensur and it’s code honour. Did some research to find out where this came from. There is an excellent article on this topic that can be found on the internet, written bij the journalist Jonathan Green. It is here in the web archive.

So what is this Mensur. It is a odd kind of sword fight with swords practiced amongst student in a corps as a kind of bonding and building of character. All for self-conquest instead on winning from an opponent other than oneself.
The rules are such that there are limited defense options besides special protectives from eyes and nose and a sort of body armor. Participants typically end up with significant cuts on the face and wounds on the head, which are treated on the spot.
The remaining scars are sign of honor. An honorable practice you could easily argue is a rather brute and horrific initiation ritual.

Further down in the book there is the description of a ghostly appearance, the main characters experience. She sees the head of a wounded person, whose head is half gone.

“Zijn gezicht was maar aan een kant wet weefsel bedekt, de andere kant was een doodskop.” / “His face was only covered with tissue on one side, de other side was a skull.”

Mort a CreditThe description reminded me of the image in my head I have of the cover of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Mort a Credit (Death on Credit/Dood op Krediet. (Guess I had unconsciously associated the story with Celine already, as we saw). The cover of the Dutch edition from Meulenhoff had a similar picture on the cover.
Now on my qui vive for disgust, I started noticing more of these horror references.
Description of decaying bodies killed or wounded in battle. Fermentation of animals, which makes meat tender. (Eskimo’s seem to fill seal carcasses with dead birds to enrich the fermentation process. Kiviak, I found. See http://www.odditycentral.com/pics/kiviaq-probably-the-worlds-most-disgusting-meat-dish.html. I understand they eat the bird (not the seal meat) “fresh, right out of the seal-bag after a couple of months of breeding). Referred to as in the book as a decadent rotting. The doctor manufactures a hand from a foot and and nose out of cheek tissue. And there is a link to the Golem mentioned earlier in the book, created through a ‘Procedure (Mulsich Procedure), but here the doctor has taken an almost dead man from the battlefield and resurrected him through physical and mental patch work.

No I have arrived in this space, other linkages with other well known Dutch writers: one of the protagonists has suffered from a dissociative diaorder – he thinks he is doppelgänger of himself. Which of course is the main theme of Hermans’ De donkere kamer van Damocles / The Darkroom of Damocles. And twins (I don’t see a relation to the theme in Tessa de Loo’s De Tweeling), but the notion of a shadow-soul that follows us around, and after death passes on our experience to another body is interesting concept (and again may associates with Hermans, this time Engelbewaarder / Memories of a guardian angel). Not sure whether the writer has made it up or I can’t simply find a reference, but I could not validate it let alone find more information on that.

One last concept to touch on is the “Sippenhaftung”, horror of another kind another. I think this is the main theme for the book. The girl’s father has commited a sin, for which the girl is paying: Sippenhaftung. That’s Sippenhaftung: an honor is blemished, the relatives of the offender are paying for the sins of the offender. A concept Hitler reintroduced after the attack on his life by Von Stauffenberg. (By the way is seems Hitler opposed the practice of Mensur, it seems.) Other great nation states like North Korea and Chechnia are practicing this kind of right.

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Lonely Island classic albums: Stranded

What album will you bring on your Robinson Crusoe adventure?

Greil Marcus let American rock writers chose their album and justify their choice in Stranded.

I can continue reading this type of literature forever. Or create a blog on it. Or a podcast. Or maybe there is one, but I don’t know about it. And I am too lazy to check it out.


The book describes a beautiful image of the 60s and 70s and of course specifically the rock scene at the time when vinyl was still mainstream. Some of the bands have become pretty obscure. The Ronettes, ok I still remember them and may kids may have heard a song from them once. But Little John Willie, Hugh Smith, … WTF, as they would say. I can’t even recall having heard of them. And I was into music, in my time (reading ferociously on the topic: Oor, Rolling Stone, NME, what had you).

The first one leaving a note, I will send the book for free (item condition: read).

