Archive for May, 2007

Working class thieves, middle class professionals.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2007

Watching a television programme called House of Horrors, where they expose dodgy traders through secret filming, I had to question a basic assumption held by the programme makers.

The entire programme was devoted to traders who overcharged for the job. Someone in the programme, for example, was charged a thousand pounds by a locksmith to be let into his own house after locking themselves out. A lot of the traders, in their defence, said ‘buyer beware,’ which is fair enough if you are a fairly wealthy buyer with reasonable critical thinking skills (’A thousand pounds! Hmm, might be cheaper to break a window.’).

One of the victims complained that the tradesmen seem to size up the value of the house and charge accordingly. But isn’t this exactly what solicitors do when they charge a percentage of the value of the estate to do the probate for example? Why are they not subject to undercover filming?

I’m not condoning the incompetent work and rapacious greed of these tradesmen but the entire premise of the programme was based on ‘the going rate for the job’, and it begs the question, ‘how is the going rate decided upon?’

Because these are working class traders doing a skilled or semi skilled manual job, it is assumed by our society that they are worth so much per hour. If they have the temerity to charge above that rate then they are considered thieves. Why doesn’t this thinking apply to solicitors or financial advisers who might charge hundreds of pounds per hour? A trainer told me recently he charges three or four thousand pounds per day for his services.

Why are these people not considered thieves? They charge what they can get away with, so why can’t working class manual labourers do the same?

The most dangerous ideas in history. 1. Consciousness.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

Putting the apes in charge of the lab must rank as one of the most stupid and brilliant ideas of all time. As soon as the first human being had the brain power for making the connection between a sharp piece of flint slicing their hand and slicing the flesh of an animal carcass we were off on this wild journey of discovery. We had woken up from an eternal sleep and now we demanded attention along with our breakfast.. and clever toys.. and the moon on a stick.

Eventually our explorations revealed we were inside a huge laboratory – the earth which was inside another huge laboratory. And we couldn’t resist tinkering with everything we found. And the stuff we found!

We found the gas taps and turned them on full. We found the electric sockets and pushed wires into them. We found the plutonium which appeared to power the whole enterprise and kicked that around. Then we found the text books with mysterious code inside them and worked out how to read them. We were getting so clever we even changed bits of the book we didn’t like! Pretty soon we will find the author of these books and then we will ask hard questions of them and if we don’t like the answers they give we will incarcerate them and experiment on them until they give up the ghost – which was the thing we were actually looking for.

So from one standpoint the story of Adam and Eve has a prescience about it, but from our standpoint and our creativity we can interpret it differently; the serpent is the agent of change, the constant movement of energy that attempts to even out the bumps. The fruit of knowledge is the gift of consciousness – the file in the cake. For Adam and Eve were prisoners inside the garden of ignorance and consciousness allowed them the ingenuity to escape.

Now we’re on the run, and as we have nothing to lose we will become one of those escapees that is armed and extremely dangerous and should not be approached. That’s the trouble with consciousness; once acquired there is no ticket home. We might as well be blasting into space with no plans for a return journey. We are forever more on the run from what we know awaits us… our own death which we have to face alone.

See the movie.

The church of the scientific method

Monday, May 28th, 2007

Here is a ruthless article exposing the fallibility of peer group review – an essential part of getting a new scientific theory accepted by the scientific community.

It has been my view that, historically, the Church, has had no interest in scientific truth (although I accept some enlightened religious leaders were keen on scientific research); it was only interested in maintaining its power base. Scientific truth however, is
a) independent of any value system and beliefs, and
b) it works.

After reading this article it lamentably demonstrates that human nature will not be denied in any activity undertaken by humans. With science, it would seem logical that human foibles would be pushed into the background as science demanded certain steps to be followed in a particular order before any evidence was accepted as truth. There was a rigourous procedure. In reality, science brings out the worst of human nature because massive ego’s are involved in a highly specialised game which involves interpretation. In this respect, science today is the twin of past religious dogma. The humans in charge of the process have yet again established their power bases and refuse to relinquish that power, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence (except the evidence will not have chance to be considered for a very long time).

