Booklog: Atomic Habits and The No-S DIET

Atomic Habits – James Clear

The author had dreams of a sporting career until a baseball bat came loose and landed in his face during a game, landing him in a coma. This isn’t a cheesy all-american kid come true motivational book though, thank goodness. It’s a genuinely engaging take on why we form habits and how to use greater understanding of how habits form to make positive changes for work, fitness or anything.

Essentially Clear argues that just showing up and doing something regularly, to build the habit, is enough to get you going and make a difference. So he argues that regularly doing one or two pushups every day at the same time (for example after walking the dog) is better than occasionally managing twenty. And through the cumulative impact of incremental improvement (like interest on a savings account) progress will mount and become noticeable.

Personally I love anything which unpacks and challenges the myth of ‘overnight success’. Just showing up every day, building a streak of doing the thing each time, breaks down even the toughest challenges to bite-size chunks. Some of my favourite examples in the book (of which there are many) relate to the comedians Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld each of whom are reported to have worked daily on their jokes in a relentless way their effortless delivery belies.

Clear’s book isn’t earth shattering, it doesn’t offer breakthrough new science. It’s a very well presented and thought through framework for understanding habits, how they form and when they can be a problem. That in itself is a valuable contribution.

I don’t think improving your habits will necessarily make you a better person, build your emotional intelligence or launch your music career. But they could make your life better by cracking a few things and just getting them done. And if you make your habit practicing guitar every day, then maybe that music career has a chance after all.

The No-S Diet – Reinhard Engels and Ben Kallen

I came across Reinhard Engels through Oliver Burkeman’s book Help. Engels, a librarian turned programmer based at Harvard, is a bit of an internet legend for coming up with a range of ‘Everyday Systems’ for dealing with the challenges he faced: getting enough exercise, quitting smoking and losing weight. All of his ideas he shares freely from his websites but popular demand led to this book being published on his most successful idea, the No-S Diet. I ordered it from one of those online discount used bookstores that ship from millions of miles away so it came weeks after I ordered, and forgotten about it. By strange coincidence it landed a few days after I’d started Atomic Habits, and it turns out they’re a perfect match.

No-S is essentially a specific habit building system for controlling eating. The system is to eat only three plates of food a day with no seconds, no snacks and no sweets. The exceptions when the rules don’t apply are ’S-days’ which are Saturday, Sunday and special days like birthdays. That’s it. And indeed the whole plan is on the cover of the book.

Still the book does have value as Engels explains more on how and why he came up with the plan, and why it works. The most compelling argument he makes, based on analysis of mainly US government data sets, is that an astonishing 90% of the growth in Americans’ calorie intake has been through snacks. In fact he claims the data shows that the average calorific value of American dinners has declined in the last few decades, whilst snacking has more than made up for it. He is scathing on the diet and fitness industry which hawks snacks and health bars at the same time as telling us to restrict our eating habits. Normalising snacking, in Engels’ view, is the slippery slope to losing control over what and when we eat.

Let me repeat that as it’s stunning… 90% of the extra calories eaten through the decades when those on Western diets have grown fatter than ever, come from snacks. Wow.

Let’s be cautious with our stats though, Engels only shows correlation and not causation. Still his case is a strong one when he brings in comparisons with other nations such as France and China who have low but growing snack intakes, matched by low but growing obesity.

I’ve become a bit of a snack watcher since reading the book – and I can report that my kids are obsessed with snacking. Is this the new normal? I hope not. Measures are being taken!

I can report that since I’ve been trying to No-S habits I have lost weight, my appetite feels more regulated and I can’t take as many sweet things as I could gobble before. One plate of food is plenty enough and I rarely feel tempted to snack now. Maybe he’s onto something? 

Listenlog: S-Town, Brexitcast, how to fail, polarised, the drop out

S-Town aka Shit Town

Wow. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. From the team behind Serial this podcast series is a portrait of a small town in the American deep south, a story of how family is complicated and most of all the tale of an extraordinary, eccentric, passionate man with mental health challenges.

