How good is the general public at recognising PR guff?

I’ve just put down ‘The Secret State’ by Heather Brooke and it makes for very interesting reading. For those of you who may find her name familiar, she’s a journalist who was instrumental in revealing the MP expenses scandal. She has a lot more to say on the matter of freedom of information and public accountability through the availability of timely and relevant information.

According to her, a key reason for our current political mess is the use of Public Relations to feed nonsense to the public. This includes the use of ‘statistics’ with a variety of methods used to undermine the usefulness of any data. (I intend to read Dr. Ben Goldacre on the use of statistics in British health as he was the one who pointed out some everyday examples during the ‘Night of a Billion Stars’ show I went to recently.)

Brooke is specifically questioning the role of PR in a democracy; one might argue that PR is acceptable in Private commerce as its primary role is to achieve sales, whereas the obligation on the Public services is to provide information. I myself have worked in an industry that generates a copious amount of PR material, and I recognised all the forms of PR she mentions, namely:

Pseudo-events, Deference to authority, Appeals to fear, and Claims of infallibility.

But you only have to look at ads on telly (one of my favourite sample sources) to see all four of the above in use. Do people recognise for instance-

  • That a ‘Laboratoire pour excellence Dermatologique’ is just a sham body, used to lend plausibility to a skin product that otherwise is indistinguishable in a cramped market? (Deference to authority)
  • That smelly breath was a scare created deliberately as a marketing ploy to shift Listerine, for which there originally was no market? (Appeals to fear)
  • That a company posting “Upto 99.99% results” never posts what the lower end of the spectrum is, nor what the frequency of the top results to median and low results is, nor indeed what the ratio of good results to poor results is? (Claims of infallibility)
  • That mid-term sales, pre-winter sales, post-summer sales and all the other sales advertised bear very little relation to the original purpose of sales and have rendered the term obsolete? (Pseudo-events)

There are countless examples, but do we spot them all? The key is to remain cynical and question everything.

SeeYouCEO

Are CEOs really as important as we’re led to believe?

A book of randomness and chance I’m reading suggests not.

Leonard Mlodinow’s ‘The Drunkard’s Walk: How randomness rules our lives’ has a beautiful example that illustrates the role of chance in performance and that shows how assumptions are made when using past performance to predict future results.

He takes the CEOs of the top 500 (Fortune 500) companies and assumes each of them has a certain probability of success each year, defined by their own company’s measure. And also assumes that these successful years occur at a frequency of 60%. He asks whether this means in a 5-year period each CEO will have a 60% success rate (3 successful years).

And he shows that the chances that in a given 5-year period any single CEO’s success rate will match the underlying rate is 1 in 3. In terms of the Fortune 500 companies this means that over the past 5 years (not an insignificant amount of time) around 333 CEOs would demonstrate results that did not reflect their true ability!! And by chance alone around 10% of the CEOs will have a 5 year winning or losing streak.

I have always argued that CEOs (and football managers, etc) often seem to be given credit and apportioned blame in amounts disproportionate to their real observable effect on a company. If only because they haven’t been at the company long enough for the results to shake off the randomness that can crop up anywhere.

Mladinow’s book has more insights on related topics such as

• The Law of Large (and small) Numbers (small sample sizes not reflecting true results, like for example “8/10 women prefer this shampoo to others” when only 100 women have been asked..)

• Human preferences for spotting patterns where there is true randomness, and vice-versa.

• Determinism where actors (in the social science sense) believe and act as though they have a greater say in an outcome than is true.

Mladinow also highlights throughout the book areas such as medical trials, court trials and betting shops, as well as day-to-day life, where knowledge of randomness and chance is absolutely critical.

Read it!

Sabotage!

I have been the victim of severe neglect! No, not from the doctors at the hospital; my lobotomy worked out just fine. I mean from my teachers at business school.

I never understood why the Art of Sabotage is not taught by any business school. While studying I searched in vain for any mention of deliberate strategies to unseat your opponent, apart form the occasional doffing of the hat to the impenetrable text of Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’.

