Schrödinger’s Brexit

Oh dear, the Europhobes who have driven us out of the EU won’t like this at all. It’s about the Copenhagen interpretation of one of Einstein’s more complex papers (co-authored with Podolsky and Rosen). Gevalt! – as he might have said – Einstein was, of course, an immigrant. Brexit Britain will be having none of that.

Nonetheless, the famous thought experiment devised by the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger*, in which the cat in the box is both alive and dead at the same time, provides a useful analogy for the state of Britain today. Particularly in the terms presented by the ‘Leave’ campaign’s majordomo in a well-known UK newspaper.

Apparently, or so the frantically back-pedalling Brexitmeister would have us believe, we can be both in and out of Europe at the same time. Genius! Applying quantum uncertainty principles to EU membership! No wonder he’s called the ‘blond bombshell’. Hydrogen or neutron, I wonder?**

Schrödinger is credited with a neologism which I wish to adopt as encapsulating our condition in the unfolding post-referendum nightmare – Verschränkung. It means ‘entanglement’.

Someone call the Doctor!


Image: Schrödinger’s Brexit by Ezri Carlebach. Composite of public domain images.

*ouch, another EU reference – sorry, Brexiters!

**to quote another apposite song, The Push and the Shove by the Golden Palominos, sure I’m angry.

On to Toronto!

Last week I bathed in the heat of a scorching start to June – in Toronto. Not what I had expected. I had no shorts or sandals with me (much to everyone else’s relief I suspect) so I sweltered out in the open, and got nicely chilled in the hotel conference centre.

I was in Toronto to host a workshop session at the 2016 World Public Relations Forum. My session was based on the growing interest in design thinking and my two aims were to increase participants’ interest in design and design thinking, and to share some ideas that they could subsequently make use of. A show of hands at the end of the hour suggested my objectives were met.

We looked specifically at how design thinking could be used to attract talent with the right skills into the public relations industry. This was identified as “by far the most critical factor in the PR industry’s future growth” by Fred Cook, Director of the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations, in the newly-published 2016 Global Communications Report produced by Annenberg with the Holmes Report (click here for a PDF of the Executive Summary).

Long story short, design thinking is a set of problem-finding and problem-solving approaches used by designers. I know from my time as head of comms at the Royal Society of Arts and as deputy director of comms at University of the Arts London that design is a specific, socially located set of practices that involve material skills and that it is based on an extensively researched body of knowledge. So, not a management fad. But at the same time I had just one hour to introduce some theory and get my workshoppers engaged in some design practice.

Luckily, I was able to draw on the smart thinking of artist-educator Shelagh McCarthy, whose use of the common-or-garden paper bag to explore these issues provided the perfect leverage. More on that in a moment.

But to begin with, I shared the story of my first job. From 1980 to 1981 (yes, I know, that’s an unfeasibly long time ago) I worked for a company of architects in Brighton, operating a dyeline printing machine (I can still recall the aroma of the ammonia…) and maintaining a library of design and architecture-related publications. There is a nice article about one of the firm’s partners, John Wells-Thorpe, on the University of Brighton website.

I drew a little ‘memory map’ to show – albeit crudely – something of what I remember from that time. Before any geography geeks complain that it’s inaccurate and not to scale – tough! The purpose of the story, and the accompanying sketch, was to get my workshop attendees to do the same. And they did, to glorious effect, adding notes to their own images about the most important lesson they learned in their first job, and the one thing they’d change if they could do it all over again. That information became the ‘user insight’ we needed to illustrate the first stage of the design thinking process.

To spice it up a little, I made it a competition, having been given spare copies of the re-published trilogy of books on brand language and tone of voice by leading authority John Simmons. Three lucky sketchers left with one each.

ezri memory map

A ‘memory map’ showing my first job, at Wells-Thorpe & Suppel in Brighton. The apple donuts from the shop at the bottom of Trafalgar Street were legendary.

Then, they brainstormed concepts that might appeal to different types of recruits – new graduates, mid-career folks in unrelated industries, or (shock horror) people working in marketing…

So here’s the paper bag twist. Each delegate had in front of them their own high quality, British made, lightly coated baked goods delivery vehicle (aka a grease-proof paper bag). With these, and with any other materials they could lay their hands on, they were asked to build a prototype of their concept. Thus, we had covered the three stages of Ideo’s design thinking rubric: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

I should add that I arrived in Toronto with 120 of these fine paper bags, only to find 130 people coming to my session. So when the a/v engineer for my session, Joe, asked if I needed anything I eagerly requested another dozen or so paper bags – not really expecting him to provide them. But, ten minutes later, he reappeared with this box:


The extra paper bags I needed for my session. Amazing. As an American colleague who was with me at the time said, shaking his head, “only in Canada”… Thanks Joe!

