Pythagoras' hammers and the harmony trap
There is a story that the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras (of Theorem
fame) walked past a smithy one day and was struck by the delightful musical
sound of their hammering. To cut a long story short, he investigated this
phenomenon and eventually discovered that the weight of the hammers changed
their note, and that a hammer twice as heavy as another would be an octave lower
and so sound pleasantly in tune. Other hammers that formed perfect fourths,
fifths and so on also had weights proportional to their frequencies. Pythagoras
was delighted that harmonious notes were so simply and mathematically related.
Legend has it that four hammers sounded well together, but a fifth was
discordant, so Pythagoras just rejected this. In strange way, we are still
throwing away a fifth hammer. When we try to understand things, we often select
pieces evidence that work well together and reject that which is unhelpful. Even
scientists, desperate to prove a theory may quietly ignore unhelpful
Why do we do this? Because we believe there are simple patterns that explain
most things, so we look carefully for them. Unfortunately, the world is a messy
place and many things are less predictable them we might hope. Yet faced with a
choice between confusion and false understanding, we very often go for the
latter. And it may yet have value, as partial understanding may well be better
than none. The trap, however, is ignoring non-compliant data rather than holding
it nearby, perhaps as 'unexplained', even though this may weaken your thesis.
The cafe chair problem
Imagine you owned a small cafe or teashop, with a set of loose round tables
and chairs. Now say you are tidying up after some customers have been there. Of
course you take away the crockery and so on, clean the table and re-lay it for
the next customers, but what do you with the chairs? Do you push them in, leave
them out or what?
Leaving them as customers left them probably isn't a good idea as this just
looks untidy. When things are not arranged in an ordered structure it forces
more mental effort in recognizing what is there.
It may seem like a good idea to push the chairs right in. After all, it makes
the place look tidy and allows customers to navigate more easily between tables.
The problem with this, though, is that it has a 'closed' feel, as if the chairs
are put away for the day. It also adds effort for customers in pulling out the
A more inviting arrangement is to create a 'looser' structure, with the
chairs still in a regular pattern around the table, but now pulled out a bit,
perhaps with just the front of the chair under the table.
A step further is to add a bit of seduction by rotating the chairs slightly.
Like showing a bit of ankle (in this case the seat) it tempts you in.
It is this kind of thinking that can make a significant difference for little
cost. This is not to say the rotated chair is the best for you, but it does seem
like a good possibility. Which brings up the last and critical point, which is
to constantly experiment. You can work out what should work, but you will only
know if you try.
Seventeen rules for being a good husband and
keeping your wife happy
There are lots of amusing articles out there about men, women and the gulfs
between them. Both genders cast their eyes upwards and perhaps grin ruefully
when they contemplate the mysteries and foolishness of the opposite sex. Sure,
we're different and it does no harm to make light of this. But what about
writing something more practical? Dating has been done to death, so how about
that less fashionable thing: marriage. I can speak with some authority on this,
having been happily married for several decades.
So, in no particular order, here are some rules for husbands, or how to keep your wife by
keeping her happy year after year. I can't say I always use them or they always
work, but I can say I do try and we're still very happily married.
1. Treat her like a lady
It may seem old fashioned, but unless she's a determined feminist, she'll
like it when you do things like opening doors for her, helping her on with her
coat, and pretty much always putting her first.
Women like to feel special. They want to know you respect them and would
never hurt them. Being a gentleman is a good way to show this.
2. Surprise her
Randomly buy flowers, take her to a swanky restaurant, buy her a random
present or otherwise treat her to something nice. It needn't be expensive,
though an occasional splash will go a long way.
Surprise changes minds. It
delights. It shows that the flame of romance is still burning. Surprise is, by
definition, unexpected, so keep mixing it up and being creative.
3. Push the boat out
Now and again, do something expensive together. Push the boat out. Go to an
expensive restaurant. Go on holiday to some exotic location. Buy her an
expensive anniversary present.
Yes, you always need to manage the money, so save
up for occasional such splurges. These can be done as surprises but often are
fun to plan together. Initiate the process, then give her options and let her
4. Make her laugh
Laughter comes from incongruous surprise. Tell jokes. Be funny. Clown around.
When she thinks of you, she should smile inside. Playing the fool also says you
trust her not to take advantage of your idiocy.
Fun may exists on the edge of acceptability, so be careful not to tread into
dangerous waters (for example with gender jokes). It may mean taking risks so
learn where her boundaries are and respect them.
