Table tennis, cheating, and why smug pedants have no business being referees

It's a Saturday (pre-Covid) and it's too early in the morning to be up and travelling. The weather is awful and I am heading to Edgware to referee rounds 9 and 10 of Division 3 of Senior British League Table Tennis.

In Table Tennis Umpires oversee individual matches and Referees oversee tournaments as a whole. Referees rarely get involved in matches except to arbitrate on points of law or to sanction players.

When you are a match official, it should never be about you.

An umpire has yellow and red cards, which they can issue to players along with penalty points. However, they cannot dismiss that player, not without involving the referee. After three card-worthy infringements they must suspend the game and appeal to the Referee. The Referee can then make a decision as to whether the player can continue or not. This system works perfectly well as long as you have both umpires and a referee at the event.

So what if you don't?

This particular event involved 8 teams. Each match pitted one team against another in eight singles and one doubles match, played sequentially on a single table. The problem with lower-level tournaments like this is that its virtually impossible to get umpires to help out. Umpires are volunteers and normally just get expenses. The vast majority of people in the table tennis community are either playing or have better things to do on a weekend. Larger, more prestigious tournament will attract a decent array of volunteers, but not this one.

Umpiring also tends to be a thankless task. Overseeing a match where both players are honest and don't break the rules is tedious, whereas umpiring a game where players are cheating players can be stressful. Those are your choices: boredom or aggravation. Moreover, if you get everything right you are anonymous. If you ever do get noticed it's usually for all the wrong reasons.

Referees are different. You cannot have a tournament without a referee. Umpires, on the other hand, are optional, and without them players from each team take turns officiating matches. This is where it can get problematic.

Most players are not qualified umpires and often they don't understand the minutiae of the rules, particularly the rules governing the serve. It tends not to be a problem as most players are honest and deliberate infractions of the rules are rare. But there are those players who are determined to cheat and an even smaller minority who are downright abusive when confronted about it.

The majority of table tennis players - at all levels - are ultra-competitive but only within the rules. There are those who break the rules out of ignorance, like one competitor I encountered who was repeatedly hiding the ball from his opponent while serving. He had no idea that he was doing it or that it was illegal in the first place. Nevertheless, it was still an infringement and had to be penalised.

Most rule-breaking in table tennis takes place during the serve, mainly because the service rules are so complicated. There are stipulations about how the ball is held; where the ball is held; how it is thrown up; how high it must go; whether or not your opponent can see the contact of your racquet and the ball; Where the contact is made (it must not be directly over the table), etc..

Most players who infringe these rules are not doing so deliberately. They never get called on when they play at their clubs, or at lower level tournaments. Even as they progress to higher levels they may come across umpires who are overly lenient.

The problems come when they come up against an umpire who is willing to call fault on their serves. I have seen players games fall apart completely because they have never learned to serve legally and cannot do so when required.

My advice to younger players is to correct any illegality in their service action sooner rather than later. You don't want to have to change your serve half through the most important match of your life.

Cheating or rule-breaking is only half of the issue. The other half is personal abuse. Aggressive behaviour comes from a couple of different places. It's often the result of that player trying to cope with the stress of the match.

People outside of the sport tend to think of table tennis as a recreational thing. All sorts of people playing in youth clubs or coffee shops or public parks. Most people would be amazed at the sheer intensity of any league match.

Most players – even at this level – are ultra-competitive and that, along with the quality and proximity of their opponents, can lead to real pressure cooker situations. That kind of aggression is the easiest to deal with because you can simply let the player blow themselves out. They can rant for a moment, but once the see that you are not going to be moved by such displays, they usually calm down and get on with it.

The second reason they can get abusive is the simple fact that you appear to be accusing them of cheating. They may be breaking the rules out of ignorance rather than design, but it still sounds - to them - like an accusation that they are being dishonest.

Most people tend to think of themselves as good people so being accused of cheating (even when they have been) is hard to stomach. This tends to get exaggerated by the sheer cognitive dissonance that must arise from simultaneously being a cheat and denying that you are one.

The final kind are the bullies. These are the players who really have only one question for the official. Are you weak? Are you the kind of ref or umpire who is easily intimidated. If they shout and rant or argue endlessly, it is only to see if it has any effect on your decision making, and if you let it have any effect then you are done. Their behaviour will only get worse because you are rewarding it.

I would be lying if I said that abuse has no effect on me. It does. My instinct when people get in my face is to push back. This would not be helpful either. Losing your cool as an official is the ultimate sin. You are there for one reason and one reason only, to see that the rules are in effect throughout a match. Players can give you plenty of reasons to react but no reason is ever good enough. You just don't lose your cool.

This would only put more pressure on you and ironically would give the trouble makers genuine reasons to question your competence.

Punishing a player for their obnoxious behaviour would be even worse than giving in to it. If you favour a player simply to avoid the grief that they bring then you are giving them an unfair advantage. On the other hand, if you punish them for their behaviour, you are giving in to your ego and inserting yourself into the narrative of the match. In the first case you are being a bad official, in the second you have stopped being an official at all.

Either way you are not doing your job.

A thought about inserting yourself into the narrative

I have seen this occasionally when watching football, particularly in the 90s (during the early days of the Premiership). Referees were becoming nationally recognised figures and some of them simply couldn't deal with it, letting their egos run away themselves.

The worst of these was David Elleray, a north London school teacher who saw fit to award himself the title of Britain's Senior referee.

Smug and pedantic, Elleray frequently saw no problem with inserting himself into a match's narrative. This level of egotism leads to terrible performances. The worst of these was the 1997 FA cup semifinal between Chesterfield and Middlesbrough, where a series of terrible decisions by the ref determined, wrongly, the course of the match. To this day Chesterfield were almost certainly denied a historic trip to Middlesbrough thanks to Elleray's weird determination to be front and centre of the days events.

The best match officials are anonymous. The very best are the ones you have never heard of. The one who maintained that  anonymity despite having to make the bigs calls amidst all the pressure that the biggest occasions can bring.

