A Fishy Tale

When I first arrived in New Zealand I was told a story – the story that the North Island was actually a giant fish. The story turned out to be slightly true.


Maui, a Polynesian demi-god and his brothers went fishing and Maui took them further out into the ocean than they’d ever been. He cast his line into the sea and in the murky depths it hooked on something. Something big.

Maui and his brothers, from Maui and other Maori Legends by Peter Gossage

Continue reading “A Fishy Tale”

Pulling in Readers, Ferociously

Venkatesh Rao’s essay Gradatim Ferociter opens with this magnetic paragraph:
One of my favorite phrases is gradatim ferociter, the motto of Blue Origin. It means “step by step, ferociously.” The phrase helped me figure out why, despite really liking Nassim Taleb’s idea of antifragility, I’ve always found it kinda depressing. The idea seems to miss a major point: growth and innovation are processes that involve necessary fragility in proportion to how fast you want to move …
Every sentence is interesting. It fires a question in my mind and then answers it.
One of my favorite phrases is gradatim ferociter
What does “gradatim ferociter” mean?
It means “step by step, ferociously.”
Why is it one of your favourite phrases?
The phrase helped me figure out why, despite really liking Nassim Taleb’s idea of antifragility, I’ve always found it kinda depressing.
Depressing? Why?
The idea seems to miss a major point:
What does it miss?
growth and innovation are processes that involve necessary fragility in proportion to how fast you want to move
Venkat has given my reading the momentum needed to read the whole thing. Every sentence has an impetus that’s hard to resist.

Virgin on Disaster

From the archives: This article was first published in The Free Radical in 2003. The Virgin Cove resort was wrecked in the 2009 Samoan tsunami but the disaster I wrote about here was entirely man-made.


Our driver (also our cook), his kitchen-hand, and the petrol station attendant were all crouched in a pool of petrol, poking and pointing up behind the back wheel arch of our Isuzu four-wheel drive. The aim was to discover why we had flooded the station forecourt while trying to fill the tank. Continue reading “Virgin on Disaster”


As a trainer you want your training to be remembered. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The trouble is, most training – especially technical training – is presented in the least memorable way possible. Technical training is often a long slog through a list of features. I can’t remember my shopping list. How am I supposed to remember a four-hour list of technical details?

I was in a training session recently for a company that was shifting their email from Outlook to GMail. The trainer was knowledgeable and helpful – she was able and willing to answer everyone’s questions – but I can’t remember any of the training.

We started on the left-hand side of the screen and trudged our way through each of the menus: “General”, “Label”, “Inbox”, “Accounts”, “broccoli”, “mustard”, “sour cream”. No, wait, that was another list.


What did I get out of that training? Well, I know that you can change the background colour of your emails.

Monotony and lists create inattention and boredom. How can you make your training memorable and compelling?



Let’s see how… Continue reading “CONTRAST !!”

Stuxnet v2.0

Modern warfare looks nothing like the industrial-age warfare of World War II. I covered this in The Laptop Luftwaffe, a post I wrote comparing the sabotage of the Iranian nuclear programme ten years ago with the sabotage of the Nazi atom bomb project in the 1940s.

Iran’s nuclear programme isn’t the only cyber-warfare target. The country’s missile programme is also a target.[1] This week President Trump posted a tweet taunting Iran for a missile launch failure.[2] The tweet included a detailed photograph of the damaged launch pad taken from a highly classified Keyhole-11 spy satellite.[3]


This attack on the Iranian ballistic missile programme invites the same sort of comparisons as the sabotage of the nuclear programme.

The world’s first ballistic missile was Nazi Germany’s A-4/V-2 rocket programme, run from the research station at Peenemünde on Germany’s Baltic coast.


The first V-2 to hit London arrived without warning on the 8th September 1944, killing three people in Chiswick.[4] The second hit a minute later, twenty-five miles away outside Epping. The raids continued for seven months.

