Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Genius list. Clever, then stupid, then clever again

A study published on 29 October 2007 ranks the top 100 living geniuses in the world. At first sight this seems to be interesting, until you read that the number one genius is Albert Hofman and that the list includes many other people you have probably never heard of or never considered a genius. For the record, Albert Hofman discovered LSD, so perhaps the pollsters have been questioning old hippies. You can download the whole report here:

After the initial disappointment the report is actually very interesting, though probably not for the reasons the authors intend. First of all it raises the important question of the nature of genius. Before you can decide if Muhammed Ali, Albert Hofman, Brian Eno and Matt Groening are really geniuses you need to decide what the word means. This is potentially a very interesting dinner table conversation topic. It also gives people a chance to chat about acid, The Simpsons and that mieaaauuuhhhh sound that you heard when Windows 95 started, apparently a composition of Genius Eno.

But the other reason it is important lies in the reason it was originally commissioned and published. You would have to be very naive to not grasp that the goal of the report was to generate news coverage for the company involved (it's possible they were also trying to get links to their website to improve the Google ranking). At first it appears that they were successful. Many newpapers picked up their press release and ran the story, usually without questioning it. The next day the backlash started, with people challenging the assertion that Brian Eno is a genius, though nobody questioned Albert Hofman. Are journalists all ageing hippies? Then people started to question the effectiveness of the campaign.

Attracting attention is easy. Just throw an egg at a head of state and you will get some news coverage. But turning that into consulting contracts is another matter. After reading the actual report my first reaction was to think that I would never work with a company that could produce such rubbish. But then again I am not so certain, because on closer inspection the attention getting is contrived more cleverly than most.

The company cleverly picked a topic that has broad interest and is controversial without being offensive, guaranteeing a lasting debate in the media and the blogs. It was also a clever stroke to mention mostly UK citizens -- playing for the home crowd -- but also to add a few token geniuses from other countries. Check out the media coverage: "Yorkshire Childhood Behind a Genius" says the Yorkshire Post. "Muhammed Ali Makes Living Geniuses List" says "Two Iranians Among World's 100 Geniuses" says Press-TV Iran and so on.

Part of me is reluctant to give them this satisfaction of being named again, but since you can find out anyway I may as well tell you that behind this story is a consulting company called Synectics. If their goal was to generate publicity then it obviously worked. Some people might be turned off by their bizzarre choices, but others will look more closely and recognize some interesting thinking, and maybe that is what people want from their consultants. I guess we'll see how much business this generates for them, but I think that perhaps it will generate more for their PR company.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Mystery of Mr Andrew and Dr Andy

A few people have noticed how I sometimes sign messages "Andrew" and sometimes I sign them "Andy". Sometimes I am consistent but at other times -- like late at night -- maybe not so much.

This is not a sign of incipient schizophrenia but simply a culture thing. Let me explain. For many years I followed the traditional English scheme where I was "Andrew" to strangers and "Andy" to closer acquaintances. But then I moved to France. French culture is different. People normally use the full first name and you would only use a shorter form in a close family situation, perhaps not even then. This means that pretty much everyone in France calls me Andrew or M Hennigan, even if I asked them to call me Andy. To them it seems too familiar and a bit childish, like using one of the names people use for small babies. At first I found this awkward, but now I am used to it, so when I write to someone in the USA I sign Andy, and when I write to French people I sign Andrew. And, of course, sometimes I get it wrong.

This culture difference can create real problems. Let me tell you the story of a colleague in Europe who worked for an American boss who we will call David. When this European wrote to David he wrote the name in full, but he always replied back signing "Dave". This actually created some tension because to the American boss using David when he has started using Dave is a sign that you are being deliberately cold and trying to push him away. But to many Europeans to insist on using "Dave" sounds very disrespectful.

It is often in small details like this that cultural misunderstandings can make email communication very difficult. Most people actually attach meanings to little things like the way the name is written, the people who are copied and so on. Some people even analyze the "regards" at the end to see if they are "best", "warm" or just plain cold "regards", which they interpret as "I hate you".

One day I will post an article about this on my website, too!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Language threatened: verbs face extinction, gerunds banned

Passing through Stockholm Arlanda airport last week I heard an announcement that made me despair about the language skills or Ordinary People. "Ladies and Gentlemen we have an overbooking situation". I have heard exactly the same construction used frequently in London. "Ladies and Gentlemen the 10:17 to Bruce Grove will be late because of staff shortage situation". Ouch!

Whatever happened to verbs, those useful little words that make writing both clear and vivid. Why not say "the flight to Amsterdam is overbooked", or better still "we have overbooked the flight to Amsterdam". And you do not have a "staff shortage situation", you are short of staff. Likewise the newpaper article saying "there is serious under-reporting of this type of crime" should be "this kind of crime is under-reported", or better still, "this kind of crime is rarely reported".

