Posts Tagged '110 percenters'



Making a crisis out of a drama

Richard M. Nixon said "Life is one crisis after another". Sort of depends whether you help to cover up a break-in at Democratic National HQ while you're president of the United States, but you see his point. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The first four words of the 2011 US debt ceiling crisis don’t imply immediate peril – its parent, the global financial crisis, has a much more virile name. But, as we found out last weekend, debt ceiling negotiations really can cause a crisis.

We like a good crisis; and they’re easier to live with if they’re just a problem dressed up in a dramatic news story. In the last week alone, a quick Googling reveals that Everton, the world’s biggest wave farm, the entire Isle of Wight, a lot of bees, the Hindley Residents’ Association, middle class marriages and The Poetry Society are also in crisis. As far as I know these are not all the same crisis, though if I was a proper blogger I’d at least find some way that they’re all linked to the World Trade Center Building 7 conspiracy crisis (I’m not providing a hyperlink to that one).

Also in the news this weekend the tiger population, Argentine football, the island of Cyprus, Spanish and Italian bonds, and fuel users in Norfolk are also at what we must now call crisis point, which means they should join the crisis queue in the next week. It’s not a great time if you’re a poetry-loving, Everton-supporting, middle-class married bee about to go on holiday to Cyprus, but at least the break means you won’t be worried sick about the Isle of Wight for a few days. You have enough on your nectar-laden plate, my stripy be-stinged friend.

I was always told not to make a drama out of a crisis, and the overwhelming number of non-crisis crises that we have created, recognised, or just announced so that we can fill inside news pages during the summer (I’m looking at you, residents of Hindley) means that poor old “drama” just can’t keep up, so that problem is solving itself. A Google Ngram (screenshot below) shows that the respective frequency of crisis and drama in literature was roughly equal until the 1960s. Then crises began to get more popular, while the level of reported drama stagnated.

In some ways, this is a pity, because calling something a “crisis” adds a level of almost military dignity to something that’s usually anything but dignified. For example, if we remodelled this weekend’s most popular crisis as the 2011 US Debt Ceiling Drama it would capture the flavour of hysterical soap-opera that some of the politicians involved seemed to relish. If we were stricter on what could be called a crisis, then we could also recategorise the rest of the non-crisis crises – based on impact, location and duration – and give them more accurate descriptions. I’d like two levels, one called palaver, and an even less serious one called kerfuffle; you are welcome to suggest your own.

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The power of positive thinking

Many people claim to me that journalists are only interested in bad news. Why can’t we write something happy for a change? Who wouldn’t want to read a story like “weather tolerable, light breeze”, or “mild work problem solved”?

I may mock, but those who want more happiness in their news might be getting your wish. the graph below is an index of how often the words “positives” and “negatives” show up in Factiva’s global major news stories database. I’ve taken 2002 as the base because, in 2002, there were about the same number of positives and negatives in the press.

As you can see, the graph doesn’t change much until the end of 2008. Then it whizzes up. The number of stories mentioning negatives hasn’t changed very much, but there are hundreds more stories mentioning positivity. We’re obviously learning to look on the bright side.

I excluded sports stories from this on purpose, because I had chosen the jargon noun “positives” (the thing that footballers “take”) rather than the more common adjective “positive”. There are few setbacks so appalling, no disappointments too depressing that a news story can’t quote someone taking positives from them.

The news business is changing: it is less about what’s happening, and more about how people feel about what just happened. These reactions may not be informed or relevant, but they’re certainly easier to report quickly. It is news for the Facebook generation, because we can all get involved. Not only have we taken the positives, we’re evidently not ready to give them back.

Core value judgement

Obviously I looked younger in those days

I know the exact moment I decided to give up playing rugby. I was being carried off the pitch on a stretcher with blood pouring out of my head, and one of the prop forwards patted me on the leg and said, “Well, Tim, looks like your journalism days are over”.

Whether or not you find this joke funny probably depends on whether you think rugby is a noble pursuit for tough people or 80 minutes of institutionalised assault. To tip public perception towards nobility and away from criminality, the English Rugby Football Union has just done what the establishment usually does in these cases: made a big statue.

