Archive for February, 2010

Friday’s This Week In History

Posted on February 26th, 2010 in This Week in History | No Comments »

History will recall (assuming she has nothing better to do with her time) the week ending 26 February 2010 as the week in which…

That was my week. How was yours?

My Oscar Predictions

Posted on February 26th, 2010 in Culture | 1 Comment »

With only a week to go until the razzmatazz of the 82nd Academy Awards, I thought I’d share some predictions with you. I made these using the official iPhone app, and have tried to ignore what other pundits might say.

The Ones You Care About

  • Best Picture: Avatar. Nothing the Academy likes better than success. It isn’t the best film of the year, it probably isn’t the best film of the month, but it will win.
  • Best Actor: Morgan Freeman (Invictus). C’mon, he’s playing Nelson Mandela for chrissake.
  • Best Actress: Gabourey Sidibe (Precious). Tokenism? Maybe, but they’ll want to give this film something and critics raved about her performance.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). He was practically given this award as soon as the movie opened. There’s nothing here I’m more sure about.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air). Again, they’ll want to give this something and it doesn’t have a better chance in any of the other major categories.
  • Best Original Screenplay: The Hurt Locker. It’s going to be the Hurt Locker’s night. The question is, how many prizes will Avatar pinch from it?
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Precious. This is the one I’m least sure about. It could easily be Up in the Air or even District 9
  • Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker. Gotta be.

And now here are the others…

  • Animated Feature Film: Up
  • Costume Design: Nine
  • Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
  • Art Direction: Avatar
  • Music (Original Song): Almost There, The Princess and the Frog
  • Short Film (Live Action): The New Tenants. Pure guess. Never heard of it.
  • Music (Original Score): The Hurt Locker
  • Visual Effects: Avatar. But I’d love it if District 9 pinched it.
  • Cinematography: Avatar
  • Sound Mixing: Star Trek
  • Short Film (Animated): A Matter of Loaf and Death
  • Sound Editing: The Hurt Locker
  • Documentary (Feature): Food, Inc.
  • Makeup: Star Trek. NB Avatar’s not nominated, that’s all pixels, not slap and foam rubber
  • Foreign Language Film: Un Prophète, France. See Short Film (Live Action).
  • Documentary (Short Subject): The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant. And again.

Using the iPhone app also means I can see what other people’s predictions are. The Wisdom of Crowds implies that the aggregate of hundreds of independent pundits should be a better guide than any one person’s guess, no matter how educated. So here’s the aggregate voting there, as of today 26 February. (I, of course, will be sticking with my own predictions. What’s the point in being a pundit if you can’t be overconfident?)

The Ones You Care About

  • Best Picture: Avatar. (62%, Hurt Locker second with 13%)
  • Best Actor: Morgan Freeman (31%, Jeff Bridges second and George Clooney third, practically nothing in it)
  • Best Actress: Sandra Bullock (42%. My pick, Gadbourey Sidibe  is third after Meryl Streep.)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds). (60%. Matt Damon second for Invictus)
  • Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique (39%. Second is Penelope Cruz. My pick is dead last.)
  • Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds (47%. I don’t buy it. Up is second – surely not – and my pick is third)
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air (37%, with District 9 and Precious a virtual dead heat behind it)
  • Best Director: James Cameron (by a mile, 54%. Really surprised by this one. Bigelow second with 21%, Tarantino third).

And now here are the others…

  • Animated Feature Film: Up (80%)
  • Costume Design: Nine (36%)
  • Film Editing: Avatar (57%, Inglorious Basterds second on 14%, then The Hurt Locker on 12%)
  • Art Direction: Avatar (74%)
  • Music (Original Song): The Weary Kind, Crazy Heart. (37%. Wish I could change my bet now. I’m just a sucker for Disney animation. Randy Newman is third on 18% after Take It All from Nine on 29%)
  • Short Film (Live Action): The Door (35%. My – random – pick is third on 18%)
  • Music (Original Score): Avatar (again on 46%. For the first time, my pick is dead last on 4%. Up is second and Sherlock Holmes is third)
  • Visual Effects: Avatar. (93%!!)
  • Cinematography: Avatar (61%)
  • Sound Mixing: Avatar (55%, then Transformers on 18%, then the rest)
  • Short Film (Animated): A Matter of Loaf and Death (46%)
  • Sound Editing: Avatar (59%, all the rest essentially a dead heat)
  • Documentary (Feature): The Cove (31%. Food Inc is second on 27%)
  • Makeup: Star Trek. (63%)
  • Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon (42%. Un Prophète is second on 23%)
  • Documentary (Short Subject): China’s Unnatural Disaster (31%, then The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner on 21%, then the rest)

