Monday, September 22, 2014

Public speaking wasn’t Malcolm Gladwell’s greatest fear

At my local public library I found Brian Lamb’s new book, Sundays at Eight: 25 Years of Stories from C-Span’s Q&A and Booknotes. One chapter titled Writing Bestsellers is about Malcolm Gladwell and starts on page 218. (You can watch the whole 2009 interview here). He says that:

“All of us who do this speech business know that it can be a very good living....I don’t get nervous before public speaking, even though I am kind of a nervous person. Years ago, I used to be a competitive runner and would get insanely nervous before big races, so much so that I wouldn’t be able to sleep for weeks beforehand. Ever since then, everything else I’ve ever had to do, I think, ‘Is it as scary as running a race? No, it’s not’, I never get nervous. I really like giving talks; the discipline of being forced to tell a story in front of a group of people and explain yourself through spoken word, as opposed to written, is very important for a writer. They are skills that beautifully translate to the task of writing on paper. Since I started to do my speaking, I think I have become a much better storyteller. The other thing crucial about it is that it forces you to get outside your world. That’s hugely important if you are going to do as I do, nonfiction journalism. I am by nature somewhat reserved and reclusive. But I need, by virtue of my job, to meet people, hear about new ideas and stories, and get different perspectives.

I meet people I would never in a million years have met before. It constantly replenishes my store of information about the world....More often you start to chat with somebody who does something totally different from you, and they tell you something that is incredibly interesting. They do not realize that it is interesting, because it is familiar to them....This is one of my rules of conduct, since everyone is interesting, I really, honestly, seriously believe that when people are taking about the things that they know well and do well, they are almost always interesting. If they are not, it’s generally your fault, because you are not asking the right questions, or you have made them uncomfortable. Once I learned that lesson, my journalism became easier.” 

Gladwell’s answer to “Where do you get your ideas?” was I ask people questions, and then listen to their answers. Neil Gaiman’s fiction-writing answer was that “I make them up. Out of my head.”

In August on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs Gladwell gave a 42-minute interview.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

An inconvenient Indian - Tom King, The Truth About Stories, and the Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour

In my last post I referred to Sarah de Leew’s magazine article Telling stories about stories. She mentioned a great storyteller, Canadian author Thomas King. This year Tom’s nonfiction history book, The Inconvenient Indian, won the RBC Booker Prize. The Toronto Star reviewed it, and Huffington Post interviewed him. Back in 2008, when he unsuccessfully ran for Parliament, the New York Times had an article about him. 

Sarah repeatedly referenced King’s 2003 book The Truth About Stories: a native narrative, which collected his 2003 Massey Lectures. You can read the first chapter here. Each lecture opens with a variation on the same story:

“There is a story I know. It’s about the earth and how it floats in space on the back of a turtle. I’ve heard this story many times, and each time someone tells the story, it changes. Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller. Sometimes the change is in the details. Sometimes in the order of events. Other times it’s the dialogue or the response of the audience. But in all the tellings of all the tellers, the world never leaves the turtle’s back. And the turtle never swims away.

One time, it was in Prince Rupert I think, a young girl in the audience asked about the turtle and the earth. If the earth was on the back of the turtle, what was below the turtle? Another turtle, the storyteller told her. And below that turtle? Another turtle. And below that? Another turtle.

The girl began to laugh, enjoying the game I imagine. So how many turtles are there? she wanted to know. The storyteller shrugged. No one knows for sure, he told her, but it’s turtles all the way down.

The truth about stories is that that’s all we are....”

You can listen to all five 52-minute lectures on YouTube:

Lecture 1: You’ll Never Believe What Happened Is Always A Great Way To Start

Lecture 2: You’re Not The Indian I Had In Mind

Lecture 3: Let Me Entertain You

Lecture 4: A Million Porcupines Crying In The Dark

Lecture 5: What Is It About Us That You Don’t Like

Tom also created an outrageous CBC radio show called The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour. Actually it was only 15-minutes long, highly ironic, and supposedly originated from the fictional town of Blossom, Alberta. There were two Cree characters, Jasper Friendly Bear and Gracie Heavy Hand, along with Tom as straight man. Each episode closed with an admonition to:

“Stay calm; be brave; wait for the signs.”

