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How to be smarter: be wrong. Notes from Kathryn Schultz at the RSA

I like the idea that failure is good. Not all the time, cos we’d never get anything done. But it’s not always bad. And sometimes it’s essential. Seen it commercially celebrated at Wieden + Kennedy’s London office. Sorry to go on about them. They’re a ‘creative agency’, i.e. the guys that come up with TV ads and images and things for adverts. They’re fun places. And they embrace failure. (Not so much that stuff breaks. Presumably they can’t all be embracing failure all the time. But still.)

Kathryn Schultz has written a book on it. She spoke at the RSA about it ages ago, and I made some notes. They are as follows.

Mistakes are like cockroaches: fascinating, but nasty.

‘We think of mistakes as unwelcome, disgusting inhabitants of cognition.’

Wanted to understand the origins, and propose a different way of thinking about being wrong.

Story of a woman who’d suffered a stroke, gone blind. But didn’t know she was blind. A real condition, very rare. Some stroke victims similarly don’t know that they are paralysed.

Helps establish that there are no outer limits of being wrong. [Descartes would have agreed.]

‘There is almost no belief we can have about the world that is not under certain circumstances, a fallacy.’

 (This is not Descartes.)

What does it mean to be wrong? Those strange medical conditions again: they remember the sensation of moving, and they think that that memory is actually happening. But they’re wrong.

Wrongness reminds us that there is a gap between our mind and the world. 

To be blind to our own blindness is a condition of all of us. Being wrong doesn’t feel like anything. Realising that you’re wrong might lead to all sorts of feelings. But just ‘being wrong’ – nothing. 

Wile E Coyote could run off a cliff for a short time and keep running; he’d only fall when he realised there was no ground below him.

On the enlightenment, there should be a shift in metaphors – we think of coming from the dark and going into the light. But championing a certain set of beliefs might not be condusive to a culture of enlightenment. Accept the darkness. Insist on space for ambiguity, error.

Original enlightment thinkers understood this.

Doubt is the way forward for enlightenment. Start asking: ‘what if i’m wrong?’ It’s exciting!

When belief systems collapse, that’s when things get interesting – you learn, reconstruct your view of the world for the better. Creative minds of every era understand the centrality of doubt. 

I love this. I think it requires a bit of discipline to remember to stop and ask the question. And it’s difficult when nobody around you is. But all the more important. 


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Notes from Amartya Sen’s chat on Global Justice @LSEpublicevents last week

Sen was great. Like a mischievous imp, but in 77yr-old Harvard professor form. Lots of jokes about ties. Indeed, just lots of jokes.

And the following thoughts, which he offered simply as ‘thoughts’ on global justice, rather than any defined argument. He and the audience often referred to his most recent work: ‘The Idea of Justice

  • Global justice faces a problem in an unwillingness to look beyond borders
  • A challenge to global justice is in the two conflicting understandings of justice: (1) Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau & Kant’s understanding of justice as an ideal; relating to nations, institutions (a state of ‘just-ness’ which is arrived at)  (2) Adam Smith, Wollstonecraft and Sen’s understanding of justice as a comparative thing; something that you could rank
  • Smith criticised early British Empire as not taking account of the interests of non-Brits and used the Greek infanticide example to show that understandings of justice change over time 
  • Thomas Nagel said that global justice may be a chimera
  • Democracy as public reasoning is an important idea (propounded by JS Mill and Walter Bagehot), but that justice and democracy aren’t completely interdependent
  • There always has to be a reason, so there is never a total absence of thought/argument [though the space can be confined, and you can’t force people to engage?]  
  • On global warming, China and India must forget the past (of the West causing climate change), and help solve the problem; but this requires more balance in the (global?) reasoning process: COP15 showed a failure of reasoning. Good argument takes time!
  • The removal of injustice is the key. Less concerned with what justice is. We can identify a perfect state, but that doesn’t help solve the problems of the imperfect or unjust. 
  • A definition of justice is unnecessary: we won’t agree, and it won’t help.
  • The global ‘public reasoning space’ [I made that up] is improving. Networks like Al-Jazeera have increased the number of voices. [missed an obvious point to sing the praises of the internet here?]
  • Jesus Christ asked ‘Who is the neighbour?’ – it was the Good Samaritan. We need to start defining neighbourliness beyond locality. With globalisation, we have relations with people all over the world: ‘the boundaries of justice are ever wider’.
  • UN is great, but has its limits, such as funding. Doesn’t really have a role in ‘justice’, but its work on gender and human development all contributes.
  • Center for Disease Control in the US (CDC) is an amazing thing – not it’s purpose, but it does have an impact on injustice. 

