Why Do The Campaigns In The Scottish Referendum Concentrate On Economics?

I was at (another) debate on the economics of Scottish independence on Monday. One of the panel members, Christine O’Neill, the chairman of a firm, expressed her surprise and dismay that both campaigns – for and against independence – had focused almost exclusively on economic issues, rather than, for instance, what it means for our culture and values, and what kind of society we would like to create in Scotland.

I’m with her – particularly when the economics is so up in the air, with both sides throwing around contradictory “facts” which are frankly nothing of the sort. O’Neill likened it to the campaigns trying to buy votes – with Better Together offering us £4bn (about £1000 each) and the SNP offering £5bn. (Both these claims are based huge assumptions which make them impossible to compare.)

Her question, though has a simple answer, as sephologist and pollster John Curtice described at a talk back in April. (See, I’m a glutton for punishment.) Then, in discussion with Stephen Reicher and Jan Eichhoin – it was like a public version of Newsnight Scotland (before it got axed) – Curtice explained that the prime determinant of voting intentions in the referendum was voters’ view on the economy, ahead of cultural identity and values. It apparently explains many anomalies, such the long standing gap between male and female voting intentions – women are more pessimistic about the economy, and more risk averse.

Both sides know this and are tailoring their campaigns accordingly.

Indeed, Curtice admitted he was also responsible for the campaigns focussing on £500 – all it would take to swing their votes: it was his research that identified this low price-point. How cheaply our votes can be bought.

“A Taste of Blue”: an exploration of synaestheisa.

I went to several talks during the science festival, some of which I might write about; but one which has really stuck in my mind was about synaesthesia, “A Taste of Blue”.

People with synaesthesia experience a cross over between their senses: things they see may cause them to hear something, or sounds may have a taste, or words a colour.

How they experience the world – their whole life, even – is thus very different from those without synaesthesia. It is also something I find incomprehensible, and I went along hoping to understand more.

It really was a fascinating evening. I found myself sitting next to the one synaesthete in the audience, who expressed her sorrow that most people can’t experience the world the way she does – she felt it added so much to her life.

There were three speakers: a geneticist, an interactive sound engineer, and an animator.

Kate Kucera works on the genetics of synaesthesia, and she talked about the science behind the condition. About 5% of the population are synaesthetic (other sources say about 1%, others that it is much rarer). It might be that there is a continuum in the way we experience the environment, with only those at one extreme of the continuum being synaesthetic.

Indeed, the way we respond to sounds suggests that everyone may be partly synaesthetic: nonsense words that Kucera tried out on the audience had a definite feel, with most people idetifying the same or similar characteristics to the sounds. (Perhaps onomatapoeia is in part an expression of synaesthesia?)

There is certainly a genetic component to synaesthesia: the condition runs in families. But the genetics is very complex, not surprising if one considers the complexity of our sensory systems and their processing in the brain.

The cause of synaesthesia is not understood, though it is believed to involve connections between different parts of the brain used for processing different senses. It has been suggested that everyone is born with synaesthesia and that babies are all synaesthetic – which may explain the dazzled way they look at the world! – but that most people lose the ability as their brains develop, just to enable them to adequately cope with all the sensory data they receive.

Augoustinos Tsiros looks at the way people use common sensory metaphors. This might suggest that we are all partly synaesthetic. For instance, we all use spatial metaphors to describe sound – such as “high” and “low”; we also use touch describe sound – hard, soft, rough, smooth. (I often talk about some jazz being jagged and angular.) We talk about someone having a “sweet voice”.

In experiments involving a variety of visual representations of sounds, it is easy to fit a specific sequence of sounds to an image

I’m not sure whether these are simply learnt metaphors – so common to have mass understanding – or an actual demonstration latent synaesthesia.

The star of the evening for me was animator Sam Moore. She has worked with several synaesthetes to produce an animation showing what it is like to have synaesthesia. It was stunning.

She was also full of great stories, such as one subject who had two forms of synaesthesia: colours produced sounds, sounds produced colours; but not the same sounds or colours. A red object, such as a traffic light, produced a specific sound, but that sound then created the experience of a different colour, producing a cascade of synaesthetic feedback.

Apparently a lot of synaesthetes are creative people: all of those that worked with Sam were, particular musicians. One of her subjects, a woodwind player, saw the sounds of string instruments as sludge-brown, which must have made orchestral playing unpleasant experience!

Moore’s film, “An Eyeful of Sound” was amazing. The world it visualised is how I imagine an LSD trip to be. It was gorgeous.

Synaesthesia poses a lot of questions of the way we perceive the world. We have a common assumption that share our senses – that when I see a colour you see the same thing. We have no way of knowing if that is true. Apparently synaesthetes are often not aware as they are growing up that they experience world in ways that may be greatly different their peers. Then they may learn to keep quiet about it, when as children they are told not to be stupid after describing their experience. It certainly sounds as if synaesthetes experience a richer world.

An Eyeful of Sound from Samantha Moore on Vimeo.