For me, the ultimate goal is total anonymity. When I am officiating a match, i would prefer it if people didn't know that I existed.

Sacred spaces and a conversation with my father about opera

The word "sacred" tends to invoke ideas of gods, religion or spirituality. However, there is another meaning, which has grown through common usage, which simply means "too important or precious to be diluted or interfered with".

When was the last time you listened to music while doing nothing else?

In our modern western society this is a concept that we often forced to sidestep. We tend to multitask more than we realise. As a result, certain experiences become secondary, and as a consequence, their value is gradually worn away.

Music is the perfect example of this. I tend to treat music as a secondary experience. I don't listen to music. I tend to listen to music while...

While I am commuting; while I am cooking; while I am reading or writing; while I am tidying the house.

What I almost never do is put aside everything else and just listen to some music. This is hardly surprising. Most of us are so used to the fact that we are time poor, that the idea that you might just be doing one thing at any given time is almost ridiculous.

Therefore, carving out a sacred space requires dealing with physical, temporal and even conceptual issues. You need an isolated space, the time to listen and a clean mental slate where no-one is interrupting to you, least of all yourself. This is easier said than done.

The Doka Listening Bar in Amsterdam

Being constantly distracted is probably the defining trait of Westerners in the 21st century. However, with any cultural trend, there is always the inevitable backlash. Listening bars, an idea which originated in Japan after World War 2, have become increasingly popular throughout Europe in recent years. These bars don't just focus on creating an undiluted space, they also insist on using the best sound systems to take full advantage of it.

He may not realise it, but my father is also part of this trend. For several years, up until the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, he would gather a small group of like-minded friends to talk about opera and listen to various arias, especially from the from the Bel Canto tradition. These sessions are free of charge, apart from a small donation to cover the cost of hiring the venue. The format is always a selection of arias chosen by my father. In his own words, he doesn't want to challenge the audience with a full opera.

I sat down with him to discuss this – over zoom of course – and he told me that Bel Canto was originally the title for the operatic evenings.

"I used the phrase Bel Canto because what it means is beautiful singing, and its called a Bel Canto concert. That's how it started off but I don't need to title it any more because the patrons know what its about."

He told me how his interest in Opera was cultivated while listening to the radio at a young age.

"Years ago on the radio there was man from Clonmel, Tipperary on the radio called Tommy O'Brien who hosted a weekly programme on RTE. His great love was Opera and he had a house full floor to ceiling with records , particularly of operatic singers and complete operas. He travelled every week up to Dublin with a suitcase full of his own records which he brought to the studio. He was an absolute expert, and a genius, and he was unique."

My father then gave an impersonation of the man and his idiosyncratic style...

"I first heard John McCormack in the Royal Opera House Covent Garden playing the Tenor Role in Gianni Schicchi."

"Tommy O'Brien went on for years, and as a matter of fact he had a good tenor voice himself. He played nothing but operatic arias and short excerpts."

The Royal Opera House, Convent Garden

"My plan was never to play the hackneyed arias liked Nessun Dorma, The Flower Aria, or Your Tiny Hand is Frozen. I looked for the ones that were lesser known and then I discovered the Bel Canto composers: Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donazetti."

"Bellini was born about 1805 and he died at the age of 35 having composed a dozen of the most beautiful operas you ever heard."

In the last few years my father's constant search for such music has been made easier by the British company Opera Rara, who specialise in lost or hard to find operatic works. They re-record the principle arias of various operas, using some of the world's best contemporary artists.

I asked my father if he thought of himself as part of a movement?

"I have been told that I was carrying on a tradition although I never thought that myself. All of the regulars are my friends. Some old, some new. We book the musical evening and they simply all turn up and they are all familiar with the routine."

"Each piece has four headings, the aria, the singer, the opera and the composer. I then have a little script and I find myself including someone new I will research the background and tell the audience about them, and give a few details about the performance and any anecdotes which go with either the singers or the performance. I tend not to tell them about the operas themselves beyond the basic story outlines."

If the audience want to discuss things in more detail, he has a couple of experts to call upon who sit at the head of the table. Friends of his, who are both avid fans of opera and hugely knowledgeable on the subject. They will often chip in with an anecdote or a bit of background information.

"I will play Callas singing an aria from Rigoletto and they might add that she was only 25 and that was her first time performing the piece."

One of the common themes of listening bars around the world is that patrons should remain absolutely silent while experiencing to the music. I asked my father if he had a policy on silence for his participants? He just laughed.

"You will never hear a word. They will make an excuse if they so much as cough. Even when listening to music in absolute silence the sense of community and friendship is the most important thing."

The responses are usually polite rather than expressive, and actual applause is rare and therefore striking.

"On one occasion a performance of Mozart's 8 minute long Ruhe Sanft by the American performer Beverly Sils, earned huge round of applause."

"The other reaction is when people want to discuss what they have just heard. There is one aria by Maria Callas (A strange woman with a most unusual voice) there was one aria which she sings and she hits the top E but she also goes down to almost a baritone at one point. She was the only one who could do this. She was a woman who had three different personalities and she would display them at all at different times."

We ended the call with a brief lesson on the nature of operatic arias. How they are highly formal musical pieces not really given to interpretation and how they don't actually have names, being referred to by either the first words of the aria, or gaining a nickname over time.

As with so many things, lockdown has brought these sessions to an end. However, he fully intends to bring them back once the restrictions are relaxed. One day I hope to take part.

Job interviews, so-called experts and what really happens when the WiFi goes down

In the last couple of years I have been asked to attend a number of job interviews in my capacity as an IT specialist. In my case IT specialist means the guy who knows slightly more about computers than any one else in the office.

However, seeing as every desk based job is almost by definition a job in computing, having a relatively skilled IT person in the interview room does no harm.

It's an enjoyable role, where I am able to put my tuppence worth in, without actually being the one making the decision as to who gets hired. Another benefit of being an assistant to the actual interviewer is that you can step back a bit and try to imagine the person in the role.

My favourite IT question to ask in an interview is, technically, not really an IT question at all.

