Archive for February, 2008

The Knackered Hack office window looks out onto Solsbury Hill (or more precisely Little Solsbury) made famous by our local bard, one Peter Gabriel.

If you strip Gabriel’s song down, it tells a story about options and decision-making, and a powerful one at that. It alludes to the turmoil the lead-singer of Genesis went through after he left that iconic band. He got out in 1975, just before punk arrived, though that was not his motive: more creative exhaustion, as I understand it (one of our broken things, you could say).

If you are my age, you’ll know that admitting to liking Genesis as a teenager amounted to what kids these days call “social death.” However, in our modern eclectic world, all the sins of the past are forgotten; my friend Andy (see Journey of a Lifetime) even went to the Led Zep concert, and he was a dyed-in-the-mohair punk, if ever there was one.

solsbury hill

Solsbury Hill (Looking down on)

I doubt that the world of decision-making research is going to anoint Gabriel with any honorary degrees, and it’s a long shot that he might be considered for a Nobel Prize in Economics. But why not? Perhaps he could share it jointly with Paul Simon, who did pioneering work in spreading the understanding of the confirmation bias through the song The Boxer, with what I consider one of the best lines in pop:-

Still, a man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest”

But anyway, our options, and how we exercise them are really fundamental to success, or the avoidance of failure. So I was delighted when the Knackered Hackette’s cousin, Greg, brought to my attention the following New York Times story on Dan Ariely’s new book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, because it shows our aversion toward losing options — even when logic dictates that they will have no value to us. Ariely constructed a game to test how we respond to particular pay-offs. Players had to click on doors with rewards behind them:-

As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.

Even after students got the hang of the game by practising it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.

They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.

According to the report, what seemed to motivate was not the desire for future flexibility, but the pain of watching a door close.

“Closing a door on an option is experienced as a loss, and people are willing to pay a price to avoid the emotion of loss,” Dr. Ariely says. In the experiment, the price was easy to measure in lost cash. In life, the costs are less obvious — wasted time, missed opportunities. If you are afraid to drop any project at the office, you pay for it at home.

In my experience too, there is a lot of mental accounting that goes on just as the NYT says, and it takes real effort, or the words of a poet, to provide a consolidated view.

And because anywhere that the words diversity and complexity appear together Knackered Hack alerts go off, this is a treat for the weekend from a group called Hyannis Sound:-

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I’ve only seen a couple of mentions of this term on the internet, mainly derogatory comments aimed at my miscreant colleagues in the fourth estate, as if “garage” equalled “gutter”.

But I think “garage journalism” is a good name. We should rub it down, respray it and apply new transfers so that it can be re-used to describe the new emergent forms of journalism: citizen journalism, hyper-local journalism and the rest of small-unit production in the long tail.

Aside from what is happening on the web, I have personally been involved in some of this hyper-local journalism in recent years, but using old-fashioned print. Moreover, just last week I was excited to see examples of that same model being copied in an adjacent neighbourhood. We’re talking very small community magazines delivered for nothing door to door, produced by volunteers with the support of local business. Not about real-estate, but real life. When I walked into the Indian takeaway, the very young proprietor was insistent that I take a copy. Had one come through the door? he asked. It should have, but I should take one away anyway. Published by the local school, in partnership with small shops in the “city village”, I had not thought that the demographic would be attractive enough. But the businesses, Gawd bless ‘em, seem to have got behind it.

Eventually, I’m sure, the same crew that are putting it together will be able to develop local blog-based news, and, who knows?, maybe even a YouTube/BlipTV based TV channel that would cover the village fête and the combined schools expedition up the local high point. The magazine will seed that online local audience as it emerges and matures. And the fact that we are all filming ourselves doing things locally will make those things seem more important, and I suspect better supported by the community. The local will become even more salient. There is a widely reported Belgian community TV experiment I’m already aware, although it uses traditional cable, I think.

As the video below shows, the idea probably is not so new. It could be said to have its antecedents in the “country” newspapers of the US, where the producer of such micro-local news was perhaps a local printer, for whom publishing a local news sheet did not constitute a full living, and so this had to be supplemented with contract printing. It’s good for journalists to reflect that a fully-paid up salaried profession may not be the future, was not always the past and may not even be an accurate representation of the present any longer.

What struck me about this informational newsreel was the range of tasks the local publisher was required to have technical knowledge of, in contrast to his municipal counterpart. The point the film makes is that this type of publisher must know all aspects of his business to succeed: from reporting, gathering advertising, setting type to printing. To quote, about 8 mins in, contrasting the skills needed of this country newsman with his urban contemporary:-

All this knowledge and experience seems a great deal to ask of one man but he leads a happy life and takes pride in the fact that he is in business for himself.

The publisher of a city paper has the responsibility of running a large organization. His is a good position, and one you might do well to aim for.

These days the small-town publisher would be learning social media, digital photography/video, taxonomy and SEO, and probably worrying (like me) when, or if, he should get round to learning Ruby. How much to err toward the professionalism of Adobe? How much to plunge into the messy ingenuity of open source plug-ins?

