Monday, November 1, 2010

Seconds too late for the Pacific...

Execupundit points us to Warren Zevon's riotous party piece, "Werewolves of London", and to the trailer for Tim Burton's marvellous "Legend of Sleepy Hollow".

Shake them together vigorously and you get the Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the Global Village, "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner". Tragically relevant after 35 years.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Andrew's Owed

A bard, however hard he tries
Grows flabby without exercise
But flabbier by far the hacks
Who spout before they've checked the facts
Because you've hurt my feelings I'll
Regurgitate a little bile

I do not like you, Mr Marr
And jaunty step on Sunday morning
To work: to give a good stiff fawning
To some slimy politician
Or celebrity beautician
They flock to you from Near and Far
I do not like you Mr Marr

I'm sorry, but your face is not
A pretty thing, you jug-eared Scot
Watery of eye and weak of chin
Thin hair scraped over pasty skin
Hunched forward with a whining leer
You simper in some starlet's ear
The girls like their reporters hot
I'm sorry, but your face is not

You preen before your flock to see
This weekend's mediocracy
And pimp their policy or book
Then let them wriggle off the hook
Or slither off to Hay on Wye*
Who dare to publish what they think 
In plebian dubdubdub, not ink

And what's a "Cauliflower Nose"?
We've never heard of one of those
I take an interest because 
I rather like my chiselled schnozz
It's clear that, after many years
Of taunts, you wouldn't mention ears
You seemed so nice, but all the while
Your soul was steeped in raging bile

And these crass comments that you rue
Are simply piping up "me too!"
It's only human, joining teams 
Around some new (or ancient) memes
Like laying down your daily siller
For Daily Mail or Daily Mirror
Or writing - give the world a laugh - 
A letter to the Telegraph

And did you read, before debunk
ing ruthlessly, young Penny Trunk?
CO and Michael Wade soar free
Or bask in Eclecticity 
So back to blighty's rain-swept shores
My cozy corner of a world
That's multiplied a million fold

You jeer at pimpled youth with scurf
Have you not heard? The silver surf
You jeer at journals published new
We cannot all be Montesquieu
A cruel hist'ry will judge whether
Books self-published in limp leather
Bindings were a worse offence
Than blogging one's experience

No, what gets up your rosy neb
Is journalism on the web
For now the demos, in full cry
Tears down the lazy alibi:
"No matter what you said or heard
The facts are these, the printed word"
Yes, what you hate, you jaded hack
Is, now your victims answer back.

*All right then, Cheltenham if you must
Some other Festival of Dust

** The Guardian made me opine
The Telegraph, for once, is fine

***If you've just time for one I'd rate
Bright shards of wisdom: Nicholas Bate

Friday, October 15, 2010

Here comes the judge

The Angel of Final Judgement
Execupundit reminds us that "nonjudgementalism" can be a lily-livered excuse to evade our responsibility to think. 

The same is true of judgementalism. 

Unlike judgement, which is a characteristic virtue, both "isms" are frames governing how we behave when we don't have enough information.

But how much information do we really need? That's a matter of judgement.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Let them eat poo

What's going on here?

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales (HRH) has said something sensible, interesting and important. A large number of intelligent, good-hearted people have commented. (I got this from the amazing Eclecticity, who was sharp enough to spot that this was probably not a full or balanced report, but couldn't resist the joke headlines.) Two questions occur:

  1. Why were 98% of these comments so crass? (I'm not sure I've ever used that word in my life. Is it right? crass Yep.)
  2. What lessons can we draw for our own life and work?

Why would sensible people make stupid comments? 
Not knowing the individuals, I can only guess:

There is a ready-made story that superficially fits.

The story of the ruler who is out of touch with reality is as old as Cnut (the 10th century anagram who ruled an empire including Denmark and England but was unable to command the tide to stay out). HRH is a natural fit here. Like a US Supreme Court judge, he is accountable to no-one and nothing except his family and conscience. He has always spoken the truth as he sees it, knowing full well that the press will mock him. In an age of spin and sound-bite, he is a magnificent anachronism. (This does not make him irrelevant. The Prince's Trust is a practical counterblast to populist demands for zero tolerance.) 

I am looking in the wrong place
There is something about the Internet which draws a disproportionate number of stupid people. 
I don't believe this. The same people often demonstrate great wisdom in some posts and apparent ignorance in others.

