Thinking like a dyslexic, metaphorical surgeon

math-problemsI’m dyslexic. Or at least I failed the exam to not be dyslexic. I can have a haphazard approach to thinking that is sometimes amazing, other times a bad way to approach problems. Thirty years ago I chose to study Maths and Physics at University. I couldn’t have chosen subjects I was less suited to. When I was recently diagnosed the specialist couldn’t believe I’d managed a Hard Science degree with my skills in symbol manipulation, speed and accuracy. I was in the bottom 1% for these skills. In the tests I thought I was killing it and I was doing what I was good at.

At University I was keen, and I thought everyone had to work super hard. I did feel a bit different and approach problems differently. I now know I was using well known dyslexic coping strategies.

Recently I’ve used Metaphor Modelling with Clean Language to understand how I work at my best, and the two are linked in a way that has helped me understand.

The Clean Question I asked myself were; (abridged, from memory & better asked by someone else)

“When you are working at your best, you are like what?”

“I’m like a surgeon, precise, measured, skillful. With knowledge, skills and a purpose.”

“Is there anything else about a surgeon?”

“A nice white coat. Wait, A surgeon works accurately, knows the purpose of his work, and has honed the skills to do it. As a surgeon I’d have all the tools I may need prepared in advance. I wouldn’t start work without knowing where the tools are and how they are used. A surgeon also may do exploration work to find things out, but this is also precise. There is a plan, but also an understanding of complexity and the need for feedback about things are going. Machines that go ping.”

“Is there anything else about that surgeon?”

A surgeon reads the patient notes, and would specialise in what he’s is good at. And a surgeon has a team to do all the things that need to be done, and they are just as organised, trained and professional. A surgeon cannot do it all.”

“Whereabouts is that surgeon”

“Physically, usually in an operating theatre, but could be anywhere in an emergency. Mentally in the zone, concentrating, and knowing that everything that could be thought of, has been thought of. Surgeon is a feeling in my chest, and in my head. It’s a special type of focus, and a special type of precision, and a flow of thinking, like running through a maze, but knowing instinctively where to go.”

“What happens before a surgeon”

“I can’t just turn it on. It either needs interest, and a problem to solve, or it needs pressure. A deadline, or some decision. Maybe something that I know hasn’t been thought through and will cause a problem. Or input from someone – new insights or perspectives.

Afterwards there is a feeling of closure or completeness, like something has been resolved, or understood in sufficient detail. ” 

How I studied before Clean Language

To contrast with the surgeon metaphor, how did I approach problems when studying Physics and Maths? It could be seen as a coping strategy, but at the time I didn’t anything required a  strategy. It was just what I did to get the right results. I wasn’t different. I was getting the same answers as everyone else.

Science and Thinking for Dyslexics

With science I needed to see the big picture, then the details, and then figure out what to do. I couldn’t memorise solutions or particular types of problem very well to just reproduce what I’d done before. This was partly what we were being taught to do.

For Science and Maths problems I’d;

  • Write down the full problem, copying the question including the context. Copying forces careful reading, and not skipping parts. I remember showing this technique to teachers and friends. They thought I was mad.
  • Copy out all the variables from the question, including units (they may be odd). Include both known variables, and unknown and implied variables.
  • Write down every formulae I can remember that has anything to do with the variables noted previously. I was bad at remembering formulae, but I’d just do a brain dump, and remember more as I wrote.
  • Include formulae where only partial information is known, we may need to combine partial knowledge to get where we need to go.
  • I’d often taken up half a page by now.
  • Now fill in the formulae to see what extra things we can find out. Stare at the formulae to see if I can get the value I need from the information I have.

Do the things above sound a bit “Surgeon”? A way of maintaining an orderly approach that means nothing gets forgotten, that I don’t misunderstand or misread. A way to be precise and accurate when my brain wanted to do the opposite.

I now understand that not everyone needed to do this. They didn’t just do it in their head, they remembered practise questions and answers. My symbol manipulation accuracy and speed skills are in the bottom 1%. But my figuring things out skills make up for it.

I used the practise questions to sharpen my ‘figuring out’ skills, not to remember how to do stuff.

Can I apply these ideas now?

