Tom Forth and John Popham Speak

October 19th, 2014

Tom&John

The second Bettakultcha podcast is available to listen to.

Behave predictably

October 13th, 2014

Having just jumped through a variety of security hoops to move some money from an old online bank account to a new account which pays better interest, I’m told by the ’system’ that my transfer is being reviewed. I can see the sense of this – any unusual activity could be seen as being potentially fraudulent and needs to be checked out. On the other hand, I could have just woken up from my inertia and realised that I was losing money by leaving this money in the dormant account.

The problem is this: to get a decent service from ‘the system’ it pays to behave in a predictable manner. If you’re impulsive, then the system will put obstacles in your way for ‘your’ benefit and security.

What this means is that we are being slowly conditioned into behaving in a predictable manner. And authorities just love populations that are predictable and compliant.

Of course, when it comes to the banks themselves behaving in an unpredictable and unlawful manner, there are few, if any, security checks.

Why algorithms are so scary

October 3rd, 2014

Crocodile trainers have an algorithm for the machines that they work with. The machines are the crocodiles and they display highly predictable behaviour. The trainers know that if they do such-and-such within such-and-such distance from the crocodile’s mouth, the crocodile will do such-and-such. In this way they can ‘control’ the crocodile.

Humans are machines too but our behaviour is not quite so predictable when compared with reptiles due to the sophistication of our brains – probably the most complex thing in the entire universe. Our behaviour is predictable though to a large extent, hence all the psychological research into shopping patterns and the insidious harvesting of online data by all the large corporations.

Eventually, our highly sophisticated machine brains will be able to produce highly sophisticated algorithms that will be able to predict what will become ‘viral’ in our social set ups.

Some are arguing that this is nothing to be afraid of, these algorithms are merely more tools that we have invented that will improve our … what?

Here is the crux of the problem; if our brilliant tools mean that humans have no work to do, what is left for humans to do? Do we all become artists? And what if algorithms can produce decent art?

And of course, this argument fails to extrapolate from what is current in our society – out of control secret service agencies, profit motives that don’t consider human welfare, power-mad politicians creating division etc.

Image an algorithm that could accurately predict human behaviour in nearly all circumstances. Sure, you could argue that such knowledge could be beneficial to the human race but all the historical evidence suggests that it would become the most powerful weapon ever devised in human history. Who would you want to have control of that?

Roger McGough in Ossett – Wakefield Literary Festival

September 20th, 2014

Roger-McGough

The word on the streets is that spoken word is the new heroin and that poetry gives the biggest high (wait until they try the Bettakultcha smack) and so when I heard that Roger McGough was going to make a personal appearance in Ossett as part of the Wakefield Literature Festival, I bought a ticket.

I was slightly anxious about the venue—Trinity Church—as cavernous churches do not lend themselves to good acoustics. I needn’t have worried though, a decent PA and a packed room full of textile-covered people meant every syllable could be discerned.

What I like about Roger McGough is his accessibility, he’s the recreational ‘gateway’ drug to harder stuff; what Banksy is to art so Roger is to poetry. It’s almost a misnomer to call it poetry, ‘rhyming jokes’ might be a better description. Don’t be fooled though, they’re jokes with razor blade edges, cutting deep into the psyche.

Roger looked fit and relaxed as he used his decades of performing experience to beguile and charm the audience. A well-balanced blend of light and shade characterised the early part of his set – the poem about the well-known Liverpool gangster (a true story) made the greatest impression upon me.

What’s weird about poetry readings is the space after the poem has ended. The audience’s reaction is to fill it with applause but Roger’s poems are short, so that would mean clapping every other minute. His experience showed through though and Roger almost conducted the audience’s response by effortlessly guiding them from one poem to another, every so often allowing a respectful pause for applause.

The latter part of his set played more on the comedic aspects of life and the jokes themselves were exquisite, I particularly liked the poem about Mr Blyton (husband of Enid) and him “reaching for her body, only to feel the velvet touch of Noddy” (I paraphrase from memory).  Such clever word play can be appreciated in a live setting, as Roger is meticulous in enunciating his crafted products.

On the down side (yes, the drug analogy again) his set lasted about an hour, he did a ten minute ‘encore’ then retired from the lectern without taking any questions. Nor did he emerge afterwards to mingle with the crowd (at least, not whilst I was still there). Has he not heard of ‘selfies’ and hobnobbing with the crowds? All the comedians seem to do it these days.