I am looking in the wrong place
The comments on a popular blog are not supposed to be about scholarly analysis. They are a place to show your allegiance to the tribe. Clear, hard hitting professions of faith are the order of the day. And trolling raids on rival tribes, of course.
I am wrong
Clearly ridiculous. 

Lack of respect
Respect is neither admiration, which must be earned, nor deference, which is out of fashion. It is simply thinking of another human being as a person like you (or like the person you aspire to be). Not a thing. Not a threat. Not a victim. Not a problem. 
Here, people are not treating HRH with respect. That is fair enough: he's a public figure. But it does mean that they don't even attempt to work out what he was saying. Worse, though, they aren't treating the slum dwellers with respect. So they are not open to the possibility that they might be leading meaningful lives and have wisdom we could use. This is plain stupid.
Fluffy? Not at all. Using ourselves as models may be misleading, but usually it gives us the best chance of understanding. Without respect we can only build grotesque caricatures. And before you know it, there are heads on spikes. 
This story came from the Telegraph, a British paper. HRH's views are well known and widely pilloried, but it is possible that a humorous headline could have drawn attention to a serious article. Humour does not always travel well.
What can we learn?

Decide: tribal or thoughtful.
If tribal, disengage your nagging internal critic and get swept away on a wave of joyful glee or righteous fury. Let your love, or hate, flow like a mountain stream. THEN edit. If you must. 
If you plan to lead a tribe, of course, you need to be both passionate AND thoughtful. Tricky. Which is why we can't all lead. 
If thoughtful, I try to answer the question: "what would persuade me to say that?". This at least assumes some doubt and gives the other person its benefit. 
It doesn't always work, though: I'm only human. Which is rather the point.
Any other ideas?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Key questions of Natural Philosophy

"Hello Mr Magpie, how's the wife?" Does this reset the magpie accumulator? Must my fear of sorrow kill any hope of joy, a girl, a boy, silver, gold or a secret?

Sprog5 thinks it does. He still believes that the world is both understandable and fair. Touching, really.

But perhaps he's right.

A Middle East question

Read on...

I have been asked at short notice to say a few words to our Middle East team about the system changes we have in store for them. Note to self:

When asked to address the front line, the corporate staffer should always remember the Two Great Lies:

  1. Hello, I'm from Head Office: I'm here to help. And
  2. Pleased to meet you.

However, we soldier on...

What do you want to achieve?
Your host wants his people to get:

  1. a morale building feeling that things really are getting better
  2. a lively and entertaining 30 minutes to keep up the energy and momentum of a day of training and updates

You want to:

  1. support your host
  2. raise your profile in this region
  3. get people interested in the social networking arena
  4. give people information they might actually find useful in their day to day work

What can you say?
You can think of the planned changes under three headings:

  1. Things we are doing to you
  2. Things we are doing for you and
  3. Things you can do for yourselves. 

Things we are doing to you
We inherited a mess and it needs to be cleaned up. Things will get worse before they get better. The systems you are comfortable with are not competitive. One day, you'll look back and thank us. But the next six months will be a nightmare.

All the honest staffer can do is give an honest appraisal of the need and a best estimate of the impact on the front line. And press gang the people he needs.

Get through this openly,honestly and quickly. They will remember you were straight with them.

Things we are doing for you
This is better. The pain you went through last year is paying off. The requests you have been putting in for three years are finally getting priority. The latest reorganisation gives you direct say on the Executive Committee.

Share the good news,but remember that the audience will be sceptical. Don't over sell. Remember what you have told them and check that it actually happens. If it doesn't, be the one to break the news.

Things you can do for yourselves
This is where you find the magic. Make sure you have time to show them the stuff they can do now to ...

In the good old days this meant:

  1. Use simple Access tables instead of Excel Frankensheets (which are impossible to document and ALWAYS contain errors).
  2. If you must use spreadsheets, don't use macros. With clear spreadsheets you will get reputation for clear thought.
  3. Share your key reports. Build a library with your peers around the world. Build a reputation.
  4. Use sharepoint for more than just file storage.
  5. Never mail a file: it wastes storage and people lose track of versions. Send a link to the version tracked master. 

Much of this still applies. But the new frontier is the social network. Be sure to share the sort of problems this can solve:

  1. Want tips and tricks to use our tools better? Go to Lori's blog.
  2. Want to share your own knowledge and insights? Write your own blog.
  3. Worried you might waste time on the Social Net? Track where you are spending your time with ManicTime.
  4. Do your virtual worldwide teams seem impersonal? Chat asynchronously with our microblogging tool.

