It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble …

Summary of OffGrid Sessions 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – Pic James Clarke

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” as Mark Twain famously said. “It’s the things you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And over a startling range of different intellectual disciplines and areas of life, the speakers at this year’s OffGrid Sessions demonstrated the truth of that saying. Seeing the stuff that’s there is easy: it’s seeing the stuff that isn’t there — realising what’s missing from our account of life — that’s harder. We think in stories and narratives, as several of the speakers discussed, and once they’ve captured us those narratives can limit our ability to conceive of other, different ones.

A couple of the smart thinking books we saw presented here complemented each-other brilliantly in giving us a big-picture view of that. Here was Bobby Duffy, for instance, who opened the festival talking about the mental and social biases that make us vulnerable to believing, to use a technical term from cognitive psychology, any old shit about the world — a message that couldn’t be more urgent in the age of Fake News and digital polarisation. The first step towards being less wrong about things is becoming conscious of the forces in our own psychologies -– forces baked in by evolution — that distort the way we understand the world around us.

Michael Blastland, meanwhile, opened our eyes to the possibility that the problem isn’t just in our brains: the world around us may simply be much more unknowable than we think. We have a scientific method that we have come to think, applied correctly, might provide a full explanation for why things are as they are. But, he says, that confidence may leave us even less well informed than before. What if there’s a “hidden half” that our science is ill-equipped to comprehend; if we’re looking for answers in the wrong places, and with the wrong methods?

Again and again, we heard from speakers who had realised that the received wisdom about things was wrong, or missed the point, or provided the sort of attractive and oversimplifying narrative that ignored complicated truths because it started from the wrong premise. Eric Barker, for instance, found the “hidden half” in the maxims about success: we all know about the virtues of refusing to quit, or making friends, or acing high school. But those truisms mean that the different and less visible possibilities offered by giving up at the first sign of difficulty, being a misanthrope and dropping out of high school to smoke weed. Ed Warner, too, uncovered the invisible and often counterintuitive ways in which the seemingly straightforward sporting events we watch on TV are shaped behind the scenes by the flow of money, and the way that flow determines what we see (and don’t see) on TV in the first place.

And one of the most significant hidden halves, as Caroline Criado-Perez demonstrated in her extraordinary talk, is half the population. The way that society is organised around men is so pervasive that even feminists often do not notice it: from the very building blocks of language to the architecture of Parliament Square, from the seatbelts in our cars to the temperature of our offices. We don’t notice that men have been treated as the default because (like all successful ideology) something arbitrary and unfair announces itself to the world as no more than the natural order of things. Here is what Bobby Duffy warned us about: one of the most deep-rooted cognitive biases of all is the tendency to think of ourselves as “normal”.

So another theme that emerged — in Caroline’s talk as well as others — was the way in which that particular bias can only be overcome by seeing the world through different sets of eyes and involving a wider set of experiences in the process of making decisions. Here’s diversity not as a box-ticking exercise in PC, but as a vital way of corralling a wider cognitive range — of bringing the hidden half into visibility. And that hidden half, as Nick O’Shea and Jaideep Prabhu argued, is also a rich resource for business: by “including the marginal”, in Jaideep’s words, you can tap into resources of both labour and consumer markets that have been invisible to more conventional businesses. Whether that’s learning-disabled adults brewing and selling beer in Lewisham, or entrepreneurial agents in rural India transforming lives and unlocking value in areas hitherto outside the “formal economy”.

Making the marginal visible was also, in a sense, a theme of Paul Conroy’s barnstorming story of his time reporting from war-ravaged Syria. We were gripped and thrilled to hear of his adventures and his several brushes with death — but the reason he was there, and the reason he was here talking to us about it, was that without war reporters and war photographers the likes of Bashar Assad would massacre their own people without Westerners paying the slightest bit of attention to them. We still, more often than not, look away — and that is to our shame.

And yet there are altogether different questions of what’s knowable and the ways of knowing it that can be answered by art. Entrancing talks by Alison SM Kobayashi and Wilfrid Wood approached those questions in different ways. Wilfrid, for instance, dug into the question of what a portrait can tell us: is the face simply a mask for the unknown and the unknowable? Or is it — as we all seem to believe whether we’re on Tinder, scrutinising a newspaper front page or gazing at a masterpiece in the National Portrait Gallery — a profound expression of some inner reality about its owner? How can a sculpture or a painting bring out that truth by slight distortion in that hinterland between photograph and caricature? And Alison’s work — at once haunting and filled with delight — shows us how art can rescue the invisible truths of human lives from the junkyard of time. Especially fascinating was the way she showed — through “casting” the audience in her performance piece — how the very quality of an audience’s attention can shape the story that they take in.

But ignorance — for all that our speakers warned of its dangers — can also be a sort of strength. Alex DePledge was brilliantly eloquent about how it was precisely her lack of experience that gave her the freshness of approach and clarity of thought to rethink the industries that her start-ups disrupted. Like Jaideep, she showed how tramline thinking — being imprisoned in a narrative — can make big businesses slow and unimaginative, can make them fail to see the facts on the ground that they need to be responding to.

Finally, we were all able to respond to one fact on the ground: a nice warm evening and the presence of a cold beer, as the brilliantly funny Rachel Parris played us out. “I’m amazing,” she sang. “I’m astounding! You’re amazed… and who can blame you?” Well, nobody. OffGrid was pretty amazing this year too.

Oh, and speaking of ignorance: that famous quote from Mark Twain I mentioned? There’s no evidence he ever said it. Stay frosty out there, people.

Sculpting, Drawing and The Things I’ve Seen

Session 11 Wilfrid Wood - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – Pic by James Clarke


It’s a bit of a challenge to write up the excellent session with which Wilfrid Wood closed out the formal part of this year’s OffGrid Sessions — mostly, because so much of what made it so entertaining was so visual. Here was a Gillray parade of notables including Angela Merkel, Ronaldo, Prince William, Brian May, Matt Lucas and Melania Trump. Plus, of course, our new Prime Minister: “Made himself. Just a blob of pink Plasticine with some yellow slapped on top and there he was”).