How good are you really, at working offline?

"You come into work one morning and the Internet is down. What do you do?"

Obviously there is no correct answer to this one, and over the course of these interviews, I have heard a dozen different responses.

People talk about trying to fix the internet connection themselves; they will suggest calling out their IT support; some will propose that they go to a local Café or even just using their phones.

In every case, the answer was not as interesting as the thought process that underlay it. The assumption, every time, was that the internet was absolutely essential to their work, even in the short term.

Depending on your job, this may or may not be the case. For example, you don't need the internet to answer your emails. You can draft a response to a hundred emails and then wait for the router to kick back in.

You don't need the internet to write reports. You don't need it to work on spreadsheets. You don't need it to call clients or suppliers. You don't need the internet to manage projects.

You definitely do not need the internet to make some tea or tidy the storage cupboard.

In the short term, there are an enormous amount of things you can do without going online, but this answer never occurred to any of the interviewees.

Most of their answers were formed around the necessity of returning, as quickly as possible, to their normal working methods, and those methods were invariably tied to being online.

Of course you need to get back online as quickly as possible. There will be tasks which can only be completed via web access. Nevertheless, the idea that being connected to the internet is absolutely integral to your work is simply not true. But worse is that fact that it is not even considered to be a question.

Does this come down to simple habit. For many people the Internet is now indistinguishable from social media, in or out of work. By this I mean social media in it's broadest meaning. If I were to define it, I would say the most universal definition of social media could include anything which allows you to communicate. That could easily include email and even the likes of WhatsApp. Others may argue with that as a definition, but if you accept it then social media becomes the ultimate in grey areas.

If my definition holds, then your working life and your social life are now fused together and cannot be separated.

This is not an attempt to demean social media in any way. Frankly it wouldn't matter if it were. Social media is part of the fabric of people's lives and that is not going away any time soon.

However, it is important to work from the assumption that you absolutely need to be in control of your social media use, particularly in terms of demarcation. If you don't set up boundaries between your personal online use and your business use you will risk allowing it to control your life in ways that may not be immediately apparent.

Football, water carriers and why you should never, ever employ a Rock Star

September 1996 saw Manchester United come up against Juventus in the group stages of the Champions League, the kind of fixture that even neutral fans would mark in their calendar. Even better, it saw United's superstar Eric Cantona going up against his countryman Didier Deschamps. The battles on the pitch went the way of the Italians with Juventus winning home and away, but in the war of words between their French players, there was only ever going to be one winner.

Cantona disdainfully flicked away his rival by damning him with the faintest of praise. "He gets by because he gives 100%, but he will never be more than a water carrier". Dechamps had no choice but to agree. “A water carrier? Yes, that’s exactly what I am. Great teams are not just created by the architect but also by bricklayers and hod carriers.”

Cantona, of course, would end up being so much more than your average footballer. He was a renaissance man equally fond of philosophy, art, and kicking mouthy Crystal Palace supporters. Deschamps went on being a water carrier - tackling and passing his way to a bucketload of titles, and eventually leading his country to win the World and European Cups. It should come as no surprise that of the two, he was by far the more successful footballer.

Talent with the wrong attitude can be a real problem for management

Cantona was a rock star whose talent and ego, combined with the indulgence of others, produced something part angel and part demon. He was probably the first real rock star that the Premiership and satellite TV ever produced. Like a lot of rock stars, he fundamentally misunderstood the importance of his role. This is not to say that he wasn't a genius. Earlier that year he and Peter Schmeichel had combined their talents to achieve five one nil victories in two months, which ultimately led to United overhauling Newcastle on the way to winning the Premiership.

Being what he was, he inevitably misunderstood both the difficulty and the importance of being a so-called water carrier.

Deschamps is hardly unique in being dismissed in this fashion. Claude Makélélé was a pivotal part of Real Madrid's success in the three years he spent at the Bernabéu. But when he requested that he be paid a similar amount to Real's galacticos - Zidane, Figo, Raúl, and Ronaldo - the management derided both his importance and his abilities and shipped him off to Chelsea. Whereupon he became a pivotal part of the West London club's rise to the top of the European game. For their part Real spent millions trying to replace him. It didn't go well.

Rock star developers

In the software industry everyone seems to be looking for rock stars. You see it in far too many job advertisements. It often gets lost in the array of idiotic adjectives that seem to attach themselves to tech job descriptions: gurus, ninjas, evangelists, etc...

The rock star is the worst of them. They myth goes that the rock star is talented to a supernatural degree. He or she will produce more and better code than a dozen mere mortals. Ordinary developers create complex solutions to simple problems; great developers create simple solutions to complex problems. Rock star coders supposedly go beyond that and just make your problems disappear. It's a myth, and a problematic one.

Obviously we are not talking about real rock stars. They don't sell records or play stadiums. They don't trash hotel rooms, or drive their gold-plated Rolls Royces into Les Paul shaped swimming pools. But they have the attitude, the ego, and the monstrous self-entitlement, and that is the problem.

Rock stars don't make your team better. On the contrary, they will inevitably make your team worse. This is because they don't understand the value of water carriers.

The problem with clichés

The real problem with clichés is that they are true, so true that they become dull and trivial, and it's a cliché that it takes a team to win. Rock stars often don't get that. In their world the rest of team are either there to make them look good, or else they are just along for the ride. I should know. I used to be one.

I entered the graphic design industry in 1987, a time when Apple Macintoshes were wreaking havoc on the industry while transforming it into something entirely new. Those like myself, who excelled with both software and hardware found themselves in huge demand. We became as much prized for our IT skills as for our design chops.

This brave new world brought prestige clients, management roles, and consultancy work. But for me, it also nurtured an ego that eventually spun out of control.

When I started out I was determined to be the best I could be. After a few years I ended up being more concerned with making sure everyone knew how good I was. Your ego is a trap. It makes you blind to your mistakes, a pain to your colleagues, and a nightmare to manage.

The worst thing was that my unprofessional behaviour was often encouraged by many of those around me, because there is a horrible tendency for people in all industries to indulge talent.