For reviews of the Idea of Justice, there’s a short Times article and Guardian article.

For more on Sen, he wrote a mini-autobiography for the Nobel website in 1998. The sort of humane, brilliant, witty chap you want to be when you grow up.

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Nuggets from @nesta_uk & @the_young_fdn work on how public services can foster innovation

  I’ve been looking at the Young Foundation & Nesta’s Open Book of Social Innovation over the weekend – super interesting. Here’s a quick précis:

Premise: We’ve got a problem…

“The classic tools of government policy on the one hand, and market solutions on the other, have proved grossly inadequate

“The silos of government departments are poorly suited to tackling complex problems which cut across sectors and nation states. Civil society lacks the capital, skills and resources to take promising ideas to scale.”

“The prospective cost of dealing with these issues threatens to swamp public budgets, and in the case of climate change, or healthcare in the US, private budgets as well.”

Solution: Social innovation, leading to…

 “an emerging social economy…Its key features include:


•  The intensive use of distributed networks to sustain and manage relationships, helped by broadband, mobile and other means of communication.

•  Blurred boundaries between production and consumption. 

•  An emphasis on collaboration and on repeated interactions, care and maintenance rather than one-off consumption. 

•  A strong role for values and missions.

They point to the growth of “global infrastructure, social-networking tools” and an “increased focus on the individual and relationships rather than systems and structures”, as distinctive characteristics of the social economy. 

“The role of the consumer changes from a passive to an active player: to a producer in their own right.”

Role of public sector in making innovation happen:

“Innovation in the public sector always risks being a marginal add-on – small scale in terms of funds, commitment of people and political capital.” 

That’s sad.

But happily, NESTA and the Young Foundation have some suggestions for improvement. I’ve copied in the most interesting below and added links:

– have a dedicated innovation fund, like the NHS’s £200m fund
– voluntary taxes – no, honestly, apparently the Mayor of Bogota asked, and 63,000 gave! Awesome.
– community pledgebanks (perhaps with matched public funding?)

And of particular interest for civil servants:

– Tithes of working time for self-directed projects (Google’s 20% is often mentioned (and it’s important to recognise self-directed products), but is it still their policy?)
– Secondments into ‘skunkworks‘ projects: basically given a free role, unhampered by bureaucracy (imagine the competition for these jobs!)

And my favourite:

– “‘A-teams’ of young civil servants commissioned to develop innovative solutions” – but also from universities, private sector etc in this South Aus example

Top stuff – take a look at the full book, it’s full of ideas, not just for public services, but grant-making organisations and private and informal sectors.
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Mapumental – great digitalmashup where-to-live maps from the brilliant @mysociety and @4ip

Way back in 2007, when mammoths roamed the earth and iPhones were just being invented, the brilliant e-democ/society people at mySociety developed a time-travel map. This was a map that could send you back in time. No. Not really.
It was a commute-time map, centred on the place you were trying to commute to, that would snazzily show the length of commutes from different spots on the map. The cooler colours indicate the longer commute. It’s hard to express in words, so here’s a picture: 
It was great, except that (presumably) because it was all quite hard work and involved mounds of (expensive?) data, they only made a few prototypes, such as the one based on the idea that you wanted to commute to the DfT. Not that many people do.
[some years pass]
4iP, the digital innovation arm of publicly-funded Channel4, has developed Mapumental. It’s the same idea, but you can put in any destination postcode! And then play with sliders for acceptable length of commute! And average house prices! There’s even a ‘scenicness’ slider, which really does cut your options. It’s a lot of fun, and actually very useful for working out where to live, if ultimately rather depressing for most central London postcodes.
Mash in the data from Gumtree rental adverts too, and it would be perfect!
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‘We don’t know how to end global poverty and that’s a good thing’: notes and thoughts on LSE lecture from @billeasterly

"Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you going to the poverty lecture, the Old Theatre is completely full up. Please follow the signs to the new theatre for a videolink."