So I’d like to improve my sometimes haphazard thinking. It’s often a bit more haphazard than I’d like, and having kids seems to have made it worse. Can I  be a bit more like a surgeon, or more like the young me, who didn’t notice he was different…

The following is a ‘be like a surgeon’  / ‘be like a dyslexic scientist’ approach to problems

  1. Name, date and title on all my work and diagrams.
  2. Review everything I know about a situation before I start. Write it down and use diagrams.
  3. Understand the options for looking for a solution
    1. These may not be just approaches, but looking for different perspectives. All the Systems Thinking stuff.
    2. This includes getting a 2nd and 3rd opinion.
    3. I need to create (and keep updating) an approach that I can use to make sure I’ve thought of everything. Like (somehow) being able to write down all the formualas I knew.
  4. Make sure I care about the problem. If I don’t it won’t work.
  5. Make sure there is pressure. This doesn’t always mean last minute, but it needs to be important to do this now.
  6. Have a team, and do what we’re each good at.

Maybe to keep in surgeon mode it could be useful to note that most successful surgeons don’t check Facebook during surgery.

I’m sure I can take this a lot further, and improve my approach using metaphors, and the way that I naturally seem to be able to figure out ways to look at things.

Any comments on other approaches that may work much appreciated.





A Strategy needs to change your environment

One of the most interesting things about organisations is that they affect the environment they are in, and the environment affects them whether they know it or not. This co-evolution, is not just two systems, but a huge number of interconnected complex systems. I’ll stick to discussing a smaller number of interactions for obvious reasons.

New Strategies of an Economic Hit Man

To discuss this I’ll use the examples from a post called ‘51i0a1xtubl-_sx321_bo1204203200_New Strategies of an Economic Hit Man” by John Perkins as it describes various strategies – or lack of – for changing the environment that an organisation operates in. Ideally designed to work in the organisations favour. I’ll also use ideas from the Viable Systems Model. This should make the ideas clearer, and show why an approach that models this behaviour is useful. An understanding of your environment is not something you hope to have, if you want to stay viable.

Reality is what you think it is

I’ll start by suggesting the reality is what you think it is. If someone can change what you think reality is, then that is what it is. So by defining success, or desirability, or the right way to do something then it becomes reality. Part of changing your environment may involve changing what people think as much as changing their material reality.

The article gives examples of The World Bank, Ford, Nike and the USA/Iran relationship, so I’ll cover each of these.

#1 The World Bank

Firstly the World Bank’s strategy is described, and it’s bleak. It’s job is to

  • get developing countries with natural resources to accept loans for infrastructure to be build by western engineering and construction companies
  • if the country struggled with the loans (if they did not become developed) then the IMF would restructure the loan
  • This restructuring would involve the country selling it’s resources to the corporations

We can use ‘The purpose of a system is what it does‘ to infer the strategy of the World Bank and developed nations here.

  • Getting countries to invest in infrastructure supplied by corporations from developed nations. I’ll call this Goal 1.
    • This is done by persuading the developing country that development happens by having roads, airports and infrastructure. By creating a top down plan of how development happens, in a simple non-complex way, Goal 1 is attained. It doesn’t matter if it works, in fact Goal 2 and 3 require that it doesn’t. This is a High Modernist approach to development as discussed in Seeing Like a State, and is recognised as failing, but because it is a legible and much simplified it appeals to humans looking for certainly, and an explanation and understanding of the future.
    • This is how the World Bank changes the their environment to one that is suited to their goals.
  • Get the countries to take out loans to get the loan interest repayments. Goal 2.
    • This needs the infrastructure provided in Goal 1 to fail to produce the predicted economic growth.
  • Get the natural resources of the country as a demand of restructuring the loans. Goal 3.
    • The purpose of a system is what it does. POSIWD.

We can model this with the VSM, using just the they systems that add value, to see if it is potentially Viable. We can see that the plans would not create a viable system.

The viability of the developing country was never a concern of the World Bank. All of the infrastructure projects are required for a developed economy. A postroom, admin staff, car park and canteen are vital for a business, but they do not exchange value with their environment and generate wealth.

Infrastructure projects are similar, roads and airports do not exchange value with the environment, and so are can only support viable systems.

They are a Potekmin Developed Economy, they just look like the real thing. We can use the VSM to show that the infrastructure would not make the country economically viable. The infrastructure is a by product of economic viability. This viability often comes from a country being able to exploit it’s own natural resources. That would not allow the World Banks Goal 3 to be attained.

