Tag Archives: British people

Why We Work in Starbucks

(this is a copy of my Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers; hence no links.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Why do we work in Starbucks? It’s a question I ask myself every day, because I usually find myself in one at least once. This despite having an excellent home office replete with cappuccino machine, music, ergonomic chair and, most importantly, sofa. But lo, every day I wend my way to a Starbucks, or one of those other chains, and park myself in an uncomfortable chair and too-low table, dodging the students with their bags strewn across space they’ll never use, the dregs of a smoothie enough to make it look as if they’re paying their way, babies screaming blue murder by the sugar dispenser.

Why? Why do I do it?

Well, I think it has to do with noise. And a cycle that goes back 300 years and, importantly, has to do with organ grinders.

So first, the organ grinders.

Next time you look out of your window and you don’t see an organ grinder making his way down the street, you can blame Charles Dickens. And Tennyson, Wilkie Collins and 28 authors, painters, engravers, illustrators, historians, actors, sculptors, musicians, architects and scientists. All of them, in 1863, co-signed a letter that “in their devotion to their pursuits—tending to the piece and comfort of mankind—they are daily interrupted, harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians.” Most gave their home and work address as the same. The letter was the centerpiece of a 120-page bill submitted before the British parliament by one Michael Thomas Bass. The letter, and dozens of others, reflect a single themes: a rearguard action to defend the home as workplace against the slings and arrows of street noise.

This was no idle irritant. The streets of central London had become a sea of itinerant workers, musicians and hustlers. Those who didn’t like to have their ears assailed by the noise could either pay them off or complain. But the latter was not without risk. One of Dickens’ friends confronted two street musicians and was insulted, in the words of a friend, “in the choicest Billingsgate.” Another, Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, waged a guerrilla war against street musicians from Manchester Square and was not popular for it: mobs, some numbering more than 100, would pursue him, leave dead cats on his doorstep, break his windows and threaten his life.

The Street Music Act was passed the following year, and decimated the itinerant musician community—among them violin-players and street bands, Irish and Scotch pipers, a German brass-bandsman, a French hurdy-gurdy-player, Italian street entertainers, and percussionists and minstrel singers from India and the United States. Many were gone by the latter years of the century—but so were most of the knowledge workers, who upped sticks to the suburbs or took refuge in offices.

The truth is that knowledge workers, or whatever we choose to call ourselves, have long struggled to control the level of noise in our world.

I’ve waged my own noise battles over the years—dogs in Hong Kong flats, car alarms in Singapore, firecrackers in Indonesia. But at issue is not the pursuit of silence, per se, but to find a place where the noise is conducive to work. And that’s trickier—because we’re not sure what it is.

Which is where the coffee house comes in.

Starbucks likes to portray itself as a “third place”—a term purloined from Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who mourned the demise of informal public gathering places. The idea is that your local Starbucks fulfills a role beyond just providing  you with coffee, but connects you to others in your community, along with sparkling conversation and wit.

The truth is this doesn’t happen—at least not in any Starbucks I know, a point made by historian Bryant  Simon, who hung around in more than 400 Starbucks trying to strike up conversations with strangers. Despite what Starbucks would like us to believe, with its Annual Report covers of friendly people chatting in their outlets, faux artwork and lame noticeboards, and a short-lived community magazine called Joe, we don’t come to Starbucks to chat. Well, not with strangers.

That dream pretty much died long before Dickens got hot under the collar about the racket-making riff raff . Back in the 1700s there were things called coffee houses, all over the place. They were the place where men met—women were usually banned—to drink coffee, read the paper, discuss politics and basically to get away from things (meaning the house.)  These were vibrant, noisy places and there were lots of them. Samuel Johnson called them ‘penny universities.’

But they began to die out, ironically, when newspapers became cheaper and more plentiful, and were delivered to your home. Then the reason for someone to go to a coffee house declined, and our knowledge workers began two centuries of toiling, either in a cubicle or alone at home.

Starbucks—and other things—have brought us full circle. Starbucks was never what Starbucks would like us to think it is: It is, primarily, a solo-friendly environment. You can go there on your own, order something and sit there on your own and no-one is going to bat an eyelid. Social phobics feel uncomfortable there, but less uncomfortable than pretty much any other eatery. Indeed, the size of tables, the size of the chairs, the layout of the place, is designed to cater to someone alone.

