The training went better than I expected. That is to say that everything went wrong that I was expecting to go wrong. Lots of technical problems, couldn't use printers, couldn't access systems. The ususal.

In the end although I wasn't satisfied with the training, most of the trainees seem to have been.

Goes to show.

Article in the NS from two weeks ago (that I am reading at the moment) implies that resources for mental effort are limited, and use energy the same way as physical effort - which would explain why going to bed earlier has no effect on alertness, even over several days. As usual NS is careful to limit its conclusions to the very specific subject matter under discussion, which is the notion of willpower overcoming desire for short term gratification.

NS articles are very defensive in this way; they are restricted to drawing conclusions that are within the field under discussion, and I suspect that the writers are obliged by editorial policy to seek dissenting or at the very least doubting views.

This kind of discipline is very useful in any descriptive text. If the writer begins by defining the scope carefully, and remains strictly within it, he protects himself not only from speculation (which is unprofessional), but also from distraction and irrelevance (which is poor style).

The user guide that I am working on at the moment describes a product that engages the user in three ways
  1. via the tasks that the user has to peform 90% of the time
  2. via some common interfaces that are used for several different functions
  3. via the layout and ergonomics of the main interface.
I like to begin with a careful naming of parts, as this makes the writing of instructions much faster, but I'm aware in this case that to begin by naming all the parts will result in it taking a long time to get the user to what he is going to be doing 90% of the time.

Consequently, I've adjusted my scope so that when describing the layout of the main interface limit myself to putting labels to things, with no explanation, so that I can move on as quickly as possible to the common interfaces, which need some explanation AT THE SAME TIME as labelling.

I had to make several attempts before I was happy with the scope of this first section ("getting started" as it were), but now that the scope is clearly written I can get on with a clear and simple description, without distracting either myself, or the reader, with the question of what things are for or how they work, which I have explicitly excluded from the scope of this section.


Teacher Anxiety

I'm currently experiencing teacher anxiety. I have three training sessions to do this week, and, as usual, I'm worried about things in quite the wrong order (the proper order is given in brackets):

  1. The trainees will know more about the subject matter than I do (5)
  2. The trainees won't turn up (4)
  3. The trainees will complain that they weren't given enough notice/didn't get the email/couldn't read the attachment (1)
  4. I won't get the training support (presentations, handout and demo) complete in time (2)
  5. What I teach them won't be what the product manager wanted (3)
From experience, (3) isn't so much a worry as a dead cert. Oh well. At least I blog human for once. I twisted my ankle last night while wiping my feet and was in agony all night. I'm currently wearing three pairs of socks on the affected foot. It's all rather distracting.

I've been trying to restore to my memory the details of a training that I did ten years ago about preparing for, and delivering training in a commercial environment. Edward Tufte wrote an essay on why powerpoint is the wrong tool (read it on his website - I advise reading ALL the comments, new ones seem to be added every few week since he posted on his website in 2005 ish).

The training I had, years ago, used powerpoint (or something similar) as an example among many of how to display information in front of trainees. It was presented as one possible means of support - especially if there was some important vocabulary to learn, or a diagram would be helpful in illustrating a point.

From this sensible start point, MSPowerPoint has taken over commercial presentations and trainings, to the extent that it is no longer an aid, it has become the principal medium of communication - the presenter is secondary, as he is constantly referring to the slides, and in many cases, reading them out.

I'm trying to get back to basics, and to do this I'm imposing some simple rules, based on the training I had back in the 1990s, to get the message off the screen and back into the air.

  1. All the information that I want the trainees to leave with is in a handout. Most of the information on the handout is not on the slides.
  2. No more than 10 slides PER HOUR (I've had some presentations and trainings over the last four years that, had completed on time, would have needed under three minutes per slide!)
  3. As much "back to basics" training as possible - work with the subject matter; hands-on; exercises.
This approach does put me under a little more pressure - as I need to know the subject matter well; any trainer should be under pressure to know the subject matter better than he knows his slides. Any trainer should be able to complete a training session with no slides at all.


Cause for ConCERN?

