Tuesday, 26 August 2014

50 Stories & Snippets Extract 3

Here's the latest extract from my new ebook publication for speakers and trainers in the Almost Free series, available on Kindle and Nook:
50 Stories & Snippets for Conference & Workshop Presentations. 

The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind)
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side
At once began to bawl:
'God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!'
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, 'Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!'
The Third approached the animal
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands
Thus boldly up and spake:
'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!'
The Fourth reached out an eager hand
And felt about the knee.
'What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,' quoth he:
''Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!'
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: 'E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!'
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
'I see,' quoth he, 'the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!'
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!
John Godfrey Saxe, US poet (1816-1887)


Using the poem


This classic poem and various prose adaptations of the underlying parable have been used metaphorically in a wide range of situations - from illustrating the difficulties presented in medical diagnosis to discussing comparative religion - but the common theme is a search for truth.
Use this poem to show how limited observation, a particular experience, partial knowledge of a situation, or a conditioned perspective can all affect one's viewpoint and possibly lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding, misinterpretation or mistrust. Promote discussion among your group by asking what the blind men of Indostan might have done to resolve their dispute and reach a common understanding. What may come out is the importance of seeing the bigger picture, of weighing all the evidence before coming to a conclusion, and perhaps seeking objective advice from an expert witness. The discussion may even widen to an exploration of the nature of truth itself. Thus this simple witty verse lends itself both to modest ends and, if you should wish, profound philosophical debate.

The Boulder

Noam in ancient times was a desperately poor kingdom. People there blamed the king, comparing him to his grandfather who, they said, ran everything so much more smoothly than this lax ruler. Everything, it seemed, was better in the old days. In truth the young king tried his best, but the day-to-day problems were more than he could handle alone. He could not command support, and so the kingdom became poorer year by year.
One morning a huge boulder appeared in the middle of the road leading to the gates of the capital. Rich merchants and fashionable courtiers grumbled as they walked around the rock, cursing the king for failing to keep the roads clear and causing them to trail their cloaks in the ditch.
A peasant came along on his way to market with a heavy sack of produce on his back. Seeing the boulder he set down his burden and tried to move the rock to the side of the road. He strained and struggled for over an hour under the hot midday sun. Townsfolk mocked as they squeezed by the sweating peasant. Finally he succeeded and his red face broke into a smile of relief and pride as the great rock rolled into the ditch.
Stepping back into the road to retrieve his sack the peasant noticed a leather purse lying where the boulder had been. Inside the purse he found a dozen gold coins and a note from the king explaining that here was a reward for the person who cleared the rock from the roadway.
As the peasant gazed in wonder the royal coach appeared, travelling towards the city gates. The coach stopped and the king himself opened the door. He invited the peasant to join him, and they rode through a throng of staring citizens to the palace where they talked into the night of ways to save the kingdom.
'The block of granite, which is an obstacle in the pathway of the weak, becomes a stepping-stone in the pathway of the strong.'
Thomas Carlyle, Scottish essayist, historian (1795-1881)

Using the story


'It was much better in the old days' is a common refrain in organizations and communities. The tendency to hark back to some mythical golden age goes hand in hand with the urge to blame someone for the present state of things, usually the people seen as running the show.
Use this story to remind everyone listening that they need to take responsibility for problems and challenges if they are to make progress, rather than waiting for some higher authority to come along with a solution. The story works well when used together with the quotation from Thomas Carlyle as it reinforces the notion that every problem comes with a gift in its hand, the opportunity for transformation.
More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook. 

50 Stories & Snippets Extract 2

Here's the latest extract from my new ebook publication for speakers and trainers in the Almost Free series, available on Kindle and Nook:
50 Stories & Snippets for Conference & Workshop Presentations. 

The Artist Inventor

As a creative genius, the Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci was always attuned to possibility wherever he happened to be. Just one example shows how new ideas can come from accident, from being attuned to nature, and from combining unlikely elements to create something entirely new.

Taking a walk in the open air, Leonardo was idly throwing stones in a well, watching the ripples moving out from the centre of the splash, when he heard a church bell ringing in the distance. Leonardo was struck by an association between what he was seeing and what he heard.

He later wrote in his journal: 'The stone where it strikes the surface of the water causes circles around it which spread until they are lost; and in the same the air, struck by a voice, also has a circular motion, so he who is nearest hears the best and he who is most distant cannot hear it.'

For Leonardo, a breakthrough occurred the moment he realised that sound travels in waves, like the ripples spreading out from the stone. 

