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The gossip factor

Here’s a quote from Sherard Cowper-Coles’ memoir Ever the diplomat: confessions of a Foreign Office mandarin on the immediate aftermath of the case of Michael Bettany (a digruntled MI5 counter-intelligence officer who in 1983 made a ham-fisted attempt to get himself recruited by the KGB by delivering confidential documents to the letter box of the chief of the KGB’s London station):

The Prime Minister decided something had to be done about MI5, and a new, external, director general was appointed, in the shape of Sir Antony Duff, a senior Foreign Office official with a distinguished earlier career in the Royal Navy. […] I asked Duff what he thought had been the main problem with MI5. ‘The gossip factor,’ he replied at once. He explained that MI5 officers had been so security-conscious that they had never gossiped to or about each other, thus failed to detect the loneliness and unhappiness that had led Bettaney to go off the rails […] In Duff’s view, successful organisations needed an element of gossip, as a means of what would now be called team-building and as a safety valve.

Reflecting on the year as it draws to a close: that’s a thing, isn’t it? Much has happened during the past year, much of which I have no intention of discussing right now. However, I’ve remembered that I set myself some goals for the year, and so now would be a good time for reviewing them.

The goals were: to meet Puffles the Dragon Fairy; to use the word “propinquity” more often; and to do some public speaking.
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Saturday afternoon of last weekend, I went to Anglia Ruskin on East Road for Cambridge Conversation Café, the inaugural event of Be The Change Cambridge. This is my write-up of the event. Or rather, it’s more a write-up of my experience of the event. If you want something more objective you might want to try Michelle Brook’s account.
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Specific, measurable

If you’ve ever worked for a company with an officious HR department, you will probably have been told of the importance of setting yourself SMART objectives.

SMART, in this context, is an acronym. It would have to be, really, wouldn’t it? I mean, if you found yourself in an organization where this sort of thing is taken with extreme seriousness then the genuinely smart thing would probably be to get out of there. As an acronym SMART can stand (if you go by Wikipedia and some simple arithmetic) for over three thousand combinations of words. However, we only need to concern ourselves with the most commonly given first two words: “specific” and “measurable”.

Before going any further I should probably admit that personally I’ve never got on well with things of this sort: objective setting and so forth. They may sometimes be helpful, perhaps as catalysts for useful conversations, and even when they’re not I can accept them as harmless nonsense. My hunch, however, is that they are most useful for very ambitious people, whereas I’m more motivated by curiosity than thoughts of promotion. This is hardly an unusual attitude in the software industry, so it generally hasn’t caused me any trouble. This is why I feel free to do things like discussing the Dunning-Kruger effect when asked to rate my own abilities or, as I will be doing here, telling the story of BP and the balanced scorecard.
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To Thamesmead

Another weekend, another London walk.

Last weekend Mr. H. and I walked from New Cross Gate to Thamesmead, and then walked a bit more. There had been the possibility of being joined by Dave the American, although in the event his presence took the form of a series of text messages.

I’m probably going to have quite a lot less to say here than in my previous trip report, since there are fewer associations for me south of the river than north.

A trip to Thamesmead had been on the cards for a while. At one point I had thought a good journey would be from Peckham to Thamesmead which, in TV terms, is from Only Fools and Horses to Misfits. That seemed like a bit of a stretch, though, which is why we started off in New Cross Gate instead.
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Good with words

Here’s ancient Greek sophist Gorgias on the important of being good with words (taken from Enconium of Helen of Troy, translated by George A. Kennedy):

Speech is a powerful lord that with the smallest and most invisible body accomplishes the most god-like works. It can banish fear and remove grief and instil pleasure and enhance pity. […] Divine sweetness transmitted through words is inductive of pleasure, and reductive of pain. Thus entering into the opinion of the soul the force of incantation is wont to beguile and persuade and alter it by witchcraft, and the two arts of witchcraft and magic are errors of the soul and deceivers of opinion.

Here’s economist and historian Deirdre N. McCloskey on a similar theme (taken from Talking Capitalism: Schumpeter and Galbraith):

Schumpeter and Galbraith spanned the range in the last century from moderate conservative to moderate socialist. These two men of clever words, both master rhetoricians, laid out the case for and the case against unregulated capitalism. […] Regulated or not, though, […] capitalism hangs on words. […] Case-making with sweet words is how business decisions are made. It’s how regulatory agencies do their jobs, too, and how you shop for furniture. It’s how economic scientists persuade. It’s how managers in a free society manage. Talk, talk, talk. Rhetoric rules.

the_moment_of_clarity

I have a fondness for connections that bridge seemingly disparate worlds. Examples? Well, early on in my programming career I read Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception in a bid to figure out how developer-written documentation might work better. I was also intrigued by the inventor of the Pomodoro technique®, a personal productivity system, claiming inspiration from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I’ve even, on occasion, tried to get “personal development” types interested in stylistic similarities between language used in certain forms of hypnotherapy and the dramatic works of Samuel Beckett.

In a similar vein, I’ve been intrigued by Hubert Dreyfus as a cross-world interloper. Dreyfus, an academic philosopher, had a surprise hit on iTunes with podcasts of his lectures (particularly popular with long-distance truck drivers, it seems). He has an odd double reputation in the world of computing. To some he is a hate figure on account of his critique, first made when he was at MIT in the 1960s, of rule-based Artificial Intelligence. This came from an insistence of the primacy of skilled behaviour over abstract cognition. His subsequent investigations into the phenomenon of skill acquisition subsequently gave him his other reputation: the “Dreyfus Model” is now used in parts of the industry for professional development. I’m sure there are people who don’t realize that it’s the same Dreyfus in both cases.

All of which leads me, in a rather meandering way, to another unexpected connection: business consultants who read Heidegger, specifically Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen of ReD Associates who’s book The Moment of Clarity: Using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems was recently been published by Harvard Business Review. In it, they promote ideas and methods from anthropology and sociology as a way for businesses to do better by “getting people right”. They also draw on the so-called “continental” tradition in modern philosophy, centred on Martin Heidegger. Foucault, Gadamer and Dreyfus all get their mentions. (Nothing on Beckett: you can’t have everything…)
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