Monthly Archives: March 2008

customer service

A couple of weeks ago we picked up a tub of black olives from the Thorndon New World (TNW) deli. Pretty uncomplicated stuff, you’ve probably done that kind of thing yourself. We got home and decided to make an antipasto thang for dinner – casual, picnic style, off the coffee table, and watch a movie – as you do. Well, we do, anyway (thinks: when did I get such classy readers?).

The olives were disgusting. No, not olives are disgusting (we like them) they were disgusting. They had some weirdo plastic flavour and they were just bad. I was grumpy because I’m just not the same without an olive or twenty two. Back in the fridge they went, and I festered and moaned about the horror of bad olives.

The next night I bundled up the olives and high tailed it back down the TNW, all the time planning on my approach to complaining about the olives. THE OLIVES! The head-talk: “Two thirds of the world is starving to death and I’m upset about olives. Get a grip!” The other part of me was thinking, “No, those thieving mongrels have sold us poor innocents substandard olives, they must be punished for this heinous deed.” Then, of course, another part was big into the “Oh my god, what if they were from some country where the mafia/cosa nostra/triad/illuminati/young nationals replaced the olive oil with diesel or whatever the last Spanish olive oil scandal was about, and we’ve eaten – noooooo – gak!” And finally, “What if half Wellington dies of bad olives? Remember ‘The Meaning of Life’? It was the salmon.” … You’re never alone if you have enough voices in your head.

All of us – me, and all the voices – stormed up to the customer service desk (alert: key words – customer service). I’m barely coherent at this point because all the voices wanted a say. Liam was on duty that night. He looked at me, listened, smiled, apologised, looked at the olives, apologised, tsk-tsked, smiled, sniffed the olives, apologised, fired up the refund process, apologised, smiled, I filled in a form, smiled, they refunded me twice the sticker price, smiled, apologised, and in less than 10 minutes I was back in the car.

I don’t quite know where the voices went. I went home.

A week or so later, a letter arrived, thanking me for participating in their ‘quality assurance’ programme. Um, I wouldn’t have quite called it that, but that’s what I do for a job, so I’m happy to lend my shoulder to the wheel. Overall, I’m a very satisfied customer, even if the olives – olives? Schmolives – who cares about olives? Thanks, Liam, you’ve got a bright future in whatever your chosen field. TNW – thanks for sticking to the game plan – I guess we’re worth $15,000 a year to you, so $10 worth of refund is less than the daily shrinkage from the dried fruit and nuts dept – plus there’s the promo work I’m doing here for you. But it’s about a principle. When New World presents a 200% satisfaction guarantee, they deliver on the promise. This is what is known as ‘customer service’. Please, Mr and Ms NZBusiness, take a look at the concept of customer service, and try to find a way of fitting in to the picture. This particularly means you, telecommunication companies.

celebrating the autumn equinox

This evening we decided to celebrate the autumn equinox (I know – a little late – was March 20) but better late than never. We took ourselves off to the stadium, and after a delicious supper of ham, salads, and bread rolls, washed down with a delicate lager and lime, we were entertained by a refreshing range of musical numbers performed by a Finnish chamber music quintet.

The Celts referred to the autumnal equinox as ‘Lughnasad’ – a time of harvest – and, rather than signaling a starting or stopping point, from their perspective, an equinox marked the mid point of a continuum – in our case, from midsummer through to midwinter. I’m interested in engaging with our (my) own seasonal markers – the northern hemisphere models just don’t work for me as well – there’s simply no point in looking at midsummer in June/July. And of course, we southerners can make a midwinter festival like (Matariki – 5 June in 2008) our very own.

Our autumnal equinox festival was very, very good. I loved Lordi, and was pretty much satisfied after their storytelling. Alice Cooper had lost none of his theatric charms either. Kiss – weirdly, felt a bit contrived, a bit jaded to me – I mean, they were hard out, albeit with Gene Simmons looking a bit on the corpulent side; but other than the extraordinarily bright lighting and pyrotechnics there wasn’t a lot going on in a story telling kind of way. That is, until the encore, when they unleashed ‘I was born for loving you baby…’ and then joy of joys, from where we were sitting we could see image from http://www.wotzon.com/Drusilla, monster of rock, getting down and getting funky. Yep, Dru is clearly an early KISS fan as you could see her ears shaking as her head moved from side to side. Perhaps it has her handler’s dancing, but I think not. Surely a creature able to breath smoke and have lasers beaming out from her eyes doesn’t need handlers to be a boogie thing.