Some thoughts on presentation
Also remember that
RT @edyong209 via @MuckRack Every time someone puts up a slide with bullet points and no visual info, a kitten jumps onto a spike.
Use big pictures and handouts.(where can I get a picture of a kitten falling on a spike? That would be a strong attention grabber: "let's begin with the wisdom of the social network...")

Use the virtual room tools for three of four surveys during the call to take the temperature of the audience? Take written questions. Check whether they are all sitting in one conference room or apart.

Have fun!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A lesson from history

Some memories are so painful that they overwhelm rational thought. Some symbols are so powerful that the slightest glimpse overrides all logic. So when Newt Gingrich likened the threat from Muslim extremist terrorism to the threat from Nazi Germany, all we saw was "Muslims = Nazis". He knows people and he knows symbols: he must have known this.

Take a deep breath, hold your nose and think for a moment about the Nazis. How did people like us find themselves murdering millions of their fellow men?

One answer is that the premise is false: they weren't like us, they were clearly monsters. After all, they murdered millions and we don't: QED. This seems too easy to me: both unlikely and unhelpful.

But if they were like us, what went wrong? We need to know, if we are to be sure that we won't wake up one morning and realise that we are guarding another death camp. (It is too much to hope, after Yugoslavia and Rwanda, that this won't happen again to someone else.)

There were a number of issues: a powerful grievance; a truly desperate economic situation; a charismatic saviour figure; an effective organisation. But there was one overriding factor that made everything else possible. Something that has been with us since before we came down from the trees. Christ aimed his most devastating parable at it.

It is this: our ability to conveniently forget that people outside our group are truly human.

This is what we need to watch for. All the time. So when Gingrich calls "Nazi" on Muslims, meaning that they are monsters rather than people, he is making the same mistake that the Germans did in the 1930s. And if I call him and his followers evil, then so am I.

So what am I to call them? It seems to me that the best and safest assumptions to make about other people are:
  • they are intelligent
  • they are moral. I would recognise their overall principles as good, though I may have different priorities
  • if their actions appear malign, there is something I don't understand
And my response must be based on principles:
  • even actions which are moral in "their" frame of reference can damage me, 
  • ends and means cannot be separated: if I wrong people, even in self defence, this will make the core problem worse
  • Sometimes we have to take our lumps.

Had this on my mind

Not sure why: maybe I'm getting maudlin in my senescence.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A grudge worth bearing?

I had no friends or relatives in the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon or flights 11, 77, 93 or 175. But I have been affected.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee...
Which is John Donne's way of saying that the disaster nine years ago was not an attack on America or even on the West. It was an attack on mankind.

Cultural Offering makes and defends the simple and powerful statement that this is a grudge worth holding.

Rudyard Kipling takes a dim view of grudges: "being hated, not give way to hating" is his advice to his son. This is not just virtuous and Christian: it is intensely practical. Enmity and fear are like entropy: they grow naturally. The longer we allow ourselves to hate our neighbour, the dearer the final reckoning.

So somewhere we must find the strength to take our lumps and carry on building a better world as best we can.

While we celebrate the lives of the victims and grieve that they were cut short.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Oh dear...

Emily amused by one of those trendy American productivity gurus
Beloved Emily reminds me that I only have the pleasure of her company until Sunday, when she heads back off to start teacher training. So it's OK for me to neglect my blog and show her the proof of Heron's Theorem. This is a very fine piece of Hairy Algebra which delivers the Happy Ending just at the very last minute. It's like a Rubik's Cube or a P G Wodehouse story: where you are hopelessly lost in an impenetrable plot problem until you turn the last couple of pages / make the final couple of twists and suddenly all is well.

Sometimes life's like that.

I don't remember seeing this at school: I got the proof from khanacademy. And I don't remember hearing about khanacademy itself before seeing a tweet from Steve Clayton (wonderful stuff, but not much of a disguise) a few days ago. The entire US Maths school syllabus (and much more) delivered in ten minute YouTube videos. All done by one man with the aid of an electronic blackboard. How does he maintain his work rate?

I only need one excuse a day, of course, to maintain my current level of production indefinitely.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Old Masters: how well they understood

The Old Sailor
by A.A. Milne

There was once an old sailor my grandfather knew 
Who had so many things which he wanted to do 
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin, 
He couldn't because of the state he was in. 