Clearly the VSM shows that the developments are not System1’s that exchange value with the environment, so are not viable. This could have been known in advance, and probably was.

In this case the environment of developed countries was altered to the benefit of developed countries, banks and corporations, at the expense of developing countries.

#2 Ford 

After implementing Taylorism / scientific management, Ford is often used as a byword for old school management failure. I’ll argue that strategically, they deliberately changed their environment to make the company more viable. They did this by turning their staff into potential customers, this changed the environment they were in, for an entire class of Americans.

Ford’s reality was that his Taylorist production approach created a massive turnover of staff. He also needed a much larger market to sell the increasing numbers of cars he could produce.

To do this he doubled the wages of his staff. This increased retention, and also created customers for his business. He changed the enviromnent his business was working in, so that it suited his business model. Ford would have struggled to make or sell 308,000 Model Ts in 1914 if he hadn’t have done both of these things.

He changed his environment by creating a well off working class who were consumers for his product, and allowed continued success for both his company and American manufacturing.

#3 Nike, Adidas etc

Nike, Adidas and other high end brands make expensive sports clothing, but outsource the manufacture to the cheapest tolerable manufacturer. This lowers their costs, maximising the profit margins they can get. They don’t however pay enough to create customers from the people who manufacture their shoes.  Someone else need to provide employment and income here.

They sponsor athletes, sporting events, and pay for product placement that makes their products desirable in their environment. They pay to change the perception of reality. Unlike Ford they do nothing to change the economic reality of their customers. In the country where their products are manufactured they destroy opportunities for economic growth that they would be able to benefit from.

The long term viability of these High end brands concerns their ability to maintain the perception that their products are desirable, and the ability of other organisations to ensure that customers have sufficient money. They are connected to their customers ability to buy their product, but do not help to create potential customers.

Without viable high end customers perceptions the organisations may use their perceived high worth status in reputation mining via low cost suppliers. But they are no longer a viable high worth organisation.

Three Examples

The three examples show how an organisation needs to exist in a viable environment. In the case of the Developing Nations, Developed Nations acted to create large scale government customers for it’s Corporations, and then acted to get access to resources to help it stay viable in markets that already existed. The environment, in this case entire countries, were used without improvement or development.

Ford on the other hand actively changed and improved his environment to make his product more viable by creating customers, fuelling economic growth. Of course this was based on consumption, and petrochemicals, so there are downsides here.

The evonomics article has some suggestions for how we can improve our situation. I’d like to argue for the use of the Viable Systems Modelling to understand how proposed changes may create viability.

If we cannot see how viability is created by building infrastructure, or by manufacturing high value items at the lowest prices outside of the intended market then this should inform us as to how desirable these things are, and gives an idea of the strategy of the organisation pushing for the changes.

Coffee and Thinking Hits

espresso_coffee2_imgI’ve had this idea for a business. I like different sorts of coffee and get a different effect from the caffeine with them. I can drink some types and be awake for hours, others I get an amazing hit that can be gone quickly. I assume this is something to do with chemistry of how the caffeine works . I’d need a business partner with a clue about this to make a coffee menu for my cafe, based on the effect you want the coffee to have.

I could sell coffee related to the activity you’re planning to do, like an ‘All Nighter Latte’, ‘Totally Wired to “Dad Nap” Espresso’ or ‘Hours Gym Class boost’. I’d just need to store and  roast the coffee beans and make the coffee in the right way to get the effect just right.

If you’re starting a cafe, you can have this idea, just let me have a few “Dad Naps” to say thanks.

Get what you want

We are what we eat, and we’re a little bit of what we drink, and we should maybe know a bit more about the effects of what we’re drinking. It’s the same with ideas. Sometimes we know what effect we want new ideas to have, to affect our mood or challenge us. Sometimes we don’t realise what we’re affected by.

We may be seeking reassurances that things will be OK, or that things are someone else’s fault. Validation for our point of view, and a prediction of a rosy future. Or an inevitable mess. Whatever makes us happy, or fuels or anger.

The is no shortage of people telling us how it’s gonna be, and moving so fast they never stop to face how wrong they were. Newspapers and politicians deal in future certainties, and explaining past complexity. It’s not surprising when that is what people are searching for. It’s what they crave, and it shouldn’t surprise us that it’s given to them.

The menu for this kind of thought contains ‘Blame someone else’, ‘You’re right to be worried’ and ‘Tell me everything is going to be OK.’.