In some respects you can sympathise with the ruling elite; they have spent their lives defending certain beliefs. Who could easily admit that their entire life’s work was a waste of time?

I remember a friend of mine enlightening me on the commercial aspects of military campaigns, in particular a book by Smedley Butler. Imagine how hard it would be to sell a war to the soldiers and their families (and the general public) if they knew that the war was an exercise in commercial profit which, if they were victorious, they would not materially benefit.

At least in the past the victorious common soldier shared in the spoils of war.

Tips on giving a good presentation

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

Professor Ivor Tymchak

How many PowerPoint presentations have you seen that include more bullet points than a St Valentines day massacre? How many ‘speakers’ have you seen that should really be marketed as ‘sedatives’? 

Here are a few hints and tips to keep your presentation fresh and lively.

Come in with a bang!
I perform stand up comedy and I know I have thirty seconds from coming on stage to grab my audience or lose them. The advice to aspiring comedians is to start with their best joke. Good advice. If you have something that will interest your audience, give it to them. 

Put yourself in their shoes – what would grab your attention? How about an astounding fact or statistic? Pose a question which fires the imagination. Demonstrate a trick or make a deliberate mistake. Tell a story they can relate to – anything to get them hooked into your subject. 

One word of caution; whatever it is you do to get their attention, make it relevant to your message. A gratuitous stunt can cheapen your entire presentation.

Get on with it. 
Have you any idea how many unsolicited travel articles are binned because they start at the airport? It seems logical to start at the beginning, but the beginning is very rarely where it gets interesting. Why not ‘cut to the chase’ and ‘flashback’ to how it all started? To help you plan, draw a mind map of your presentation, sequence the information and then rearrange the sequence so that your most interesting piece is at the beginning. You can usually script it so that it makes sense overall. 

History keeps repeating itself
This is another common mistake because it seems so logical – give them the background to your subject. This is like going back to before the beginning. Again, get on with it! Be absolutely ruthless when assessing the value of what you include in your presentation – is it neccessary, does it add anything, would it be of interest to someone who is only on the fringes of the subject? 

If you do feel compelled to include history and any other requirements for complete understanding, then put them in a handout given at the end.

Don’t take yourself too seriously
You want the audience to care about your message, not about you. If you have to tell them about how important your message is and how much they need to care, you’ve ‘died’. It is the equivalent of having to explain a joke that you have just told; it’s embarrasing. If you demonstrate your humanity, passion and enthusiasm, your audience will empathise with you and be more prepared to listen to your message.

Get creative 
Most speakers recognise the value of a prop or two. But why stop there? How about an acronym that spells ‘ACRONYM’? or a funny title – ‘Seven steps to building a staircase’ Use language  like an artist uses colour. We hear prose every day, most of it is banal. By inserting a vivid metaphor, similie or analogy you will raise the bar on your presentation above the commonplace. 

Commission talent
We’ve all seen the slides of readily available clip art. What it says to me, as a member of the audience is, “this is recycled and reprocessed clip art. If I’ve done it with the art I have probably done it with the rest of my presentation”. 

Is that the impression you want to give? If the presentation is one that you give a lot it will be worth the investment of hiring an artist to generate some unique imagery for you. 

Don’t forget copy writers as well, they can come up with the startling imagery that can make your speech shine, as well as provide other services such as editing. 

Make use of reference books such as Bob Monkhouse’s Speakers handbook; there are some great one liners in there. It’s not an admission of failure to draft in help, it’s a path to improvement!

Leave them wanting more, instead of just leaving
This is the stated aim of any product, not just entertainers. It is achieved by engrossing the consumer and firing their imagination. In a presentation, that means every word, every image, every gesture has to earn its place. If it doesn’t work hard, make it do so or get rid of it.