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It is beautifully and sensitively produced as it touches some very delicate and personal matters which I won’t expand on to avoid spoilers.

There has been some debate around the morality and ethics of this podcast. I think such debates are important to have, but on listening to the whole series the producers have shown themselves to be considerate and careful. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers but after listening do have a read around the debate on the ethics of producing such series which involve vulnerable people.

BBC Brexitcast

Top BBC reporters like Laura Kuenssberg, Katya Adler, Adam Fleming and Chris Mason get together late at night to review another day of Brexit developments. They are tired, punch drunk from the relentless events of the day, and full of insider insight. Don’t expect a tightly edited listen of perfection, do expect laughs and hot off the press views. I’ve found it essential listening.

How to Fail with Elizabeth Day

One of the most interesting conference panels I ever participated in was at EuroCities in Nantes. A number of city Leaders and Mayors, including me, had been briefed to talk about youth participation. Naturally we all were ready to talk about our success stories. When we sat down the moderator asked us to talk about our greatest failures in boosting youth participation. It turned into a fascinating and insightful session, far better than if we had just trotted out our polished success stories.

So when I stumbled across a podcast series on learning from failure I had to give it a short. There’s a huge archive of episodes. So far I can highly recommend the interviews with Alistair Campbell and Gina Miller.

RSA Polarised

I’m a Fellow of the RSA and have collaborated with Matthew Taylor before, so perhaps I’m naturally inclined to like Polarised. Still it’s a skilfully produced series hosted by Matthew and Ian Leslie that tackles an issue of our time – the growing polarisation of our society and how to address it. A thoughtful dose of brain food.

ABC The Drop Out

The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos has become infamous – how she portrayed herself as the next Steve Jobs, with a world-changing medical technology startup. The reality was one of bullying, fraud and patients being put at risk. This fascinating podcast goes right inside the story with fascinating interviews of those who were inside Theranos at key moments in the story.

Booklog: Creative Selection & It doesn’t have to be crazy at work

Creative Selection – Ken Kocienda

Kocienda summarises his book, and conclusions about the Apple culture as: “A small group of people built a work culture based on applying the seven essential elements through an ongoing process of creative selection.” If that sounds a bit vague to you then it summarises the book which veers from detailed anecdote to attempts at generalisable theory of Apple.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. It’s fascinating to be able to get a glimpse inside how Apple worked during the gestation of the iPhone. That’s what got this book published. Yet… it feels wrong for one person to be letting us behind the curtain when that’s just not what Apple does, and this was clearly a team endeavour. Even if Kocienda is the most benign and kindly teller of the iPhone story, it’s nigh on impossible for him to do justice to all of the teamwork involved.

There are undoubtedly interesting tales in the book, and some superb attempts to simplify complex technical issues for a non-technical audience. If I was compiling a list of must-read Apple-ology books this wouldn’t make it. But if you’ve read everything and want a bit more then Creative Selection is an interesting few hours of detail, particularly around the development of Safari and the iPhone keyboard.

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work – Jason Fried & David Heinnmeier Hansson

I have long been a fan of Basecamp the product and company (which used to be known as 37Signals). I spent so much time using Basecamp when Head of Technology at Netmums that some nights I dreamt in Basecamp!

Fried and Heinmeier Hansson influenced my approach to development and I greatly respect their approach to business. This is their third book, and I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t think they’d be offended if I noted that all three books have been pretty similar in style and content. But Fried and Heinmeier Hansson have clearly iterated their thinking to improve and condense their key messages. This latest book is the most crisp and impactful of all.

It reads as a series of short, digestible chapters extolling a human(e) approach to business and software development. One of their key insights is to consider the company itself a product that needs to be continuously improved. There’s lots of good thinking packed in there such as “hire the work, not the resume”, “don’t meet, write” and “disagree and commit”.

A refreshing and uplifting read for anyone with an interest in how to improve work – highly recommended.