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Joburg at 6000 euros, The God of Small Things

Changing the ticket to flight through Johannesburg to Amsterdam was horribly expensive: 6000 euros (single economy ticket).

I went for it. If all’s well the customer is paying.

The ride to JFK was very stressful. We underestimated the travel time to JFK during rush hour. So I rushed out of the car into the checkin, just to find out the flight to Johannesburg is cancelled. A large row of malinformed people waiting.

A small boyish girl eventually informed me.

 Then I discovered that the travel agency had made an error changing my original return flight to Amsterdam to go through Joburg. I was not booked on the original flight. And therefore could not get a ticket for the alternative flight via Atlanta they offer.

In the very noisy departure hall I called my travel agency. They could do nothing else than arrange the Marriott close to JFK while making arrangements for me.

In the Yellow Cab we passed a movie scene: a bunch of people around a fire in an oil drum.

Contact with the agency in the hotel room. They arranged an alternative flight for the next day.

Checked out at about twelve and back to the airport with the Yellow Cab.
 At JFK, the driver gave me a blank receipt. He grinned: ‘Now you expense a million dollars’, put my suitcase on the pavement and jumped back in the car.

At the Delta desk the price for the new ticket had gone up from 2900 the agency promised, to 4200 euros. I did get a very helpful lady from Delta, and a ticket in return. That totaled up the total flying cost for this trip at 6000 euros.

In the bookshop I bought The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy.

The flight was less difficult than expected, but I also slept less than expected. On the other hand, I watched three movies: Bewitched (crap), Batman Begins and Caché. Caché with the most beautiful woman on earth: Juliette Binoche. I finished The God of Small Things too. Wonderful, though in my mind I associate it with the dreamy state of half-consciousness I was in while reading the book.

I checked in at the unavoidable Sandton Sun and Towers hotel. Villamoura, the restaurant in the hotel is an absolute must. Their calamari is exquisite. I collapsed after that.

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You Kill It, We Grill It – everything I like about Seligman

I was searching for Martin Seligman, after watching his TED talk, but hit this site  from Seligman, Arizona.

I wanted to go there immediately. Fantastic, these all American images on that site. I imagine sitting on the porch of one of these houses, in a rocking chair. All according to the cliches. Cowboys shouting in the saloon next door.

Horses loosely attached to the fench rail.

Sporadically cars drive by, suspending large clouds of dust.

At least four reasons to stop at Seligman on your Route 66 road trip:

Everything I said. Well, that’s all.

  • The Roadkill Café – “You Kill It, We Grill It!”
  • Historic Route 66 General Store
  • Route 66 Motel – “All of our rooms are newly remodeled,including new mattresses to ensure maximum  sleep comfort”
  • The site’s visit counter is at 4951 last time I visited (July 2015).
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Plakias – 2015

Vroeg wakker. De wind is gaan liggen. De krekels hebben de overhand gekregen. De muggen zien hun kans schoon, en hebben het voorzien op A. Ik sla er een plat. Een grote rode plek op het laken. Hij is traag geworden van al dat bloed.
Gisteren de oude Fiesta ingeruild na een lekke band. We waren die auto helemaal zat. Onveilig, vies, onbetrouwbaar. Het verhuurbedrijf is om de hoek hier. Ik denk dat ze bijna failliet zijn. Oude autos, geklooi met overpompen van benzine.
De behaarde Griek zit in een hemd achter een buro dat is volgestapeld met papieren. Hij zeurt over benzine. Ik over dat ze ons een lege tank, vlakke banden en een brakke rem op pad hebben gestuurd.
Maria staat hier al voor zevenen beneden bij het hotel, klaar voor een dag werk.
De wind is nu gaan liggen -10 uur ‘s avonds. De insecten komen uit hun holen.
Knossos viel wat tegen. Pesteind rijden vanuit Plakias, maar wel een mooie route, tussen Plakias en Rhetymnon. Van Rhethymnon en Iraklion volgen we een saiere outeweg langs de kust.
Knossos vereist veel energie. Energie om je voor te stellen hoe indrukwekkend groot dit paleis moet zijn geweest. Energie om je voort te bewegen op het snikhete terrein.
Er staat eens suppoost met een parasol en een fluitje. Als er iemand buiten de hekjes stapt, blaast ze op haar fluitje en gilt ” Get Out!”.
We eten in een dorpje voorbij Bali. Een Russische familie zit aan de tafel naast ons. Een klein varken hangt in de winkel aan de overkant te besterven.
Het is nu echt warm. We zouden bidden om wind, als we gelovig waren als de Grieken.
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Dawkins’ embellished account