Remember the maxim; less is more.

Influence

Monday, May 21st, 2007

At a Professional Speakers Association meeting a guest speaker asked the audience to play a little game with her and she gave us some confusing instruction (at least to me) about what she wanted us to do. She then said we had several seconds in which to complete the exercise ’starting now’.

As I understood it, part of this exercise involved noticing something new about the person sitting next to you, something personal, and commenting on it to that person. I was still trying to figure out what her instruction meant exactly and so was unsure what I was supposed to say. In the end, the meaning I thought I had divined, and the ‘new’ thing I had noticed about the person sitting next to me (an interpretation I had made from a gesture she had made earlier in the evening) prompted me to say something confused and peculiarly insensitive which must have sounded like insulting nonsense to the lady next to me. To her credit she did not take offence (or at least did not make it known to me) and we persevered with the exercise.

However, this faux pas troubled me for some time after the speech had finished and I was feeling strangely resentful of the speaker but didn’t really know why.

The following day I watched another speaker who also got his audience to perform various exercises. I half-heartedly joined in but again, felt uncomfortable about it. Fortunately I was sat in an isolated position at the back of the audience as I had come in late, and so did not have to interact with a stranger. The ‘joke’ of the exercise was that it could end up in some embarrassing outcome if he asked us to do certain things but in the end he did not and it did not. The possibility was always there though.

And this is why I feel uncomfortable about these ‘blind’ exercises. The speaker could ask anything of the audience and the audience would have to go along with it until they came to a particular instruction that they would refuse to obey – ‘everyone take their clothes off and dance around deliriously‘ for example. The line where this would occur would differ for everyone. For me, I’m chalking the line almost immediately (I can’t stand dancing). As soon as I am in a position of subservience (the pressure from the rest of the willing audience is practically an order to conform) I resent that position and resist any attempt by the facilitator to exploit it. If the speaker were to demonstrate the entire exercise with the probable outcome before he asked us to do it, fine, I can assess what is being asked of me and consent or refuse according to how I felt about the exercise. But to blindly follow any order.. that’s the thin edge of the wedge.

Then I read Influence by Robert Cialdini and using hard scientific research it explained exactly why I felt uncomfortable.

The speaker, in asking me to perform certain exercises, was setting me up in a small way, to be consistent so that I would comply with much larger requests which may be asked later on (the speaker may or may not ask me to do these bigger things but they are using the same technique as someone who would be deliberately trying to manipulate me). In fact in the book it actually states that you can be alerted to such a strategy by a gut feeling which is telling you something is wrong with a request or situation. My gut usually works overtime in such situations.

As a result I have now come to a click, whirr decision about such matters to simplify things for me. If I am in a similar situation again and a speaker asks me to join in any exercise I will simply refuse. I will explain to the person sitting next to me or the group I have been assigned to that I am uncomfortable with the exercise. If challenged, I will explain I thought I had a choice in the matter, or had I stumbled into a dictatorship? If pushed for an explanation I will say the nazi’s started off by asking their officers to demonstrate small commitments of their consistency before asking them to perform bigger ones and anyway, I was there to see the dancing monkey, no-one told me I had to dance.

So if you are in an audience of whatever kind and the speaker asks everyone to join in and someone doesn’t… that’ll be me.

Being bored

Friday, May 18th, 2007

I was talking to a member of the Freethinkers group I have recently started and I was listing all the ideas I currently had on the go, when she said ‘You just don’t want to be bored, do you.’ And my immediate thought was ‘who does?

This got me thinking; what is boredom? My best guess is a lack of stimulation. Presumably the brain requires a certain amount of data input otherwise.. what? We cease functioning? And also what sends a signal to the brain that we need this stimulation? When we are hungry for example, there must be some sensor in the stomach or other organ that processes food, that sends a signal to the brain to say ‘I need more food, go and find some.’ But which organ(s) sends a signal to our brain that we are bored – is it our brain? I can’t think what else it could be; if all is well with our physical selves, where is the problem?

