Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Look Back in Anger to 2014

Whilst 2013 was the year of change in terms of uprooting and leaving the UK for Norway, 2014 has been the true year of transition. It's been an interesting learning curve.

I think when I left the UK I was just ready to go, I wanted a complete change and the radical shift of exiting job, selling house and re-locating family to Norway seemed a refreshing breath of fresh air. The focus was so much on the exit I never really focussed on what was next, not in an overly planned way anyway.

So as 2014 started I was just really just getting to grips with having "let go of the rock" which is the big change, but you need to hit against a few rocks before you can float and this is the transition.

Initially I was overwhelmed and gratified at a number of opportunities to speak at conferences about digital learning and the value of education, along with working on an innovation project for Pearson and the always fun Law Without Walls (which I'll do again in 2015) and I joined forces with other learning professionals to start developing learning products and services as a consultant. But here's the rub, it was all transition. Something about all of this didn't nourish the soul and whilst it was essentially nice to be wanted it wasn't giving me what I wanted and I didn't know why.

First it took me a while to realise that I'd moved to Norway to be here and yet I was always back and forth to the UK with consultancy work or speaking engagements, one time I was back in Norway for 48hrs before heading back to UK - this was stupid, but I later realised part of letting go of the rock.

Second, whilst I had planned many aspects of my exit from job and country (1yr of planning) I had a lot of unresolved issues about why I left. I had bitten my lip for most of the year after a private equity takeover of the educational charity I worked for. PE ownership of education went against every moral instinct and belief I have and yet for my exit plan to work I largely had to try to keep quiet. I had to pretend I didn't hear people laugh about only wanting Uni status for VAT purposes, or how could they make paper thinner in the books to save money. I had lessons and an insight into how money men work and every night I went home and tried to wash the stench off in the shower to no avail.

Anyway, I think gradually through 2014 I had a number of flashbacks and moments of realisation (I have a tendency to analyse past events from lots of angles) that kept making me angry and my interactions with new corporations kept evoking the memories of this inner dislike of how so many companies operate like machines. I wanted to come up with "a new kind of better" and change it, but my business partners said "we have to win permission gradually".

Which comes to my last point about the transition. "Win permission gradually" - that statement stuck in my shoe like a jagged stone for weeks and I realised that was the issue. I had been trying to gain permission to do things for the last 10 years, with little wins and gains along the way but oh so slow and gathering a thick layer of brick dust on my forehead. The whole point of moving to Norway was to live the life I wanted and to strive to have an existence that had some meaning and purpose in my work. Talking at conferences and "winning permission" weren't going to let me do that.

So in the middle of this year, I finally started to float and I found what I was looking for. Blending my love of learning and love of film production to focus on educating others. Having recently read the end of term reflective blogs of my students I realise I found my element by letting go of all the distractions and seeing where it took me.  I've never been happier.

Now as 2014 draws to a close and I relish now having settled into my own home in the mountains, a short walk to work each day. I look forward to 2015, a milestone year as I will turn 40 and I start to think about the things I want to achieve and do, my head gets fizzy with excitement.

I want to write more this year, I haven't done this for so long and I yearn for it. I have a couple of screenplays brewing so 2015 is the year to finally sit down and write them.

I want to organise a two pronged festival which starts with a disconnect retreat for people working in tech in the UK - log cabins in the mountains, no wi-fi, back to nature, creativity and mindfulness. This is then followed by engagement workshops with Norwegian kids about tech, coding, maker culture, animating, video making etc. I have no idea where to start, but if you want to get involved let me know.

Do Project Mayhem - an idea I had for an activist, positive deviancy meets punk MOOC. An ignition for assignments against the system. Very inspired by some of Evan Roth's work:

TSA Communication (2008) from Evan Roth on Vimeo.


Free Speech from Evan Roth on Vimeo.

It's floating around and so I must do it. I think also that 2015 is an important year for my home country, I want it to re-engage with democracy this year and stand up to be counted. It does not have to be like it is.

Anyway, 2014 was metamorphosis for me. (I was momentarily Sudanese in the Norwegian state system)  2015 is the year I stop being Gregor Samsa.

Oh and I promise to blog more too. I have this whole Norsk Peaks thing to do with blogging.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Digital Democracy on Sunday Morning - Let Them Eat Cake.

The irony of a commission on Digital Democracy from the supposed political elite and the invite to eat cake is not lost on me, but hey I'm a digital adventurer and I want a better form of democracy in the UK, I'm also a fan of Emma Mulqueeny so if she's leading commissioner and chief cake maker, I'm in.