At least when the Victorians did this, they usually had the subtlety to try and hide their hidden agenda. The RFU, with all the subtlety of a prop forward, decided to call the latest addition to the Twickenham furniture the Core Values sculpture. Why now? I looked it up: “Two years ago the RFU put together a task group to run an extensive consultation exercise. The Core Values project – the first time a sport has set out to define its value system in formal terms – identified the following principles…”

Speaking as a big fan of Rugby Union, it has always had hypocrisy as one of its unspoken core values. The game was proudly amateur when my dad played, and you were banned if you were even suspected of taking money to play – so his club secretly stuffed money in his boot instead.

There have been a lot of people bragging about their core values recently: companies in the US and UK are about three times as likely to claim in their press releases that they have core values as they were in 2000, as the graphs below show.

But where, I thought, are we most likely to find an increase in these core values? I thought it might be good to look for the phrase in press releases on military procurement. Defence contractors discovered many more core values during the period between 2003 and 2006 – which is an improvement on the 1990s, when they didn’t mention core values at all. I shaded the area during which BAE Systems was investigated over accusations of corruption (In 2010 it admitted false accounting and, in a settlement, agreed to pay £257m criminal fines to the US and £30m to the UK – but the company denies bribery).

Banks, however, had a core value growth peak much earlier. This time I shaded a period which covers the Senate Committee of Finance’s investigation into Enron and the complicity of banks in the creative accountancy that took place.

But the real stars of the core values show are in the securities business. They didn’t make much noise about core values in the past: again, not a single mention of the phrase in the early 1990s that I could find. But they are making up for it now. You are now about six times as likely to read a securities industry press release that mentions core values as you were in 2000.  I’m not going to insult you by pointing out which relevant period I’ve highlighted in the final graph:

Of course, my simple measurement doesn’t explore what those core values might be. A few weeks ago I spoke to  Dr Doug Hirschhorn, who is one of the top trader coaches in the world. I asked his what the values of his trainees are: “These people get paid an obscene amount of money. They are not curing cancer or creating new ways to feed people. It draws the sort of people attracted to sensation-seeking,” he said.

The sensation-seeking search for obscene personal wealth is a core value, I guess. I’m also guessing that it’s not the core value mentioned in those press releases.

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I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand

Durham Tees Valley: flights 56 per cent off

There’s good news and there’s bad news, but there’s more good news. I’m not just trying to make you feel better, there really is. I divided the number of stories mentioning “good news” by those mentioning “bad news”, and there’s a steady increase in good news stories in the last 15 months:

We certainly have pluck. On this sophisticated measure, levels of non-specific hope are even higher than at the height of the boom:

It’s also worth pointing out that the long-term good news ratio in the newspapers is consistently above where it was 20 years ago. And in those days newspapers were in black and white and you had to pay to read about misery rather than just ignoring it on the internet. Terrible days. Still, they didn’t have Richard Littejohn then, so not everything’s changed for the better.

The press might be at a historical hope high because of the dead cat bounce theory (even a dead cat will bounce if it falls far enough. Try it). In this case there is so much real-life bad news that papers have just looked harder for something chipper to write about.

Exhibit A: “Bosses of the region’s two airports say they are seeing the green shoots of recovery,” said a hope-filled article in the Newcastle Journal this week, which, as far as I could see, contained almost no evidence of any green shoots at all. The article is about how the managers of local airports were hoping things would improve after average passenger numbers in the UK fell 7.4 per cent last year. At Newcastle Airport the drop was 9 per cent, and Durham Tees Valley 56 per cent. If you exclude the better-performing airports, the article points out, Newcastle declined less than the average.

Of course, if you exclude enough of the better-performing airports, even Durham Tees performed better than the average. But if you’re the boss you have to tell the local press that stuff is going to get better, honest. It’s your job. I note that it is a journalist’s job to point out when you’re talking crap (a 56 per cent decline in business is a clue in this case). But, sometimes, we all need a hug.

So it is with the “green shoots” mentioned above, now used not as economic analysis, but as a signal of faint and desperate hope that we won’t have to cook our pets for dinner or traffic the kids yet. Business Minister Baroness Vadera in January 2009 and Solicitor General Vera Baird in March 2009 both claimed to have spotted these shoots. They must have a big magnifying glass in the UK Treasury, because GDP fell 2.64 per cent in the quarter beginning in January 2009 , and 0.63 per cent the next quarter.

