Nov 12 2014

The Samsung whistle and cocktail parties

Yesterday, on a train traveling between London and Derby, I very nearly snapped. The reason? I had to listen to someone’s ‘phone constantly alerting them using the five notes that form the “Samsung whistle”. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an even more irritating noise than the Nokia tune made infamous by Dom Joly on Trigger Happy TV at the turn of the century.

The composer, Joongsam Yun, is quoted in a Guardian article from 2013 saying that the ringtone was designed to represent what customers think of the Samsung brand – innovative, friendly and trustworthy. Really. Well, I bet he’s not been stuck on a train for the best part of an hour and a half being force-fed the wretched thing tens and tens of times. I certainly wasn’t ascribing those particular values to Samsung by the time the train reached Leicester and the miscreant got off. Every time I thought I was going to get a few minutes peace to concentrate on a particularly tricky presentation that I’m trying to put together, my attention was completely disrupted by this truly appalling sound. Until it is banished from their equipment forever, I’m going to make a specific point of not buying anything (else) from them. (I’m looking at these words as I type them on a new Samsung monitor, so that threat is a little hollow at the moment as they’ve already had my cash).

In the end I gave up working on my presentation and thought instead about why the whistle seems to grab all of my attention every time I have the misfortune to hear it. Other ringtones don’t have this effect on me, so why is this one so intrusive?

Auditory attention is unlike visual attention as we don’t really have much of a choice about the sounds that reach our ears. If we don’t want to see something we can avert our gaze. That’s not possible with sounds – we can’t help but hear every noise in our immediate environment. However, our brains have evolved a neat trick which means that we can attenuate the sounds we don’t want to listen to and concentrate on the things we do want to hear. There are some neat psychological experiments which show that if two different stories are played through headphones, one into the right ear and one into the left, people have little difficulty in understanding and repeating the story they’ve been asked to follow, even if the experimenter switches the stories around between the ears part way through the task.

However, the story of auditory attention isn’t that simple. Imagine you’re talking to a group of friends and someone on the other side of the room says your name so that you can hear it. You weren’t expecting your name to be said, but your attention is immediately snapped away from the conversation you were having. Rather pleasingly, cognitive psychologists call this “the cocktail party effect”. One of the explanations for this is that because our name is a particularly important to us, when someone says it, even if we aren’t expecting it, our automatic systems take over and we can’t help but shift our attention away from what we were originally concentrating on. And of course, it’s not just hearing our name that can have this effect, but anything that is particularly salient to us.


So perhaps the “Samsung whistle” is, for some reason, particularly salient to me. The problem is, I really don’t buy that explanation. I don’t have a Samsung ‘phone, even if I did I’d never use that ringtone, and I’ve spent the last couple of years studiously trying to ignore the noise. It doesn’t mean anything to me at all.

It would seem to me that the “cocktail party effect” explanation therefore doesn’t apply here. I’ve no idea what psychological mechanism is at work, even having done a brief trawl of the literature this lunchtime.

But if someone could put me out of my misery and explain it to me, I’d give you my undivided attention while you did. Truly I would. Unless, of course, someone in the room had a Samsung ‘phone switched on.


Nov 11 2014

For Armistice Day


We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

from “In Flanders fields” by John McCrae, 1915.

Nov 10 2014

Lifelong learning – where are we now?

As an avid fan of this blog (because why would you be here otherwise?!), I’m sure you’d love to read the series of articles that I’m writing about the challenges and opportunities for lifelong learners, commissioned exclusively for the Post40Bloggers website. The first is available here: Lifelong learning: where are we now?

… and even if that topic doesn’t interest you, there are loads of other excellent articles that my fellow Post40Bloggers have spent hours crafting just for you. I hope to see you there!


Nov 09 2014

The figures *don’t* speak for themselves

Inspired by the fourth Post40Bloggers writing prompt to discuss the topic: “In a world full of uncertainty, write about what you know for sure”, here’s why when anyone says to you that “the figures speak for themselves” your spider senses should start tingling and a red danger light start flashing in your brain. Metaphorically speaking of course. I do know for sure that we don’t have spider senses nor do we have a red danger light in our brain. But that’s a different article.

