Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

The Craft of Writing

In Thoughts, Travels, Treasures on October 10, 2015 at 12:04 pm

I wanted to share a story that I experienced during the past summer holidays. We visited York (old, not New), and in the middle of the shopping high street sat a guy with a folding table and a mechanical typewriter. Now in this day and age, that is an unusual sight, so I had a closer look. And as my son (8 yrs old now) had never seen a typewriter, I took him over to have a look.

The poet/writer/printer in York

The poet/writer/printer in York

Turns out he was a writer/poet, who for a negotiable fee would write you a poem to take home. So I explained to him how my son did not have a clue what a typewriter was, or what it was for, so I would pay him a tenner for a poem about a typewriter. He looked a bit puzzled, asked what my son’s name was, looked at him a bit more, and then set to it, while we started a walk around the city.

Here is what he came up with, typed on brown paper and folded neatly into a likewise brown envelope:

The poem of York

The poem of York

I found this approach a very nice idea: to treat writing as a true craft as well as an art, working a handwritten draft in his notebook and then transferring the finished product into true print. And the poem with an embedded invitation to join the guild was well worth the money spent, I thought.


The freedom of learning

In Thoughts on June 9, 2015 at 7:16 am

I have just read an article in Wired UK, in which Jonathan Haber, Harvard faculty member and expert on MOOCs (also title of his dissertation/book) mounts a defence of open learning methods such as MOOCs. I wanted to second and expand this plea.
If you do not know what a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) is, it is a new form of teaching relying on materials presented online (multimedia, a lot of video lectures) that are discussed and processed through a mix of discussions, online quizzes, essays and discussions. The massive part relates to the enrolment figures, which frequently reach into the tens of thousands.
Necessary consequence of this format is, that obviously the staff cannot personally keep tabs on every student. So essays are graded by peer review, discussions are only loosely moderated, mostly to prevent trolls from wrecking the place, and a lot of the processes are automated.
Haber now detects, and he is much closer to the educational discussion on the subject than I am, a backlash mostly citing the very low graduation rates. But that is where I think the fallacy already starts. To illustrate this, I would like to share a bit of my personal MOOC history.
I have participated in a number of MOOCs ranging from Gamification over Writing and Archaeology to Counter-Terrorism. Yes, I have given up on MOOCs that I did not like, an easy option given the zero fee associated with this open form of learning. But at least the way I am using it, the efficiency of the platform is irrelevant. The courses I have seen feature academic experts, who teach their favourite subject and in the process draw on a global audience to build an at least transient community of practice. A professor from Colorado crowd-sourced an eclectic mix of people, not all of whom spoke Spanish, to read and transcribe antique Spanish church records to bring the mediaeval city and community of Plasencia back to life. A team from Zurich invited experts in different fields to explore how Viking sagas and artwork use space in their message, and how that explains their worldview.
Now I am an engineer by training, and as you can see, these subjects having nothing to do with continuing professional development. I am using MOOCs to explore subjects because they are interesting (or at least seem so at first glance). The relatively inexpensive teaching methods allows academics to teach what they love and experiment with method, content and ideas in the process. And they allow me to invest time and effort into developing my personality, rather than my career. This, even time 500, rather than 20000 is worth it, no matter how many “finished products” leave the process at the end.

PowerPoint and its place in the world

In Geek Alert, Thoughts on July 30, 2014 at 10:52 am

The knowledge management expert David Gurteen recently asked in his newsletter, whether PowerPoint was evil, or a strategic tool, based on a number of articles recently published on the subject. That prompted some thought on my side, especially as I have been collecting some articles on the subject for a while now and also keep thinking about effective ways of asymmetric face-to-face communication, both for private and professional reasons. Public speaking, visualization of ideas and concepts, new media &c are things that will keep people busy for a long time. And whoever calls the tune, the piper will get paid in the end 🙂 So here is the response to David’s article, as posted in his LinkedIn group:

I thought I should respond to the question asked in the last Gurteen newsletter regarding the evil or blessing of PowerPoint in modern business life. Lot has been said on how visual splendour covers intellectual void in modern presentations. My favourite on that subject is this article from the New York Times, dealing with the use of PowerPoint in the military (and I love the expression of the PowerPoint Ranger)


But I think what makes a better point is this piece (again in German, what is it with these Germans and presentations?)


about a game politely called buzzword bingo.