If you want an example of how meaningless and transient news-based optimism can be, there was a gigantic peak in UK green shoots stories last summer – mostly, in the ones I read, estate agents saying they were a bit busier:

But note how quick they died away. Hope is a powerful drug – but it wears off quickly. Dead cats bounce; just not very high.

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Rooney, jazz or pork: which has most class?

Class is permanent

Is Wayne Rooney world class?

For those of you who don’t like football (and gosh, aren’t you going to have a miserable summer as a result), this might seem a pointless, irrelevant or even irritating question. He’ll do exactly the same thing in South Africa whether he is world class or not. But we’re a class-based society, and so we can’t let him out of the country until he has been graded.

It’s not like sport, and football in particular, is in need of another measurement system – what with goals, wins, losses, draws, points, tournaments and cups. World classness, though, has two advantages: it can mean anything you want, and you can apply it to anything or anyone if you’re lazy enough. It is a cross-sector measurement system which helps us to pat ourselves on the back in a non-specific way: if you describe yourself as world class on your web site we might think you’re a fantastist, but we can’t take you to court for it.

At least, not until I’m making the laws.

And so in world classness news this week: is Miami a world class city? Will the UK’s high-speed rail project be world class enough? When ESI Expands Its Singapore-Based Operations to Support Its Asian Micromachining & Passive Components Customers, does this enhance its position as a leading supplier of world-class photonic and laser systems? I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the answer.

As world classness has become a de facto global ranking system, I thought I’d make use of it. So I Googled news for what is “world class” today and picked the first two non-sporting products I could find to compare to the Little Ginger Wizard. Using this I can get some kind of insight into Rooney’s world classness in a wider context.

Which is why I am the only blogger, today at least, who will give you an analysis of how Rooney rates against jazz music and the US National Pork Board.

Like England’s Great Hope, jazz music inspires strong emotions. Let us not forget that, in December 2009, an attendee at a jazz festival called the police when he heard Larry Ochs play. You decide if he was justified:

But is jazz as a whole better or worse than Wayne Rooney? And are both of them classier than The National Pork Board – after all, pork is a controversial meat that has been dividing selectors’ opinions ever since Deuteronomy didn’t pick it all those years ago.

For Rooney, jazz and the Pork Board I divided the number of articles each year that claim world classness by the number that didn’t. First, the good news. Rooney’s becoming more world class:

But as you can see, opinion is volatile. Not so with jazz, which is consistently accorded world class status far in excess of that of England’s Pugnacious Goal Machine:

Jazz has shown staying power, but there’s a lot of people claiming to be world class these days. Rooney might be scoring at will, but in the run-up to the World Cup he’s still not as consistently reported as being world class as The US National Pork Board:

Next time an England football fan tells you that “I think we can win it this time, Rooney’s world class”, just say to him that it’s a good job we’re not playing the Game of Bacon against team USA on 12 June. On the other hand, we could take them at jazz. That Larry Ochs is rubbish.

Uniquely meaningless

HMS Unique: confusingly, one of 49 identical submarines

Ah! The irony. Dataram Corporation’s recent press release about measurable performance contains exactly two numbers. The first one is the information that Dataram Corp was founded 42 years ago. The second is that it was founded in 1967. So, to be strict, the press release has one number which is expressed in two different ways.

For each of those 42 years of precision measurement Dataram has apparently been:

delivering meaningful operational improvements and measurable total cost of ownership reductions… Dataram memory solutions have a track record of delivering significant performance and optimization improvements in critical applications.

I’d quote more, but then you’d have to kill yourself.

Trying to get useful information from this release, as with so many crappy self-congratulatory corporate web pages and marketing-driven white papers, is like banging your head against a giant marshmallow. It is vague wherever the precision of which Dataram boasts would be helpful. None of the many extravagant claims in the press release can be usefully understood: the company just speaks well of itself for a few hundred words. It describes operational improvements as meaningful, insight as unique, its applications as performance-driven, the performance itself as significant, its specialists as highly skilled (as opposed to all those generalist specialists out there). The result is a substantial performance improvement. It is, we read, a tremendous opportunity because performance (again) is high and the customer’s cost of ownership is substantially lower.

In other words, two paragraphs of bugger all, if that’s specific enough for you.

