Tag Archives: rants

Multi-tasking and supertasking


As you’ll know if you read my blog, I’ve got a thing about multi-tasking – I think it’s a dangerous myth, and I’ll post anything I find to keep debunking it. Here’s another, though from an unusual angle: Meet the supertaskers (Psychology Today), describes a very small group of outliers, people who can actually deal with too much at once, and are great at it: supertaskers. But the take-home point is this: they do it by learning what to ignore. And if you want to get better at doing that, the way to practice is by focusing on a single task, and learning to ignore distractions ruthlessly. Well worth turning off the distractions and reading the article.

This ties in nicely with another recent article from The Atlantic How not to try‘, which discusses the curious and perplexing conundrum that trying too hard to do something distracts you from actually doing it. Learning to somehow ignore your own effort is the key to finding the focus you need.

How much is a packet of digestives? You do the math…

Picture of value pack of digestives, 2 x 400g

The biscuits on the shelf at Sainsburys in Balham on 29th July 2012

When I was doing my 30-days-without-supermarkets challenge last year, I discovered that there is nothing more slippery and variable than the price of a digestive biscuit.  It’s now even more slippery, to the extent that I completely gave up trying to work out who had the best deal. So back at the lab, here is my analysis of the results:

1. Iceland have a deal where you can buy 400g for the price of 300g (90p). Price per 100g = 22.5p

2. Sainsburys sell 250g of digestives for 89p – price per 100g = 35.6p

3. Sainsburys in Balham advertise a pack of 2 x 500g of digestives for £1.99 –  price on the ticket, 100g = 19.9p p.

However, look closely at the packet, and you’ll find that they’re not 500g packets, they’re 400g, which means that you’re getting 2x400g = 800g for £1.99 which is 100g = 24.8p per 100g.  So you’re better off going to Iceland and buying 400g for the price of 300g, thereby saving 2p. But if you don’t look carefully, you might look at a 250g packet for 89p, thinking that it’s the same thing as the 300g packet that was 90p in Iceland, and therefore 1p cheaper, whereas in fact, you’re getting 50g less. Confused? You bet I am. 250g of digestives often cost 99p, which is 39.6p per 100g – so if you ever did manage to buy 2x500g for £1.99 as Sainsburys advertise, then you could be paying double the price for the same product. Oh and if you buy a packet of 500g online, you can currently get that for 85p, which is better than buying two 400g for £1.99.

Update on 24/1/2013

I think I’ve sussed it now: the real price of Digestives is 99p for 400g. The reason? Because you can get Digestives in Poundland – the 400g variety, for – you guessed it, a pound. If they have to shave off the 100g from their biscuits in order to bring the price to a pound and remain profitable, then I guess 400g for £1 is the bottom line, when it comes to Digestives. And if the 99p store also has them, then the price is 99p per 400g. In short, if you’re buying 400g of Digestives, it matters very little where you buy them, except that Poundland is currently (pro rata) more expensive than Sainsburys (this week at least – last week of January) where it’s £1.70 for a double pack of 400g packets.   It’s only when you buy small packets (250g) that you could be paying through the nose, and again, it doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll pay too much (though M&S local have been some of the most expensive, in my experience).

All Digestive prices trivia welcome in the comments.

30 days without supermarkets #22: Goodbye mugs



So today I made the Lebanese coffee the right way, and managed to find a small cup to drink it out of. Delicious.

It makes a nice change to have a cup, rather than a bucket of coffee. Which reminds me how much it annoys me when you can’t just get a human-sized coffee from places like Starbucks and service stations.

M&S café at St George’s hospital in Tooting is the one that annoys me the most. There is no option to get a cup that is either in size or weight suitable  for an old or infirm person to drink out of. Every time I’ve taken my mum there, I’ve had to ask them to pour some out because she can’t lift it or hold it safely. They don’t get it, and still fill them 7/8 full. I have to go outside and pour half of it down the drain, but that still doesn’t change the fact that if you have to carry hot liquid half a mile round a hospital, you don’t want a wobbly cardboard bucket that you can hardly get your hands round.