It is also puzzling why that feature is there. Going back thousands of years, when would the opportunity have arisen for someone to get bored. I can’t imagine there would have been much respite from simply surviving, and again, what is its evolutionary function? If we go hungry for long enough we die. If we are bored for long enough what could happen – we get totally confused and wander into the path of a predator?

Unless, in the past our lives were so full of incident, danger and jeopardy that today, the lack of such things is causing our brains to ask what has happened. After millions of years of having to constantly monitor our surroundings and react at once, our brains have evolved to expect and handle a certain amount of data. If it doesn’t get a sufficient amount, maybe it has to make up its own.

Is boredom a modern phenomenon? Are we the leopard in the zoo pacing up and down its cage in a repetitive circle of boredom? And why is the brain different to a muscle say? If we stop using a muscle it atrophies, it doesn’t ache with underuse. Perhaps consciousness has forced us into a loop and there is now no way back; it’s stimulation or madness, take your pick.

Are you a parasite?

Monday, May 14th, 2007

I’m confused. What is supposed to be the definition of a parasite? When I looked it up, a parasite is defined as something that lives off, or on, something else without contributing anything in return.

Like what? Surely every living thing is a parasite as it requires some other living thing to live off. If you are at the top of the food chain, what do you give in return? How does a cow living off grass contribute anything in return? If the argument is that the cow produces dung which recycles the nutrients of the grass then I suppose the same can be said of parasites except they recycle nutrients in a slightly different way.

The more I think about it, the more unrepresentative the symbiotic model (flowers giving nectar in exchange for pollination, for example) is in the animal kingdom. The parasitic model is the dominant one. In fact most parasites are benign because they do not usually kill the host and if they do kill the host (usually by accident – the malaria parasite is a parasite on the mosquito) then it can be argued that they are recycling the nutrients for the benefit of others.

And whose benefit are we talking about? I have read some fungal parasites are so host specific that they stop any one particular ant species from dominating the ecosystem – not so good for that particular species of ant that enjoys a boom in its population but good for all the others.

So parasites, ultimately, are good for everyone. Even the malarial parasite. It has been calculated that, aside from man made exterminations and natural disasters, malaria has been responsible for the deaths of 50% of the human race since we appeared on the planet. Imagine how much bigger our population would be without it, and we are already groaning at the seams.

So the malarial parasite is doing the rest of the natural world a favour by keeping our numbers in check. For human beings are the ultimate parasite; we kill the animals that we prey on to extinction.

Once again, it is all down to your frame of reference.

Context

Friday, May 11th, 2007

I sometimes think I need to move to London or New York (or at least have some sort of office address there) to sell my services more effectively. It just has more credibility if you say you are based in a big city. The suggestion is, you are playing with the big boys. The wrapper is the context.

I remember an incident from my youth which demonstrates the point. I was growing up in a declining textile town in Yorkshire and, possibly as a result of its utilitarianism, I became fascinated by an exotic Los Angeles based band called the The Doors, led by the charismatic Jim Morrison. Jim had a pair of leather trousers. With that strange logic that most adolescents possess I divined that owning similar clothes to your current hero conferred other attributes into the bargain – have trousers, charisma would follow. So naturally, I had to get my own pair of leather trousers.

Not having the money to travel to London and buy a pair in the West End I went to a newly opened local shop that made leather bags. I asked if they could turn their hand to clothes and as they had just set up in business they said ‘yeah, sure, we can have a go.’ Their prices were surprisingly cheap too (they would soon learn the lessons of selling too cheaply) and so in a fit of exuberance I ordered a matching jacket as well. I sketched out the design for the trousers and jacket that I wanted and handed them the drawings. They measured me up and told me to come back in a weeks time. I returned in exactly seven days and tried on my new, shiny, chestnut brown, leather suit. It didn’t fit.