Here’s a brief pictorial round-up of the session…


A vast and daunting arena in the Metropolitan ballroom, Westin Harbour Castle conference centre, Toronto.


Delegates to my session were greeted with a refreshing promise…

IMG_0009One of the tables, bagged up and ready to go.

IMG_0015In total, 130 high quality, British made, lightly coated, baked goods delivery vehicles in situ, apart from the dozen or so last-minute Canadian substitutes. Which were very good, by the way.

IMG_0021The prototypes were astonishing in their variety and creativity…

More on the rest of the conference highlights will follow in another post.

June 23rd from supra to nuts

Wherever you are in the world there’s a good chance that you’ll have noticed the current debate about the UK’s membership of the European Union, and that there will be a referendum on that question on June 23rd.

In the interests of full disclosure let me state that I am in favour of Britain remaining in the EU and that I have joined the ‘Stronger In’ campaign, to whom I have made a small donation (under £50.00). Moreover, I work with EU agencies, providing editorial and related services.

Before any Brexiters reading this head for the Brexit (and we’ll set aside the horrors of that particular neologism for now), let me suggest that there is something bigger at stake than the relative economic benefits or disbenefits of EU membership, important though they are.

One of the anti-EU narrative’s core messages concerns the perceived threat to national sovereignty from membership of a ‘supra-national’ body. Playing on people’s fears by playing up a loss of sovereignty is to bury a complex issue in nationalistic flag-waving. In the nineteenth century an obsession with national sovereignty and its link with race and religion led more or less directly to the atrocities of the early twentieth century.

Of course, modern Britain is a very different place – multi-cultural, relatively socially liberal and democratic. So it is disappointing that those who purport to promote values which reflect the nature of contemporary Britain fail to see the importance of supra-national institutions that were created specifically in contradistinction to the failed ideologies of fascism and Nazism in the 1950s and state socialism in the 1990s. I believe that supra-national bodies serve a valuable purpose in the evolving relations between regions and nations, relations that need at the very least to consider a post-nationalist concept of the links between people and territory. Think of the UN, like the EU a far from perfect organisation, but another that is preferable to the likely consequences of unpicking efforts to bring nations, regions, and peoples together for the good of all.

Without supra-national and regional initiatives, the prospects for future generations will be damaged by the kinds of conflicts that previous generations fought to (and thought they had) overcome. The EU needs solidarity among its members at a time of considerable stresses and strains, and the social and economic benefits to all from standing together will outweigh the benefits of striking out alone. Of course, we must continue to ensure that institutions and policies are appropriately developed and held accountable.

Because, regrettably, you don’t have to look far beyond the mainstream of Brexit support to find extremists who dress their hate in smart suits and flags. Better by far to remain and work to improve the ‘supra’ than to quit and face the ascendancy of the nuts.

Go print!


The other day I was in the local branch of my bank (yes, there are still some), trying to sort out an access issue with my online banking.

“Why not use the app?” asked the friendly clerk.

“OK,” I said, thinking that’d be no problem for a gadget-loving guy like me. So we got the app installed and working, and sure enough a little sales pitch followed about some new product or other, which I promised to consider.

“Have you got a leaflet about that?” I innocently asked.

She looked at me with a mix of pity and contempt. “We don’t have leaflets,” she said, “it’s all in the app.”

So am I old and out of touch? Nope. She‘s the one who didn’t get the memo.

You see, print’s not dead.

It’s official. The UK newspaper group Trinity Mirror is launching a brand new print-only newspaper. That’s right – no website. They’ll be on social media, apparently, but this is a no-holds-barred, 100% print product.

I think it’s a great idea, and I wish them well. I will certainly fork out 25p (about 36 cents US, or 32 cents EURO) for a copy.

Of course, it’s only a few months since online giant Amazon launched its first bricks-and-mortar bookstore, in Seattle, with thousands of real paper books and around 400 magazines on the shelves.

So the future of the past is looking pretty good.

Here’s a picture to prove it – it’s not the new newspaper, but I couldn’t find a royalty-free picture of it:


Louis Pasteur on the cover of the Illustrated London News, in 1895. He looks well, but actually he’d just died. Or Pasteurway, if you like.

Addendum, 25 May 2016

The New Day was not a new dawn after all, more of shot in the dark. But I maintain that print is not dead. How can it be, when sales of hard copy books are growing?


I just want to say…

tears-of-joy-emoji. ok?

I’m not quite sure how to say ‘tears-of-joy emoji’, but it has been selected by no less an authority than Oxford Dictionaries as their 2015 ‘Word of the Year’. To find out why, you can read their less than convincing rationale.

I’m no language complaint maven, but I find myself dusting off Swift’s 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue in which he rails against those promoting changes to English usage, “the Pretenders to polish and refine it,” who, he declares, “have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities”. File under ’emoji’.