5. Defend her
Women like to feel safe, and as the weaker sex easily feel more vulnerable
than men. If somebody attacks her, verbally or otherwise, stand up for her. If
necessary, put yourself at risk. She'll love you for your courage. If you seem
willing to put yourself in harm's way for her, you must surely love her above
This does not mean attacking every man who looks at her or jumping in with
both feet when you hear part of a comment. Find out what's going on before
sticking your neck out. Conversational interruptions can embarrass her.
Aggression, even to others, can scare her. Listening then subtly defusing the
situation can sometimes be best. Always remember your goal is her comfort, not
to massage your own manliness.
6. Help out
If things need doing around the house, do them. If dishes need washing, wash
them. If there are bits on the floor, pick them up. If a tap is dripping, fix
it. In particular, watch for when she looks tired and offer to help out. Suggest
that you cook, clean or just make a cup of coffee. Be tidy. Put things away
rather than down.
Certainly, you may each take on different roles where you each attend to
different chores, and do respect her preferences (some women, for example, like
cooking and consider the kitchen their domain). Do not take helping to extreme.
It is important to share the work and she may resent you if you do too much (or
may just take you for granted). You goal is that she appreciates you, not
wonders what you are up to.
7. Touch her
Maintain regular, affectionate physical contact. Touch her lightly on the
shoulder as you go past. Come up behind her and hug her around the waist.
Especial when she has been away, even for the day, welcome her back with a smile
and a big hug.
Be careful in this to keep contact appropriate. If she sometimes seems not to
want to be touched, back off. Sometimes women don't want physical contact or not
in certain ways. Respect this. Your touch should make her feel good, not pawed.
8. Tell her you love her
Declare your love for her. Tell her this on cards and gifts or just in words,
at random time of the day. Always remember Valentine's Day, your wedding
anniversary and any other special dates.
9. Say she looks good
Stop mid-tracks now and again, look at her and say something like 'Gosh, you
look great'. Smile appreciatively when you look at her. Notice when she's
dressed up and say that she looks great. Also say she looks good when she isn't
spruced up. If she denies this, say something like 'You can't help always
When she tries on a dress and asks your opinion, if you don't like it don't
say she looks awful -- say you prefer another dress today or the shade isn't
quite right. Beware of painting yourself into a corner by saying things like
'You look nice now' that imply she doesn't at other times.
10. Show your appreciation
Find other ways to show you appreciate her. An easy way is to smile and thank
her when she does things for you. Say what a great wife she is. Tell her the
best decision of your life was to marry her. Tell others she's brilliant (it
will likely get back to her). Never criticize her to other people.
When she shows she appreciates you, show that you like this by saying things
like 'That's very kind of you'. When you are both showing appreciation for the
other on a regular basis, it a make a lot of difference all round.
11. Take her seriously
The most common indicator of impending divorce is contempt. The opposite is
respect. Show her respect by listening to her concerns and treating these as
being important, even if they they don't seem that big a deal to you. Don't just
nod and hope she'll finish soon. Read between the lines and look for underlying
concerns. Sometimes listening and appreciating is all she needs. At other times
she wants help. When this is obvious, just do it. If you are not sure, ask.
This can be difficult when she is critical of you. Don't just react angrily
or defensively. Stay open to the possibility that things you do aren't as
effective as they could be. In many ways she is your customer. Think carefully
and objectively about what is going on. Discuss alternatives and, if needed,
change. She'll know this is a big deal for you (if not, explain how you feel)
and will be very appreciative.
12. Be the calm one
Be the calm one, but not the cold one. When she gets upset, neither go up in
the air with her, nor be clinical. Empathize with her emotion. Listen to her
explanation, no matter how illogical it is. Then decide what to do. Often, all
she needs is comfort.
Sometimes it helps to tell her everything will turn out ok. At other times
some helpful suggestions work (though at other times they do not). Another
approach is to take charge and sort out the problem yourself, though you may
want to ask if she wants this. Finally cool logic can work, though it is often
best left until she feels a bit calmer.
13. Criticize carefully
When you interact with her, you gain and spend points.
When you criticize, for no matter how small an issue, you spend points, and
probably more than you think. If she does something that you thing wrong, be
openly curious rather than coldly critical. Say something like 'How interesting.
What makes you think that?' Then accept her logic rather than using the answer
as proof of her stupidity. People see things in different ways. One way forward
is to ask 'Can I offer a challenge?' If she sounds unhappy (even if she says
yes) then don't make a big deal of it. Maybe start your challenge with 'I was
wondering...' and then don't press your argument too hard. Even if you don't
take things further, she will likely have got the message. Giving her a
respectable way out is often a good thing.