“Thinking Fast and Slow”

Last year I read Daniel Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow“. It took me a long time – definitely reading slow, for me – but I think that was down to his style rather than the book’s content. I read it because two people from very different backgrounds recommended it in the since of a week, and despite being somewhat hard work, bits of it have stuck: they keep recurring in my thoughts.

So I thought I’d share some of those, and recommend it, too. (I haven’t looked at the book for the last six months, and I am deliberately writing from memory. So please don’t take these examples as gospel, and before quoting them, please look to Kahneman’s original text!)

Kahneman’s work can be considered an academic counterweight to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”. Gladwell set out, I think, to suggest that we should trust our intuition (albeit that many of the examples he wrote about seemed to be based around what happens when intuition goes wrong. Policemen shooting innocent men, for instance).

Kahneman, a prolifically able psychologist (and Nobel prize winner in economics, for his work on behavioural economics), sets out to describe how the mind works, describing the unconscious, instinctive, intuitive brain – his “system 1″ – and the conscious, analytical brain – “system 2″. System 1 is much faster and cheaper to run than system 2, and this is why for most things we are happy to let system 1 get on with it. His book is full of fascinating stories that illustrate how system 1 can lead us to make some very counter-intuitive decisions, often his own expense.

I started the book very sceptical. Despite all the evidence Kahneman provides, what he describes just didn’t sound like me. I’m analytical, rational, sensible. But he also describes how just about everyone thinks that, too. And left to its own devices, system 1 seems to get us into several bad habits.

For instance, it makes us bad at estimating things, particularly our own (and others’) expertise. Kahneman tells a story of how he was part of a team writing a new curriculum for a psychology course. After several months when they though they were making good progress, he asked another member of the team, who had a lot of experience of the process, how long it should take. The answer was something like “a good team will take a couple of years”; and when asked whether this was a good team, the answer was a resounding “no”! This was a team made up of very rational people – psychologists and educationalists – who frankly should have stopped right there and seen what they could change to achieve a better result. But instead, despite the insight they had received, they ploughed on as if nothing had changed. When Kahneman left the project several years later, it still hadn’t been completed.

In another situation, he describes undertaking leadership assessments for the Israeli army. He understandably decided to validate the process, to see whether the assessments predicted future success as a leader in the army. They didn’t. The predictions were no better than chance. And yet Kahneman continued his work assessing candidates, despite knowing that it was a complete waste of time.

His work in behavioural economics lead to Kahneman working with some stockbrokers. He looked at the firm’s remuneration and bonus structure. Analysing individuals’ results, he showed that success was random: and hence the large bonuses paid for results were completely unwarranted. He told the board, producing his evidence. The board, of course, did nothing, because their whole belief system (and the firm’s culture) was based rewarding success. No one accepted his evidence; they – the experts – knew better than the statistics.

Another story that really stuck with me it’s how bad system 1 is at assessing memories. It only recalls the last experience of something, rather than the totality of that experience. So if you’ve been listening to a piece of music on vinyl, for instance, and it ends with a scratch, you remember the scratch and not the forty minutes of pleasure that came before it. In an experiment to test this, subjects preferred an extended period of pain that ended in a reduction of pain rather than a much shorter period of pain that ended suddenly. System 1 remembers the pain at the end rather than the totality of the pain. The lessons here for anyone designing any process involving customers are rampant. Make it end with a smile!

I think these four simple stories illustrate how irrational even seemingly rational, analytical people can be. This is painful – these are people like me – but it is a valuable lesson, too.

I think the best lesson is to stop and think. This brings the conscious, rational system 2 to the fore. It is harder work, and slower, than letting system 1 determine our actions, and maybe not always appropriate. But it also leads to better, more mindful outcomes. (For instance, it may well be why people who keep “gratitude lists” report being happier – because they are bringing their conscious mind to bear, rather than letting system 1 remember only those last painful moments. There seem to be real benefits to keeping a journal or diary: it helps us to bring an active dimension to our otherwise irrational intuitive minds.)

Head, Heart and Gut: Where I stand on the Scottish Independence Referendum.

I spent last Christmas in England. And with just about everyone I met, at one point or another, the conversation turned to the Scottish independence referendum, and how I felt about it.

Now, the debate has been hotting up; the politicians full of bluff and bluster. And it seems a good point to see where I’ve got to.

During one of the tv debates, I was exchanging views on Twitter (where the discussion has been lively, radical, and, despite some claims to the contrary, largely good natured – people on all sides of the debate have been open and engaging, and there are many people with whom I disagree that I like a lot); I reckoned that the decision came down to head v heart; someone shot back saying that guts must a say too.

Here’s what they’re saying…

Head

The rationalist in me is still “no”. I haven’t heard anything to counter my original feelings.

