Monthly Archives: October 2012

Why Ten Commandments?

I’ve been thinking about the Ten Commandments.

It’s not something I often do. But they came to mind because I’d been to a talk where the author David Bodanis mentioned that his next book, a book he’d been working on for several years, was on this very subject. If the book is even a quarter as entertaining as Mr Bodanis is in person, then it will easily be one of the best books of whatever year it comes out in.

Anyway, the talk got me thinking. But before I go on it’s probably worth stating that while I was half-heartedly brought up in a religious faith, I don’t have a religious faith. As a child I was a Catholic. By the time I had left my Catholic primary school at eleven I had, in Catholic parlance, lapsed.

To my mind, however, I hadn’t lapsed, more lost interest because so much of what I was supposed to believe seemed unlikely. Also, the big questions that came into my head, were never really answered. It was all the usual stuff – if God exists how can he let suffering happen to innocent children, if my friends don’t believe in the same God I do then what happens to them when they die, and, when the local priest talked so certainly in his sermons about what God wanted from me how did he know, I mean, had God  actually been in touch?

The other question I couldn’t resolve in my church-going childhood was about a very specific aspect of Catholic theology. In the Catholic church God is descibed in three parts. There’s God the Father. There’s God the Son. And there’s God the Holy Ghost.

Now I understood God the Father. And I understood God the Son, on account of that being Jesus. But God the Holy Ghost? I understood the word holy, and I understood the word ghost. But put them together and you get what exactly?

For me, it was mystery that remained, and remains, well, mysterious. It’s like that bit in the 1986 film ‘Stand By Me’ when, as the young protagonists wander through a sun-drenched 1950s landscape, one of them poses the deeply philosophical question that had clearly been troubling him for some time:

‘ If Mickey is a mouse, and Pluto is a dog, then what’s Goofy?’

In the film they never come up with an answer. And, similarly, I never came up with an answer as to what, precisely, the Holy Ghost was. Hardly surprising then that I drifted away from the Catholic church. And given that I have the kind of mind that can equate a fundamental theological query with a question about a cartoon character with buck teeth and the speech pattern of an idiot, I doubt that the Catholic church overly worried that they were missing out on a potential Pope.

But, the truth is, that childhood is a strange place for anyone to grow up, and in many ways you can be shaped as much by the things you reject, as by the things you accept.

Meanwhile, back at my recent consideration of the Ten Commandments, the question that came to mind is this:

Why ten?

Obviously there are other questions about them too. I mean, look at them with a modern sensibility, and the benefit of all the recent advances in corporate Human Resources practice, and they do tend to be a bit on the negative side. And consequently not very empowering.

Eight of the Commandments are about things you shouldn’t do. So there’s stuff in there about not worshipping other gods, or graven images, or stealing, or bearing false witness. But only two of the Commandments seek to promote best practice. There’s the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, and there’s the one about honouring thy mother and thy father.

The overall effect of such a list which is biased towards the prescriptive is that it creates the impression that this particular religion is mainly concerned with telling people off, and seems to start from a view of humanity that is decidedly negative.

Not that long ago I started a job where one of the first things I was told when I was shown to my desk was that ‘we don’t eat at our desks’. For me it immeadiately created an image of the company which was less than encouraging. Eventually the company went bust, and while there were all kinds of recession linked reasons for this, along with bad management decisions, my personal theory is that the place went down because no-one was allowed to eat at their desks.

The point I’m trying to make is define the values of an organisation by telling the people in that organisation what they can’t do and it doesn’t exactly make them feel good about themselves. Or, indeed, about the organisation.

Which isn’t to say that the Ten Commandments don’t contain sensible rules. I mean, who could argue with ‘Thou shalt not kill’? But even that, I would suggest, for the vast majority of people isn’t that good a rule because it’s not that relevant.

Even back in Biblical times people killing each other in their daily lives must have been a pretty rare occurrence. So surely it would have been better to frame a Commandment that drew the line at a lower level of violence because, as it stands, anything up to actually killing someone is okay.

Then there’s the problem of the hierarchy of the Commandments. As they are reported each of the Commandments is given the same significance. So something like not coveting thy neighbour’s ox is accorded the same importance as not killing him. Which is a little odd.

Mind you, for me personally, having worked in advertising for a lot of my life, the whole ‘not coveting’ thing has always been a bit of a problem as advertising is an industry 90% built on the promotion of coveting.