My first thoughts upon entering a discussion about "Digital Democracy" is why do we have to call it "Digital" - it's a strange divisive fixation of the world where we have digital and non digital, I remember when we called watches "digital" and "digital video" - now we've dropped the digital.

So Democracy, yes please. I'm kind of a 97er when it comes to political discourse. I had no real interest in politics bar watching Spitting Image as a kid. Then I made a documentary in the 97 general election, following a candidate and saw the New Labour political machine upfront and impersonal. In the years that followed I got to understand the mass media and political symbiosis and didn't like it. Basically it's a circle jerk from my perspective. So if a form of democracy can exist that breaks the mass media influence, I'll be happy.

Right now I feel that the 38 Degrees/ movement is great, but essentially Howard Berger rallying a call to "Get Mad As Hell" or my pet hate #hashtagactivism.

This in turn opens a flood of emails to MP's which becomes like trying to drink water from the firehose. Which would explain why I seldom received responses to questions I asked of my MP and when I did I would receive banal, patronising and now with hindsight quite funny responses.

This is the mental baggage I brought to the table when on a quiet Sunday morning, I dialled into an informal chat for Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy, I had to dial in as I'm not in the UK or Norway, I'm on a rock island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean and the full discussion was recorded so you can listen here.

You can also read Mar Dixon's blogpost about the meeting, along with Emma Mulqueeny's post too.

So as I said at the end of the meeting, I was going to go away and "noodle" some thoughts on the beach. Whilst down there I had a go at one of these inflatable Total Wipeout assault course things in the sea and in my mind my success on this was equal to how MP's seem to tackle digital engagement and social media.

As we had agreed in the discussion; training and instructivist manuals on how to be a digitally engaged MP are not the answer. To be honest, they seldom are - so why don't we start thinking about safe play and test grounds for MP's to develop some skills - it's digital, so we should be able to do that right?
In the call I raised the idea of MOOCs, but given there are not really that many MP's it would hardly be "Massive" and for it to be a place to fail in safety, it probably couldn't be that "Open" either. But I do think there are opportunities for an experiential learning environment for MPs to essentially learn about digital engagement and play to gain skill. It would essentially be a learning game, one in which they could level up in their competency through practice in simulations (I'm not talking about sophisticated gaming graphics, it's quiet easy to simulate digital engagement games with game engines, AI and maybe even tapping into real people through game designed Amazon Turk micro tasks). I quite like the idea of creating a digital ARG (alternate reality game) that develops skills, builds competency and provides feedback loops for the MP - I'd even be willing to draft a micro pilot for free to test the concept and see if it could be done effectively.

This leads to another issue that we discussed, which is that MP's don't have job descriptions, which made me think about how do we really assess whether they're competent when we elect them? Are we too reliant on our specific perceptions which are likely to be prejudiced by media and our own cognitive biases. The data about MP's is there, if you look and decipher - but most don't, so we're reliant on spin, PR and what we're told. This leads to politics becoming purely about media persona and mask wearing (which is not good for democracy, digital or otherwise), short term pleasing and discarding of the issues that they "strongly believed" in. This all potentially leads to a shift from intrinsic motivation of the politician to extrinsic motivation because ultimately they are purely judged in the court of public opinion. Now if we had a clear description of what we believe a politician should be good at and skilled at as well as their policies we'd start to have some form of competency framework that they could demonstrate attainment of those skills against etc, then we have a way of assessing performance outside of PR spin and unreadable stats. I wrote about this wider for lawyers in a piece but think the concept is equally applicable. Throw in wearable tech and concepts of the Quantified Self and the possibilities are quite wide ranging. There's some hack ideas waiting to happen around that.

It's not just all on the politicians either, we as a society need to be better at engagement in our society and we need to be better at both media and digital literacy to do that, we may be great at using the tools but many do not know what is going on behind the scenes. 62.5 % of Facebook users don't know the news feed is generated by a company algorithm and 97% of people I surveyed never check veracity of information they retweet or like. Robin Sloan covered our disposable and flippant attitude to digital in his Tap Essay and Tiffany Shlain covered it in her documentary Connected. We need to understand this as a society better, if we did then we could possibly get to a transparent and interdependent democracy connecting electorate with the elected and not mediated through mechanisms of media interest or agendas. This would liberate us and the politicians. Apps like Greenhouse will become more pervasive and disrupt, but wouldn't it be good if digital democracy lead rather than reacted?