So I could start by directing you to check out his work on @wilfridwoodsculptor on Instagram. I won’t give you a link to Grindr but he had a funny little riff on the phase during which he used the gay hookup app to find life models, in the process of which he also found a boyfriend… and had to stop using Grindr to find life models.

Wilfrid is an artist from a family of artists — his father was a natural history illustrator who did a lot of frogs and toads — and described making his early work with a set of “mini-DIY tools” his grandmother gave him as a child. He stared for hours at ethnographic portraits of people of different races, adored the work of Hockney and Francis Bacon (“not just his painting: his face”). Even as he went on to do a course in graphic design, he was fascinated by drawing faces.

He quoted a range of wisdom on the compelling nature of the human face, starting with a Victor Hugo quote he found on the front of an Aesop bag: “The flesh is the surface of the unknown.” Wilfrid broods on that: if you passed Jeffrey Dahmer on the street, would he just look like a normal bloke? That pilot who crashed an airliner into the Alps: “The moment they got a photo of his face it went on the front page. You want to see the face of the bomber or the killer or the pilot who lost his head.”

Simon Schama described how that portraiture was one of the most basic and powerful of all art forms. Princeton University researchers discovered we form an impression of a person based on no more than ten seconds looking at their face — “a mere TInder-swipe”. That question of what a face conceals or reveals was one that Plotinus worried about too: he thought that a face was a husk, and a portrait a husk of a husk — a double-illusion.

It’s maybe appropriate, then, that the satirical puppet show Spitting Image— with its latex grotesques of politicians — “saved my life” — rescuing him as a young man “from a boring job in publishing” to take an apprentice role on the show, making lots of eyeballs, animals and blinking devices (the only head he actually sculpted on the show was Rolf Harris, oddly). That physicality has stayed with him in his artistic practice: “I don’t use computers. I’m very hands-on. I like making a mess: airbrushes, scalpels, paint and Plasticine.”

What Wilfrid calls the “greyscale” area between photorealistic representation and outright caricature is the one he patrols. He aims to use slight distortions to bring out his subjects’ characters. He’s interested in the weird and crosspatch, in expressive truth and even in bad portraiture — which he has a sort of fascination with. He showed us some slides of outsider and non-taught art he likes, too — including that of an American gravedigger who makes his sculptures out of mud and adorns them with real spectacles and teeth from corpses. He says “Usually it’s non-art people who come out with the most interesting sculptures”, and quotes (the other) Francis Bacon: “There’s no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness train the proportion.”

Accordingly, he says, he’s always on the lookout for fresh subjects. The Hackney Wick locals who volunteer are usually nice-looking but a bit too young, good-looking and symmetrical for his liking. And though just stepping onto the 38 bus, he says, furnishes a whole gallery of likely prospects, he thinks it might seem a “bit creepy” to approach strangers.

“I need some oldies and some more wonkies,” he said. Spread the word.

Three key takeaways

1) “People don’t want to look odd or funny. They usually want to look good-looking or even sexy. That is not always possible.”

2) Instagram is a great showcase for artists who work on their own: “It’s a free, online, very democratic gallery. It’s amazing for someone like me.”

3) Even if a piece of your work just moulders on a shelf in your studio, it’s all practice for something else.

Challenging Perceptions

Session 10 Alex DePledge - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – Pic by James Clarke

Unravelling A Mystery

Session 9 Alison S.M Kobayashi - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – pic by James Clarke

Talking about her performance piece Say Something Bunny, the interdisciplinary artist Alison S M Kobayashi showed how there are ways of getting at human truth that aren’t journalistic or driven by dats. “The objects I’m interested in are found and forgotten objects,” she says. “They can capture lived experience in a different way to something like a diary.”

For the last seven years she’s been working with a pair of found recordings that came with an antique wire recorder — an old technology whose heyday was in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and which records sounds onto wires as thin as a human hair. Her method is “deep listening”: she’s gone through the crackly, hard to decipher recordings (a dinner party with neighbours in surburban Long Island in the early 1950s, as she went on to discover) hundreds of times; not only making a 93-page transcript but researching every background detail she could find to give them cultural context.

A great breakthrough came, for instance, when (knowing from the conversation that one of the recordings was a wedding anniversary, and hearing a football game in the background) she was able to date the tape to Thanksgiving, and — searching through 32155 documents of couples who got married on Thanksgiving — eventually find the speakers and give them names and social security numbers and historical lives: “That was the pivot — when what had been a fiction project turned into something else.”

The performance, though, isn’t at all the approach a historian would take. She gathers 25 audience members around a table and “casts” each one at random as one of the speakers on the tapes. They don’t have to say anything — just listen, and follow the transcript — but that casting tunes them in: “It gives me joy every time when the audience member I’ve cast as Peppy [the parakeet] gets their first line [a cheep]. Most of the audience miss it but the cast member is listening out.”

And as they listen to the recording and read the transcripts, Alison pauses it to open up some of the details — the original recording of a popular song that one of the characters sings; the 1951 parody that another picks up; the definition of a yiddish insult (“alter kucker”) that one joshes another with. And it’s full of felicities — the grandfather Sam, for instance, who sings Yankee Doodle Dandy (“I’m a real live nephew of my Uncle Sam/ Born on the Fourth of July”), really was born on the Fourth of July. Here’s his birth certificate from 1886.

Here, assembled from layer on layer of chance and trivia, is a family kibitzing together one random afternoon a lifetime ago given threads of connection — cultural and human ephemera saved from oblivion. It seems apt in some ways that the recording itself turns out to be a palimpsest. As Alison explained the wire recorder — just to make things even more difficult! — was broken: a previous recording of an episode of the radio show Our Miss Brooks, imperfectly erased, runs underneath the voices of the families. Alison flew to California to track down that recording so she could include it in the transcript.