The campaigns have a lot of views and counter-views that they reckon are facts. Salmond made a speech in London where he said

After Scottish independence, the growth of a strong economic power in the north of these islands would benefit everyone – our closest neighbours in the north of England more than anyone…

He states this as a fact, but it is conjecture: Salmond may hope that he puts in place the policies that lead to economic growth, but you know what? He may not even be first minister after (and of course if) Scotland becomes independent: the next election for the Scottish Parliament is due in May 2015, before the politically-driven date of independence of 16 March 2016.

Facts are, of course, hard to come by. I have been in public meetings where each side has presented its facts, and countered the other side’s facts. Both sets of facts may be right – the world is ambiguous, and it is possible to select timescales to bring out the best in one’s data. Without knowing precisely the source and counter-source, it isn’t possible judge whose views are more valid.

So my head is sticking with “no”.

Heart

The thing is, I don’t believe this is about the head, anyway. It isn’t about facts. It is about heart – belief and faith.

And here I have to admit I am wavering.

Who doesn’t think that self determination is a good thing? In most other places in the world, I would support a separatist freedom movement. I believe in devolving power to the place where it can best be wielded (neither Westminster nor Holyrood, both of which seem to believe in centralising rather than sharing out power).

If Scotland were not part of the UK, I wouldn’t vote join it.

So my heart is probably saying “yes”.

Guts

This is the interesting one, really. My guts are a firm “no”.

In part it is because I think there are a lot of benefits if being part of a greater whole. I am not an isolationist. I think Scotland is richer culturally as being part of the UK, just as I think the UK is hugely richer by being part of the EU.

I have no problem in Scotland being part of the UK – it doesn’t stop being Scotland because it is part of something bigger. (I can’t help but see a contradiction in the SNP’s belief that, outside the UK, Scotland must be part of the EU. I don’t disagree, but when they are trying so hard to leave the UK, it seems strange for their plans to rely on being part of something larger.)

I might feel differently if I thought that, as a result of being part of the UK, Scotland was being oppressed. But I don’t. (Before anyone else points it out, of course I would say that – I’m one of the oppressors…) Scotland is, and has been historically, overrepresented in Parliament. It has over 9% of MPs but only 8% of the population. (Boundary changes in 2015 will remove this anomaly.)

For decades, Scotland’s politicians have wielded power and influence in Westminster. Tony Blair’s cabinet relied on Scottish politicians: Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Derry Irvine, Robin Cook, George Robertson, Donald Dewar, Gavin Strang – all Scottish. And that’s just his first cabinet. Even Margaret Thatcher had Willie Whitelaw, Malcolm Rifkind, Alastair Forsyth, and George Younger

The strong, visceral dislike of Tories in general (and Thatcher in particular) in Scotland – which I share – is largely responsible for the rise in nationalism in Scotland. The view that Scotland has had a government for which it didn’t vote – and hence should be independent – is rife. The first bit is true. Scotland voted Labour throughout the Conservative government between 1979 and1997. But it seems like a logical fallacy to say that requires independence. The two things aren’t connected. You don’t chuck out the system just because you don’t like the answer you get. Scotland didn’t complain (much) when it helped elect a Labour government in 1997.

So: head, heart and guts. One “yes”, two “no”. I have heard the journalist Lesley Riddoch described as “a reluctant yes” (a phrase I think she used in an article, but I can’t find it online!) Me, I’m a reluctant “no”.

Where the Debate on Independence for Scotland Has Got To…

In the first two months of the year, the campaigns for the referendum on Scottish independence seem to have really heated up. North and south of the border, the media seem like they’re taking it very seriously. BBC Scotland are running a series of debates and documentaries related to the referendum; STV’s Scotland Tonight is also having several debates.

I haven’t seen all these, but I saw the first BBC debate and a few minutes of the STV debate between the SNP.’s Nicola Sturgeon and Labour’s Johann Lamont.

The BBC use a similar format to Question Time, with a panel featuring politicians and others – one “Yes”politician, one “No” politician and two pundits meant to represent “don’t knows”. STV had only two politicians slugging it out.

So far, politicians on either side of the televised debates have done themselves no favours. On the Beeb, whilst the politicians were trying to score points off each other without giving any ground, the two “don’t knows” were asking reasonable questions, expressing uncertainty and generally saying what needed to said.

The fight on STV showed politicians in an even worse light; boxers would have been better behaved. They talked across each other, didn’t listen, and frankly proved to me that this is too important an issue to be left to politicians.

I recently went to a face-to-face debate at Edinburgh University between the two non-figurehead leaders of the campaigns. (Politicians Alistair Darling and Dennis Canavan ostensibly head up the “No” and “Yes” campaigns respecitively, although Alec Salmond and the SNP are driving the political discussion for the “Yes” campaign.) Covering the economic issues, Blair MacDougall manages “Better Together” and Blair Jenkins “Yes Scotland”. [Mr MacDougall seems to have neither a wikipedia entry nor a public bio on available. At least, I couldn't find it.] You can see from the start that they have much in common, and indeed despite their closeness to the campaigns this felt much less partisan than I had expected. But, being economics, there weren’t really any facts – just interpretations. They threw numbers at each, in apparent contradiction, though one would actually need to see the sources, context and appropriateness before making any decisions based on the figures provided.