When you say and do nice things, you gain points.
It is important to understand the economics of this system and always to stay in
credit. A simple rule of thumb is that one small complaint is worth five to ten
Choose which hills you'll die on. Some issues will be very important to you,
so much so you are ready to argue long and strongly about them. Make sure these
14. Moan minimally
While nowhere near as significant as criticism, moaning also costs you points
which need to be repaid. The price of a moan is based on how emotionally
draining your whinges are, not how big a deal they are for you. You can help
yourself here by playing down the importance to you of issues like the problems
that idiot at work is causing you.
It is important for each to share their troubles, but you don't have to make
a song and dance over it, even if she does. There are exceptions to this in
human upsets like death in the family, but a good rule of thumb for everyday
ills is restraint.
15. Forgive her
There'll be a ton of stuff she does that bugs you. She'll leave doors open,
not put bottle tops on properly, drive erratically and all sorts of things that
will frustrate the socks off you.
You can tell, ask or plead with her a hundred times and she may still do
them. So in the end you have to decide if any of this is worth the worry, anger
or general stress. Very largely, it isn't. Much easier is to accept that this is
how she is, forgive her her foibles and quietly close the doors, put things away
and so on. It may be she does the same for you.
Do your best to avoid blame. Blame assumes the person is bad and deserve
punishment. It makes you judge, jury and executioner. It invites them to blame
you in return. It leads to resentment, revenge and other bad stuff, and before
long you have a long feud. It's better assume human mistakes, forgetfulness or
other good reason you don't yet understand. You get what you give. Give good
stuff, it's better for everyone.
16. Never take her for granted
It is so easy to start taking things for granted when you get married. With
pressures of work and cultural expectations, it is easy to mentally put her in
the position of 'wife', which can also imply 'housekeeper', ' possession',
'mother', and so on.
Treat her like she's a girlfriend or even a prospective one. Be the romantic,
smitten suitor. When you look at her, remember when you first felt like this and
bring that feeling back. Go on dates. Catch her eye and smile, deeply. Hold her
hand on walks. Make her feel special, always.
17. Do authentic experiments
Be authentic. Mean what you say and do. If her experience so far hasn't been
great for her, be patient. Build steadily rather than smothering her.
All of the above practices work for me and I still assiduously use them
(and mean them). Many are likely to work for you, though perhaps in different
quantities. When you do something, watch how she reacts. Does she seem pleased?
Does she freak out? Find out why and adjust accordingly. Add and subtract
things. Change the details. Try new stuff.
If you can't remember or aren't sure about some of these points, do remember
two critical things that most women want, which is strength and kindness. Show
strength in making her feel safe and secure. Show kindness in attention,
appreciation and care.
Marriage is a partnership which has to work for both of you, though this can
easily mean you each feel you are doing more than your fair share. One's own
effort often seems more significant than that of others -- after all, only you
feel the effort involved. If you still think things are unbalanced, discuss this
with her and find a way forward. Talk is the gateway to understanding and
If you aren't married, then you may also find these points useful. If you get
married, keep them always in mind. It is so easy for things to slip once you
feel the relationship is permanent and cannot change.
Remember: Your goal is her happiness and appreciation. Find what works and
keep it up.
The curiously profitable cat on the post
I was chatting today with a guy who runs
Llansabbath Country House
B&B and he told me a brilliantly simple method he used to drastically
increase hits and stays on his website. Quite simply, he added a cat to a photo,
putting it on the gatepost outside their house (no Photoshop -- real cat on real
gatepost). You can see it if you click on the link above.
The logic is blindingly simple. What are there lots of on YouTube? Cat
videos, of course. So put a cat in a picture and people will feel warm and
happy, and consequently hang about more so they can continue to feel good.
I'm not a cat person. Dogs, yes. Cats, why? Though I suppose I'd stroke one
if it wandered by. I get dogs. They become real friends. They want to make you
happy. I just don't see the value of a cat who uses you as a convenience. Yet I
still think the picture of the house is better with the cat than without it. And
if it leads to a more profitable business, then hey, add cats everywhere!
Good cop, bad cop and faltering radical change
The principle of
good cop, bad cop has been around for a long time and is a simple
and pain (also known as 'carrot and stick'). It can be seen in plenty of TV
series and movies, where the bad cop roughs up the prisoner then the good cop
comes in and gently persuades the person to confess. The
contrast between the two makes the
good cop seem even nicer and the prospect of further rough stuff at the hands of
the bad cop leads to the prisoner caving in. The method can also be seen in the
guy format, again with one providing uncomfortable aggression and the other
a more acceptable, friendly face.
