Monday, December 13, 2010

Wikileaks: implications for the communications industry.

With a few mouse clicks, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and volunteer staff of Wikileaks have picked up the chessboard of international politics and given it one hell of a shake.

It’ll take a while for the dust to settle… and it’ll be very interesting to see what the game looks like when it does.

In reality much of the changed landscape of this ‘new game’ will only affect people directly involved in the Machiavellian cut and thrust of international politics.

However the various scandals have drawn into focus some very interesting changes in the way people share information. And if like me, you’re involved day-to-day in corporate communications (an industry that you could argue is a minor league version the international diplomacy game) then you really should be watching closely. Here are a few concepts that have caught my attention:

The scientific approach to communications.
When Wikileaks published the “Collateral Murder” tapes showing a United States helicopter machine gunning civilians and journalists they didn’t just release a ten second clip… they released the full, unedited camera tapes. Sure you could see an edited version, but if you didn’t believe the conclusions they drew, you could download the unedited version and decide for yourself. It’s what’s known as the scientific approach journalism.

The idea stems from the dusty world of peer-reviewed science journals where you don’t just publish your conclusions; you publish the hypothesis, the methodology and results too. The idea is that readers can view your data and see if they draw the same conclusions, or if they like, repeat the experiment and see if they get the same results. It’s a fairly high standard to achieve, but it’s one that clearly separates objective from subjective; fact from opinion.

In the pre-digital age, cost and logistical constraints prevented the news media from using this approach. The result was an arrangement that forced readers to rely on the subjective opinions of reporters and the subjective choices of editors. It was an imperfect system, to put it lightly.

But on the internet there is no such constraint and so we see a growing number of communications organisations showing not just the tip of the inverted pyramid… but publishing the whole thing (mummies and all).

So how does this relate to someone selling mountain biking holidays, or real estate packages?

Well, twenty years ago the column inches constraint applied to corporate communications too - so you could say “trust us you’ll love it” and people would generally be happy enough with that. But as the world’s ability to transmit and process information grows it seems likely that the businesses that say “trust us you’ll love it… but if you want proof, here it is” will be the ones who come out on top.

Of course not everyone will look at that proof; not everyone has the time. But if you’re trying to convince people to buy into your idea, be it a product, political campaign or news story; and you’re not prepared to show them demonstration videos, independent field trials, customer reviews, etcetera to back it up… then you’ll need a to think up a pretty damn good reason why not.

No more porky-pies
The second revelation to come out of Wikileaks actually stems back to an essay “Conspiracy as Governance” written by Julian Assange back in 2006. In the essay, which forms the philosophical underpinning of Wikileaks Assange argues that unjust organizations by their nature will create leaks and that those leaks will have a negative nonlinear effect on them.

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive "secrecy tax") and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaptation.”
Once again Assange was writing is in the context of tyrannical government regimes… but again the principles apply on a smaller scale. As the world’s ability to share information increases, organizations that behave duplicitously; whether that’s over-selling a product, over-spinning their public relations activities or just plain lying; are increasingly going to find themselves outmanoeuvred by their honest competitors.

That’s not to say you can’t have conflicting points of view and it definitely doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with everything that you do (in fact having some people vigourously dislike what you do can galvanise your supporters and actually be beneficial… but I digress). However, what it does mean is that by keeping your rhetoric and your actions in line you’ll make your organisation more effective - and more profitable.

One obvious sticking point will be the traditional difference between ‘back-of-house’ and ‘front-of-house’ communications. Communication is always going to be context specific and shifting contexts will invariably distort the meaning of the message. Anyone who’s taken their spouse to a work Christmas party will understand.

There is however a big difference between this sort of cross-contextual friction…and conspiring to deceive the public at large. It’s a hazy line I’ll admit, but with information passing between contexts more freely than ever, it’s one that professional communicators are going to have to watch very closely.

What’s your name again?
On a more technical note, it’s interesting to observe that Wikileaks was able to operate almost entirely unhindered without even having a domain name. After EveryDNS cut ties with the company claiming the denial of service attacks on the Wikileaks site were threatening its ability to serve other customers, the URL effectively ceased to exist.

You’d think they would have been dead in the water, but the site was still easily locatable via Google at its numeric IP address: and continued to run more or less unhindered.