He was shipwrecked, and lived on a island for weeks, 
And he wanted a hat, and he wanted some breeks; 
And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hooks 
For the turtles and things which you read of in books. 

And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing
Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;
And he thought that to talk to he'd look for, and keep
(If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.

Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut
With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut
(With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),
And a very strong lock to keep savages out.

He began on the fish-hooks, and when he'd begun 
He decided he couldn't because of the sun. 
So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that 
Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat. 

He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree, 
When he thought, "I'm as hot as a body can be, 
And I've nothing to take for my terrible thirst; 
So I'll look for a spring, and I'll look for it first." 
Then he thought as he started, "Oh, dear and oh, dear!
I'll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!"
So he made in his note-book a couple of notes:
"I must first find some chickens" and "No, I mean goats."

He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)
When he thought, "But I must have boat for escape.
But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;
So I'd better sit down and make needles instead."

He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,
That, if this was an island where savages lurked,
Sitting safe in his hut he'd have nothing to fear,
Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!

So he thought of his hut ... and he thought of his boat, 
And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat, 
And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst) ... 
But he never could think which he ought to do first. 

And so in the end he did nothing at all, 
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl. 
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved - 
He did nothing but basking until he was saved!

Well, it worked for him. But who will save ME?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

And now for something completely different...

Productivity junkies might like to take a look at Erik Lorraine's stylish Sources. Erik has devised a rather beautiful personal Kanban system.

He shows it off, with some genuine insights, in a site which is gloriously free of concessions to his users. His technical choices seem designed to frighten off the unwary, unworthy passer by. He revels in the process of accessing his site before giving away what you might find there.

Wonderful, wonderful stuff for the true seeker after enlightenment.

And a lesson in valuing differences.

Falling off

Having written nothing here for two months, it is not surprising that the level of interest has fallen off. I am amazed to find that the usual suspects (I suspect) are still popping in from time to time on the off-chance that I may have roused from my torpor and made some witty and insightful contribution. As time has gone on, that has become less and less likely for two reasons:

  1. I'm embarrassed. "Come in and get your beating, sonny. But first, let's hear your sad excuse for being an hour late for school." "(sniffle) I don't have one, sir. Even though I've been sitting here trying and trying to think of one for fifty-five minutes."
  2. As I stop thinking of myself as a blogger, I stop noticing things to discuss. I become less interesting and life becomes duller.
Time to get back on.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

As key exams approach

He tells me he is studying diligently. His room, he avers, is an oasis of academic contemplation.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Enthusiasm is a horrid thing, sir

Dear David,

Thank you so much for the exercise ball you gave me for Christmas. I use it every day, and I find it makes a big difference. As you may find this a bit hard to believe when we meet at Toby and Abi's big do next month, here's a picture of our lounge on a typical day, with the exercise ball ready for action.

Looking forward to seeing you again after too long,

Your loving brother,


Saturday, May 29, 2010


I have finally taken CO's hint and got into As usual, I begin with a burst of wild and unsustainable enthusiasm which will no doubt tone down in the next few days. Anyhow, blip gives you a tweet for pithy and amusing comment. How can I describe Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time"? I was thinking along the lines of, "A marvellously crafted and sustained metaphor from the iPhone of chansonniers".

I'm not sure I'll go with that: fans of the iPhone would get it immediately, but others would need the explanation. And there is prejudice.

Before I go on, I should say that I have the enthusiasm (shudder) of a recent convert. My first Apple device was a basic iPod Touch that I got for Chrismas 2009. I had been using PDAs and smartphones running decreasingly crippled Windows since the Compaq Aero. Anyway, I have found religion. I am, it is alleged, a Jobs Fan Boi. This is not good. You Have Been Warned.

So, anyway, here's the explanation:

The iPhone is a marker for Design.

This is a slippery concept to define, though I think most of us know it when we see it. A team that has mastered Design:

  • understands the essence of the product and
  • ruthlessly eliminates anything which does not fit that essence, however useful or profitable it may appear

Cohen is a chansonnier in the classic tradition. His songs are melodic, intelligent and passionate, and delivered with more passion than musical purity. He has a weakness for the rambling dirge, but this one is particularly neat. He establishes his metaphor, links it to his underlying truth and, in a couple of tight verses, delivers his insights. Then he closes off perfectly.

Clearly, he has spent some time honing away lyrics which almost but didn't quite fit. Time well spent.

Having got that off my chest, here is a gobbet of heresy.