As Alison says, it’s not a “fiction project” but nor is it “nonfiction”. A journalist would go from research to source to story — find the surviving family member, Larry, 13 on the recording, and interview him to supply the finished project. For Alison, Larry’s contribution (she found him: he told her (affectionately) “You’re a sick woman.”) is just another layer in the weave, and his corrections are an epilogue rather than affecting the finished piece. But for the record, Patsy was a Boston Terrier not a cocker spaniel.

For Alison the audience is key: without images or photographs to go on, each audience member constructs the story with their imagination, from the voices and from their own experiences. As she says of a colleague who couldn’t bring themselves to delete a voicemail from their late father from their phone: “Listening to sound can bring a loved one back to life.”

Three key takeaways

1) There’s an incredible richness of human detail to be found in the things that history forgets — if you’re prepared to work hard, and dig deeply enough.

2) “Give the audience some work. It’s not doing anyone a service to dumb things down.”

3) You have to find laughter and joy in what you’re doing if you want to sustain a long project. “I couldn’t have done this project if I didn’t get joy from the recording. I’ve listened to this recording hundreds and hundreds of times, and it still makes me laugh.”

Frugal Innovation

Session 8 Jaideep Prabhu - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – pic by James Clarke

“Jugaad” is the Indian word that Jaideep Prabhu borrows to describe a particular type of innovation. “I defined it to mean: “The art of overcoming harsh constraints by improvising a flexible solution — not a perfect solution, but a good enough solution.”

A high-end fridge in the West can cost $2000 or $3000; but here, for instance, is Mansukh Bhai’s $30 clay fridge cooled by a pot of water on top. It was inspired by a photograph of a broken pot in the aftermath of an earthquake captioned: “Poor Man’s Fridge Broken.”

Jaideep spent the first half of an academic career studying innovation by focusing on large Western companies, where common wisdom holds that most innovation is done. But when he turned to developing countries, he discovered that innovation happened completely differently there. They were 1) frugal, 2) flexible and 3) designed to bring people outside the formal economy into it.

That’s a huge untapped market. In India 40 per cent of people are outside the formal economy, with no access to banks, little or unreliable access to electricity, no education or healthcare. Companies that focus on the Westernised metropolitan segment of the market, and simply offer cheaper, defeatured versions of their products to the emerging demographic below, are missing a trick. The World Bank’s Next Four Billion report in 2008 estimated that those outside the formal economy represent a $5tn untapped market, and it’s likely double that today.

Jaideep says there are six principles to Jugaad: It sees opportunity in adversity; it does more with less; it thinks and acts flexibly (“if you can’t climb the mountain you find a way around it”); it keeps things simple; it includes the margins; it follows its heart (“if you’re passionate about what you’re doing you’ll have the grit to keep at it”)

With a great raft of examples from mobile diabetes clinics (remote diagnosis over satellite link; data relayed by mobile phone to local health volunteers) to microfinanced solar lighting solutions, he showed how jugaad ideas could massively change people’s lives.

Take Harish Hande’s SELCO — which had the problem of how you sell solar solutions for rural electricity into rural areas where people can’t afford the upfront capital expense. He was told by a village fruit vendor that 300 rupees a month was unaffordable, but 10 rupees a day could be managed. HIs solution was to train a local to manage batteries. The bank gives that guy a loan to buy the kit; he charges batteries in the day and rents them to customers in the evening. After six months he has a credit history and a foothold in the formal economy. And his customers have light they can afford.

The key is, just like Hande, to adapt to conditions on the ground. Nokia, for instance, used ethnographers to discover how rural Indians used mobile phones. They discovered that they typically wrapped them in plastic to protect them from dust, and that they used the screenglow as a source of light in the evening. The Nokia 1100 — with a flashlight and sealed keyboard — was the result and became the world’s bestselling mobile phone.

Mobile phones are a finance solution in Kenya. M-Pesa means that a son working in Nairobi can send his mother money in her village through her phone, which becomes like a debit card. She can cash the money in in the local corner shop, which acts as an agent. So you don’t have to open bank branches in villages: the corner shop is already there. 25 million Kenyans now use this system and its (tiny) transactions account for 50 per cent of GDP.

This style of doing things doesn’t just apply to the developing world. The “asset-light” sharing economy is able to scale very rapidly using existing resources: if Marriott wants to add 10,000 hotel rooms it has to build new hotels; AirBnB only has to get more renters to click on its platform. It’s using things that are already there. We’re in an age of “Prosumers”: not passive customers but consumers who actively shape the economy.

And the Maker Movement allows smart students to do things that previously only the R & D departments of major corporations were capable of. They can design and build in shared spaces (Fab Labs or tech shops) with rental access to 3-D printers; they can crowdsource funds; they can advertise virally through social media, and they can outsource distribution to larger companies.

We can all do more with less. And it’s not just good for the planet and our fellow man: it pays to do so.

Three key takeaways

1) Adapt your solutions to the conditions on the ground.

2) Bring in the margins: there’s a huge market outside the supersaturated conventional economy.

3) There are benefits for both large AND small companies in embracing the jugaad way of doing things — and they can use each-other’s complementary strengths.

How the World Conceals its Secrets

Session 7 Michael Blastland - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – pic James Clarke

Michael Blastland was an English literature graduate and, as he said, “there’s a geeky end of that. We talked about narrative arcs — the way stories would fall into a neat shape with a beginning, a middle and an end”. When he became a journalist, he carried on making narrative arcs. “You get an anecdote — you call it a “case study” — about something terrible happening to somebody. Then you ring a charity and they tell you It’s ‘just the tip of the iceberg’. Then you get some stats and data to confirm it. Then — because every narrative arc needs ‘conflict’ — you get a politician to say it’s a disgrace and argue about what should be done.”

But then he had what he calls the most humiliating experience of his professional life (“I’ll keep my personal life out of it”). He met a pair of statisticians who, he said, “had more imagination than I ever did — for thinking of ways the data could be misleading; how it might not actually show us what it seemed to show us”.