In Norway I've always been impressed with the story of Kjell Magne Bondevik who as Prime Minister in 1998, announced he was suffering from a depressive episode and took a 3 week break. The transparency and lack of spin in the media lead to a soar in his popularity and a deeper connection with the people of Norway, receiving thousands of supporting letters. I can't imagine that happening to any of our last 5 Prime Ministers with our current set-up.

Wow, this is becoming longer than I had planned. Last few things:

It shouldn't just be about transparency, engagement and communication, it can be about co-creation too - democracy should involve citizens more in co-creation of of civic planning, law-making and policy construction and there are some amazing potential ways to do it. Look at Play The City as a great example of collaborative participation between government and citizens in solving problems, this has so many wide applications in digital democracy, I really hope the commission looks closely at it.

In the meeting I tweeted about The Cynefin Framework and how I thought it was a good applicable model for political leaders to adopt for digital democracy, it shifts away from old models of leadership and highlights the contexts, digital enables this well with big data, dashboards, visualisations and so forth - in particular it's about sensemaking. If politicians are enabled more with sensemaking tools then maybe we could shift from the waterhose of email that 38 Degrees et al generate.

Lastly zoning in on the legal/ legislative side of my thoughts having worked in and around legal education and services in the past. There's a lot of focus building around legal innovation and tech for service delivery, with focus on quantitive legal prediction and beyond. If we're working towards predictive law services, I wonder if we could use predictive forecasting approaches to make better law at the start? Additionally I remember filming this a few years back about the datasets etc and thought at the time that it potentially has huge use and application to develop useful tools for digital democracy. But I haven't heard much more on it since. I'd like to reinvestigate that further.
However, we need to improve upon public understanding of legislation and how legislation is constructed, I think this is a major failing in our system that we do not have better public legal education. It really scares me how many people don't understand what the Human Rights Act is and how the European Court of Human Rights works with UK legislation, allowing some powerful spin to be put on it. I was making lots of artefacts that explained the law in my previous job, here's one about the role of the ECHR for instance. I really wanted law schools to pull together to release open educational resources for the public about law, the government could sponsor some of it as could the large legal education fund that exists from selling a charity to a private equity company.

Phew, that's off my mind now. The key thing for me though is that I see so many bemoaning democracy and politics across digital spectrums, #DDCEngage is an opportunity to do something about it. If like me you're not happy about the current state of affairs, then follow the handy flow chart below and engage.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Right Where It Belongs.

Listening to Nigel Farage on LBC the other day and hearing him complaining about being on a train and not hearing anyone speaking English etc somehow infected my thought processes because the very next day it was as if I awoke from some Kafkaesque uneasy dream. There I was on public transport surrounded by people who didn't speak English, this hum drum of alien noise that I can't quite understand and I'm sure if I was Nigel, I would have started palpitating as the walls closed in and I felt somehow claustrophobic by all this language difference and immigrants being, well....foreign, I suppose. But this wasn't a train, this was a a fjord....oh and I'm the immigrant.

In many ways, Norway is probably a Farage utopia, it's not part of the EU and has a fairly tight immigration policy. In many respects it has the leap on him, whilst we hear a lot about happiness ratings, equality and fairness in the press about Norway's ideology, there is also the fact that they have their own version of UKIP - The Progress Party in a coalition with the Norwegian equivalent of the Conservatives. Just pause and think about that for a second, a coalition of UKIP and Conservatives.

Now let's remember I am an immigrant in that scenario. Everyday I go to essentially an episode of "Mind Your Language" with my fellow immigrants, where we learn Norwegian. Most of my peers are East European and Sri Lankan, many are highly educated, experienced and multi-lingual, they are infinitely better at making an effort than I am. Everyday I hear stories of how the various civil service departments here mess them about, either derogatory or lose their papers all the time. The same has happened to me in a minor way, I've been given false information about immigration papers, conflicting advice on tax - from the same tax office, charged £400 to process immigration paperwork when I can come here freely under the EEA agreement etc. It's frustrating being foreign for sure.

I do see a lot of the similar rhetoric here about foreigners coming for jobs as I'm seeing in the UK, sometimes worse. I see it as a foreigner rather than some bleeding heart liberal (I am that too) and I am part of that community that is shunned or looked up and down for being "not from around here". We are all human, we all have feelings. Taking a moment to stand in someone else's shoes would make you realise this.  I just wish that this era of blame, divide and conquer the ordinary people in all our societies for the ills of the world would stop. It's a dangerous place to be and we've been here before. I just wish people could look through the cracks of the narrative to see it's a smokescreen so that you don't query some of the real reasons there is so much inequality in the world.