I also thought it was a waste to have such a large audience there (possibly two hundred) and not have any supporting acts. I have seen the Wakefield based, A Firm of Poets, and can attest to their quality – why were they not given a short slot? I also learned of the existence of the Black Horse poets that evening, one or two poems from them might have added to the variety of the event. Surely a Literature Festival is about promoting as much talent as possible? As much as I enjoyed Roger McGough I felt somewhat short-changed for my money. I’d given up my Saturday night to see him at an event; Roger turned up but the all-singing, all-dancing, jaw-dropping spectacle of an evening failed to materialise.

Addendum: I have been reliably informed that Roger did mingle with the audience after I had gone and was there until the last audience member left – good man. It was also pointed out to me that A Firm of Poets performed earlier in the day on a bus travelling to and from Ossett as part of the festival. I only attended the evening event so my impressions are of that part of the festival that I experienced and it seemed to be set up as a typical ‘night at the theatre’ type show so that’s how I reviewed it.

Why I might unfollow you on Twitter

August 28th, 2014

unfollow

Apart from the bug in twitter that capriciously and secretly unfollows people for me, I do sometimes deliberately unfollow people.

You need to know why I follow people in the first place though to make sense of my unfollowings;

1. I want to get information

  • If I’m interested in a subject then I like people to link me to articles and stories that expand my knowledge of that subject. Thus, I will follow people who appear informed about the subject and who frequently share their sources of information.

2. I want my biases confirmed

  • I have a particular worldview and I look for informed support to validate that worldview.

3. I want my biases challenged

  • Any belief system can be judged by its ability to withstand criticism. My worldview does not include a denial of other systems— on the contrary, it welcomes informed comment and debate. However this does not include opinions, some kind of evidence is required to support any assertion.

4. I want to use the wisdom of the crowds

  • Quite often I can secure a service or piece of equipment through contacts on twitter so the people I follow often have large follower numbers or their biographies make them significant.

5. I want to be entertained sometimes.

  • Funny jokes, ideas, witticisms or images are a welcome break from the bad news and negativity that predominates my timeline.

So this is why I might unfollow you;

1. You don’t supply any information or insights.

  • I have limited time to spend on social media so I don’t want my timeline filled with pictures of cats, boasts of how busy you are or tales of how bored you are waiting in some queue. The odd tweet like that is excusable but not the vast majority.

2. I like to ‘work the room’

  • There are so many interesting people on twitter that I can’t possibly meet them all but that won’t stop me trying. Unlike some people who are following tens of thousands of people, I like to keep a manageable timeline and so trim it now and again. If a tweeter is limited in their benefits to me but they follow me back then I will be less inclined to unfollow them as the wisdom of the crowd criterion could still apply.

3. This relationship is going nowhere

  • Eventually, it becomes obvious there is no value in following someone – there is no interaction and no common ground anymore and their tweets are simply taking up space in my timeline.

If I unfollow you, it’s nothing personal (I’ll still say hello in real life if we’ve met before) it’s just that my social circle is evolving but limited in its capacity. If I have a disagreement with someone on twitter, that is not a cause for me to unfollow them, on the contrary, if their argument is sound then I’ll respect them even more.

I don’t use my twitter account for any specific goal so ultimately, it’s like talking to someone in a pub: if their conversation is predictable, monotonous, one-way or too technical for my interests, then I’ll excuse myself and look for another conversation.

Three important things that final year students need to do before they leave school.

August 22nd, 2014

Escape Children!

Education isn’t fully preparing students for the future. Homework is largely a waste of time and you don’t need to work hard to be a success—and that’s before I even get onto the three important things students need to learn.

I mean you can work hard to be successful if you really want to—and you will achieve success from working hard—but I didn’t want to work hard, I wanted to have fun, so I played hard instead. I’m not playing with words here – the distinction is important, someone playing hard is far more productive than someone working hard— that’s a scientifically proven fact. So the trick is to get paid for doing something that you love doing, something that you would do for free if that were the only option.

Here’s my story about how I managed to make a living from doing something that I love doing. I only wish my school had taught me this stuff before I left, I could have gone so much further, much faster if they had. Don’t get hung up on the details here, I talk about art but I could just as easily be talking about performing music or designing apps. The principles are the same. Just apply the principles …

1. Make something happen.

In my case, it was a picture. But in your case it could be a website, a film, a rap song, whatever.