Although blogging in some ways needs no more than a simple WordPress, Typepad or Blogspot account to get going, publishing is always bound to get more sophisticated as the experimental possibilities increase, and those of us who want to will start to tinker in search of something more presentable, goofy, entertaining, or even just as a self-distraction. It seems to me that a creative form of journalism now needs to be recognized that is akin to the garage inventor, the garage band, the 1930s sci-fi fanmags or ’70s punk fanzines. To the initiated, the concept of blogging lacks sufficient differentiation.

At least it goes some way to explain the head-scratching ‘hobby’ that hundreds of thousands of writers/publishers are going through either in search of their own satisfaction, to fulfil some community need, or find some elusive business model that starts the cash rolling in. I suspect a good many of us are a mixture of all three, and don’t know whether what will come out at the end will be a piece of fine Chippendale, or some ill-fitting shelving from which a much-prized objet (our reputation for level-headedness perhaps) will later become dislodged. As with any DIY project, it is not clear at the outset what one’s real level of skill is, how much it needs to expand, and whether it will be encouraged, admired or even tolerated by spouse and hungry family, let alone friends.

But, above all else, it seems very clear that, just as with ’60s tech, or ’70s punk, some delectable new flavours will ultimately bubble up from what might look from the wrong angle to be a rather unappetising stochastic soup.

Here is the video:

And just to pinch ourselves before we get too romantic about the charm of the local, go here to Wikipedia where you’ll find a clip of Peter Sellers adopting a similar narrative tone for comedic rather than documentary purposes to highlight a place, Bal-ham, where I was happy once to consider myself a resident. Gateway to the South, indeed.

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Apocalypse Now culminates in a meeting with a large, terrifying man in a forsaken place that few normal humans would dream of venturing into of their own free will.

I was reminded of this narrative when listening again to a BBC Radio 4 documentary by my friends and former co-workers, Andy and Grigori, about their trip to Russia’s Norilsk nickel mine several years ago. The eponymous town is a byword for extremity: bad extremity, at that. Lying within the Arctic circle and the permafrost zone, it is Siberia’s northernmost city: a grim, black stain on the white tundra. In 2003, when my friends visited, it was still a closed city, long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officially designated one of the filthiest places on earth, Norilsk offers it’s residents a life expectancy 10 years shorter than the national average. I can tell you’re itching to book yourself a ticket.

When I worked in Fleet Street, Andy ran commodities coverage for me. The uninitiated within mainstream journalism will tend to regard commodities as a Cinderella profession. But you don’t succeed in this highly investigative area of reporting by being a shrinking violet. It touches the whole world, and the more difficult parts of it to boot. There is a darkness to it that is never far away; places like Norilsk epitomise that shadiness. Commodities is an environment in which a tradition of buccaneering still survives; there were moments when you kind of knew that the wrong decision of what to cover — and how — could cost somebody their life. I reported metals for a while, and so could only marvel at the depth of knowledge and range of contacts that Andy and Grigori managed to construct over the years.


Norilsk Nickel Plant from the air (Google Maps)

Andy and Grigori between them had long had to report the ins and outs of industrial activity at Norilsk because it dominates the world nickel market. As the documentary makes plain, this was no easy task. And it is important because, yes, we probably all own something that came out of the ground there. Based on what Wikipedia has to say here, you are breathing some of it each day too:-

The Blacksmith Institute included Norilsk in its 2007 list of the ten most polluted places on Earth. The list cites air pollution by particulates (including radioisotopes strontium-90, and caesium-137 and heavy metals nickel, copper, cobalt, lead and selenium) and by gases (such as nitrogen and carbon oxides, sulfur dioxide, phenols and hydrogen sulfide).”

Andy and Grigori’s programme, though, was a personal attempt to visit the human story that is Norilsk, rather than the statistical and commercial that had shaped their own long relationship with the place. The sense of environmental and other dangers is palpable, particularly as they descend into the heart of darkness that is the unlit mine 1km below the Siberian surface. There, in a 300km network of underground shafts, huge diesel vehicles manoeuvre in and out of side tunnels, sometimes at speed: behemoths looming monster-like out of the shadows. Andy and Grigori are provided with emergency supplies in the event that they get separated from their guide and lost in the labyrinth.

Knowing both men, the programme also highlights and reminds me of the themes in yesterday’s post about diversity and collaboration within teams; I touched on this before in my essay about Twitter. Andy and Grigori were essential parts of a real-time network of reporters that coordinated their daily activities across the globe using instant messaging, in particular the mIRC tool, reflecting the need for rapid coordination to break and respond to financial market news events. Unlike the telegraphese-based message wires that characterised inter-bureau communication in the old newswire days, which were terse and sometimes highly politicised, IM was particularly beneficial where remote bureaus and the very general skills needed by the staff in them, were routinely pressed to cover highly specialized beats. This required expert supervision from the main reporting centres, and mutual trust.

The blogosphere is often referred to now as “The Conversation”. But the beauty of the mIRC chat service we used back then was that the remote bureau could become an active part of even the water-cooler conversations in major bureaus like London. The diversity of the organization, that would otherwise have been latent, became active.