I write about this stuff and I have no idea what Dataram is doing here, or has been doing for 42 years, or how well it does it (is “meaningful” 10 per cent or 80 per cent? How low does something need to go before it becomes “substantially” lower?). I could read this tripe for 20 years (which sort of sums up my career so far) and still I’d have no idea.

Vague non-words like significant and substantial look like they’re telling us something, but they aren’t. They’re useful for people who have a deadline but no clear idea what they’re writing about; or people who know the numbers, don’t want to tell us what they are, but want to waste our time anyway because that’s what they’re paid to do. Often they are paid by the word, so chucking in a “substantial” here and there is basically free money.

On Factiva’s database of press releases there’s no clear trend upward or downward in the use of any of the non-words that Dataram employed to such non-effect. That would be too much to expect. Non-words have nowhere to live; so they just lie around in documents year after year, pretending to tell us something. For example, look at the graph of the use of significant and unique since 2002:

Nothing much to see there unless, of course, you are concerned that one in 12 press releases in the last eight years claims that something is unique. This seems to be setting the bar low for one-of-a-kindness.

There is, though, a worrying trend in the data. Since 2002 the frequency of press releases with just one of these annoying non-words remains roughly constant; but in 2009 you were three times as likely to find a release that claims all four of our meaningless words – that something is simultaneously significant and substantial and meaningful and unique:

Non-words are banding together to destroy our ability to think clearly. It’s literally a vague threat. Dataram’s press release is just one example of the wider problem that meaninglessness is becoming more concentrated, if such a thing is possible.

Passionate on demand

No matter how well the corporate communications job interview goes, best not to demonstrate this type of passion

More correspondence this week. See how good Talk Normal is when you join in?

I have just read a job application where someone writes that they are passionate about corporate communication… in the last few days, three young people in interviews have told me they are passionate about PR or technology. OFGS!

says our correspondent.

I think our chipper hooray-for-everything applicants are merely responding to their job market conditioning. If you doubt me, do a Google search for “Are you passionate about”. We understand that employers don’t necessarily want experience, it’s no secret that recruiters are a bitt iffy about people who sound like they might be black, but we’re apparently thrilled by candidates who lie about how passionate they are.

If you are selecting on passion you’re also probably going to disqualify the best applicants, because they are the ones who, when you ask if they are passionate about vegetables for example, will say “Of course not. I’m not mental”.

Yet we all know the requirement to pretend to be passionate on demand is part of the interview. If you’re recruiting at the moment maybe you could spice up your recruitment process by adding a short test with questions like “Do you find repetitive dull tasks thrilling?”, or “Is being treated like a child extraordinarily motivating for you?”, I bet you’d find a large proportion of people who would tick “yes”, simply because it’s an interview.

A quick scan of the job boards shows that that I could enhance my employability (let’s be honest, there’s quite a bit of headroom there) if I could bring myself to admit that, yes, I am passionate about change control (a business analyst), beer, tax, cake, and telesales. “IF YES THEN APPLY NOW!!!” the last advert says, hinting that it might be one of those telesales jobs where the ability to bully vulnerable people is the type of passion they’re looking for. But thanks to political correctness going mad you can’t put that in an advertisement any more.

I was surprised to find several advertisements asking if I was passionate about recruitment. You’d have thought that recruiters, of all people, would have realised the limitations of asking for fake passion; or maybe they just want to attract extremely insincere people. In the job you might have to simultaneously lie about the employer to the candidate, and the candidate to the employer. This is difficult for most people, but it’s probably more accurate to say that it requires a passion for commission than a passion for recruitment.

About.com even has a page of user-supplied answers for the interview question “What are you passionate about?”. I’d suggest that, if you need someone at About.com to tell you the answer to this question, your passion might be lacking an essential element; but then again, if recruiters are so bored that they have to ask you this question, it’s probably a crappy job anyway.

If I ever go to a telesales job interview I’m using this model answer from the article, as suggested by “Scar”:

I’m passionate about everything in the way most people are only passionate about their ‘pet’ subjects. This is both an advantage and a downfall at times: it means I give 110% to everything I do, whether it’s watching paint dry, stuffing envelopes, writing an article or running a company.

Please, please can someone let this guy run a company passionately for us, and tell us how it goes. He’s probably available: I looked up “Are you passionate about watching paint dry?” on the internet and, sad to report, it’s one of the few manifestations of passion on demand that recruiters aren’t seeking.


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