So, my guess is that it will be The Hurt Locker‘s night. I’ve put them on five gongs, with Avatar scooping only four. Users of the iPhone app are going for Avatar in a big way, however, handing James Cameron’s film nine Oscars (Titanic won 11) and not giving Kathryn Bigelow any!! Note that this requires Avatar beating The Hurt Locker every time they share a nomination, and therefore Avatar winning in every category for which it is nominated! I guess it could happen, but…

In the final count, I agree with the herd on only nine out of 24 categories, which makes me think that a career in punditry may not beckon. What might be interesting is to compare the iPhone app’s aggregations to the odds at the betting shop. The bookies, of course, are aggregating individual opinions in the same way, but – at least at first – they may be more swayed by punditry.

And what about YOU meanwhile? What do YOU think will happen?

UPDATED TO ADD: Paddy Power offers 10/11 on Avatar winning best picture, disagrees with both me and the iPhone and has Jeff Bridges favourite to win best actor at 1/6. They side with the iPhone and against me putting Sandra Bullock on 8/13 favourite to win best actress, and we all agree Christoph Waltz will win best supporting actor, the odds are 1/25. They side with the iPhone against me when it comes to best supporting actress, going for Monique at 1/16 but they side with me against the iPhone when it comes to best director, putting Kathryn Bigelow favourite at 1/4 with Cameron on 5/2. Putting a fiver on each of the favourites would win you a dismal £11.17 (plus your £30 stake back).

A much tastier bet is the total number of awards Avatar will win. You can get all nine awards at 20/1 or eight out of nine at 8/1. That might be worth a flutter.

Thursday’s random link

Posted on February 25th, 2010 in Links | No Comments »

I’m far too old and fuddy-duddy to have any real idea of what a “mash-up” might be. But I do like One Song To The Tune Of Another, so here’s what happens when Beyonce meets The Andy Griffith Show. British viewers who like Scrubs may know the song better as that whistled by the irrepressibly cheerful Dr Molly Clock.

Why Myers-Briggs reminds me of cholera

Posted on February 24th, 2010 in Corporate training | No Comments »

As a trainer I take a keen professional interest in what other people – our competitors – are offering. It’s a crowded market, and when the economy shrinks, and budgets are squeezed, training is often the first thing to be cut (rightly or wrongly) which means that the competition is even fiercer. Naturally, some of the advice we give in our workshops is likely to be duplicated by other trainers. I surely can’t be the first person that’s ever said “stop looking at the slides” and “speak up”. But there is one area where we take an entirely opposite approach from most of our competitors and colleagues.

To explain the difference, and why I’ve chosen the side of the fence that I have, I first want to talk briefly about cholera. On reading Steven Johnson’s literate, detailed, compassionate and utterly absorbing book The Ghost Map which detailed the cholera outbreak which swept through London in 1854, one point in particular struck me. The prevailing theory at the time was the miasma theory of disease which held that ailments such as cholera were carried by bad smells – not too far off the truth. This did not explain however why sewer workers were no more likely to contract cholera than their more refined brethren. (Today we know that it is necessary to drink cholera-infected water in order to contract the disease; just sloshing about it in isn’t enough.) This apparent contradiction was explained by comparing the hardy nature of the working class stock and the more fragile build of the society ladies and gentlemen who suffered so appallingly.

Instrumental in bringing the epidemic to an end was John Snow, who identified the Broad Street water pump as the source of the infection and who removed the handle from it to prevent access. How was it that Snow was able to see past the prevailing miasma theory? One reason is that his researches into anaesthesia had already shown him a significant finding which called miasma theory gravely into question. When calculating the correct dosage of ether or chloroform to render a patient insensible prior to an operation (while making sure that they could be revived again afterwards), he discovered that taking class into account was no help at all. Far from people’s susceptibility being arranged on a spectrum from the hardiest sewer worker to the most delicate dandy, people were all basically the same. This was a vital clue that miasma theory was incorrect and that the people who succumbed to cholera had something else in common – which turned out to be where they got their water from.

