A light buzz year: to infographics and beyond

I came across a link to this today while browsing the wonderful @brainpickings by Maria Popova. I know 2013 is so last year, but still – some brilliant visualisations of data on here. These examples are American, but no less interesting for that. I love the vote-weighted electoral map and the wind map in particular. Inspiration for any presentation. Or just inspiration.

Brain Pickings: the doors of perception without the acid flashbacks

Brain Pickings: the doors of perception without the acid flashbacks

If you’re a qual researcher – or a person generally – and you haven’t checked out Brain Pickings yet, you should. It’s probably the best thing on the Internet if you have a curious, arts and humanities-leaning mind. A gateway to a lot of interesting people being interesting – and not so much taking you off on tangents as showing you some great paths through the thicket of life. The best ones tend not to be the obvious ones. It’s not just some resource, it’s wise and has got a soul. That seems rare these days in world where we struggle to step off the hedonic treadmill (some interesting further thoughts on that also here). It isn’t afraid to talk about what really matters in life, not just the practical stuff we all have to do. And therein lies its brilliance (and therein), if you’ll excuse the Fall reference.

Technology was supposed to free us up to spend more time on the important stuff of life, not on more technology. So for those of us bored with meaningless distraction, who want to think more about a meaningful, thoughtful and fulfilled life – and God knows, even have one – here’s a good place to start.

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The ship is loaded, now a voyage into the future of qual

No sooner had a couple of ships left the harbour here at Shore than a couple more have hoved into view to replace them.

Busy at the Shore

Busy at the Shore – and also blurry and pixillated. Would you believe this is a pic of Brendan Rodgers’ home town? You should, it is. Lovely place, Carnlough, Co. Antrim. Limited footballing opportunities though.

A busy summer and autumn await. Thanks to all who responded to last week’s message of availability. In no particular order, I’m going to be getting more acquainted with garden equipment, health products and meat in the coming months.

As for now, I’m looking forward to Monday’s big AQR meet-up to discuss the small matter of the future of qual research. Like a lot of agencies, Shore chipped in some dosh to help sponsor the day and I will be taking part in the session myself. It will be fascinating to see how others in the industry are seeing it. Qual in the UK is, in many senses, in rude health and has a fantastic future – but there are some strategic challenges facing qual researchers. Some senior qual practitioners are concerned our ability to continue to do great, transformative qual work is threatened, now that a new tendency to commoditise qual has been added to the age-old undervaluing of qual by people who don’t fully get it.

Have you guys never heard of swimming against the tide?

Have you guys never heard of swimming against the tide? I’ve always felt a bit different from the rest of you anyway.

In my view, it’s because of our main strength – we are, in a business or public sector project context, genuinely disruptive. We do things differently, we often think very differently from the people we advise. That’s because we carry in our heads, when we walk into our clients’  business and government environments, an acute awareness of how people really think and act out there, across a range of activities. It can make us sound jarring or even awkward at times – our discourse is different from the usual language of business or government.

Sometimes clients even mistake what we have to tell them for entertainment. Qual debriefs can be very engaging, we hope, but they are also often addressing fundamental issues for our clients. The shame is that the potential for a qual debrief to be taken further to change thinking within client organisations is often missed.

But as I said in my talk last September at the AQR event at Wallace Space, I do think the idea of developing a clearer and more recognised professional status for qual researchers has much to commend it. Having a recognised professional status, as I had when I worked as a solicitor, cuts out a lot of the unnecessary crap you otherwise have to deal with.

Give us some space to do our thing. We're better at it than you.

Give us some space to do our thing. We’re better at it than you.

People using an unfamiliar lawyer can rightly assume, at a base level, that she has proven herself as bright and knowledgeable enough to be accepted into the profession by senior guardians of the profession. She will have worthwhile expertise on the areas upon which she advises clients.

Having a defined area of expertise as lawyers have, non-lawyers are largely prevented from dabbling ineptly in these activities. This helps lawyers of course but it’s also for the benefit of anyone using legal services. In qual, we could do with more of that respect sometimes – and our clients would be the ones who would benefit in the long term.