I leave you with what for me is The Ballad of UKIP:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Snuff Said

I've been sorting through boxes of paperwork and notes recently and I uncovered the production notes from a documentary I was researching for Channel 4 in late 2001. I had read Killing for Culture as background reading when writing my dissertation about Censorship in the late 90's. There were many stories within it that just hung with me about "snuff" films and why after all this time no-one had ever been prosecuted or proven that they existed. Surely now with the advent of the internet, illicit distribution was much easier, would we see the emergence of the darkest parts of film and video?
This was still 2001 though, streaming video was not very advanced, Youtube hadn't been invented and Darknet was well hidden and unknown.

"Snuff" it appeared had been an urban myth, one used to scare people about pornography and also the holy grail for some sick and twisted people.
I had this idea of making a documentary about the history of the snuff myths, exploring the dark corners and question whether a myth had born a reality in the advent of the internet age, following many rumours of films made during the Bosnian war. Starting at the beginning with the story of a bad little 70's B movie that helped kickstart the myths I sought out the makers of "Snuff" and secured these interviews with 2 people involved in making it. Carter Stevens and Simon Nuchtern. I've included the full text of the interview because there are many rumours and conflicting stories about the making of the infamous last 10 mins of Snuff, these snippets of history felt like they should be recorded:

Carter Stevens is often listed as being involved in the making of the infamous scene, sometimes as director and/ or Director of Photography. He was a pornographer for most of his career. Here is his account:

"For the record: I did NOT direct the last 10 minutes of the film "Snuff". Nor was I the cameraman or the DP. The sequence WAS filmed at the studio I owned on 29th Street in New York. I had rented it out to Allan Shackleton, a Producer/ Distributor who I was good friends with and was working on another project. The "real" director's name for this segment was Simon Nocturn.

Background having nothing to do with Snuff:

Allan was a genius as far as promotion. We were working on an "R" rated smutty take off on the old Star Trek series. This was before Paramount realised what they had. I had been living with a young lady who before she had become a top-notch script supervisor had lived with the guy who had started the Star Trek conventions. As a result I had helped out on several conventions and met most of the old cast. The working title for the film was "Star Dreck" and the first draft script was written by Martin Pasko who was a comic book writer working on Wonder Woman and Superman at that point. He went on to become a TV writer and worked on Simon & Simon, Buck Rogers and other shows before we lost touch. Marty was about 18-19 at this point an had the wildest sense of humour. The script was a take off on the Trouble with Tribbles and was about an intergalactic venereal disease called "dribbles", Mr Shmuck the "Spock" take off had a penis shaped head. This was NOT going to be a porn film, but a raunchy satire along the lines of Flesh Gordon. We had gotten a very tentative agreement from Walter Koenig and George Takei to make cameos, as both their careers were non-existent at this point. We had also found some kid in Pennysylvania who had built an entire mock up of the Enterprise Bridge and found the supplier for uniform shirts and patches. Before we had started Allan had got some legal opinions that we would be covered under 1st amendment as a satire and since it was a dead TV show we were spoofing Paramount couldn't touch us on unfair trade either. However, just as we were about to go into serious production Paramount announced the first Star Trek movie and the lawyers told us to forget it. Paramount could and would sue us if we were infringing on a multi-million dollar film, so Allan pulled the plug and the project died.

Just about this same time Alan bought a real piece of crap film from Michael and Roberta Findlay (He was later killed on the roof of the Pan Am building in a helicopter accident. He died just about the same way as Vic Morrow did on the Twilight Zone movie but I don't there was any kind of stink as it was just a helicopter accident but they stopped landing on the Pan Am building after that). Anyway, I digress again.
The film the Findlays had made made in South America was a real piece of garbage. It was so bad it couldn't be released and Allan bought it for pennies on the dollar. Rumours of "snuff" films were running rampant in the newspapers about this time and I had even been asked to look at several suspected snuff films by a Lt. on the public morals squad who had arrested me on my porn bust and knew my technical background and training . For the record I never saw anything that even remotely looked like a real snuff film.
Allan was very savvy and since the Findlay's film was about a Manson Family style murder cult, he decided to film a "snuff" ending and release the stinker retitled as "Snuff" and ride the wave of free publicity.