The journalist, that unhappy beast, is motivated in his writing by the desire to sell more stories, and hence, the better he writes to this end, the more demand there will be for his stories, and the more he will have to write.

But like any market, there are forces of supply and demand. By providing what the public wants, the journalist increases their appetite; and the more he feeds them, the hungrier they get. There has to come a point where demand catches, and passes supply.

What can the journalist do but use what he writes to provoke new stories into existence? This is extremely common. A jounalist who writes an exposé of political corruption may trigger an official inquiry (new story) that leads to accusations, allegations, resignations (new stories). A journalist who writes about the potential of a new, untried cancer treatment will cause desperate cancer sufferers to try to obtain the treatment before it has been proved to be safe and effective (new story), and they suffer as a result because it is neither safe nor effective (new stories).

Editors don't judge news on some mysterious notion of "newsworthyness" or public spirited "need to know". It is judged on how much more news the news is going to create. They have to because they are enslaved by the demand that they create, and the only way to feed the demand is to manufacture more news.

Reporting the switch-on of the LHC honestly and faithfully would have resulted in no new news:

"The LHC is going to be switched on at CERN. It is the biggest project of any kind ever undertaken by mankind. It is going to start producing experimental data over the next few months, which will take many more months to be analysed, and then scientists will argue for many more months over whether anything has actually been discovered."

This, of course, engenders apathy. Consequently, journalists have given a lot of undue attention to the handful of scientists who went to the trouble to calculate the probability of the LHC creating a world-swallowing black hole or some other equally catastrophic exotic entity. Never mind the fact that the calculations show that the possibility is vanishingly small. Never mind the fact that the very existence of black holes is known only mathematically and through indirect observation, and that if those mathematics are correct then any mini-black holes will emit (Hawking radiation) faster than they can consume matter, causing them to "evaporate". Never mind that the various exotics (singularities and whatnot) are entirely hypothetical.

What matters in reporting this is that the calculations have been made at all. On the fundamental journalistic dogma that "there's no smoke without a smoking gun" (or something), the very fact that anyone is seriously considering the possibility of world-eating black holes being created in France suggests that there is a real risk, however small, that this may occur.

Consequence? People with nothing but money and time to waste between their ears bring court cases to try to prevent CERN from destroying the earth. Which is news, of course, since everyone likes to laugh at the ignorant looneys.

Scientists only make it worse, of course, because their professional discipline prevents them from being dismissive. I've yet to hear any scientist respond to these claims with "don't be silly." That may be an impolite (and unscientific) answer, but it is a responsible one. Giving a carefully worded answer convinces people that you've thought carefully about it and that persuades them that it is a real possibility. Being dismissive may seem cavalier, but it shows that you aren't concerned.

A lot of attention is payed to superconductors, and the fantastic speeds at which the protons whizz round the accerator, and the huge energy levels at which they collide. I suspect scientists are reluctant to point out what the actual energy (as opposed to energy level) of a handful of protons is. It is disappointingly small when compared with the budget, and the people paying for it have faith in place of knowledge.

The best thing about CERN is that it is a sure thing. If it finds nothing, then we're wrong about most of what we think about the Universe. If it finds anything, it will be things that we've never seen before, and some mainstream views will be wrong - it will be possible to choose between possibilities that currently compete on theory, using observation. That is unimaginably cool, and the folks at CERN are heroes for doing what they've done.


Showing off

On the occasion of getting a second letter published in my favourite periodical, here are a couple of links, to both letters.

Personally I find both of them rather obscure; if you don't read the articles that they are responding to, I doubt they make any sense at all. Never mind, here goes:

Hide in plain sight (June 2007)
Strange inheritance (August 2008)



There are many misconceptions about the differences between French corporate culture and Anglo-Saxon corporate culture, not least of which is the idea that there is any such thing as "Anglo-Saxon culture".

The one I want to address seems to be shared on both sides of both the big pond and the little sleave. That is the notion that French written communication is more formal than English.

It is commonly believed that the gulf between the way that the French speak and the way that they write is pretty big. Big enough to merit the word "gulf", at least. I have certainly encountered the peculiarity where certain words and figures of speech are considered normal when spoken aloud, but vulgar, or even offensive, when written down.