That was the beginning of his journey towards his book The HIdden Half, which deals with how much less we know about the world works than we think we do. The example with which he begins the book and the talk is a mysterious crayfish called the marmokrebs that appeared as if out of nowhere in a German aquarium in 1995.

How you turn out is a combination of your genes and the environment, right? Everyone knows that. So how to account for the marmokrebs? They are parthenogenetic — there are no males and offspring are genetically identical clones of their mothers. Scientists have raised them in absolutely identical environments… and discovered that, far from being (as you’d expect) identical, the marmokrebs would vary in size by a factor of twenty, that each one had different markings, a different number of mouthparts, bred at different times, had different behaviours…

So a third thing — apart from genes and environment — is at work; a “hidden half” that scientists call “enigmatic variation”. And it accounts for human variation too. In fact, more than half of the differences between people can’t be explained by either genes or environment — that is to say, these unexplained factors have more influence on us than genes and environment put together. How many of the audience were aware of this? Not many hands went up. “Feeling ignorant yet?” asked Michael, chirpily.

Michael moved on to science, and the weakness of even our probabilistic “knowledge”. The top ten bestselling medicines in the US work — but on average you might have to treat 25 people before you get one positive result. And the “replication crisis” — again, mostly unknown to the audience — has thrown a great raft of our established social science and medical results into doubt. “About half the published results are thought not to stand up.” A petition of hundreds of scientists has recently demanded that the idea of “statistical significance” — the threshold at which a result is accepted as meaningful rather than a freak of chance — be scrapped altogether.

As Michael put it: “The problem with having a large proportion of bogus knowledge is that the whole lot is undermined: you don’t know what’s true.”

The examples he offers proliferate through a whole number of disciplines, and he had particular fun with government statistics. Take Office of National Statistics figures on changes in unemployment. He cited one report that had a fall in unemployment of 3,000 people. Great, right? Then he directed us to the ONS’s methodological appendix, where it explained that the figure was thought to be correct to a confidence margin of +/- 77,000. So it could have been a fall of 3,000… and it could have been a rise of 74,000. “But hey! We have data!”

The story’s even worse with GDP. As Michael points out, we might see a rise of 0.2 per cent reported. But the figures are constantly being revised in subsequent quarters — often by multiples of the original figure. “We don’t know to within two percentage points even two years ago what GDP was doing”: the margin of error is large enough to represent the difference between a robust boom and a technical recession… and yet based on reporting of the latest figures we have politicians urgently advocating for changes in policy.

Michael said that there’s cause not to despair. If you accept how little you know, you are much better placed to learn. There are no conversations without doubt. And without uncertainty there’s no such thing as hope.

Three key takeaways

1) “Make peace with your inner ignorance.”

2) “The great menace to progress is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.”

3) Marmokrebs are said to taste good barbecued. But Michael — of course — doesn’t know for sure.

Under the Wire

Session 6 Paul Conroy - 2019


As the sun set on the first day of OffGrid, the war photographer Paul Conroy — author of Under The Wire — delivered what OffGrid veterans agreed was the most remarkable session the festival has seen in its four years — and gave us, in the process, a real sense of what it can cost, in the real world, to bring us something so abstract but vital as truth. Paul was the photographer who worked alongside Marie Colvin in the besieged Syrian town of Homs — and was blown up in the 2012 mortar bombardment that claimed her life. His talk, in conversation with the documentarian Catrin Nye, may have been serious but it was anything but solemn.

Paul came to war reportage, indirectly, from the army. “I was the world’s worst soldier. When I was leaving the CO asked me: ‘Conroy, what are you going to do when you leave the army?’ I said: ‘Cartwheels.’ He said: ‘Get him out of here, Sergeant Major.’” It was on a trip to the Balkans — a week that turned into six months — that Paul started to report. As he talked to refugees pouring across the border, he says, “I’d trained for war — I’d learned the weapons and the tactics and the methods — but this was the first time I’d seen the results. These people never talked among themselves about what they’d been through because it had happened to all of them: but when they met you, they wanted to trust you with their stories, to make those stories feel like they mattered to the world.”

Paul was in the bar of the Petroleum Hotel (“It was just like it sounds”) near the Syria-Iraq border in the build-up to the second Gulf War when he first met Marie Colvin. He was in disgrace, having — mad with boredom at the impossibility of getting permission to cross into Iraq to be on the ground for the bombardment — been caught by the Syrian army trying to cross the Tigris illegally in a home-made boat (literally; “I even made lifejackets out of Coke bottles: safety first!”). Colvin walked into the bar: “Who — and where — is Boat Man?” She stuck out her hand: “Marie Colvin. Sunday Times. Boat Man: I like your style.” They started drinking whisky together and a fast friendship — and close working relationship — began.

That friendship ended with Colvin’s death in a bombardment in Homs — a city under siege that every other foreign correspondent had refused to even try to enter. Colvin had simply said: “It’s what we do.” Getting there involved a hair-raising journey through literal minefields, sneaking past Syrian government forces so close they could hear them talking and down a 3km tunnel. “It was like getting out into Hell,” Paul said. “After Libya we thought we’d seen the worst the world had to offer. But that place was just being blown to pieces. 28,000 people in an area half the size of this island surrounded by a whole mechanical division throwing every weapon at it that they had. We tried counting impacts and lost count at forty per minute. The place looked completely uninhabited, but at night — at one in the morning — you’d see the ghostly faces of people sneaking out onto the streets, scavenging for food.”

It was this scene — where hundreds of widows and orphans cowered in one of two remaining cellars; where a baby died from shrapnel wounds, as described in Marie Colvin’s last report — that they reported from. And to which they returned when they were pulled out by their editors ahead of a final invasion and the invasion didn’t happen — “we turned off our phones and went back in”. He knew they were in trouble when mortar shells fell on either side of them: “I knew what was happening. I knew the tactic. It’s called ‘bracketing’ — they walk the shells in towards you. I knew we had about thirty seconds.”