To lament the quality of contemporary presentations, the slide decks rushing by at a speed that makes the pictures moving and the cognitive laziness of today’s students working only with the provided slide decks is maybe justified, but blaming it on the medium does not seem fair to me.

What was before (i.e. when I was in school and uni in the 80ies and 90ies)? Blackboards. Professor starts writing while talking into a microphone suspended from his neck, starting top left and ending bottom right, followed by a pause for wiping and starting over. More advanced presenter would use actual transparent slides, either photographic from a magazine, or as a blackboard replacement on an overhead projector. That is why slides are still called slide, although they don’t. Students would trade in scripts, i. e. write-ups either hand-written and photocopied or, where there were enlightened and technologically savvy student unions or professors, typed and printed.

How has PowerPoint changed that? It has made the blackboard faster by having the presentation laid out beforehand. It also has made the presentation more colourful that the average four colours of chalk. It has retained the capability of the slide projector to introduce photographic material. And it has improved the capability of the overhead projector to present animated content through overlays. Technically more refined, but more or less the same.

Now the question that really matters: does it improve the content? No! A thirty minute talk about Introduction to BS will be still the same. Cognitively, providing the slide deck to participants might encourage them not to take notes, which will negatively affect the retention of the contents. On the other hand, a clear, simple picture will massively improve the understanding of a concept. For more on that, see Dan Roam, The Back of a Napkin.

I think what matters is rhetorical training combined with the inside that PowerPoint is your slave (or minion, if you want to stick with the evil theme), not the other way round.

Practical guide to turning off voters

In Thoughts on May 19, 2014 at 10:52 am

As you might or might not know, this Thursday will see the elections for European Parliament. And while this institution is struggling with various teething problems and has managed to attract various fringe groups vocally opposed to the idea of a unified Europe, I think it is an important building block in something I depend on as a German living in the UK.
Now the UK has a parliamentary tradition reaching back to the days of Robin Hood and therefore should appreciate this exercise, even considering its somewhat shaky relationship with the unifying Europe. But at least I have had to witness the administration stacking the cards against successful execution. Here is what happened.
About a month and a half ago, I received my umpteenth letter asking to confirm my details and status for the electoral register. I appreciate the necessity of this exercise in a country allergic to  ID cards and resident registries. However this time, there was no option to do this online, and the only option to respond was by return mail, paid and posted by me. Now postage is not a huge hurdle, but catching the post office during opening hours is. So not a major incentive and I did not respond. About three weeks later arrived substantially the same, but with a free return envelope enclosed. That made me wonder what the first exercise was all about then, but I responded to that, indicating my preference for postal vote, and chucked the letter into the office’s franked outbox.
This Saturday (May 17th), I received a poll notification for this Thursday, with an option to request proxy or postal vote by 14th May. In sudden cases of sickness or work-related inability to vote, proxy vote could be arranged until Thursday. Now I am writing this on a plane leaving the country, and I won’t be back before Thursday night. So at least I will not be voting on this one.
The whole episode makes me wonder, if this process, which for other elections includes electronic registration, free return envelopes and timely notification is not designed to keep people away. For sure, it does not do much to invite participation. Which is sad, given the cry for voter engagement and democratisation heard from all sorts of corners. Maybe the administrative side needs a step change, and towards more capability and not more privatisation and outsourcing.

Time flies when you are having fun

In Thoughts, Treasures on May 3, 2014 at 12:05 am


Wow, I have not been here in a long time. But I suppose between work, building projects, family and other interesting things, blogging, especially when not trying to make a living of it, is maybe not on the top of the list. But at least I think I have something to share that brings me back to the beginning of this blog.

I was looking to share the discovery of freedom while breaking out of a job, that was asking a lot more than its due. Since then, I have taken a university course, the same job again (more or less) and another job with a different focus. And I am noticing a convergence of ideas that have made me a lot happier.

First of all the new job is with a company that does not value more time spent at the desk. Secondly, I got to define the job, the environment, and having designed it as project-based, I even get to shape the content, incl. the option to say no. That has given me a much more diverse workload and time to look at other things, learn and think. I have actually sold the position as having the main strong point that we can afford to focus. And with a lot of other people stuck in fire-fighting and spinning the hamster wheel, this function is not only great to work in, but also appreciated for exactly that capability.