So what? Well, the old marketing adage: “build a better mousetrap and the world with beat a path to your door” is generally quoted as a description of how things used to be done – before the wonders of modern marketing. It seems these days, with a little help from Google the saying is true once again… especially if you’re looking to catch very big, corrupt mice.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Time to get out there!

Summer is officially here, which means it's time to start thinking about getting back out onto the trails. Here's a few shots from one of the better trips last summer to get you psyched-up - I'll let you guess the location :-)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A bad week on New Zealand’s roads.

Five cyclists were killed by cars this week on New Zealand roads. That’s a massive number for such a small country and as you can imagine it’s created a bit of a storm in the media. At the eye of this storm has been the question: how do you stop the collisions?

Between the cyclists’ lobby groups, the politicians, the police and readers’ online comments there’s been a swathe of suggestions. Some like increasing driver and cyclist training make a bit of sense, others like licensing cyclists and forcing them to pay registration fees (with a view to reducing the number of cyclists on the roads) seem somewhat less sensible.

The one idea that’s been conspicuously absent from the debate is that perhaps these cyclist fatalities are simply ‘system accidents’; unusual and undesirable, but statistically inevitable behaviour in a complicated tightly coupled system. The term, originally coined by sociologist Charles Perrow, is most frequently used in the context of aviation – more specifically aviation crashes.

Think about it like this; your average 747 has somewhere in the order of six million parts. If for the sake of argument we average it out at ten possible states per-part; working, worn, bent, broken, intermittently failing etc. Then you end up with ten to the power of six million as the number of possible states for your 747 a few of which will cause a crash. It’s a really mind bogglingly complicated system - and that’s just the mechanical side of it!

Likewise commercial aircraft have time-dependent processes (you’ve got to land before you run out of fuel) rigidly ordered processes (you really should put the undercarriage down before you land) only one path to a successful outcome (the runway is your only realistic option as a place to land) and very little slack (the ground is really, really unforgiving when you’re travelling at 300km/h). It’s what’s called a tightly coupled system.

When you consider it, it’s not really surprising that despite the best efforts of some of the most intelligent minds on the planet, these planes do occasionally fall out of the sky. For a great many years crash investigators would look for a single cause that caused the crash (usually blaming the pilot) but thanks in part to Perrow’s theories these days investigators tend to focus on the system as a whole.

Now, cast your mind back to cycling. Again it’s a mind boggling array of different interacting parts; every car that passes a cyclist is its own complex system; the road itself is a fantastically complicated mix of cars, trucks, busses, pedestrians, signs, potholes and puddles; and the drivers and cyclists themselves are subject to an almost infinite array of mental and physical states... about the only simple thing in the equation are the bikes.

And don’t take this the wrong way, but the average driver on New Zealand’s roads possibly doesn’t take their responsibilities as seriously as the first officer on the flight deck – I doubt you’d see them texting or doing their hair while taking off.

As far as room for error goes, it doesn’t get much closer than cycling on the road. Each car that passes a cyclist is a ton or more of hardened steel passing at high speed within a metre of an unprotected body that’s looking the opposite direction. If it were a workplace the Department of Labour would shut the place down pronto! At that speed and that proximity, it only takes a small failure in any one of those systems – a sneeze, a blowout, an unexpected pothole – to trigger a series of events that ends in a fatality. Sadly in the last week we’ve seen it happen five times.

Now don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not saying that cycling fatalities are simply a fact of life and we should get used to them. The point is that just like in aviation, in looking for solutions to the problem we probably shouldn’t worry too much about looking for a single cause or adding more checks and balances – stiffer penalties, better signage and more legislation.

The logical answer seems to be to focus on making the whole system simpler by reducing the number of interactions between sub systems, by separating bikes and cars into separate lanes for instance or de-coupling the system by reducing speed limits (at least in built up areas) to give people a bit more time to react.

The question of how to make cycling safer does sadly bring up another aviation concept – the catch 22. In countries like the Netherlands where the average person cycles 2.5 kilometres per day, the death rate is about 1.4 people per hundred-million kilometres cycled. In the USA where the average person only cycles 0.1km per day the death rate is almost 27 times higher at 37.5!

It seems that more cyclists makes for more political clout, which produces more bike paths, more driver training, lower speed limits – and thus makes cycling safer. But when getting into the saddle means taking your life in your hands, who’d be mad enough to ride a bike.