I made a picture. I was very young and there was nothing special about the picture. But I liked drawing pictures so I kept producing them. Then slowly people started to like my pictures and so I made more pictures that I spent a great deal of time on. I would have made these pictures anyway, even if other people didn’t like them, because drawing was what I loved to do. I discovered that if people can see you’re passionate about something, they tend to encourage you and this makes you want to keep doing it and so inevitably, you get a lot better at it. This is why homework is generally a waste of time. If you’re passionate about something you’re already doing it at home! If you’ve no interest in a subject, why extend the misery with homework? Homework should be optional at school.

So people kept encouraging me to draw. Eventually, a school friend asked me to draw a picture of his girlfriend. This was significant. People wanted my pictures now. In order to make sure he got his picture, my friend offered to pay me for it and in an instant the future had revealed itself to me: I could get paid to draw.

Now I played much harder. I actually wanted people to like my pictures – a lot, and they did! The harder I played the more they wanted to use my skill.

You see how this works? It’s a virtuous circle: the better you become, the more they want you.

2. Establish your network.

Make contact with people who can help you. These might be people who do what you do and can offer you advice or show you new techniques or they might be people with influence – these could be mentors or connectors or administrators. When you associate with like-minded people, you tend to absorb their ideas and you become more creative as a result. When you collaborate with them you become inspired to try new things and explore new territory so always look for opportunities to do that. By the way, this works in reverse too – if you mix with negative people you’ll become more negative as a result, so pick your group carefully.

After a time, people at school started to talk about my skill. As a kid, I didn’t realise how important this was; it was good for my ego of course but more importantly, it established me as some kind of expert – I was the ‘go to’ guy for any kind of artwork. Teachers would seek me out and ask me to take on artistic projects. This is crucially important if you’re going to make a career out of something you love doing; become the expert.

And something else happened; my art teacher introduced me to other members of staff who were interested in art. I cannot tell you how important this part of the process is – you’re increasing your network with people who can help you in a much bigger way. One of the teachers at school (who I didn’t take a subject with) was particularly keen on one of my pictures that I was working on. My art teacher had shown it to him whilst it was in progress and this teacher subsequently bought it. Don’t wait for others to take the initiative, be proactive where you can.

Pretty soon I was famous as an artist inside my school and that gave me a certain amount of license regarding my behaviour and artworks.

Then one day I had a life-changing experience.

I’d been exploring the works of dissident writers and artists as part of my voluntary homework and I decided to do a ‘protest’ picture (remember what I said about getting inspired by the things that surround you?). What I came up with was a portrait of myself in school uniform being hung from the neck by my tie. This was being officiated by a teacher dressed in an elaborate gown and witnessed by an orderly faceless audience. In the audience I had hidden an oblique reference to one particular unpopular teacher. It was a ‘dangerous’ picture executed with my tongue firmly in my cheek and my art teacher (unbeknown to me) decided to frame it and hang it in the school on a stair landing that experienced a lot of footfall. As I came down the stairs to the landing during a break I could see an excited crowd of students viewing something on the wall in a gleeful way. When I realized that they were looking at my picture and I had caused their excitement I knew then what I wanted to do with the rest of my life: entertain people.

It was assumed by everyone that I would leave school and go to art college, which I did. But this was a double-edged sword because art school opened my eyes to other possibilities within the creative industries and I became fascinated with film making and acting. My picture making suddenly got a lot more ambitious.

Now, it’s generally best to stick with one thing only if you want to achieve ’success’ as defined by society. If you become the best that you can be at this one thing, your dedication and talent will impress people. However, you should always be aware of what you need as a human being rather than what you think society expects of you. In my case, I was curious about the world and I wanted to explore EVERYTHING even if that meant doing some of the activities I undertook rather badly.

As soon as you dilute your talents, the level of financial success you can expect becomes diluted too. But you can define success on your own terms, so follow your own path if that makes you happy. By the way, despite what may happen to you at school, you should always remember that your parents, guardians and teachers—generally—want more than anything for you to be happy in what you’re doing.

So in my creative career I explored writing, film making, music, performance and comedy. I always had enough money to live on and I always had fun. And I’m still having fun. And still collaborating and increasing my network – curiosity and experimentation never stops (sign up to receive my podcasts to see what I mean).