He landed on the bodies of Colvin and another reporter. He was close enough to confirm she was dead. “I felt guilty because I felt nothing: they were dead and I had not to be dead.” Amid all the horror Paul described the humour that survives even in a warzone. Finding a hole in his leg that he could put his hand through he says his first thought was: “Oh no. Hospital food.” He saved his own life by tying a bright yellow ethernet cable he found in the rubble around the artery in his blown-up leg as a tourniquet: “most useful thing I’ve ever done with an ethernet cable.”

And the description of what followed was extraordinary — having his wound cleaned with a toothbrush and closed with an office stapler; sitting without painkillers in a room for five days listening to the mortars coming down outside — “The constant, constant bombardment — the building’s falling apart around you. Any one of them — any one — could be the last one you hear.” Eventual flight in a convoy of pick-up trucks through government lines: “23 of us set off — only seven of us made it.”

When he reached the mouth of the tunnel that would take him back out of Homs, he says, he found it filled with women and children. He didn’t want to go back before them, but he gave in to the argument that if he didn’t, if he didn’t tell the story, the losses would have been for nothing. Shortly after he got clear the tunnel was destroyed by government forces.

“I told them: ‘I promise I will tell your story. And I will keep telling your story.’ That’s why I’m here. And it’s still going on. The same thing is happening in Idlib. I’m not talking about history. This has never stopped.”

Three key takeaways:

1) Paul, a Scouser, was told that it was good he got blown up in Homs because “Homs is the Liverpool of Syria.” Asked by an audience member who — apart from his job — he really thinks he is, Paul said: “Steven Gerrard.”

2) However dangerous it is, we need people like Conroy and Colvin reporting. Despite what he saw and what he lost, he said he was glad to have gone there: “I’d go back again.” As Paul put it: “There is nothing these people like more than to operate in the dark.”

3) ”Every day we’d have a laugh. Humour was our safety valve. You spend months at a time and see what we’ve seen, and you can’t take it to bed with you. Because you have to get up the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and do it again,”

More Beer. More Jobs.

Session 5 Nick O'Shea - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – Pic by James Clarke

Nick O’Shea had been volunteering for more than a decade — it’s 18 years now — at Sydenham’s Tuesday Club for adults with learning disabilities when it occurred to him that, for all his good works, they weren’t improving the lots of the club’s members. Only 4 per cent of those learning-impaired adults had jobs — most of them for the trolley-pushing, bag-packing variety (“ten years ago, the second biggest private employer in Lewisham was Blockbuster Video”). They wanted jobs.

Nick, a macroeconomist whose day job is as Chief Economist for the Centre for Mental Health, set about starting a company that could give these guys employment. “It was going to be either moisturiser or beer,” he says, “and I didn’t know much about either.” Having asking himself, “Would you buy moisturiser from a daycare centre in Sydenham?” they settled on beer.

And with no experience, no know-how (and, in Nick’s case, not much enthusiasm for beer) they set about making some “really really terrible beer”. But, as he says, “nobody died” — and he went on to recruit brewing expertise on Twitter. Soon, the beer got better. There were setbacks — when the beer got poisoned by cross-contamination because they had “shared lines”, they found themselves pouring 2,000 bottles away into a bathtub by hand. Then a mysterious benefactor heard about the enterprise and rung him up offering to sell him a professional brewing kit — for one pound. “One of the guys said ‘We don’t have to give him a new pound. Give him an old pound coin,’ As I say, we are from Lewisham.”

And they are more than up and running. The Ignition Brewery now not only sells bottled beer — they can bottle 2,500 bottles in an hour — but has gone on to open a bar and taproom that Sydenham estate agents boast about in their publicity material. A crowdfunder for that made £23,000 in four weeks. Next, Nick hopes, will be a visitor centre and a food offer, an expansion of their brewing capacity and more.

There’s plenty of wit and mockery in the way Nick tells the story. But at the centre of it is the way in which, as he sees it, giving his learning-disabled colleagues meaningful work not only gives them “a cool job” but it helps change perceptions. When they tried a high-street stall selling cider and mulled wine — just to see if people would buy from disabled adults — the feedback they got from one customer was that “If you’d been shaking a tin and I’d given you a fiver, I’d have come away with my perception unchanged. But here’s something really different, it’s got booze, and it’s a fiver. I’ll have that.” The staff report to a “civilian” bar manager — but the learning disabled are serving drinks, hauling crates, and one who struggles with speech, known to the locals through the bar, finds kids lining up for his killer high-fives every time he’s on shift.

“Forty years ago,” Nick says, “guys like this would have had jobs. They’d be working in garages, in libraries or shops, in the civil service or breweries… but now there’s an idea that you put them in daycare centres, they’re told what to do, and what they can’t do. We’re trying to change that idea: because they have useful skills.”

As Nick says, it’s not a charity project. It needs to be — and is — a for-profit company. “You need people who are good at jobs so you can go forward and make money. We pay the London Living Wage,” he says, before exclaiming with the exasperation of any thrifty small businessman: “£10.55 an hour!” He adds: “They’re well worth it, though — some of the time.”

Three key takeaways:

1) If someone can make money, give them a job: they can be making money for you.

2) You can’t change the system. But you can create “islands of wisdom” — outposts of something positive that will draw people to it and create something that can grow.

3) The recipe for a Sydenham Martini is “Just gin. No ice. Just gin.”

The Business of Sport

Session 4 Ed Warner - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – Pic James Clarke

Ed Warner’s first experience of corruption in sport was as a fan, way back in 1994, “watching Crystal Palace, standing behind the goal in Upton Park on a cold night in December”. Palace, astonishingly were two-one up against West Ham when Frank Lampard slotted in an equaliser… “and as the ball touched the back of the net all the floodlights went out, and stayed out”. What he did not learn until later was that this hadn’t been a by-product of West Ham failing to pay to keep their lights in decent order — rather, an organised Malaysian gambling ring had been bribing and intimidating groundsmen to sabotage the lighting so that matches were abandoned at the moment of a score draw (in Malaysian law, if a match is abandoned bookies will pay out on the score as it stands when the match is stopped).