I had a small studio on the 12th floor of a loft building on 29th Street in Chelsea at this point, where I had shot most of my early porns and which I rented out as an insert stage for other porno producers and an occasional commercial and/or student films. Allan hired Simon Nocturn who had his own little production company in mid town making mostly industrial films and low budget commercials. (Simon also co-produced and I think directed Mondo New York). Simon did most of the production work and hired a lot of non-union people (it was a small group of non-union people working in New York at this point) who we both knew to shoot the ten-minute insert. The shoot was supposed to take about 12 hours on Thursday and I had plans to leave for Washington DC for a Star Trek convention on Friday. I was divorced but got my kids for some weekends and summers and they were both there for the shoot because they were going with us to the Star Trek convention. My daughter was about 10 and my son about 8. They helped the special effects man make up buckets of blood (mostly karo syrup and food colouring). I remember he had a skinned sheep's head that he was going to use the eyes for a close up of the girls eye being slit but it never worked so it didn't make the final film. He had great fun in grossing out the cast and crew with this ghastly bloody thing, but I remember the kids loved it and laughed like hell every time he took it out of the ice it was packed in and shook it at one of the crew.
The effects were sloppy at best but the shoot dragged on for about 23 hours. Morning call had been about 8am but it was well after midnight when the actress playing the murder victim suddenly freaked out. She jumped up and ran into the kitchen/ green room sobbing that the actor who was playing the "murderer" was really going to kill her. That we really were making a snuff film and we were all crazy and she wasn't going to let us kill her and he (the lead actor) really was crazy, she could see it in her eyes!

It took us a couple of hours to calm her down, (my convincing her I would never have had my children running around if we were really going to kill her helped) but she did calm down and we got the entrails scene shot and that was the end of it. It took a couple of weeks for Simon to edit the footage. It really wasn't very realistic in the scene where we cut off her hand with a jig saw (I still have that jig saw and am thinking of selling it off on E-bay one of these days) her fingers keep squeezing and releasing after the hand is separated from the arm which a human hand could not do. But it was good enough for Allan to get it booked into the National Theatre on Broadway, one of the two best houses in NYC. The media went crazy. I remember Rhoda Barrett condemning us on national TV. And the day it opened there were pickets all around the theatre. I called Allan and jokingly asked him how much the pickets had cost him, there was dead silence on the line for about 10 seconds and then he answered me very seriously "I didn't hire them. (pause) I was going to hire some but I didn't have to. I don't know where these people came from." Like I said Allan was a genius at promotion. The entire film couldn't have cost him more than $25, 000 and he grossed more than double that the first week.
He later dropped dead jogging in Central Park, but he was a really nice guy and I miss him."

Carter included a picture of the Jigsaw in the email to me:

I then interviewed Simon Nuchtern, who added further information and also some contradictory memories to Carter:

Interview with Simon Nuchtern:

Who were the key cast in the final controversial sequence?

Can't really remember the names. They were cast through a small NYC casting agent who presented us a few women and a few men. We filmed them in 16mm doing a couple of scenes and then Allan and I picked the best we saw. All minor unknowns.

Where and when was this sequence shot and what format?

It was shot in 35mm on a sound stage on 54th St & Broadway (which no longer exists). The set already existed and we added a few knick-knacks.

Who was the Director of Photography and who was the director of the sequence?

I directed the sequence and the DP was a young fellow who no longer is in the film business (he is now a cabinet maker) and - after speaking to him, he would rather not have his name published.

Is it true that the FBI performed an investigation to track down the actress following reports that the film was real?

It was not the FBI (as far as I can remember), it was the local NYC police who sent a couple of detectives to my office - who were very sheepish and apologetic - told me they had to investigate any complaint, although they were quite sure this was all legit - but they could not locate the actress (she was in Bermuda or some other Caribbean island on holiday - I'm quite sure, organised by Allan (a very crafty fellow - but he never did tell me - I just suspect it...). I showed them a Polaroid of the "disembowelled" victim sitting in bed, laughing and eating a sandwich. The police left very quickly and I never heard from them again.

Is it true that Allan Shackleton distributed letters and pamphlets to newspapers and the FBI under pseudonyms to create hysteria surrounding Snuff and whether it was genuine or not?

He always denied this (but with a big smirk on his face) and I was always SURE that he was the cause of all the created hysteria. Whenever I tried to speak to him about the massive negative publicity, he would just laugh and say something to the effect "do you think I would be capable of doing that?" (with a twinkle in his eye...)

Is it true that the actress freaked out whilst filming and tried to make an exit as she thought the actor playing the killer was really going to kill her?

Never happened. The scenes were well choreographed and took a relatively long time to prepare and do.