They are sold short when they are offered ‘qualitative insights’ by people without substantial qualitative research training or experience.

What clients don't see - we have to write everything we're thinking out in the air first. Bloody difficult skill, I can tell you

What clients don’t see – we have to write everything we’re thinking out in the air first. Bloody difficult skill, I can tell you

Qual seems beguilingly simple at first – then you realise the mental gymnastics required to produce proper insight and it takes most of us a few years before we get our heads around how to consistently do that and become the finished article. That’s years of focussing solidly on qualitative thinking and insights. The difficulty of getting to that place is not, I think, always appreciated, especially when we make it look simple.

How the accreditation is done is more of an open question. I look forward to thinking through the ideas on Monday.

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The World Cup of Everything Else


The Brazil World Cup starts tonight, if we can see any of it past the massive arse of aptly-named Brazilian frontman Hulk. I think he frequents the same gym as former star Ronaldo; that is, one that is a front for a pasty shop.

Mate, it's 2014. And I'm afraid not only did Brazil not win it in 2010, but they actually didn't win it in 1998 either. Lesson" don't rely on Wikipedia. Oh and the Ronaldo impression needs work too.

Mate, it’s 2014. And I’m afraid not only did Brazil not win it in 2010, but they actually didn’t win it in 1998 either. Less Wikipedia and more paying attention please. Oh and the Ronaldo impression? Needs work.

As a football nut, I am a little beside myself just now. Less nutty about “soccer” perhaps, the Wall Street Journal has nevertheless put its emotional detachment to good use by creating a marvellous interactive info graphic. It shows how the tournament would play out if countries competed against each other on various different demographic and geographical statistics. Have fun with it (if the link works).

A few tasters:

  • Belgium wins on Biggest Urban Population (an incredible 98 per cent of the Belgian population)
  • Japan has the Most Forest (67 per cent of total land area) of any World Cup nation
  • Iran has the highest inflation rate at 35.2 per cent (they would beat Ghana in the final).
Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea: the Sea Organ, in Zadar, Croatia. Will in roar in an unlikely Corluka screamer?

Stories From the City, Stories From The Sea: the waves makes music through this piece of seafront architecture, the Sea Organ, in Zadar, Dalmacija, home of my in-laws (and Luka Modric). Will the Adriatic roar in an unlikely Corluka screamer this summer? Or a peach from Nikica Jelavic? Probably not …

And having married into a Croatian family, and with a son called Tomislav, I wish Luka Modric and the lads the best for the tournament. Croatia didn’t, however, make it onto the smorgasbord of wastrel bets I placed on the tournament last week. I’m prepared to share what they were if I win any of them.

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Knowledge frameworks in qual: Jon Chandler’s seven pillars of wisdom (IMJR 55/5)

Simon Riley:

This from Simon Shaw’s blog, “Changing My Mind” – a wonderfully simple but comprehensive table summarising John Chandler’s “7 Pillars of Qual”. It would be great if everyone commissioning or using qual had this one-pager on their wall. My one amendment would be on the final column to ask “Are all responses equally useful” (rather than equally valid), as you could argue that all responses are equally valid if recruitment is right, it’s just that some give you more useful meaning and insight than others. But overall, the table is a really useful contribution to practical qual. I know I’ve already come back to it for reference several times.

Originally posted on changing my mind:

shutterstock_123917302 Jon Chandler’s article Seven pillars of wisdom: the idea of qualitative research made me pick up a copy of the IMJR for the first time . In a few thousand words Chandler defines and delineates seven different ‘knowledge frameworks’ within qualitative research. He articulates the underlying assumptions inherent in day-to-day quallie practice – teasing out how what we’re doing fits into what framework, what the benefits and limitations are. It’s one to ponder, ruminate. I can see it coming in useful come proposal time.