There are superstar academics. And then there's Bill Easterly. He's scruffy, he trips over long words. But he's very witty. And he's in his element with an audience of LSE development students, nervous charity workers and academics, mostly keen to hear him take on traditional aid narratives. I'd call him anti-establishment, but everybody knows he speaks several truths.

A quick round up:

His argument

1. We don't know how to end global poverty actually translates as 'we don't know what creates economic growth'. All the answers of the 60s (go plan!), 80s (loose all your price controls! Let free markets ring!), 90s (erm, it's a sort of mish-mash, long live Good Governance!), 00s (security!): none of them have been proven to generate growth. The data from sub-Saharan Africa is often seriously flawed anyway.

1a. And who's the 'we' – rich Western people? So even if we knew how, we'd have to impose it in an authoritarian manner.

2. So stop prescribing things. Benevolent dictators are not cool. It's a fluke! There's no evidence that planning works.

3. But it is okay to take a normative approach and say that our Western liberal way is the right way. Jefferson just stated his values, he didn't run 4m regression analyses to come with them. And there is a bit of evidence that suggests that respect for individual rights and the rule of law leads to growth. And check out America, we did okay for ourselves.


So he writes off prescriptive approaches, then prescribes something. It's as though he comes, blinking, out of the economists' cave where they try to model everything, into the real world, but then dives back in.

No, to be fair, he's arguing that if you free people from prescriptions then they'll make their own way to growth. There's no one answer save for the answer that gives millions of small solutions. John Bird of the Big Issue is on hand to point out that 'millions of small solutions' overlap, are inefficient etc. But that'll sort itself out.

Perhaps this is revolutionary for a development economist, but it's pretty obvious to most people. Not all developmenty people are economists. They haven't all argued that growth is the holy grail. NGOs lined up to decry the IMF's structural adjustment plans, which weren't great. The anthropologists, sociologists, even lawyers, scientists and political policy people, recognise that localism is key. Context is king. The efforts of the academic economists to find the key to growth are like alchemy. But he's right that a lot of global financial institution money tends to chase fads.

And i'm pretty sure that there are some universals: like security.  If a gunman is going to steal your earnings, it'll make development difficult. Not sure your average Somalian benefits from an absence of outside engagement.

The data thing – if we can't get accurate economic data, can't we run clever sampling surveys of quality of life?

The general gist of his argument takes me back to that question you get into when you're really deep in Development Studies – is an increase in wealth something we should actually aim for? Is development a good thing? Are '[insert name of poor community]' people actually happy with their lot? (the old poverty-glamour fun)…the point is: it doesn't matter. It's not 'our' place to say. It's for every economically poor individual to decide. And guess what most of the global poor would say…

Prof. Easterly writes regularly at and posts even more regularly @billeasterly

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Mankind is Ruined: a piece of DR Congo in North London (Ruined, @AlmeidaTheatre until 5 June)

You don't expect much from the Almeida Theatre at first sight. Its doors onto Upper St in Islington are shabby and unappealing. Directions pinned to the door send you an age further up the street. Eventually the real theatre entrance is revealed, all glass and concrete in smooth modern blocks of grey, with a stylish bar-restaurant.

Entering the theatre ten minutes before the start of the play, you're instantly in the Congo – a soundtrack plays the chirping of crickets and a gentle rainfall, the set is a corrugated iron shed on the stage of a muddy clearing, which runs to the front row's feet. Vines and lianas drape from the ceiling; trees rise up the side of the stage.

Great theatre should knock you out of your small world view and transport you somewhere far more difficult. But this play goes further. At the end of 'Ruined', you want the ground to open and swallow you up.  

Cast of Ruined at the Almeida Theatre London

It's about the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo: the breakdown in the rule of law, the anarchy of young men with guns and the horrific consequences of the crimes they commit. It's set in an anonymous village near Kisangani, in Eastern Congo, near the lucrative (for a few) mining areas.

It's about the enormous, grotesque tragedy of the Congo played on an intense localised context. We never leave this rotating set of the corrugated shed, the (whore)house of 'Mama Nadi' – we just see the bar, the girls' room, and an outside view. And that's how it gets you. It reduces a suffering on such an unthinkably awful, incomprehensibly large scale down to a few people in front of our eyes. Perhaps its a shame that we need that. Or perhaps just human.

