Tonight’s Blue Moon in History and Song

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the expression “blue moon” usually has nothing to do with the moon’s color.

Tonight’s full moon is a “blue moon,” meaning it’s the second full moon of December 2009 — one of those things that doesn’t happen very often, as the moon is full every 28 days and the longest months are 31 days. We get a blue moon once every two or three years.

History of the Blue Moon

Historically, the phrase “blue moon” has been used mostly as a general term for a very unusual event, according to the Wikipedia entry. It’s only been used to refer to the second full moon in a month since 1946.

Wikipedia gives two alternative explanations for the origin of the term:

1. A 1528 pamphlet critical of the clergy, which ranted that “Yf they say the mone is belewe / We must believe that it is true.” So this indicates that the phrase was used to refer to “absurdities and impossibilities” in general.

2. The other explanation rests on an alternative meaning for “belewe” in Old English: betrayer. In this case, the moon could be called a betrayer if it led to a mistake in calculating when Easter should occur.

The Blue Moon in Song

The “Blue Moon” has been the subject of popular songs — following are some of the greatest (all these links take you to samples of the cuts mentioned):

“Blue Moon” — Maybe the best-known version is the doo-wop version recorded by the Marcels in 1961. The song was actually written in 1934 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. It’s been recorded by many artists, but my personal favorite is Bob Dylan’s version on his 1989 Self Portrait album.

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” — A bluegrass song written by Bill Monroe, but also recorded in a more rockin’ version by Elvis Presley. I think my favorite version, though, is the one by Patsy Cline.

“Blue Moon Nights” — Appears on John Fogerty’s excellent solo album Blue Moon Swamp.

“Once in a Very Blue Moon” — My favorite “blue moon” song of all is this exquisite number by Nancy Griffith, co-written with Pat Alger.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry does say that sometimes the moon actually can look blue because of smoke or dust in the atmosphere.

AB — 31 December 2009

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Michael Ventris, the Decipherment of Linear B, and the Value of Cross-Fertilization

Reading Andrew Robinson’s fascinating book Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts (2002, McGraw-Hill), I recently learned the amazing story of the decipherment of the Linear B script by amateur philologist Michael Ventris in the 1950s.

The story brings home some important lessons about innovation:

  • Be willing and eager to collaborate
  • Take advantage of cross-fertilization by bringing in perspectives and skills from diverse disciplines
  • Fight against your personal prejudices and keep yourself open to new ways of looking at things

Linear B is a script discovered on the island of Crete by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Evans never deciphered Linear B, as he had fallen too much in love with certain precious ideas, chiefly his belief that the culture he had uncovered through his excavations at Knossos was a great noble civilization (which he called “Minoan”) that had dominated the Aegean in ancient times.

As it turned out, Linear B was a syllabic script used to write ancient Greek. However, the decipherment of the script was delayed by many decades because Evans was reluctant to share the inscriptions with other scholars.

When death finally wrested the inscriptions from Evans’s hands in 1941, other scholars were able to begin a concerted effort at decipherment.

Although it was Ventris’s genius primarily that cracked the script, he didn’t do it alone, which is a crucial point.

Although a brilliant scholar with a lifelong fascination for Linear B, Ventris was in fact not a professional philologist or linguist.

Ventris was an architect, and I think his architectural training, discipline, and practices were an important contributing factor in his success with Linear B.

It’s interesting to note that Ventris’s grid-based system for decipherment is reminiscent of the schedules architects use to lay out information in their drawings.

But more important for Ventris’s success with Linear B was his value of collaboration, also an important architectural practice.

Robinson quotes classicist Thomas Palaima describing Ventris’s practice of “group working, hypothesizing and brainstorming” and adds that

In other words, he did not believe in the idea of the genius who works solo and finally solves a problem by his own sheer unaided brainpower …

Ventris explained in writing and in tremendous detail each stage of his attack on Linear B, and then circulated these neatly type “Work Notes” (Ventris’s name for them) to other scholars for comments and contradictions.

Much of what he hypothesized turned out to be irrelevant or wrong, but this did not stop him from showing it to the professionals. And it appears that he did take this whole approach from his work as an architect.

To me this stresses the immense value of multi-disciplinary teams, cross-fertilization, and collaborative approaches in all kinds of innovation work.