This does matter. Apparently, if people believe they will be £500 better off either way, it will influence the choice people make. (How cheaply we’re bought and sold. As Robert Burns wrote, “We’re bought and sold for English gold Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!“.) The main economic issue seems to be what currency Scotland would able to use, followed by how the assets and liabilities are divided, and the ability to sustain pensions and the welfare state.

The “Yes” supporters in the audience were much more vocal than the “No”s, and frankly less reasonable. I don’t find this surprising: they are driven by strong feelings. I don’t believe the views of anyone in the audience – whether “Yes”, “No” or “Don’t Know” – would have been effected by what they heard: we already know that we can’t get the answers we need, probably until many years after the referendum.

The UK government had said that it would not negotiate its position in the advent of a “Yes” vote ahead of the referendum which, whilst an understandable philosophical position, means that no one actually knows the answers to any of these economic questions (nor any others) before we are called on to make a decision.

Except that the UK government has recently been showing its hand, sometimes reasonably, sometimes not. In February, chancellor George Osborne, his shadow Ed Balls and deputy Danny Alexander all said an independent Scotland would not be allowed into a formal currency union with the rest of the UK.

(Scotland would still be able to use the pound informally, though this would probably be looked on poorly by financial markets, adding to Scotland’s funding costs, due to its instability. On the other hand, a formal currency union would completely tie the hands of any post independence Scottish government to develop its own fiscal policy.)

Then UK culture Secretary Maria Miller stated outright that an independent Scotland would not able to use the BBC.

The first of these interventions, by Osborne and co, seems to me to be valid. The currency an independent Scotland would use is clearly important to many people: the economy is the most important issue for many people and also of great consequence to the other inhabitants of the UK – and if it is really non-negotiable, far better to get it out now. (The SNP don’t accept that it is not negotiable: they reckon Osborne is bluffing. They have ruled out revealing plan B.)

Ms Miller’s intervention, however, just seems bonkers and unnecessary. What part of the British Broadcasting Corporation does she not understand? My guess is that the BBC might feel rather differently: they have a large presence in Scotland. The BBC is available throughout Europe; citizens of Eire, for instance, can access BBC broadcasts. When I lived in Brussels for a year, I watched BBC tv and listened to Radio 4 (albeit on long wave!). Perhaps Miller is unaware that much of the BBC’s output is available over the internet? Even if the BBC is divided into Scottish and rUK components, the infant SBC might want to provide programming from its former partner – a commercial decision, not one for interference from ministers. And subject to negotiation, of course. Perhaps Ms Miller is unaware that culture is one of the many devolved powers, too?

And then there was David Cameron’s charm offensive, turning the referendum into a games show with his suggestion that people in England might like to phone a friend. “Who Wants To Be Independent”, perhaps. My phone has been running off the hook.

Whatever their purpose, I think these interventions have been misguided. They play into many nationalists hands by reminding those north of the border that the UK is governed by parties for which Scotland didn’t vote. A dislike of the Tories, going back generations, is one of the key motivations for independence. It allows the “Yes” campaign to portray Westminster’s politicians as English bullies.

The argument that since Scotland hasn’t voted for a Tory government and yet they get elected seems to be a very poor reason for independence, frankly. It turns politics into an infants’ playground: if we don’t get the answer we want, we’re not going to play. It applies not just to Scotland, but much of the UK. The north east of England voted against increasing devolution. It is only the chance combination of a nationalist government in Scotland and a Tory-lead coalition in the UK which has brought us to this point, and the SNP took full advantage of their majority in Holyrood. But as grounds for independence, I funny think so.

There have also been several companies announcing that they are either against independence – like Shell and BP, the two British oil giants (which clearly have an instant in North Sea production) – or that they are parroting to protect their (clients’) interests by relocating at least some of their assets to England – like Alliance Trust and Standard Life.

Again, this really shouldn’t surprise anyone. These large corporations are all about making profits – for themselves and their customers, and they will base their assets and activities wherever they think they can make most money and minimise business risk. My guess it’s that they have subsidiaries in many different parts of the world already, and if they decided it would be better business to move elsewhere, they would. Either way, they’d be remiss not to plan for contingencies, since no one knows what will happen in September, nor, under either outcome, the implications of the result. Whatever happens, change is coming.

“Anarchists in the Boardroom”: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

I read Anarchists in the Boardroom towards the end of last year, and I have been trying to get my head around writing about it.

First, a disclosure. I know Liam Barrington-Bush, and we have had lots of conversations about the ideas in his book; he shared some early drafts of a couple of chapters with me. I know many of the people he has spoken to in researching this book, and have been involved in some of the very many stories he tells.

It comes as no surprise, then, that I agree with many of the ideas he has about the power of social media to change organisations, and the way people relate to them.

