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Sideways Looks #8: Meet the RandomReader, also Clement Attlee's Cricket Machine

Updated: Aug 1, 2021


Welcome to the 8th Sideways Look. This week, I’m finding ways to have random encounters in the modern world – which means you all get another digital present. Also some football-related comedy.

Aside from random reading, I have also spent much of the week looking through various public sector and charity contract sites looking for consulting opportunities. It’s a rather byzantine process. If this is something you have experience of, I would love to hear some tips.

For those interested in my experiments with newsletter send times: there are now two data points tentatively suggesting that sending at weekends means more people open the newsletters (though over a longer period of time). Also more of you are clicking hyperlinks in the weekend newsletters, thereby getting more of the good stuff that leads you to. Besides the numbers, I’ve also discovered that writing on Friday and tidying up Saturday morning is quite a nice way to produce these. Such are the benefits of experimentation.

I hope you all have good weekends. Thanks to those who have been passing these newsletters on to friends and/or giving thoughts on content. Both of these are always very welcome.


Thought for the Week: Reading at Random

So many good stories start with ‘I was sitting next to someone at dinner…’. Off the top of my head, I can think of one friend whose relationship started by sitting next to someone on a bus, and another who started a new career after talking to someone on a train. I suspect you all know similar origin stories of relationships, projects, jobs, businesses, relocations, and more. Apparently chance encounters played a big hand in the stories of Apple and Google, the Beatles, even the Suffrage and Abolitionist movements.

Outside life-changing (even history-changing) events, many smaller random encounters can turn our 'normal' into someone else's 'new'. You may think your way of doing things is just standard. But then you encounter someone who does things completely differently, and suddenly the world seems a bit broader. Added together, this can help the general underlying creativity of society.

But modern life doesn't always support such serendipity. A particularly clear example: Covid-19 has drastically minimised chance encounters between people. This needn’t have been the case, in theory. A world of entirely digital communication, more time spent in one’s local area, and a groundswell of new hobbies and volunteering could theoretically have made new connections a common experience of the pandemic. Sites like Meetup could have boomed alongside Zoom and Ocado. But that’s not the story of my lockdown, and not one I’ve been hearing.

Not that I’m surprised – I find meeting people on Zoom much harder work than real-life introductions, and I’m very extroverted. When I have connected with others during Covid, it’s usually with familiar faces. Even as lockdown has eased, I’ve found myself prioritising catch-ups with people I’ve missed, rather than events where I might meet new people. My list of such people is quite long, and I suspect the same is true of many others. So it could be a while before wholescale mixing of strangers returns to previous levels. In the words of a tweet I remember from one of the earlier lockdowns: “do you know who I miss? Acquaintances”.

In the absence of chance human encounters, I’ve decided to get my serendipity fix by reading random material that I wouldn’t normally. But doing so requires overcoming anti-randomness barriers which existed pre-Covid. The algorithmic nature of much modern life is designed to give us things that are ‘relevant’ to us based on our past behaviour. That hardly helps find completely new pastures to explore.

But if we avoid algorithmic recommendations, how to select from all the available information in the world? The usual approach – searching – is no good; it’s not especially random to think ‘what do I want to look for?’. A few popular sites, including Wikipedia and reddit, have random page functions. They’re both good, but Wikipedia can be very niche and reddit can be, erm, quite weird. I wanted something a bit broader.

So, hot on the heels of last week’s interactive dashboard, I’ve created another gift for you all:

It’s easy to use: type something nice (I insist it has to be nice) in the pink box, hit enter, and you’ll get a choice of 5 random websites to read an article from. I’ve put in websites I think they’ll have something interesting to say on a specific topic – so trade journals, charity sites, museums and the like. Suggestions for additions very welcome.

I’m trying to get into the habit of browsing at least 3 random sites per day. When I’ve found articles I’ll often use speed reading tools, as there can be quite a lot of material that is just too specific for the casual random-reader. But if my eyes alight on something of interest, I stop the speed reader and learn something new.

Even from only a few days of doing it, I’m already seeing patterns. Artificial Intelligence and globalisation, which I’ve previously encountered in a birds-eye-view way, keep appearing as on-the-ground realities - and often as sources of concern. Recognisable stories about Covid recur in new forms. But over time I hope the patterns become less familiar, and I begin to learn new completely things about the big old world out there.

As always, these things work better when more people get involved. So please do give it a try, record the things you’ve learned, add more sources to make it better. And then, when we finally get to meet new people, we’ll have even more to talk about.

Fun Fact About: Clement Attlee’s Cricket Machine

I’ve been reading Harold Wilson’s account of being Prime Minister in the 1960s and 1970s; I’ve already tweeted out some gems. My favourite so far is the famously monosyllabic Clement Attlee (Prime Minister 1945-1951) telling the more verbose Winston Churchill “a monologue is not a decision”.

This reminded me of another Clement Attlee story. This is how it was told to me. Attlee was extremely uninterested in following the news. His press secretary convinced him to get a Press Association machine in his office, largely by telling him it would give him the latest cricket scores. Attlee liked this idea; until one day when he called the press secretary in to ask “why does my cricket machine keep telling me things I’ve announced?”. He replied “well Prime Minister, I am telling reporters about your activities so that they can spread the word to British people”. Attlee paused for a while, then said “very good. Carry on”.

Unfortunately I’ve been unable to verify this precise story. But there does seem to be a consensus around the story of the reluctant Attlee being convinced to have a “cricket machine”, with some also claiming that he was shocked to hear it reporting news from Cabinet.

Many have noted the enduring appeal of cricket to Conservative politicians. My own small contribution to this list of tales: At one point in 2018, in the depths of Brexit wranglings, I was walking through one of the corridors in No10 which passes an office for the political advisors. As I was approaching, I heard an excited ‘yes, YESSS!’. I slowed down as I passed the open door, hoping to get an early insight into some Brexit breakthrough. Then I saw that they just had the cricket on.


A request for recommendations from YOU. I am writing an essay on the topic of ‘Education as if People and Planet Matter'. I’m drawing on a thought I’ve long been interested in, school education which teaches children to make and repair things (and indeed more ‘doing’ in general, rather than just ‘thinking’). If any of you have any thoughts or recommended reading on that topic, please do get in touch.

Via this tweet from journalist Helen Lewis I learned about Janet Malcolm, a longform writer who died last week. I am glad I followed the recommendation to read this piece, which is incredible both in the content and the approach of writing. I feel like it’s playing with writing as a form, but in a subtle and enhancing way, not distracting or self-indulgent as such approaches can be. More of her pieces are here and I fully intend to set aside time to read more.

Something I’ve been doing for long enough that I sometime forget what a wonderful idea it is. I’m trying to learn German, with mixed success. The website Deutsch Welle produces daily bulletins of international news; I find it helpful as it’s quite complex vocab, but used in a context of stories I’ll be familiar with in English from the BBC. But the best bit – they then record someone reading it really slowly. So you get the experience of listening to relatively complicated German, but slow enough to follow (and after you’ve had a chance to read it too). I find this helpful as a complement to most listening exercises, which feature simple vocab but delivered at higher speed. It’s one of those pleasingly simple good ideas. I expect something similar exists for other languages; if not, you should make it so.

Finally, some comedy. Unusually for me, I have been (somewhat) watching the Euros. Unfortunately I cannot watch football without two excellent comedy sketches running through my head – the first from Mitchell and Webb, the second from Alan Partridge. So now you too can join me in remarking ‘he must have a foot like a traction engine’ whenever anyone kicks a ball. It makes you very popular, trust me.

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