Archive for July, 2010

Michael Angelo meets Stanley Milgram

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

In the middle of a presentation by a successful professional speaker, a slide came up which illustrated his next point. It was a quote that read;
The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.
Michael Angelo

My immediate reaction was one of amusement but as his presentation continued, something remarkable happened, my amusement turned to doubt.

This particular speaker is incredibly successful at what he does and commands a lot of respect (and fees) as a result. He was on stage in front of a large audience and his voice was amplified. This meant that he had authority over us. We, the audience, had given up our valuable time to listen to him and gain the benefit of his wisdom.

At the end of his presentation, he asked for any questions. I was on the cusp of asking him. “Who is this ‘Michael Angelo;? I had heard of Michelangelo the artist, is it the same person?” But his authority stopped me.

If I asked this question, somebody was going to look stupid, and I wasn’t 100% sure, it was going to be him. His position of authority had sown the seeds of doubt in my mind.

Although I was familiar with the art works of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni,  I was not familiar with his writings, and so I couldn’t be sure that the person referred to in the quote was the same Michelangelo. The possibility remained that there was another Michael Angelo who is a professional speaker and has an improbable name, just as Zig Ziglar has.

At the presentation, I remained silent.

When I got home, I was straight onto the computer. An internet search revealed that there is indeed a Michael Angelo. His fame though, lies in being a heavy metal guitarist who plays an improbable looking twin necked guitar. Further searches did not reveal him to be a professional speaker on the side, with a history of producing memorable quotes.

Interestingly, more research showed that, nine times out of ten, the quote used in the presentation was attributed to Michelangelo, but the tenth one was incorrectly attributed to Michael Angelo. It became apparent that the speaker had seen the quote somewhere, thought it would be useful in one of his presentations, and so copied and pasted it verbatim. Unfortunately, because he was not familiar with the artist, he took the attribution on trust and copied an incorrect one. I guess most people have done this kind of thing at some point in their careers.

The dangers though, are apparent;

In terms of his presentation, as soon as I noticed the error, he had lost me. Not only was I preoccupied with the veracity of the quote, I was also questioning the entire content of his presentation – if he had got that wrong, what else had he simply copied and pasted without thinking.

His apparent authority of his own subject matter made me doubt my own knowledge. I was reluctant to bring up the point in discussion because of the hierarchical nature of speaker presentations. Despite what anyone might say, it is not an equitable exchange of ideas and knowledge. It is his job to speak, therefore he must know what he is talking about. A recent example of acceding to authority, is the way ‘financial experts’ managed to convince seemingly ‘intelligent’ bankers that sub prime mortgages were an infallible way to make money. Experiments by Stanley Milgram, confirm this tendency of ours to submit to any sort of authority.

On a philosophical note, short of travelling to Italy and seeing original documents, I cannot be absolutely sure that Michelangelo made that quote or that his name is spelled as most books have it. So is my knowledge of Michelangelo any more certain than the speakers?

Perhaps I should end with this quote, allegedly attributed to Buddha;
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.

The end is closer than you think

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Some regular visitors to this blog will have noticed that a week or so ago, it was off-line for several days. Here’s what happened. One evening I was looking at the comments on my latest post, then I went to bed. In the morning, I went to look at my blog and it wasn’t working. That’s it.

I had done nothing to it, it simply stopped working. What followed was an intense, unpleasant experience of many telephone calls, software upgrades, software uninstall’s, database backups, Google searches, studies of code etc.

At one stage I was prepared to give up. The entire process was too complex to remedy. It would need an expert to fix it and I may have lost all my data. So then I had the idea of starting again from scratch, a brand new blog. This was a strangely thrilling idea. It’s like the idea of owning nothing; at first the thought is terrifying, but then you realise that you would be free of any responsibility and you have the opportunity to start again.

In the end, with the help of various people volunteering advice, I was able to reinstate the blog but there was one comment from a call centre employee of the service provider I use, that made an impression on me. He said, “You are not obliged to upgrade.” He was right, and totally wrong. Of course I could still be using floppy discs if I wanted to but the rest of the world wouldn’t let me. I’m guessing that my blog stopped working because the service provider changed something at their end. My old version of WordPress probably couldn’t handle it. The world moves on, and what worked yesterday, may not work today. The speed of change is exponential. That means it will soon overtake our ability to cope with it.

Here’s the other lesson I was reminded of. If the blog can suddenly stop working, what else can? Well, everything, of course. Imagine waking up in the morning and discovering that you had no power in your house. Could you fix it? Remember, you can’t Google the problem, you have no power.

Turning up the volume

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010


As a student, I bought a hi-fi system off a room mate. As you would expect from students, it was cheap and functional. It had a Garrard deck, an Amstrad amplifier and Solavox speakers. It gave me many hours of listening pleasure.

When I left college and got a job which gave me disposable income, I went to an auction and bought a Technics amplifier and cassette deck. These items were high quality, and once they were incorporated into my hi-fi system, it was apparent that the overall sound was improved considerably. Over the years it gave me great pleasure.