When did this happen, and why? In what other country in the world is a standard cup of coffee bigger than any mug you have at home?


The multi-tasking myth: how much more evidence do you need?


I just love hating multi-tasking.  Self-styled multi-taskers are the most irritating, self-deluding, smug and dangerous people I know. Fortunately, they are doomed to distinction in evolutionary terms – their brains will never spend long on enough attending to one thing to develop into anything beyond neural spacedust, and they will walk into moving traffic as they change songs on their iPods. Unfortunately, a number of the rest of us will be killed by drivers who are reaching for a sandwich, putting on lipstick, arguing on their mobile or distracted by their overpumped in-car entertainment system.  And I predict that most of those killers will be women, since it is women who are falsely credited with being able to multi-task. Let’s hope they stop believing it.

Up til now, my anti multi-tasking rants have focused on a bit of research here, and a hunch there. But I was delighted to see the main points immortalized in print in John Medina’s book Brain Rules. I’d heartily recommend the book, it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time, but for the low-down on the multi-tasking see the section on Attention at www.brainrules.net.

Pass on the good news
If you want to make the world a better place, share the news with others.  Here’s an example. On my way to Malta a few weeks ago, I was waiting in the queue for the checkouts at Boots at Gatwick Airport. There were two people on the tills, one a rather dour looking girl, the other a friendly looking guy. Please God, I thought, let me get the nice bloke. The dour girl was treating the customer in front of her like she was trying to bring back library books that were ten years overdue, issuing thin-lipped information about what the customer could and couldn’t do as she stared into the till and fiddled with change.

I was just on the point of wanting to slap her, when she looked up at the customer and suddenly the impression changed – she wasn’t a fembot after all.  Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to get the nice bloke, who was even nicer than  the impression I’d had. His colleague was bantering with him as I went towards the till, so he smiled at me and said ‘We’re always having these arguments about multi-tasking, because she says men can’t multitask’.

‘Nobody can’, I replied,’Not even women’. Its’ a myth. There are people who think a better word for it would be ‘continuous partial attention’.

‘Continuous partial attention’, he repeated, clearly engaged ‘I must remember that. You learn something new everyday.’

And as I left, I realised why his colleague had come over so dour and ghastly – she was trying to multi-task: talk to a customer while she was counting change. And because she was counting change, she talked to the customer without eye contact, as if the customer was a coin that needed putting in the til, not a human being. As soon as she stopped multi-tasking and focused on the customer, she was normal again.

My nice bloke, by contrast, focused on the customer (me), maintained eye contact, and had a real conversation. He could do this, because he didn’t try to do something else at the same time. For service like that, I’d come back to Boots, so customer-service trainers, take note.

See also (via wikipedia) Christine Rosen (2008) The Myth of Multitasking from The New Atlantis.

So you think that’s funny, Mr Clarkson?


Middle class thuggery in print, an advert for Clarkson’s latest drivel

I guess it’s only cyclists that understand just how idiotic and dangerous most drivers are. The reason I’m not dead yet after years of cycling in London is only because I assume that everyone in a car is applying make-up, looking the other way when they turn into a main road, texting, phoning, getting something off the back seat, drunk or drugged, racing to get their kids to school, or racing to get to work after the school run. That’s just the normal ones.

But then there’s a class of driver who actually hate cyclists. They don’t think they deserve to have space on the road. Rather like the person who  said travelling by bus was a sign of failure, cyclist-haters are usually those who are inexplicably proud of owning an expensive car, as if that changed anything about them as a person. They beep at you, overtake you with no room to spare, and act like bullies. They endanger you for no other reason than they don’t think you should be there in the first place.