I think I will write a little note about this problem and how you can fix it. It will be on my website in a few days!

In related news, several people have sent me links to an article about a Brazilian governer who has banned the use of gerunds in official communications to force people to actually do something, rather than saying that they are working on it. (See, for example, the Bloomberg coverage at This is an intriguing idea, but what interested me the most was that gerunds were actually the subject of a news story. I have not seen gerunds figure so prominently in anything since Willans & Serle's classic Molesworth books (see for an explanation). Talk about gerunds and like so many other fans of these books the first thought is Ronald Serle's illustrations of gerunds drawn as rat like animals, attacking some peaceful pronouns, or being led into captivity.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Lessons from the Minot Nuclear Weapons Mishap

Yesterday the United States Air Force released the report of their investigation in to the incident six weeks ago where six missiles with nuclear warheads were flown across the USA by mistake. The report has been summarized by media everywhere, including the Boston Globe (see report at

From a communications perspective the report itself is maybe not so interesting, but the reaction of most of the people I know is instructive. Pretty much everyone is astonished at how the weapons were safeguarded. What I and many other people imagined is some sort of James-Bond-Movie-Villain like underground lair where to move any warhead you need three generals each with a special key, password and fingerprint.

The reality is much less sophisticated. According to published reports what was supposed to happen was that an air force employee should check each missile before it departs to make sure it doesn’t have a nuclear warhead. They do this by looking through a little window in the side of the missile. In the case of the Minot incident the crewmember responsible for this check looked only at one side of the plane. Someone else should have checked the serial numbers of the missiles but didn’t bother. And there should have been an up to date list of the missiles that were “hot”, but they were using an old hard copy.

What makes this story so instructive is that it demonstrates again how people will imagine good or bad things to fill in any missing information. We did not know the air force process for securing weapons but in the absence of information we imagine something which turns out to be much more sophisticated than the reality. Sometimes this works in your favor, but sometimes it works against you. In other words there are times when a creative silence can be the best policy, but sometimes being more open stops people imagining worse than things really are. The trick, in my opinion, is to find out what people are imagining and correct it if it is worse than the truth. Otherwise it may be better to keep your mouth shut if you can.

Friday, October 19, 2007

In defense of the "obvious" sign

Recently the UK's Plain English Campaign ( has been protesting about what they describe as unhelpful signs. Their message has been picked up by local media and you can read one example from The Daily Telegraph at

Now I support the PEC and their activities to encourage the use of using plain language in official communications and any other "functional" communications, but in this case I am not so sure they are right. Many of the examples they give are merely signs ensuring compliance with legislation. If the law says that all products containing any trace of nuts must be labelled "May contain nuts" then a package of nuts must also be labelled in the same way, idiotic though it may look.

But one example they give is even more interesting. They seem to find very amusing the sign "Caution: water on road during rain". But this is actually the symptom of another problem. The sign could perhaps be worded better, but to me the meaning is clear. On a normal road the surface is convex so that rain runs away. But if there is a defect in the road surface then sometimes after rain some water can remain on the surface. This is what the sign is about.

In this case I think that the problem is not the sign but the road. If the road is in such a state that the water stays then the solution is to fix the road, not put up a sign. I can understand a temporary cardboard sign erected when the problem is noted, but not a permanent installation. This, however, reflects a certain mentality that thinks a sign is a solution. In fact in an ideal world the sign should not be needed.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Nice Lamp. Pity About the Name

Today we bought a new lamp at Granit, a store in Stockholm that sells boxes, lamps and candles (their website is at but it doesn't feature the lamp). The lamp looks pretty good and it works ok but it's a pity about the name: it’s called "Prick". Actually in Swedish this word just means "dot" -- their word for the other thing is "snopp". The lamp is decorated with a dot theme so I guess it makes sense. Maybe they don't plan to sell this lamp outside of Sweden, but I think it is still short sighted to get locked in to a product name that you can't export. There are many other examples I have picked up over the years -- there's the Italian mint called "Mental" for example, and the Swedish ice cream called "Nogger Black"; perhaps not a name that would go down well in the USA. I´ll post pictures of them all on my web site later.

You can avoid these embarrassing mistakes simply by screening names before you choose them. It's not enough to search through dictionaries because sometimes the name you are checking just sounds like something unfortunate. The only way to be sure is to ask speakers of all the relevant languages to give an opinion. Over the years I have had proposals nixed at this stage because they meant something unspeakable in Bavarian dialect or huge snopp in Milanese dialect. Sometimes, though, it is easy, like when an Italian marketer once asked me if it was ok to call his product "twatt". No, I explained.