Looking around, I am also noticing that I am not alone with this approach. Daniel Goleman, him of Emotianl Intelligence fame, underlines the importance of focus in his newest book Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence, and Greg McKeown tries to teach the same message – less done better is better in his newest book Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. So it seems like I am fully in trend. I also have found some peace in listening to the podcasts made available by Zencast.org.

So it seems like I am finding freedom without the absolute freedom of not having a job, and with salary life also has its extras. I hope that I will manage to explore this whole subject a bit further without becoming too trivial, but if that should happen, please let me know.

Requiem for the printed word

In Thoughts on December 10, 2012 at 7:55 am

The German language has an addage, which loosely translated runs: What you are owning black-on-white, you can assuredly carry home. Times are not looking good for this principle. A while ago, Newsweek announced that they were giving up on a print edition by the end of the year, and that alone had prompted me to write something here. But on top of it, I have heard this week, that in Germany, the daily Frankfurter Rundschau, a scion of working class publishing is going into insolvency, and the Financial Times Deutschland, a relatively young daily newspaper, which had managed to take a fairly neutral and professional position in a market typically characterized by strong ideological standpoints, has also stopping the presses.
Now this is where I notice that I am getting old, or just totally off the mainstream. I like print. The airline is not asking you to switch off or stow your magazine or newspaper during take-off and landing, a printed publication is easily deposited for casual browsing in a bathroom, and they can be rolled up to fit in any external pocket of a common bag, without attracting undue attention or running out of battery. And while I can understand that a printed publication has difficulties competing with much faster online news, especially if the later is free of charge, there are aspects worth considering.
Firstly the weekly format cannot be current, but on the flip side, it can offer the bigger picture. And that is something I have always appreciated about Newsweek. They had the ability to listen to the daily noise and extract the broader trend and offer an in-depth analysis, and printed in a letter format, the reader would not be interrupted by mailbox pop-ups or have to knock out his neighbour in economy class to turn the page. And that is something rarely found in the world of the neverending news cycle. And this aspect will be sorely missed.
Now how can this work economically? The Financial Times Deutschland editors lamented that they had not been able to find a business model to compete with online offerings. But they could have found an example not too far away in Duesseldorf, and on a much lower journalistic level. The VDI Nachrichten is a weekly print newspaper, targeted at engineers and people in technical professions and is affiliated with the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure, Germany’s largest association of engineers and similar professionals. So this paper comes as an included benefit in the membership fees, and is in turn funded by these. The large number of members guarantees a budget, although the paper is also available for sale at news stands around the country. And that seems to be working fairly well. I wish the Financial Times Deutschland would have found a partner, and on returning to Germany, I might have found myself a member of an association not related to my discipline in any way.
But not wanting to go into publishing, where does that leave me? The brilliant William Gibson has pointed me to Wired magazine, which seems to embrace the more reflective, analytical approach that makes a low-frequency magazine great. I might just give that a shot.

Writing faultlines

In Thoughts on November 11, 2012 at 8:27 am

For some reason, the topic of writing has come to me from a number of different angles recently. Firstly, I came across a book “The Lonely Planet Guide to travel writing. This book tries to show the travel enthusiast  how to make a living from travel writing. A very nice book full of good ideas, although it has not induced me to quit my day job. But I have rarely seen such a comprehensive guide on a bookshelf.
Secondly riding the wave of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC) and on the coat tails of a successfully completed course in Gamification offered by Prof. Kevin Werbach on Coursera, I have enrolled in a course on Writing in the Sciences.
And thirdly I am reading “Distrust that particular flavor” by great author and inventor of Cyberpunk William Gibson. The book collects a number of his non-fiction essays produced on various occasions, and being a fiction writer, he has quite a few things to say on the subject of writing, and how he justifies straying from his vocation. (Okay, a minor point in the same category is the discovery of Prof. Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work and blog treated in a previous post.)
There is one point that stuck out at me. Both the writing course and the literature going with it emphasize the importance of de-cluttering your writing. This seems to be a widely held belief, pursued with zeal and verve. Now in Gibson’s book I found a piece, where he recounts how, after an early start as a Picker, finding rare items in the mounts of thrift shops and selling them on into serious antiques channels, he got sucked into the web by rare mechanical watches on auction on eBay. I found the story personable, credible and a worthwhile read. But in the footnote, explaining the background of the piece, Gibson opens with how he feels this piece deserved a haircut. And that made me say “Huh?” out loud in a packed plane. Here is a self-professed fiction writer criticizing his own work as cluttered. I felt there was nothing wrong with the piece, and maybe, science and all aside, maybe this Cut the Clutter business has gone too far.