There would have a been many more attacks and many more deaths had it not been for a massive raid on the Peenemünde works on the night of the 17th August 1943. The rocket works was considered such an important target that Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris committed a massive force of nearly six hundred bombers to a dangerous moonlit raid. Forty bombers were lost that night – shot down or crashed – and 245 crew were killed. On the ground, many were killed, including five hundred foreign prisoners working as forced labour.

The raid was judged as success, setting back the Nazi missile programme by months, saving unknown lives in London and, later, in newly liberated parts of France and the Netherlands. The setbacks also ensured that the missiles weren’t ready at the time of the D-Day Normandy landings.

That success came with a heavy loss of life, both in Allied air crew and people on the ground. It’s obvious why the option of a cyber-attack, now that it exists, is preferable.

As I’ve said previously:[5]

The ghostly stealth of a self-replicating software worm could not be more different to the noise, smoke, and violence of an air raid and yet, six decades apart, the results were similar. What used to take an air force is now silent, invisible, and fits in your pocket.


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/13/us/politics/iran-missile-launch-failures.html
[2] https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1167493371973255170
[3] https://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/2019/09/image-from-trump-tweet-identified-as.html
[4] (Middlebrook, 1982)
[5] https://darnton.co.nz/2019/06/09/the-laptop-luftwaffe/


Middlebrook, M. (1982). The Peenemünde Raid. London: Allen Lane.

Inside the Dark Bone Vault

The Science of Storytelling[1] is a self-help book masquerading as a neuroscience book inside a writing guide. But this is not evangelical American self-help with an enormous whitened smile bounding onstage to thumping pop rock. This is self help written by an English recluse.

Author Will Storr is a man who has gazed long into the abyss. The introduction opens, “We know how this ends. You’re going to die and so will everyone you love.” “The cure for the horror is story,” he continues. Bleak, empty reality is why our brains “conjure up a world for [us] to live inside”.

The link between storytelling and neuroscience lies in how our brains render stories. When we hear a story, our brains generate a hallucination that allows us to “see” what’s going on in the story and to experience the sounds and textures that are described to us. Characterisation allows us to empathise with fictional characters.

The reason that our minds have the ability to generate these hallucinations of fictional worlds is because that’s what they’re doing all the time for the real world. We have no direct experience of external reality. Your brain is, according to neuroscientist David Eagleman,[2] “locked in a vault of silence and darkness inside your skull”.


Continue reading “Inside the Dark Bone Vault”

The Todger Screening Administration

To celebrate Dunedin Airport being sold some body scanners, here’s something I wrote years ago. This article first appeared on Not PC in 2010.

The latest weapon against airborne terrorism is nudie pictures, with backscatter x-ray machines being installed at airports across America.

Normal x-rays machines use radiation that passes through an object and can detect dense things like guns, femurs, and the various household objects that people waddle into A&E having “accidentally” sat on.

Backscatter x-ray machines, however, measure reflected x-rays. While fabrics appear invisible the radiation is scattered by most other things, like guns, explosives, and penises.


The Fiqh Council of North America has issued a fatwa stating that the nudie-scope is un-Islamic for its violation of modesty. Save your breath guys. Strip searches without warrants or probable cause are un-American, too, but nobody’s listening.

Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.’” Those were simpler times. That statement has mutated into, “I’m from the government and I’m here to take photos of your cock.”

All this is in response to the attempt to blow up a plane last Christmas by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a.k.a. “Smokin’” Umar, the underpants bomber. Abdulmutallab’s plot raised many questions, chief among them: How do you explain to the seventy-two virgins, who’ve been eagerly waiting for you their whole afterlives, that you’ve just blown your todger off?

The second question was: What’s happened to al Qaeda? 9/11 was simple, ingenious, and devastating. The underpants plot was so bad it would’ve been rejected by ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The third question was: What’s the dimmest knee-jerk reaction we can have to our hopeless security lapse?

After 9/11 the instant response was to ban anything sharper than an Oscar Wilde story from aircraft cabins. (In New Zealand the Aviation Security Service was formed so hastily that they forgot to check that it’s acronym wasn’t ASS.)