Take Apple’s latest iPhone. If Apple hadn’t been able to create a business model fundamentally concerned with a coveting of the confluence between technology, functionality, style and cool, it would have real difficulty flogging a product that 95% of its customers will use to do exactly the same things as they did with their previous iPhone.

But all this is an aside. The question I started with, and would like to return to is, why Ten Commandments?

And the theory I would like to suggest is that maybe there are Ten Commandments because we have ten fingers.

I realise this sounds absurd, but stick with me for a moment.

Moses goes to the top of the mountain to converse with God. God lets him know he’s about to give him the rules by which he wants his people to live. Moses says he’s not brought any papyrus to write notes on. God says no worries I’ll inscribe them on two tablets of stone. Then as the two of them thrash out the logistics of it all they realise that no matter how devout his people might be, no-one’s going to wander round with two tablets of stone every day.

But then, because God is pretty bright, he comes up with this suggestion. If he makes the number of Commandments ten, then all a person has to do is look at his hands and he has a ready-made, permanent, portable reminder of just how he should live his life.

Now if things had panned out this way it would explain why, frankly, a few of the Commandments do seem a little like padding.

Obviously this far from authorized version of this particular momentous encounter between man and his maker is ridiculous. But the point it’s designed to highlight is this. Maybe some of the things we believe, some of the methods we have developed to make sense of, and navigate our way through our existence, are the way that they are because of the physical form of the human body.

Now if you are not an individual who is religious, or has a particular religious faith that stems from the words in the Bible, it’s easy to see the inherent absurdity in the possibility that the reason there are Ten Commandments is something as un-divine as the fact that we each have ten fingers.

But what if we extend the anlysis to the secular world? Is not all of our mathematics, and , consequently, much of our science, based on a numerical system that has 10 as its, well, base?

All of which raises the question that if we had evolved with four fingers on each hand would how we came to descibe and understand our world, and our existence, be different?

Or walk into another room of this particular house of thought and consider this. We live in a dichotomous world. There is black and white, there is right and wrong, there is yes and no, and there are two sides to every story.

Is this because this is, fundamentally, how the world is? Or is it because we have two arms with two hands at the end of them and given this particular aspect of our corporeal form then, of course our idea of balance and harmony involves duality.

Or to put it another way, if the upper evolutionary hand had been gained by octopi, would there be eight sides to every story?

Graham

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How many followers does anyone really need?

At the last count I had nine followers.

Take that Stephen Fry! In your face Lady Gaga! Oh, I admit that your number of followers, at  4,800,000 and 30,000,000 respectively, may make my select band of compatriots seem somewhat minimalistic but guys, I’m going for quality not quantity. And, anyway, how many followers does anyone really need?

But before I tackle that there is an admission that I need to make. And it’s this. I think that one of my followers is actually me. I realise that sounds a bit stupid, but I put it down to not being a ‘digital native’. I did not grow up in an age when a computer was a household appliance as everyday, and as disposable, as a toaster or a kettle.

In the days of my youth computers were very much the kind of thing that ex-Spitfire pilot Raymond Baxter would occasionally talk about on Tomorrow’s World. On that TV show his reassuringly posh, yet oddly modulated, voice would tell us that in the not too distant future we would all have computers in the home that would do things like allow us to control our central heating from our desks at our offices.

I couldn’t wait. Obviously I’d have to finish school first and get a job that involved sitting at a desk in an office. Oh and we’d have to get central heating too. But, when I’d sorted all that out, a life of luxury with central heating I could control while I sat at my desk at work, doing whatever people did when they sat at their desk at work ( I’ll have to get back to you on that one) would surely be mine.

And, yes, all this did sound excitingly futuristic. And it was excitingly futuristic. Because the world I grew up in had only three television channels. And whether you should buy a black and white or a colour television was an actual decision.

The other place you could see computers was on wobbly-walled science fiction shows. Star Trek had them. Lost In Space had them. Space 1999 had them. (For the  uninitiated, Space 1999 was a TV show where people lived on a colony on the moon and wore onesies, in the impossible to imagine future time of 1999. As it turned out, things didn’t really pan out like that in the actual 1999. Indeed, for me, even Prince’s seemingly easier to achieve invocation to ‘party like it’s 1999’ proved to be somewhat of a bridge too far. Millenium Eve found me belatedly deciding to go down to the banks of the Thames to watch the fireworks only to discover that having left it so late the nearest I could get, on account of all the revellers, was so far awy from the river, and so surrounded by tall buildings, that while I could hear the fireworks that heralded the next one thousand years of human history, I couldn’t actually see them. Mind you, in retrospect, that is a pretty good metaphor for how I’ve found most of  ‘The New Millenium’.) And Blake’s Seven had them. But Blake’s Seven also had a cropped haired villainess with mean eyes who, if I’m honest, seemed to allude to a future far more exciting than one involving computers and, again in retrospect, explains quite a lot about some really important bad relationship decisions I would subsequently take in my life.