Monday, July 5, 2010

An ‘unlucky’ winter

[Reproduced from the May 2010 issue of Wilderness Magazine]

The winter of 2009 saw the Southern Alps’ backcountry cloaked in some of the best snow seen this millennium. But the siren song of all that untracked powder belied what was often a very well hidden trap – and for too many people, a lethal one.

The season had begun spectacularly in May with over a metre of snow falling and surprisingly staying . Skiers across the country were understandably elated. Many simply couldn’t wait and resorted to hiking up the as-yet unopened ski resorts for some of the best skiing of the season; light, dry shin-deep powder under bluebird skies – before winter had technically even begun.

However, according to Mountain Safety Council spokesperson Hamish McCrostie, it was that six week stretch of bluebird days that followed that were to haunt backcountry users.

“That sustained cold weather makes the snow weak; it turns it sugary. Then once you get a bit of snowfall or wind-deposited snow on top, that weak cohesionless snow just acts like ball bearings,” he said. “When you get enough weight on it, the snow on top will release and the whole lot will run down hill.”

The question is how much is ‘enough weight’? Depending on a host of terrain variables like steepness, curvature, rockiness, elevation and angle to the wind, any particular slope could accumulate differing amounts of snow that would stress the buried weak layer by different amounts.

Over the course of the winter, some slopes would avalanche spontaneously under the weight of new snow; others would bond together with the warming influence of the sun. But a lot of slopes would lay waiting for some external force to set them in motion. On July 24, a party of four heliskiers enjoying feather-light fresh powder in the Ragged Range would provide precisely that force.

Llynden Riethmuller, John Castran and his son Gus were on their last run of a day heli-skiing, when as Castran puts it, the snow “just opened up around me”. They’d overloaded the weak layer.

As they rode the disintegrating slab of snow downhill, two more slide paths released nearby, culminating in a triple slip that overtook the skiers. Riethmuller was buried under half a metre of snow and Castran almost two metres deep.

The two men, who were both wearing avalanche transceivers, were quickly located by their guides. Castran survived and was skiing again the next day. Riethmuller died at the scene, possibly due to a pre-existing medical condition.Earlier in the day he had reportedly exclaimed: “You don't get much closer to heaven than this.”

Less than 24 hours later snowboarder Sam Deavoll set off from the Remarkables ski area, past an avalanche advisory sign showing the danger as ‘High’, to ride a backcountry chute above Lake Alta, ominously named ‘the terminator’.

As he dropped into the chute, his weight overloaded the same buried weak layer, releasing a massive avalanche. But, in what was aptly described by the Otago Daily Times as ‘the ride of his life’, he somehow managed to stay ahead of the debris as it ran the full length of the slope and out onto the lake’s frozen surface.

A few moments later the weight of the avalanche debris broke through the thin layer of ice. If Deavoll had been caught up in the slide he would have almost certainly gone to the bottom of the lake making it two fatalities in two days.

Nine days later on August 2, after another storm cycle dumped 75cm of fresh snow, further stressing the snow pack, brothers Frazer and Ryan Campbell traversed from the Coronet Peak ski area boundary, after also having seen an avalanche advisory sign showing the danger as ‘High’ for a twilight run down Dirty Four Creek. Neither was wearing an avalanche transceiver or carrying shovels or probes. By their actions it could reasonably be assumed neither had attended any sort of avalanche education.

As the pair descended the bowl they triggered a medium sized slide, setting around a thousand cubic metres of snow cascading towards the valley floor. Miraculously Frazer managed to stay clear of the debris, but Ryan who was ahead by three metres was carried down into a tight gully and deeply buried. It took a team of rescuers two hours working under floodlights (at some risk of further avalanches themselves) to find him.

After a post-mortem of Campbell’s body, Otago-Southland coroner David Crerar said his death was a result of “severe respiratory failure due to extensive severe chest and lung injuries caused by the massive weight of snow and ice in the avalanche and had been determined to be not survivable and almost instantly lethal.”

Campbell’s parents said Ryan was a victim of bad luck. He’d been “in the wrong place in the wrong set of circumstances” and was “a thrill-seeker, not a risk-taker”.

By this stage many of the more educated backcountry skiers and boarders were opting not to ‘risk take’, or ‘thrill seek’, or go into the backcountry at all for that matter. Despite that, there were still more incidents to come.

By August 14, the avalanche risk finally dropped a little and was listed by the Mountain Safety Council as ‘Moderate’ in the Ragged Ranges when Johnny Morgan, who had been hailed as a hero for his swift work rescuing the survivors of the July 24 slide, set off for a day’s heli-skiing with four clients.