Cyclist haters are largely made, cultivated by the media. You can almost tell when some drive-time radio talkshow host is having a go at cyclists, because you seem to meet more unforgiving, reckless and aggressive drivers on your way to work. I wish I had complained about the presenter I heard inciting hatred of cyclists. If cyclists were an ethnic group, he would have been jailed.

On that occasion, I didn’t do anything about it. But this advert for Clarkson’s latest book infuriates me. There is absolutely nothing funny about developing a dislike of any group of people, particularly when this dislike might lead them to be treated even more recklessly than they are now. I am going to complain to Penguin about this advert, and if you’re a cyclist, I urge you to do the same.  It’s only because Clarkson is middle class that he gets away with it – listen to what he says as if he had an Estuary accent, and he’s just another thug.

Update: I’ve just complained to Penguin, Boris Johnson & the Advertising Standards Authority about it. I mentioned to Boris that it’s a bit odd that TfL should be advertising a dislike of cyclists below the ground, while the mayor is trying to develop cycle routes above it.

Update on May 21st 2013: My local MP Sadiq Khan was the only person who took my complaint as seriously as I did back in 2010 and referred it immediately to the Mayor of London. Responses from the others could be summarized as ‘lighten up, it was only a joke’. Now a driver has admitted on Twitter to knocking over a cyclist, adding #bloodycyclists as a hashtag. Not so funny now, eh? 

A geography lesson for Mail-readers


Have you ever been to Slovenia? I have, four or five times. It’s a beautiful country. Ljubjlana is one of the quaintest, cleanest cities I know. My impression of Slovenians is of a self-assured, intelligent, well-educated, design-conscious nation, benefiting from a strong economy, an almost perfect location in Central Europe (beautiful, temperate, convenient), and a rich, honourable history.  Even when it was part of  Yugoslavia, it was the richest and most lightly-attached of all the republics, so much like Austria that you couldn’t really tell the difference, apart from the language.  It gained independence in 1991, and is one of the strongest economies of the new EU member states (of all of those, it has the highest GDP per capita, and 91% of the EU average, according to the wikipedia entry on Slovenia’s economy).

So what on earth did the Mail mean by its headline news today “England, the sick woman of Europe: Our poor cancer detection and bad diet mean Slovenian women live longer“? I’m not even going to go into the bad or rather meaningless science,  what really troubles me is that papers like the Mail still rely on its readers’ ignorance and arrogance to stoke up pointless disgust and disregard for nations just because they are not within commuting distance of Sevenoaks, or don’t have nuclear weapons. I really wonder if the Mail have any idea what or where Slovenia is? Mark Wallace certainly doesn’t:

Mark Wallace, of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, said last night: ‘It is shocking that England is falling behind other European countries – and even more that we are falling behind a country like Slovenia. We spend a vast amount on healthcare but we don’t get the results that we should.

What does he mean, ‘a country like Slovenia’, given that there is every reason why Slovenians should enjoy a long and healthy life.  On what grounds should we always be ahead of Slovenia? The picture of Slovenians, all (unusually, by the way) in national costume  is compared to a fat (presumably English) woman eating KFC-like chicken from a box on a roadside bench. I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to make of this: that the fat woman and her love of chicken is letting the side down, giving those Commie folk-dancers a head start? If it weren’t for her chicken-problem, she’d be running the country and writing books about  Slavoj Žižek?

And if we were to suddenly beat Slovenia into 13th place, by ensuring their women died 2 months earlier than ours, would that be a cause for celebration? Do they deserve to die because they used to have a socialist government, or because they have funny accents over their letters? I’d like to suggest that the Mail reporters and Mr Wallace pay a trip to Slovenia to see how much further we have yet to go before we look even half as civilized. But it’s the absence of such pricks in that lovely country that makes it so pleasant to be in. So on second thoughts, just stay here, please.

Prêt à tuer


I was in Prêt à manger the other day, and the counter assistant (as she had been bidden by management, no doubt) started asking me with fake enthusiasm what I was doing in the area etc.