What eventually cured me of this nonsense was starting my own company. Management and fellow workers might indulge your ego, but your clients will not. They simply walk away when confronted with unprofessional behaviour.

The other side of this coin is that when you start your own company you end up having to do all of the mundane things that you simply took for granted before. Ordering supplies, chasing invoices, book-keeping, etc..

In other words, you start carrying water.

So managers will always have this dilemma. There is no replacement for talent. There are no substitutes for skills, intelligence and experience. But talent can bring baggage, and every manager eventually has to weigh up someone's ability against their more negative attributes.

Rock star employees are assets and liabilities at the same time. However, the downsides are enormous if they are not managed properly, while their attitude makes them singularly difficult to manage.

They will upset your other staff. They will not recognise or admit to their own mistakes. Worst of all, they can undermine you in ways you never dreamed possible.

So why hire them at all?

The answer to that is simple. Don't.

Talent and ego do not go hand in hand. The Dunning-Kruger effect is ample proof of that. Yes, there are amazing developers out there with egos to match. But the reverse is also true. There are plenty of people who are brilliant at their job but don't feel the need to shove it in everyone else's face.

Which brings us back to Eric Cantona. A player who ultimately failed at the highest level because he never understood that for a team to win, the artist needs the water carrier just as much as the water carrier needs him.

With productivity, whatever works is whatever works for you

Like most people in this day and age, I struggle with productivity. The world we work in seems fine tuned to provide endless distractions. Getting through the working day without being sidetracked is an achievement in itself. I have tried a number of techniques to improve my productivity, often without success. In recent years I have adopted two methods which work, or more accurately, they work for me.

A quick breakdown of the Pomodoro technique and Post-it notes...

The Pomodoro technique is a time management system developed in the 1980s. Like all great ideas it is very simple. You simply divide your day into 25 minute sections. The full version is rather more complicated, but the important thing is that it doesn't need to be.

The full (overly?) complicated version.

The core process of the Pomodoro Technique consists of 6 steps:

  1. Start your task
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work on your task uninterrupted for those 25 minutes
  4. When the pomodoro is complete mark out what you have done on a piece of paper
  5. take a break
  6. every 4 pomodoro take a longer break.

That's the short term behavioural pattern. In theory if you do this then over time you should able to add more to the method.

Reviewing your work

If you continually follow step 4 you will eventually get a record of how long individual tasks take.

Reduce or eliminate interruptions

The whole idea of the 25 minute section is that you should be able to finish each one before returning phonecalls, or dealing with emails, etc.. If you use your breaks to deal with these tasks then your workflow will be that much smoother.

Refine your estimates

In theory, the results of the Pomodoro sections should begin to give you an idea of how long future tasks will take.

Structure the Pomodoro

Once you are used to working with these blocks you might want to refine each period. Perhaps use the first five minutes to review the previous Pomodoro.

Incorporate the Pomodoro sessions into a structured timetable.

Once you are getting along with the system you can start to estimate just how many Pomodoro sessions you can deal with in any given day; when they should occur; and how much variation you can incorporate.

Examine your efficiency

Because the timetable is so well so well deliniated and the indivdiual sessions so short. You should be able to get a better grasp of how you are being prodctive or non productive throughout each day.

So does the Pomodoro technique work?

Well that is the big question isn't it. In my case it did and it didn't.

I tried doing the most pure version of Pomodoro as set out above. I found that some aspects worked for me whereas others did not. For example, I found that the 25 minute time slots were too short. When I switched to 40 minute sessions I found myself being a lot more productive.

I didn't bother marking down the results at the end of each session. Instead, I used a ten minute break to get off my desk, stretch, make a cup of coffee or just deal with my emails. Reviewing the work that I had just completed seemed pointless.

I did find that taking a longer break after 4 sessions also worked well. A half an hour in the late morning seemed to work well with my working rhythms.

The longer term methodology was also problematic. I did manage to reduce the number of interruptions by making sure that I continued to the end of each session before answering emails or making phone calls.

The system did allow me to create a more structured timetable based around the sessions. On those days that I followed the sessions I was extremely productive. What I have not managed to do is to use it to improve estimating.

When all is said and done, parts of the technique have proved useful to me and I will continue to practice it. However, I would not have been able to maintain it if I had to follow every step religiously.

Planning with Post-it notes

The Pomodoro technique is all about getting through the day with a minimum of interruptions and maxing out your productivity. The Post-it note method is more about how to plan your day in the first place.

The other Post-it note method

When you mention the Post-it note method, people assume you mean brainstorming. They picture a wall covered with Post-it notes all containing a single idea which then are grouped together in an an attempt to find some kind of coherent work flow.

45431905 - many different colors paper notes on the wall

But this is the other Post-it method and its a lot more straight forward.

Write a to do list. However, don't write it on a piece of paper. Write it on a Post-it note. I know that it sounds ridiculous. A Post-it note is tiny. You could hardly fit anything on it. That, of course, is the point.

Inevitably it will be a short to do list. More importantly it will be a manageable list. If there are too many items to fit on the note there is always tomorrow.

The beauty of this is that it gives you a short functional list of things which you should definitely be able to accomplish in a day. As a result, you avoid spending time writing out a huge list of things which end up leaving you demoralised and demotivated.

The second part of this method is equally straightforward. If you complete everything on the list then you stop. That's it. Your day is done. Go and enjoy yourself.

This may seem like a bizarre attitude but it works. I don't often finish my Post-it notes early. Some times I don't finish my Post-it note at all and some of the things have to be held over until the following day.

However, what does happen is that I approach each day with a seemingly manageable set of task which I am always confident about getting through. This is a good mindset to have.

So those are my productivity techniques and they work. More importantly, they work for me. Maybe they would work for you too, but if they don't it doesn't matter, you just need to find the methods that do.

It's just a case of taking what you need and disregarding the rest.