Chandler applies three comparisons to help define the frameworks:

  • Is ‘accessing data’ straightforward? Does the model assume people are self-aware, that they have easy access to their own motivations and drives?
  • Is the ‘meaning’ of the data unproblematic? Does the model assume people say what they mean and mean what they say?
  • Are all responses equally valid? Does the model assume all respondents are equally valuable…

View original 128 more words

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Organising chaos: what co-creation workshops can do

I came across this today and thought I’d share it, though I wasn’t involved in this work myself. It’s a workshop done by the Bristol-based Pervasive Media Studio, a co-creation “ideas lab” on the Internet of Things. Worth a watch, for a few reasons:

  • it’s a great example of how bringing together talented people from different disciplines and giving them some structure and tools can inspire them towards radical innovation.
  • the film, put together by Tim Crawley whom I’ve also worked with (and highly recommend), is a great example of getting across the story and feel of a really creative workshop day.
  • the Internet of Things is in itself a pretty interesting development – it’s starting to find its way into more and more of my consumer projects, as big brands wonder if they can be a winners from it (and if so, how).

Such workshops aren’t new – this film is from 2011 and I’ve been doing similar stuff myself for a decade and more. But they are a brilliant way to generate new ideas, make connections and inspire people to go off and develop interesting, relevant and above all useful things.

My own co-creation work has tended to centre on bringing the public together with designers, business strategists or policy-makers – but it’s the same idea. When unfamiliar people come together to work to the same end, there’s an initial discomfort – and then, if well managed, the sparks start to fly.



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Which party will Calm Persistence favour?

How we voted in 2010. My analysis: Wales definitely has the prettiest colour combo

How we voted in 2010. My analysis: Wales definitely has the prettiest colour combo

I was interested to hear on The World At One the other day about the voter segmentation Populus (who have advised the Conservatives) have been using: BBC on Populus voter segmentation. There’s a test on there so you can see which category you’re in.

The Populus segments are:

1. Comfortable Nostalgia: “They tend to be older, more traditional voters who dislike the social and cultural changes they see as altering Britain for the worse.”

2. Optimistic Contentment: “Confident, comfortable & usually on higher incomes they are prudent & tolerant but think Britain is a soft touch.”

3. Calm Persistence: “Often coping rather than comfortable, they hope rather than expect things to get better.”

4. Hard-Pressed Anxiety: “Pessimistic & insecure, these people want more help from government and resent competition for that help particularly from new-comers.”

5. Long-Term Despair: “Many are serial strugglers; angry & alienated they feel little or no stake in the country or that anyone stands up for them.”

6. Cosmopolitan Critics: “Generally younger, more secular and urban-based, worried about growing inequality & the general direction the country is going in.”

Thanks to Populus and the BBC for that.

It’s interesting, looking at the percentages in the BBC article, that the Calm Persistence segment is the biggest. I was recently involved in carrying out a big segmentation study for a financial services provider – complete with 5 minute ‘talking head’ films I made for each segment with the wonderful Bristol-based videographer Tim Crawley (I’m quite proud of those!). One of our segments was called Keep Calm And Carry On. We weren’t segmenting on political attitudes, but the segment appears very similar attitudinally to this Calm Persistence group that Populus’s analysis has identified.

There's nothing more British than Just getting on with it

Don’t get carried away … There’s nothing more British than just getting on with it

Everyone’s favourite bit of film, when we showed them to client audiences, was a retired teacher in the Keep Calm And Carry On segment. Comfortable on his sofa, he was thick-skinned, unflappable and, even though there was a lot of hard-bitten apathy there (and who could blame him), I really warmed to him during the interview. And when I went through our own segmentation algorithm on myself, guess what? I was in the Keep Calm And Carry On segment myself. In the Populus voter segmentation, though, I’m guessing I’ll be a Cosmopolitan Critic (which is slightly embarrassing, but then my job kind of wedges me quite solidly in there). I say “guessing” – there is so much interest in this stuff the ‘test yourself’ web link can’t cope at the moment. Such high online traffic is not an issue Strangers On The Shore has ever had to face, but I cater for a select band of crack elite time wasters on here …

How to impress the Calm Persisters will be a big part of the challenge for party strategists over the next year. Let me tell you, it ain’t going to be easy – good luck with that!