‘Oh research,’ she beamed, ‘how interesting! What subject? Ah! Education, how interesting. Just education generally, or some special subject in education?

‘Music education’, I replied. She might have replied ‘Oh cool’, and carried on. But instead, her face fell, and suddenly, her training and happy smile deserted her.

‘Eurgh’, she said, ‘I always hated music at school. I always think of music teachers as being, like, forty, and living alone with a cat.’

‘Really?’ I said, ‘that doesn’t fit any of my fellow students. Most of them look pretty cool, actually’

‘Yes, but if you think back to what your teachers were like when you were young.’

When I was young. She made it sound as if it must be so far back I could hardly remember. I was on the point of saying ‘Oh, yes, actually now you mention it’, but then remembered that wasn’t true. There were a few teachers who were mad or depressed or best left alone, but mostly my teachers were a pretty impressive lot. If we’d used the word then, I would even have said some of them were cool.

When I thought of that, this spinster-phobic waitress suddenly seemed very uncool. It was definitely not a good look, to be uncooled by your own coolness.

Ah well, that’s customer service for you.

Johann Strauss the African


Andre Rieu’s album of Strauss Waltzes and other bon-bons, Forever Vienna, is number 1 in the classical album charts this year, and beat Susan Boyle’s album in the top ten of the pop album charts.  This isn’t  particularly fresh news, even though the BBC only reported it today: the Telegraph had the same story on 18th January.

It’s interesting how this story has been kept out of the mainstream media, but not altogether surprising: it’s just not damn cool enough. Philip Tagg, musicologist and specialist in popular music studies delivered a wonderful speech in 2000  called ‘High and low, Cool and uncool, music and knowledge: Conceptual falsifications and the study of popular music’ in which he showed how popular music studies is prone to a ‘cool’ agenda where music which is genuinely popular doesn’t get studied because it’s not ‘cool’.  On a straw poll he conducted at the conference, he found that there was only a 27% likelihood of the Blue Danube being studied on the popular music curriculum (compared to 92% for the Sex Pistols  God Save The Queen). Rieu’s first album in 1995 apparently beat Michael Jackson’s in the European charts, but that’s not going to be a popular story. How uncool does that make us. All those ‘Cool Britannia’ years, with MPs singing pop songs and inviting rock stars to No. 10 were a misrepresentation on every level: they should really have had Susan Boyle and Andre Rieu in Downing Street.

What I like to believe about this story is that it shows just how important the body in music is. “Waltzes were not meant to be conducted,” [Rieu] says firmly. “I lead with my bow, my head, my whole body, just as Johann Strauss did.” (source).  Will ‘serious’ music ever get this kind of audience, without some kind of movement involved? Did ballet evolve as a means of making up for the boredom of sitting in the dark watching an orchestra?

Perhaps the most challenging thing here is the racist stereotype of the starched white urban European compared to the globally southern native, in touch with their body, a Descartian split across racial lines with the European as the brain, and the African as the body.  Heinrich Laube, describing  Johann Strauss I in 1833 wrote:

The man is black as a Moor; his hair is curly; his mouth is melodious, energetic, his lip curls, his nose is snub… Typically African too is the way he conducts his dances; his own limbs no longer belong to him when the desert-storm of his waltz is let loose; his fiddle-bow dances with his arms; the tempo animates his feet; the melody waves champagne glasses in his  face; the ostrich takes a swift run preliminary to beginning his  flight . . . The devil is abroad.

From Jacob, H. E. (1940) Johann Strauss father and son: A century of light music. (Wolff, M., Trans.) New York: Greystone Press. Available from Internet Archive.