A psychologist, the tube and the trouble with narrow definitions

Jordan Peterson is a well known clinical psychologist and self-help author. One of his favourite topics involves the nature of creativity as a personality type. His ideas are well thought out, while framed within his own North American cultural biases. As a result he sees creative people as liberal and non-creativity as a conservative trait. Moreover, he proposes that pursuing your creativity is a very high-risk strategy in life, which he sees as the hallmark of a more liberal mindset.

Creativity is far more prevalent in our lives than most of us think

The problem with his analysis is not that his conclusions are wrong, but that they seem to be based on a very narrow view of creativity. From the way he describes it, Peterson obviously thinks that creativity is uniquely found in artistic expression.

For him, an architect would be creative whereas an engineer would not. A fine artist would be creative but not a draughtsman. He regards it as axiomatic that going to work every day is impossible for anyone of a creative bent. This is not my experience after thirty years of working in the creative industries.

In the early 90s I had the luck to work in the same office as the extraordinary graphic designer, Alan Fletcher. Fletcher understood creativity to be the ability recognise connections that others simply do not see. However, he also recognised that making those links was a lot more commonplace than people realise. In his own words "everyone is a designer" and he was right.

This includes you. Your home, your workspace, your clothes and your entire lifestyle require some degree of creative input. Irrespective of whether or not you are flouting conventions, adhering to norms or subverting expectations, you are still making choices about self-expression or simply solving pragmatic issues in creative ways.

Peterson's idea of artistic creativity can also be misleading. An example would be an amateur painter, who is skilled with a brush, and spends his days faithfully reproducing landscapes. Despite appearances, there would be nothing remotely creative about such a person. Artistic yes, in a reductionist sense, but not creative.

So how does this link to the London Underground?

The Tube map, or map of the London Underground, is a creative solution that lies entirely outside of self-expression. Despite the fact that it displays a phenomenal grasp of visual acuity and technical skill, it is representational only as means of wayfinding. If you placed the tube map alongside a picture of hay wains rendered in oil on canvas, we know which one Jordan Peterson would pick as an example of creativity.

In fact, the Tube map perfectly represents the broader idea of creativity because it involves connections that are not immediately apparent. The map grew out of a need to render a complex system in simple, navigable terms. This is never an easy task and it would have proved to be impossible if not for a pure creative leap.

To understand this we have to examine the London Underground itself. The Tube originated in the Victorian era as a series of railways run by separate companies. As a result, a composite map was not even considered until the early years of the 20th century.

The map above was commissioned in 1907 by the five companies who were operating the various lines at that point. It should be noted that even though this early version of the Underground was only a fraction of the complex system that it would become, it was still an incredibly difficult task to represent it realistically against a physical map of London. It's a beautiful piece of work, both in design and execution, but it highlights the problems of rendering a complex system visually.

In the late 1920s Harry Beck, a draughtsman working for the London Underground, made the conceptual leap away from a geographical maps to a topographical one.

Whereas geography concerns itself with physical spaces as a whole, topography is more concerned with the individual features of such a space. Beck realised that passengers were not interested in the actual physical distance between stations, only how many stops they would travel and where they should change trains.

His second leap was to adapt a completely different discipline to his needs. He began to lay out the underground system as though it were an electrical diagram, representing each station as a part of a system and not in its actual geographic position. He incorporated the existing colour coding of lines in order to allow passengers to plan their journeys more effectively. Finally he was able to use his draughtsman skills to realise his ideas.

The Tube map seems obvious to us now. However, when Beck took the idea to his managers they rejected it on the basis that is was too radical. Despite this early setback, once tube travellers got their hands on some test prints there was no going back. Public approval of the map was almost universal.

By 1933, the Tube map was being mass produced for the London public and has been ever since. The map's design has easily accommodated all of the extensions and additions to the Tube in the nine decades since it was first introduced. Another testament to it's effectiveness is the fact that it has been adopted as the template for virtually every municipal railway project across the globe.

Why is this important

Creativity is a huge factor in human development. It manifests in writers expressing their innermost landscapes, in teachers communicating with students, with engineers developing systems to bring architects' visions to life, and with medical professionals searching for solutions within a pandemic.

These are just a few scattered examples of how creativity is intrinsic to progress.

We cannot, as a species, afford to narrow creativity down to artistic self-expression. It won't do us any favours as and when we face the challenges to come.

Pride versus passion, and why project managers need both

If there were a candidate for the most overused word in business then "passion" has got be right up there. This word used to come up a lot in the creative industries. Now it seems to spring up everywhere.

Getting the job done takes a lot more than just passion

It seems to have become a particular staple of job listings.

Do you have a passion for reaching out to disaffected youth? Do you have a passion for creating complex delivery systems? Do you have a passion for vertically integrated markets? Do you have a passion for scaling client-supplier inverted promotional strategies?

Actually I made that last one up, but the rest are real life examples. It seems that every organisation is full of passionate people, passionately delivering their passion projects in passionate way. This is not lazy copywriting, it's lazy thinking. Even if you are passionate about what you do, you are definitely not passionate about every part of what you do.

I used to play bass guitar in a semi-professional covers band. What could be more passion driven than a love of music and the chance to play it live. Surely I had to be passionate about that?

Don't get me wrong. Playing live was wonderful. However, an inevitable part of doing each gig involved loading and unloading a quarter of a ton of PA equipment into a van each evening. Twice.

Was I passionate about that part? Of course I wasn't. Arnold Schwarzenegger might be passionate about lifting heavy weights but it's pure drudgery as far as I am concerned. That was the tedious part of the job, but it needed to be done and it needed to be done properly. If you are the kind of person who only does the parts that you really care about, then everything you do is going to end up half-baked.

As a word, passion has been rendered meaningless by overuse. It goes into job descriptions, PR releases, status reports, pitches, proposals and everything in between. It gets inserted without consideration and as such, should be dismissed without consideration. Whenever someone tells me how passionate they are about their work, my eyes tend to glaze over.

The original meaning of the word meant either physical lust or uncontrolled anger. Neither of these are particularly useful in the workplace.

Granted, passion is great for getting projects started. But it doesn't last, and once your passion is burnt out you usually find that 90% of the project still remains. So how are you going to deal with that.