Also important was Ventris’s humility and willingness to recognize his own errors, in contrast to Evans’s stubborn insistence on his Minoan theory.

Ventris and other scholars had for a time favored the idea that Linear B was used to write the Etruscan language. However, after it became evident that the Linear B language was Greek, writes Robinson,

… in a measured and slightly diffident voice [Ventris] announced his discovery on BBC radio, publicly renouncing his long-cherished Etruscan hypothesis … As John Chadwick much later said of Ventris: “The most interesting fact about his work is that it forced him to propose a solution contrary to his own preconceptions.”

This is a worthy example for all experts, who are far too inclined to hop on a particular hobby-horse and just keep on riding it for their entire careers.

These lessons bring to mind some research that we have done at the Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations in the area of cross-functional teaming, a valuable process for innovation work.

(Most of our reports are limited-circulation and confidential. However, we do sometimes quote them as I will do here, and a few of our reports are available on request.)

Here are some points on the value of team diversity in product design from one of our reports:

Bringing people from many disciplines and functions together in design teams offers great potential as a strategy to produce innovative products. However, such diversity also lays the groundwork for conflict. Thus team leaders and company management need to manage team diversity so all members can be effective and make their contribution.

Mitzi Montoya, Zelnak Professor of Marketing at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and executive director of the Services and Product Innovation Management Initiative at the school, says that companies need to recognize the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication and “put processes in place that will manage that inevitable consequence.” The problems that arise from team diversity “have to do with how the organization is structured, who those people report to. It often has nothing to do with the project itself.”

Bob Pagano of Red Sky Insights points out that diversity can bring value to the product design process by putting blue-sky innovators in the same room with more hard-nosed practical players.

You’re going to have some people around the table who are really creative and are going to look at the assignment with a really open mind. You want to have some very creative people early on who might see something outside the normal way of doing things. If they say something really bizarre, we don’t necessarily want to discourage that.

But you also need some enforcers, the ones who are going to put up the barriers, the ones who will push back, but trying to reach a common ground. They might say, ‘Well, that’s interesting. Let’s see if we can do that within the rules on the retail end.’ It’s kind of a give and take to see that nothing gets overlooked.

In our ILO report, we also found that, aside from their contributions from a functional perspective, individual team members contribute different personal qualities to the life and work of a product design team. These different characteristics can offer value in unique ways and can come into play at different stages in the process:

Innovation consultant Stephen M. Shapiro, previously an Accenture consultant, believes that it is important to “understand the various innovation styles of team players” to make use of their distinctive strengths.

Speaking with ILO researchers, Shapiro explained how he classifies these styles:

Analytical people tend to be more focused on intellectual activities and often find flaws in everything.

Structured people want to know the plans and how things will be carried out. They also are a bit more critical but are more action oriented.

Creative individuals are cerebral yet like to think broadly. They are enthusiastic and generators of new ideas. But they are often poor at implementation.

Relationship-oriented people are needed to get anything done as they can engage the organization. But they often are too focused on consensus, which is a barrier to innovation.

Shapiro believes that “once people understand their styles and the associated strengths and weaknesses, they can be more effective in how they work together.” In his view:

The innovation process goes from analytical—define the problem . . .

to creative—define solutions . . .

to structured—define plans . . .

to relationship-oriented—engage the organization.

Thus, the various players’ personal styles can come to the fore at different stages of the group’s work.

But do team diversity and cross-fertilization translate into financial results?

Our work on this report suggested that that less diverse teams tend to produce better financial results overall than highly diverse teams. However, if the company is seeking high-value breakthrough results, it is more likely to achieve those through greater diversity in design team membership:

Lee Fleming, business administration professor at Harvard Business School, writes in Harvard Business Review that highly diverse, cross-disciplinary innovation teams introduce certain risks (“Perfecting Cross-Pollination,” September 2004). After researching 17,000 patents, he believes that

The financial value of the innovations resulting from such cross-pollination is lower, on average, than the value of those that come out of more conventional, siloed approaches. In other words, as the distance between the team members’ fields or disciplines increases, the overall quality of the innovations falls.