Congratulations to Phil Sprey and the organising team – it takes real balls to put on a event on this scale, and while I suspect the event would’ve benefited from an extra 10,000 or so people on each night, it was a truly awe inspiring effort, and everyone can feel hammered, but proud of their efforts – and they’ll have great stories to tell friends and family forever.

feeling redundant

Lately I’ve been spending quite a fortune on dentistry. There’s been a number of visits, and more to go it seems. I’m trying to be positive, and my dentist and I (and my credit card) have a great relationship. A high tech afternoon with drugs is not all bad. Despite all this, I have been wondering about our teeth – human teeth, I mean. I’m lying back, surrounded by thousands of dollars worth of high tech investment, and wondering if teeth have been an evolutionary cockup. Where is the intelligent design behind teeth?

Well, sure, teeth make it possible to gnaw off a nob of gnu, but, I wondered if we humans got the best option available. I’ve often though the turtle solution – hard beak-like plates with no crevices for decay was a good solution. Unclear how kissing would work. Or the shark model, where teeth are replaced, and are a variation on skin. Oops, sorry darling, razor burn. Exploratory nibble and all that…

I decided, begrudgingly, after considering how dentistry worked in the pioneer (and earlier) days – or how it might work when we’ve mopped up all the oil (some time next week), that perhaps the redundancy approach was not a bad solution. It’s dentition like the internet – one server goes down, re-route the food data processing, if necessary break it into smaller bytes, binary data streams, the remaining servers and then on to the CPU (Converter to PU). If a tooth was dodgy, take the biblical approach and pluck it out. King James said Matthew (18:9) said it: And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. See, even eyes can be redundant. We’ve got redundancy built in; er, left, right, and centre.

The redundancy does have some key-ness about it though. Thumbs are damn useful. Big toes are too. Earlobes appear entirely redundant apart from being fashion accessories; and as for belly buttons – well, other than for somewhere to put salt when you’re eating celery in bed, or cognac, if you’re serving drinks in bed, what are they about? Once you’ve been born they’re little better than a scar. Don’t even mention out-y belly buttons.

I guess the redundancy of teeth isn’t a bad solution. I do think the crocodile/shark replacement solution isn’t a bad one, although I admit the toothless grin of six year olds somehow isn’t as appealing on 60 year olds. But even that is less disturbing than finding one’s teeth, in a glass, on the bedside cabinet. And so, in a few weeks time, when I’ve got a second or maybe third job to pay for it again, I’ll spend an afternoon with Mary in her high tech throne room.

using tiddlywiki for teaching

As I was heading off to lunch today (roast beef, couscous, roast vegetables and an apple, yeah, all good thank you), I was talking to a colleague about a recent National Geographic article. She mentioned her Dad had hauled out a NG from the dawn of time with an article they’d been discussing. Yes, they’re *that* kind of people…

I remembered back in my early computing days I’d laboriously entered in a magazine article index database program from a Compute! magazine, and having got the program finally debugged and working on my beloved Apple IIe. I then entered in a couple of years worth of NG issues. And then I clicked that the problem was in the searching. Was the article about big cats > in Africa > their impact > on ecosystems > and human geography > or was it about the photos > or what?

About 20 years goes past. Enter tiddlywiki. I figured they’d make a great way to teach wiki, database, data mining, tagging, and a host of other meaty goodness in geog/language/computing/et al classes. Tiddlywiki would also be a great tool to use because of its low demand, and it’s a free download.

My approach would be to grab a year’s worth of NGs (I sold about five year’s worth at a garage sale for $10 just before xmas – shop around). Get the students in teams and distribute the mags accordingly. They can read the articles, and start to tag them, using post-its. Once the students had teased the articles out, each group can tiddlywiki with a tag cloud plugin. When everyone has done the exercise, build an uber-tiddlywiki, and import the respective tiddlers to form a catalogue of the year’s editions. There’ll be a geek or two who can make it all work consistently, and an artist or two who can look at the css to be unique and beautiful – there’s room for everyone to come up with some input. And the tiddlywikis lend themselves to digging deeper into the information, while permitting links ‘out’ into the net – to other resources and information.