3. Learn presentation skills.

My latest creative output called Bettakultcha, is a collaboration with various people and it’s an event consisting of enthusiastic people giving five minute talks illustrated with 20 slides that last 15 seconds each. I’m the compère of the event and after five years of doing it I’ve learned to be confident and relaxed on stage. With a lot of people being terrified of public speaking, having a skill like that is a passport into a lot of jobs. Everyone has to pitch ideas to other people at some point – sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re doing it—if you’ve just discovered a new video game and you want to tell your friends about it so they’ll play it too, you’re pitching the idea to them. The same applies to a company wanting to launch a new product in the market place, someone has to pitch the idea to an audience that is usually spoilt for choice. And here’s a startling prediction: by the year 2020 – that’s like five years away – 50% of the working population of the UK will be self-employed. Think about that. 50%. That means half of you in any classroom right now will have to find your own work. Which means you’ll have to pitch for work. Now, if most of you have the same skill-set, how will a client decide on whom to give the work to? Maybe the pitch that inspired confidence, enthusiasm, efficiency, imagination, and good communication? And, right now, I don’t see these presentation skills being taught anywhere in schools, which means that if you learn them now, you’re already ahead of the game.

So to recap, these are the three things that you really need to know if you want to make a living from your skills:

1. Make something happen – when most people are passive consumers, this immediately makes you stand out from the others.

2. Build your network – find like-minded people, collaborate and share with them if you can, they’ll help you grow. Utilise your network – any chance you get for furthering your career, no matter how small, take it!

3. Learn presentation skills. Unfortunately, I learned this last crucial lesson too late to maximize on the opportunities that were presented to me earlier in life. Who is your biggest advocate throughout your life? You, of course, so it makes sense for you to be confident, articulate and concise when you want to impress someone who could be a future employer or patron of your talent. Being confident about yourself will be your biggest asset. The world is hypnotized and beguiled by confidence. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that fact – confidence is conquest. But don’t confuse cockiness with confidence, that’s an entirely different thing.

Oh, and keep plugging away. The longer you stick at something, the luckier you will get and the breaks will fall for you. Talking of which, tell your instructors about me. Tell them you want me to speak in person at your establishment so you can learn more about making life rewarding and fun (see what I did there? Always be proactive).

Thanks for reading. Stay curious.

Bettakultcha Podcast

August 19th, 2014
Elly Snare, Lawrence Alexander, John Popham, Helen Harrop and Paul Smith.

Elly Snare, Lawrence Alexander, John Popham, Helen Harrop and Paul Smith.

The first ever Bettakultcha Podcast mostly recorded at the Beacons Festival – enjoy!

Why isn’t public speaking taken seriously?

July 14th, 2014

Lifebelt

I recently attended an award evening at the school my children go to and they had a motivational speaker in the middle of the prize giving.

He was an Olympic swimmer and he had fifteen minutes in which to tell the hundreds of children and parents how great they can be if they apply themselves.

His message (I garnered) is to be the best version of yourself that you can be and work hard to achieve that goal. By working closely with his coach, he told us, he had managed to reach the Olympics.

He began his speech by telling us that as he drove to the school, he’d changed his mind about what he was going to talk about and how he was going to approach the subject. He kept repeating bits of his story unnecessarily and had a nervous habit of fiddling with the microphone lead. There were lots of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ in his delivery and his fractured story ended in a muddled conclusion. He overran his time by a considerable margin and even commented upon the fact from the stage. He then mentioned (to my dismay) that he would be taking questions after he’d finished! I assume it was an alarmed disapproving look from the head that made him amend that statement to, he would be available for questions after the event if anyone wanted to ask him anything. I sensed some relief from the audience in the hot and stuffy assembly hall when he finished his speech.

The thing is this; throughout his speech he kept referring to his coach and how important he was in disciplining him and guiding him through his career. Presumably, he wouldn’t have got to the Olympics without a coach.

So why didn’t he have a coach for his speaking career? He said he travelled the country giving speeches so public speaking must be a career of sorts for him (I’m guessing that he doesn’t have a speaking coach because any decent one would have sorted out of his fundamental mistakes immediately).

I couldn’t help but compare his approach to speaking with his approach to swimming.

He changed his mind about his speaking strategy on the drive to the school - did he do the same before a swimming race?

He kept repeating bits of his story - when he was swimming in a race, did he think to throw in some unnecessary strokes or was he going to make every stroke count?

He didn’t seem aware of his nervous habits - did he not exhaustively study video footage of his swimming technique to discover where improvements could be made?

He didn’t read his brief - if he’s racing in the 100m butterfly, does he turn it into a 10,000m breast stroke just because he feels like it?

He was determined to be the best version of himself that he could be - except when he’s speaking, presumably?

