Nov 15

Ignite Bristol 3

After the excellent Ignite Bristol #2, I wanted to have a go myself. I decided not to present anything connected to the ‘day job’ and thought that Octopush would make a great topic.

Ignite is a beautifully simple concept;

“Enlighten us, but make it quick”

Specifically 5 minutes quick. And you have 20 slides, that automatically advance every 15 seconds, whether you’re ready or not!

Octopush was an easy choice. Its not that widely know so I’d be enlightening folks about a new sport to them, and it has great entertainment potential! This is a dissection of how my talk was put together.

Any presentation takes much longer to put together than deliver. I had a broad outline for the talk fairly quickly but making sure I had enough to fill 5 minutes, without over running or leaving … long … pauses … took a lot longer.

There needed to be a gentle introduction, assuming no one in the audience had ever heard of the sport. I wanted to give a bit of history, talk about the equipment and the basic rules. In the end I didn’t really cover the rules, but I think there was enough other information, and some entertainment.

I had a great title that I borrowed from Sam’s undergraduate psychology dissertation “Octopush: Whether ’tis nobler to push lead’. We’d just had the World Cup and Paul the “Psychic’ octopus was all over the news so that was a good opening slide. I was doubly lucky (though Paul was less so) as he died on the Tuesday before the talk. That required a bit of a last minute re-write but actually made the introduction much smoother.

For some time I then had a slide referencing the Shakespearean aspect of the title, but somehow that never quite worked for me in this context. It was only when I went back to the slides after putting them aside for a couple of weeks that I decided I really wasn’t happy. I took another angle on the ‘pushing lead’ and found the Pencil Museum and that gave me my second introduction slide and a good link into the fact that the lead I was pushing was a hockey puck, specifically underwater hockey or octopush. So that was slides 1 & 2 sorted out, though slide 2 as shown was almost the last one into the deck.

I wanted to have some humour but I know that I’m not a natural ‘funny man’ so decided to let my slides do the jokes and play the straight man. The first picture of an octopush game, taken by me at the Student Nationals in 2009, was intentionally not a great picture but gave the first ‘joke’ of not being a great spectator sport. Slide 3; and getting into my stride.

Slight aside; the guy that introduced me to Octopush way back in Gibraltar (Steve Warren) now runs the fantastic Ocean Optics.

The pretty picture of the fishes was a good ‘filler’ slide to introduce some of the history, but I couldn’t get everything into 15 seconds so put in the diver shot & made a joke about UK diving at the same time. The exact invention of octopush is genuinely lost in time (though it is mentioned in the club’s magazine which is how we know the year). However, I was introduced to octopush by pushing a diving weight around with a snorkel so figured that was a good story to go with. Slides 4, 5, 6 & 7 sorted.

Finding the photo of players in 1977 was a godsend as it made a great link and showed some of the older kit.  I could then talk a bit about the modern kit. The image of the Dacor Bandit mask was one I’d used over 10 years ago when I first did the Plymouth University club’s website, its still a great mask and one of the lowest volume ones on the market. I can’t remember where the ‘wet poodle’ bit came from but I do remember using my Dad’s Jet Fins and they were as heavy and hopeless as described. However, the reason they’re not used in Octopush is more to do with their metal buckles than anything else. Slides 8, 9, 10 (halfway), 12, and 13 sorted.

And no, I haven’t forgotten slide 11 (the four pucks in a row). That one came quite a bit later when I realised that I hadn’t found a decent photo of their evolution. The octopush puck, along with the bat, is genuinely unique to the sport and represents a significant part of what makes the modern sport. Officially the pucks belong to Sam Harding (@samharding), I ‘m not much of a collector. :)

Fortunately, there are some really good photos of Octopush on the web and I was able to find a couple that show how the game is played at international level. The bit about having around 20 seconds to do something useful with the puck is true, and something that most people don’t believe. I’d found the closing shot of the puck flying towards the camera that would give a strong visual finish. Slides 15, 16 and 20 sorted.

The eagled eyed will have noticed that I’m still a few slides short!

I had lots of content, but not many laughs. The ‘Answer List’ was something that Sam & I put up on the Plymouth University Octopush Club website back in 1998/99 and I think was originally taken from a newsletter. I wanted to have a shot of me playing to prove that this wasn’t completely made up, there aren’t any decent in-water shots but the shower photo does the trick I think. That gave me 18 & 19.

I was still a couple of slides short, but hadn’t really talked about the game or its rules so pulled slide 14 in as a link from the kit description to the great photos of game play.