If our current politicians and newspapers didn’t supply certainty, blame, hate and reassurances then politicians and newspapers that did would take their place. It’s how our system functions. The purpose is what it does, and we’re biased to want what often turns out to be bad for us.

What sort of thinking would you like?

So what sort of thinking is on the menu today? How did we get here? Who are we? What do we look like to other people? Are we making the same mistakes again? Why do people totally disagree with us? Could they also be right? What if we are all wrong?

Unlike coffee, we may need to create a demand for this sort of inquiry, and maybe soften the emotional hit it triggers. I can make you a coffee for that.


Workplace Systems Thinking Groups

This post is an overview of a talk by Tim James and Mike Haber at the SCIO open day in Manchester in October 2016. Pauline Roberts kindly made some great notes, and I’m using these notes as the basis of this post, and adding extra information and links.

At the talk in Manchester Mike and Tim gave an overview of some very powerful systems thinking work they have been doing in the workplace. Both have developed Systems Thinking groups in the workplace to share, support and learn from one another. Tim’s group is called Systems Thinkers Anonymous and Mike runs a strengths workshop. Both groups run for 1 hour per week over lunch time. 

The origin of this talk was a SCiO development day. These are days where systems practitioners meet to discuss practical problems they are dealing with. At a recent London Development Day Tim and Mike realised they were both facilitating systems thinking groups at their workplace, and although the groups were very different they had a lot of similarities. Looking at the differences and similarities has been really interesting.

Notes taken from SCiO open day by Tom Hitchman

Notes taken from SCiO open day by Tom Hitchman, @Carbonliteracy


How Mike’s Group Started

Mike started by running the introduction to systems thinking workshop “Draw Toast” with 45 people, and follow up sessions exploring boundaries using football matches as an example helping people start to think systemically. This was an example of using a single systems ideas, boundaries in this case, to investigate a situation. Mike had spoke at SCiO on this previously, and has a set of cards for workshops planned.

After these two sessions Mike asked a small number of colleagues who had attended previous sessions to investigate Clifton Strength’s Finder and Clean Language to see if using both ideas at the same time would be useful.

This group has been meeting weekly for about 10 months, and has moved to discuss more approaches, but in a largely unstructured meetings, using a lean coffee ish format. People bring their own ideas and situations.

Tim’s Group

Tim’s Systems Thinkers Anonymous group developed alongside a blog to engage and help others. The blog at has helped their learning and a wide audience has now been drawn in to share learning and encourage systems practice and systems thinking. Tim’s group is more structured, and looks at systems approaches from Burge Hughes Walsh Training and consultancy.  There is a wide range of approaches and Tim’s blog discusses how the group has applied these to their problems. There is suggested work to do before each session, and a structure to the learning.

Example of rich picture from Tims group

Example of rich picture from Tims group

Tim’s blog is a great narrative of how the group has run, and has some great examples of applied Systems Thinking, including lots of diagramming techniques, Soft Systems Methodology, Rich Pictures, and guests including Jean Boulton talking about complexity


Whilst both groups are about drawing people into systems thinking, one is very structured and one is more organic. This demonstrated the versatility of how systems thinking can be shared at a grass roots level in organisations.

There was a discussion about “safety” of the groups, both as a protection from those who may challenge the legitimacy of the group, and the safe spaces for discussion that were created.

The branding of learning was helpful – both groups use freely available materials that helps give legitimacy and openness to the groups – the materials are available to anyone.


Mike started using Clean Language as a way to model how people feel and  using Strengths Finder to understand how people work, and asked how the two pieces of information can support working relationships. The organic nature of the group allows emergence of topics for discussion that make people look at situations differently. The lack of agenda is its power. They are able to discuss things that would otherwise feel “unsafe” to talk about in the workplace. People are able to explore their own behaviour in a non-judgemental environment. Non Violent Communication was introduced as an amazing framework for doing this. He aims to explore Barry Oshry’s work next but the organic nature of the discussions will allow any topics prevail – whatever what people want to explore.

Tim has observed barriers being brought down and people feel they can talk about systems thinking in a way they never could before.

Tim noted there is a thirst for this kind of group due to the lack of training budgets in the NHS. Going into the systems thinking space is very different for those in the NHS. It is engaging and powerful and helps people look at the problems they are facing.