There was, of course, one other place to see computers. And to see what computers could actually do. That was in the television coverage of the Apollo Space Programme. Mission Control Cape Caneveral was, in my opinion, the place that changed the world. And it changed the world not because of what was done there, but because of what it inspired. A generation of protogeeklets  saw the impossible technological glamour and excitement of the banks of computers that controlled the mission of putting a  man on the moon and decided that this wasn’t just the future, it was their future. And when they grew up they built the computers, wrote the software, and founded the companies that changed the world.

Back in our house, however, things were a lot more prosaic. We got a TV with a remote control and that seemed to be quite enough high tech stuff for us.

So, like I was saying, I was not, and am not, a digital native. Hence, when setting up my blog, and trying to check out what the thing would look like, I clicked on a clicky space that somewhat surprisingly sent me the message ‘you are now a follower of fiftyshedsofgraham’ .

I mean, is it even possible to follow yourself? Surely that would involve endlessly turning round in circles, like a dog chasing its tail, and not getting anywhere?

Oh, hold on a minute, when I put it down in black and white like that, it sounds about right. Maybe I should settle on that as a description of what the blog is about. Or maybe it’s a description not of what the blog is about, but of what the process of blogging is all about.

But that sounds a bit deep. Time to paddle back towards the shallows.

My theory about followers is this:

                                      You only need twelve followers.

Why?

Well, that’s how many Jesus had. And he didn’t do too bad in the whole ‘changing the world’ mullarkey.

Twelve followers, Stephen Fry! Twelve followers, Lady Gaga! And the man changed the world! Both of you have millions of followers each and probably the best you can hope for is a book at the top of the bestsellers list, or a worldwide number one hit but even that might be tricky L.G. because, and let’s be honest here, your latest tracks aren’t anywhere near as good as your early breakthrough hits even if you do promote them in a video where you wear a wedding dress made of live babies and get married to an ocelot.

Mind you Jesus was, or wasn’t, the Son Of God, which may, or may not, have given him a bit of an advantage.

But then again there’s the case of Fidel Castro.

Back in November 1956 Fidel Castro set off from Mexico in a somewhat battered boat called Granma, crammed with 80 prospective revolutionaries, for the island of Cuba. Cuba at the time was run by a chap called Batista who was either a bit of a dictator (if you were an ordinary Cuban), or a jolly good thing ( if you were a rich landowner or one of the American companies that exploited Cuba’s resources).

Unfortunately, due to it being so crammed with people, the boat took way too long to reach its destination. Even more unfortunately, when the sea battered rebels eventually made it ashore they were met by Batista’s forces who had got wind of their arrival.

The firefight that ensued was brutal. Most of Castro’s expeditionary force was either killed or captured. When he eventually regrouped in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra Castro’s band of brothers was down to twelve men.

But two years and two months later these twelve men had lead an uprising that had ousted Batista, defeated government forces estimated to be between thirty and forty thousand strong, and allowed
Fidel, with Che Guevera at his side, to drive in triumph into a jubilant Havana.

So, taking both Jesus and Fidel as a guide – now that’s a phrase that hasn’t often been typed – twelve followers is all you really need to get things done.

And I’ve got nine. Or eight if you don’t count me. So I only need four more.

When I do reach the magic number of twelve followers I’ll let you know what the plan is. Obviously, at the moment, the plan is still being formulated. But, as I’ve explained, when it comes to what you can achieve with twelve followers the bar has been set very high.

We’ve either got to start a religion, or overthrow a government.

And if any of you reading this could recruit a female follower with cropped hair and mean eyes, though I know deep down it would end badly, I would be grateful.

Graham

The elephant in the room. The gorilla on the basketball court.

In the dim and distant past I was a teenager. I did all the things a teenager did. Or most of them, as I wasn’t an excessively adventurous individual. But I did go to parties. Invariably I would end up in the kitchen trying to find the last bottle left with some alcohol still in it. I was either doing that or talking rubbish. And sometimes, and who says men can’t multi-task, I did both at the same time. Oh yes, I seem to remember that a lot of rubbish got talked in the kitchen at parties. All this was well before Jona Lewie romanticised the whole ‘in the kitchen at parties’ thing by writing that song about it.