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Breaking Bad: corroding a hole through the top floor of Maslow’s pyramid

I know Breaking Bad is finished but a late suggestion to creator Vince Gilligan – you really should have used this classic by The Nolans as the theme tune:

I recently finished a month or so in which I watched all five series on Netflix. This multi-award-winning US drama, for those still unfamiliar with it, is about a terminally ill Albuquerque chemistry teacher, who decides to cook crystal meth as a way of providing money for his family after he dies. It’s also, more interestingly for me at least, a story of self-actualisation gone wrong. And a very American tale at that.

Bricking Bad - lab-based fun for all the family

Bricking Bad – lab-based fun for all the family. The Lego-isation of Planet Earth continues apace. I love the inset picture of the half-blown-way visage of everyone’s favourite purveyor of fried chicken solutions

It’s about the slide into the moral abyss of the main character, Walter White. White is a Macbeth with more of a cause but less of a conscience. According to Gilligan, the pitch was:

We’re going to take Mr. Chips, and we’re going to turn him into Scarface.

Predictably enough, our periodic-table-toting hero’s Heath Robinson life insurance scheme comes with consequences. Some of those are worse even than the sight of White wandering around in his underpants, which he does a lot. And deeper and deeper he sinks, as he deals with an increasing number of threats to his success.

Go for experience every time

Go for experience every time

What we come to realise though, as the series progress, is that the initial pitch for Breaking Bad – terminally ill man trying to provide for his family – masks the real thrust of the drama. What it’s really about is a man rediscovering his mojo: returning to that thing that he does best in the world – here, being a lab chemist – and trying to be the best he can be at it. White is a gifted scientist who has forgone a glittering career in favour of being a good family provider. He followed a humdrum path as a high school chemistry teacher instead of making millions on developing new patents like his millionaire former lab mates.

"My compliments to the chef: that was tight, tight, tight."

Tight, tight, tight: but Tuco’s surely over-dressed for a meeting in a wrecking yard

When he’s declared terminally ill, he doesn’t consciously choose to gun straight for the top of Maslow’s pyramid – but it’s the path his bizarre crystal meth cooking scheme inevitably leads him to. Telling himself at first he is being selfless, the satisfaction of achievement becomes addictive. He likes it so much, to borrow from Britney Spears, he gets lost in the game. And this proves to be every bit as destructive as the meth he so expertly “cooks”, like a bald Fanny Craddock in y-fronts.

A lot has been written about what Breaking Bad says about American society: from Breaking Bad as metaphor for US foreign policy, to a commentary on vulture capitalism; and so on. Gilligan has said, rather simply, that it’s about actions having consequences. But for me, the most striking aspect of it is the tension between the individual and society; between living for yourself and living for others. In Breaking Bad, seeking the best for yourself as an individual does not achieve the American Dream. Indeed, the mayhem left in the wake of Walter White is a really a challenge to the cult of individual freedom and its off-shoot, the cult of self-actualisation (the bastard child of Carl Jung and Oprah Winfrey).  Attempts at self-improvement are everywhere in Breaking Bad, from new age teepee retreats in the desert, to drug rehab groups, kleptomania therapy, to immigrants building business empires.

It has been pointed out that the only black character in the series cooks fried chicken and sells drugs: but on the other hand, Gus Fring is the show's most intriguing character

It has been pointed out that the only black character in the series cooks fried chicken and sells drugs; but on the other hand, Gus Fring is the show’s most intriguing- and scary – character. I mean, just look at that smile …

Here is a man who rediscovers his manhood, becomes “strong”, provides for his family and has his expertise recognised and admired by connoisseurs (albeit that these are generally either psychopathic drug lords, meth-heads or in the case of Tuco, both). But the results of this self-actualisation are grotesque, not just because White’s chosen the wrong thing to become good at, but because his mission could never be as altruistic as he thinks. Deep down, the individual is the only meaningful unit for him. God helps those who help themselves. He think as an individual, not a family member or a member of a community. If he is strong and clever and means well, everything else will fall into place. Only things don’t work like that.

