Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

On feeling stupid

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A friend forwarded me a quote that I find particularly apt for my current state. Substitute “social media/Web2.0″ for music and current Web 2.0 buzzwords for the watchwords and good old Béla hits the nail on the head.

Recently I have felt so stupid, so dazed, so empty-headed that I have truly doubted whether I am able to write anything new anymore. All the tangled chaos that the music periodical vomit forth thick and fast about the music of today has come to weigh heavily on me: the watchwords, linear, horizontal, vertical, objective, impersonal polyphonic, homophonic, tonal, polytonal, atonal and the rest…

Well, not quite true… partly I am fed up with social media/Web 2.0 stuff bandied about all over the meedjaland, which is not a pretty sight. What with being ‘creative, ‘communicative’ and all front, the ad agency/comms crowd has mastered the lingo. Alas, ‘engagement’ in their mouth means ‘interactive campaign’ and we know what that means.. more evil Flash! And partly I have been hanging around some really clever geeks, which puts strain on any web evangelist.

So onwards in a distributed fashion. :)

Muffett lived a life full of cannibals and councils

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The headline says it all. Alec’s father was a character that loomed large in people’s lives and this obituary explains why. Not many a man’s name becomes part of a saying in an African language:

He spent 16 years in colonial administration in Nigeria, from 1947 to 1963, and proudly laid claim to being one of only two Britons, ever, whose surname passed into the native Hausa language. “Aka yi masa mafed” (literal translation “One did to him Muffett”) coming to mean “Justice caught up with him”.

I had the privilege of meeting the man himself. We talked of international relations, Ethiopia, WWII, history and African languages. Even in his weakened state he brought terror to the carers around him.

They don’t make them like this any more… Sorry, Alec. :)

Sympathy and best wishes to Alec and family.

Change ‘typology’

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As promised, here are types of people within organisations. From the perspective of inducing change and building a network of allies. This is meant to be only half-funny.

The Professional – built a career on being good at what he does, can’t throw it all away, difficult to convince, especially if close to retirement and enjoying running the show (subset – professional executive). In times of change a follower, not the innovator or even an early adopter.

The Old Skool – had his moment of innovation in the past, introduced technology or associated with some other success. Resting on laurels a real temptation. However, can sometimes spot the same pattern in new changes and be a solid ally.

The Visionary – excited about new stuff, has far reaching ideas about how things will be (or should be!). Older visionary verges on obsession with the one idea that they have been pondering elaborating for years. Seemingly best ally but often lets down on execution (predictably) but also (surprisingly) on flexibility and curiosity. If still young, the zeal can be harnessed and help to get others on board.

The Maverick – holed up somewhere where he can do things his way, created a bubble where his ways are accepted/tolerated. Depending on power available to him can be either a grouchy sceptic watching from the sidelines (little or no power) or a true ally doing what he can (executive position). Obviously, the latter is a rare breed as not many companies have true mavericks in executive positions.

The Process Worshipper – the Agent Smiths of the system. Dangerous, if often well meaning. Focus on working the system and making everyone do the same. His approach to change is finding (or creating) a pipeline that could deliver it. Often relies on external third parties (agencies) for innovation and delivery. Draw strength and self-worth from following and imposing rules. Efficiency, metrics, objectives, deliverables is the mantra. Comes in several varieties e.g. the Language Abuser – uses buzzwords, phrases, charts without much meaning to create an air of importance. The Deliverer – applies himself to efficient implementation without much understanding of the big picture and what is needed. Competent and potentially helpful if the process-magic can be dispelled in his mind.

The Tech Whizzkid – early adopter of all things ‘digital’. Often understands original versions of the internet and hardware and software but equally often suffers from the not-made-here syndrome. Occasionally has Microsoft religion, in which stay away for he’ll want to standardise and impose uniform apps, platforms and whatnot! Can turn into a deadly enemy of change as he doesn’t want to lose his techie status.

The Geek – wants to know how things work, has no delusions about his ability to operate within the system and play power games. When in the office gets on what he knows best (and is paid for), then spends his free time learning and experimenting. Once convinced that his ‘outside the job’ skills and knowledge relevant, can be an enthusiastic and very competent ally.