Eventually I replaced the record deck with a cd player. The powerful Technics amplifier however, was never fully tested. I lived in a terraced house which meant I could only play loud music when I knew my neighbours were out and the ‘loud‘ was only relative. The Solavox speakers were rated at 30 watts and my amp, 80 watts, so any significant volume created distortion in the speakers. Fortunately, my taste in music was somewhat enhanced by distortion, so I didn’t particularly notice.

Then I got married and eventually moved to a detached house with plenty of room. This meant that the Solavox speakers didn’t need to be suspended from the wall anymore. In fact, I could get some decent floor standing speakers and finally upgrade the weakest link in my sound system chain. A little bit of research suggested a pair of Mission speakers was what was needed and a visit to a dedicated hi-fi shop produced a couple of surprises.

Firstly, I could actually test the speakers in a sound proof room before I bought them. Then, when I said I would have them, the shop assistant insisted that I also buy proprietorial speaker cable which looked and weighed like the stuff they lay across the Atlantic.

When I got the speakers home and wired them up to the amplifier I noticed that the amp had the facility to attach an additional set of speakers. An interesting exercise in comparison presented itself, so I wired up both sets of speakers to do a test. A favourite cd was inserted and I waited for a suitable passage of music to switch from the one set of speakers to the other. When I did, a psychological seismic shock occurred. The Solavox speakers sounded like incomprehensible mush when compared against the Mission speakers. It was a fight between an anorexic teenage girl and a pituitary assisted, super heavyweight, Olympic boxing champion. It was a chasm of quality so wide that I couldn’t actually see the other side of the chasm, and I had a moment of existential doubt.

Did it mean that the pleasure I had enjoyed from the original speakers was now somehow invalid?  Were those hours of listening pleasure, ersatz?  If I had not directly compared the two products, would this doubt have arisen? Did it matter, now that it had? Should I have looked on the positive side and been happy that I had, at last, discovered a better product and that my listening pleasure would, from now on, be enhanced?

But it gets worse.

Once I had given the Solavox speakers away and just had the Mission speakers connected, another temptation arose.

The speakers are rated a lot higher than the amplifier, which means that I can turn the amp to full volume and the sound wouldn’t distort. And as I now live in a detached house with insulated walls, there is nothing to stop me from doing so.

Except there is. The amp is more powerful than my hearing can stand. If I wanted to listen to music at full volume I would have to wear ear defenders, which obviously, defeats the object. This means that I have an amp and a set of speakers that I can never fully appreciate.

I interpreted this as an, opportunity loss and felt vaguely disappointed. I realised I had come to the end of my hi-fi arms race. To continue upgrading was futile.

Some people will be reading this and, being expert with the equipment available in the hi-fi market, be despairing of my standards. But this is exactly my point.

Isn’t this where we are in our consumerist culture? With its limitless array of choices and upgrades, we go through this process of comparison all the time. We call it progress, but a better description of it is, turning up the volume.

We each have different elements to our lives – work, family, hobbies, goals – and we try to improve each of these areas as we go along – a promotion, a new partner, a bigger house, a more adventurous holiday. At some point though, we reach a threshold. We can’t turn up the volume any more without causing pain to ourselves or someone near us.

Consider the razors currently for sale. Those five, vibrating, individually lubricated blades cut bristles just as well as the original single blade did (and can still do, if they haven’t deliberately down graded the quality). All that has happened is that the volume has been turned up. Adding a sixth blade isn’t going to produce a closer shave but you can be sure it will be marketed as a ‘better’ product.

We live in a society today that has the volume knob already rammed up to 10 and the noise is so loud that we have unknowingly crossed the threshold from excitement into pain. Just look at the evidence in the mental health statistics.

The only solution the industrialised system has to offer is to produce a volume knob with the number 11 etched on it.  It’s a mindset that will eventually destroy our ability to appreciation the very things that we claim to value.

It is time to turn down the volume and to listen to the music again, to appreciate the subtle rhythms and harmonies of life. This is my song, but who will hear it, amidst the noise?

How stupid do they think we are #4

Monday, July 5th, 2010

On the mainstream propaganda news today, was a story about CEO’s pay going up whilst the profits of the companies they manage were going down. The justification for this anomaly, was that CEO’s need to work harder in a recession and, “in order to keep the best people who can get you out of a fix you need to pay them the going rate”.

Wait a minute, I’m sure I’ve heard that argument somewhere before… Oh yes, it was during the boom years, except it had one little tweak; “in order to keep the best people who can maintain a profit you need to pay them the going rate”.

Being a CEO seems like a win win sinecure to me. Their culpability is never up for discussion. Now how did that happen?

How stupid do they think we are #3

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

There is some ineluctable logic here; if the police presence at the G20 was so massive, how come the ‘anarchists’ could destroy property with impunity? And how come camera crews were there, but not the police? Do the news crews have better intelligence than the police?

Also, we can only assume that the police operation, which cost millions of dollars, was a failure because the very thing they were trying to stop – property being destroyed – occurred unmolested. Presumably, this was because the police were too busy gassing innocent protesters who only wanted to sit down on some grass.