A BBC article today (3 August 2010) highlights the discovery of a small box of bones reputed to be the remains of John the Baptizer, who announced Jesus’ appearance as Messiah and baptized him, and who was later executed by Herod Antipas — see “Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’.”

I’m always intrigued by archaeological discoveries that relate to Biblical accounts. The article includes a video showing the find, and it’s interesting to watch (aside from some silly clerical comments about the find’s significance).

But more than anything, what this article brought to mind was the frequent and peculiar use of quotation marks (or single quotation marks, more accurately) by BBC’s headline writers. Look at the headline again:

Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’

Now in standard written American English, a writer would most often use quotation marks in this way to express irony or skepticism. (For example, “My neighbor plays that ‘music’ too loud,” perhaps referring to rap or heavy metal.)

But in the case of the story about John’s bones, what is the headline writer skeptical about? Maybe the writer is doubtful that these bones were really ‘found’? Perhaps the writer suspects that some Orthodox priest fabricated them?

I’ve noticed other puzzling uses of quotation marks in BBC headlines. Here are some examples:

  • BP ready to plug ‘biggest leak’
  • ‘Ground Zero mosque’ moves closer
  • State ‘can challenge health law’
  • Paraguay star Cabanas ‘recalls little’ of shooting
  • Schumacher ‘almost disqualified’

My best guess would be that this practice has something to do with attribution —  the headline writer is limited by a certain number of characters, but doesn’t want to stick his neck out by actually calling the Cordoba House cultural center “the Ground Zero mosque.” So he has decided to put quotation marks around the phrase to indicate that other people are calling it the Ground Zero mosque but that he doesn’t feel comfortable calling it that.

I’ll bet this practice has been thrashed out after many days of argument at the BBC offices.

After a little investigation I have found that quotation marks used to express irony or skepticism are called “scare quotes.” The gestural version is called “air quotes.” Somehow in all my years as a writer and English student, I have never come across these terms. See the Wikipedia article about “Scare quotes.”

The Wikipedia editors write that, besides denoting irony or skepticism, scare quotes can “serve to distance the writer from the quoted content” and to “convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question.”

This could be the BBC’s reasoning for the odd way it uses single quotation marks in its headlines. (These might be called “inverted commas” in the hallowed halls of the BBC.)

I also found a useful discussion of the BBC headline conundrum at Wordwizard, a surprisingly active discussion forum dedicated to English words and usage — see “The BBC’s use of quotation marks.” In the discussion, which took place in December 2009, Erik Kowal shares these insights:

This habit of the BBC’s web writers is difficult to understand. I presume that sometimes they are quoting someone without direct attribution, but this does not explain why they do it when the facts described within quotation marks are unquestionable and do not need to be signalled as being opinions or unchecked assertions (which the BBC should not be basing its news stories on in any case).

The practice makes it appear as though the BBC has no confidence in its own reporting, or that it is suggesting that its sources are not to be trusted. Regardless, it is highly irritating and even patronizing.

It also reminds me of the equally annoying habit that some people have of giving capitals For No Real Reason to Certain Words they feel are Particularly Important.

AB — 3 August 2010

The announcement of the winner of the National Hollerin’ Contest held over the past weekend in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, USA, reminded me of this time-honored southern tradition. I first became aware of it when a rock festival I attended about 40 years ago included a marvelous performance by the winner of the contest, who hollered a fantastic version of “Old Time Religion.”

This year, Tony Peacock of Siler City, NC, won the contest with a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” hollered in just under four minutes. See the announcement today in the News & Observer: “N.C. hollerer wins with ‘Summertime.'”

There are some things that can happen only in North Carolina, and this is one of them. (Other examples are Benson’s Mule Days, the town of Lizard Lick, and the correct understanding of what constitutes barbecue — but we can discuss those another day.)

It’s a crime that there is no video of Peacock’s performance on YouTube, but this video from a few years ago has some nice examples of hollerin’, ending with a version of “Amazing Grace”:

In this video, the hollerer does a little lecturing about the practice:

AB — 22 June 2010

Sound designer Meara O’Reilly has posted a fascinating entry on BoingBoing about how the various tones generated in the human voice tract generate recognizable speech — see “Whistling Speech.”

O’Reilly highlights the work of Haskins Laboratories, a research institute in New Haven, Conn., that does work on speech, language, reading, and their biological basis. Here’s a direct link to a great demo by Haskins showing how three different tones that don’t make sense individually can combine to make recognizable speech. Below the tone chart is a series of links allowing you to play the different tones separately and in combination.

AB — 17 March 2010

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

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

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

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