As Dahlhaus wrote in The Idea of Absolute Music, our concept of what music was in the 19th century is skewed by the fact that we got aesthetically fixated in the 20th century on ‘absolute music’, whereas in the nineteenth century this was just an ‘enclave’ as Dahlhaus puts it, in a mass of what we’d call popular classics – opera, romances, virtuoso pieces and salon music and so on.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised if Strauss makes it to the pop charts. In the wider scheme of things, Strauss played by a violinist who moves is probably going to be more popular than rock music played by someone who stands still, because we like movement. The popular/classical divide is a misleading category, and it’s the omission of the body that misleads, as this story illustrates beautifully.

1984 comes to 2010 – schools, IT and BETT


BETT 2010 at Olympia

Spent the afternoon at BETT yesterday, a trade show for educational technology. One reason for going was to drop in on Andrew Holdsworth’s Percy Parker’s Flying Bathtub, just published by Scholastic, and very nice it looks and sounds too.

But most of BETT I found profoundly worrying. I don’t have figures, but it seemed to be predominantly men touting software packages and ‘solutions’ for schools. Every other stand seemed to be about protecting, preventing, surveillance, policing, managing, storing, and even ‘performance managing’. This program will automatically text all your truants and their parents; this fingerprinting device will register your child (“biometric multilesson registration and cashless catering” was one of the more 1984-ish captions), this will keep your children safe from unsuitable internet sites, this hardware will back up all your data and provide a network for your school. Online assessment, online registration, automatic this, multi-that.

With a very, very few exceptions, I had almost no sense of teaching, learning, teachers and pupils, intellectual curiosity, or  any of the rich human interaction that goes on in learning.  Instead, it seemed I was at a trade fair selling expensive ‘solutions’ that appeared to criminalize an entire generation of children, or treat them as a workforce that needed managing, assessing and controlling. An image began to emerge of a child tightly bound in a technological network of biometric data, they and their families summoned and communicated with by text, every online transaction prescribed or prevented, stored and tracked electronically by an emergent army  of male IT personnel, every academic subject reduced to an onscreen interaction with predigested, generic content.  Media-rich, yes, but piss-poor as human interaction.

I’m not usually prone to technological determinism, the idea that society is helpless in the face of the ‘power’ of technology to shape and control it, but I came away from BETT wondering whether we do all this stuff to kids because we can, not because we must. And in any case,  there were plenty of technological determinists touting their wares at BETT: this software will help you build an online global learning community. Really? Anyone who’s tried to run an online forum knows that it’s people and people alone who build communities, all the software in the world can’t do that for you.  Nobody buys a bassoon thinking it will make music for them, but people seem to fall over themselves to buy into technology that needs staff, time, expertise and commitment, not just a power supply.

My final rant? As I was walking around seeing all this stuff about protection, walled-gardens, security, safety and so-on, I had my barcoded badge scanned aggressively and without my permission by at least two staff on the stands, data-mugging in broad daylight.

The bit the Tories left out about teaching in Singapore


Amused, in a despairingly cynical way, to see that the best the Tories can come up with as an educational policy is to give teachers the power to seize iPods. Tories would also “introduce a longer term plan to attract a higher grade of graduate into the teaching profession. [Shadow education secretary Michael] Gove is looking at Singapore, where only the top 30% of graduates are allowed to become teachers.”

The bit they’ve left out about the Singapore system is that the Ministry of Education in Singapore offers a bonded system (the MOE Teaching Scholarship), where they’ll fund the teacher’s entire degree, including maintenance and flights if you study abroad in return for a promise of at least 4-6 years service in the Singapore education. If you fail the degree, or don’t fulfil the bond, you are liable for liquidated damages.

One of Obama’s education advisors has been telling the new President similar good things about Singapore (Obama education advisor thinks U.S. schools could take a lesson from Finland and Singapore) but they seem to have a very different take on the story to the UK tories. How could such a generous scheme get turned into ‘We’ll only let the top 30% of graduates into teaching’, with no mention of funding or context? Or is the power to confiscate iPods the thing that is going to attract all those high-flying graduates?