What he didn’t know then was that what he had experienced glancingly as a civilian would come to the centre of his professional life. As a City financier, a journalist and former Chair of UK Athletics — where he served for a decade — there can’t be many people better to, as Ed puts it, set to the task of “sniffing out the insidious influence of money on sport”. In his book The Business of Sport, though, Ed shows that it’s not just money (“doping isn’t a problem in amateur sport,” Ed says drily) but the lack of it that can distort and shape the lives of sportsmen and the competition that fans love.

And — in keeping with OffGrid’s theme of truth and reality — Ed says that the “very clear distinction between the haves and have-nots in sport is often invisible to you on the other side of the TV”. When you watch Usain Bolt run 100 meters, for instance, what you might not know is that Bolt is earning (to say nothing of sponsorship money) an appearance fee of $300,000. Not bad for nine seconds work. But the runners alongside him — Bolt being the one who people come to see — will be earning “the square root of sod all”.

That, says Ed, “has real human consequences”. He mentions as an example another sprinter, James Ellington (recently recovered from injury). When Ellington had one bad season he lost lottery funding and — in order to continue competing — had to sell himself on eBay. He was looking for £50,000 — chickenfeed compared to Bolt.

And speaking of chickenfeed, for all our excitement over the women’s football world cup, women’s club football in the UK is still drastically underfunded. The teams at the very top of the Women’s Premiership might have an annual budget of around £2 million; one league lower a team’s entire budget will be just a tenth of that and no more than a thousand fans will turn out to matches.

As Ed diagnoses it, the business of sport moves in vicious and virtuous circles: more TV attention means more visibility means more commercial sponsorship means better sport (“paying athletes to be the best they can be”) means more fans. Or, in a vicious spiral, the opposite.

He points out that despite the vastly greater newspaper coverage of the Cricket World Cup Final over the Men’s Wimbledon Final the same day, more people watched the latter on the BBC than watched the cricket on Channel 4 and Sky combined. The ECB, Ed says, is reaping the whirlwind of the decision to take the satellite shilling and turn its back on the free-to-view model that vitally connects sport to its fans… with all that means for visibility and commercial engagement.

And visibility is fickle. Para-athletes, for instance, have bursts of visibility with the Paralympics but then leave our radars: Ed describes watching three quarters of the audience leave a stadium between the end of an event for able bodies athletes and the beginning of the para event that followed, even though the tickets covered both. Our men’s wheelchair rugby team is fourth in the world — but has a budget of just £750k. He describes world class para athletes losing their funding overnight.

And, of course, money corrupts. Particularly where there’s not enough of it about. There’s only enough money for a few hundred players worldwide to make a full time living from tennis, and many thousands trying to. “Harmless” match-fixing — you take the first set, you take the second, everyone gets paid and you can have a proper competition in the third — is a common temptation. And in athletics there’s the “get-even gremlin” that tempts runners to tell themselves that everyone on that starting line is doping and they need to do so too just to compete.

Ed described sitting in a hotel room with Mo Farah having “a lot of looking-Mo-in-the-eye type conversations” — and emerging “as convinced as I could possibly be that he’s not a dope-cheat. But I knew I could never be entirely sure”.

“I have a very skeptical turn of mind. The only person on earth I can say with absolute confidence is drug free is me. And even then, who can say what was in that wrap I had for lunch?”

Three key takeaways:

1) Money shapes sport in ways that are usually completely invisible to the viewer sitting in the stadiu or watching on TV.

2) Sponsors can “go broadband” and throw money at big money mainstream sports like football; or “go narrow” and find people, teams, sports where a small investment can really make a difference.

3) Corruption is extraordinarily tempting, and often easy to justify to yourself. Cheating or max-fixing much more widely practised than even the worldly might imagine.

Data Bias In a World Designed For Men

Session 3 Caroline Criado Perez - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions — Pic by James Clarke

Offgrid Sessions 2019
Picture by James Clarke., 07941 676821.

Caroline Criado-Perez — who successfully campaigned to have a woman on a UK banknote — was running with her dog Poppy around Parliament Square on International Women’s Day in 2014 when she noticed for the first time that every statue she passed was of a man. “I hadn’t noticed — and feminist friends were the same: they said: ‘How did we never notice that that all the statues in Parliament Square are male?’” By the time she’d reached Buckingham Palace, Caroline was setting up a petition on her mobile phone. That moment became the campaign that, four years later, would result in the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square.

But it also crystallised a realisation that provided the seed for her new book Invisible Women: “We’re so used to men being the default that ninety per cent of the time we don’t even notice when women are being excluded.” A version of that thought supplied Caroline’s own conversion to feminism: “I totally bought the stereotype: I thought that feminists made us all look bad, that they should stop whining, that women would do better if only they weren’t so crap.” Then as a mature student she read Feminism in Linguistic Theory (“the book that turned me into a feminist — a banging read”). She realised that when she heard those “neutral” usages — “man” for “humankind” and so on — “Every single time, I was picturing a man — and I had never noticed I was picturing a man”.

She wants Invisible Women to recreate that moment for others, she told June Sarpong. Because as she discovered, our habit of picturing men as the default human isn’t just bad manners. It costs lives. And the book is filled with data — “you can’t argue with data,” said June — that shows how. Its starting point was medical: women don’t present with heart attacks in the same way men do (few suffer chest pain; they’ll more likely have breathlessness, nausea and fatigue, which looks like indigestion), but the diagnostic criteria for heart attacks are all based on the male experience. Doctors send women home and they die. “I’m a professional angry feminist — and I didn’t know about it!” Caroline says.