Do people think outside in or inside out? Are the groups on the outside, inside or are there some linear thinkers who are getting broader? And how this fits with the populations as a whole?

Tim – they have attracted people who would normally be attracted to the group. They have lost one or two but most have stayed.

Mike – similar to Tim, it’s people who are interested, but is quite rigorous calling out woolly thinking. There has been a definite shift towards practical systemic thinking in the group, and good practical examples of the use of the tools in work, and in other relationships.


Are the boundaries open?

Tim has taken in new members lately.

Mike – problems of scale as it is over lunch time. We definitely have a tight group, but are currently using the group to plan a series of three one hour workshops using Barry Oshhrys Power Systems framework.


Are either looking at a time when they can be an overt challenge to the organisation?

Tim- The blog – reflective text, way of engaging with other and also it can create autopoiesis – others could do the same if they wanted to.

Mike explained how people are starting to ask to be taught things about systems thinking there is an appetite for practical systems thinking, but it may need to be grass roots.

What do we get from the groups

What is emerging – fun! They are really enjoying their journey. There is a lot of work to set up a learning group but it is worth it. Whilst it isn’t for everyone most people are keen to support one another. Tim is doing project on public health, another on isolation (particularly for the elderly) and how to do commissioning for outcomes.

Shared ideas for Future Groups


Both groups meet weekly. If someone misses a meeting it’s a week until the next one, and there is a great benefit in running at the same time and day each week.

Content #1

The content of each group is sourced from books, websites and videos, and is open to anyone. There is no secrecy about the tools we’re using. Having a open source of content is important.

Content #2

The content the group discusses should reflect their interests, and if possible their issues.


Both groups we’re initiated by a person interested in a group forming, who was able to get people interested. There may be some work involved, but both groups now meet if the initiator is not there.

Planning /Purpose

Each groups started with a completely different purpose. Tim’s group had a syllabus. Mikes started with one lunchtime meeting to look at a couple of techniques to see if they had merit – like a academic peer review. It continued and looked at other ideas because there was a interest to do so.

Official Support

Neither group has official support or funding. Margaret Wheatleys “Proceed until apprehened” works here. The groups are authentic, and are not suspect to ‘fear of missing out’, or have members who are there because they need to be seen there. A downside is a lack of direct influence. This can also be an advantage, as people can simply behave differently, and explain why afterwards which can be powerful.

Safe Spaces 

The groups are safe spaces where difficult conversations can be held. In the case of Mikes group, the group is quite tight. It would be hard for new members to join due to the shared language and understanding that the group has.

Any new group would need to be mindful of this, although it is not a negative in itself.




Black Mirror: Playtest

downloadBlack Mirror is a Netflix series about the near future – what may happen if some trends go in particular directions. To be believable the writing needs a systemic understanding of how things may emerge and fit together, with story and twists that systemically fit the narrative.

I’m testing my systems analysis.


Initially, Playtest didn’t seem to have many systems to work with. It feels a familiar “what is reality?” question. In the near future we may not be able to tell virtual or augmented realities generated by ourselves from the real thing – and so how do we know when we have left them?

This is a greater dilemma when our fears create the virtual realities. Because we may fear not knowing what reality is, and we may fear loss of an anchor in our lives, a loss of control.  In this episode the main actor knows he’ll be in an augmented reality – having virtual images on top of reality – Pokemon go style. But he never leaves his chair, so is he in reality here, or are things already unreal?

A Hierarchy gives you somewhere to stand 

One way to think about reality is like a hierarchy. Real is at the top, and you can go down levels and come back up again. Back to top, which is definitely real. Having a known hierarchy is reassuring, everything’s all right, and you know where you are. There is somewhere objective to stand.

But systems are within systems. You can keep going out another layer, and this episode doesn’t let us know what level of reality we’re at, though it gives us some clues that we’re not at the top, if there even is a top.  Fear comes from not knowing where real is, realising that everything is subjective. There is nowhere in the universe that stays still for an objective viewpoint.

Journey as a Metaphor

There is a long introduction anchoring what we think as reality at the start. But could reality have already stopped? There was a traumatic event before the episode starts when the lead characters father dies. Going on a journey as he does is a metaphor. On the trip nothing seems to go wrong. Is reality already gone?