Is it true that Michael Findlay after selling the film cheaply to Allan Shackleton, then later realising what he was up to, tried to blackmail him into re-negotiating the contract so he would see more of the profits? 

This I wouldn't know. I was not involved in any of the marketing or distribution of the film.

The FBI contacted Monarch Releasing on leads regarding Snuff and following trade ads to find out whether it was real or not. Allan replied that he would be a fool to admit whether they were real or not. Do you know about this?

I know the cops were in touch with Allan also, but I have no idea what he said or did.

Snuff grossed more than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is this true?

Again, I wouldn't know this, but it sure would make me happy if it did!

Following the success of Snuff, Allan relocated to California?

Snuff helped, but Allan always wanted to go to California. He always thought big success, a la Roger Corman could more easily be achieved there. He was a very hyper A-type personality and he always asked me how he could calm himself down (I'm pretty calm) so I got him started jogging - he liked that. One weekend he called me on one of his trips back to NY and wanted to meet me to talk to me about a great new idea he had. He wanted me to direct it and he asked me to join him on a jog around Central Park - I think it was for Saturday - but I was busy that morning and told him I'd have lunch with him on Monday. A journalist friend of mine was also running around the park that day and witnessed Allan collapsing and dying right there. Very ironic.......

Was the premiers in Indianapolis? 

It may have been tested in Indianapolis, but I think the premiere was at the National theatre in NY.

Did Allan hire protesters in New York to stir up feminist backlash against the film and therefore get press coverage?

Again, never admitted by Allan - but common knowledge among the small time distributors.

Any other memories or stories regarding Allan Shackleton and the making of Snuff?

Can't remember much more than the above. I was preparing to do a horror film and we used Snuff to practice some of the techniques, props and devices. For us, it was a small one day project. Who knew it was going to be such a stink? I got a big laugh out of it.

When I was digging around with this story it was hard to get hold of the film, it had disappeared into obscurity. A forgotten start to a bigger urban myth, now it's been re-released on Blu-Ray and is easily available on i-tunes. The Blu-Ray features interviews with Carter and film director Nicholas Winding-Refn discussing it's cult status.

When I was positing my theory about how the internet would eventually birth a snuff film, it still hadn't happened as far as I can tell in 2001. The documentary ended up being "too dark" for Channel 4 and it languished in "development", Sept 11th had happened and the world spent a decade looking at terrorism. The other day a story came into my timeline about Luka Magnotta and his "1 lunatic 1 ice pick" video, as I looked into it I realised that there is also "3 guys one hammer" in circulation too. Whilst not fitting the motif or strict definition of "snuff film", it is shocking that in a few years since I was looking to make that documentary, the world of sinister video production has moved on considerably. What made the snuff myth unlikely was the difficulty of production and distribution, whereas now the proliferation would be easy.

I daren't look back into that abyss again for fear of what you would find. Time to shred those old files.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Brain Freeze

Sometimes when in the mundane environment of an office your brain freezes up with the plethora of issues that bombard you on a daily basis, that email inbox that pulsates with noise and problems to be solved or the people knocking at your door asking for your input or guidance. Sitting behind a desk and staring at a terminal is probably the worst environment for problem solving, it's called a terminal for a reason, despite all the narratives about clouds and connections.

Offices and cubicles box you in and reduce your thought patterns to very set routines, it is the promise of six sigma and lean to define the most optimum route of doing things and repeat with precision. It's something that often happens in schooling with curriculum, training, testing - all optimising us into routine patterns. Problem is we live in a world of complexity and sometimes routine-procedure are not good in complexity. I often hear the rhetoric from industries that they need people who can think laterally, handle problems etc and can't find people that can do this, they look to education hoping for the answer but then want to repeat the training/ schooling mantra. It's where I tend to think Illich was onto something with Deschooling Society.

An event happened this week that brought into stark relief this issue for me and one that I had ruminated on before when in my square walled office. As I looked around at colleagues, I would often ponder - what would it be like to be trapped on a mountain or an island with these people, how would we survive, who has the mindset that would be appropriate, how do you lead or manage in that environment?

We so often recruit people based on perceived IQ or qualification and prior experience, but we seldom look at an important facet - AQ or Adversity Quotient. This was something I had looked at with a company called Peak Learning, who had some very good toolsets for surfacing people's AQ. I often found myself recruiting people with a high AQ mindset over skills, working on the principle that skills can be developed if the person had the right mindset. This always held me in good stead with the people I recruited who would constantly amaze me with their abilities to think laterally and deal with situations. 