the selfish gene

In the 30th anniversary edition of ‘The Selfish Gene’ (2006) Richard Dawkins writes a vile but correct comment on Fred Hoyle‘s misrepresentation of Darwinism in an endnote (pp. 277-278). He ends his note:

‘Publishers should correct the misapprehension that a scholar’s distinction in one field implies authority in another. And as long as that misapprehension exists, distinguished scholars should resist the temptation to abuse it’.

Very true, though on the same page, in the note referenced on this page (page 59 of the 30th Anniversary edition), Dawkins almost falls into his own trap, saving himself with one little sentence.

richard dawkins

The text of the note to the main text is so incredibly incorrect that it is quite funny, given he does this on the very same page as his scolding on Hoyle.

In the note Dawkins for some reason wants to explain a theory of consciousness by Daniel Dennett. Dennett himself has tried to explain his ideas in several books. For reasons that remain unclear Dawkins wants to summarize Dennett’s work in this 2 page note.

Dawkins takes two technical ideas from the world of computers to illustrate his ideas: the concept of a virtual machine, and the ‘the distinction between serial and parallel processors’. Dawkins starts out with a completely incorrect explanation of what a virtual machine is. As an example of a virtual machine he mentions the Macintosh User Interface. The Mac is a great machine, but the Macintosh User Interface has very little to do with a virtual machine, and the connection with consciousness remains very unclear. For a correct description of virtual machines, Dawkins could have simply relied on the  Wikipedia article on virtual machines.

douglas r. hofstadter

The story derails entirely when Dawkins turns to his description of ‘serial and parallel processors’. The piece is so totally incorrect that it does not make sense to highlight the individual errors here. Since Dawkins fails to see the distinction between processors and processes, he starts off wrong and makes things worse every sentence. And it’s not like this was rockets science at the time of writing. Parallel processing is known and applied in computing since our own Edsger Dijkstra and others invented concepts like the semaphore and the indivisible instruction.

daniet dennett

More linkages to Dennett’s work and that of his friend Douglas Hofstadter on page 59, where Dawkins discusses self-awareness and rejects ideas of self-awareness because

‘it involves an infinite regress if there is a model of the model, why not a model of the model of the model …?’
The Mind’s I‘ and also ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach – An Eternal Golden Braid‘ deal exactly with these issues.

the minds eye

So can we conclude Dawkins has fallen into the trap of asserting a scholar’s distinction in one field implies authority in another?

As I said, almost. On page 280 Dawkins saves himself, on the edge, with this little remark:

‘The reader is advised to consult Dennett’s own account when it is published, rather than rely on my doubtless imperfect and impressionistic – maybe even embellished – one.’
How true.

godel escher bach

I have never had such fun with academic footnotes.

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Helsinki Taxi

The taxi driver took off like crazy, sliding through the snow. At every traffic light the same recipe: full throttle, tires spinning through the snow. On the highway took over a lorry on the right-hand side, while typing an SMS. Then he slid a cd in the stereo, and Aerosmith blasted through the car: Love In An Elevator, Smoking in the Back of the Yard (not sure if that is the song title), and other heavy rock music with explicit lyrics.

Love in an elevator

Yet, Finnish people are incredibly nice and helpful people. It’s terrible to return to our little overcrowded country with its less well-mannered people.

And of course: it is raining. While I just got so used to the freshness of dry frost and snow.

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