However, he adds a big but:

But my research also suggests that the breakthroughs that do arise from such multidisciplinary work, though extremely rare, are frequently of unusually high value—superior to the best innovations achieved by conventional approaches.

Fleming comments that “when members of a team are cut from the same cloth,” as with a group of all marketing professionals, “you don’t see many failures, but you don’t see many extraordinary breakthroughs either.”

However, as team members’ fields begin to vary, “the average value of the team’s innovations falls while the variation in value around that average increases. You see more failures, but you also see occasional breakthroughs of unusually high value.”

AB — 21 Nov. 2009

Why I can’t play piano

I just decided today that I can’t play piano because of my first-grade teacher’s southern accent.

For my first few days in the first-grade classroom of Miss Margaret Mackintosh at Mount Vernon Goodwin Elementary School in Raleigh, NC, in 1957, I was puzzled by the kids who left the classroom at odd times during the day to take Miss Margaret “out.”

I couldn’t understand why Miss Margaret would need little kids to take her out, presumably to dinner. I was even more puzzled because Miss Margaret did not go with them on these mysterious excursions. How could they take Miss Margaret out when she didn’t even go with them?

Later I learned I had been the victim of a linguistic difference between Miss Margaret and the dialect I learned at home. Miss Margaret was not in fact asking to be taken to dinner. She was inviting students to take piano, which she pronounced as “pee-ann-uh.”

Unfortunately, the piano-lessons boat had already left the dock, and I had missed my opportunity.

AB — 10 Sept., 2009

Video: Anne Sullivan demonstrates how she taught Helen Keller to speak out loud

Here’s a fascinating video, reportedly from a 1930 newsreel, in which Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan shows how she taught Keller to speak out loud.

In the video, Keller places her hand in such a way that she can feel Sullivan’s larynx with her thumb, lips with her first finger, and nose with her middle finger. This allows her to understand which sounds Sullivan is making and to repeat them and put them together into syllables and words.

The video is short but amazing to watch (linked from YouTube):

AB — 20 August 2009

The Whistling Language of Gomera Island

Whistling is used as a mode of language in some cultures, especially where there is a need to communicate at large distances — whistling sounds can carry a long way and can be used to simulate spoken words.

Yesterday on Boing Boing, Joshua Foer wrote about Silbo, the whistling language of La Gomera, one of Spain’s Canary Islands — see “The Whistling Island of La Gomera.”

The following video, linked from YouTube, gives a fascinating demostration of Silbo. The speaker describes the features of the island using only Silbo, with subtitles in Spanish.

After listening to the speaker for only a minute or so, I believe I was able to discern that numbers are expressed as quick chirps at different pitches, and that some words are distinguished by a rising or falling tone, as in tonal languages like Mandarin.

Foer, who writes the Atlas Obscura blog, says that Silbo nearly became extinct in the 1990s, but efforts by Gomera inhabitants have led to the language’s inclusion in school curricula on the island — see “The Whistling Island.” He writes that Silbo has more than 4,000 words.

For more information about Gomera and the Silbo language, see this web site.

AB — 20 June 2009

Spin and Rhetorical Intimidation

[Updated 23 Oct. 2009]

I’ve been interested for a long time in how people use language to market or “spin” their own points of view, to one-up and intimidate others rhetorically, to use implication and insinuation to make the other side look bad. (See “Rhetorical Intimidation” and “Spin and Gaffes.”)

I think of “spin” as manipulation of words to further one’s own quest for dominance or superiority. One thing I wrote in my “Spin and Gaffes” entry is that I suspect that:

… spin is employed much more often than we acknowledge, in all kinds of situations, and can be very hard to identify and expose. I think it is often used as a tool to gain power by rhetorical intimidation.

This takes place in all kinds of arenas — including more public arenas such as politics, academia, science, and marketing — but also in groups and interpersonally.

In my “Rhetorial Intimidation” post I gave examples of some words and phrases that are used to gain the upper hand in disputes. Examples are “pure and simple,” “just plain wrong,” “There is no dispute that,” “nonsense,” and “utter.” Terms like these are used to add artificial certainty to an assertion or to cast someone else’s idea as inferior and unreliable.

Why do people use terms like these?

One possible reason is they truly think that somehow it advances their cause or agenda. It plays to the prejudice of listeners or readers and perhaps makes them less likely to listen to the other side.