Using the story 

Dynamic individuals and organizations will be constantly searching for imaginative approaches, different encounters and new ways of thinking. They know that a creative environment keeps their work fresh and imaginative. Changing that environment often, seeking out new ways of looking at things, being open to possibility, being ready to make unexpected associations - all help the creative process and encourage innovation.

Use this story to show how creative ideas can come from observations and connections you may make with the world around you.

The Big Black Door

A much-feared general in the revolutionary war had the unsettling custom of giving condemned criminals a choice between the firing squad and 'the big black door'. Most people chose the firing squad and died in a hail of bullets. What lay beyond the big, black door?
But only a few people were brave enough to take the risk and choose the big, black door.
Our best opportunities may stand behind the scary-looking door of the great unknown.
'When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.'
Edward Teller, Hungarian/US nuclear physicist (b.1908)

 Using the story

When change is proposed or a new venture is contemplated a typical response is resistance. This may come from vested interests, a fear of the unknown, or may simply emerge from a natural reluctance to disturb the status quo. All change means movement, and movement creates friction.
Use this story to show how people often miss opportunities because they fear the unknown. The key to overcoming resistance is often to recognize the horrors people are imagining behind 'the big black door' of change, listen carefully to those fears, work on allaying them, and offer an alternative scenario of fresh possibility beyond the threshold.
More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook. 


Friday, 15 August 2014

50 Stories & Snippets: Intro and Extract 1

In addition to my creative writing (new novel coming soon) I publish, in ebook form only, a series of mini books for trainers, facilitators and speakers that I call my Almost Free series as they are on offer for a ridiculously cheap price.

I'd like to introduce the latest publication in this series, available on Kindle and Nook:
50 Stories & Snippets for Conference & Workshop Presentations. 

This mini-book features stories, snippets, clippings and examples that I have found useful over the years while presenting conferences and workshops to a wide range of organizations. It's a companion to my compilation 1000 Great Quotations for Business, Management & Training, also available in this Almost Free series.
You will find in the book a motley selection, presented alphabetically by title, but to help focus your thoughts I have included under each entry a brief commentary and some suggestions for appropriate use, and at the back of the book you will find a Category Index with click-through links to relevant stories. These are for guidance only - the usefulness of this material is limited only by your imagination.
If you are a trainer or facilitator use these stories and quotes to enliven your sessions and underline the learning with examples and points to ponder from a wide range of sources.
To whet your appetite I'm going to publish a series of extracts over the next month or two of blog posts. Here are the first couple.




In Australia an earnest and dedicated social worker visited a run-down aboriginal settlement to see if there was any way she could help.

The old Aborigine leader stood watching her as she approached his shanty. She was about to introduce herself when he raised his hand in a gesture that commanded her silence.

He spoke imperiously: 'If you have come here to do something for me, you are wasting your time. If you have come here because your transformation is directly involved with mine, let’s get to work.'

Using the story


Attempts at partnership or collaboration (whether inside organizations or across communities) are often undermined by the failure of members to appreciate that they do not have a monopoly of the truth. As painful as it may be, the ability and willingness to listen carefully to the views of the people involved (including those you may not agree with) are fundamental to success.

A true partnership is one that accommodates diversity and assimilates all shades of views and opinions in pursuit of a common truth.

In discussing this story you may also find it interesting to consider the use of the words 'aborigine', 'aboriginal' and associated terms such as 'indigenous'. Finding appropriate language, avoiding offence while remaining aware that a 'tick-box' politically correct mentality can itself be patronising - these are tricky issues in many areas of communication, collaboration and culture.

The Artist

The great Italian artist Michelangelo sculpted many beautiful works, such as the breathtaking marble statue of David. Whenever he was about to start a new sculpture Michelangelo would stand before the shapeless mass of stone, lost in contemplation. He would stare into, not at, the stone and eventually, he said, he could see the figure trapped inside. All he had to do then was chip away, and chip away … until the statue was fully revealed.
'I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.'
Michelangelo, Italian artist (1475-1564)

Using the story

A vision, whether individual or corporate, begins with a dream. The vision is effectively an imagined picture of a desired outcome, just as Michelangelo conjured when he stood in front of the shapeless rock, preparing to work on a new sculpture.
Use this story to underline how important it is to visualise the outcome from the start. The story also makes the point that it still requires a great deal of painstaking work (‘chipping away’) to ensure that the dream is realised.
More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Before I forget