This would be like enrolling in a school of wizardry and witchcraft that didn’t teach you Defence Against The Dark Arts, indeed where they told you blithely that the ‘Dark Arts’ don’t exist, even though you as a speccy kid with a scar on your forehead shout “But the Dark Arts killed my parents!!!”

Are they scared of creating a ‘One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’, a Saboteur Extraordinary? (This reminds me of a Frank Herbert sci-fi novelette, set in a future where bureaucracy ran so smooth a governmental Bureau of Saboteurs was required to keep things operational)

But we all know there are countless ‘Companies-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ that are at this very moment ripping the eyes out of any competitor. While kicking them in the nadgers.

On a more personal scale you may have noticed this yourself (I shall claim not to have met any such characters personally); the nefarious schemers (Weasels of Dilbert) undermining each other to get a raise. And simple economics suggest that as long as office politics are arranged as a tournament, where the best performer gets rewarded, this will continue. Because one sure way of making yourself appear the best performer, apart from doing any actual hard work, is to make your colleagues appear dumber by comparison.

Logical enough. But why don’t we see this mentioned anywhere? I guess it’s because business studies are for business managers, who haven’t any answer to the conundrum of arranging work so that everybody contributes, while getting just reward.

And we sure don’t want to endorse sabotage as a viable option.

I suppose it’s a subset of the question of morality, and whether doing the right thing can be counterproductive to an individual. As Nietzsche said, some morals were created by man to hold back superman from acheiving what he could.

Is sabotage the unspoken truth? The elephant in the room? Is it a fact of business, nay life, that goes unmentioned but hovers around in the background like the smell of last night’s kebab, permeating everything with its odour?

And more importantly, is there money to be made writing a book called the Art of Sabotage…? 😀

Night of 200 Billion Stars – Manchester Apollo

The Uncaged Monkeys are a group of popular speakers that hold entertaining mini-lectures on a variety of scientific topics. Hosted by Robin Ince, regular contributors include Prof. Brian Cox, Dr. Ben Goldacre and Simon Singh, with a number of guest speakers as well.

The ‘Night of 200 Billion Stars’ show kicked off in the Manchester Apollo on Tuesday, with Tim Minchin, Adam Rutherford and Helen Arney also appearing.

Favourite part? The video by science journalist Adam Rutherford consisting of original clips of the Space Shuttle program’s 135 missions, arranged in chronological sequence. I felt it was a moving tribute to one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments and beacons of hope. You can view the Space Shuttles United video on Nature Video Channel (YouTube); it’s accompanied by an amazing soundtrack by 65 daysofstatic, so turn the volume up to 11.

Robin Ince’s performance as a compere was top-notch, he kept things rolling along nicely even with having to make difficult segues between speakers on unrelated topics. Great story about 8 monkeys attempting the works of Shakespeare…

The cryptologist Simon Singh exhibited an actual Enigma machine, even dismantling it on stage to see the workings. He also rubbished the centuries-old trend of finding hidden codes and predictions in religious texts, by demonstrating them to be down to pure mathematical chance.

Dr Ben Goldacre gave what is quite possibly the only talk on statistics ever that could be termed ‘interesting’! As a doctor treating patients, he was concerned with ethics committees and drugs companies making it hard for doctors and patients to trial and/or see evidence supporting claims of drug benefits.

Prof Brian Cox walked us through the timeline of our cosmic beginning, with an interesting note about evolution in molecular biology, and I learned that Hubble’s Constant (rate of expansion of our universe) can be written as 42 miles/ second/ 3 million light-years. He ended with a quote from Dr. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos; in fact the last words in the book’s last chapter ‘Who Speaks For Earth?’

I’ll type up the words from my copy; they deserve to be repeated:

“Some 3.6 million years ago, in what is now nothern Tanzania, a volcano erupted, the resulting cloud of ash covering the surrounding savannahs. In 1979, the paleoanthropologist Mary Leaky found in that ash footprints – the footprints, she believes, of an early hominid, perhaps an ancestor of all the people on the Earth today. And 380,000 kilometers away, in a flat dry plain that humans have in a moment of optimism called the Sea of Tranquility, there is another footprint, left by the first human to walk another world. We have come far in 3.6 million years, and in 4.6 billion and in 15 billion.