While investigating a run, Morgan was hit by a small slide and swept down a steep gully. Despite being only partially buried, and receiving immediate medical treatment Morgan would succumb to the injuries incurred in the tumble. This slide, Morgan’s second for the season, would be described by survivors as ‘a freak accident’.

Three days later another group of heli-skiers on the Richardson Mountains would be caught out, with one client buried two metres deep. The skier was immediately dug up and flown to Queenstown Lakes District Hospital suffering from hypothermia but alive. Statistically speaking the likelihood of surviving a burial that deep is about one-in-four.

The tragic deaths of Llynden Riethmuller, Ryan Campbell, and Johnny Morgan and the spectacular near misses were well publicised but they were by no means isolated incidents. The Queenstown region in particular recorded 18 involvements that caught or buried 10 people - and that’s just the ones that were reported.

With the popularity of backcountry pursuits growing each year, there is a strong impetus to figure out what’s going wrong and to prevent a repeat in 2010. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of theories out there.

As this goes to print, last year’s fatalities are still the subject of a coronial inquiry with recommendations expected some time in July. If there’s a repeat of last year’s snow conditions that may be too late for some people.

There’s heated speculation regarding the heli-skiing incidents under the watchful eye of experts. The cynical point of view says some guides are becoming blasé about the risks and some operators are bowing to commercial pressure to take people on steep, deep slopes, when they’d be safer on more mellow terrain – or in the pub.

On the other hand, industry insiders point to the fact that the mountains will always present a certain level of hazard and that statistically even if you eliminate 99% of the risk, the 1% will eventually catch up with you if you spend enough time out there. In the case of some heli-skiing operations that’s several decades.

The situation regarding amateur backcountry users is equally complex. A culture has developed in many parts of the alpine sports community that is prepared to hike for steep untracked snow, just outside of the resort boundary, operating under the misconception that near the resort is nearly as safe as the resort.

However, as Treble Cone Operations manger Rosco Davies puts it, “Once you step outside the boundary, you’re into the Stone Age,” he says, “It might be only forty steps past an arbitrary line, but that makes the difference between controlled and uncontrolled – and that can be the difference between safe and dead.”

Numerous avalanche involvements in this resort-adjacent backcountry are leading to resorts considering a North American approach to boundary management, where ski resort boundaries are policed. This would be quite a big change for New Zealand which has long tradition of free and unrestrained access to the backcountry.

McCrostie says, “Resorts are unlikely to restrict access to the back country.” However he cautions, “Some may choose to limit access options by erecting fences with gates and providing much more ‘in your face’ information at those access points”.

In fact, Wanaka’s Treble Cone ski field already has its backcountry gated and it closes that gate on days with high or extreme avalanche danger. Last season no avalanche involvement occurred at the field.

Treble Cone is fortunate in having only one main access point to the backcountry; other ski fields have dozens.

Davies says another way to improve things might be to look at New Zealand’s five-step avalanche warning system. He says experts, like American Bruce Tremper are suggesting a two-part scale that gives one rating for the likelihood of releasing a slide, and another for the consequences if you do.

“While the likelihood of setting off an avalanche last winter was reasonably low, if you did set off one it was very large, and probably not survivable,” he says. “Other years we can have a higher hazard where you’re pretty likely to release an avalanche, but if you do they’re only five or ten centimetres deep - something that might take you for a scary ride but you’ve got a good chance of surviving uninjured.”

A system that covered both factors would give people a clearer understanding of what they’re letting themselves in for, but it does assume that people will actually look at the warnings - unlike in the cases of Deavoll and Campbell.

A salient point in avalanche incidents is the misattribution of ‘luck’ in media coverage. People who avoid avalanches are ‘lucky’. People caught have had ‘their luck run out’, or were ‘at the wrong place in the wrong set of circumstances’, or were involved in a ‘freak accident’.
All of which runs against the seemingly obvious reality that luck is not what keeps you alive in avalanche terrain; making the right decisions is. As McCrostie puts it, “If you make good decisions, you make your own luck.”

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Skippers Canyon helmet-cam experiment

No mountain bikers were (permanently) harmed in the making of this film.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Hello darling. What's with the axe?