So another day arrived, I tried it on and this time it fitted.

Resplendent in my personally designed sexy leather outfit I got ready to hit the town on a Saturday night and strutted purposefully to the bus stop to wait for a bus. Now the outfitters were more used to making leather bags that were made to last, so after I had boarded the bus and tried to sit down, the cardboard suit I was wearing only let me bend so far before it seized up and I had to complete my journey half stood up and half sat down, looking rather like a skier frozen in the ‘just about to jump off the chair lift’ position.

The following Sunday I decided I had to break the leather in and the fact that it was a grey, drizzly day meant I had the perfect conditions to do just that (the rain would help to make the leather supple I surmised in that confused adolescent thinking).

So I went for a stroll, in the rain, in Huddersfield on a Sunday afternoon amongst the country lanes close to my parents’ house in my leather suit. Now had I been waiting for a limo outside LA airport which would then take me to a meeting in Hollywood, I would have looked remarkably cool. But wandering the back roads of Huddersfield on a wet Sunday afternoon.. I looked decidedly odd. No wonder then that a police car pulled up alongside me with a screech of tyres and a burly police man jumped out of the car and ordered me to stand still. He then opened a back door and invited me to get in. What was I doing wandering the streets, in the rain? he asked. Just going for a walk I replied. Lads like you don’t just go for a walk in the rain, he assured me. There was then an exchange of crackly conversation over the radio where the police officer informed his unseen colleague that he had a suspect dressed in brown leather jacket and trousers – did I match the description? A brief interlude occurred where he had to wait for a response. I took this opportunity to ask the officer what was I supposed to have done.

‘It involves a Jaguar’ he answered.

‘Ah well then.’ I said, much relieved, ‘I can’t even drive.’

‘It’s been turned over,’ the officer came back.

Now I didn’t mix with the criminal fraternity nor was I familiar with any British cop series on television and so it was on the tip of my tongue to blurt out ‘Crikey! He must have been a big bloke to turn a car over,’ when something advised me to say as little as possible. Probably a good move as, had I said that, the officer would have thought I was ‘being funny’ and made things a lot harder for me (I later discovered ‘turned over’ meant ‘broken into and robbed’. As it happened a response shortly came over the radio that declared the suspect was wearing jeans and a black bomber jacket – not even close then. To his credit, the policeman suddenly reverted to a civilised member of society and politely sent me on my way, apologising for the inconvenience he had caused.

So the moral of the story is; people are usually looking for what they expect to see. If something doesn’t fit their expectation it either gets ignored or attracts the wrong sort of attention. If you are in a gold mine, you tend to be looking for gold – so much so in fact, you could miss finding the diamonds under your feet.

Experts

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

expert cartoon
Click on cartoon to enlarge
There was an interesting Horizon programme on last night about committing the perfect murder. It largely covered old ground but there was one remarkable scene in it.

In fiction it has often been mooted that a block of ice could be used as a murder weapon. The idea is the ice eventually melts, thus destroying evidence. The programme decided to test this idea out. They had two forensic experts who doubted that it would work. A weapon was fashioned out of ice; it looked like a dumbbell with a spike on one end, and a couple of pieces of meat were readied for the experiment. The experts surmised the ice would shatter before it could do any damage. One of the experts struck the first blow to a thick piece of meat. It penetrated straight through the meat and hit the table beneath. He struck a second piece of meat – a section of rib this time – with the same implement and again the ice delivered a killing blow. The look of surprise on the faces of the ‘experts’ was priceless. Not only had the ice not shattered but even after two killing strikes it looked capable of delivering several more.

I give a speech about assumptions and this example demonstrates a key point perfectly. The experts assumed the ice would shatter. These were experts on human anatomy and biology. They were not structural engineers with a speciality in frozen liquids but they allowed their expertise in one field to cloud their judgement in another.