For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth.Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

Wasn’t too sure about the funny songs by Helen and Tim though; I guess the format just doesn’t work for me beyond raising a few chuckles. The lyrics just end up being too brainy, and get shoe-horned into some semblance of a song. You can also see why audience participation is necessary to allow the performer(s) to feed off; it was kind of hard getting a stadium full of sceptics to sing along!

Thanks to Tom and Jill for arranging tickets!!

Baroque by candlelight

Bridgewater hall, set for the four seasons by candlelight

Four Seasons By Candlelight

The 25th of Nov was another great evening at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.

This time it was ‘Four Seasons By Candlelight’ playing Baroque music (a style of Western Classical music from around 1600 to 1760 AD. Which fact I didn’t Wikipedia at all. Honest).

The Mozart Festival Orchestra walked out on stage bedecked in the finest period costume, from the powdered white wigs through waistcots and knee-breeches down to the buckled shoes. It was a masterpiece of showmanship to transport the audience to the time when this music was written and played. I applaud the effort.

The music was divided by an interval; the first half had a well-thought out introduction to the period. It opened with ‘Te Deum'(Charpentier) and then followed Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, Vivaldi’s ‘Concerto for two trumpets’, Bach’s ‘Air on the G string (don’t laugh!)’, Handel’s ‘Trumpet Suite’ and the beautiful soprano Ruby Hughes singing a moving ‘Dido’s Lament'(Purcell) and a joyous ‘Let the Bright Seraphim'(Handel).

The second half was Vivaldi’s. The Four Seasons.
Spring. Summer. Autumn. Winter.

Credit here must be given to conductor and lead violinist David Juritz for a superb performance, and also for taking the audience along with the music, introducing key aspects of the pieces and generally making it a very enjoyable experience.
I also enjoyed the jolly trumpet soloist Crispian Steele-Perkins (as I suspect most of the audience did).

We walked away from it with a general agreement that classical music made accessible and appreciable is a nice thing to have.

p.s. Happy Birthday to Ioan’s mum and cheers for the free ticket!!

Humanitarian Imperialism..

..the title of a book, is also what author Jean Bricmont describes as an ideology that legitimises modern Imperialism (and war) using pseudo-humanitarian reasoning and rhetoric.

It’s a book I would seriously recommend to anyone calling themselves a humanitarian or liberal.

It has a lot of case examples and scenarios to highlight the points made and therefore is highly readable.

Bricmont has interesting points on:

  • The rhetoric and illusions of war
  • The duty of conscientious objecters
  • The role of the United Nations
  • The arguments against war
  • The prospects for the future

I’m dying to give some excerpts, but they’d have to be quite lengthy ones to make sense and give context. The best I can do is these snippets:

“…The logical lesson of [the 1938 Munich Agreement that allowed Hitler to seize the Sudetenland] is that the great power gambit of using the discontents of minorities to destabilize weaker countries is extremely dangerous, at least for world peace…”

“…When we see that the principal recommendation given by international organisms to Third World countries is to follow the Western example, we can only wonder what on earth they have in mind. Do they want India and Pakistan to solve the Kashmir problem the way France and Germany solved the problem of Alsace-Lorraine?…”

“Moreover, to call on an army to wage a war for human rights implies a naive vision of what armies are and do, as well as a magical belief in the myth of short, clean, “surgical” wars.”

“…That interrupted honeymoon [of the West briefly welcoming Al Jazeera] illustrates a broader phenomenon. Democracy in the Arab world, which Westerners claim to love so much, would be the worst catastrophe that could happen there, because what the peoples of the region want is a better price for their oil, a more economical management of that resource, and more active solidarity with the Palestinian cause. This is by no means what we want…”

Quotes from Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights To Sell War (Bricmont, 2006 Monthly Review Press New York)

The truth is closer to fiction.