After Richard Reid’s shoe bombs (again, WTF al Qaeda?) passengers had to remove their shoes at the security gate. Clearly, getting everyone to remove their pants for x-raying was too dumb even for the Department of Homeland Security so the nudie-scope it had to be.

Passengers who don’t want to be photographed by the nudie-scope can opt out and have a good old-fashioned groping instead. As Ben Franklin once said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will end up getting its bollocks gripped by the government.”

Protesters recommend the groping because it slows down the queue to the point of impracticality and requires the government flunky to molest you face-to-face (or hand to bollock as the case may be) in the hopes that this is embarrassing for him too. November 24th has been designated National Wear A Kilt To The Airport Day.

What Ben Franklin actually said was, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.” He is backed up by Rafi Sela, former head of security at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, a man who knows about fending off murderous nutters. He says that Israel hasn’t bothered with body scanning technology because the machines are “useless.” “I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747.”

I assume he’s talking about the old cocaine smugglers’ trick. If the machine maps the outside of a passenger’s body in exquisite detail, carry the explosives on the inside. Come on al Qaeda – let’s see how big your arsenal really is.

The truth is that all this remove-your-laptop-battery, take-off-your-shoes, drop-your-pants nonsense, known as “security theatre,” won’t stop terrorists but it will make life unpleasant for the rest of us. You are now assumed to be a criminal the moment you walk into an American airport.

Security expert Bruce Schneier believes that security theatre does nothing to protect us. What he claims will protect us is intelligence gathering, understanding terror organisations, diligent police work, and having the sort of society where people don’t want to become terrorists.

Notwithstanding the horror and drama of 9/11, bringing down an airliner won’t destroy our way of life. A hyperbolic and misguided response to the threat just might. It’s time American air travellers told their government to stop taking liberties.

Who Let the Underdogs Out?

Before social media professionals grabbed control of the United States and gnawed at the foundations of the European Union with their pervasive tracking, personality profiling, and hyper-targeted ads, came a bunch of amateurs who had no idea what they were doing. I know this because I was one of them.

In 2006, an opportunity to hack away at the establishment presented itself and I took it. If Trump was a magnitude-eight quake that tore a rift through the political world, ten years earlier I was a tiny foreshock. The sort of thing that a political geologist might have recognised but that to everyone else was an inconsequential bump. It wasn’t much, but this early social media campaign had far more impact than all my previous late-night attempts at proving people wrong on the Internet.

I was leader of the Libertarianz, a tiny political party in New Zealand, which, to date, had achieved pretty close to nothing. We held a position that about 2% of the New Zealand population agreed with and, of those 2%, 1.95% didn’t want to vote for someone who wasn’t going to win. I lived in Lower Hutt but stood for Parliament in Wellington Central, which meant I couldn’t even vote for myself.


Continue reading “Who Let the Underdogs Out?”


Aristotle’s Three Pillars

Welcome to logos, the most boring of Aristotle’s three pillars of rhetoric.

Aristotle’s three pillars were laid down 23 centuries ago in his book The Art of Rhetoric. This book is still the go-to guide for persuasive speaking after all this time.

For a long time we were taught that persuasion relied on presenting logical arguments that relentlessly took us from our shared assumptions or basic facts and, step-by-step, with deductive reasoning turned them into new, unassailable conclusions.

More recently there’s been a renaissance in the understanding that Aristotle’s other two pillars, ethos and pathos are just as important. Today, we find ourselves in a world where reasoning is undervalued and many arguments, especially political arguments are all ethos and pathos, with reason nowhere to be seen.

As a reminder, ethos is your character and your standing with the audience, logos is how you attempt to influence with audience with reason, and pathos is an attempt to stir your audience with anger, fear, or hope.

As Sam Leith puts it in You Talkin’ to Me, ethos says, “Buy my car because I’m Jeremy Clarkson.” Logos says, “Buy my car because yours is broken and mine is the only one on sale.” Pathos says, “Buy my old car because this cute little kitten, which is afflicted with a rare degenerative disease, will expire in agony, for my car is the last asset in the world and I’m selling it to pay for kitty’s medical treatment.”

CarBuyingPerSamLeith.png Continue reading “Logos”