Somewhere along the border

Somewhere along the border

It’s no coincidence that White ends up in Series 5 in New Hampshire, whose American fundamentalist state motto is Live Free Or Die. Nor is it a coincidence that the series is set in New Mexico, on the wild frontier. The frontier is associated with the forging of America and, more particularly, a robust masculine American individualism: Davy Crockett, the Marlboro Man, Al Swearengen from Deadwood.  White was once a pioneer, but at the start of Breaking Bad he has settled into a sleepier life in settled land behind the front line. It is for cowboys like DEA agent Hank to shoot it out with the Indians – or here, their mestizo descendants from Chihuahua and Sonora, characters reminiscent of Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad album (which itself referenced John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie‘s stories of life Out West on the wrong side of the tracks). In Breaking Bad, the American male tries to rediscover that frontier spirit that made him great, only to find that the very attributes needed at the frontier battleground make him a misfit back at home. White’s home life is soon a mess; but it’s not just him. DEA man Hank fares even worse, returning from a botched drugs bust like a traumatised soldier home from Iraq. It has something to say too to that wider army of men: the beaten up, blue collar wage slaves who crash back through the front door after a dispiriting day at the coal face, struggling to adjust. Tony Soprano was another character that got lost in this liminal place between home and “work” (or Badabing). The transition is at the heart of being a bloke today; it’s hard though, and some don’t bother even trying.

"You can call me Al, (you c***)." King of the Wild Frontier and urinator-into-pots extraordinaire

“You can call me Al, (you c***).” King of the Wild Frontier and urinator-into-pots extraordinaire

The tunnel-visioned White echoes the American right’s assertions that there is no such thing as society, just individuals (and, at a stretch, families). We make our own luck; and the flip side is that no one is really unlucky, just careless or lazy. As The Robbie Coltrane Hollywood producer character says in The Comic Strip Presents: Strike!: “One guys wins, the other schmuck loses …”  That is the hard-ass American Way. (Obama’s healthcare reforms, like Breaking Bad, challenge that assumption – which is one reason why the American right has gone so crazy over such seemingly innocuous changes.)

If there was ever an altruistic Walter White, it’s the one pre-diagnosis, at the start of Breaking Bad: the one who was regarded by the sensation-hungry people around him (including, painfully, his son) as a boring mediocrity. Breaking Bad challenges a moral order in which the unspectacular good are so sidelined. It asks, can you achieve your personal ambitions and still be a good person? Or does the quest for success inevitably draw you away from a caring and selfless life? You can, perhaps – but Walter White can’t. And it’s because his is an especially American dilemma: America expects so much of its people. Having the freedom to be anything means that what you are is your fault alone. It’s a heavy burden.

But a big part of what makes Breaking Bad so gripping is the brilliant cast of characters around Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. The more I watched, the more I admired the initially bluff, crass DEA man Hank Schrader: Dean Norris’s performance was surely the most accomplished of anyone on the show, superb as the wise-cracking “man’s man” whose inner fragility and inner toughness are locked in crippling combat. Chicken czar Gus Fring’s chilling calm dominated the screen any time he was on. And I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a hard-bitten hitman quite as much as I enjoyed Mike Ermintraut and his peerless snarl.

After a brush with a young Bryan Cranston, Jerry Seinfeld became hopelessly addicted to dentistry

After a brush with a young Bryan Cranston, Jerry Seinfeld became hopelessly addicted to dentistry

Vince Gilligan said after the final episode that one of his big regrets was that Jesse Pinkman, a multiply-assaulted meth addict played by Aaron Paul, had unrealistically perfect teeth. Bryan Cranston used to play Jerry’s dentist in Seinfeld, so perhaps he applied some of his fictional skills on Aaron Paul’s bake (as we say in Belfast). The Perfectibility of Man Through Expensive Dentistry is, it seems, a truth many Americans hold to be self-evident. But as long as they can make series like Breaking Bad, I’ll forgive them the ivory glare.


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