Soon she was uncovering examples across a whole range of areas of life: “Everything that’s every been designed, from toilets to cars to workplaces, have been designed as if man is the default.” It took until 2011 in the US, and 2015 in the EU, for car manufacturers even to use “female” crash test dummies — even though women are 17 per cent more likely to die in a car crash and 48 per cent more likely to suffer serious injury than men, and the number one cause of foetal death from trauma is car crash. Even now, though, the “female dummy is just a scaled-down man… and It’s only ever tested in the passenger seat. So: great for scaled-down men, who can now travel in safety in passenger seats…”

Again and again, she says, data is collected on women only reluctantly, and as an afterthought. Excuses are offered: women, it’s claimed, are “too complicated to measure”. In medical testing — where typically tests are run first on cells, then animals, then humans, at each point male examples are used. The defence is that women can’t participate in studies because of their childcare responsibilities, or because menstruation would skew the data. “Mice don’t have childcare excuses — so they use menstruation. But cells don’t have periods. And they found, for instance, that oestrogen helps female cells fight off infection but you’d never discover that if you’re only testing male cells.”

Caroline says that it’s not just about data but diversity: she doesn’t believe it was misogyny, but simple lack of thought, that meant that Apple’s health tracker will track your copper intake but won’t let you track your period. There wasn’t a woman in the room: “They forgot that periods happen… to half the population.” The problem is, people are very hard at seeing issues that don’t affect them personally. She quoted Sheryl Sandberg’s account of having pregnancy parking spaces put in at Google. When she told the head of Google he said: “I‘d never thought of it.” Sandberg herself hadn’t thought of it — until she was pregnant.

“If you assume that you allocate resources according to what white men need and hope it’ll work for everyone, that just doesn’t work. I feel for white men, I really do. It’s tough for you — but you’re just going to have to get fucking used to it.”

Caroline’s frequently asked what her next campaign will be. She says she doesn’t plan it like that. “Campaigns are a real pain in the arse. And nobody pays you for them.” When she succeeded in getting Jane Austen on the five pound note, “I asked the Bank of England if I could have the first one. They said it goes to the Queen.” Did they give her the second one? “I didn’t get any banknotes,” she laughs. “I had to go to the fucking cashpoint!”

Three key takeaways:

1) Collect sex-disaggregated data: it won’t do to treat women as a “confounding factor”. You need to collect data on women as well as men, and analyse it separately.

2) Recognise that diversity is an integral part of your company. There are things you can know through data and there are things you can only know through experience: having diverse voices and listening to them helps you notice what it hadn’t occurred to you to think of.

3) Be More Fred. Fred — who’s commemorated on the Millicent Fawcett Statue — was a postal worker who, during the suffragettes’ struggle, was jailed several times for “failing to control his wife”. He’s a pioneer of allyship.

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Session 2 Eric Barker - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – pic James Clarke

“It’s not what you know: it’s who you know.” “Winners never quit; quitters never win.” These and other maxims are bandied around in the business world as if they were sacred and self-evident truths. But Eric Barker — during a transition from 10 years as a Hollywood screenwriter to an MBA — set out to find out whether they actually hold water. The result was a successful blog that turned into his new book Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.

In conversation with Michael Blastland, Eric talked about how he went in systematic search of the answers to these questions because “I didn’t trust myself not to be biased”. He quoted William Gibson’s saying that “the future is here — it just isn’t evenly distributed yet”: the answers were out there in “dusty academic journals, or studies nobody reads”. He set about bringing them out to a wider public.

Lots of the conventional wisdom is semi-wrong, Eric said, because it proliferates as memes. If a culture gets its conventional wisdom wrong, it dies out: “society’s maxims work for society… but will they work for each individual?” The canny individual — with his or her skills and biases — is the thing to think about. Know thyself. And if thou knoweth not thyself, said Eric, phone a friend. Your peers will have a much clearer view of what you’re good at than you do. We are storytelling creatures (“stories are the operating system of the human brain”); and many of those stories are misleading.

That “mostly” in his title is vital. Where most business books, as he said, say “Here’s the one thing you need”, Eric sought to find the evidence on both sides. Often that evidence is almost written out of the culture. You never get a mother saying “do badly in school”. Everyone enjoins you to “be a people person”. Yet as Eric discovered, valedictorians “usually do very well but they don’t usually lead or change the world”: the average Grade Point Average for US millionaires is a very unimpressive 2.9 out of four. And there are “lots of benefits that we don’t hear about in introversion”; indeed, “If I’m a very disagreeable person, that’s usually discouraged — but it could make me a very good litigator”.

Eric also dropped in some thought-provoking nuggets. He suggests that we spend too much time praising children for being good at things and not enough for working hard at them. He notes that — perhaps as a result of discrimination — successful women on average have more mentors than their male counterparts. And if it’s not true that nice guys finish last, it is true that nice guys can cover their asses when dealing with untrustworthy counterparts by what Eric calls “extending the shadow of the future”: build three or four steps into a contract so that at each stage the other person will know that dishonourable behaviour will have consequences.

Overall, context — what Eric calls “alignment” — is the key. A classic example is leadership. There are two entirely incompatible schools of thought and research about leadership: one holds that leaders are critical to the success of business; another that a well-functioning business does its thing more or less by itself and leaders are just figureheads who hoover up the credit.

Eric found a researcher who married these two incompatible ideas by looking at different types of leader: the “filtered leader”, who rises through the ranks of an organisation, will tend to reproduce its values and make more or less no difference; the “unfiltered leader” — a disruptor brought in from outside — will bring big changes. “Change is often bad — but in a dying industry or if the company is failing, an unfiltered leader is the roll of the dice you need. It might not work — but what you were doing definitely doesn’t work.”

So, Michael wondered: does that mean America was in need of a roll of the dice?

“Hoo!” said Eric. “I knew that was coming!”

Three key takeaways:

1) There’s no single way of being successful. The key is to align your propensities with the right working environment.

2) Top of the class at school doesn’t mean top of the class in life: “Life rewards being a specialist. Schools reward being a generalist. There are no entrepreneurs in high school.”

3) Challenge what seems to be accepted wisdom: “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.”