I'm reflecting on this because for such a long time I thought this was just the case with everyone, it's how I saw the world, in given situations I could evaluate multiple patterns around me and see a solution. It's difficult to explain how I visualise this, but I can almost physically see multiple patterns of probability in situations. The best way I could explain this was a scene I saw in a Hollywood film where Sherlock Holmes can predict and visualise what is about to happen.

I believe the key to all of this is understanding patterns as nicely summarised by Esko Kilpi in Pattern Recognition, quantified self and big data, I believe we will soon have systems and tools to augment our ability to see patterns in life like never before and this could lead to a profound change in our learning abilities and breaking some of our routine perceptions or the limits of our bounded rationality

We will start to see the web of life, the patterns within it and how we are interdependent within this network.

Anyway, back to that life event that led to me noodling on this topic. I was driving across the Norwegian Alps this week in the height of winter, towing a heavy trailer. I had snow tyres, but steep gradients, ice and bad luck ended with myself and my mother who was my travel companion being stuck on a steep climb with the vehicle going nowhere. It was desolate, cold and no sign of civilisation for miles.

You Get The Picture

We knew we couldn't push, we knew we needed high revs to pull the trailer and we knew that would just polish the ice and make it worse. My mind initially darted across all the worst scenarios of being stuck up this mountain. My mum interjected with a time worn statement "There are no problems, only solutions", it was a statement I had heard throughout my formative years. In a business setting it sounds like trite business b*llocks spouted by self help gurus, in a real world setting it gives you fortitude and focuses the mind.

We instantly started focussing on the problem domain: wheels need traction to move. How do we get traction? We scoured the location for wood or twigs - nada. Stones? Nothing. All we had around us was ice and snow. Look in the car, nothing but a tool to change tyres and some jumpers. Maybe we can score the ice with the wheel brace and create enough traction? More wheel spinning ensued. How about using the jumpers under the wheels? Worked a little, but not enough. How about the foot well rubber mats? The wheels spun them out across the road.

Each experiment tried and failed, each time we re-analysed and tried to improve. Never stopping to fixate on our predicament. How about that tunnel at the crest of the hill? Maybe it has a grit bin? We've seen grit bins in tunnels; okay it's a fair walk so how am I going to get the grit back if it has any? Find a big shopping bag in the car. Off I stomp, looking around as I go - I see a babbling brook of icy cold water, but think - if the tunnel doesn't have any grit, I can come back and scoop gravel out of the brook! (that's a back-up). I get to the tunnel and no grit bin, but on the sides of the road are plenty of piles of road grit kicked up by lorries etc. I fill up the bag and head back to the car.

We dust the road all around the wheels, start up the car and it gets a little grip and moves, but not enough. I need to be throwing grit in it's path as it's edges forward to get enough speed to move. How will I get back into the car? Sliding side doors! Leave one open and I can jump in! We edge forward as I am sprinkling ahead of the tyres and then we're off! I'm running down the road and jumping in the side of the car and bingo! We're out of our predicament. Quickly learning from our situation we make it to the tunnel and decide this may happen again and there might not be a tunnel, so restock the grit bag! Euphoric at our ability to tackle the situation. Thankful we don't have to be solemn and admit we're two British idiots trying to drive across extreme terrain to emergency rescue services.

So the moral of the story? This situation brought alive to me the essence of innovation.  The divergent thought, the prototyping, the analysing failure and improving, the convergent thought on the solution.

It was a real life Marshmallow Challenge or Candle Problem. As we rolled off up the mountain further we discussed how we had approached this, how it related to those thoughts about being stuck on a mountain with work colleagues and the AQ angle. I realised how lucky I was to have been nurtured to do this from an early age because of that mantra and approach by my mum, for this I am eternally grateful. I think maybe some moments stuck on a mountain need to happen more often, because the freeze brought my brain alive again in ways that had been dulled slightly in the boxed office.

Here is a little video of the trip, to get a better sense of the experience:

Norwegian Road Trip from Jon Harman on Vimeo.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Brick Dust on the Forehead

There is something deeply liberating about not being affiliated to one specific organisation, it gives you the freedom to be more, well, yourself really. This is of course fairly ludicrous, shouldn't you always be you? But there is something about organisations, institutions and industries that just seems to stifle who we really are and I think it's mainly about becoming compliant. Seth Godin covers this very neatly in The Icarus Deception. So why am I thinking about this? Because I know that this compliance training starts in education and enough is enough.