He slowly sees his reality go bad – and gets work in a computer games test lab.
It’s here he gets a medical implant, so he hears and sees, but doesn’t feel things that he thinks are on top  of reality, and not really there.

The experiment is to see how much fear he can tolerate, created by his own mind. His physical environment is real, but the frightening things in it, initially spiders and  spooky people are computer generated.

His radio connection to the game controller fails. Which is quite frightening, and is also a psychological fear of loss of someone overseeing you. Like to loss of his Father to Alzheimer’s.

This Reality isn’t reality.

There is then a twist, an unexpected ‘real life’  person turns up and tells him he’s in danger, and then stabs him – and he feels the pain for real. He then starts to hear the voice of the game controller in his ear as the voice in his head – it knows about his family, and how his father had Alzheimer’s and how he is now losing his memories.

We eventually pull back to seeing him in the experiment, having totally lost all of his memories, and not knowing who he is. And we pull back another level of reality. But are we real now? How frightening if we’re not yet real?

Finally he gets home, after a journey where he faces his worst fears, and his mum doesn’t recognise him. Another anchor to reality gone, and we go out another yet level of reality. Back to a familiar scene, but one that is still suspect, and has ties to conversations at other levels.

Onwards on shifting sands.

Despair Squid

An episode of Red Dwarf had a similar beginning. The crew  think that their lives were actually an immersion video game. And they had wasted 4 years playing really badly. They too woke up not remembering who they were (Dwayne Dilbley!), all done by the despair squid.

Black Mirror: White Bear and Nosedive.

downloadSpoiler Alerts! This post is my analysis of two Black Mirror shows, available on Netflix. Written by Charlie Brooker.

Black Mirror is about the near future – what may happen if some trends go in particular directions. To be believable the writing needs a systemic understanding of how things may emerge and fit together, with story and twists that systemically fit the narrative.

I’m testing my analysis skills, writing about the context and bigger picture that we see in the episodes. The analysis here is general. I’d like to look at future episodes using particular systems approaches that are suitable for the situation.

White Bear
Voyeuristic punishment for an evil crime. The perpetrator is punished in the same way, over and over while being watched by members of the public for their enjoyment.
At the end of each punishment day the perpetrator is given a cocktail of drugs, and appears to forget what she has done. She then re-lives the day again not realising what is going on, finally being made aware of her crime in front of an audience there to witness the event.

Apparently she was an accomplice to the torture and killing of a child, and went along with her partner, for reasons not explained.


A plus, ‘+’ on the arrow means that an increase or decrease in one leads to a similar increase or decrease in the other. A minus, ‘-‘ on the arrow means an increase leads to a decrease, and a decrease leads o an increase. I hope this makes sense.

White Bear shows the reoccurring punishment of someone who seemed to have no knowledge of the crime, or who and where she was. Her memory is erased by those punishing her, to make the punishment worse.
This was the purpose of the system, to cause the greatest amount of pain to someone guilty of a crime, and to have a theatre of punishment where people could pay to spectate and be part of the punishment. There was not an end to the punishment, although when it stopped attracting paying customers it may close, or if a more profitable punishment theatre opportunity arose it may be replaced.

If it lost popularity, and there was no one to be punished, then would the entertainment stop? Would hatred of a criminal be whipped up in the media to keep the entertainment going? A fake crime could be created, and actors used so that money can be made?

It wasn’t clear who was profiting financially from the punishment, or how the made sure that they always had a crime that it was profitable to punish? The people attending the punishment were enjoying seeing someone punished.

The woman being punished started each day not knowing who she was. Crimes are often contextual. People can do evil things if they are in the wrong environment, and manipulated with propaganda or controlled. From standing by while bad things happen to people who have been dehumanized by propaganda, to taking part in crimes without committing them (Eichmann) through to planning and committing crimes.

If someones identity is deliberately removed, they do not know who are where they are and have no context for their life, are they the same person who committed the crime? Without the context of their childhood, their experiences, and the influence of other people, someones life take a different path.

Removing someones knowledge about themselves and what they have done seems a cruel punishment designed to inflict pain on the person guilty of the crime, forcing them to relive (via videos and narrative) the situations that led to the crime, were another totally different outcome could have emerged in a different context. They learned of the crime they had committed but not the context that led up to it.

White Bear was a punishment whose occurrence is never-ending, while profitable for the organisation running it, provides continual suffering, with no end in sight.