The Perils of Perception

Session 1 Bobby Duffy - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – Pic James Clarke

Bobby Duffy — professor of public policy at KCL, former MD of Public Affairs at IPSOS/Mori and author of The Perils of Perception — kicked off this year’s OffGrid Sessions by asking a peculiar question: “Is the Great Wall of China Visible From Space?” About a third of the audience, it turns out, thought it was — even though, as Prof Duffy pointed out, the wall is only nine meters wide and roughly the same colour as the surrounding terrain.

Why do we think that? Because we’ve heard it a lot (“illusory truth bias” means that the more often you hear a lie, the more likely you are to believe it), because we’re thinking quickly rather than reasoning it out, because we tend to muddle scales (the wall is huge — but it’s long, not wide) — and because it’s a cool fact and we kinda want it to be true.

Welcome to the territory of cognitive biases — the territory of Prof Duffy’s book. He set out his stall: “We’re often incredibly wrong.” Just how wrong, and about what, is the question that Prof Duffy and his colleagues sought to answer in a huge study of 100,000 people in 40 countries. The subjects were asked to make guesses about the reality of a wide range of subjects from immigration and violent crime to sex — and their guesses were compared with reality to expose huge biases and errors.

What the study shows is useful, he said, not because it tells us we’re wrong — but because it helps us to discover why we’re wrong. And in discovering why we’re wrong, we’ll get a better idea of what we can do about it.

Take the birth rate among teenage girls. The real figure is about 1.4 per cent in the UK, 2 per cent I the US and 6 per cent in Argentina; but people in those countries, on average, guessed 19 per cent, 24 per cent and 37 per cent respectively.

This isn’t a simple error of arithmetic: we’re drawn to vivid emotional stories (so the media covers these outliers) and we suffer from “emotional innumeracy”: we overestimate things we’re worried about just as much as we worry about things we overestimate. (Which means our overestimations are a good guide to what worries us.) Also, baked deep into our psyches by evolution is a tendency to give more attention to negative news and ignore slow improvements — useful when avoiding sabretooth tigers; less so when estimating social change.

Stats on murder rates (most respondents thought they’d gone up over the last two decades; in fact they’re 29 per cent down) bear this out too — as well as showing how what psychologists call “rosy retrospection” comes into play. We edit our ideas of the past to make it seem more positive.

Other examples showed how “directionally motivated reasoning” causes us to bend the facts to fit our identities rather than vice versa. Democrats and Republicans in the US come out with drastically different estimates of the prevalence of guns in deaths through violence in the US; and two thirds of Leave voters believe the notorious £350 million claim while less than half of Remainers do.

And we generalise, wrongly, from our own experience. An online survey asked Indians what percentage of their countrymen had Facebook accounts. They guessed 67 per cent; the real figure is 18 per cent. The poll was conducted online: so these wired Indians assumed what was true of them would be true of their compatriots.

The most poignant finding was, as so often, about sex. Everyone, it seems, thinks 18–29-year-olds are having more sex than they are. The real figure is 4–5 times a month; the average guess was 17 times a month. But young men estimated that young women were having sex 32 times a month. Just not, obviously, with them.

Prof Duffy ended with words of hope, though. This is not a new crisis — we were just as wrong about everything in the 1940s. On the whole, our negativity bias means that things are mostly not as bad as we think. And by the application of conscious effort, we can learn to resist our own “fast thinking” biases — and find ways of using our natural predispositions to resist disinformation effectively.

Three key takeaways:

1) Cognitive biases are powerful, but they aren’t the whole story.

2) You can push back against your biases: avoid thinking you’re normal; avoid having your attention drawn by the extremes; and actively work to unfilter your world.

3) Facts aren’t useless. Facts and storytelling are not opposites: you can use them together to cut through the disinformation.

Plugging Into OffGrid

OffGrid Sessions - 2019

by Sam Leith @ OffGrid Sessions – Pic James Clarke


It’s a paradox of the name that OffGrid is where you go to recharge, turn on, make connections and freshen up your tired old thinking circuits with a jolt of intellectual electricity. This year’s sessions gather a range of the most exciting thinkers and speakers working now to address perhaps the most pressing issue of the age, and one that crosses over the worlds of politics, science, business and communications.

Truth and reality: how do we know what we know? How can we trust what other people tell us? How can we trust what we tell ourselves? How does the world *really* work?

We live in a world of unreliable information and unexamined assumptions. We run on rails. And you’re going to be listening to speakers who’ll give you a toolkit to assess that information and challenge those assumptions. You’ll learn how to jump those rails.

Take gender: Caroline Criado-Perez will be here to help us see the world through fresh eyes, showing how the world is built for men in ways so pervasive they have become almost invisible. Or Bobby Duffy and Michael Blastland, who brilliantly unpick the very foundation of our assumptions about the world and show us how much that we think we know is wrong — and how we move forward from there.

Or the entrepreneur Alex DePledge, who’s going to tell us how many of the accepted wisdoms about how businesses work are wrong — and how smart leaders can use that to their advantage. Or Ed Warner on the hidden forces that really power the vast industry of sport. Or Eric Barker, a dazzlingly original social scientist who’s helping rewrite the rules on how we cooperate and compete and what that means for the shape of our markets and our societies. Or Nick O’Shea, using his personal experience as an economist-turned-brewing entrepreneur to raise a glass to the effervescent potential of untapped talent in the workforce. And in an age of volatility, Jaideep Prabhu shows us how businesses can move fast, travel light, and do more with less.

We’ve got the war photographer Paul Conroy and documentarian Catrin Nye bringing news from the sharp end — and affirming the vital importance of old-fashioned reportage in a world of fake news… and how sometimes, even if we can know the truth, we don’t want to. Artists Alison S M Kobayashi and Wilfrid Wood are here to sidestep the data and show the different truths that a creative eye can see. And Rachel Parris is here to affirm that amid all the chaos there’s another way of looking at the world: one that can use unexpected connections in the service of that most valuable thing, a laugh.

OffGrid Sessions assembles all these perspectives to give you new ways of seeing, new ways of thinking, and new ways of operating in the world. We hope you enjoy plugging in to it.