Design is not necessarily Good

It's a Trade-off. If you choose Design, you are sacrificing all of the things you could have been adding when you were ruthlessly eliminating. (As Blaise Pascal wrote in 1657, "I only made this longer because I don't have the time to make it shorter".) And you may need other compromises: restricting the number of simultaneous programs to ensure adequate performance, for example. Some would prefer to be able to run lots of programs, even if their device does occasionally grind to a halt.

Others want to know that their device will work consistently when they need it. Something my first "smart" phone conspicuously failed to do.

While you hone your perfect product, you can lose momentum.

It's the difference between

  • functionality vs function
  • what you do vs how you do it
  • what you can do vs what you are
  • Google vs Apple

Choices, choices.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

What did you do today, dear?


Has the day blended into an unwholesome mush? What actually DID I spend my time on today? Well, since you ask:

3h4m7s     (30.2%) How to approach archiving of dead 
                             ways of collaborating 
                             remotely on an affinity diagram.
1h40m37s (16.5%) Preparing, calling and documenting a 
                             call my mentor. Nice feedback from 
                             someone I rate highly. 
1h40m32s (16.5%) An unexpected call from a colleague 
                             asking for advice on how to get people
                             working on his project
1h17m9s   (12.6%) Mail. (150 mails. Including responding 
                             to mails, which probably took a good 
                             30 minutes)
40m35s     (6.7%)   Setting up my Vodafone account on 
                             their site and topping up sprog 5's 
                             phone. The wrong phone, as it 
                             transpired. Painful, two calls to 
                             support teams. Who were 
31m40s     (5.1%)  Call our IT architect and document the 
                             application strategy in a key country. 
                             A specific goal for the year!!
22m57s     (3.7%)  Work on the costings for a key 
                             proposal for next year. This was 
                             supposed to be the main focus of my 
                             day. But data was not forthcoming. Ho 
16m50s     (2.7%)  Browsing. Pretty disciplined! (Excludes 
                             the 1h45m49s I footled away on 
                             Twitter and Blip last night. Dear God! 
                             Emily was, as ever, quite right)
13m35s     (2.2%)  Setting up and learning ManicTime. A 
                             sound investment, as it transpired.
13m1s       (2.1%)  Fluid input/output breaks

So, overall, not a bad day at work, with a good mix of completions (application strategy), investment (the archiving and research into collaboration) and support for the team. A purist might say that I should have taken more breaks. Sorry, Nicholas: mea culpa. Sorry again. On the other hand, a change is as good as a rest and tinkering with collaboration tools is as close to playtime as it gets, so not an exhausting day. Shockingly off plan, though. But look what the Group Norm had to say about the power of not forcing things. (Stick with it). He may be right.

The beloved had an evening off: I got home to posh fischcakes and noodles which I took in front of last week's first episode of The Prisoner (remake). Which was as good as expected (note to self: set the recorder tonight). And fits the times. Then out with the dog for half an hour for exercise and inspiration. Came back buzzing with ideas for blog. But a little tired, so tuned in to and a friendly forum. 2 hours later I'm exhausted and haven't done anything worthwhile. ManicTime has the evidence (see above). Never Again!!

Though one of my blips had it right, if only I'd been listening to my screaming subconscious. 

Have I mentioned ManicTime? Oh yes, I see I have. repeatedly. I came across it on Mark Forster's blog as a comment from Romano to a post about Qlockwork (another excellent, but expensive, activity tracker). Who'd have thought a timesheet could be such a sensual delight? Or that a simple snap to feature could be exploited so cleanly and with such subtlety? I find myself wanting to stroke it, the same way I like to fondle my Moleskine and my iPod touch in it's black rubber gear. Possibly a touch TMI here? A good thing this is my private journal.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Good Luck, Penelope

Penelope Trunk, ace bloggerette, ties the knot today after what feels like a lifetime of ups and downs with her Farmer. Along with about half a million other people, I wish them both a lifetime of growth and happiness.

La Trunk is an enchanting writer, and has become a part of my routine like my favourite slippers (before the dog ate them) or evenings at the fencing club (before kids revision schedules got in the way). I seem to be running short of cozy routines. Happily, her blog is still there (twice this week). So I do feel a tiny thrill of linkage to this event, thousands of miles away among people I will never meet. Especially as she arranged it for my birthday.

I may not be the first to notice that you can slip into someone's head with different levels of subtlety.