The next exercise would be to use a tiddlywiki in the same sort of way in a language class – analyse a Shakespeare play from different perspectives, and then slurp it into an uber-tiddlywiki, and then copy it to everyone so the notes were built by all, and shared by all. I’m usually not a big fan of collaborative work for assessment purposes, as my experience has been that the work load is not always evenly shared. But in the assembly and analysis of material for notes – there’s an opportunity for everyone to make a contribution, and the keen people are not penalised.

technological singularity

The Terminator - Buy at AllPosters.comI realised, in the shower (where I do all my thinking), that none of the software I use at work does any work for me. Basically all it does is provide a digital alternative to me writing things down on paper. Or typing on paper. Or adding up on my fingers and toes. In short, I don’t think we’ve come very far from when I first started work, way back when.

One of my first jobs involved me doing labour reconciliation by hand. This meant I had to take the completed job sheets from a joinery factory we made kitchens, bathrooms, and laminated tops, and add up all the budgeted hours forcast to complete the jobs. This required me to tease out the hours costed into the components. Next, add up all the hours it took to produce the work completed. Finally, taking one from the other and a secret incantation or two and I ended up with a percentage number that was an indication of whether the factory was operating on time budget or not. Doing this by hand – and I mean ‘by hand’ – without the use of a calculator was a lengthy exercise, and one fraught with fear on my part as maths was not my strength by any stretch of the imagination.

I’d expect that today there will be some swifty software that allows you to enter at the dispatch point the products shipped and it would give you a real time indication of the effectiveness, and be able to give you the ratios with yesterday, last week, last month, last quarter, last year, etc. It wouldn’t be that difficult, and I would think it would be incredibly valuable for manufacturers. I did get quite good at calculating in hours and minutes, and this has helped me with my current role where – some 30+ years later the software that I have to use for logging my time is incapable of doing the calculation for me. Amazing.

Back to the shower I could see that, in my current role, the only thing missing was a green visor and armbands to stop my sleeves from wearing. If I added a nice wig and some buckled shoes I could scoot out at lunchtime and meet Captain Cook. Sure, I’d have to wash the ink spatters from my goose-quill pen off my hands, but really no difference. Same back to the time of Marco Polo. The software is a long, long way from being intelligent. Worse, much of it is made in the image of its creator – i.e. dumb, dumb, dumb.

So, I’m afraid, (or perhaps not, if Terminator is an indication) that the technological singularity is quite some time in the future. The technological singularity is the last tool humanity ever makes. It’s the smart tool, the one that’s smart enough to make another tool. From wikipedia:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Whilst this sounds like a great idea, I suspect our predilection for forming committees, having meetings, not taking minutes, not going to meetings, and goodness knows, the critical cuppa tea break will be our final barrier against super or even just ordinarily intelligent machines. The numbing boredom should be enough to paralyse any alien stupid enough to try to land, let alone attack.

over there, over there

Poster of the American Association of Libraries for Supplying Books to the Troops on Service - buy it now at allposters.comRegular readers (you know who you are) might’ve become bored with the selection of books on show from the AkoNet library (see over there, in the sidebar). Be bored no more, I’ve started to add more to the selection courtesy of LibraryThing. If you haven’t got yourself a LibraryThing account yet, well, that’s ok if you don’t have a book. If you do have a book, well, keep up! Accounts are free or $20 – cheap as Alfred E. Newman would say, and he’d know.

I’ve been adding books for over a year now – not in any mad rush, but I was surprised tonight to note that we’d clipped the ticket in order of 700+ books. I suddenly had a realisation that if we needed to make an insurance claim a nice documented list on LibraryThing would be a good thing from a replacement/valuation perspective. And then, of course, there is the slightly mad joy of seeing a booking the sidebar, thinking, “Hey cool”, and then knowing full well the chances of me being able find that book is probably one notch above zero. I think I need some military strength filing system, instead of our current ‘cheerful profusion’ model (as I cause rack and ruin amongst the order)…

myth busted!

The Odd Couple - buy at AllPosters.comGoldfish (Cassius auratus) are not my favourite fish to keep. They’re ok, but they don’t have the same levels of engagement that other species – perch (Perca fluviatilis) for example, or rockfish (Acanthoclinus littoreus – and other fine species by that Forster guy), if you’re a marine aquarium buff. Despite popular opinion, goldfish not that easy to keep, and to keep them very well so that they thrive and are fabulous is quite demanding. The more exotic (i.e. bulgy eyes, fluffy fins) the more demanding they are. I think of them as the orchids of the aquarium world. And, yeah, give me the species varieties (or even a different species entirely) any time.