As a professional speaker myself, these contradictions were glaringly obvious but I sensed that the audience, in the sultry heat, simply weren’t engaged with his narrative. I asked my daughter afterwards if she liked his speech and she shrugged her shoulders and said she wasn’t interested in sports. This told me everything I needed to know: the speaker didn’t realise that his sport story is meant to be an allegory for his much bigger message – be the best version of yourself that you can be. His technique needs to improve if he’s to compete in the race for the hearts and minds of school learners.

So why didn’t an Olympian realise that public speaking is a different field of excellence and that its skills can be learned? Why didn’t he know that experienced practitioners can help other speakers avoid basic errors? Every top sports-person has a coach, no matter how good they are, why is speaking so poorly regarded by many practitioners?

Anti-homeless spikes

June 10th, 2014

I got an email today that invited me to sign a petition calling for the removal of the Anti-Homeless spikes. As soon as I read it, all sorts of alarm bells started ringing.

Firstly, the spikes are a symptom, not the disease. Messing around with spikes misses the point. The point is; why are people homeless in the first place? Where is the safety net of benefits? What has happened to these people that they’ve fallen through the net?

Secondly, getting a petition up to bully a property developer to modify a part of their building sited on their land is hypocritical.

Now, my view on land ownership is this: you can’t own land you can only defend territory. The law is there to defend this territory. It’s not a perfect system but if everyone agrees to abide by a set of rules then I expect everyone to do so – without exception.

Of course, inequality is predicated on hypocrisy – the rich don’t play by the rules, they break them or ignore them – which is why banks have to be bailed out whereas anyone else would go bust. We all know this, which is why it is even more important that those fighting inequality adhere to the rules at all costs because if no one plays by the rules then we have chaos (anarchy is something entirely different and misunderstood).

If it is agreed that someone can buy a piece of land and do what they want on it (subject to approval from an official body), then that is how it should be for everyone. If a property owner wants to put a gate on their property, fine. If they want to put spikes, fine – it’s their property.

If you don’t like it, you should lobby your parliamentary representatives to change the law on land ownership. If you don’t like the idea of homeless people then you should lobby your parliamentary representative to do something about it (or ask them why it’s happening when it’s not supposed to). Setting up petitions to remove spikes is short sighted, misguided and achieves nothing in the long run. I’m disappointed in the activist group that precipitated this action, I thought they’d be cleverer than that.

And no, I won’t be signing their petition.

Soul Kitchen, Wardrobe, Leeds

May 6th, 2014

Menu

I was invited for a free brunch at this new venue. I know what you’re thinking ‘there’s no such thing as a free brunch’ and you’d be right; I was required to give feedback (see what I did there!) about the meal and write a blog post about my experience.

Firstly, let me congratulate Soul Kitchen for doing their homework – to talk directly to customers about their experiences is a strategy that is vastly underused in these days of algorithms and ‘like’ buttons, but it is surely the best way to get a true reaction from people.

They are aiming their brunch menu at people who’ve had a wild night out and in the late morning are looking for something to eat that won’t be too demanding on a delicate stomach so eggs feature prominently.

My first impressions weren’t too good when I looked at the menu. I wasn’t sure if it was ‘designed’ to look distressed or they hadn’t replaced their toner cartridge for a while. And you would think that with the success of programmes like ‘Masterchef’, the visual aspect of the food would be critical to enticing customers, but could I find a photograph of any of the dishes on offer? No, I had to use my imagination or hope to spot someone’s order being served and guess what it might be if I liked the look of it. Still on the menu, I’m not a fan of being a perpetual ‘gameboy’ constantly having to decipher cryptic clues from obtuse signage – what does ‘5.5′ mean: kilojoules, pounds, minutes? Imagine if road signs followed the same trend: ‘10 miles’ – yes, but to where!?

eggs

My beef with the menu turned to pulled pork with the meal and I started to calm down. I normally like my eggs firm but they were runny when they were served and I must confess, the meal tasted better for it. However, the wooden slates seemed an odd choice of serving tableware – as the runny yolk soaked into the grain of the wood my brain demanded ceramic plates.

As regards the meal, it fulfilled the venue’s brief perfectly: easy to digest, filling enough and comforting flavours. Coffee was good too.

Will, the man in charge on the day, came to my table afterwards with his notebook in hand and chatted with me. I mentioned everything I’ve listed in this post to him and he actually seemed to make a note of what I said, so well done Will for going down this route.

Would I recommend to others? Yes.