1. Use my name for a straightforward, open approach

If you use my name in conversation or writing, you switch me into "greeting" mode. It's like knocking on the front door: I'll come to meet you courteously, ready to think about what you are offering me. Usually, this is what you want.

2. Grab my attention with a special date

Then there is the special date. For most of us, the most special date is our birthday. Seeing this date triggers unreliable memories of gifts, meals, parties, excitement, happiness and love.At least, it does for me. Even if the actual events may sometimes have been objectively disappointing, I remember them as they should have been. This hoard of memory sits surprisingly deep. It's as though the inner lizard is actually a sleeping dragon and this is his treasure. He is very attached to his hoard, and any reminder will wake him up and get him interested.

In other words, it's a shortcut to my happy place.

3. Do something clever with my name

On a memorable visit to the Indigo specialist printing company in Israel, I got back to my hotel room after the first day to find a calendar pushed under the door. On each page was a landscape photo with my name spelled out in some way. (The first was an Alpine scene where the skiers spelt "WILL". And so on.) This slipped straight through the open back door into the kitchen and poured itself a cup of coffee, as it were. Apart from being amazed at the technology (there were eighty people on the visit, and we each got our own personalised calendar), and though my thinking mind knew that this was no more than a mailmerge, I did feel rather special.

They had taken the step beyond routine good manners. Like the person you meet at a party who looks into your eyes and repeats your name. Hint: as people expect less courtesy, the bar is getting lower. These habits are easy to practice and are available to all.

4. Blow me away with a wordless image

Finally, you can surprise me with an image. Done well, this is very, very powerful. Possibly slight overkill to encourage people to pay their TV licences, but this (*) is exactly the response I expect when news of my blog leaks out beyond the discerning few. (Stick with it.)

(*) I am grateful to Jon Moon for this link. I've mentioned him once before. He won't help you organise your life. He won't inspire you to brilliance. He won't lead you safely through the maze of social media marketing. He  will simply show you how to design your documents for clarity and impact. You can find him here, with lots of fun stuff. He sent his fans this DIY Hero link.

He has done a lovely version of the Downfall subtitles, "Hitler Hates the Sales Presentation". What is it about these particular four minutes that make it such a great spotlight for all the stupidities of modern life?

(Today is shaping shaped up rather well, since you ask, with blogging first thing, a beautiful bright morning which will probably draw drew me out of my pit before I finished and good wishes from family and friends.Then rather a good adaptation of Robert Harris's The Ghost, birthday tea and a couple of games of Carcassonne with sprog 5 - honours even. Rounded off with a little quiet blogging and pigging out on Whittards plain chocolate orange strips.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Written in haste, written in awe

of Philip Pullman, on censorship and free speech. This just shows the power of an intelligent and articulate writer stating his credo. It's good enough to eat. In fact, good enough to requote here. Pullman was taken to task for the offensive title of a recent work. This is his reply:
"It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That's all I have to say on that subject." 
 At which point, all right thinking webizens are on their feet, clapping and cheering.

Such precisely controlled and focused passion in an off the cuff comment: marvellous. And, most importantly of all, stopping as exactly the right place. An example to us all: every paragraph should carry exactly one payload.

Sorry, notional readers: I have some way to go, I fear.

But ...

You don't have to read a book for it to challenge your belief: just knowing it exists is enough. (In fact authors frequently whine that their critics should have read their work before complaining.) And you cannot protect yourself from finding out that it exists. From that point on, Pullman is simultaneously and falsely humble and arrogant.

On the one hand, he is offering the remedy of an argument. Well thanks, but no thanks. Defending myself against someone of his calibre is not really a starter. This is like a tenth dan Wing Chun master saying, "I have the right to try and mug you and you have the right to defend yourself". His answer proves it. When challenged by an ordinary mortal, he nukes them with his credo and moves on.

The implication is that you don't suffer real damage if your beliefs are weakened: that your credo is worth less than your credit card. But many inarticulate people rely on a simple faith to guide them through life. Chip away at that and they lose direction and momentum. This is real harm: to the good they can do in the world and to the living they can make for their families.

On the other hand, he assumes a God given (oops, possibly not!) right to tell us what to believe.

This is beginning to sound like an argument for censorship. It isn't.

Free speech and open argument do real damage, but in the end they are the safest way. People like Pullman are our best hope. What they write is important, can do good and can hurt people. So they need to take responsibility. "Well, no-one needs to read me so I can write whatever I please" is an arrogant cop-out.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Time's up

As promised, I have a reply for Michael Wade after a couple of weeks' consideration. Unfortunately, it's too long to post as a comment (blogger tells me the limit is 4k characters). So I'm posting here. It expands a little on the raw list I posted at the time.


