Malcolm Gladwell on ‘Group Think’

Great article in the New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell (he of Tipping Point fame) based on a review of some recent books — one of which I’m reading at the moment. He starts with a history of the comedy show Saturday Night Live but manages to link it to The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow by comparing what the two stories can tell us about successful groups. The Lunar Men focuses on the story of a group meeting in eighteenth century Birmingham to discuss the latest scientific and philosophical developments.

“Uglow’s book reveals how simplistic our view of groups really is. We divide them into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two states — the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity — you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible. You get Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, and a revolution in Western philosophy. You get Darwin, Watt, Wedgwood, and Priestley, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. And sometimes, on a more modest level, you get a bunch of people goofing around and bringing a new kind of comedy to network television.”

Read the full article here


If you’re in the UK, make sure you watch the next episode of the sublime 2DTV on ITV1 at 10.30pm next Wednesday. The first episode of the new series was on last night and had me in stiches — every cartoon sketch hitting its satirical mark perfectly (take David Beckham asking Victoria “How do you spell DVD?”). If you’re a fan of Dead Ringers you might recognise a few of the voices (John Culshaw for instance).

It’s the first time ITV have shown anything good in ages, even beating Paxman’s toasting of Paul Boetang on Newsnight on BBC2.

In Defence of Apathy

Just found out I won an essay prize for a piece entitled ‘In Defence of Apathy’. I slightly twisted the title to say that apathy (in the traditional sense of voter apathy) doesn’t matter; what really matters is that we’re becoming a more active society.

“Like a metaphorical Jim Royle, the character played by Ricky Tomlinson in ‘the Royle Family’, society is waking from a blue screen stupor, rubbing its eyes and sitting up in its armchair. My defence of apathy is that the only apathy we’re seeing is towards traditional institutions, otherwise known as the end of deference. But this doesn’t matter since it’s being accompanied by a rise in activism which is reaching such a level that it is about to precipitate a major positive change in society.”

Read on by downloading the pdf here.

A massive thankyou to ippr, the judging panel and particularly to James Cornford for awarding me the prize.

Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore’s new film Bowling for Columbine is a cracker. Starting out as an examination of gun culture in the US, it develops into the most persuasive argument that something is deeply wrong in american society I think I’ve ever seen. In the UK I don’t think we should think of it as just a film about the US though. There are worrying similarities with events and trends on this side of the Atlantic — the tendancy for “if it bleeds, it leads” on TV news, the increase in gated communities, the government warning us about ‘general’ threats from ‘general’ enemies. Anyway, go see it and see what you think.

You can read the transcript of the NFT/Guardian interview with Michael Moore here.

Edge Interview with Brian Goodwin

Just chanced across a brilliant interview with the theoretical biologist, Brian Goodwin on If you haven’t come across him before, he’s author of “How the leopard changed its spots — the evolution of complexity” which is one of the best explanations of what we could learn from natural systems I’ve ever read. I have a few friends who’ve studied with him down at Schumacher College in the beautiful surroundings of Dartington Hall in Devon, all are in awe of the man. Here’s a little taster from the interview:

“It’s not with theoretical physics that the 21st century lies. Theoretical physics is a beautiful structure, the essence of the intellectual adventure that characterizes current science. But now what we face is crises of the environment, crises of health, crises of community. These are the problems that we now face and we need a science that will actually address these issues and give us ways of being in the world that will allow us to live a life of quality. “

You can read the whole thing here.

Raymond Carver

It was in June 2000, when the Guardian published “What would you like to see?”, that I first got the Carver bug. Almost immediately, I bought everything by him that I could lay my hands on — books of short stories like “What we talk about when we talk about love”, “Cathedral” and “Elephant” — and I loved them all. Quite often a page of Carver’s original handwritten or typed manuscript is included at the beginning of the collections, and you can see how he would write and then go back and correct — making sure that every comma, every full stop was in the right place.

Although he’s celebrated now, Carver felt real hardship during his life which was cut tragically short at the age of 50. This biography appears on

“The American short story writer and poet Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, on May 25, 1938, and lived in Port Angeles, Washington during his last ten, sober years until his death from cancer on August 2, 1988. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1979 and was twice awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1983 Carver received the prestigious Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award which gave him $35,000 per year tax free and required that he give up any employment other than writing, and in 1985 Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize. In 1988 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Hartford. He received a Brandeis Citation for fiction in 1988. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages.

At least that’s the basic biography. Of course there’s no room in it for the nature of the hardship he and his family went through during most of those fifty years between birth and death. There’s no mention of his marriage at 19, the birth of his two children, Christine and Vance, by the time he was 21. No mention of his sometimes ferocious fights with his first wife, Maryann. No mention, either, of his near death, the hospitalizations — four times in 1976 and 1977 — for acute alcoholism.”

To find out more about the man in his own words, check out some of the many interviews that Carver gave later on in his life as recognition of his brilliance grew. William Stull has translated two interviews with Carver from European newspapers on his page Prose as Architecture.

Open Policy

“With the click of a mouse, the message was sent. Nike, sports clothing giant and symbol of personal freedom, had created a feature on their website allowing shoppers to customise shoes with words or slogans of their choice. On 5 January 2001, Jonah Peretti ordered a pair of shoes customised with the word ‘sweatshop’ and Nike refused to deliver. But the email conversation between Peretti and the Nike customer services department about why the company wouldn’t allow his request was stored on Peretti’s computer.

Peretti forwarded the email conversation to just twelve friends, but within hours thousands of people had seen the message. Within days the message had been posted on popular discussion sites like and and was seen by tens of thousands of other internet users. Soon, Peretti was getting calls from journalists and TV producers asking him for interviews. NBC’s Today programme flew him to New York to appear live in front of millions of viewers. There was nothing Nike could do to put the genie back in the bottle. Once the message was out, there was no going back…”

To read on and find out why it happened, download Open Policy here.

To comment on the idea, take part in the discussion forum here.