Finding a picture of a puck ‘in flight’ was a nightmare! I ended up with a couple of YouTube videos and screen grabbing them, paused at the appropriate moment. I eventually had nearly a dozen frame grabs with blurred orange, green or pink blobs on them. As I mentioned in the talk, orange is medium hardness, you also have green for the hardest coatings and pink for the softest (though its still coating a metal core so ‘soft’ is a relative term). I had my final slide (17), and a new respect for video editors!

So that gave me my slide deck and basic framework. A couple of trials identified where I had too much to say, and overran, and where the long pauses were. Fortunately, I had begun this some time before the event so was able to put everything to one side for a couple of weeks and come back refreshed to put together the talk as delivered (mostly as prepared) on 31st October. Right until Sunday afternoon I was refining the talk and making small changes.

Was it worth it?


But what do you think?

Nov 10

War, what is it good for?

Quite a lot as it turns out.

Both of Monday’s talks as part of the Festival of Ideas (@festivalofideas) Autumn Programme looked at how much of the technology that we all rely upon started out with military funding.

(Disclosure: I was invited to attend both talks in return for writing this short review)

Whilst both speakers were looked at technology from war (and other base instincts) they were separated by over 150 years. Peter Nowak (Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as we Know it) looked at mostly post World War II innovations that were now commonplace, and Rachel Hewitt (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey) looked back to the 1790’s and the birth of the Ordinance Survey.

Peter’s book is an enjoyable romp through just about every gadget, meal and (ahem) alternative entertainment you’ve ever heard of (and a couple you probably haven’t) and how they can trace their roots back to either military research projects or the companies that produced them. If anything was missing, it was a sense of grand narrative. A couple times during both Andrew’s interview and the subsequent Q&A he was pressed on the ethical questions raised but never really answered them.

Peter did make one prediction that robotics are now, where the PC was 20 years ago and that in 20 years time robotics would be as ubiquitous as the computer is now. Not quite sure I agree with that, there are lots of deeper sociological issues with robots such as challenges to our sense of self, issues over robot rights (robot is, after all, literally serf labor, in Polish), and the sheer creepiness of human-like robot forms.

A very interesting comment from the floor suggested a fourth base instinct to go with war, food & sex which was our innate curiosity and desire for the next shiny shiny thing. Whilst some of these companies can trace their origins to military activity, their current innovations and particularly their speed of innovation, are driven more by consumer competition rather than warmongering.

Map showing Trig Points used in the 1936 Ordnance Survey "Retriangulation of Britain" between 1936 and 1962.

By contrast, Rachel gave a fascinating and engaging talk about the origins of the Ordinance Survey and the people involved. It was quite clear that whilst the maps were commissioned to provide Britain with a military advantage in the event of invasion, the cultural impact of having a unified map of the country was also very important to those early cartographers. I was especially taken by the notion that William Mudge encouraged alternative uses of the original map series.

Rachel also noted that the early trig points were located at the sites of the national chain of warning Beacons (as these were on natural sight lines around the coast). Their rudimentary theodolites frequently needed flares to provide them with sufficient light to focus upon, and these flares naturally gave rise to the very real fear of imminent invasion!

In the equally entertaining and informative Q&A that followed, Rachel explored the cultural importance of maps and the role that the Ordinance Survey played in the cultural life of Britain, national rivalries with France, technology advances, and the location of the original Base Line (now mostly under Heathrow Airport).

A great evening all round!

Oct 27

An exploratory study into HNC patients’ perceptions of their appearance

Every now and again we are fortunate enough to have an opportunity to under take a piece of research in an area that we are passionate about. For a number of years, I’ve been interested in how the treatment of head and neck cancer (HNC) affects a patient’s perceptions about their appearance. As part of my recent MSc in Health Psychology with the University of West of England, I was required to undertake a small research project and decided to scope an exploratory study into this topic. My supervisor Dr Tim Moss suggested that I include an investigation of the concept of ‘positivity’ (also refered to as posttraumatic growth).  The project has now been completed and written up.  Below is a copy of the abstract and if you are interested a PDF will be available in the near future.

The extent of Patients’ Positivity, Appearance Adjustment and Quality of Life following treatment for Head and Neck Cancer: An exploratory study

Background: Facial disfigurement is considered to be one of the most distressing aspects of head and neck cancer (HNC) and its treatment, but it has been the focus of little systematic study.  However there is a growing body of literature supporting the suggestion that such a stressful event may be a catalyst for positive psychosocial changes.  To date there are no existing studies looking at the relationship between quality of life (QoL), sense of appearance and positivity in this patient group.