Which is why it has become the perfect workplace. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, the power outlets, the no-nag policy, although that helps. It’s a complex social and psychological thing. For students, libraries are too quiet, too noisy, too old, too full of friends. You are less likely to fall asleep in a Starbucks. For those who work at home, they feel they might be missing something. Or they like to watch other people. It’s a place for introspection, a refuge from the city, from the kids, from everything: There are people around you, but with no obligation to talk to them. The barista can be as friendly or as taciturn as you want her to be. It’s not a sexy environment, and it’s relatively safe: Leave your belongings while you visit the washroom and they may well still be there when you get back.

For people who work in an office it’s refuge from the boss, the people hanging around your cubicle, the greyness of it all, the phones ringing. In libraries it’s people whispering—loud enough to hear them whispering, but not loud enough to hear what they’re whispering about.

So it’s actually often about noise. It turns out we actually need noise. We just need a certain kind of noise.

JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a cafe. Stephen King writes to AC/DC or Guns n Roses. Xerox chief researcher John Seely Brown did his doctoral thesis in a bar.

Researchers in Sweden found that actually a certain level of white noise actually helped kids with Attention Deficit Disorder concentrate better. Apparently it’s something to do with increasing the levels of dopamine activity in the brain.  Canadian researchers found that masking noise—adding white noise to their work environment to reduce the intrusion of things like ringing phones—also helped office workers. Kodak issued a manual a few years ago advising offices to do just this—48-52 decibels is the best level, they reckon. Perhaps Dickens and co could have saved themselves the wrath of the mob if they’d installed a white noise machine or invented the iPod.

It’s also related to the way we work, and communicate, today. It’s tempting to imagine Dickens hunched up in the corner scribbling Nicholas Nickleby. But while we knowledge workers have something in common, our tools are quite different, and what we’re asked to do with them: we’re all touch typists, of a sort, which means we write dozens of words a minute. We answer emails as if we were flicking dust off our coat. We write proposals, reports, requests for proposals  that not long ago would have taken teams a month to write. Laptops are lighter, with better battery life, and connected to a communications network. We are our office. Companies realize they don’t need to shackle people to their desks all day—less than 40% of our time, according to one property consultancy, is actually spent at our office desk.

We operate in a supercharged environment, which makes the coffee shop of today a perfect setting. Visual and audible stimulation, but with none of the distraction of having to be sociable. Oh and the coffee. It’s no coincidence, I suspect that caffeine also increases the production of dopamine in the brain. A double whammy of noise and caffeine.

If you’ll excuse me, I need to head off. You know where you can find me.

Radio Australia Stuff, Jan 9 2009

For those listening to my slot on Radio Australia’s Breakfast Show, here’s what I was talking about:

The Book Will Outlive Us All

A wonderful post by an old friend and former colleague, Martin Latham, on why the book will outlast the e-reader:

Printed books are palimpsests of our lives. They bear our imprint: we press in them the mountain-holiday flower, we spill wine, bath water, suntan lotion and even tears on them. As babies, we chew them; as adults, we curl up with them. We crack their spines for pleasure: they are unbreakable. Tibetans wind them, mummy-style, in cloth (the unwrapping itself is a prefatory meditation).

Conversely, the great travel writer Wilfred Thesiger hated book jackets and had a post-purchase ritual of removing the garish cover to expose the tactile buckram. Others cannot resist writing in books, and there are now several works on “marginalia” through the ages. To a historian or anthropologist, the book, at 500 years old, is a new-born baby. It has a long life ahead of it.

The whole piece is worth a read. E-books will be good for “providing a channel for all those low-margin reference texts, siphoning off some of our overpublishing glut in an eco-friendly way.” But books are much, much more: “an all-round psycho-sensory experience. Every reader has a few books which they love because they represent a transformation time in their lives.”

Amen to all this. My friend is a bookseller, running a store in Canterbury, UK. We used to work in a bookshop together in the King’s Road, a very happy episode of my life, despite the fact that the store itself was going bust. Being around books, and people who loved books, was a very nice way to earn a living.

It’s unnerving to think I spend more time among bits and bytes than musty papyrus these days. I can’t help thinking that the end of books as learning (as opposed to enjoyment) is on the way out. Watching today’s students with their ubiquitous laptops and ready access to massive silos of information, where libraries are just places to plug in their MacBooks and Questia is the database of choice, one wonders where the serendipidity of wandering the aisles, thumbing through books that aren’t on the reading list and spotting an interesting tome in the returned books stack, has gone.

Anyway, read Martin’s piece.

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User Generated Discontent

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I know in my previous post it sounded like user-generated content isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it has its place. Like this one, from iTunes Store, where Ricky Gervais’ new show is available as an audiobook for 10 quid. The description is the usual blurb-like drivel written by an intern and proof-read by someone on their toilet break:

Ricky delivers hilarious and insightful observations on the nature of fame, and in the process displays his talent as Britain’s foremost comedian to the fullest extent yet.