In this case, motivations can be political — using rhetoric to influence fellow citizens and lawmakers can be a tool to gain political ends, such as securing a certain freedom, enforcing certain moral behavior in society, or obtaining funding or government intervention toward a given issue.

Another possible reason is more psychological — people use this kind of language because it reinforces their sense of moral superiority.

The potential harm of spin and rhetorical intimidation is that they can shut off dialogue and discourse by appealing to emotion, sentiment, or prejudice. Each person on his or her own side can resort to insults and labels and thus avoid having to really listen to what the other person has to say.

Recently I have thought of some additional terms that are used to exert spin in discussion or public discourse, to intimidate, or, put more neutrally, to persuade. Consider:

Pseudo-science

In my “Rhetorical Intimidation” entry I referred to this as a term “used to describe an area of inquiry that conflicts with your own deeply-held opinions.”

“Pseudo-science” was once used by Tom Cruise to disparage psychiatry. It is often used to describe any investigation into the paranormal, and is “sometimes used by partisans on either side of the evolution-intelligent design debate to describe one another’s models,” as I wrote previously.

A related term that has emerged and is used more and more frequently now is:

Anti-Science

I have heard this term used to disparage people who oppose the destruction of human embryos for use in research, people who doubt whether human activity is causing harmful climate change, and people who doubt that darwinian processes could be responsible for the development of all varieties of life and who doubt that life could have arisen spontaneously.

Although disparagers lump all these points of view under the single “anti-science” label, these are in fact very distinct issues, and science informs both sides of all these issues in very different ways. Many people who hold these points of view are in fact very well informed about the science involved.

-deniers

This epithet is starting to appear now in similar contexts with “Pseudo-Science” and “Anti-Science” as discussed above. The utterer attaches “-deniers” to some ideological position to cast their own position as superior and the “denier” as ignorant, deluded, or evil.

Few would argue that Holocaust deniers have any rational claims to make. However, the “-denier” label is now being used to cast in a negative light those who think there are reasonable arguments against evolution and global warming.

As in other cases of rhetorical spin, the “-deniers” label serves only to cut off dialogue. Indeed, that seems to be one of the important purposes of the label.

Anti-Business

Writing about “anti-science” reminded me of this label, which I have seen used by partisans of particular business practices that are under attack.

Someone once accused me of being “anti-business” because I wrote an article discouraging companies from using spam email advertising as a marketing method. (The original article is still online — see “10 Reasons Not to Spam.”)

In fact, I’ve been in business for many years and have used email as a marketing communications tool myself. So I’m hardly anti-business or anti-marketing in any real sense. The person who made this accusation was evidently in a business that involved sending unwanted email to Internet users, and he wanted to try to score some points against me by painting me with the “anti-business” label.

Political correctness

One of the most interesting things I’ve noticed about this term is that, curiously, it is used about matters that are only tangentially political, if at all. It seems to me the “PC” label is applied as a kind of excuse not to show sensitivity toward someone else’s minority status, ethnicity, or disability.

Ideology

Nowadays this term is only used to describe someone else’s ideology, never one’s own.

Bigotry and Homophobia

Certainly hatred and fear are involved in the attitudes of many people toward gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, many sincere people subscribe to religions that proscribe homosexuality among their members. Not all such people and not all such religions are motivated by hatred or fear, and not all such people intend to limit the legal rights of gays and lesbians. What purpose does it serve to cut off communication by labeling such people with insulting terms?

Cult and Sect

Often these terms are used to label unpopular minority religions that are said to be unorthodox. But what should really be the standard for judging what is orthodox? Surely it is not simply the fact that a religious group is unpopular or a minority.

Over the years, I’ve changed my mind on a number of important questions, and I’ve seen other people change their minds as well. In most cases, dialogue with others has been an important factor.

Not that we are always going to change sides on an issue, but at least through dialogue we can understand others’ thinking more clearly and establish more peaceful relations.

The use of spin and rhetorical intimidation might serve political purposes and might give the user and artificial sense of superiority. But they are not conducive to mutual understanding and make the user look arrogant and dogmatice.

AB — 19 May 2009 [Updated 23 Oct. 2009]