The Technophobe - easily spotted thanks to apologetic statements “I am not really good at this technological stuff” combined with proud obsolescence. Usually have a good mind, with insistence on understanding things. Technophobia a result of bad experience or bad luck with technology that has no meaning for them. Once shown what technology can do for them, they become enthusiastic and very helpful allies indeed. Worth ‘converting’ but focus on usefulness and their capabilities essential.

The Disillusioned – spent years, if not decades in the job. Shed ambitions and dreams, but hasn’t been completely assimilated as the dissatisfaction nibbles away at his self-esteem. Feels hollow and worthless, scared of the future for he knows what it looks like. Secretly but passionately hates the system, the organisation, the meetings, presentations, business speak, away-days, socialising with colleagues etc. Can go two ways, either, hide it, trying to fit in, or turn into a maverick and the system-basher. Without much hope, of course,. His lack of confidence comes from the contrast of what could have been and what is. Sense of helplessness pervasive. Once understands the potential that change can bring, the best possible ally. This will become his hope for a better future and will participate ceaselessly. Anything to do with transformation can only be pried away from his dead cold hands.

The Biz or Sales Fiend – successful, hard and fast money-making machine. loves status and the accoutrements of business life, which he finds glamorous. works hard, plays hard. expects everyone to be pushed beyond endurance, including himself. thrives on deadlines, whether meeting them or setting them for others. no time for introspection, let alone the big picture. the meaning comes from a) richer and even more successful boss b) business school c) his ability to make more money and bully others. So why change? only worth engaging towards his twilight years when the buzz might have worn off and other things may be appearing on his radar. Or not.

There is more and this is work in progress. Feel free to add your versions!

Terry Pratchett reading guide

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I am a big fan of Terry Pratchett. I often say that the best book on political philosophy I have ever read is his Night Watch. But as Cory Doctorow points out:

…how daunting it must be to be confronted with Pratchett’s 33 Discworld novels and try to figure out where to start. Part of the charm of these books is that they’re not written in any main sequence, but rather in several interrelated series that follow the lives of many different characters and subplots.

and provides a handy reading guide.

I usually recommend people begin with Interesting Times, or Guards! Guards! or Men at Arms. The main thing is to start. :)

The value of education

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Paul Graham is in good form here, as usual. This time on education and on going to the right kindergarten, school, university, company etc.

Practically everyone thinks that someone who went to MIT or Harvard or Stanford must be smart. Even people who hate you for it believe it.

But when you think about what it means to have gone to an elite college, how could this be true? We’re talking about a decision made by admissions officers—basically, HR people—based on a cursory examination of a huge pile of depressingly similar applications submitted by seventeen year olds. And what do they have to go on? An easily gamed standardized test; a short essay telling you what the kid thinks you want to hear; an interview with a random alum; a high school record that’s largely an index of obedience. Who would rely on such a test?

It is true that for the purposes of business, a university degree is a signal. A signal that you can a) stick it out for several years without any tangible reward other than arbitrary grading. b) be part of a collective entity over which you have no control or impact c) able to absorb, regurgitate and communicate large amounts of data and knowledge by dead white men d) care about performing well within institutional environment.

Not much about innovation, irreverence, disruption and not caring about consensus. Unless you, of course, went to Oxford. :-)

I am half-joking here actually. There were many things I learnt at Oxford, one of them that there was plenty of stupid people around. But the most important was the ability to ask ’stupid’ questions, as in very simple questions, which often go to the heart of the problem and ferret out inconsistencies. With that comes the confidence to ask when things don’t make sense. Even when everyone else is looking like they know what’s going on. There is a touch of irreverence and disruption in that. And it maximises your chances of coming up with the right answer.

So back to business:

Things are very different in the new world of startups. We couldn’t save someone from the market’s judgement even if we wanted to. And being charming and confident counts for nothing with users. All users care about is whether you make something they like. If you don’t, you’re dead.

Knowing that test is coming makes us work a lot harder to get the right answers than anyone would if they were merely hiring people. We can’t afford to have any illusions about the predictors of success.

Paul Graham hit another significant nail on the head:

The unfortunate thing is not just that people are judged by such a superficial test, but that so many judge themselves by it. A lot of people, probably the majority of people in the America, have some amount of insecurity about where, or whether, they went to college. The tragedy of the situation is that by far the greatest liability of not having gone to the college you’d have liked is your own feeling that you’re thereby lacking something. Colleges are a bit like exclusive clubs in this respect. There is only one real advantage to being a member of most exclusive clubs: you know you wouldn’t be missing much if you weren’t. When you’re excluded, you can only imagine the advantages of being an insider. But invariably they’re larger in your imagination than in real life.