That said, though, I have some problems with this. Worse still, I think their problem is – ME. That hurts…

Let’s take a step back. Liam comes from a not-for-profit background, and his focus is on changing the not-profit sector. Specifically, he wants to stop the damage he sees done in the name of “professionalism”, which he feels stops organisations being more like people. (He calls his social media campaign #morelikepeople. I am not sure I completely agree with his thesis around this – lots of people do bad things; making organisations more like people doesn’t mean they’ll behave more responsibly. Even sociopaths are people…)

I come from twenty five years working within or for corporates – I’m part of the professional management class at which Liam lays the blame. I have professional qualifications and a business degree. So it’s not surprising that…

What I didn’t like about the book was that it wasn’t – professional! It has a chatty, informal style which, for me, obscured the benefit of the experiences Liam describes, and how others could use them and harness social media (together with flatter structures, open communication, autonomy, and emergent and contingent change) to be more effective.

I think the audience – and impact – of this book could be wider than the not-for-profits Liam is targeting. But to reach deeper into the corporate world, you need to talk their language, and I am not certain that those in (or who aspire to in) the corporate boardroom will pick up this book. The things that has driven Liam to write it – the desire for organisations to me “more like people” – to have a human feel, about communication rather than data – will stop them

This is of course a paradox: to access those able to bring about change (top down or – preferably – bottom up), one needs to become more like them – exactly what Liam is trying to get away from.

Many organisations and the professionals within them actively resist change. One of the powerful things about organisation culture – “the way we do things” – is that it acts as homeostat, bringing the organisation back to its core and, sometimes, preventing change. Culture acts to keep the organisation on course. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of an organisation’s culture – it is all the below the surface stuff that is so obvious to those within it that they are oblivious.

Most of all, culture is rarely questionned. What social media can do is create the space to open up communications. Liam gives several examples where senior executives have taken to Twitter (by its nature it facilitates conversations) and the effect it has had on them – by allowing their staff and customers direct access. Just using a medium like Twitter allows the informal organisation to change – and can subvert the culture. That’s one way it has the potential to change organisations.

Liam’s book covers all this; my main issue with it is that it probably won’t reach the people who I think need to read it.

Talking ‘Bout My Generation.

Since the queen first saw the light she has seen invented and brought into use … every one of the myriads of strictly modern inventions which, by their united power, have created the bulk of modern civilization and made life under it easy and difficult, convenient and awkward, happy and horrible, soothing and irritating, grand and trivial, an indispensable blessing and an unimaginable curse.
Mark Twain

The Economist recently wrote about the difficulties for firms of managing different generations in the workplace; Gerry Taylor from Orangebox gave a talk at the Business School a couple of months ago on similar issues, particularly those resulting from the changing demographics and the impact of technology. The Economist article focuses on managing these different generations – and their different wants and needs; Taylor on the impact on workspaces of these different generations.

Taylor was talking about research from a couple of years ago, Office Wars 2012 [PDF], and I don’t think any of the facts were particularly new: changing technology (particularly social media), the rise of China, the internet of things – we all know it’s coming! – but his analysis was somewhat different, and interesting. His delivery was passionate and engaging, too!

Boomers – people like me – are in the middle or towards the end of their careers (depending how we manage the pensions timebomb…): by 2015, a third of the workforce will be over fifty years old. They are often defined by their work and they’re highly skilled (they’ve had a while to get there). They invented youth culture, and they’re rewritten the rules with each decade. They are IT adaptors who enjoy change and like trying new things.

Millennials believe they move faster than anyone working who’s older than them, are “digital natives” for whom being unconnected is not an option, and they are huge customers of technology – including in the workplace.

These pictures of two generations are clearly stereotypes, and there are other generations – “X” and “Y” – in between; they are perhaps relevant to only certain strata of society, but they help forecasters maker plans. Including what the office may look like.

One big difference between boomers and millennial is, despite all their technological know how, millennial are much less secure than boomers. This might just reflect the power balance, but it is the boomers who know how the world works and are confident about their place in it. After all, they made the rules.

Boomers have taken to changing office structures, particularly working from home. Taylor described a high tech company – it might have been IBM or Microsoft (but I can’t for the life of me find a reference to it – have you ever tried Googling “Microsoft office”?) – who brought in flexible working, including hotdesking and homeworking. The boomers jumped at it; the millennials rebelled. Lacking the security of the office and the personal networks that the boomers had spent their careers building, the millennials floundered.

Apparently what millennials value must about the office environment is the experience the boomers have. They need mentors. (This might not be just millennials: it is perhaps their stage in their careers rather than their generational status that is relevant.)

Our office spaces have been shaped by technology. The thing is, it’s the technology of the nineteenth century. Electric lighting, the telephone, lifts (“elevators” to our American cousins) and the typewriter made offices what they are. (You could probably add air conditioning to that list.)

And what they are are social spaces where people can make connections.

Technology will continue to make a huge impact on offices and how we work, and in particular it can free people from the workspace. But this also changes the dynamics of the workspace; and perhaps it is the boomers who will benefit.