To be fair, they did challenge their assumptions (or at least the programme makers forced them to) and so discovered their error. This is how a lot of significant discoveries are made; an ‘outsider’ challenges the accepted wisdom of the experts and tests it through experimentation.

Making assumptions and guessing is not good enough; science demands that the demonstration is carried out and results analysed. And lo and behold we see what actually happens.

If you tell me, how can I be sure?

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

I had a comment on my blog concerning the guilt or innocence of Rubin Carter, the former world boxing champion accused of murder and celebrated in a Bob Dylan song – ‘Hurricane’. Apparently there are stories circulating which contradict the Dylan sentiment that he was an innocent man wrongly accused of a crime – so which is right?

This dilemma reminded me of Myra Hyndley, one of the Moors murderers who abducted and tortured children in the Sixties along with Ian Brady. She had received a full life sentence and for decades had protested her innocence as a willing accomplice. Somehow she became a cause celebre and many high profile people began to argue her case. Eventually, after it became apparent that Hindley would never be released, she dropped the pretence and admitted her complicity in the crimes. Some of her supporters publicly admitted their shock and dismay at her duplicity and how easily they had been taken in.

The fact of the matter is, even with these interviews, I have no way of knowing whether she was guilty or not. If I pushed this argument to its logical conclusion, I can’t even be sure that she existed and that this was not some incredible sick hoax perpetrated by the media. I didn’t know her nor anyone who did and I cannot check the facts with them. I can look it up on the internet or research old newspapers but ultimately I am an open channel into which any stories can be dumped. I have to take all the stories on trust (some stories obviously engender more trust than others depending on their source) so just one contradictory story (fabricated or not) can skew the authenticity of all the others.

This is basically why I am an empiricist; I don’t fully believe it unless I experience it or someone I know and trust relates their experience to me personally. The only exception I allow is science. Science is special because it has a method which demands independent verification; if it can’t be reproduced by someone else using the same process, then it isn’t science. This kind of thinking produces technology, superstition does not.

So let’s go back to Rubin Carter and Bob Dylan. Why did Dylan write about him? Well firstly he had his career to think about; he needed a song and this story looked like a cause which he could hang his name on. I don’t think Dylan was there at the time of the shooting, although I believe he talked to Carter when he was in prison (How did that conversation go? – “Did you do it Rubin?” “No I didn’t Bob.”) Basically he was as much an open channel as any of us for the stuff the media and the police decided to dump out.

The reality of any such situation is probably more like this. The police have a catalogue of known suspects, or people they just don’t like, who commit the majority of the crime. Quite often a crime will be committed and the police will have a very good idea about who did it, sometimes not. The problem is getting the evidence. Sometimes the evidence is fabricated. Sometimes this gets the right person off the streets and sometimes this leads to a miscarriage of justice (all of this I have gleaned off the media by the way but to which I have overlaid my own knowledge of human nature). Sometimes we learn of these miscarriages, sometimes not.

My point is this. All history is suspect – ALL history. The older the historical records, the more suspect they become. Let’s face it, the author of any history has too big a motive to paint themselves in a good light and too big an opportunity to alter the ‘facts’. If you get two versions of the history from different angles then you can start to interpret what probably happened.

So the question of Rubin Carter being innocent or guilty is academic from the general publics point of view; we just don’t know. What it does do is however is put a spotlight on police methods for gathering evidence – why is it so unscientific?

One thing you can be certain of though, things are never as straight forward as they seem. As described earlier, many miscarriages of justice are caused by a multiple of factors including incompetent police work, evidence tampering, unreliable witnesses etc. and so we get stories of wrongly convicted murderers serving twenty years before new DNA evidence exonerates them.

This is why I tend to put my faith in science. The discovery of DNA has cast a giant shadow over the perpetrators of unsolved crimes. Forty years later the spectre of their past can still come back to haunt them. Then punish them.

That’s justice in my book.