I came across this on Ockam's Razor, the Radio National science programme last night, about Australian Aboriginal astronomy:

"[The Yulngu people] tell stories about Ngalindi, the Moon-man. He was a fat and lazy man (that's the full Moon), who demanded that his wives and sons feed him. His wives got fed up with his behaviour, and attacked him with their axes, chopping bits off him. So he became thinner (that's the waning Moon) and eventually died of his injuries. After remaining dead for three days he rose again (that's the new Moon) growing fat and round, until, after two weeks his wives attacked him again."

Is it just me, or does that story sound strikingly familiar to any one else?

Beyond the astrological illustration of how spousal conflict is eternal and universal, it's a pretty interesting yarn in general. You can listen to the rest of it here.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Feel the Burn

A few quick shots from last weekend's jaunt up the Earnslaw Burn. Enjoy.

- Mark

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Could mocking your manager be saving lives?

I’ve just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: the story of success” it’s a great read, if only in that Gladwell takes a topic that could have so easily fallen into the already overflowing category of self-help drivel and moulds it into an engaging, thought provoking read… even for a cynic like myself.

But I’m not here to jot superlatives about Outliers. The thing that I’d like to share, the thing that really stuck in my mind about the book was Gladwell’s look at the idea of power-distance.

It’s a concept first developed by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede in the seventies as part of an IBM sponsored research project into the way different national cultures work together*. Hofstede explains it like this:

“Power-distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.”

What this means is, in a low power-distance culture, managers are seen as just other co-workers who happen to have a bit more responsibility, whereas in a high power-distance culture managers are seen more as the ruling class, they’re cut from finer cloth than lowly workers. In a high power-distance culture, you do what you’re told, you don’t ask questions in the hope that maybe one day you’ll prove yourself worthy of making the step up to a better life.

“in an environment like, say, the cockpit of a 747, subordinates being squeamish about questioning superiors can make a big impact – literally”

So why does that make a difference? Well, if you’re working in an environment like, say, the cockpit of a 747, subordinates being squeamish about questioning their superiors can make a big impact – literally. In these sorts of complex, high-consequence environments, the difference between respectfully suggesting your superior checks the instrument panel again and saying, “Hey Bob, what’s that red light…oh crap, you’ve forgotten to put the undercarriage down!” make the difference between smooth landing and fireball.

OK, so flashing back home to Queenstown, the adventure tourism capital of New Zealand. Where do we fit on the power-distance scale? Right at the lowest end, New Zealand is in the bottom five. That’s great right? Well, yes and no.

Thanks to a quirk in our immigration laws, Queenstown receives a large proportion of its workers from Latin America. Which is fantastic - I’ve always maintained that without immigration and tourism Queenstown would be like any other farming town, just with bigger mountains. The thing is, Latin America is a textbook example of a high power-distance culture.

So what we have occurring increasingly frequently is low power-distance managers (who expect to be questioned) working with high power-distance staff (who don't ask questions) in adventure tourism – an industry which lends itself to complex systems and high consequences – just like a 747 cockpit.

Recent events like the Outdoor Pursuits Centre tragedy, the river-boarding death of Emily Jordan, the jet boating death of Yan Wang and numerous near-misses stand as evidence that in adventure tourism, unless every box is checked and cross-checked, things can go horribly wrong.

So what are we to do? Well, I’m no expert (plus, bloggers don’t solve problems, we create them! :-) so I’m not going to try to offer a panacea here. But it would seem that Queenstown’s business community needs to ensure that we keep our low power-distance culture, and encourage visiting workers to join that culture.

Perhaps a instituting a points-based reward scheme to encourage a healthy disrespect for authority could work: steal your boss’s parking space - that’s a point; make a joke about your manager’s new haircut - that’s two; pin a childish caricature of the CEO to the company notice board - that’s five. Whoever scores the most points at the end of the week gets to take Friday afternoon off.

Who would have thought all that time Kiwis have spent ridiculing the boss behind his back – and in front of it – was actually fulfilling an important occupational health and safety function.

*The study identified five ‘cultural dimensions’; power-distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term verses short term orientation. There’s a good summary on Hofstede’s website -

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Out There - in print!

Check out January’s edition of Wilderness Magazine for the first installment of the Out There column, exploring the etiquette of bringing music into the wilderness. The story is the first in a series on philosophy and travel that I’ve agreed to co-author through 2010 (and hopefully beyond). The column’s brief is a dream: a thousand words on philosophy and travel – basically explore with your mind or your feet… then write it up. It’s going to be a fun year!