Showing posts from October, 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

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 pe

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

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

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 a

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 b