1. Tips for lazy writers: the “Thought For The Day” pattern

    Posted May 9, 2013 in How-to  |  No Comments so far

    Thought For The Day is the short religious bit on Radio 4’s Today programme. Every day a different religious figure spends five minutes imparting a mini-sermon in the hope of providing listeners with some fleeting sense of spiritual enrichment.

    Like many things in life, Thought For The Day has a pattern. It goes something like this:

    1. Talk about a topical event
    2. Somehow link the topical event to religion
    3. Talk about religion
    4. Conclude by referencing the topical event once more

    Not everyone follows this pattern – Anne Atkins’ stream-of-consciousness scattergun of personal anecdotes consistently buck the trend – but by and large this is what you get when you listen to Thought For The Day. Here’s a recent-ish example from Canon Dr Alan Billings that allows us to see the pattern at work:

    1. Talk about a topical event:

    Over the weekend I looked at the new typology of social class that the BBC has just put on its website…

    This was a reference to the Great British Class Calculator which had been doing the rounds on the web at the time.

    2. Link the topical event to religion:

    For Christians, the question of social class was unavoidable from the start, because Christianity first emerged in a highly stratified society of rich and poor, powerful and powerless, slave and free…

    We could be diplomatic here and say that the segue into religious content is clearly signposted. Or we could not, and say instead that it has the subtlety of a reindeer.

    3. Talk about religion:

    Converts came from each of these groups…

    As you’d expect, this forms the bulk of the text and is usually the section where Thought For The Day contributors make their essential points. It’s also where I tend to tune out.

    4. Conclude by referencing the topical event once more:

    …a healthy society is one where people recognise that what they have in common – their need of God’s grace – is far more significant than any ordering of social class.

    Notice that it concludes with two words, “social class”, that appeared in the very first sentence – a classic top-and-tail technique that encloses the argument and gives the impression that it was actually pretty coherent and well-structured even if you did doze off for a while during the part about the Romans, Corinth and St Paul.

    Making it work for you

    It’s easy to mock this pattern, especially for those who are lazy secularists that see Thought For The Day as a loathsome combination of religiosity and getting up early in the morning. But before we rush to judgement it’s worth recognising its value for those who are also lazy writers.

    It’s a pattern that can be applied to any topic, so if you’re ever asked to write a blog post for your employer or an article for a specialist magazine, and are short on time or energy, why not try using it?

    To demonstrate its effectiveness I’ve set myself the challenge of using it to combine a recent current event, Sir Alex Ferguson’s resignation and the specialist topic of Eurozone monetary policy. I apologise for taking gross liberties with the facts in the passage below; I’m deeply ignorant about both of these subjects.

    Manchester United fans around the world were shocked to learn yesterday that Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager who has won their team countless trophies over the years, has resigned from the club. Many have voiced their concern that the glory days are over. Does Manchester United now face a crisis?

    The same question might be asked about the eurozone. Despite coming through the Greek and Cypriot crises relatively unscathed the ECB faces stormy times ahead… [imagine another 200 words about ECB monetary policy, the general theme being that Mario Draghi is the right person to sort out all the problems]

    …So as we can see there are many reasons to be optimistic. Mario Draghi may not be in the business of winning trophies, but unlike Sir Alex Ferguson we can count on him staying the course for the foreseeable future.

    It’s crude but I hope that the lazy writers among you can see how it can be used to eke out a viable article from the most crude of premises, and with a minimal amount of effort. So if no other inspiration strikes you in the hours ahead, let that be your… thought, for the day.

  2. Pattern recognition, LEGO, interaction design and the Simpsons

    Posted January 23, 2012 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve written a piece on the Tobias & Tobias blog about pattern recognition, inspired by this amazing example of streamlined visual communication:

    LEGO Simpsons

    I'm sure you don't need to be told what these shapes represent

    This image gives our brain the chance to show off one of its most impressive skills – pattern recognition. Pattern recognition allows us to understand complicated things even when we’re only given limited information about them. So even though the object on the right is made up of three Lego bricks, representing only nine bits of information, pattern recognition makes our brain ‘see’ something far more intricate…

    Read the full piece here.