I attended a conference about Legal Innovation and Legal Education this week, well I say attend, I followed the #innovatelaw tag on Twitter from my fireside here in Norway - but you catch the drift. 

It was all reasonably polite and the debate was sincere etc, but there just came a point when I had that moment of clarity: 

I've listened endlessly, read endlessly and talked endlessly about innovation and education in law and I'm bored with it. Not bored because I don't care or don't think that there are endless possibilities, I'm just bored because so little happens. When I first came into the industry there was talk of the Training Framework Review which went on endlessly ad infinitum with very little happening, the LETR showed more promise, but as that went through the very wide and transparent debate around the country (kudos to the team on how open and transparent they were) I still had to listen to a lot of people from industry, regulators etc pontificate about legal education and then demonstrate they knew very little about learning, they were simply interested in maintaining the machine of compliance that exists and curating a museum of how it was. The Bar Standards Board were by far the worst offenders I saw of this. So often at these debates or discussions, I saw the voice of the student drowned out or not represented. I have sat in meetings and listened to colleagues talk about rigour and brightness required, yet know nothing about brain cognition, multiple intelligences or divergent and convergent thought. 

I have attended numerous "future law" talks and conferences where the usual suspects like Richard Susskind regurgitate Kurzweil's singularity for lawyers and when he's not available they actually get Ray in to talk about The Singularity, which I'm sure was really helpful and pragmatic to the lawyers in the audience. I've been to a talk by a barrister explaining to me "The Cloud" and how they've moved all their documents to Ipads via the cloud (essentially they had discovered Dropbox) and it all scares me. It scares me because I know you're better than that. I know you can be innovative and creative, it's an innate human characteristic. 

Before we go to that though, I've got to just say this talking and chin stroking has just got to stop. If we're going to change or innovate let's at least throw off the shackles of what is stopping us. I want to follow Howard Beale's example and just shout "I'm Mad As Hell and I'm Not Going to Take It Any More!"

Does that feel better? Okay. So we need to accept that if we're going to get anywhere we have to stop fixating on the "i" word,  the more you use that word the less likely you are to actually do it. We need to go back to basics and think "play" which means a bit of de-programming how you've been educated.

Now nobody is going to set up a Legal Education Council, with a nice committee etc so we may as well stop debating that now. Sure we can go and ask for some money from The Legal Education Foundation and we should (they have £200million somewhere). But as Jobs said "No-one is going to give you permission to put a dent in the Universe, you just have to do it".

So why not just set up a brain trust of people that want to do this, play, prototype, gamestorm it, hack it and try some solutions - we know the problem domain, it's time to move onto building solutions. 

Guess what in the 11 years since I first heard all this debate starting, the world has invented some really cool tools for collaboration virtually, thus making it less onerous for people to create movements. We don't need any committee halls or lecture theatres, let's use Google DocsBasecampVoicethreadHangouts etc, etc. 

I know revolutionary talk and all that is very zeitgeist at the moment, and that is not the reason I raise this - it is because our futures and our kids futures need this, we need to start solving some of the great big problems on the way - that needs law, but it's going to need a much more agile, creative, inventive, collaborative bunch of lawyers and legal services to deliver it. So we have to start now with legal ed to get ready. Time to break down that dusty brick wall that has been giving me a headache for too long.

The Backchannel Comments

Happy FF Halloween

It's a tradition of sorts to make a few Halloween vids for Twitter folk, here is this year's episode:

featuring: @_millymoo, @bhamiltonbruce, @lifeincustody, @richardmoorhead, @legalbizzle

and from the archives:

Skeleton Dance feat: @bhamiltonbruce, @paulbernaluk, @richardmoorhead, @lifeincustody & @_millymoo

The Time Warp feat: @jezhop, @_millymoo, @lifeincustody, @charonqc & @richardmoorhead

The Monster Mash feat: @charonqc, @kilroyt, @benwheway, @ikenceo & @brianinkster

Math Camp Massacre feat: @jezhop, @legalbrat, @rupertwhite, @annanev, @alicemorrissey & @legalbizzle

Night of the Living Dead ish feat: @charonqc & @_millymoo

And of course the one that kicked it off:

feat: @lifeincustody, @_millymoo, @richardmoorhead, @stevekuncewicz & @jonb1966

Got more #FF vids planned for the future.... Watch this space.

Whilst in the archives I also found this early action horror trailer I made on VHS (hence degraded quality) for GCSE media, yep that's me with a shaven head and jumping off a bridge.