My favourite kind of fiction has always been the kind that ‘could-be’ rather than ‘never could be’.

I do like the escapism of a good fantasy, but I’m not satisfied if the story just has the hero winning a million pounds. I want to see the tax implications and his future investment plans as well.

That’s why when most people talk to me about science-fiction they’re thinking about the hoverboards of ‘Back to the Future II’ or the implausibly humanoid aliens from ‘Star Trek’ while I’m thinking DNA-screening for job roles like in ‘Gattaca’

I realised that fiction writers like John leCarre and Greg Egan are so enjoyable precisely because their ‘fiction’ blurs the distinction between truth and, well, fiction. Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune’ remains to me a profound exploration of socio-political, religious as well as ecological factors that shape mankind’s history. My Dune is not one of dodgy 80s science-fiction props from the Arts Department.

The book ‘Sandstealers’ by journalist and foreign correspondent Ben Brown that I’m reading falls into the same category. It’s a story about war correspondents (write about what you know) involved in the death of a colleague and halfway through it it hit me: This guy knows what he’s talking about. You feel that although names have been changed, there’s a gritty reality to the tale that only comes from being in such situations.

I picked it up as a page-turner, but it really interested me with questions of morality and judgement that reporters have to ask themselves.

Nobel Laureates born today

Totally bucking the trend the 20th of October has seen 2 female and 1 male Nobel Laureates born.

in 2004 for Literature
> Elfriede Jelinek

in 1995 for Physiology or Medicine
> Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard

and in 1935 for Physics our dear Mancunian Neutron-Discoverer
> James Chadwick

Go look up the real celebrities born on your birthday at the Nobel Laureates pages

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Footballer.

Been reading a lot of le Carre recently, a man who takes the spy novel to literary heights not seen or expected in the genre. And just noticed Carlos Tevez is back in the news again causing disruption at City.

So,

It was the incident of 29th september, 2011 that gave the proof, though the F.A had no means of knowing this.

…The man with the scar stepped out of the restaurant and paused in the doorway. The pool of light from the restaurant behind him shadowed his eyes as he scanned the rain-drenched cobbles, hazily reflecting the yellow halos of the street lights. Bueno. In his long Gucci leather coat with rabbit-skin lapels, he didn’t look out of place on the pedestrian walkways off Manchester’s Deansgate. But he was a long way away from the sun-drenched pampas, the hectic night-life in the alleys of his native Buenos Aires. He consulted the luminous dial of his Breitling. It was time. From an inner pocket he produced a white handkerchief, and, with a casual flourish of his left hand, raised it to wipe his brow. The click of a lighter from a doorway 200 yards away replied as the chimes from the not-too-distant Victorian Town Hall sounded the hour.

Bueno.

This was the man Fergie called his second-best. And the Iron Glaswegian Fergie gave no first spots. Trained in the Western camps in the age-old crafts of disruption and disinformation by the very best of the Counter-Intelligence Services in Aberdeen and Old Trafford, Fergie was a war-scarred veteran of battles in foreign lands, asking no quarter and certainly giving none. But now his imperious gaze was settled on a rising menace from the Eastlands, an Italian firm settling uneasily under the Arab influence. His plan was coming to fruition, a plan whose preparation denies measurement by any ordinary scale. And now he was sending his second-best across the East-West divide.

Past Checkpoint Charlie.

Past salvation, where even his greatest victory, his triumph of deception would still end in personal tragedy.

The man with the scar had come to accept his martyrdom. For the cause. For this was what it was all about.

It was all about the Red Devils.

n.b. Carlos Tevez is an Argentine footballer playing in the English Premier League. He played for, amongst other, ‘Red Devils’ Manchester United from where he was sold to bitter rivals and pretenders Manchester City.

n.n.b. My style is deliberately derivative.

Not waving but drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

A hauntingly simple short poem by Stevie Smith, whom I admire greatly. I find the last two lines suddenly overcome me; please tell me what you make of it. I first came across her work casually browsing in the library. Therefore libraries are good.