This is certainly true in a sense that Oxford looks very different from the inside compared to how people outside view it, for example. They tend to value different things than those who have been through the experience. But that does not mean that those things are not worth valuing and the advantages not worth having. It seems to me that the best combination is a smart and eager person in an educational environment that works with that individual, respecting both their character and mind. Paradoxically (to our expectations), the benefit of education should accrue to the student and not to his employer.

Indeed, the great advantage of not caring where people went to college is not just that you can stop judging them (and yourself) by superficial measures, but that you can focus instead on what really matters. What matters is what you make of yourself.

Hugh in fine form

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Here, here and here.

But, Hugh, where is the pain? ;-)

Strange happenings

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I am in a sort of alternate reality. No, I don’t mean the online one, that’s the one I am normally part of. I mean skirting the edges of a Kafkaesque plot involving Salesian order, a well-known theology lecturer also an anti-communist dissident reporter, a disturbed woman, potential mis-diagnosis and forced medication, corruption and/or other dark motivations, and most likely politics.

No wonder I normally stick to online existence!

How Addicted to Blogging Are You?

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What is Rome for?

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Last night Hugh and I were talking, amongst other things, about hierarchies and their impact on individual’s autonomy or sovereignty as he calls it. And, predictably, how the internet has changed what has been long accepted as the balance of power between the individual and institutions. These things never far from my mind, a few thoughts struck me as I watched a couple of episodes of the series Rome.

  • Vorenus, the prefect of 13th legion runs into Pompey Magnus who is fleeing with his family to Egypt. He decides to let him go after Pompey begs for mercy for his wife and children. Upon return to the camp, he explains to Caesar that he didn’t feel the need to apprehend Pompey as he was abandoned, weak and dirty and bring him to punishment. Caesar gets angry and says “Remember I am the only one who dispenses mercy around here“.
  • Pompey Magnus is treacherously assassinated by a Roman soldier who serves an Egyptian master as he moors on the Egyptian beach and his head offered to Caesar as a welcoming gift. To the Egyptian’s shock, Caesar is appalled and storms out in anger at their barbarism and Pompey undignified death. (Talk about cultural clash.) When they protest: But he was your enemy? He angrily replies: He was a consul of Rome!
  • Vorenus is instructed by Caesar to find and free Cleopatra. He takes the opportunity to apologise for his ‘lapse of judgement’ regarding capturing Pompey. He says, if only I did my duty
  • Rome

    These are examples of how power, rules and resulting hierarchies create environments where individuals have no real autonomy by default. In the first one, Vorenus has his ability to make moral decisions (i.e. based on what he considers right and wrong) denied to him. In the second, Caesar’s outrage at the death of his enemy is not about Pompey but about the disrespect to the office that lent this particular wretch significance above other human beings.

    The third is about duty. Duty is important, often deeply embedded in people to follow a particular rule that usually makes sense on some level – either evolutionary or social. It is however designed to protect the system, rarely the individual. I am not attacking the sense of duty that comes from individuals themselves but the kind of duty often invoked to subdue them, namely duty to follow orders. Without autonomy, that kind of ‘virtue’ is just another tool in the tyrant’s toolbox. It took a collectivist horror for the European societies to realise that it is morally inadmissible even for the armed forces to follow orders, abrogating humanity.

    Hierarchical systems and institutions take over people and hollow out anything that is individual to replace it with their own trinkets – position, status, power, money, influence, resources. People are defined by what position they hold, by the family they are born into, by people with greater power than them and finally, if they are lucky, by their decisions. Such systems with centralised or unchecked power attract people who wield it enthusiastically and ruthlessly. Using that power, in exchange for perpetuating the system, they shape others to its rules. Nasty things become possible in the name of the system… It’s one of the ways power corrupts.

    Institutions and systems go through life cycles, often imploding by themselves or getting overthrown by new, more eager ones. If they survive it is by striking a precarious balance, by giving people just enough freedom to prevent rebellion. Judging from history, it doesn’t seem that much is needed. Fortunately, there are always individuals who push for more autonomy and so the struggle continues.