The other thing about goldfish is – again, despite popular opinion (reserved for people with no knowledge or experience of goldfish) is that they have rather more than a three second memory span. To feed the goldfish in my old pond we used to walk over the bridge to get to the food supply. The noise of walking, particularly my father’s heavy work boots, would bring the fish from all corners of the pond. Day after day. At least one of the fish had a memory, and then probably txted the others. What else could it be?

According to the Australian journal, CampusReview (26.02-03.03.2008, p.20), 15 year old Rory Stokes, a South Australian school student, conducted an experiment to test the 3-second rule. Over a period of three weeks Rory trained the fish by dropping a red lego block in tank with the goldfish, waited 30 seconds, and then fed the fish. He timed how long the fish took to swim to the food. Over the three weeks the time taken dropped from more than a minute to less than five seconds. After the three week training session, Rory stopped using the lego block. Six days later he dropped the lego block in, and despite having not seen the lego block in the intervening the fish swum up to feed in 4.4 seconds. He concluded the fish remembered for more than three seconds. Apparently Rory told ABC Radio that when he repeated the experiment six months later the fish were slower, but still remembered.

Yeah, but what if he’d used a green duplo block six months later? If that’d worked, would the fish be entitled to honorary PhDs? I’m not sure if the experiment is all that sound. I bet I’m not the only person who can look back on cramming for exams and then walking out after the exam with nothing more on/in my mind than getting a feed and playing with lego. So, maybe it’s more about the food and the lego than about the memory. In fact I’m off to check on dinner right now.

Indiana Jones – the adventures continue

I was very happy to learn today that Mrs Jones’s little boy, Indiana, is still continuing to have adventures – this latest the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The trailer for this latest film looks good, and it’s fun looking over the trailers for the previous adventures. A few years back I was going through a bit of a tough patch and it was the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indie comes eye to eyes with the nice cobras that was a complete inspiration to me. ‘Go ahead, I’ll even give you the first bite. But you better make it a good one, because you’ll not get a second.’ It’s a great movie, and it even has a guy who went on to become a dwarf with an ax here in Middle earth. I still like the Indiana Jones stories – ripping yarns direct from Boy’s Own – from the best story tellers of our time.

a journey of 10,000 hours

Marica is studying at the moment. We are study kind of people, we even met while we were studying. I fully expect we will be studying forever. One of the topics Marica is looking at is to name five people who have been influential in your life, and how they’ve helped form the person you are today. I think it’s a very, very interesting question. We both can think of many people who’ve been very influential in shaping the people we are today – who your five people, and how have they shaped you?

I frequently think about professional development and reflective practice – how do you get better at your job – or any other aspect of your life? How do your learn to cook better? Write better. And oh, dear oh dear, now that drawing has started again, how on earth do I get better at drawing?

As a kid I had weekly confirmation lessons with Bob Kempe. I realised he had a profound influence on my life with just a few words. He told me that he’d heard/read/believed/whatever that if you want to be in the top 5% of your career field, get as much training as you can, and then simply read one book, directly related to your field, every month. If you were that kind of person you would’ve probably added a journal or two, and these days you’d add a blog or two for daily updates. Bob said, “It’s not that you’re going to be the super expert, it’s that there’s plenty of room at the top, and most people don’t bother to keep up.” He also said it was true of fitness – a jog around the block once a day will make a significant change in your health. This was in the days when jogging was the order of the day – nobody did the running fitness madness then. I have been a reader ever since, and was to be seen running from time-to-time. A walk is my limit these days.

Zen Master, DamoWhen I did my masters I was surprised to find that the concept of ‘mastery’ had somehow become parted from the university. I felt vaguely disappointed that I hadn’t become some kind of zen master – you know, that gentle, good humored, wise … instead, there was just me. That was no surprise, the disappointment was that in the university the ‘traditional’ concept of mastery was treated (at best) as a joke.

From my own work experience I have learned that it takes me about three years in a job to get to grips with it. Based on a 2,000 hour year, that’s about 6,000 hours. Like most people I wouldn’t achieve a 2,000 chargeable hours in a year, but by the time I add in the background reading and reflecting on my job I probably wouldn’t be too far short of the 2,000 hours per year. I’ve never held a job for ten years, but I have worked (and continue to work) with people who have been in the same(-ish) role for a decade or more, and without exception they have a mastery that is second to none.