I’ll leave copywriters and editors to paw over that particular bit of prose. But what I love is the Customer Review below:

Ricky Gervais seems to have convinced the majority of the British and American public he is some sort of genius. Take away that stupid dance [and] the inane grin and what are you left with? An average …. More

I know the More … bit is just part of the way the web page truncates the review, but it seems somehow apt.

I’m not knocking Gervais, who did exhibit some genius with The Office (the UK version), but I find it amusing that the iTunes store, such prime real estate and so carefully designed, allows such prominently displayed counteropinion.

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That’s the true power of user generated content, in my view: A counterblast, a breath of fresh air, a guy standing at the counter when you’re about to part with your cash who nods towards the DVD clutched in your hand and murmurs in your ear, “load of crap, that. Waste of money, frankly.”

Beginning of the End of TV as We Know It?

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Noddy does a noddy shot (photo from five.tv)

The Guardian reports that Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director, has performed “noddy shots” on TV interviews that he did not personally conduct for his arts series Imagine.

Noddy shots, in case you don’t know, are those silly cutaways to the interviewer reacting, or not reacting, to the interviewee. In most cases they’re faked — recorded after the interview is over — although this is the first time I’ve heard someone allegedly reacting to someone he hasn’t even interviewed. This probably doesn’t represent a TV first, but it certainly marks the beginning of the end for a lot of hackneyed, silly and anachronistic TV stunts.

The Guardian quotes a BBC source as saying Yentob “often does not conduct all the interviews on Imagine – even though he appears nodding or reacting to them… [S]cenes featuring Mr Yentob reacting to some of the more peripheral figures and experts featured in his programmes were edited in even though he was not actually present. Editing work on the programme later gave the impression that he was present.”

Interestingly, the BBC source “robustly” defends the technique as standard:

“Everybody does it – it is a universal technique,” he said. “The important point is to ask – does this change the meaning of what you are doing and the answer is no it does not.

“If you had everybody who did interviews featured in them you would have have 11 or 12 people nodding at different times which is getting into the realms of the ludicrous. This is standard practice across the industry.”

Er, surely that’s not the point? Surely the point is that the interviewer is pretending to be somewhere he’s not? Surely the viewer is entitled to assume, from the shots of someone nodding/shaking head/looking skeptical/sympathetic/bored/aghast, that they’re actually in the room, presumably facing and listening the person they’re reacting to?

Another channel, Channel Five, the Guardian says. has already banned some of what it calls “rather hackneyed tricks” in its bulletins. Among these are the staged questions (sometimes called reverse questions), where the interviewer is filmed asking questions of the interviewee, usually to an empty chair long after the interviewee has left the building. The BBC Newsnight program has already banned introductory ‘walking shots’ in which a reporter and interviewee are shown walking before a cut to the interview.

I hate these shots too; they look so lame and you can’t help but ponder what they’re really saying when they’re walking along:

“So how much am I getting for this interview?”

“Fancy coming back to my place after this?”

“Please walk a bit more quickly. I’ve got to go record some noddies for 16 interviews I wasn’t there for.”

Frankly I also hate the shots of cameramen or photographers, called cutaways if I recall correctly, which are done to break between the subject — Putin, say — doing different things but not actually moving between them. Putin speaks at press conference and then cuts ribbon on new nuclear bomb shelter, say, would look weird, supposedly, if the viewer didn’t see something in between. So the hapless editor splices in some tape of a cameraman squinting into his camera. Pointless.

The serious point here is this: Sadly this is related to a serious decline in UK TV’s credibility. As such it represents a somewhat weak response; TV news needs to look deeper into its soul to find a way back. It might start with the wider changes wrought on the media by the Web and consider how it’s going to find a new role for itself.

Dropping noddies, fake or real, is a small step. But the biggest one is going to be going back to what was great (and is great, in shows like Newsnight) about TV journalism: well-researched, well-funded, well-shot, well-produced, fearless and ground-breaking stories about stuff we care about.

BBC’s Alan Yentob in ‘noddy’ controversy | Media | MediaGuardian.co.uk

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How to Hold a Book

I did a piece a few weeks back for WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) and The Wall Street Journal Asia about bookholders. These are devices made to help folk read more easily. As one of my old bosses said: “neanderthal”. But I still love to hold a book and would definitely opt for paper over digital for most reading:

You’re more likely to find them advertised on the back pages of quirky British publications such as Private Eye and The Countryman than in glossy international fashion or gadget mags, but they grapple with one of the thorniest design issues since the invention of the printing press: how to read a book in the bath. Or on the beach. Or in bed. Or at dinner. Call it The Search for the Perfect Book Holder.