    Top down hierarchies are mechanisms for implementing centralised power. Their rules are a shorthand for the power structure and a substitute for knowledge of how things work, understanding of consequences of people’s actions and impact of their decisions. How many times have you heard – well, if I let you do this, then everyone would want to do that and where would that lead? This is an admission of suppressed individuality. It is disguised as respect for others, when it fact it is merely ‘respect’ for the ways things are within the system.

    When people exercise their autonomy more freely they start seeing consequences of their actions and/or indifference to them. In centralised power systems, you cannot have an action without the system being involved. The action has to be assessed and judged to see if it follows or breaks the existing rules. And an appropriate action as mandated by those rules is then taken.

    In a distributed environment that is not possible. Or desirable. A network is such an environment. What is so wonderful about the internet, amongst other things, is that it is demonstrating how a greater autonomy, freedom and fewer restrictions on individuals lead to a more connected and increasingly social place. The old collectivist chestnut that with greater emphasis on the individual comes atomisation of society is just that. It certainly does not stand comparison with the explosion of connectivity, innovation and creativity fuelled by individuals having access to technology and tools that were until recently in the domain of businesses and governments.

    And for the likes of me Chris Locke’s memorable outburst from 1995 still reverberates:

    And I sit here and some of what I’m hearing is how to work in the system. Well I say fuck the system — it’s dead it’s stupid it’s non-responsive it’s counter productive it’s fucking socially evil and if we put any more of our goddamn time into propping up these dead-ass morons we deserve what we fucking get…. We’re not going to work in
    the system because THE SYSTEM DOES NOT WANT US.

    Ride through Cincinnati

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    Last Saturday, two memorable things happened. It was Jackie’s 30th birthday and we were offered a ride in a 1930 Packard around Cincinnati. You can see Jackie and Tom (the landlord of her new flat), who is the proud owner of this amazing machine.

    Various

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    There are some great pictures of Oxford, from the last weekend. I spent last Sunday and Monday hanging out with Doc, Stephen and Alec before getting down to some VRM juicy goodness and hanging out with more groovy people. I will post both my photos as well as my notes from the VRM workshop as soon I can. I am now in New Jersey, where I am not the mistress of my time, to put it delicately. Not that I am complaining.

    Also, will be moving this blog to WordPress in the next couple of days (many thanks to Alec for much needed assistance). I can’t wait for a cleaner, more streamlined look… and for not being on someone else’s hosting platform.

    Security theatre

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    Boing Boing has a great post about how to smuggle liquids onto an airplane.

    All you need to do is surrender the bottle at the screening station, wait for the the TSA to throw it
    away in an unguarded trash-barrel on the "secure" side, and then retrieve it from the trash.


    The reason this "smuggling" technique works, of course, is that liquids aren’t dangerous.
    Everyone knows this — even the TSA. That’s why they don’t guard the
    barrel after they confiscate your wine, water, and salad-dressing. The
    point of taking away your liquid isn’t to make airplanes safe, it’s to
    simultaneously make you afraid (of terrorists with magic water-bombs)
    and then make you feel safe (because the government is fighting off the
    magic water-bombs). It’s what Bruce Schneier calls "security theater."

    I fly to US every month and have become an expert on and a victim of all sorts of security theatre routines. One of the things that gives them away as theatre (apart from their obvious lack of common sense) is that they are inconsistent and vary from airport to airport and even from airline to airline – at one point Virgin suddenly introduced another security check at the gates. More delays and annoyance.

    The only time I was ever impressed by a security check was when flying to Tel Aviv by El Al. They were polite but firm, questioning and a bit obstreperous. I had no problems as it was a straightforward business  trip and all was in order. I still remember how after the interview the security guy recommended that we see a Chagal exhibition in Jerusalem and reminded us that our client has an amazing modern art collection. Not a conversation you are likely to strike with Heathrow security people. Not saying it’s impossible but highly unlikely. :)

    The difference is that El Al invests in security people and they are looking not for a terrorist, but for a weapon for a terrorist not for a weapon. Only if you turn this upside down, you can treat water as a deadly liquid that turns into explosives when it reaches an arbitrary size…

    Note: last para corrected – that’ll teach me post late at night. Thanks for pointing out.

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