Businesses need to change what they do with their offices, and how they relate to their younger staff, because the competition for talent will otherwise mean that will find employers who do. There is a contradiction here of course: with the economy still in the doldrums if not recession, where precisely I’d that competition for talent? Have millennials really got the pick of several job offers? I doubt it, right now; but these things can change quickly.

Why have offices – when technology lets you work anywhere, why do we need to all be in the same place? Because work is more than work: people – particularly those millennials – value the social aspects of the office.

But I have doubts. As the Economist itself states, youth unemployment is high around the world and there is a generation who may not know employment – no wonder those millennials are feeling insecure. Whilst recruiters and HR people still go on about “the war for talent“, for most people in most roles, just keeping a job is a struggle. Real wages are falling in the UK and in the USA, as well as the Eurozone.

The differences between generations may just reflect the differences in their life stages – differences which have always been there, as workers move through their work and actual lives. Of course what young employees want is different from those approaching retirement. One major difference with previous generations is that those approaching retirement may be doing so with trepidation, with rising retirement ages and falling annuity rates, and may be keen to keep working (and earning). People at different stages of their lives will have different outlooks – saving, “nest-building”, and so on. These may lead to conflict (some commentators talk of “intergenerational war“).

But for most jobs, nothing much has changed. And the employers can dictate the workplace and work culture that suits them best. To most people in most roles in organisations I imagine that the issues raised seem distant and unimportant. The workplace may be changing, but slowly, imperceptibly – for most.

Hearing Voices.

I have long not liked machines that talk. I don’t even like machines that beep at me, switching all system sounds off at the first possible opportunity. I think my attitude to voice interaction with computers was established by seeing “2001: A Space Oddity” as a child. HAL set my default reaction.

So when Ben Cowan spoke to Edinburgh Skeptics a couple of weeks ago on human-computer interaction, particularly voice activated systems like Apple’s Siri, it evoked a strong reaction.

I started using computers in the early 1980s: I first used a device (which I think must have been an Apple) as an undergraduate in1982; my postgrad work required me to use a mainframe for some stats, and I wrote my thesis on a BBC Micro. A keyboard was the only way to interact with these machines, and that could be very frustrating – with the mainframe, “interaction” could take hours, as the machine was very unresponsive. Feedback is powerful. They tried to talk to me – an irritated beep when they didn’t like something (which back in those days was often) – but one only talked back in frustration. Or anger. (Come on – who hasn’t sworn at their computer?!)

I first used a mouse in 1986, again on an Apple. But when I first started using PCs, the keyboard and command line was still the main way of interacting. I still use keystrokes rather than mouse actions for a lot programmes.

My experience of voice activated systems has been limited to supermarket self service systems and telephony systems. I hate self service checkout with a vengeance, largely down to the universally patronising tone of voice used. And my experience of telephony systems is similar to these poor miscreants, shown by Ben.

It’s not just Glaswegian accents – Birmingham City Council installed a voice activated telephony system which couldn’t recognise Brummie accents. They must have done extensive testing of that one!

And then of course there was HAL, lurking at the edge of my technological nightmares.

Perhaps it is a matter of control.

The thing is, voice interaction is becoming much more common. My phone and my tablet – both Android devices – have the ability to use voice activated systems (most commonly Google Now, which is the standard app). You’ve probably realised I’ve not tried them. It appears I’m not the only one.

But voice interaction systems are likely to become more common. As well as Siri and Google Now, Google Glass is voice activated. Satnav appears almost ubiquitous (though I of course abstain…).

I’m beginning to think this might be my problem rather than HCI’s, and Cowan explained why this might be. I’d say I have an issue with the aural “uncanny valley” (my words, not Cowan’s) – the closer to a human voice they sound, the stranger, more passive and downright unemotional – unhuman, even – they seem.

Cowan discussed some of the psychology that goes into this. There are rules in conversation – like “partners in a dance”, even if we’re not aware of the steps. We learn the steps as we learn to talk. Computers don’t. They have to be programmed, and at the moment those programmes are largely database driven and determinate. They work off keywords, rather than natural language. Instead, we fall into line with the machines: Cowan explained how when we talk to people, we model their usage and align our vocabularies. (Starbucks works hard to get us to model their language.) Interestingly, people communicating with computers align their language, too. This has been going on as long as there have been computers: when writing Fortran or Basic programmes back in the 1980s, the vocabulary I could use was very restrained and had very specific meaning. I had to use those words and the programmes’ syntax because otherwise the programmes wouldn’t work, or would give different results from those expected.

When we speak, whether to another person or using voice interaction with a computer, though, the modelling would be internal – subconscious – rather than deliberate.

I was surprised to learn that Siri has a single, masculine voice in the UK (apparently with an American accent). In the USA, Siri seems to have a feminine voice (which can be changed). Presumably its implementation in other languages takes on different voices or accents. Perhaps in the future we will be able to programme computerised voices, as some people do with satnav which I am sure would go some distance to overcoming the uncanny valley – though it may raise other issues (who owns the sound of their voice? What if one decides to use an ex’s voice? …And so on).