Of course, language always evolves, usages come and go, words – especially of the portmanteau variety – are invented and discarded. Just when my mother, a keen if sometimes bewildered silver surfer, had got to grips with some basic txt-speak, it turns out that LOL “is in decline”. Says Facebook, as quoted in the Economist… so it must be true.

Staying with the organ of miserable science for a moment, their ‘World in 2016’ special includes a striking piece by obituaries editor Ann Wroe (yes, hacks in the Economist get bylines in specials) which corrals a collection of bons mots which are to be banished, apparently, from the USA’s Scholastic Aptitude Test (better known as the SAT) into a New York cocktail party anecdote. Many of these words deserve revival not recycling, in my opinion, and I can’t help thinking Wroe’s work would be more fun without every implicated word having been italicised.

Still, it’s certainly worth asking the question, what are words worth? They make and break peace treaties, unite and divide lovers, inspire and oppress by turn. If only there was a catchy ditty that captured this feeling and… wait, remember 1981? Tom Tom Club?

I… er…. oh, tears-of-joy-emoji. Sorry.


Panto season is upon us, and theatres all around the country will fill with the thrills of Cinderella mashed-up with Dubstep or Peter Pan on Ice or something of that ilk. It’s an interesting word, ‘pantomime’, springing as it does from the Greek ‘pantomimos’ or ‘imitator of all’. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it’s perhaps no surprise that children particularly love this form of entertainment and the way they see their modes of speech and behaviour acted out by adults. And they get to join in with lusty cheers and boos and regular opportunities to shout he’s behind you!

Like many Greek prefixes, panto- can be added to many different concepts, thereby supporting a multitude of, if not sins, then certainly strangeness. My favourite at the moment is pantometry, generally understood to mean ‘universal measurement’. Thus, a pantometrist could be said to be a ‘measurer of all’. Pieter Breughel the Elder depicted such a character in the form of lady Temperantia (‘temperance’), in his 1560 engraving of the same name. The central figure, Temperantia stands holding measuring implements in each hand while balancing a clock on her head. Around her, groups of people perform measurements of all kinds, from accountancy to music and from the manufacture of armaments to architecture, while above her, “a daredevil astronomer teetering on the North Pole measures the angular distance between the moon and some neighbouring star”. It is a veritable panoply of pantometry.

The description of the astronomer is by A. W. Crosby, historian and author of (among many other books) The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Society, 1250-1600. Crosby’s thesis is that it was Europe’s dramatic advances in measurement during the early modern period that led to the success of its various empires; British, German, French, Dutch, Spanish, and Portugese. It must also, therefore, share the blame for some of today’s most intractable, demonstrably post-colonial problems. True, rapid leaps in measurement led to astounding leaps in science and technology generally, but if only Europe had been a little more balanced in its zeal for measurement, might we not have a little less unbalanced world now?

As Robert Tavernor demonstrates in his 2007 study Smoot’s Ear, measures are culturally located and deeply rooted in human experience. Early measures were derived directly from human physical attributes – feet, hands, eyes, and so on – and that link between our measurement and our biology remains extant and powerful. (The ear in question did actually belong to someone called Smoot, and the story of his place in the history of measurement is worth the price of the book alone.) As a professional communicator, albeit one with a variety of roles these days, I am constantly confronted with the centrality of data, of measurement, of digitalism generally. I don’t deny their importance; I object to their dominance. Tavernor quotes the poet Hölderlin’s lines:

As long as Kindness,

The Pure, still stays with his heart, man

Not unhappily measures himself

Against the godhead.

Though we might chide Hölderlin for his eighteenth-century gender specificity, we might nevertheless appreciate his call to retain Kindness in our hearts. Even if we must mark everything, including our feelings and our ideas, with the equivalent of feet and inches.

Engraving by Brueghel the Elder

Temperantia surveying her measured domain. Is that a pantomime in the top left corner? 

From Rápido to Rápido…

Just four months ago I hosted an anarchic yet highly instructive Rápido session for IABC’s World Conference in San Francisco. This is how the show ended (with thanks to @IABC_be!).

The presenters covered everything from BP’s reputation crisis to rude travellers, and from Surrealist art to talking like a jock (as in, American sports enthusiast…). We had great fun and the audience feedback, as ever, was wonderful. There’s definitely something about the Rápido format, with its combination of creativity, curation, and time constraint, that really cuts through.

This week I’m in Brussels, about to host what promises to be a different, but equally eclectic, session for EuroPCom, a conference of public communicators from around Europe run by the Committee of the Regions. This time our theme is ‘What makes us feel European?’ Again, with a very varied roster I’m expecting plenty of food for thought.

You can join us remotely if you’re not here in Brussels. Just visit the EuroPCom page at 12.30 Central European Time (11.30 UK time) on Thursday 22 October 2015. If that date has already past, don’t fret – the recording should still be available. Enjoy!

Rápido presenters prepare to go on stage

Rápidistas getting ready in San Francisco.