7 min read

34. Spooky

Ambiguous histories, emergent futures, and classic and not-so classic film and TV viewing
Boston doorstep with many decorations - including fun house, skeletons, various dolls and clowns

In Michael Herr's superb sort-of Vietnam memoir Dispatches, one refrain is the word 'spooky'. As Mary Karr expertly explains in her book The Art of Memoir, the word not only refers to then-popular pop song, but the lack of certainty about anything at the time—truth, morality, life and death. It feels appropriate for this Halloween month of warring wars.

More benignly, 'spooky' also sums up not only my seeing the US's North East in full Halloween getup (I visited Boston and Cape Cod earlier this month) but also some of my reading and even a conference talk I gave this month.

I thought about how much history gets flattened into a single heroic narrative not only in my talk on design pattern histories, but also when touristing in the US, be it when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow fictionalised much of Paul Revere's ride (and sidelined another rider!), to the author of Jaws realising after the success of his book sharks actually would never kill as they did in his novel, to how the statue of John Harvard is known as "the statue of three lies" as basically all parts of "John Harvard, founder, 1838" are incorrect. It also came up in one of my books of this month (Innovating Emergent Futures) namely in how we fundamentally misunderstand creativity due to our historical take on it.

And to push out the spookiness metaphor just a bit more, some of the more outrageous elements of the Beat Poets—namely Scottish expatriate Helen Adam and her satirical 'Cheerless Junkie's Song'—got the close reading approach when renowned free online course Modern and Contemporary Poetry (ModPo) did a webcast, usually based in Pittsburgh USA, did a webcast at Edinburgh's Scottish Poetry Library. I did a slightly ridiculous there-and-back-in-a-day from Newcastle for the taping (even more so since I'd done a similar there-and-back 2 days before for Design System Day) just because it is such a marvel of interactivity. I did ModPo at the start of the pandemic but hadn't engaged as much in following years (and there is so much that it's possible to repeat is for years as a practice—many have and travel to various tapings to hang out. I wish I had been able to stay for the pub chat afterwards, but even just going to the event and seeing the technical wizardry of panels and dial ins was well worth the trip. You can watch the ModPo webcast on Youtube.

This month in digital government and design


  • I’ve been meaning to read Margot Bloomstein’s Trustworthy for ages and finally got around to finishing it while on holiday. While the initial examples are more about consumer products (such as Banana Republic) others were relevant to work, such as the Mailchimp change in language to consider that people might be sending a newsletter on their worst day, to companies like Zoom talking about their mistakes. It also features GOV.UK and other government organisations.
  • Also an excellent read (as earlier mentioned): Innovating Emergent Futures by Iain Kerr and Jason Frasca of Emergent Futures Lab. I’ve been subscribed to their newsletter for a while and both love the blog posts but struggle to digest the dense material in my email inbox. However, the book is a far better medium for their ideas. Kerr and Frasca challenge our understanding of creativity as something innate and instead shows how it’s embedded and emergent, a “process to develop novelty” either in kind or degree. And it’s not just human, crows can do it! It has a form of double loop of engage, disclose, deviate and emerge (with different types of creativity requiring different stops on the loop). I also liked their riffing off poet William Carlos Willians to create the mantra “no ideas but in making”. It’s hard for me to quickly do justice to the book: while it does have some pretty heady ideas, it is refreshingly accessible (unlike some similar texts cough Designs for the Pluralverse) with a lot of looks-like-Procreate sketches. I could do a whole post on the book and am considering how to integrate this into other things that I’m writing.
  • I got the audiobook of Isabel Hardman’s Why We Get the Wrong Politicians based on its good Guardian review. The title is a bit clickbait-y: the book is levelheaded in its interviews with MPs and in fact has a lot of sympathy for them. They have to spend tens of thousands of pounds of their own money to campaign (which, if they lose, they will not get back), go to parliament and then have to make a lot of quick decisions on legislation while also being expected to do regular surgeries! It was something of an eye opener (I’m still not entirely sure how much of this is the same in my native NZ) but it’s definitely done with care.
  • I also finished Amy Edmondson’s The Right Type of Wrong. I think I’m hitting saturation point on learning organisation literature (and listening to the book start to finish did mean there was some repetition), but it was helpful in talking about intelligent failure as something that happens in novel areas where there are opportunities for hypotheses.


  • Could go in the earlier books section but this was just fun: I finished the audiobook of Jarvis Cocker’s Good Pop, Bad Pop after starting it last June (in a vivid memory of waiting at North Tyneside Hospital for 8 hours to get a suspicious looking mole removed–good news, it was benign). It’s a lovely unpretentious memoir (actually less a memoir but a literal rummage around his loft finding things and deciding whether to keep or ‘cob’—chuck out—good low-effort framing device there, Cocker) and a reminder at how success takes a lot of hard work, in Cocker’s case, decades. And of course he narrates it.
  • Another shoutout to the amazing Modern and Contemporary Poetry (ModPo) programme. Check it out on the ModPo websitee (to browse) or Coursera (when you feel more committed). Something that people don't always understand: ModPo Plus is free, it's really more like the deep-dive track.
  • I relistened to the audiobook of Phillip Lopate's To Show and To Tell: The Art of Literary Non-Fiction. I tend to relisten to this maybe every 6 months, partly for the close reading of various essays from James Baldwin to Montagne, and partly as a reminder that it's possible to use writing to figure things out and bring the reader along whilst doing said figuring out. (With some editing, of course).
  • The Whole Earth Catalogue is now (pretty much) all online—the internet before there was the internet, kinda
  • On the way to the US I rewatched the film The Big Chill. It's just turned 40, and there's a great retrospective of the film by Brandon David Wilson on RogerEbert.com.
  • On a far more lowbrow note, before my holiday started I tracked down and watched the infamous episode of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City (yes it is a thing) described by The Daily Beast as 'this year's most gloriously chaotic hour of TV'. It was utterly worth it, even as someone like me going in having never seen any of the franchise. Apparently the next two episodes are just as messy.
  • Finally, I really liked the BBC campaign of doing meme-like inserts of BBC apps into BBC shows as reported by Creative Review. I particularly liked the Eastenders one.

Until next time,