The first half is slow to start. There's a clever first scene in which the salesman brings goods to Mama, then talks about the 'other things in the truck' and the horrible truth is revealed: it's two girls, brought to Mama to become prostitutes. Except that one isn't. One cannot do that work, since she is 'ruined': taken with a bayonet somewhere in the bush by armed militia. 

The full extent of this isn't fully grasped in the early stages; the play largely runs through sitcom-style jokes, perhaps to ease us in gently, and there's impressive live music – the girl who is 'ruined' has to earn money this way. But gradually, as the scenes from whorehouse continue, we see the nights at Mama's and the play becomes increasingly uncomfortable. 

But its after the interval that the play explodes into life. Suddenly it's more real, as the war draws closer and closer to what Mama would call her 'haven' from it all, and the women's stories are told. Though Mama tries to defend her hard-nosed business attitude to running the house ('While two birds fight over a kernel, a third bird swoops down and carries it off…who do you think the third bird is?') she slowly reveals more of her character, every moment becoming more absorbing. At the time a final secret is a revealed, the audience seem to have stopped breathing.

It is an appalling play; nauseating, devastating, but brilliant. I haven't stopped thinking about it. The lead actress who plays Mama, Jenny Jules, gives an encapsulating performance. She barely smiles as she takes the applause at the end of the play, her eyes wet with tears. I'm not quite sure if we should be applauding. This must be exhausting for the cast. 

And then everybody leaves. They pile into the bar or outside for a cigarette; and go about their wealthy, secure lives.

Better written reviews from Time Out and the Guardian.
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The real van Gogh at the Royal Academy, London – until 18 April

Despite the crowds, this exhibition is utterly absorbing. The RA has gathered an impressive selection of works from the UK, Amsterdam, the States and private collections. The sense of the ‘real’ comes through the display of perhaps twenty of van Gogh’s letters.

He wrote copious short letters, some of which include sketches of planned paintings: a detailed ‘scribble’ of a weaver at a loom on a letter to his brother, Theo, becomes the great painting hung alongside it.


There are seven rooms showing different elements of Van Gogh’s work, progressing chronologically. The exhibition begins with his ‘scratches’ (sketches), follows the introduction of colour and the impact of impressionism, his move to Arles and Provence, before his final move north of Paris. The role of literature is highlighted: we read that he was a great fan of Dickens – much moved by Dickens’ humanity and his true portrayal of the poor.

The curators translate sentences from the Dutch and French letters which concern his works, but more moving are the personal details. He begins one letter with the tragic statement that ‘I have found a restaurant where I eat for a 1 franc’, a sweeping down stroke forming a stylish ‘f’. In another he asks his brother to send him brushes and sketches the types he wants.


His addiction to his work comes through strongly, writing of his desire to constantly paint and sketch,  to record the beauty of seasons, landscapes and people, as though under an obligation to constantly improve, to perfect.

His handwriting degenerates as time goes by, he writes on both sides of paper, on the backs of sketches, on envelopes, anything he can get his hands on to explain his enthusiasm, his awesome passion and magnificent ambition that, for him, was always unsatisfied. It drove him to depression, exhaustion and ultimately suicide, though it took the poor man two days to die of his gunshot wounds.

The exhibition includes the last letters between Vincent and Theo,  both dated (thurs) 23rd July 1890, and finally the draft that Theo found upon Vincent after he’d shot himself in the chest, complete with still pinkish blood stains.

At the RA

One gallery visitor, stood next to ‘The Yellow House’, a work of breath-taking beauty, says ‘I must admit I’m not enamoured by  any of them ’, leaving one wondering what could possibly do it for her.


The RA packed its visitors in, one compared the space to rush hour on the Northern line. And on very dodgy calculations, the gallery must be taking several million pounds from ticket sales. While they must cover the costs of staging, does the surplus simply revert to the general gallery funds? They could spend some of it on decent cycle parking.

The exhibition finishes on the 18 April, but happily, you can view all van Gogh’s letters at the fantastic  – and if you have £400, get the book described by the Economist as possibly ‘the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere’. Could I borrow £400?