Now let’s leave John Snow and look at some basic ideas around communications training. Good communicators have to take a few different things into account. If I am to communicate something to you, then I have to make sure that I fully understand my subject matter and have made some good clear choices about what to include, what to leave out and what order to arrange my material in. This should be informed by who my audience is, since different audiences will have different preferences, be looking for different things, or have pre-existing knowledge in different amounts. And I must also take myself into account – I must play to my strengths and I must communicate in a way which is congruent with my natural style and also any expectations that my audience might have of me.

So far, so basic. And I agree that all of the foregoing are important elements to bear in mind. However, what strikes me about a lot of the training that I see is that the second element is given an enormous about of weight.  Here’s a quotation from a website offering communications training

If communication is so common, why does it miss its mark so often? There are a number of reasons, but much of the time it’s because we are different in how we communicate, and that difference can create misunderstanding. For example, one person may be explaining something in great detail to a person who has difficulty processing detail. The first person is sure that he is giving everything that is needed to understand; however, the second person is so lost half-way through the conversation that he simply tunes out. Not wanting to appear “stupid,” the second person nods in agreement, then walks away wondering what transpired.

Their solution to this problem is to go on a course which will identify your and your colleagues’ and clients’ communication styles. Here’s another example.

You can easily find out about the individual’s level of receptiveness by noticing how much he speaks about himself. Persons who are veritably receptive prefer to share information and are comfortable with emotions. They normally talk with expressions and mix up soon with new people. On the other hand, there are individuals who are kind of reserved. These people do not prefer to show their feelings, thoughts, and emotions to others. Regarding straightforwardness, you can find out in which category a person falls by the way he talks, how willing he is to take chances, and what kind of mannerisms he possesses. Straightforward people prefer to take the initiative and charge of situations, whereas those who are indirect choose to stay away from risks, and value security and heedful planning.

Many of these offerings bring with them more or less complicated models which break down the various modes of communication into three, four, seven, nine, a dozen or more communication styles. Are you Passive, Assertive or Aggressive? Are you Reserved, Open, Direct or Indirect? Are you Expresser, Driver, Relater or Analyser? Knowing our own preferred communications style and deducing other peoples’ can help us to select a way of communicating which is going to make the job easier and the communicating more effective. It’s all about flexibility.

I hope these types of communicators have given you an idea of the different communication styles in the workplace. If you want to be an effective communicator, you need to adjust your talk according to the type of person you are talking to.

Of course, first you have to pick which of the many and mutually-contradictory models you are going to subscribe to. But as you keep looking, you discover that it isn’t just communication styles. People also have learning styles (often, but not always, Visual, Auditory, Reading or Kinaesthetic). And they certainly have personality types (these often based on Jungian archetypes, most notably of all Myers-Briggs).

Well, just what’s so damn wrong about that? Sure, I’m a different personality from my sister and she’s different from the next-door neighbour. I want to watch snooker, she wants to watch Desperate Housewife and the next-door neighbour has a weird obsession with mangoes. We might very well take in information more readily in different forms.

This is all indeed true. I’m not saying that people don’t differ. I’m not even saying that people don’t differ in profound and predictable ways (as our recent work with women is demonstrating). But I do question the value of exercises like Myers-Briggs. It’s clear to me why Myers-Briggs is popular with trainers. Explaining how Myers-Briggs works (or whichever version of it you happen to have come across) takes quite a long time and makes the trainer seem very clever; then getting people assessed takes even longer and gets everybody involved; finally at the end, everyone’s learned something about themselves which they can in theory use to improve their ability to work and communicate as a team. None of which is itself a reason to damn the enterprise, but what is it that people are supposedly learning?

Here’s a passage which purports to describe a certain personality type.

You bring things to fruition by getting things done, and getting them done now! You are very action-oriented, dealing with whatever tasks the current situation presents. You often spur others into action as well. You make use of your experience and utilise tools or processes of which you already have knowledge. You try to have an immediate impact on things, injecting a sense of urgency, and aiming to achieve clear goals and tangible results.