One feature was Trust Tonto (where our listeners can write in with their questions about Canadian culture, and get totally unbiased answers). For example, when a listener asked:

“Just wanted to know if there was any place in Canada where natives outnumbered whites?” 

Jasper’s answer was: “Prisons!”

Jasper also had a set of three wheels of fortune for generating Authentic Indian Names. He said Jane Fonda should be called Barbara Floppy Tomahawk. Back then Fonda was married to Ted Turner, who owned the Atlanta Braves. Their fans toted and chopped with floppy foam tomahawks as shown here.

Gracie had a feature called Reserve Recipes, which started to give one for Puppy Stew (as you might expect based on the name of her café).

You can listen to all 12 episodes from the first season here on YouTube.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

More great stories from Canadian family physicians

In January 2014 Canadian Family Physician magazine published three stories that had won the annual AMS-Miriam Divinsky awards in the preceding year. They are introduced via an article by Sarah de Leeuw on page 65 titled Telling Stories About Stories. Sarah describes them as follows: 

“Dr Vivienne Lemos’s story Fledgling recounts the way that a story provides a lifesaving bond between a physician and the father of a critically ill child. Taking place in an isolated northern location, the story turns on the need for an indigenous man to accompany his desperately sick child to a hospital in Toronto, Ont., a city he has never been to, which frightens him terribly. The physician, with an incredible reliance on narrative medicine, tells the story of what the father can expect upon arriving in Toronto, allowing the father to feel safe on his next journey with his daughter. Sometimes a story is the most powerful medicine—exactly what is needed to convince a father to travel with the daughter who will not live without him.

If more evidence is needed about the role that fathers have in shaping—and saving—lives, we can easily turn to Dr Catherine Hudon’s personal essay, Merci papa (Thanks dad). Merci papa is a grand, arching narrative that crosses many years and spans the coming of age of a physician who begins from a place of being inspired by her father and, after years of hard work and critical questioning, returns to a place of being inspired by her father. What is important to note in the essay is that it is through stories—by listening to the stories that her father tells of practice and patients—that Dr Hudon is inspired to become a physician herself, and to then tell us, the readers, her own stories of what she does and what she has gone through. Stories are the very stuff of physicians’ lives and practices.

Dr Alex Kmet is a remarkable physician-storyteller. And he is an avid reader, something very evident in his deft use of metaphor to enliven one of the most profound narratives that humans speak to each other about: being close to someone who dies. In Alex’s narrative-making hands, scissors transform into 'metal prey' and a yellow plastic allergy bracelet becomes a ‘serpent’s poisonous coil.’ At the heart of Dr Kmet’s story, Little Things Matter, is a remarkable lesson—the only thing we have upon exiting the world is the connections we have made with each other. And so the little things do matter: Making someone comfortable. Building some kind of relationship. And, in the end, honouring them by telling the story of what you remember of them and what you learned from them.”

Sarah also describes how at age 12 she volunteered in the Queen Charlotte City General Hospital, and sat with Charlotte, the oldest living Haida person on the globe. She read her stories, and also listened to but did not understand her stories in Haida. The image from Wikimedia Commons shows a sculpture by Bill Reid of the Haida creation story, which likely was a story that Charlotte told.

In August 2013 I blogged about Best stories told by Canadian family physicians: the AMS-Mimi Divinsky Awards.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Crisis of the day

Cable TV news networks should give us explicit guidance. Show us both what we should be scared of, and when. It used to be that politicians just would:

“Point with pride, view with alarm, end with hope.”

Now the media view everything with alarm.

Afterwards the networks can recap the top crises of the week, and the top thirty for the month (like the record charts in Billboard magazine).     

Saturday, September 13, 2014

It’s time to play What’s My Phobia?

At a curious web site called I found a page with an Ultimate List labeled What’s Your Phobia? showing the top fifteen most common ones. This was not a survey using a randomly selected sample. A total of 892 people had voted for a total of 5,228 times to rank and rerank those items, resulting in the total scores shown below on a bar chart. (Click on it to see a larger, clearer version).

The top five were:

1. Enclosed spaces
2. Heights
3. Spiders
4. Snakes
5. Death

The next five were:

6. Clowns
7. Needles
8. Sharks
9. Insects
10. Dentists

The final five were:

11. Public speaking
12. Flying
13. The Dark
14. Bees
15. Deep Water

Note that both sharks and bees are on the list. Public speaking came in 11th, and ranked below both death and sharks (but above bees).