How many times have you heard someone say that “the figures speak for themselves” as a way of attempting to close down or win an argument? It happens all of the time. Some recent examples (courtesy of the might of my favourite interweb search engines) are:

People often appeal to figures because they appear to be objective, but all three of these examples are anything but a dispassionate telling of a single, objective truth. For example, Liam Byrne was attempting to use the figures from a recorded rise in the young unemployed by 20,000 in April 2013 to justify Labour’s jobs policy. In the meantime, youth unemployment (and unemployment in general) has fallen again – but I’m prepared to bet that he hasn’t changed his political stance. I doubt that he would even if youth unemployment fell to zero. So it would seem that these figures really weren’t speaking for themselves. Instead, this is an instance of someone taking a set of figures, which are undoubtedly subject to error and uncertainty, and then speaking for them. As are, I would humbly suggest, the other two examples.

I make this point endlessly at work to colleagues and clients alike. These days, rather than cutting code or managing other people for a living, I help people to determine whether or not a particular investment in software and services “makes sense”. Now, I’m a great believer that you must always start with the numbers and create a financial model of the possible risks and returns, but simply presenting a decision maker with a statement that “If you do x, it will realise £y” is never enough.

Instead, you have to use the figures to help your decision maker justify a particular investment in light of the organisation’s own aims and subjective beliefs about its future. For example, if a commercial organisation is single-mindedly focused on growth, then even the best financial case around saving costs won’t get the attention it deserves. The public sector is similar. At the moment, if an investment doesn’t fit the ‘all IT is a commodity’ or ‘open source is the answer to everything’ memes then the overall financial case is ignored, as positioning against either of these trends simply invites ridicule, justified or not.

So I hope I’ve convinced you of one of the things that I know for sure – figures don’t, and never will, speak for themselves.


Nov 08 2014

A duck en-route to Hardknott, 1955

This slide amused me rather more than it probably should have done when I found it this afternoon.

Duck going to Hardknott, 1955

Nov 07 2014

The Tower of London poppies should be dispersed as planned

I went to the Tower of London last weekend to see the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ installation and found it to be a profoundly moving experience. I understand why some people think that it would be a good idea for them to remain in place for longer. It is an awe-inspiring sight. However, I think that the calls from politicians of all persuasions for the poppies to remain in place after Armistice Day are misguided.

Poppies at the Tower, 01-11-2014It’s the transient nature of the art – the process of the slow accumulation in the moat of the poppies since 5th August and their dispersal after the 11th November – that gives the display its emotional power, providing a fitting tribute to the 888,246 British and Commonwealth soldiers, men and women, who died during the First World War.

For me, the dispersal of the poppies to individuals after the 11th will make the most important statement of all. It should remind us that while it’s essential for everyone to pull together in times of national crises, dealing with the loss and grief that follows these events is ultimately an intensely personal and private affair.

I’m therefore concerned that allowing the poppies to remain after the 11th would compromise the integrity of what has been an incredibly moving and valuable act of remembrance.


Nov 06 2014

Stylish first cars

I came across a rather good picture of my father’s first car tonight – a Triumph TR2. He drove around most of Europe in it and my best guess is that this photograph dates from either 1958 or 1959 and was taken somewhere in Spondon.

Triumph TR2By way of contrast, the image below is of my first car, pictured on the road between Leek and Macclesfield in 1981 or early 1982 when I was learning to drive. It’s a Skoda S110L.

Skoda S110LMaybe the fans of the ‘S’ series in the Skoda Owners’ Club would disagree with me, but I think my father’s first car was rather more stylish than mine. But I miss Gnu (as he was affectionately called) and his tendency to break down or overheat if you drove him more than a few tens of miles at any one go even now. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to drive around Europe in him!

Was your first car more stylish than either of these? Do let me know!


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