And here’s another, describing a different type. Both passages have been extracted from longer works, and I’ve smoothed out the language here-and-there.

You mutate from feeling to feeling, plan to plan, vision to vision. This makes you highly creative or gifted at working with other people and sometimes just unpredictable. You are most likely to motivate yourself to do something by saying you will never do it again. You are also very skilled in a helping capacity, naturally comfortable with service. Yet you easily evoke the help of others by readily expressing vulnerability.

Compare the (ha!) styles of both. What differences do you notice, and what similarities?

The first is from the Myers-Briggs description of the ESTP personality type. The second is from an astrology website and describes Pisces. This is my first problem with Myers-Briggs and all the others. Since the dark ages, people have offered ways in which to categorise and sort people based on all kinds of things. In the west, historically people have given credence to the concept that the stars in the sky at the moment of your birth will determine your personality. In Japan, they prefer to be guided by blood types. In training companies, it’s Myers-Briggs. It’s no surprise to me, for example, that people don’t always come out with the same Myers-Briggs “type” when the test is repeated.

But even if it could be shown that Myers-Briggs (and the other applications and flavours of this basic idea) do reliably and repeatably measure something which is present in the real world, does that mean that all we need to do to become expert communicators is to adopt the communication style of those we wish to communicate to? Does it mean we should strive to do this at all, even if all we want to do is to improve?

Like John Snow’s working class oiks and upper crust toffs, all equally susceptible to ether, I would argue that in the majority of cases, the similarities are more important than the differences. Sure, people differ, but people are also alike. Learning how to tell clear, simple stories; to use visual language; to create a context and then cite examples; to speak slowly and with appropriate emphasis; to adopt a relaxed and comfortable manner which still makes you appear authoritative – these are qualities which will help anybody communicate to anybody else.

I don’t get to spend an hour or more walking my trainees through a personality test, nor can I give them detailed assessments about their own personal learning/communication/personality styles. But I can give them sound practical advice which means they can forget about developing a new communications style for every audience and instead just focus on developing the best communications style for them.

Which is why Myers-Briggs reminds me of cholera.

25 random things

Posted on February 18th, 2010 in Blah | No Comments »

Hello and welcome to whatever this is. I’ve put up a more permanent, useful and comprehensive introduction to me and my life here but in order to get things going, I’m reproducing my entry for the 25  Random Things About You which was the Facebook meme-du-jour for early 2009. I’ve made one or two edits to bring the list up-to-date or just because I felt like it.

1. I can only think of three people I know who – all things considered – might be cleverer than me.

2. I spent 2-3 years teaching myself close-up magic and have a trunk full of books, DVDs, props and gimmicks at the foot of my bed. I haven’t opened that trunk in years. You might consider that time wasted. I consider that a life lived to its fullest (but then everything happens for a rationalisation).

3. I was the editor-in-chief of online satirical netzine The Brains Trust from 2000 to 2002. In its structure, commenting on articles, profiles of contributors and so on, it accurately predicted the modern-day blog. However, someone nicked the domain name off us and now we only have the pages on the Wayback Machine as an archive.

4. I love arguments and I love to win them, but being *right* is much more important to me than you being wrong, so if you *do* prove me wrong, I will switch sides instantly (and then go and find other people who used to believe as I did in order to point out how stupid they’ve been).

5. At university, I quickly fell in with a crowd who thought that the people heading for a job with Accenture were all wankers. They probably were, but if I’d fallen in with the Accenture crowd *first*, I probably wouldn’t be up to my eyeballs in debt today.

6. As a child I was a very picky eater. Thus I wanted to cook for myself when I first left home, and thus I discovered that – hey – food tastes good when you cook it right. A few years ago I began trying to whittle down the list of things I don’t like. I’m now left with most shellfish, some fish (especially salmon and tinned tuna), sweet cream (i.e. in cakes rather than in savory sauces) and scrambled eggs. Pretty much everything else I can stand, even if I don’t seek it out.

7. 25 items is a lot, isn’t it?