Aim: To investigate how HNC affect patients’ QoL, sense of appearance and positivity.

Method: A Questionnaire battery containing the Medical Outcomes Short Form 12 (SF-12), Derriford Appearance Scale (DAS24) and Silver Lining Questionnaire (SLQ) was sent to 1,571 patients treated by the Maxillofacial Department in 2009.  The same measures with the inclusion of the University of Washington QoL Questionnaire (UoW), were posted to 299 HNC patients.  The study compares the Maxillofacial patients and HNC patients with reference data and explores associations with clinical factors.

Results: Reasons for non-completion of the questionnaires was given by a 118 patients.  Two hundred and thirty nine (15%) of the Maxillofacial patients and one hundred and thirty two (44%) of the HNC patients returned questionnaires.

The HNC patients had reported less distress and dysfunction related to appearance than age and gender matched norms.  They had similar QoL to other reported HNC patients, but worse than an age matched norm group.  Tumour stage was the only demographic to reveal a difference in relation to appearance.  The HNC patients also reported having a greater sense of positivity than the maxillofacial group and a similar level to previous data collected on lung cancer patients.

The complexity of the patient cohort has introduced many confounding variables, and the number of completed questionnaires was insufficient to identify the significance factors related to the data obtained on the measures.  Although there are indications that age and cancer staging may be particularly important.

Conclusions: The data collected in this study suggests that appearance issues are of less concern to HNC patients than the general population, and that they appear to be more positive, but further research is needed to investigate individual differences allowing for all the confounding variables.  Allowing for the lack of significant findings, we posit some hypotheses that would merit further investigation.  We also suggests that a follow up study, using the same validated questionnaires, over an extended patient group and longitudinally, may be able to identify significant co-variables. This may in turn inform the provision of support and information for patients to aid them in their difficult time.

Oct 17

Empire of the Skies

(Disclosure: I was invited by Andrew Kelly to attend this talk & receive a complementary copy of James’ book and encouraged to blog about it afterwards, I did so I am.)

James Hamilton-Paterson’s new book “Empire of the Skies” has the official sub-title “When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World“, but from the interview with Andrew Kelly (Director, Festival of Ideas) it could more accurately be sub-titled “Decline and Delinquency of a National Industry“. Coming to Bristol during celebrations of 100 years of aviation engineering & innovation (BAC100) was thus akin to walking into the lion’s den and giving the lion a slap round the head with a fresh sirloin steak.

In fairness to James, his book begins at the end of the Second World War and focuses mainly on the military jet story. For the most part it is a boys-own style recounting of the early years in jet aircraft development. James’ own fondness and passion for that era is evident throughout and where he dips into melancholy it is for opportunities missed and advantages squandered.

Right at the start of the interview James made the point that, post-war, there were some 23 companies making aircraft from original R&D to production, and a further 9 engine manufactures. The almost mythical status of the RAF and associated planes, meant that politically the companies that built them “couldn’t be allowed to fail”, and where else have we heard that recently?

The following Q&A was predictably robust in defence of the aerospace sector, though too many rambling commentaries without discernible questions left little time or opportunity for a real Question Time cross examination.

From all the post-war jets, four are put forward as ‘great’; the Canberra (in service from 1951 and operational with the Indian Air Force until 2007); the Hunter in the same year (although only from the Mk6 onwards) and still operational with the Lebanese Air Force; the  Vulcan (1952), for which James describes Operation Skyshield in 1961 to test NORAD’s new DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar system where these remarkable aircraft effortlessly breached the US line and landed in New York State, less than 20min flying time from New York City; and the Harrier (1967) which was only the second post-war jet (after the Canberra) to be bought by US, and the last wholly British designed & manufactured military jet. This is also the de-facto end of the story for the book. English Electric Canberra at the 1951 Farnborough Air Show

If I have a criticism of the book it’s that there’s no grand narrative. There’s not enough depth and analysis in this book to genuinely think of it as a dissection of the post-war aerospace industrial decline. Although James apportions blame roughly equally between incompetent management at the companies and dithering short-termism in Government, he doesn’t go into the wider industrial-political story that might have explained why this happened. Its not really the story of Bill Waterson, though he is often the human face to the story. Other characters, such as Flight Lieutenant Al Pollock ‘buzzing’ the Houses of Parliament & flying his Hunter at full tilt through Tower Bridge on 4 April 1968 in protest at the lack of celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the RAF (for which he was discharged without a Court-Martial), are dropping in as vignettes but it’s not really a story of the decline of the RAF either.

The book, much like James during the interview, is at its best when recounting the undeniable bravery and honest patriotism of the people involved in pushing the technological limits of aviation long before the science was understood.