The latest issue of The Author has an article written by me, Before I forget. Here for blog readers is the unedited version. The events mentioned happened a while ago as I have been waiting for the publication of the magazine before posting, but the sentiment is still valid.
Before I forget

The other day, on the touchline of a junior football match, a friend praised a book of mine he had read on holiday. We were chatting, watching the game as it unfolded, and I happened to mention an evening I'd enjoyed on the quayside in Newcastle. ‘Oh, did you see Emmanuel there?’ my friend joked. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. To my immense embarrassment, he reminded me that Emmanuel is the street-wise villain of my Newcastle-based thriller. I felt fraudulent, as if I was passing myself off as the author of a book written by someone else. Certainly I felt far more dissociated from the story at that moment than the friend who had just read it – he had a better claim on Emmanuel and the rest of the characters of 11:59 because, even though I'd lived and breathed their very existence for eighteen months, not to mention being the sole parent of every single one, frankly, I'd forgotten almost everything I ever knew about them.
Currently, I'm doing talks about and readings from my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret. In particular I've been talking to Women’s Institutes about the Stephenson Women, the neglected heroines of the railway pioneers’ story. I speak for an hour or so without reference to a crib-sheet, note-perfect. But there is a cloud on my horizon. In a few weeks I'm scheduled to talk to The Stephenson Locomotive Society. In my nightmares I am fielding a barrage of questions about the specific innovations made by the Stephensons to ensure The Rocket beat all other locomotive pretenders to the ultimate prize at the Rainhill Trials. At the time I emerged from my three years' research on the subject I could have faced John Humphrys on Mastermind. Not now. At least the book is there to remind me of what I used to know (and perhaps in the final analysis that’s why we write) but what still remains on the page, what once seemed seared on my brain, is not after all indelible. I've moved on to the next thing.
Writers are learning’s prostitutes. Or my kind of writer is. To all appearances we are thoroughly absorbed in our subject, and we do take trouble to be at least superficially impressive, but we are learning and turning tricks to get by. We keep an eye out for glitter or material we can shine and polish. Another eye on the clock. Our work is potentially contagious.
More generously (while staying with the contagion metaphor) we are carried along by temporary enthusiasms that become unignorable inflammations; they smart and smart until they stimulate the writing of a book, if only to ease the itch. I can't write at length about anything until I feel that need to scratch.
I've found you can just about blag it on the books you've already written and almost forgotten. The real problem comes when the itch for the next book starts before you've finished the one you are writing. That’s where I am now. It has taken me too long, far too long, to get to where I need to be on the psychological mystery that emerged from a temporary obsessional interest in the subject of erotomania. The need is not yet satisfied, but another, quite different, has emerged from somewhere in the shadows and it’s pricking me, pricking me.
Married couples are said to be subject to a seven-year-itch, the period where a possible alternative love comes calling. Writers are serially faithless lovers, seduced by alluring encounters with fascinating possibilities into one intense affair after another, compelled to engage, to scratch and scratch out. As with affairs, there is likely to be as much pain as pleasure involved. In my experience there seems to be a three-year-itch for ‘the next big idea’. This is what I'm suffering now. I have to resist it – I can’t let myself be distracted. Like Odysseus on his voyage I'm up for the new experience but I must avoid being blown off my present course. Tie me to the mast – I can't respond to this siren now. Not yet. Not yet. 


Wednesday, 3 July 2013

I love BBC Radio 4, but...

The other day I was listening to a podcast from BBC Radio's Archive on 4, entitled Writers and Radio. The idea of the programme was to interview a number of British writers who were born in that pre-1950s period before television became ever-present in the British sitting room, and radio was at the heart of home entertainment. The programme explored what influence on their writing early listening to the radio might have had. Fascinating in prospect - I certainly recall and cherish its influence on me.

The more I listened, though, the more I felt that the title was a misnomer: it should have read Upper Middle Class Southern Writers and Radio. So BBC Radio 4. The only guests on the hour-long programme were:

Andrew Motion educated Radley College, University College Oxford
Alan Hollinghurst, Cranford School, Magdalen College Oxford
Richard Holmes, Downside School, Churchill College Cambridge
Posy Simmonds Queen Anne's School, Sorbonne Paris, Central School of Art & Design
Tessa Hadley, school unknown but another Cambridge graduate.

Each of these a welcome contributor in their own right, but what a narrow spectrum to represent 'Writers and Radio'. I was interested enough to hear one story about cosy listening to the radio at prep school but by the time it got to the third it became a little wearisome. The succession of RP voices began to meld into another so I quickly lost sense of who was whom.