  3. Behavioural patterns in commuter communities

    Posted May 22, 2010 in transport  |  8 Comments so far

    To get to work I usually take the London Overground train from Highbury to Kensington. It’s part of a rail line that orbits central London around four miles out, allowing people to move around the city while remaining within urban areas and steering clear of the centre. It spares me the ordeal of travelling through central London at rush hour, so I’m really glad it exists.

    The section of London Overground I travel on

    People who share a regular journey eventually form communities based around shared patterns of group behaviour rather than personal relationships. A well-known example from the Tube can be seen when people boarding the train stand aside to let others get off first – that’s a behavioural pattern that Tube travellers follow, and new travellers quickly learn. Lots of these little patterns exist among commuter communities which, despite being only temporary rush-hour formations, are communities nonetheless.

    Most people only take one regular route, so may not notice the behavioural patterns that fleetingly bond them to their fellow travellers. But I’ve recently started taking another regular route, down to the City of London, which has got me thinking a lot more about this.

    It’s a far shorter commute for me, only two stops. It’s also a more conventional “spoke-to-hub” commute: the route begins outside London and bores its way inwards to stop at Moorgate, in the city’s central zone. This is in stark distinction to the radial nature of the Overground route.

    Over time I’ve started to notice how the patterns of the City community differ from those of the Overground. The most significant difference relates to overcrowding.

    On Overground trains an unspoken rule is, “move down the carriage”. Travellers follow this rule silently – as space appears further down the carriage, people move up to leave space nearer the doors. When the rule is ignored and an unnecessary crush develops, the offenders are loudly admonished – “can you move down please!” – and things soon right themselves.

    How the Overground deals with overcrowding

    How the Overground handles overcrowding

    But on the City commute things are different. A train pulls into the platform and there’s lots of space. But then you look at the  doorways, and it’s jammed solid – everyone has bunched up near the doors. You think, that’s not a problem; people will move. But this isn’t the Overground. The people in the doorways, already uncomfortably compressed, simply inhale sharply as you wedge yourself in next to them. The train is silent. No-one moves, and no-one is asked to move.

    This community seems to have a different rule – “don’t rock the boat”. Shouting into the sheer silence would mark you as a lunatic. It’s a powerful rule: I’ve seen people abandon their attempts to board the train, choosing to wait ten minutes for the next one rather than cause a fuss by telling people to move into the empty space.

    The doorway culture of the City community

    Suburbanites heading to the City stay in the doorways

    How has the City community formed such different behavioural patterns than the Overground community? The routes use exactly the same trains, so it’s not carriage layout. And it’s not the suburban nature of the passengers – I’m an urbanite and I end up adhering to the pattern, as do others who get on at my stop. Some possible reasons are:

    • The City community arrives at Moorgate, within walking distance of any office in the City, so many might never have to use the Tube. On the Tube, the authorities run frequent poster campaigns about how to behave – if they didn’t, the Tube (with its mixture of commuters, shoppers and tourists) would be sheer chaos. The Overground community is exposed to these campaigns but the City community, spared the ordeal of Tube travel, isn’t.
    • My stretch of the City commute is underground so people don’t use mobile phones. This contributes to the oppressive silence: speaking aloud marks you out as a lunatic. But on the Overground, there’s a constant background babble of phone chat, which means it feels less strange to call out to other travellers.
    • Everyone on the Overground is moving from one urban district to another, so most people have an “urban” rather than a suburban approach to personal space and group behaviour. They’re accustomed to being told to move on, get out of the way, budge up and so on.

    These are only part of the story however. What these two communities have in common is that they exist only at rush hour, have highly transient memberships, and revolve around simple, unspoken rules of personal conduct. But they diverge from one another when it comes to behavioural patterns, for reasons that are numerous, complex and hard to fathom.