This pattern has also been found in social change, where militant agitators
are followed by more moderate and reasonable people who negotiate what actually
turns out to be a rather a big shift in social thinking.
In the early 20th century campaign for equal rights for women in the UK, the
Suffragettes were an aggressive group led by Emmeline Pankhurst. They went on
marches, chained themselves to railings, attacked the police, broke windows and
even indulged in arson and use of bombs. In contrast were the moderate
Suffragists, most notably Millicent Fawcett, who preferred more civilized means
such as petitions, lobbying and peaceful marches. It was perhaps the contrast
between these two which helped convince Parliament to pass the Representation of
the People Act that gave women the vote in 1918. The end of the Great War and
the sense of change this brought also helped.
A similar pattern may be seen in the struggle for equality by African
Americans in the mid-20th century, where Malcolm X, a radicalized ex-convict,
terrified the establishment with his promotion of the Nation of Islam's ideals,
including that white people were devils whose demise was imminent. In contrast,
Martin Luther King was an educated son of a Baptist minister who preached
peaceful change, even in the face of aggressive policing. Both were
assassinated, but it was King who made the final difference in triggering
widespread acceptance of equal rights, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the
1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Perhaps also the
assassinations provided enough shock to the system that mirrored in some way the
post-world-war-one trauma in 1918 Europe.
However, change is not that easy and, while women can still vote, there is
still glass ceilings in companies and women somehow are still often paid less
than men for doing similar jobs. And while African Americans also have equal
rights, they are still more likely to be stopped by police and make up a
significant proportion of the US prison population. Yes, there has been a female
UK Prime Minister and African American US President. Opportunities are more than
they were. Yet somehow there is still plenty of bias. One reason is that
legislated equality took the wind out of the sails of the historical movements
There is a lesson for more mundane change in modern organizations. Pain and
pleasure, bad cops and good cops, push and pull may be used to help trigger
change, as can cataclysmic shocks such as financial problems or being acquired
by a competitor. But even when change seems done, do not expect people to really
change how they think all that quickly. To have bias is, sadly, human and is not
that easy to eradicate. If you want to create lasting change, whether at
national levels or in your company, you must be prepared for a long campaign
that sustains attention and support long after you think the battle has been
What do you say to a grieving person?
When you meet someone who has suffered a bereavement, where a relation or
someone they know has died, what do you say? It can be a tricky situation as
even if they seem fine on the surface, they may be quite fragile inside.
A simple way is just to say 'I'm so sorry' and 'There are no words'. Because
you are and there aren't.
Do not disagree with them. Their beliefs may radically change, from atheist
to religious and also back the other way as a non-believer blames God or a
religious person feels they have been abandoned by their deity.
Don't say things like:
- How are you doing
- It's God's plan/she's now an angel/watching over you/other religious stuff
- Everything happens for a reason
- Maybe it's for the best/they're not suffering any more
In other words, don't try to explain it. And remember that your goal is to
make them feel better, not to relieve your discomfort. When people say 'Don't
cry' they usually mean 'Your crying is making me feel uncomfortable'.
To show that you care, look to help them in practical ways. Just sympathetic
listening, without interruption or looking uncomfortable, can be a huge help.
Sometimes it helps to do practical things for them, but beware of taking away
those things that they could do to retain some sense of normality.
Kings, mobsters, celebrities and superheroes
Kings, mobsters, celebrities and superheroes. What have all these got in
common? Certainly, many of us will admire them, either openly or perhaps
secretly. However, the critical commonality is unconstrained power, the ability
to act outside rules that govern us, the wherewithal to choose without concern
Kings have, through history, held absolute power. To become and stay king in
troublesome times meant they had to use that power too, sometimes cruelly and
supported by a sycophantic, corrupt elite. Mobsters are not far from this model,
ascending by violence then ruling by fear and whim. It is the primitive force
which creates hierarchies that both pollutes and holds societies together. It is
only recently, historically speaking, that at least some of the world has found
more sociable means of living together.
Celebrities are a modern phenomenon where fame and pseudo-royalty offers a
showcase of fake perfection. Yet this illusion can again seem too real and the
sense of invulnerability can lead them to suicidal disdain for their fans and
forays beyond the law into financial arrogance and the spiral of narcotics.