Where were the Northern voices and writers of this vintage? There's a rich choice from literature and broadcasting - off the top of my head: Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood, Barry Hines, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. This is not to mention a range of possible contributors from Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

And, considering this is an 'archive' programme why was it restricted to present-day interviews? A little research could surely have provided a rich vein of comment from writers no longer with us: Alan Plater, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, Shelagh Delaney, Keith Waterhouse, Dylan Thomas - just to provide some more top-of-the-head examples.

Perhaps the clue lies in the choice of presenter/interviewer: Susannah Clapp, co-founder of the London Review of Books.

Archive on 4 is a luxurious sixty minutes - plenty of time to introduce a wide range of experiences from across the geographical and class divide. I'm not asking for quota representation, but in diversity we find riches.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Seeing trains was like meeting my characters

Shildon in County Durham may be the the only place I've been to where there seem to be more car parking spaces in the town than people. I was there to visit Shildon Locomotion, the North East outpost of the National Railway Museum, where I'll be doing some talks and readings on Sunday 11 August. I specifically wanted to go this weekend because the museum is literally rolling out some working replicas of the the engines that competed in the Rainhill trials, along with one or two important originals - locomotives featured in my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret.

My book on the Stephensons aside, I am no railway buff. Nevertheless I almost cried when I stepped into the railway yard alongside the museum to find an exact life-size replica of The Rocket being stoked up and ready to go. The engine (made for the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool-Manchester Railway opening) looked exactly as it does on the front cover of my book, and I felt as if I was meeting one of the central characters of my novel in the flesh.

Replica of The Rocket

The Rocket moved off down the track, giving me my first full view of Locomotion No.1 parked behind it, and not the replica this time but the original engine, standing in almost the same spot from which it started its historic journey on the opening day of the Stockton and Darlington line.

The original Locomotion No. 1

When I am doing talks I almost always read from the pages that cover the Stockton-Darlington opening. I looked upon the fine black engine today, in company with less than a dozen other visitors to the museum, and thought of the 40,000 and more who turned up on 27 September 1825 to witness the iron lady's maiden trip. Appropriately enough, as I stood watching and thinking, one of the modern trains of the Tees Valley Line came tearing by in the background, carrying passengers on the same historic route. A couple of minutes later a replica of The Planet (the first Stephenson engine to cover the Liverpool-Manchester route in less than an hour) brought a carriage-load of visitors into the museum yard the exciting way, by rail under steam power.

Replica of The Planet

More excitement for me inside the museum main building when I came across Betty Stephenson's recipe book on display, written in her own hand. Betty is possibly my favourite character in the novel and she features prominently in a talk I often do for Women's Institutes on the Stephenson women. Robert loved his stepmother, whom he called his mama. She did so much to introduce him to the finer things in life - music, poetry - which were missing from the more prosaic upbringing Robert had from his father before Betty came into the family.

Also inside the museum (a respectable little offspring of the York parent) among impressive trains of varied vintage, my wife and I discovered another replica of the Rainhill Trials, Timothy Hackworth's Sans Pareil.

Replica of Sans Pareil

Fine as it was in its Rainhill colours, this replica seemed to pale in comparison to the stark original which we found on display in a converted workshop next to Timothy Hackworth's cottage on the other side of town. The cottage is open to the public but it is the engine that inspires. It was a failure at Rainhill, partly because it was over the weight limit (it certainly looks much heavier than The Rocket) and partly because of a cracked cylinder (which Hackworth unfairly blamed on the Stephensons as it was made in their Forth Street workshop), but it was later improved and went into operation for a short while on the Liverpool-Manchester line.

The original Sans Pareil

I felt a little guilty as I wandered around the Hackworth end of the Shildon experience because I don't treat him particularly well as a character in my novel. Hackworth (who was born, like George Stephenson, in Wylam) became locomotive superintendent of the Stockton and Darlington Railway. In one section of the novel Robert Stephenson blames him for his failure to overcome some of the early teething problems there. A more unpleasant argument occurs at Rainhill when Hackworth accuses the Stephensons of sabotage over the cracked cylinder. The historical fact is that Hackworth had twenty cylinders cast at Forth Street and personally chose the two best to use for his engine at Rainhill, so he only had himself to blame. I should acknowledge though (as I don't in my novel simply because it is not relevant to the narrative) that Timothy Hackworth played a significant part in ensuring that Locomotion No. 1 was in fit shape to pull the wagons on that dramatic opening day. There. I hope I can now perform my talks and readings at Shildon in good conscience.