The image of Rep. Everett M. Dirksen came from the Library of Congress

Monday, September 8, 2014

Please don’t spread nonsense on Twitter

Back on April 17, 2013 UberFacts tweeted a dubious claim that:

“Every 3 out of 4 people have glossophobia, the fear of public speaking.”

This year on June 17th UberFacts retweeted it, and on August 30th they spread it yet again.

Obvious replies to this nonsense would include:

How do you know this?
Where did this really come from?
Did someone do a survey?
When was it done?
Who was surveyed?
Where was it reported?
(Make a TinyURL, and give us a link).

On February 3rd I blogged about Busting a myth - that 75% of people in the world fear public speaking. I noted that the 3 out of 4 people claim really came from a shyness survey of U. S. college students reported back in 1977, and the situation actually was “Where I am focus of attention - large group (as when giving a speech.”

Back on November 9, 2013 I blogged about How Scary is public speaking or performance? A better infographic showing both fears and phobias. I noted that 21.2% of U.S. adults feared public speaking/performance. There were even lower percentages reported in developed (13.0%) and developing countries (9.4%). When we round them off, we can say instead that:

“Just 1 of 8 people in developed countries, and 1 of 10 people in developing countries fears public speaking.”

The gargoyle image at Paisley Abbey came from Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The joy of how stuff works

I’ve been enjoying reading Professor Mark Miodownik’s new book Stuff Matters, which is subtitled Exploring the Marvelous Materials that Shape Our Man-Made World. He does an excellent job of telling personal stories about ten very different materials, and then ties them together with a synthesis. His chapters are titled:

Indomitable (steel)
Trusted (paper)
Fundamental (concrete)
Delicious (chocolate)
Marvelous (aerogel)
Imaginative (cellulose nitrate and plastics)
Invisible (glass)
Unbreakable (diamond and carbon)
Refined (china and ceramics)
Immortal (biomedical materials)

On page 6 of the first chapter about steel and other metals he says that:

“It may be odd to think that metals are made of crystals, because our typical image of a crystal is of a transparent and highly faceted gemstone such as a diamond or emerald. The crystalline nature of metals is hidden from us because metal crystals are opaque, and in most cases microscopically small. Viewed through a electron microscope, the crystals in a piece of metal look like crazy paving, and inside those crystals are squiggly lines - these are dislocations. They are defects in the metal crystals, and represent deviations in the otherwise perfect crystalline arrangement of the atoms - they are atomic disruptions that shouldn’t be there. They sound bad, but turn out to be very useful. Dislocations are what make metals so special as materials for tools, cutting edges, and ultimately the razor blade, because they allow the metal crystals to change shape.

You don’t need to use a hammer to experience the power of dislocations. When you bend a paper clip, it is in fact the metal crystals that are bending. If they didn’t bend, the paper clip would be brittle and snap like a stick. This plastic behavior is achieved by the dislocations moving within the crystal. As they move they transfer small bits of material from one side of the crystal to the other. They do this at the speed of sound. As you bend a paper clip, you are causing approximately 100,000.000,000,000 dislocations to move at a speed of thousands of hundreds of meters per second. Although each one only moves a tiny piece of the crystal (one atomic plane in fact) there are enough of them to allow the crystal to behave like a super-strong plastic rather than a brittle rock.”

Professor Miodownik illustrates those two paragraphs with a simple sketch. (There are obviously severe economic limits on how you can illustrate a book). Some readers may be surprised to find that metals are crystals.

One place where you can see large metal crystals is on a hot-dip galvanized (zinc coated) steel product, like the corrugated beam guard rail shown above by the north side of Crescent Rim Drive in Boise.

To understand how dislocations move a little bit of a crystal at a time, think about moving a rug on your living room floor a few feet to the left. As shown above, one way is to grab the left end and pull all of it at once. Another is to kick the right end to create a bump, and then push the bump along.

The bump on a rug is a local disturbance or defect, like a dislocation. Gliding a dislocation from right to left as shown above (by the downward pointing red arrow), eventually moves one atomic plane across a crystal.  

In the last chapter Miodownik has a drawing that describes six scales ranging down from human to atomic. I’ve summarized it above in a table. When I described how stainless steels work, I used a similar set of scales with explicit powers of ten.

The schematic dislocation image came from Wikimedia Commons.