Nosedive is about living in a society where  human interactions  are rated, as can posted videos and photos. There is  single 1-5 star scale, and each transaction goes towards someones total, from getting good service at a café, to cutting someone up in traffic, to a pleasant but insincere conversation in a lift.

Access to housing, jobs, and services including some medical services is dependent on your rating. There is a single rating for everything reducing the variety of life to a single 1-5 scale. This simplification massively reduces  complexity, and allows for simple judgements, analysis and action. Automation of access to services, events and jobs makes life in many ways quite fair (a conclusion from David Graebers Utopia of Rules).

The program mainly has “good-looking thin people” on it with high ratings and good jobs. People with lower ratings are seen doing more menial jobs. Rating are affected by things like being on the wrong side of a relationship breakup, leading to someone losing their job. – Their ‘friends’ could help their rating, but would risk being down voted by their peers – The interactions seem quite naïve given the Machiavellian power and influence struggles that would become a part of this society.


In this world there is a massive reduction in variety. Judging people by 1 metric. It seems to have made people 1 dimensional in their interactions, with an emphasis on getting good feedback. There are feedback loops here – people who give 5 stars expect to get 5 back and complain if not. There is deeper thought – and it’s acknowledged that everything is about ratings, but this is expressed under duress, so any discussion of this is clearly dangerous.

When people accidentally bump into each other then the person responsible gets down rated to lose points. In reality though blame is not so straightforward. People rarely admit to being wrong while driving for example, so these interactions must be lose / lose for both parties. The developing story is about how someone falls from a high to low rating rapidly by simply being annoyed in an understandable human way.

There are at least 2 types of people in Nosedive, and different types of relationships.

  • There are those who care about ratings and whose relationships are about improving their ratings average. Getting rated highly by a higher individual is a goal, but can reflect badly on the higher rated person, and interactions are all about being rated highly.
  • There are those who don’t care about ratings. We only meet one of these people, who does appear to have a job, and was, once, highly rated.
  • Relationships can be not usually rated – like close friends and siblings. Conversations here can be much more real and deeper, but can still be rated.

There are interesting parts of the show where there are discussions with experts who will help people improve their rating – there is clearly a formulae about the network graph of your interactions, and if you’re rated by service workers, family, or people with lots of connections there are different weights applied. It’s not clear if these experts work for the company who does the ratings, or are independent. Or most likely some hybrid of independent with insider information.

It’s not clear who runs the rating software, or who implements the rules. The rules have a deep influence on how the society runs – what is valued and how conversation flows. I think it’s fair to say that saying you’re not OK, need help, or have done something wrong is not going to be rated well. Yet the society still appears to function. With certain jobs, houses and products only available to highly ranked people want to be rated highly.

Similar systems already exist for Facebook, where algorithms decide who sees your posts. More popular people and posts get more exposure. People often post in a way they hope to be popular, rather than be, say, true or real. And discounts are already available if you like a businesses page, and then  use that business.  Facebook has apologised for experimenting with users emotions already. There are many ways this could be used and misused, however as a human feedback mechanism there is no time for reflection. The feedback may be done quickly by Dr Steve Peters Chimp part off the brain, which is unlikely to react thoughtfully.

Would an alternative system appear? Would there be places where you could interact with people in mean and nasty ways? Would someone sell you this service? (of course they would:-).

Would there be parts of society with no ratings? Would this even be legal? Could you buy ratings, with cash or sex rather than fake niceness?

A real ‘nasty’ exchange does occur in  a police cell at the end of the show, with a cathartic exchange of insults between people with nothing to lose, which, although authentic is still chimp talk.

Comments welcome.

Strengths and Clean Language Workshop write up #2

14066249_515711648626681_8301159928151854476_oWe have a regular group sessions at the University of Nottingham,  in the calendar as ‘Strengths Workshop’. We bring topics and situations to discuss using Clifton Strengths Finder, Clean Language metaphor modelling and Non Violent Communication. We also cover the Viable Systems Model, eastern and western philosophy, cognitive biases, complex adaptive systems and other bits of experience and knowledge we have.  

Tuesday 6th September 2016. Mike, DavidVH, DavidR and Eleonora.

To start today I offer a connection I’ve made that looks like a practical use of philosophy. I show the School of Life Wittgenstein Video, that summarises his work as wanting to help us use language more effectively. There is an especially interesting bit about the ‘games we play with language’.