Anyway, I think you can hear the nature of the working friendships forged in action in the podcast.

Andy has written a book about his experience — Siberian Dreams – which is available from the usual suspects or via Knackered Hack Booksellers Inc. So reserve your signed copy now, by email, for when new stocks arrive.

You can find out more about the BBC/Royal Geographical Society’s Journey of a Lifetime broadcast series here.

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For anyone who missed it, Peter Day’s In Business programme on BBC Radio 4 several weeks ago highlighted the peculiarities of competition and collaboration in the Cambridge University Boat Club in preparing for the selection of its 1st VIII for the annual Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race, or The Boat Race to be precise. (Podcast for download here.)

Judge Business School reader Marc De Rond said that business researchers have had difficulty identifying the impact of one individual within teams. In sport, it is a little easier and he set out to study his local rowing club. Cambridge coach, Duncan Holland, put it thus:-

Rowers are very experienced at making teams because in an eight, in comparison to other sports, you can’t have a star and some water carriers… An eight really is as fast as the slowest member, so rowers have a lot of experience of getting on together and working out how slightly better people can get on with slightly lesser people and focusing on a common goal.”

However, there was an added complexity. All members of the squad have to row perfectly together, but this requirement to co-ordinate their actions perfectly together was simultaneous with their own competitive need to capture the next person’s place in the first team, or “blue” boat.

De Rond’s study noted that the qualities that make the alpha-male rowers good competitors, also make them difficult. They think quickly, believe they can anticipate what will be said to them, and are surprisingly oblivious to the feelings of others. In this instance the skills needed of the coach are of a high order if the team is to be successful.

It may also mean picking an inferior rower in some instances to provide social buffering between otherwise dysfunctionally aggressive behaviours. They highlighted the way in which a majority of the Blue boat chose Dan O’Shaughnessy to row with them rather than a stronger rower, because his sense of humour, among other things, permitted them to relate to one another in a way that they could not on their own. And so they would row faster.

Echoing the work of Scott Page, which we have noted several times, Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School said:-

We know that the relationships we have in teams are at the heart of how we feel about our companies. We stay in our companies because we love working as a member of a team and we leave them because we hate working in that team. There is an argument that people are naturally cooperative and that what has happened in organizations is we’ve put an overlay of competition which actually destroys the humanness of being in a team and the pleasure of working.

Having studied companies including Goldman Sachs and Google, she said strong teams had three things in common: all teams were prepared to cooperate with one another, they all had diverse points of view, they all had a mission or a question that was very exciting for them.

She said the best teams for a highly innovative product comprise members from different countries, different mindsets and different genders. Male and female teams are more productive than single gender teams.

A group of experts is only good at finding a better way to do what they do well. Yet they struggle to innovate. Innovation comes from a clash of ideas. And a common mistake leaders make is in believing they should choose all the participants in a team. The best teams are those where there is a core, and then volunteers come in because they are excited by the idea of participation in the project. Naturally, Google’s “twenty-per-cent time” was offered as a compelling example.

Another interesting proviso was to not make diverse teams socialise before they work together. It only makes them realise how much they don’t like each other.

This dissonance was central to Scott Page’s RSA seminar last spring. The New York Times interviewed him in early January here. He offered a mathematical reflection of how all this works:-

What the model showed was that diverse groups of problem solvers outperformed the groups of the best individuals at solving problems. The reason: the diverse groups got stuck less often than the smart individuals, who tended to think similarly.

The other thing we did was to show in mathematical terms how when making predictions, a group’s errors depend in equal parts on the ability of its members to predict and their diversity. This second theorem can be expressed as an equation: collective accuracy = average accuracy + diversity.”

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As I’ve touched on before, I’ve a self-justifying preference for the intermittent, irregular, and the archive in my blog-reading and -writing.

A while ago, I heard a claim from a New York Times executive that half their traffic came from Google, and that, therefore, they loved Google. Despite suggestions to the contrary, they did not see the search-engine-cum-advertising-vehicle as a threat. But that traffic dynamic is the same for everyone, I think. So what you have done in the past resonates today with 50% of your readers. Better make sure it’s reasonably good because today’s story is no longer tomorrow’s chip-wrappers. At the very least, make sure it is useful to you.

Vicki Baker’s new blog, while republishing one of my more regrettable drunken episodes, nevertheless inspired me with how blogs can be used in a way that the great humanist and empiricist thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have approved. She quotes Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books:-

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it… The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks.”

In the end, that is more than enough justification to blog, and it was certainly partly how I conceived my first blog Not that I’m Biased (lost temporarily in a Blogspot vortex), and archived at the back end of this blog, for safety’s sake. I need to index those posts into a category and tag them perhaps, as they documented my thinking from 2004 to 2006-ish. By the way, I blushed a bit when I looked again at some of them last year. But they read now much better after the credit crunch ;-) .

Vicki’s a bit of a Kino fan too. And has blogged here more extensively than I have yet on the phenomenon that was Viktor Tsoi. I invite other bloggers to join the meme. Together we can defeat those evil machines!

As a footnote, Milton’s commonplace journal is currently on display at the British Library.

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