On one occasion I found myself in a kitchen with a mate called Ian who had a lot of frizzy hair, and a tendency to say what he thought. Back then, whilst most of us were still starting to get to grips with the whole thinking for ourselves mullarkey, hardly any of us had the confidence to just say what we thought. But Ian did.

At this particular party, at this particular moment, the focus of the kitchen was centred on a somewhat distraught girl who, we came to learn, was upset because her best friend had gone missing from the Merrydown and Malibu fuelled frivolities of dancing, or more correctly sitting down in a line and swaying forwards and back and hitting the floor first on one side and then on the other (you had to be there) to ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ by The Gap Band.

Quite sensibly someone asked what the missing girl looked like so that we could all rack our drink befuddled brains and discover if we had, indeed, seen her. There followed a long description of what top she was wearing, what skirt she was wearing, what colour and what height of boots she had on, who she’d been hanging out with, what drink was clutched in her hand, what her smile was like, even what her laugh was like. All her friends chipped in with details. I looked at Ian, Ian looked at me. Despite enough details to keep Shaw Taylor more than happy neither of us could visualise the missing girl. And then, for Ian, the penny dropped.

‘Oh’ he said ‘You mean the black girl’.

Why all of her friends had chosen to leave this ‘detail’ out, I have no idea. Looking back I imagine that it was something to do with the fact that being the liberal minded bunch that they, indeed we all, were, they felt awkward about defining a good friend of their’s by her colour. It was, in many ways, an admirable sentiment. It was just that at that precise moment, under those precise circumstances, it wasn’t a very useful sentiment. As it happens the only danger the missing girl was in was from the foraging hands of a really quite small bloke from Penge who had enticed her to the end of the garden and round the back of a large buddleia bush.

But this incident was the first time I had encountered the concept of ‘the elephant in the room’. An ‘elephant in the room’ being the thing that everyone knows, that everyone knows is important, but that no-one wants to acknowledge.

Over the years I have encountered many other elephants, in many other rooms. The obvious problem being that most rooms aren’t designed to have elephants in them. So the whole ‘elephant in the room’ scenario tends to end up with the room in a mess, and the people in the room squashed against the walls.

Especially at work.

For some reason the dynamics of the workplace are a fertile breeding ground for elephants in rooms. I think it’s something to do with the hierarchical nature of most meetings. That plus the fact that if you, as an individual, bring up the elephant, then in some mysterious way the elephant gets associated with you. Of course, there is also the all too often misguided hope that if no-one mentions the elephant perhaps it’ll go away.

All I can say, and trust me on this, the elephant never goes away. Or if he does it’s only to gather some mates and come back for a bit of a stampede. The other big problem I’ve found in these situations is that often the real danger isn’t the elephant in the room, it’s the room in the elephant. That’s because elephants can be really, really hungry.

However, there is another animal, in another situation, that in my opinion symbolises a far more destructive reality for most organisations. I speak, of course, of the gorilla on the basketball court.

Let me explain.

A while back two scientists called Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted an experiment. They made a short film of two teams passing basketballs. One team wore black, one team wore white. Then they showed the film to a selection of viewers and asked them to count the number of passes made by the team in white, ignoring the passes made by the team in black. After they had recorded the results they asked the viewers if they had seen anything unusual in the film. About half of the thousands of people who have seen the film report nothing strange. Which is odd because at one point in the film a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walks into shot, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and walks away.

In all, the gorilla is clearly visible for nine seconds. Yet half the people who have seen the film completely miss the existence of the gorilla.

The explanation for this somewhat bizarre case of gorilla-blindness lies, apparently, in the task the viewers were asked to carry out. By instructing participants to concentrate only on the passes made by the team in white, and ignore the passes by the team in black, Chabris and Simons created in many people a kind of attention-based tunnel vision. In essence they were concentrating so hard on one thing that they didn’t notice something else that was screamingly obvious.

Over the years I’ve worked in many organisations, on many projects, where, in retrospect, exactly the same thing was happening. Everyone worked hard, everyone gave of their best, everyone concentrated on exactly what they were supposed to concentrate on. Yet we never saw the gorilla. And it turns out that gorillas can be just as likely to squash things, and just as hungry, as elephants.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

The Gorilla On The Basketball Court.

You heard it here first.

Graham