Take pride

Its a strange thing that pride has been generally regarded as a negative trait throughout history. Most religions regard pride as being the first and most serious of the deadly sins. Despite this, a lot of the language that surrounds the word is often quite positive.

  • Pride of place
  • Pride of Great Britain
  • Take pride in your work
  • Take pride in your appearance
  • Bursting with pride
  • I am proud of you...

Pride can be one the most positive drivers of human behaviour, and taking pride in your work is one the best attributes you can bring to the table. Taking pride in your work means dotting the I's and crossing the T's, It means measuring twice and cutting once. it means double checking your work and applying the fishing touches. Most of all it means recognising that God is in the details.

Talent is for amateurs

A professional musician once told me that "talent is for amateurs, the rest of us have to show up." What he meant was that talent was all very well, and you could not be a professional musician without at least some minimum of ability, but it would not be enough on it's own.

Professional musicians cannot afford to be just talented. They have to show up, on time, every time, ready to play. This can be a problem with talent, that it can often be used as an excuse for unprofessional behaviour.

This in turn brings us back to passion. Passion won't allow you to slog through endless spreadsheets looking for an error. Passion won't help you debug a complex array of functions in a database. Passion won't help you proof-read a 200 page contract.

Pride in your work will help you do all of those things. More importantly it will help you do them well. Not only will pride get you to the end of a project, it will also help you execute every single step correctly along the way; ensure that you avoid taking shortcuts; and help to make sure that every last aspect of the job has been realised as well as possible.

So if you do not already, learn to take pride in your work. You are going to need it.

Signage and your grandmother

I was once told that you should should design signage with your grandmother in mind. The idea was that if you were to drop your granny off in the middle of a building complex, she should be able to get anywhere she wants to go without asking for directions.

Where signage is concerned, beauty and clarity go hand in hand

Now that may sound patronising to grandmothers. However, in this instance she merely represents the everyman (or woman). Good signage should require no special or esoteric knowledge. You should be able to quickly navigate from any given point to any other point within the system at all times.

Signage is just a method of aiding wayfinding, the process by which human beings orient themselves within - and navigate through - their environment.

We have evolved to be really good at this, so we tend not to think about it too much. The only time it enters our mind is when we get lost, or when we are presented with a novel, complex environment. This where signage becomes helpful, and in some cases crucial.

There are subtleties to signage that most of us never have to consider. Take motorway signs. They have the specific problem that they have to be read at 70 miles an hour. One of the cleverest ideas that British roadsign designers made was to use lowercase letters for place names. This is because when we see a sign saying Bristol, we recognise the shapes of the letters rather than actually read the text. The brain then does the rest. This is much harder to do with capital letters because they form a visual rectangle as in BRISTOL.

Another part of the designer's art is to know when should use symbols rather than words. Some signs are better represented using images because of language barriers - toilets and rest rooms being the perfect example.

Beautiful versus functional

Signage is one of my favourite design disciplines because there is no real trade off between function and aesthetics. Your sign and directions can be useful and beautiful at the same time. The science museum with it primary colours, custom typeface, and integrated design is a great example.

But it's the efficiency of signage which makes the difference between success and failure. Nowhere is this more evident than hospitals.

Hospitals are different to most complexes. In a shopping mall or museum, bad signage might cause confusion and delay. In a hospital bad signage might potentially cost lives. The task is usually made more complicated by the fact that many hospitals were not designed with this in mind. They are often an amalgamation of buildings that grew around the original hospital. They might have been formerly used for other things and then repurposed as hospitals. Only the most modern hospital buildings are designed with the flow of people incorporated into their actual design.

The word "hospital" comes from the Latin hospes, meaning stranger or guest. The word hospitality comes from the same root. My last visit to a hospital involved visiting six different parts of the building and lasted nearly 24 hours. I didn't get lost once and I don't think I am particularly good at navigating spaces.

In the end it all comes down to balance. NHS signage uses all the right techniques. Colour coding; lowercase lettering; widely spaced lettering (easier to read at a distance); words reversed out of colour panels; desaturated background colours; judicious use of symbols and an excellent use of directional arrows.

The trick is to balance out all of these various elements to produce a coherent message to the patient.

So the next time you are wandering the halls of your local hospital, shopping centre or museum, give a thought to the unsung heroes who are guiding you on your way.

Setting up a community sports league from nothing

Jon Kaufman is a legend in UK sport. Unfortunately it's in the wrong sport. Jon is the most successful Table Tennis club manager in England. His club London Progress were British Senior Premiership champions for 10 years in a row.

The idea was simple: tournaments for people who don't play tournaments.

Since moving on from club management a decade ago, Jon has concentrated on blogging and working in various West London schools as a coach. However, both his organisational skills and ambitions remained. In the Autumn of 2018, he came to me with an idea.

He wanted to create a London Table Tennis ranking scheme. A series of tournaments that would cram as many people as possible into a hall to experience the adrenaline rush of actual competition.

However, unlike other tournaments, these would be open to all.

Potential participants could be very young kids who were learning the game but were nowhere near basic tournament level. It might be adults who used to play as kids but gave it up years ago. It might be parents of regular tournament players who were used to coming as spectators, but who might want to scratch that competitive itch.

The philosophy boiled down to this: there should be absolutely no barriers to entry. Players could be of any standard. Their equipment could be as basic as possible. Above all, they did not have to be registered with Table Tennis England, which is a requirement for almost every other tournament. Finally, the events should be affordable. The whole point was to broaden participation as far as possible.

The problem was that nothing like this existed. If we were going to do this it would have to be done from the ground up. Happily, Jon had a number of soft assets at his disposal. His real legacy at London Progress wasn't its overflowing trophy cabinet. It was the network of players, coaches and managers who had all grown up in the club. Especially those players who had moved on to forge their own identities and carve out their own success stories. In particular he was able to draw on the help of Bhavin Savjani at the London Academy in Edgware, and Jason Sugrue at the Greenhouse Centre in Marylebone.