The problem is a simple one: Books have long mocked the naysayers who predicted their demise in the face of radio, television, audio books, the Internet, eBooks (books you read on a hand-held device), eReaders (devices you use to read eBooks) or whatever. But books do have one design flaw: You have to hold them open. While this may not sound like too much of a trial, it can be if you’re trying to eat/type/take notes/get an even tan/wash your back/sip cocoa at the same time, or if, for some reason — through repetitive strain injury or arthritis, say — you have a problem gripping things. Perhaps if we didn’t actually have to hold a book up while we read it, at least some of us might have read Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” to the end, and J.K. Rowling would have sold even more copies of her 672-page doorstop “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” if we hadn’t been afraid of dropping it in the bath.

Here are some links to the ones I reviewed. They’re all great, the products of minds both mad and brilliant at the same time. Who would spend so much time and money trying to make a book stand up?

  • PageStay: great for cooks
  • thumbthing: great for small paperbacks
  • The Gimble and Reader Cushion: great name, great in the bath
  • BookGem: Great for standing books up on flat surfaces
  • easy-read Great for standing things up on non-flat surfaces

There are some more I reviewed, or at least heard about, which I may post later.

Multimedia Kristof

Nicholas Kristof did a great piece in yesterday’s NYT on blogging in China and its impact — death by a thousand blogs — on the government. But what’s particularly impressive is the multimedia package he’s put together for the piece. Check out the link on the left hand side of the page. It includes websites, audio commentary, some great photos and some footage. Nice work. (Thanks, Byron)

Bob’s Background

Am reading Griff Rhys-Jones’ To The Baltic With Bob which is not quite as hilarious as the blurb promises, but has its moments: Bob goes along to a London art school to apply as a mature student on a computer graphics course:

‘What’s your background?’ asked the professor who interviewed him.

Bob swivelled in his chair and looked behind him. ‘Well, it’s a sort of tangerine colour,’ he said. According to Bob, this answer so amused the professor that he was instantly enrolled on the course, therefore qualifying for a large and useful grant and access to several hundred thousand pounds’ worth of expensive graphics equipment.

Kind of reminds me of those silly pub jokes we used to try out on bartenders in college:

Me: I’d like a beer, please.
Bartender: Bitter?
Me (looking into the distance, heaving a sigh): Yes, yes, I suppose I am.

or:

Me: A glass of white please.
(Not Overly Bright) Bartender: Wine?
Me: Aaaiioooowwww.

Of course, these work a lot better when you’re there. And British. And slightly drunk.

Update: More On Word Orders

 Further to my posting yesterday about how we recognise words, here’s something from Mike Masnick, who runs the excellent Techdirt blog:
I saw your other post on the mixed up letters, which I agree is absolutely fascinating.  I had posted something similar about a year ago. Which also didn’t have a source associated with it, though, it appears to come from the same basic idea.  Someone posted a comment on that post recently, saying it was written in a letter to New Scientist.
 
At the time, I also wondered if such things could be useful as a sort of  Turing test to fool a computer, but still have a human know perfectly well what you were talking about.
 
Randomly, I also sent it to my parents when I first came across it.  When I  was a kid, they were very concerned with the way I learned to read, since I apparently would just look at the first two letters of a word and its length and then “guess” at what the word was.  Apparently, that might not be so weird…
Thanks, Mike. I reckon we’re definitely onto something here. Sadly, the only use I can think of for it so far is for spammers, who already misspell words to fool spam filters. I can imagine their pitches: Wroreid aobut szie? Dpesresd by prferaomcne? Ok that took me a couple of minutes to do. This took me two seconds: Werorid by szie? Depersesd by prcaremfone?  Courtesy of a funky site called Lerfjhax which lets you type in text and get a scrambled version out. Watch out for another wvae of sapm.

News: Psst! Wanna Buy a Segway?

 It’s the modern crime, and the modern sting. The Register reports on the “first, known Segway sting operation” when police in New York arrested a 24-year-old student on felony scooter theft charges.
 
 
Yili Wang entered a Starbucks in Queens, hoping a Segway expert he met on the Internet could help get the gizmo going. Wang apparently forgot to ask about the keys for the machine when he purchased it for the, uh hem, bargain price of $75 off a man in East Harlem. There’s even a video of the arrest (no the picture above isn’t from the video. That’s my mum talking to the delivery man).