8. I can’t be trusted to buy my own clothes. Apparently.

9. I have been looking forward to middle age since I was about 11. Playing bridge, wearing slippers, complaining about young people, are all my idea of a good time. I’d smoke a pipe if I wasn’t worried about oral cancer.

10. Cigars don’t give you oral cancer do they?

11. I buy all the official Doctor Who DVDs as soon as they come out, and have probably seen almost all of the extant episodes. (I don’t know about The Keys of Marinus, The Sensorites, The Ark and I know I haven’t seen the last two episodes of The Ambassadors of Death). I was a Doctor Who fan when it was cool, when it was uncool and now when it’s cool again. I’m very loyal.

12. Microsoft, Apple and Google all make excellent products and I use whichever is the most convenient for me and suitable for the purpose. At present this means Windows 7, Outlook 2010 (for email and RSS feeds), Chrome as my browser of choice, Windows Live Mesh for document syncing and an iPhone 3GS (now jailbroken so I can have multi-tasking).

13. I watch almost no home-grown TV except Doctor Who, but watch a lot of US series regularly, thanks to the miracle of the Internet. These include: Damages, Battlestar Galactica, The Office, 30Rock, House, Scrubs, 24, Mythbusters, Mad Men.

14. Never use a word you couldn’t define to a bright 10-year-old if asked to do so. Some jargon is there for precision and some simply for obfuscation. It’s important to know the difference, and very important to know the difference if the jargon is coming out of *your* mouth.

15. Obfuscate: to make something you are saying harder to understand.

16. Emoticons are ugly, a shortcut for lazy writers, childish and profoundly irritating. They are also, from time to time, essential. 😉

17. I continually use the word “mental” as a noun in a way that I hope those listening understand is ironic. It is, of course, childish and insulting whether or not it is ironic, but it’s also funny – to me at any rate. If you don’t agree it’s probably because you are a mental and so can’t be trusted on this subject a) due to an inherent conflict of interest and b) due to the fact that YOU ARE A MENTAL.

18. I listen to lots of podcasts and almost no music on my iPhone. Top picks: The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, Collings and Herrin, The Perfect Ten, TEDTalks, TWIT, and Skeptoid. If you want to know the peculiar kind of music I listen to, watch me join the conformist ranks again with my iPod Shuffle post following hot-on-the-heels of this one.

19. 25 items really *is* a lot, isn’t it??

20. I hand-code HTML and write PHP code for our website and others. I also design Spontaneity Shop publicity with QuarkXPress and PhotoShop. I know, I know – hot, right?

21. Once you know how to do something right (even if “right” is merely convential), why would you then do it wrong? If you don’t know whether or not you are doing something right, why haven’t you bothered to find out? I know, I know – smokin’ hot, right? Right!

22. Has anyone actually bothered to read down this far? Reminds me of the story about the software company which put a promise in its EULA (the agreement you click “okay” to when you install the software) that it would give $1000 to the first person who read down that far in the EULA. It took years before they eventually had to fork over the dough.

23. Nearly there now. Okay, let’s clear this one up. You should say “Tom and I” if you would naturally say “I” without Tom there: “Tom and I are going to watch Doctor Who all evening” -> “I am going to watch Doctor Who all evening”. You should say “me and Tom” if you would naturally say “me” without Tom there: “Give the toy sonic screwdrivers to me and Tom.” -> “Give the toy sonic screwdrivers to me.” It’s not totally unreasonable to use the “wrong” pronoun if it sounds better or more natural in the specific context, but there is NO JUSTIFICATION AT ALL for using “myself” because you don’t know whether “I” or “me” is correct or just because you want to avoid the implication that you and I are actually interacting in some way. “When myself gets the proposal from yourself, then myself and Katie will look at it and myself will get back to yourself. Okay?” No it is not fucking okay. Learn to speak English.

24. M*A*S*H is almost certainly the best sitcom ever broadcast. Not only was it astoundingly funny, well-plotted, heartfelt – when appropriate!, true-to-life no matter what, and brilliantly acted – every new castmember introduced succeeded *more* brilliantly than the person they replaced. Also worthy of note: Frasier, Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, and (coming up on the inside) 30Rock.

25. “Bookkeeper” is the only word in the English language with three consecutive double letters.