I did learn one cool fact, in 1971 we launched the satellite Prospero on a Black Arrow rocket (another wholly British undertaking) to test solar cells and detect micrometeorites, it’s still up there and probably will be for another 100 years.

Sep 16

How do you ‘lean’ a business?

In these straightened times, its a great opportunity to review your business processes & establish the foundations for the future.

Never let a crisis go to waste. Rahm Emmanuel (via WSJ)

Lean means taking a fundamental look at your business & driving out waste. Some of these wastes will be obvious (work in progress, re-work, multiple sign off sheets, etc) some of the waste may be harder to identify. There are experts in “Lean” & 6 Sigma Black-Belts, these may work for you, but I would suggest that you begin with a strategic review of your purpose, then consider some systems process modelling that will show how well, or otherwise, you are working towards those strategic proposes. From there you can assign costs and added value to activities to help with cast flow forecasting.

Strategic Purpose

You need to have one.

I was lucky to spend some time with Michael Corbett (Product Box, @productbox) a couple of weeks ago using a fairly new method called the “Business Model Canvass“. We spent a couple of minutes talking about the canvass but it’s such a simple, visual method that we quickly started drawing ideas on the sheet and making connections. It was quite fun to be the ‘client’ and not to have to think too hard about the model but just concentrate on the process.

We looked at a business I was involved with and used the Canvass to work up a representation of the business model. The visual approach quickly distilled the Strategic Purpose (which I can waffle on about for ages) and encapsulated a clear  Value Proposition. The business was a good test of the canvass as it’s not a simple model of taking orders, fulfilling orders, rinse & repeat.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the stakeholders (or customer segments), activities and relationships. This actually identified a critical Value Proposition that I was completely unaware of. It had certainly not been articulated before.

We also worked out most of the rest of the business model, though without much detail. By lunch time we’d 75% of the business model captured, though not in a form that you could have presented to a third party. However, in a dozen or so post-it notes we’d encapsulated most of a traditional business plan and produced a couple of very clear value propositions that, together with the key partners & customer segments, represented a pretty good Strategic Purpose.

Fleshing out the sketch

Michael then pulled out his trump card – he’d set up a Google Site specifically designed to capture the output from our Business Canvas session. This contained all our notes, diagrams, together with a whole load of background info on the canvass, process, and associated references. Basically, all the information necessary to take the insights gained from the business canvas exercise and turn them into an action plan.

Michael explained that, given that it contains all this information in one place, and that it relates to a new product (or service) that he calls it a ProductBox™. Normally we’d have been working on the Canvass as team of business owners / founders / exec’s prior to launching a new product or service, and the ProductBox is designed to keep that team-work going on line. I just happened to be working with Michael on my own.

After our meeting I logged in to my new ProductBox and took a look at the draft diagrams & notes. Because we’d spent the time drafting the original using paper and pens, it was very easy to start using the on-line diagrams. The associated notes helped to expand the short notes with more detail.

After a couple more hours I’d got quite a detailed business model described. I’d also explored some of the panes in the canvas in more detail and put in some background information and explanatory notes on how things related to each other. One of the drawbacks with simple visual representations is that you often lose critical details, having the Product Box with all the notes kept all those notes together with the canvass. Although I was working on this alone (with Michael keeping an eye on me) the package is a wiki so naturally collaborative if you’re in company with others.

After a couple of sessions I had sufficient detail that I would naturally start using something like IDEF0 to detail the business processes needed to make the canvass work. One feature of IDEF that I really like is the concept of layering processes through parent-child relationships, while the Canvass doesn’t force on you, I can see it being a great complement to other approaches (and the wiki design of the ProductBox would help here also).

The end result (even after a couple of sessions) was sufficiently detailed that I could use the canvas as a map of the business model to describe to others. It’s also a live document that can continue to grow as more contributions are posted.

Michael and I discussed the use of the canvass. I think it’s strength is as a planning tool that very quickly and visually allows people to discuss their business model (without lots of MBA mumbo-jumbo). At first I was a little frustrated at the lack of detail, but I’ve come round to appreciate the simplicity of the presentation framework. There’s a lot more detail under the surface and the Product Box that Michael set up allows for almost infinite details if that’s what floats your boat.

Should you Canvass your business?

What I liked was the holistic view of the business model, and the expressed statement about Value Proposition. Anyone thinking of pitching their business should take a look at this approach, and have a chat with Michael.

Thanks to Michael for his comments on an earlier draft of this post and for introducing me to the Business Canvass and ProductBox.