Thank you for your simple and thought provoking suggestion. As I indicated in my initial response, it has always been quite possible to have a boilerplate reply that (re)sets expectations about the timing of your considered answer.

However, once you have set those expectations, it is vital that you meet them. In that spirit, here are a few thoughts on the tyranny of the instant response culture.

What's the problem here?

It has always been possible to read and respond instantly. In the old days, with two posts a day, it was possible to send a letter, get a response and send your agreement in the same day. The gurus advise us to work our mail in batch, once or twice a day. So what's changed?

Well, of course many of us don't take the gurus too seriously. We keep the incoming mail warning set. So when we are struggling with a piece of serious work and in danger of achieving something, we are offered the relief of a stream of new things to distract us. After all, a change is as good as a rest.

And then we can respond, filling mailboxes around the world with a stream of witty banter. Our mailboxes rapidly fill up with soft focus gossip. Mail has more of the characteristics of a phone call. It is common to see a "conversation" (bit of a Freudian slip there, Bill) with twenty or thirty responses, in the course of a day. (Which could have been managed in ten minutes with a phone call and a single mail to confirm understanding). There is the additional feature that it gets forwarded. So you don't know who you are talking to.

Introducing your inner lizard

Seth Godin has recently introduced into his blog the theme of The Lizard. This is more than a metaphor. The R-complex is the primitive area of the brain which is the first (historically and biologically) to develop. It sits between the body and the thinking brain and acts as gatekeeper between thought and action. It is very, very stupid. In my simple model (actually, I got this from Mark Forster. This is the subject of the first chapter of his book on task management, Do It Tomorrow. This chapter is freely available.), the lizard brain is binary. To any stimulus, it's response is either
- "Nice: I'll 'ave that!!" GRAB or
- "Oo-er: scary!!" FLEE/HIDE

Both are well illustrated in Butoy and Gabriel's seminal work on reptile behaviour.

Your lizard loves email and the internet

The point here is that a new mail offers our inner lizards respite from toil and the possibility of something new and fun. So OF COURSE it will want to investigate. The dubdubdub (which I understand to be street argot for the "www" or "worldwide web". See how this poor backward Englishman is trying to accommodate any trendy, groovy and with-it Colonials who might chance to read this) is an infinite pinball machine for our lizards to scamper around in, bouncing happily from bumper to bumper.

On the face of it, this appears to bode ill for intelligent discourse. But we should admit the possibility that this sort of reactive behaviour is a flocking strategy for a whole generation. This leads to a sort of hive mind that can do some things efficiently and intelligently.

OK. Possibility admitted. That way leads to fashion (please read "fashion" in a tone of dretful scorn) and heads on spikes. Bah!

This too shall pass

Back to mail for a moment. Gartner predicted a couple of years ago that business would move to instant messaging as its main form of communication. I am seeing that now. It is hard for people to complain about your lack of responsivenes to a mail if you are chatting to them and a couple of other teams in a chat room. This frees up mail to record the outcomes or to request responses which CAN wait. As we begin to get used to this, I do believe that the mail madness will pass.

Though we still need to work out how we will deal with the constant chatter.

If you have any further concerns or questions on this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Yours sincerely,


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Deadlier than the mail?

Ace blogger Michael Wade at Execupundit riffs on the tyranny of email here. So naturally, I am considering my response at the usual leisurely pace. A few thoughts to start me off:

  1. email is more like a phone call than a letter
  2. an instant response need not be considered
  3. you will stand out if you do not respond instantly
  4. your inner lizard loves to respond instantly
  5. with the internet society, your inner lizard is having a really good time at the moment
  6. a lot of lizards reacting to one another form a flock
  7. when the lizards are the ones that sit between our brain and the rest of our nervous system, we call it a mob
  8. there are good aspects to the mob
  9. but sooner or later, we always get back to heads on spikes

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

An open and shut case

"And"? Where are you when we need you, Werner?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Instant Class

This is not a clever comparison of e-mail with first class post, but a riff  kicking off gently from our national, baked in obsession: class. And classiness. Deep down, we (the middle classes) all want 25% more than we've got.

Why not slap a little instant class to your business card (1) or mail signature with a Latin(ish) motto?