These London Progress alumni had access to players, resources, and most importantly venues. Spaces which they were generously prepared to put at our disposal for little or no cost. They also provided access to a ready made pool of players at various levels of ability.

The first tournament was put together in a rush. This was deliberate. Where new projects are concerned, Jon's philosophy is to generate as much momentum as you can, as soon as you can, and then just run with it.

It worked, sort of.

We ended up with 200 hundred players in a hall playing on 30 tables in six different talent bands. Each band acted as its own mini-tournament. Players were divided into groups and group winners went on to the knockout stage. The bands were divided on ability alone, not age nor gender. I have watched as an 11 year old girl beat a man in his mid-50s. I saw a top 30 UK senior player playing next to a couple of callow youths. I saw a woman of retirement age playing defence against an attacking player more than 50 years her junior.

It was a big success, but it was exhausting to plan, advertise and execute. So exhausting that it had seemed to me that it had absolutely no future.

This was a tournament being run on 20th century lines. People were phoning through their entries, or they would turn up at practice sessions with half a dozen scribbled sheets. Nothing was online, data was non-existent. Communications were haphazard, to say the least.

Advertising the tournaments involved travelling to clubs and public tables and trying to sell the idea to people one at a time. It was labour intensive and inefficient and frankly a pain in the neck. There was no way either of us was going to last long doing it this way.

What we needed was a number of tools to reduce the labour and repetition involved. Thankfully those tools are out there. Moreover, those tools are cheap and/or free and don't actually require that much knowledge to turn them to your advantage.

Getting online

First of all we needed a website. This was easy enough. I'm a web developer but there was no way that I was spending time on this project. So using WordPress and a nice free theme solved that problem. The website was up and running in the space of a couple of days.

Secondly, and most important was a mailing list. We began to sign up people to the website's mailing service. This service was created using Mailchimp. They provide a free service up to 2,000 recipients. Our business model depended on getting around 1,000 people participating in total, so we would never need to pay for their services.

So far, our outgoings were about £10 a month for web hosting services.

Finally we needed an online booking system. This was done using PayPal. Integrating PayPal into an online ordering form can be tricky, but it works really well. The costs involved are transactional. For every ticket we sell, PayPal takes a cut. So nothing was required up front.

By the time the third tournament started, the majority of entries were coming from the website. When this was combined with the players provided by the venues themselves, we never fell short of 200 entries for each tournament. More importantly, we didn't have to work that hard to get them. Each tournament involved sending out one email to advertise it, and another later one to remind people of the date as it approached.

On one occasion Jon rang me to tell me to take the online form down because we had sold out a week early.

So the tournaments continued to grow throughout 2019 and into 2020. By February of this year, we had over 850 players on the rankings list and we were well on our way to hitting our target of 1,000 participants.

And then the virus hit us.

Covid 19, of course, put an end to the tournaments. Packing people into a hall like sardines was no longer an option.

However, we had proved that this could be done. we proved that there was an appetite for rough and ready community tournaments. Once the virus is gone and the world returns to some semblance of normality, we might just prove it all over again.

Adult Education and digital poverty in the time of Covid

Education is one of the best routes into and back into the workplace. Training, and retraining has become vital to anyone wishing to get their first job, move back into work, or simply improve their career prospects. However, because education is increasingly being delivered online, digital poverty will increasingly lead to actual poverty and vice versa.

How can communities break the cycle of digital and real poverty...

Breaking out of the loop

Vicious circles are a type of feedback loop. One negative state or process leads to a second which in turn feeds back to the first. In cases like substance abuse the spiral is clear. Abusing drugs or alcohol has multiple negative consequences, such as guilt, physical deterioration or mental and psychological impairment. These states in turn leave the addict prone to further substance abuse, and so the cycle continues unabated.

Breaking a vicious circle is simple. You just have to remove one of the negative states and the loop will collapse. The problem is that simple and easy are not the same thing.

So how does this relate to digital exclusion?

If you are actively looking for employment, digital exclusion is increasingly becoming synonymous with actual exclusion from the workforce. The kind of training which umemployed adults will need in order to re-enter the workforce is increasingly being provided online. Therefore, digital poverty prevents opportunities, which in turn leads to further digital exclusion.

If the loop is allowed to continue the problem will eventually become insurmountable.

I recently took an online test with the national numeracy advocacy charity. They are doing excellent work in a vital field. However, in order to broaden their reach, all of their tutorials and resources are online. When I asked a representative of the charity about how this effected the digitally excluded, they admitted that this was a problem that they had not yet found a solution to.

This divide between those who are online and those who are not, is only going to get worse. The only realistic solution to this problem is to reduce digital exclusion to it lowest possible level.

But how?

The World's End And Lots Road Big Local (WELR) is a charitable organisation operating in Chelsea as part of a nationwide scheme. A program whereby hundreds of places in the UK are allocated £1 million in order to improve their local area from the grassroots up. Every Big Local area gets to define their own priorities, and for WELR, Jobs and Enterprise was near the top of the list. The charity has helped many local residents to enter the workforce or to set up their own business.

In that time, skills training has proved to be one of their most effective tools. Courses have been taken in security, construction site management, cosmetic and beauty qualifications, etc...

These courses have been effective in getting people back into work and off assistance. For any local area, a reduction in unemployment is hugely beneficial. Increased employment means a reduction in anti-social behaviour, more opportunities for local businesses, and above all a positive change in culture.

Our latest course, which as been taking place during lockdown, has been a combination of online and classroom learning.

The problem is the online part of the course. The exclusion has three aspects. Firstly there is a lack of access to decent broadband. Secondly is access to up-to-date technology. However, the third and most insidious problem is a lack of basic skills.

For someone like myself, who entered the workforce only a couple of years before PCs started to enter the office, the accumulation of computer and IT skills was simply a matter of turning up for work. I acquired those skills as I went along. I was never presented with a steep learning curve.

That's not the case for those who are currently digitally excluded. From their perspective it's like boarding a fast moving train.

So what do we do?