Booklog: City on the Line and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

City on the Line – Andrew Kleine

Andrew Kleine is an unabashed government budget nerd. But that’s ok, in fact it’s what has made his book so good. In it he reflects on his time as Budget Director for the City of Baltimore, taking the city government on a journey from siloed budgets as usual to ones focussed on outcomes, on value delivered for the citizen all informed by staff and citizen involvement. The book combines an engaging memoir of his time in Baltimore, a crisp analysis of why public sector budget processes often founder and a very approachable guide on how to adopt outcomes based budgeting in your own public authority. I absolutely loved it and have bought a pile of copies for colleagues at Essex County Council. It’s a journey we’re committed to going on too.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo is a professional tidier from Japan – yes she gets paid to help people organise and tidy their homes and offices! She has become something of a phenomenon with her own Netflix series and a range of books. Kondo tells how even from a very early age she had a fascination with tidying and organising, how she tried every trick, gadget and gimmick to keep her home and school organised. Through trial and error she has developed a very different approach to the typical keep-tidy books. This approach, the ‘KonMari Method’, provides a route map to rethinking what relationship one wants to have with our stuff. This leads one down to having much less stuff in a way that is easy to keep organised. It works – I’ve found it very powerful and useful. Watching some of the videos available online and Netflix do help to bring her techniques more to life.

What I also found interesting was – incredibly – how similar the core of Kondo’s techniques were to Kleine’s outcomes based budget approach. How so? Both are absolutely clear that nothing else matters in what they write if one cannot agree a clear sense of what the outcome you are seeking to achieve is. Obvious perhaps, but hard and it’s far too often that work sets underway before that clarity on outcome is achieved.

Listenlog: More investigative podcasts to enjoy

I’ve started 2019 with a continued appetite for podcasts mostly featuring journalists exploring injustices and unsolved crimes. I’ve had more success finding great listens in this category than the others I’ve explored such as around health or government innovation.

Serial

I know I am very seriously late to the party on listening to Serial, but wow it’s good. All three seasons are different but gripping in their own ways. Season 1 explores the apparent murder of a Baltimore high school student by her recent ex-boyfriend who claims to have been wrongly accused. Season 2 is the remarkable tale of how a US soldier willingly left his post in Afghanistan, was captured by the Taliban and freed after 5 years in captivity – and now faces prosecution through the US military courts. Season 3 is harder to describe but essentially is a year following the justice system in Cleveland, really trying to understand all the players in the system and whether the system works as intended. It’s really good.

The Hurricane Tapes

BBC World Service sports reporters luck into some extraordinary tapes of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter talking to an author about his life. These lead them into a triple murder mystery which led Carter and another man to be imprisoned for nearly 20 years. The ensuing legal battles had Bob Dylan and Mohammed Ali campaigning for their freedom and even a movie of the trials with Denzel Washington. It’s a brilliantly produced series with cracking music. There’s also something really charming about the northern English burr of the presenter’s accent whilst interviewing New Jersey natives.

Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams & Finding Cleo

CBC do lots of excellent podcasts, as I’ve mentioned before. As a Canadian who, according to family legend has some indigenous blood, this series was particularly poignant. Each season covers the death of a young indigenous female, but also the shame of how Canada treated the indigenous communities more generally. They are gripping true-crime stories whilst deeply sensitive historical explorations of the horrors of forced adoptions, residential schools, violence against indigenous women, Police racism and more.

Other Peoples Problems

Another CBC podcast: Somewhat like Esther Perel’s series, this lets us listen in on real therapy sessions. However unlike Perel’s, where she doesn’t include her regular clients but specially selected couples who apply for the podcast series, here Vancouver therapist Hillary McBride has worked with her regular clients with their consent. It’s a fascinating series, particular because across the two seasons so far we get to follow the journeys of a number of her clients as they change and grow.

Listenlog: Investigative podcast recommendations

2018 has been the year I’ve really immersed myself in the world of podcasts. I think this has been driven by my desire to avoid hearing the news much as it’s all too frustrating!