Still, it would appear that Siri has a sense of humour…

Which I think is where I came in…

Edit: I have been reliably informed that in the UK, Siri has a British accent. Chris says: “UK Siri [is] decidedly British; he sounds like a sarcastic airline pilot.”

Some Thoughts About Unconferences…

I spent several hours during the summer at two conferences – both very interesting, and of different topics, but in the same building which has a classical lecture theatre with a raked auditorium; both conferences featured talks followed by short Q&A. This seemed somewhat ironic, given that both were about change (one technological, the other political): the format of these conferences was one that had remained constant for decades, with one person lecturing to the audience, who sat and listened.

I mentioned to someone in the coffee break how it might have been beneficial to have more participation and engagement – after a day and a half in the lecture theatre, I certainly needed it – and I started to talk about the unconference format. My friend hadn’t come across the idea of an unconference before, and as I tried to explain it, I thought I must have blogged about it before and told her I’d send a link.

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It turns out I was wrong. I have written about several unconferences before – BarCamp and another BarCamp, ConnectingHR. and another ConnectingHR, TweetCamp, and BarCampBank, for instance – but I have only obliquely written about unconferences per se.

This post aims to put that right. (Also, I have just read Lloyd’s post asking what people would like an unconference about.)

Unconferences sprang out of the experience that many conference goers have – that the real value of some conferences comes from the conversations over coffee and lunch rather than the lectures themselves. Lectures didn’t engage and could inhibited discussion – one person standing at the front of a room of peers holding forth.

The first unconference-like events I attended were corporate events to aid organisation change programmes, using open space technology. (The “technology” here refers to the process – just as a stone can be technology, and a pencil can be technology. Some of the best open space events I have been to have been the most lo-tech; and the best technology talk I have been to used no technological aids at all!). The grounds rules for open space events are (as far as I remember them…)

  • it starts when it starts
  • the people who are there are the right people to be there
  • everyone has to be prepared to contribute to the discussion
  • when it’s over, it’s over (so don’t keep going over the same issue if you have sorted it out)
  • “the rule of two feet” – it is fine to get up and walk away, either because you want to hear another talk or because you feel you have nothing to add to the one you’re at

The same apply for unconferences, and they have some very profound effects. They are very empowering: there is no one controlling the discussion. The agenda is decided by the participants: an unconference is “self-organised”: if there’s is nothing on the agenda that interests you, do something about it! Start your own session – even if it is “Nothing else interests me – what should we talk about?” You don’t need to ask anyone permission. You are only there because you want to be.

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There is a paradox, though: unconferences happen because someone – the lead-organiser, perhaps – has decided there is something worth discussing – a central topic. (This is not the case for BarCamps.) So there is an element of curation. And self-organised doesn’t mean disorganised: there is usually a lot of pre-event organisation which, I imagine, takes a lot of work. Someone has to find the space, find sponsorship, sort out catering, and so on. (I am sure it would be possible to do without some or all of these things, but not for an unconference of any size.)

But the day itself is self-organised. That agenda – it is decided by participants offering to run sessions, slotted into a skeleton timetable. And there can be “wash-up” sessions, so people can share anything they have learned.

There is one last common feature of open space events that is not necessarily found in unconferences. Open space events are often focused on action and change, and one of the outcomes is therefore a list of actions. An unconference may produce an agenda for change, but it is often more personal change rather than organisational – people taking away their own change.

Because of the participation and the large amount of sharing of ideas, unconferences can be very energising – and exhausting! I believe they work best when they attract people from many disciplines who come together to explore their ideas. If you want to learn how to do plumbing, don’t go to an unconference; but if you want to explore what different things you might be able to do with pipes – well, that’s sounds about perfect… An unconference can be very liberating!

(Here are a couple of posts I came across recently on others’ experiences at unconferences – one about a ConnectingHR event I wasn’t at, the other about a pair of events. It isn’t just me who finds these things empowering, energising and liberating!)

Talking About Risk

Drew Rae gave a talk to Edinburgh Skeptics (sic) on “Dealing Reasonably with Irrational Fear”. At least, that was meant to be the topic, but his talk was more about how bad people (and that’s all of us…) are at judging and assessing risk, rather than dealing with it.

It was very interesting, though; given how we deal with risk the whole time, it never fails to amaze how bad we all are at estimating risk – and as Drew pointed out, even those whose job it is to measure risk can be several orders of magnitude out: he mentioned an experiment where professional risk assessors were asked to measure the same (risky) scenario, and the answers differed by orders of magnitude. In another experiment, it was found that experts

Much of this covered similar ground to Daniel Kahneman‘s “Thinking Fast and Slow” (though in my case, reading slow, too!) in examining the biases we all have in assessing data. We are overconfident in our own abilities and misconstrue the evidence. We even make up evidence (unwittingly – I hope) to fit our beliefs.