As is always the case, we do what we can. If you have reusable technology, donate it. If you have skills, teach them. If you have spare broadband, make it available.

But most of all, do it kindly. Learning curves can be terrifying, and the feeling that everyone else is on board with something and you are getting left behind can be crippling. But the potential rewards are phenomenal. Families brought closer together, skills and confidence gained. Jobs applied for and gotten. Lives can be enriched and changed for the better.

Sport, helplessness and learning to embrace failure

For a sport involving two bats and a tiny plastic ball, table tennis can be quite intense. Body language is far more telling in this game that it would be in many others. Outside of actual combat sports it's hard to think of a game which forces competitors into such close proximity.

Helplessness is learned behaviour. Failure can break you out of that habit.

These days, whenever I face a player who regularly beats me, I try to push negative thoughts to one side and concentrate on winning the game at hand. When, on the other hand, I play someone whom I regularly beat, sometimes they give me the impression of thinking, ‘here we go again’, resigned to the fact that they are not going to win. Naturally, this mentality virtually guarantees that they will lose.

Charisse Nixon is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State University. She describes this state of mind as ‘learned helplessness’, a situation where an individual convinces themselves that they cannot change the outcome. She likes to take her students through an experiment to show how quickly this attitude can take hold.

Fake word problems

Two groups of students are given anagrams to unscramble, starting with simple ones and moving on to progressively harder ones. The groups are told they have all been given the same words. However, whereas half the students get the progressively harder words as promised, the other half get impossible words from the outset.

As the test progresses the students from the difficult half see the other students raise their hands each time they solve a puzzle. In the meantime they themselves cannot find the answers. Not knowing that the test is rigged they begin to assume that they are just no good at this type of problem solving.

During the final round all of the students are given the same word. What almost always happens is that the first group, who had to work with progressively harder words, succeed again. The second group, who were set up to fail from the beginning, fail again. This is despite the fact that the anagram is the same one for both groups.

One group has been taught that they can succeed. The second group have been misled into believing that they will fail and so they do. This is ‘learned helplessness’. Nixon explains how it can apply socially as well as academically. I think it also applies to sport. It’s something that sooner or later, every player will have to face.

A lesson from another sport

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

This quote from the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, is tattooed onto the forearm of the tennis player below, Stanislas Wawrinka.

Wawrinka is a Swiss professional, the winner of three grand slams.

So what can a tennis player teach us about rejecting helplessness through embracing failure? It is all to do with the quote. Wawrinka won all three of his major titles after the age of 29. That’s the age when, traditionally, even the best players start to decline. Many players such as Nastase, Borg, Sampras, McEnroe, and Lendl had finished winning titles by then. But Wawrinka was just getting started.

Given his huge talent, his entire career had been something of a failure up until that point, but no matter. He would try and fail, and the next time he would fail better. As long as he kept getting better each time, failure was not an issue. He kept picking himself up, practicing harder, improving his game, working all the time, and eventually failure turned into success.

The lesson is straightforward. Eliminate helplessness by embracing your failures. Learn what lessons you can from each failure and try again. It doesn’t matter what has gone before. It doesn’t matter how good or bad we are today. Tomorrow we can all try again and tomorrow we can all fail better.

Branding only ever reflects your values…

If you have ever hired a business consultant, you may have heard the following. "You really should think about rebranding". If this happens early in the first meeting you should show that consultant the door. Or if you are in their offices, head for the door yourself.

If your products or services are bad, don't expect a rebrand to change anything...

Rebranding in isolation is the least effective and most expensive way to build or improve your business. Even worse, it provides the appearance of radical change while leaving all of your problems and issues untouched.

The rebranding process can be expensive and addictive. Most people don't get involved in the design process that often. When they do, they discover that it is fun, for want of a better word. Clients can spend hours obsessing over details. Eventually some convince themselves that the right colour, or typeface or graphic idea, will transform their business. It won't.

Consultants love to tell stories about Apple. They love to tout Steve Jobs as a transformative figure in industry. A man who reinvented branding. Perhaps he did. But if so it had no effect on his company's success. Apple ploughed a precarious path as a niche computer supplier for most of its existence, either with Jobs at the helm or without him.

It was the only the emergence of the iPhone and the entire smartphone industry in 2007, that turned Apple into the corporate and cultural behemoth that it is today. The success of the iPhone and iPad had a knock-on effect whereby purchasing an Apple laptop became a similar cultural statement. It was the product line that drove the transformation, not the branding.

For all Apples marketing speak about thinking differently, they are still just a technology company, faced with the same research and logistics challenges as all of their competitors. For all their talk of brand values they are driven by profit and loss, just like every other corporation.

The anti-Apple

Rebranding is totally unnecessary if your products are good enough. The oldest unchanged logo in the world belongs to Twinings. Now Twinings are something of an expert on building things to last. After all they have been operating a tea room on the strand for over 300 years.

They created their logo in 1787 and it remains the same to this day. Even in this era of planned obsolescence, where things are thrown out and replaced not because they are no longer useful, but they are no longer fashionable. If you tried to sell a similar design to a client in 2020, they would laugh at you. It's typography includes an old fashioned serif typeface set on a shallow arc and presented in monochrome. This is most untrendy and has been for a long time. Despite this, it has never prevented a single teabag from being sold.

Twinings have no pressure to rebrand. Their product is good enough and well established enough for them to resist market pressures to change their logo.

They are not the only ones. BMW and Coca Cola have maintained their branding more or less unchanged for a century. Now you might throw your hands up in horror at the idea that Coca Cola is a quality product. However, the reality is that if you are looking for something fizzy and sugary with little or no nutritional value, then it's hard to think of anything better than Coke.

In fact, it's Coca Cola's biggest competitor, Pepsi, who have struggled with the whole notion of branding over the years. They have twisted and turned and spent billions and have not gained any ground on their bigger rival as a result.

The lesson to learn from this is that branding is only ever representational of what you are delivering. No amount of typographical tweaking will improve your goods and services, and a bad graphic will not harm your sales as long as you delivering what your clients need.