24 November 2016

‘A magic carpet ride through the history of thought… Among the greatest compliments you can give a book is that it helps you to see things differently. So long as you’re not dazzled by the fireworks, Rethink could do just that.’ — Guardian

‘Clever and entertaining… when it comes to describing a complex idea clearly, Poole is one of the best writers around.’ — Sunday Times

‘Entertaining and important… elegantly written and full of surprises.’ — Telegraph

‘It’s a treasure trove for people who like to begin stories with “Did you know that…?”… a clever and entertaining book, which, if it does nothing else, will make me more fun at parties.’ — Times

‘With this book, Poole confirms his standing as one of our liveliest and most thought-provoking writers on science and technology.’ — Spectator

Everyone likes innovation, but maybe our idea of it needs to be upgraded. Because very often innovation comes from reconsidering the failures of the past. Rethink is the story of how old ideas that were mocked or ignored for centuries are now storming back to the cutting edge of research. The book is about evolutionary biology, chess, consciousness, nukes, medicine, spycraft, cosmology, economics, and a lot more. Rethink is out now in the UK (Random House Books) and
the US (Scribner).

Above, I am talking about the book with Jay Shetty of the Huffington Post. I was also interviewed at length about Rethink on the Guardian Science Weekly podcast, and discussed it along with the mathematician and author Marcus du Sautoy on the Spectator books podcast.

Here are published extracts from the book: in the Guardian, on Zombie Ideas and the persistence of conspiracies; in New York magazine, on the rediscovery of LSD as therapy, and why the greatest computing pioneer of the 20th century is still not a household name. Readers of the book will also learn about black-box ideas, placebo ideas, pariah ideas, and a whole lot more…

Winner of a 2014 Plain English Award.

Do you hate going forward? Do you shudder when a colleague wants to reach out? Are you disgusted by low-hanging fruit, sick of being on the team, and reluctant to open the kimono? If modern business-speak makes you want to throw up, then my latest book is for you. It’s both a satirical deep dive and a come to Jesus moment for verbally downtrodden workers everywhere. It’s now in paperback, and you can order it here.

Here I am talking about it with Simon Mayo on BBC R2:

You can also listen to me on BBC R4’s Today programme here, and read some edited extracts at the Guardian. Good luck cascading the learnings down to your team. :(

‘Funnier still…  a brutal demolition… a valuable glossary to corporate life’ — Spectator

‘Hauls the jargon words of business and bureaucracy out of context and interrogates them ruthlessly for meaning… he has linguistic sense and sensibility on his side’ — Times

‘Succeeds in being informative and enlightening on a vexing subject… A book based on laughing, even in exasperation, over office jargon in fact sheds light on the purpose and the psychological effect of office language as a whole’ — TLS

19 November 2014

I am wearing a weird, rubbery headband that not only makes me look like an escapee from some techno-hippie cult, but also uses flexible electrodes to peer inside my brain and relay the data over Bluetooth to my smartphone, which at the same time plays a repetitive, New Age piano loop over beach sound effects into my ears. Wait, this is supposed to help me relax?

For $299 you can now buy a consumer electroencephalograph (EEG) device called Muse. It comes with premium-styled, Apple-like packaging and a very hard sell. Muse will help you “do more with your mind,” by teaching you how to calm it. Because, the box explains, “once your mind is calm, your focus can become clear. Your perception can sharpen. Your ideas can flow more readily and with greater purpose.”

Just reading this annoys me. Was Nietzsche calm when he wrote Twilight of the Idols? Was Dostoyevsky calm when writing The Brothers Karamazov? Do ideas flow best from beatific drones with maximally placid brainwaves?

I try to put such unquiet thoughts aside as I adjust the Muse to sit across the middle of my forehead, with the ends of its arms resting behind my ears.

Read the rest at the Baffler.

30 October 2014

The joys of the mechanical pencil

People who write notes in ink must be very sure of their thoughts. I write notes in pencil: it seems more polite. Penciled notes are always provisional and erasable. But the apparent humility — or, perhaps, smug performance of humility — in my choice of penciling is counterbalanced by the fact that I eschew the humble wooden pencil. I must have a mechanical pencil, the kind you click to advance the lead. And when I say “a mechanical pencil,” you should know that I mean “lots of mechanical pencils.”

Read the rest at the Atlantic.

22 September 2014

Why we’re not as irrational as the nudgers want us to think

Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile. Yet the news lately from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics, and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors, and prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

Yet the modern thesis of severely compromised rationality is more open to challenge and reinterpretation than many of its followers accept. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find undesirable. A culture that accepts on faith the idea that its citizens are not reliably competent reasoners will treat those citizens differently than a culture that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? Continued →

18 September 2014

This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate, by Naomi Klein (Allen Lane)

Right-wing deniers of the robust findings of modern atmospheric science sometimes claim that the whole idea of global warming is just a front. What “warmers”, as they call them, really want is allegedly not just a sharp reduction in fossil-fuel emissions but a wholesale socioeconomic transition to tree-hugging socialism. Such cynics will be gladdened by Naomi Klein’s new book. For in it she does explicitly argue that the present “climate emergency” provides an excellent excuse for global revolution.

Read the rest at the New Statesman.

13 September 2014

Meeting Murakami

“Strange things happen in this world,” Haruki Murakami says. “You don’t know why, but they happen.” It could be a guiding motto for all of his fiction, but he is talking specifically about a minor character in his new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The character is a jazz pianist who seems to have made a pact with death, and is able to see people’s auras.

“Why that pianist can see the colours of people, I don’t know,” Murakami muses. “It just happens.” Novels in general, he thinks, benefit from a certain mystery. “If the very important secret is not solved, then readers will be frustrated. That is not what I want. But if a certain kind of secret stays secret, it’s a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it.”

The world’s most popular cult novelist is sipping coffee in the sunny library of an Edinburgh hotel, which – perhaps disappointingly for admirers of his more fantastical yarns – is not reached through a labyrinthine network of subterranean tunnels. Murakami is relaxed and affable, rather than forbiddingly gnomic. “I’m not mysterious!” he says, laughing.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

4 September 2014

Personal, by Lee Child (Bantam Press)

Someone has taken a shot. At the president of France. In Paris. With a sniper rifle. Like in The Day of the Jackal. But it wasn’t Edward Fox. And it wasn’t Jack Reacher. Someone else. Who was it? And why? Those are some questions. And Reacher is going to find the answers. By fighting some men. And shooting them. With his bare hands. And some bullets. Jack Reacher.

Read the rest at the Guardian.