Bear Brook

Four bodies are found in barrels in New Hampshire woodland. A public radio news reporter is asked to attend a police news conference about the cold case investigating those bodies and gets hooked on trying to find out more. Follow as he investigates this story which eventually leads to a serial killer, and the groundbreaking use of DNA in a method which is now changing how investigations are conducted the world over.

In the Dark

Both seasons of this superb investigative series from Minnesota public radio are gripping tales of loss and murder. The reporters go beyond ‘whodunnit’ to look at searing policy implications around how sheriffs and district attorneys in the USA have scant oversight, leaving the public with little recourse should they misbehave or be incompetent. 

Someone Knows Something

Each of the 5 seasons so far of this podcast series, from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC, the public service broadcaster of Canada – bit like the BBC), is different but wonderful. Presenter David Ridgen has a long history of documentary work and investigations which we slowly learn more about over the episodes. He brings a degree of introspection and care to the podcasts which can be deeply moving, particularly as he works so closely with the families of victims. I can’t commend these highly enough.

“Hey Bulldog” – My first novel is out now

I’ve always enjoyed writing. I write much of the time, whether it’s opinion, fiction or non-fiction. What I’m writing and how varies greatly on mood, place and time.

I think it was around 2015 or early 2016 I started what became “Hey Bulldog”. I had been having a number of abortive attempts at novel-length fiction where I was trying to plan the story out in a detailed plot before getting started. As a method it wasn’t really inspiring me. I read  these three pieces on Lee Child’s writing method which encourage me to switch to a more iterative method. With this approach I tried to tap into my mood and the spirit of my thinking much more. I also had quite a bit of time as my wife was away in Poland helping to look after her sick father who sadly passed away in late 2016. So during that difficult period, once the kids were in bed, I had time to write.

After a few detours and sections being re-written I had a full draft complete in early 2017. There have been some further tweaks but essentially the book was done by then. I then spent quite a bit of time considering what to do with it: Was I comfortable publishing or should it stay my private hobby? Did I want to go with a publishing house, self-publish or do something else with it? I spoke to friends and distant cousins with involvement in the world of books and publishing to gain as much insight as possible.

After much deliberation I decided that while I did want to publish it, I didn’t want to go through a publishing house because I wanted to retain control – including over timing – and this is not my day job. I have huge admiration for full-time professional writers, some of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. I don’t think it’s something I could do, certainly not at this time in my life. So for me publishing is a way to share my work, learn about how it all works and get some feedback. It’s not a living. Still, I’m nervous and excited to being putting this work out there.

So what’s the book all about? Well it’s set in our present day world, and is narrated by a loner web developer. A guy who’s self-conscious, sexually frustrated and generally just trying to get by. His life isn’t very interesting but it’s not too bad either. He hasn’t quite figured out his place in the world, that’s for sure. He starts receiving some strange messages by unconventional means while he’s doing his work. These messages lead him on an international journey to find someone who may have been very important in his past. It’s a story about lost love, lust, growing up all mixed in with some international intrigue.

If you’re looking for authors it’s similar to, the best I’ve been able to come up with is that’s a mix of Henning Mankell’s socially aware thrillers and Haruki Murakami’s magic realism.

Official blurb is below, do let me know what you think. So far you can buy through the Amazon empire in paperback and Kindle ebook. I’m working hard to get it available through other sources too.

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A loner web developer stumbles across messages pleading for help in a system where nobody should have access…

Are the messages real or just from colleagues keen to make fun of the loner? As the narrator delves deeper into the source of the messages he finds himself pulled into learning more about his past than he could ever have imagined.

Hey Bulldog is the debut novel from Jason Kitcat, combining elements of social critique thrillers by Henning Mankell along with the more lyrical personal discovery of novels from greats such as Haruki Murakami. This original new novel brings together geopolitics, technology, personal discovery, lust and lost love into an engaging new story.

Available to buy now from Amazon as eBook and paperback (more outlets coming soon, promise!)