I absolutely believe that what stands between me and beautiful drawings is 10,000 hours. It’s as simple as that. From a link on D*I*Y Planner, I found there is some published research to shore up my belief – Ericcson and Lehmann’s Expert and exceptional performance: Evidence of maximal adaptation to task notes that ‘innate talent is not valid for expert performance acquired through at least a decade of intense practice’.

David Seah writes a great article about building a niche of one. He trims out the 10,000 hours after reading about pilots –

* at 1 hour … you know some basics
* at 10 hours … you have a pretty good grasp of the basics
* at 100 hours … you are fairly expert
* at 1000 hours … you are an experienced expert
* at 10000 hours … you are a master

I don’t think that is true in learning a job – and I can’t think why they would be different. Obviously flying an aircraft is not a trivial task; however, in a job, 1,000 hours is the end of the first year, if we’re talking chargeable hours. The first six months if not. Neither time frame makes you an experienced expert in any job I’ve had since I became an adult. Sure, tasks can be mastered within that time, but I believe only the most routine of jobs will have you an expert in 6-12 months. Quite often these kinds of jobs are described as boring and repetitive, rarely the kind of jobs anyone sticks at for the 10,000 hours. Perhaps the difference is the 10,000 hours a pilot puts in is flying time, and doesn’t take into account the pre- and post-flight preparation work. It might take a pilot a number of years to clock up the 1,000 hours – I recall my friend Cam took a good long time to achieve the 50 hours he needed for his helicopter license.

Duff agrees there’s 10,000 hours to mastery, but notes there’s a tension when you want to master more than one thing. I think the solution there is to think ‘higher’ – don’t settle for just mastering tasks, work out how to combine the tasks into a more overarching mastery. Specific mastery is not without its costs – my best example is in the movie ‘Zoolander‘ – the main character (Zoolander – a male fashion model) is unable to turn left. At the end of the catwalk he turns right, and then right again to walk back – and to turn left, rather than making a 90° turn left, Zoolander turns 270° right. You see, two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left; and yes, ‘there’s more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking’.

Ahem. A small diversion. And there are so many opportunities for diversion on your 10,000 hour journey to mastery. Better get started then. If you decide to cast off on your journey towards mastery, you’ll find that you quite quickly start to move into unknown waters. There aren’t that many people on the voyage, and if you meet a friendly soul on similar journey it’s a rare and precious thing. In my case, I married the friendly soul so we could continue to journey together. It’s a good idea to make a map of where you are, and where you’ve been, so others might be able to follow. I’ve written before about exploring without a map: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 4 (cont), part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.

The other thing I think is vital to understand is that it is ok to take time to learn. Somehow we’ve become a society dedicated to condensation – to trying to condense everything into the shortest time. This is not ever how the master of old learned. In the classical European art tradition kids with some sort of painting or drawing talent were apprenticed for years before they became competent tradepeople in their own rights – yes – able to charge an arm and leg. It’s completely ok, if not even entirely desirable to build on David’s Niche of One. Marcel and I were emailing about this the other day. From Marcel’s creative perspective, ‘self validation is the only worthwhile validation to pursue and the most empowering’. I’m inclined to agree – if you can’t love your work you can’t expect anyone else to as much as like it. Be yourself and just get on with creating. Evelyn Rodriguez has responded, beautifully, about the snippy comments from web wankers about how the internet was being taken over by amateurs. Imagine that. Amateurs. Hey – it could be worse – could be religion, accountants, and other snake oil vendors. Evelyn believes an internet fed mostly by amateurs is fascinating:

And the Internet is our open studio to throw pots, take up a brush, collaborate on jam sessions, squiggle cartoons and practice, practice, practice. Anyone can drop into the studio without an appointment. Sometimes it’s a work in progress. And sometimes you walk into a masterpiece.

As a renowned documentary filmmaker (once an amateur whom trained herself by getting her hands on a camera and just-doing-it) once shared with me, “There’s a secret. If you put in the effort, the universe has a matching grant program. And it’ll meet you halfway every time.”

If you move now, you can get the first couple of hours towards mastery done, before the next distraction comes in bellowing like a bull calf. Don’t hesitate, mastery awaits.