Wittgenstein examples

When a parent says to a frightened child everything will be OK they can’t know that, they are not playing the “Rational prediction from available facts game”, they are playing the  “words as an instrument of comfort and security game”

“If ones partner says you never help me you are so unreliable” they are not playing a “stating the facts” game, so respond how you got some vegetables yesterday, and put petrol in the car may not work. They are playing the help and reassurance game.

A similar example from Marshall B. Rosenberg’s NVC book would highlight the judgement in the “you never help me” statement, look at the facts and emotions, and then try to understand the needs – again help and reassurance.

Wittgenstein’s (and Marshall’s too maybe) point is that all types of misunderstands occur when we misunderstand which kind of game someone is Involved in.

Rosenberg’s NVC book seems to have lots of examples of the author understanding the games people are playing, and systematically putting the understanding into  ‘observable facts’ feelings, and needs .

In the group David asks about the goal of Non Violent Communication? Is it to avoid issues by doing all the mental work to understand someone who is perhaps not being clear? Will this just encourage bad communication?

We’re unsure that doing the mental heavy lifting for people may foster bad patterns, with people not needing to explain themselves, when they get what they need by triggering the other person to do the work of understanding.

We divert to work and home issues – and suggest a few areas where NVC and clean questions would be helpful.

An example from a recent holiday offered for discussion:

Family on holiday

Mum : I’m feeling a bit peckish.

Dad : OK (Thinking: that’s not really hungry, right)

30 mins later…

Mum: I’m really hungry and the café doesn’t look very good.

Dad: OK. There’s that place down the road we saw yesterday. That’s nearby.

Get to restaurant 10 minutes later, and 20 people just got there in front of us……

Child: It’s Ok, just 20 mins walk to town, we’ll get something there.

Mum : I’m not walking into town. I’ve already walked for over an hour before you were all up.

Dad: We could get the bus if that’s too far.

Mum: You know I hate buses. You didn’t listen to me! You’re all shits……

We asked “what is the game that Mum is playing”. It’s maybe the ‘I’m hungry now, but I don’t want to have to tell you all we need to eat now. But that’s what I’d like. Then ‘did you not hear me the first time’, then – “I’ve told you 2 times already”.

In the group there we discussed  a lot of different cultural and family differences to food. These included

  • not ever saying you’re hungry in certain company (and taking lots of snacks to eat when visiting)
  • “kids always finish what you’re given” / “kids only eating what they choose” in two groups of the same family, with tension and crying at mealtimes when they meet.
  • hangovers from childhood about not always saying you’re hungry  – especially passed down from grandparents who lived though WW2 in Poland and Mainland Europe.

What would a ‘language games’ / NVC analysis say. Can we break down ‘Mum is saying she’s peckish. To say that, she’s hungry enough to mention going for food, but we know she doesn’t ever like to suggest eating, so she’s saying she needs to eat really soon.

We also discussed the sterility of NVC communication. How it’s normal and healthy to be angry, vent a bit and be passionate sometimes. How cathartic it can be, and how suffocating NVC can be.

Misunderstanding Needs at Work

If we put the food conversation into a work perspective, we’re often asked – ”

  • can you squeeze this work in
  • no rush, whenever
  • when you get time

Is this the same as ‘I’m a bit peckish”, and is there a similar short amount of time from “can you just do this work, no rush” to the business version of “You’re all shits!”. Much laughing in the group, a nerve was hit.

So there were a few threads coming together in this workshop.

  • How should we react when we need to do the “mental work” of understanding?
  • Can we use clean questions if we don’t know the person enough to understand the language game they are playing?

Sometimes, just understand peoples needs 

In the food discussion, a immediate  response to “I’m peckish” of “OK, lets get something to eat” – cutting out the unnecessary NVC –  would have been best. No need to explain that you have unpacked their communication.

The passionate response to “you shits” perhaps, “yeah, well you ate the last Weetabix and didn’t pack me enough underwear” may not work so well. If you’re on holiday with someone, do the mental work.

At work though, do you want to set up unhelpful patterns? Would you like people to say what they mean and understand when communication is not working? It sounds a bit odd but “what sort of moment is the moment you want me to do this work in?” is a clean question you may want to ask, or at least have an answer to.

Maybe to be continued, we seemed to cover practical uses of philosophy, NVC and Clean Language quite well this week.