Freedom lost

In Events, Thoughts, Travels, Treasures on April 1, 2012 at 11:50 pm

Hm, I suppose blogging, if not pursued as part of one’s main occupation is a luxury easily lost. The timestamp on the last posting shows me that it has almost been a year since my last post, and quite a bit has happened without finding any reflection here.

So in May-June of last year, I entered negotiations with the Scottish branch of my former employers, where an old colleague of mine was trying to rope me back in. In the end, he succeeded with that, heaving me into a position one level above my former one and with start date of 1 August 2011 in the beautiful world of well cementing. Reinstatement of seniority, 40% pay cut, and with about 5 months still to go on my studies. So now I was full-time student and full-time employee. Not a good introduction.

On the positive side, I got to travel to Mauritania for some exploratory negotiations, I got to travel to The Hague to discuss my favourite cementing subject Macondo, and I got to fly to France and Norway.

The Hague cannals

The nice end of Nouakchott, Mauritania

However the job is insane, and I cannot find any more suitable term. The responsibility is between the usual 24/7 drilling operations, which, with waning experience, need increasing support, and the Marketing and Sales department with plenty of tenderwork, presentations, trainings for clients etc. I could work 24/7 and not nearly catch up with all the things that I could do.

Secondly, the company, in a fit of megalomania has formulated a carefully crafted strategy, which consists of “outperforming the competition”, operating at an IBT of 20%, catchily phrased as “Club 20” membership, and all the while doubling the business in our line of work by 2015. All that with a goal to operate everywhere and chase every opportunity and “sell apples, if needed”. I have undoubtedly been spoilt by a book I recently read: “Good strategy, bad strategy – The difference and why it matters” by Richard P. Rumelt. And looking at the guidelines coming out of both the geographic and the business line dimensions of our matrix organisation, they are easily identified as the second kind.

I also miss the freedom to read outside the core discipline, think, write focus on one task and do whatever I want. So I have a feeling that this job is not going to last long. I just need to find an opportunity that allows for focus, has a general approach and therefore allows me to escape the narrow corner, which is the world of the well cementing expert. Easier said than done, but nonetheless, I will try. And hopefully find the time to blog about it.

P. S. In spite of the double load, I managed to graduate with merit and even won a prize for my law dissertation. It is only now that I can fully appreciate how much more fun that was, even if it appeared stressful at times.

Understanding Common Law

In Thoughts, Treasures on April 27, 2011 at 9:19 am

If you are, as I am, neither legally schooled nor originally from a Common Law Country, the studies of English, and to a lesser extent Scots law will seem initially a little mysterious.

Where I come from, law is, what is on the statute books (with a little review and interpretation by the courts). Legal language is comparatively easy, and you do not have to know the meaning of a writ, a summons or a certoriari.

But then, you are studying Common Law with all bells and whistles. And if you think a little bit like me, your understanding is helped by a grasp on where things come from, and why they are as they are. In that context, I have found a nugget in the shape of a very readable and thin, yet comprehensive book:

A Sketch of English Legal History

It starts from the English law just before Edward the Confessor and takes it from there to the Victorian Era. The amazing things is (okay, it is also a facsimile published by The Lawbook Exchange and really cheap) that it was written, or rather collected from a series of journal contributions, in 1915. And still it is coherent, readable, clear and interesting. The OpenLibrary also has an electronic copy available for free, if you don’t want paper. So it is definitely worth a look!! Let me know what you think.

Blogging, journals and diaries

In Thoughts, Treasures on April 15, 2011 at 3:05 pm

I don’t know how long it has been that I had a look at my own blog, and it shows that maybe blogging is either not the right thing for my lifestyle, or I lack the discipline.

However I was encouraged and reminded, what a good blog can do. I came across the Alistair Campbell Diaries (third volume out this July). And it is quite amazing what he has done with them. He had the opportunity and energy to record his thoughts of the moment during the rise and decline of the Blair administration in the UK, and he has edited them nicely, so that they now give a very readable (if, of course, subjective, maybe biased) account of this remarkable time in the UK.

So if nothing else, this discovery has prompted me to have another look at this blog and leave at least this posting. Maybe I will get around to put something else, once I have time  to think of it.