The French, in common with most Europeans, the British included, think that the Americans write pretty much the same as they speak. This is probably true in a few cases.

I think the error is in our understanding of the word "formal". Because "formal dress" normally means black tie or some other suitably sober attire, we tend to think that "formal language" is serious, stern, austere. But "formal" only means "having a particular form". By this measure, most soit disant Anglo-Saxon commercial prose is highly formal.

And the formality is no more valuable by being less serious.

While the predominant form in France - where formality occurs - is serious, formulaic and extremely pompous, the predominant form in the USA (and to a lesser extent the UK) is familiar, verbose, catchy and empty of meaning.

Of course, from my point of view, what the customer wants...

But what everybody needs is easy access to information in a way that is well adapted to his expectations and capacity.

So we should not allow ourselves to fall into a particular style when writing. We should choose a style that will suit the reader, then CHOOSE EVERY WORD.


It can get better...

[company] is a world leader in real-time, high fidelity simulation. The Company provides simulation and educational solutions and services to the […] industries. In addition, the Company provides plant monitoring, and signal analysis monitoring and optimization software primarily to the […] industry

This is proper English, insomuch as there are no grammatical or vocabulary errors. However the paragraph is long on words, short on message. It is deeply impersonal, and makes liberal use of weasel words. It is very hard to tell what the company actually does. Since writing the above description, the company in question has dramatically improved it, as follows:

[company] is the World Leader in real-time simulation and training solutions for the […] industries. [company] has delivered over 500 simulation and training applications to 200 customers in 30 countries spanning the globe.

Let's look at the details of their improvements:

"a world leader" >> "the World Leader"

With the indefinite article ("a"), the phrase is functionally worthless. We have no idea how big the market is nor how much competition there is; we know very well, in any case, that any company can claim to be a world leader and we can't reasonably contest it.

With the definite article ("the"), the company is making a bold claim: they lead the world. We may make several confident assumptions:
  • they have the biggest market share
  • they have the most advanced technology
  • they have many imitators

The capitalization of "world leader" is shouting - it's not necessary, and it's somewhat inelegant, but if they are the world leader, then they have something to shout about.

"real-time high fidelity simulation" >> "real-time simulation"

Someone (with a little knowledge of the science of simulation, perhaps) pointed out to them that "high fidelity" is not necessarily the best form of simulation; some simulations work better with more abstraction than with less (more abstraction implies less fine detail - lower fidelity). "high fidelity" had originally been included as puffing-up: it's empty, weasley and possibly even wrong.

Real-time simulation is of course a logical nonsense, however we understand what they mean: 1 simulated hour is equal to 1 real hour. How useful this is in simulation is moot; surely a useful simulation would be one where real hours may be simulated in minutes or seconds? This aside, the phrase is much better without the "high fidelity".

"The Company" >> [company's name]

In an act of dazzling stupidity, in a previous version they used the legalese self reference "the company", thereby missing an opportunity to reinforce the brand. This is thankfully corrected throughout.

"educational solutions and services" >> "training applications"

This one got a cheer from me. Not only is "educational" a wrongful substitution (educational means "pertaining to education" - it isn't an adjective describing "solutions and services", which is how it has been used), it is also a pointless substitution, where the writer may have wanted to avoid the rather pedestrian "training". In addition, we have the double weasel: "solutions and services".

In the new version, boring clarity triumphs over pompous obscurity and "training" is restored to its proper place. Hurrah!. Pity they had to spoil it, replacing the double weasel with the single, "applications", and reintroducing vaguery.

"in addition…[end]" >> "[company] has delivered… [end]"

Instead of more vague product claims, some justification of the opening statement. This is so strong compared with what was there before that we can forgive the rhetorical "spanning the globe" (worldwide would have been simpler and clearer). These stats got a cheer from me too. Flaunting your numbers is a great way to gain credibility. Be prepared to back them up with hard facts, though. A good buyer or auditor will expect this.

The new text could be further improved, but the main spadework has been done, so we'll leave it alone.