Listenlog: Some podcast recommendations

I’ve been on a bit of a podcast listening binge recently so wanted to share some of the best of the crop.

BBC Intrigue: The Ratline

Philippe Sands, a lawyer specialising in international law, presents this genuinely gripping series looking into the story of Otto Wachter – a senior Nazi responsible for the death of a significant part of Sands’ family.Wachter managed to escape justice at the end of the war before dying in hiding under mysterious circumstances. Not only fascinating in terms of the main story, the background of a world re-organising on new polarities post-war but also on how the children of Nazis cope with the sins of their fathers especially through the 80 year old sone of Wachter’s participation.

Esther Perel: Where should we begin?

Imagine this – one of the world’s most highly regarded relationship therapists lets you in to listen on her sessions with couples. That’s what you get with “Where should we begin?” Perel’s team have worked to bring together a fascinating array of couples who Perel expertly counsels. Even more compelling are the moments when Perel adds in her reflections and regrets on hearing the sessions over again. I was hooked and binge listened to both series on Apple Podcasts in a matter of days. There’s a third series just out, only on Audible, I’ve not yet listened to that.

Death in Ice Valley

I heard Alan Carr mention this on an interview with Jo Whiley and Simon Mayo. It was a completely chance moment as I almost never listen to Radio 2 nor Alan Carr! But something about how they described this podcast made me look it up. And I’m so glad I did. A joint production between the BBC and NRK (the Norwegian public service broadcaster) this investigates the mysterious death of a still un-identified woman discovered near Bergen, Norway in November 1970. I listened to this while on early morning holiday walks in sunny Cyprus, but the richness of the production transported me to a cold, rainy Norway every time. A really marvellous series – must listen.

The Assassination

The BBC World Service’s Owen Bennett-Jones takes us through the tumultuous story of Benazir Bhutto’s life, and violent death. Having been personally present through many of the key moments in Bhutto’s political life Bennett-Jones brings an energy to this series which is filled with a sense of his love for Pakistan mixed in with his despair at the many failings in its political and legal systems. Pretty much everyone covered in this series emerges as tarnished in some way – by corruption, failure to act, malevolence or plain incompetence. The violence surrounding the recent blasphemy case in Pakistan now makes more sense to me having listened to this series. This isn’t just a series trying to find out who killed Bhutto, and why; but also lifts the lid on how militants, the Taliban, Pakistani military, the US and others are all strangely interconnected.

Booklog: The myth of the strong leader

The myth of the strong leader – Archie Brown

On the fundamental argument of this book, I completely agree. In short, Brown’s core argument is that far too much emphasis is placed by the media and political analysts on ‘heroic leaders’ being the source of success and change for their parties and governments. Indeed their influence on election results and delivering change is far less than many think is perhaps the most compelling case made in the book’s opening chapters. Then sadly this thread is lost as the author gives us his potted histories and opinions on a number of world leaders of the last century or so. 

While I found some of these parts to have some interest from a historical perspective, and being well written, they undermine the book’s case by barely mentioning the teams of people that worked with the leaders reviewed. Also the book verges on becoming more of a trot through the 20th century’s geopolitics – as seen by the author – than a book on leadership.

With a third of the pages and a greater focus on the core argument this book would have been far more powerful. Too much time is spent reviewing leaders’ histories and a typology of leaders without doing the leg work of explaining how they were part of much wider teams and collaborations.

Migration complete

In recently wanting to make sure this site used https by default I had the long overdue realisation that I no longer have the time nor inclination to be worrying about my WordPress and server settings.

So I’ve migrated to WordPress.com (and a touch of Amazon S3 as it was easier to fix some broken links that way) pretty smoothly, I hope (touch wood etc).

The export and import process is very impressive capturing comments, users, posts and pages pretty much all without a hitch. So onwards and upwards.

I do want to acknowledge Futurequest who I have hosted with for almost exactly 17 years now. Without them this site but also the many sites I ran for businesses, schools and charities would never have been possible. They have always been a joy to work with – if you need great hosting I can’t recommend them highly enough.