A trap for the ultra-powerful is opulent elitism, where they create a cocoon
of extreme luxury. This makes them soft and disliked and opens the way for
invasion, coups or revolution as the tides of empires wax and wane. Even
celebrities rise and fall in tabloid kingmaker games where they are pumped up
and knocked down, perhaps reflecting our dual fascination and revulsion with
high position and unbound autonomy. This vision of the mighty falling gives us
pleasure, hope and teaches us lessons as our banana-skin schadenfreude joy
reminds us that we are ultimately all alike and pride goes before the fall.
Superheroes may seem to be another class altogether, yet they, too, break
laws, often violently. This group represents a human ideal, a cartoon
abstraction of the all-powerful person whose morals are beyond reproach and
whose transgression is purely for good. They are the vigilantes we secretly want
to be, relentlessly bringing down those who would hurt us. Even more secretly,
we know that if we had those super-human powers we would become corrupt kings
and vain celebrities. Philosophical cartoon authors know this as they show the
heroes' inner struggles and the fallen supervillains who balance super-powers in
Yet reality is not a comic, though fiction often reflects our constant
tilting at wish-fulfilment. Each of us struggles with power, fighting it,
gaining it and holding its exhilarating, terrifying reins. Few of us gain power
over many, though we all have the potential for atrocities. For most of us our
struggles are local and internal, though each choice we make is an act of power
that together define our lives.
When do the parts become the whole?
Margaret Thatcher, the notorious UK Conservative prime minister of the 1980s,
once said 'There is no such thing as society.' While this may be seen as a
heartless view, there is a strange truth about it, though only in the sense that
'society' it's less tangible. Yet it is very real, nevertheless, and we each
gain from it. Just imagine if you couldn't walk down the road without fear for
But how does society start? When does a group of people gel and start helping
one another in an organized way? Is it when they have their first public
meeting? Is it when they establish or enforce explicit social rules? It is a
tricky question. Looking at it in a reversed way, you might also try taking
people out of a group until society vanishes.
The challenge can be applied in all kinds of other situations. When, for
example, does a brain become a mind? And how many pieces can you take off a car
before it is no longer a car?
The boundary, it seems, between a cohesive whole with its own identity and a
set of parts that lack that wholeness, can be rather vague and difficult to
A way of finding that elusive edge is to first identify essential elements of
the whole and then look for the point at which they appear or disappear. The
mind, for example, thinks, so when neuronal activity can be classified as
thinking, then mind is beginning. It is not all that easy, though. If a car is
defined as transport, a faulty that stops the engine does not stop it being a
car. It gets trickier again with the notion of society where there may be debate
about what exactly it is.
An important insight is that within a whole, the parts are interconnected,
often in complex ways. And this is where the whole is made. Minds are not
neurons but interconnected neurons. A car is not a kit of parts but those parts
working in harmony.
And yet, despite the difficulties, we ignore the whole at our peril,
including in changing minds. When you want to sell, you have to consider how the
whole system buys. Sales fail when the sales person forgets corporate influences
on the buyer. Teachers trip up when they miss the social structure of the class.
And you can get into trouble when you think you can pull on individual levers
without causing surprising effects elsewhere.
Failure and success in small businesses
I've been watching a series recently on UK TV where Alex Polizzi, a small
business owner and expert goes into failing small businesses and helps to turn
them around. It's not easy, and what we get down is not necessarily the whole
story, but it can make fascinating viewing.
The typical business info which she is parachuted is a family firm, often
consumer-facing so consuming viewers can empathise, at least worth their
customers. And customer focused is indeed a common issue. When you are
struggling to pay the bills, it's easy to blame fussy customers. Yet good
service is a key reason why many people go to small businesses and this is
common issue to sort out.
Another issue where small firms fail is tidiness. It is so easy to end up
with piles of old stock that is valued more by what was paid for it than how it
can be converted into revenue, so a good clear-out is a common task. More than
this, signage and general branding tends to be antiquated and confusing. It is
amazing how much a lick of paint can help, and a complete rebranding exercise
can be quite transformational. Of course it also makes great television in the
same way as any makeover show causes oohs and wows.
The biggest transformation, however, is the people. In family firms where
children feel trapped and their parents think they should be grateful, this can
even fall into a quick bit of family therapy. Children get to grow up fast and
the old dogs learn new tricks as the whole family gets shock treatment when they
are shown successful other businesses, where they may even get a boot camp
experience hat teaches them the value of focus and hard work.
In the end, such shows are about the modern business of transformation, where
the customer is the product. And because you are watching, you too may be
transformed as you learn more about business, life and people, and hence about
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