Hope to see some of you there on Sunday 11 August. The whole Shildon Locomotion experience is free and well worth a visit.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Cupertino effect - the dangers of spellcheckers and autocorrect

Six months ago I learned that misheard lyrics are known as mondegreens and wrote a blog posting on the subject. This week, listening to an archived podcast of the wonderful RadioLab, I learned that there is a term for the tendency of a spellchecker or autocorrect facility to come up with inappropriate words to replace words that are mis-spelled, or at least are not in its dictionary. This is the Cupertino effect.

The effect was named by writers and translators for the European Union who found that early spellcheckers could not recognize the word cooperation unless it was hyphenated. Instead they would routinely replace the word with Cupertino, the name of a Californian city which happens to be where Apple Inc is headquartered. A problem arose when an author would run an automated spellcheck on a document then fail to proof-read what the spellchecker may have 'corrected'. Even now you can come across archived official documents that contain strange phrases such as:

The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful.

South Asian Association for Regional Cupertino

...stimulating cross-border Cupertino.

Mistakes can also occur as a result of the spellchecker failing to correct a word because they recognize it from a different context. That's the premise of a lovely little spellchecker poem written a good few years ago now by Janet Minor, who describes herself as an 'internet poet'.

I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC;
It plainly marks four my revue
Mistakes I cannot sea.
I've run this poem threw it,
I'm sure your pleased too no,
Its letter perfect in it's weigh,
My checker tolled me sew.

Though spellcheckers tend to be a little more sophisticated these days it is still dangerously easy to get into difficulties if you are not careful about how your spellchecker corrects common words that you may have slightly mis-spelled. Examples I have seen quoted include:

definitely mis-spelled as definately corrected to defiantly

acquainted mis-spelled as aquainted corrected to aquatinted.

Foreign expressions and names can cause a problem for English language spellcheckers. A lawyer using the Latin phrase sua sponte ('of one's own accord') found the phrase corrected to sea sponge. A Reuters report referring to Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement was changed by a spellchecker to read Muttonhead Quail Movement.

One of the best examples of automated name changes I've seen comes from a student yearbook published by a high school in Middletown, Pennsylvania. The student register should have included these real names:

Max Zupanovic
Kathy Carbaugh
Alessandra Ippolito
William and Elizabeth Givler
Cameron Bendgen
Courtney and Kayla Hrobak

But those students would have looked in vain for their names. The spellchecker had 'corrected' them to:

Max Supernova
Kathy Airbag
Alexandria Impolite
William and Elizabeth Giver
Cameron Bandage
Courtney and Kayla Throwback

Sometimes individuals and organizations create their own correction problems by customising their spellcheck software. To introduce the first example, let me ask you to make the connection between these two images:

Reuters of London's stylebook instructs its journalists reporting on the monarch of England always to use her full name 'Queen Elizabeth' rather than 'the Queen'. As a reminder or reinforcement Reuter's spellcheck software is customised to autocorrect to the default convention. A problem occurred with a news release in October 2006 about the genetic code of the honey bee. No-one spotted before publication that the article included the following odd phrases:

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behaviour.

Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day.

Even more amusing, in my view, is the 2008 headline that read:

Homosexual eases into 100m final at Olympic trials

This was a delicious error perpetrated by the far right fundamentalist Christian group, the American Family Association (AFA).  Their website re-posts news of interest, but heavily censored for content. This group's autocorrect facility is set to alter the word 'gay' to 'homosexual', apparently because 'gay' is not a word they wish to see associated with a practice they regard as abhorrent.

The article in question, however, was about the American sprinter Tyson Gay, who easily won his semi-final at the Olympic trials. According to The AFA version of the article:

Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue, sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has... "It means a lot to me," the 25-year-old Homosexual said: "I'm glad my body could do it, because now I know I have it in me."

The news director later told a reporter: "We took the filter out for that word" after Tyson Homosexual surfaced on the site. "We don't object to the word gay except when it refers to people who practise a homosexual lifestyle."

That's all right, then.

I began by saying that the Cupertino effect as named was a problem for early spellcheckers, but the general danger still exists not only for PC users but perhaps especially for modern texters whose fingers sometimes work faster than their brains. Predictive text and Smartphones with dictionary supported keyboards that can automatically replace 'mistakes' may be a help or a hindrance. I'll leave you with a link to Damn You Autocorrect and its list of 25 Funniest Autocorrects. They are a caution.

Now I'd better proof-read this carefully before posting - you just can't trust those damn spellcheckers.