Display a modest whimsy with the proud motto of the Edinburgh University Fencing Club (c1973): Plus fortuna quam judicio!

Bored with the wholesome but over used Carpe diem? Try Carpe cakem! on for size. (Thanks, Toby!)

Or the cheerful defiance of one who has come to terms with his fate: Semper in excreta sumus, solum profundum variat. Infinitely preferable to the po-faced, but genuine: Sumus semper in excretum sed alta variat. 

But wait a minute: isn't that last one exactly what the struggling blogger is striving for? Maybe in a couple of years...

(1) I know that clip is a bit over used, but I still just love it. This is more useful, but if you've got the wrong sort of mind (my sort) it'll lure you off the path of virtue for rather longer than you might have planned.


Why I love Twitter:
every time i see sarah palin speak i despise her more and more for her ignorant, half-formed ultra-reactionary received wisdoms"

Let's start with a statement of the blindingly obvious: this is not an analysis of Sarah Palin, her works, plans or values. Marcus doesn't seem to be  trying to convince anyone. He is simply stating his values here: his opinion.

Why do we do this? 
1.     We nail our colours to the mast as a rallying point for the right-minded to gather at
2.     We reaffirm and reinforce the core beliefs of the right-minded
1.     the values that bind us  together
2.     our view of how the world works
3.     our interpretation of the data and
4.     our assessment of what is important and
5.     our assessment of what is true
3.     We reaffirm and reinforce our own identities
Powerful reasons.

But, deep down, we know the catch, don't we? As we reinforce the beliefs of the right minded and bind them to our own identities, we devalue the beliefs of the wrong headed. (The Astute Reader will have noticed that I am using "right minded" and "wrong headed" rather loosely. "In-group" and "out-group" would be more clinically accurate.) We blind ourselves to the  data that doesn't fit our story. 

And the wrong-headed quickly become the enemy.

We find ourselves in a feedback loop. Having an external threat helps to rally people around the core, sacrificing self interest and inconvenient details of governance. So it is clearly good for the leaders to encourage this feeling of threat. From the outside, it appeared that Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld were mutually benefiting from their exchanges of threats. It's a win-win for the power-hungry on each side. 

Less so for the bombers and the bombed, of course.

On a less exalted scale, a team that fails to engage fully with the world outside may never know that it has fallen by the wayside until it is too late. This often shows up as a focus on internal politics rather than real external competition and customers. The Department in John le Carre's The Looking Glass War  is a fine example. The British motor industry in the 1970s is another.

The real competition is NOT the same as the wrong headed. The wrong headed could be any group that has a different view from the right minded. Remember, these groups form to reinforce the values of their members. The values of the workers and the management in a single firm may be much further apart than the values of the management of that firm and its most bitter competitor. 

The same principle holds true for any external challenge. We tend to confuse the statements of belief with fact. We all know that Gordon Brown ran up record debt in the good times and was unable to  respond when the crisis hit. We know this because we read it in the press and because we want someone to blame for the economic crisis. It fits and supports a powerful and satisfying narrative. It doesn't matter how many times government ministers bleat the actual statistics (that the government had paid back 1/6 of the debt they inherited before they started intervention in the economy in late 2007 / early 2008): they don't fit the story, so they don't get heard.

But what if we want to fix the external problem rather than our own reputations and personal insecurities? Then we need to build mutual understanding. This is usually difficult, for a number of reasons:
  • we see our position as right and theirs as wrong
  • we are blind to gaps in our data
  • we focus on blaming them for their errors rather than on understanding the different contributions made by each of the players. (Hint: it's hard to change your own behaviour, but much harder to changes someone else's. )
Anyone who has read the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project will recognise this language. Their book, "Difficult Conversations" (Stone, Patton, Heeler) lays out a very clear map of the problems common to all really difficult conversations (good title, eh?). And, of course, suggests proven strategies to overcome the problems. And explains why these strategies are hard to implement and gives solid, practical guidance. THe editorial review from The Author gives a good idea of the substance of the book, if you are seriously considering not buying it.

Start by levelling the playing field in your own head. If you don't have a spare lifetime to experience the world as "they" see it, try stating your viewpoint in tabloid headlines. Stand back, compare and contrast. You will automatically start arguing "yes, but..." to explain that real life is richer and more complex than the headline implies. Try and apply the same arguments to their headline. 

Then you can start a real discussion to understand the whole problem. If you're really lucky, you might even start to solve it. Together.