Much of this is down to the difficulty of working with low probability events: Drew showed how our uncertainty of the probability of a rare event happening is much, much higher than the risk of the event itself.

The way we consider risk also depends a lot on the way we frame the question, and our emotional response to it. People use quick rules of thumb – heuristics – to gauge probability, and whilst these might work well in everyday situations, they let us down badly when considering rare events.

As well as “judgement errors” arising from our heuristic mental models, Drew described how even professional risk managers make large systematic errors in assessing risk. For instance, they can forget or ignore whole categories of hazard, based on their own biases, and greatly over estimate their ability to predict the categories of hazard they do include. Their overconfidence stems from a certainty that their data are correct, an over estimation in the efficacy of safeguards, and – somewhat shockingly – relying on incorrect and untested assumptions, particularly regarding the independence of unlikely events.

For instance, everyone knows that multi-engined aircraft are designed to fly on fewer engines than they have: over capacity is built into the system, so that a plane may land even if one or more of its engines fails. Which is fine, until you consider that the likelihood of engine failure may depend on the experience and skills of the person maintaining the engines; and, typically, the same engineer will do maintenance on all of an aircraft’s engines. If they screw up on one engine, they are likely to screw up on more than one: the likelihood that one engine fails is not independent of the other engines failing.

Indeed, Rae reckoned that aircraft rely on so many incompletely tested systems that our reliance on aircraft remaining in the air was largely “faith based”! He reckoned that for any one aircraft, the likelihood of an accident is one in 10,000 years – and that to get adequate data to test this, we’d need to test aircraft for 20,000 years. Instead, we are happy to fly.

Aircraft are much safer than cars, though. If we applied the same standards of safety and maintenance to our cars as we do the aircraft engines, Rae reckoned we’d never drive: the processes would be far too cumbersome. In the UK, there are approximately 300,000 casualties and 3,500 deaths on our roads. I can’t find comparable data for deaths due to aircraft in the UK – perhaps a result of its rarity – but Wikipedia lists data from ACRO averaging 1,186 pa for the whole world.

Much depends on how one states risk. Figures for the USA show that an individual has 1/7,700 chance of dying in a road accident in a year, 1/306,000 chance of dying in a train accident, and 1/2,067,000 chance of dying in a plane crash. That is, you are forty times more likely to be killed in a car crash than a train crash, and over 250 times more likely to be killed in a car crash than in a plane crash.

On the other hand, in terms of miles travelled, car and trains have the same risk (1.3 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles) and planes slightly higher (1.9 deaths per 100 million aircraft miles). So cars are either safer than planes – or more dangerous, depending on your point of view. But a caveat: these figures are for the period 1999-2004, and therefore include the deaths of those on the planes involved in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (a footnote says that the other deaths in 9/11 have been excluded from the figures). Wikipedia has rather different figures for the same measure, worldwide: death per billion kilometres travelled for air is 0.05, for rail 0.6, and for car 3.1; but neither sources nor the period covered are given.

[It has been said that more people may have died as a result of an increased aversion to flying in the USA following the airborne tourist attacks on 9/11 than in the attacks themselves: in the USA, road deaths increased by 1,500 in the year after 9/11, and it is easy to envisage that . (This paper attributes 1,200 more deaths on American roads to 9/11 in the year after the attacks, whilst this one estimates that, over time, a total of 2,170 deaths could be attributable to change of behaviour following 9/11 [PDF].) We dramatically over estimate the risk of dying in a terrorist attack. Terrorist attacks are very rare events, at least in western Europe and USA.]

We let our fears influence our perception of risk, too. Take nuclear power. There have been approximately five thousand deaths as a result of accidents at nuclear power plants (with Chernobyl responsible for four thousand of those). Coal fired power stations have result in 22,000 premature deaths each year in Europe alone. For the USA, it’s 13,000 deaths pa [PDF]; it would be fair to assume significantly more in China and Russia. Let’s be conservative and say 50,000 premature deaths worldwide from coal. But the perception is that nuclear power is dangerous.

Indeed, analysis of worldwide deaths from a variety of energy sources show that per unit of energy (terawatt hours), nuclear energy is the safest source of energy. (Wind doesn’t feature.)

There have to be caveats, of course: if the danger from nuclear waste are included – which remain hazardous for for hundreds of thousands of years (according to Greenpeace) – the picture could well be different.

Rae summarised the influences – biases – over our judgement of risks:

  • framing – how we ask the questions changes the results

  • familiarity – the more (we think) we understand something, the less risky it seems – the less scary, even – but also the more common we might think it, too
  • the extent to which the risk is voluntary – and hence how we feel we can influence it
  • percieved ability to control the risk (and 93% of drivers think they are above average…)
  • a preference to eliminate rather than just reduce risk
  • and a “dread factor” – an irrational fear: of nuclear power, carcinogenic compounds, genetic-manipulated organisms, and many, many other things.

I reckon the media has a lot to answer for. News headlines make unlikely events appear more common – headlines stick in our memories, media campaigns can last months and have a disproportionate effect.