Tunnel vision


There are many different variations on the theme of tunnel vision in our daily lives, ranging from the trivial to the very serious.

That designers are not immune to a narrowing of focus to a point where you lose track of the original targets you set yourself. What made me think of this was a wee accessory karabiner that Pascal dug out of the depths of his rucksack this morning.

What can you say about it?

Ok, so it is nice and compact. It is branded and has ridges on the top part of the body that look like they mean business. But these tools are not about being just another pretty face, rather the design should follow functional considerations.

Or does it?

Well, first off, let us have a quick look at Petzl’s US Patent No: 7082647, snap-hook for carrying accessories…

The abstract of the patent states that:

The body of a snap-hook for carrying accessories is equipped with a guard lug attached to the top part and extending facing the lateral branch opposite the finger so as to define a groove designed to be inserted on a support element, in particular a belt, to achieve immobilization of the snap-hook.

So the tab facing the gate that locates the karabiner onto the webbing is a patented feature.

Black Diamond got around this with their Ice Clippers by replacing the tab with a very short stubby protrusion and using a piece of rubber to locate the webbing. DMM’s Vaults are clamped onto the webbing using a hinged double back design… there are a number of ways to address the issue on how to locate a racking karabiner onto webbing that are not in conflict with Petzl’s patent.

The solution that Mammut’s designers decided to go with was simply to switch the tab onto the back of the karabiner.

Now, if you spend about five seconds thinking about this, you realize that there is a bit of an issue here: In the other solutions the webbing is held captive within the karabiner, whereas with the Mammut solution, the karabiner straddles the webbing – the net result being that should the tab snap off, you lose the karabiner and everything you racked onto it into the bottomless abyss.

This to my mind is a case of target fixation: the end product shall look good, display nice finish and styling, shall instill a sense of purpose and getting-the-job-doneness… even when this is de facto not the case.

Do not let nice design blinker you and stop you from questioning the actual degree of functionality inherent to a tool – sometimes this is blindingly obvious, other times it takes a bit of discussion and working with the tool in question to establish this.

Function should be the prime objective, rather that a nice finish… if the two can go hand in hand, all the better. But a focus on design cannot be allowed to supplant function.

Switching media

For years, PowerPoint, or rather Keynote, Apple’s presentation software, have been an integral element of workshops and demos I have run. These programs are a powerful tool to convey content and concepts using text and images.

However, they can also send your audience to sleep in a matter of seconds. I can think of too many instances of dingily lit class rooms with underpowered projectors – and the audience bravely doing battle with slumber.

I have written about this before, but over the years I have returned to presentations time and again, considering what the key points are that I am trying to make – and rather than swamping people in content, attempting to whittle them down to the bare essentials.

In his book Presentation Zen, Garr Reynolds proposes that a slide should never contain more than five words. OK, while that may be a bit over the top, and depending upon the content you are delivering this may be possible or not, I agree with the basic tenet: you need to decide on the tool you are working with. A presentation should employ mainly images and a few key words to back up your story. Slides full of words are not a presentation, they are a document. Print it off and give it to people to read – people reading their slides to their audience drives me nuts. And yes, I have been guilty of this myself in the past, I will be the first to admit.

Andertoons Cartoon

I will not even go into animated builds in slides: object swooshing, bouncing or scaling themselves onto the screen… brrrrr. Don’t go there. That road also leads to Death by PowerPoint!

Anyway, my intent in writing this post was not to sound off about PowerPoint like a grumpy old man, I still see it as a useful tool – in carefully measured doses. I have come to realize the wisdom of switching media, i.e. to keep things moving, interesting and interactive: use flip charts, whiteboards or exhibits to illustrate what you are talking about, keep people moving and on their toes…

This was a flip chart I used during a course last week to summarize what we had discussed during the day before:

I also actually simply enjoy working with paper and pens, as it is such a tactile experience – a bit like working in, on and around trees.

So please, should you ever catch me attempting to anesthetize you with a PowerPoint presentation, do not be shy to give me a gentle prod.

Hooked again

Here ya go, true story today…

I don’t know what made me think of this one. Maybe it has to do with the approaching silly season. Or because I had largish cervid antlered mammals on my brain? Who is to know?

Be that as it may, a couple of years ago, a fellow arborist was working in the local zoo in the reindeer enclosure, pruning a large chestnut. He was minding his own business, working away, when he realized that his climbing line was snagged, probably tangled up in some brush.

Far from it.

He tugged and pulled on his line, in a vein attempt to free it (he could not see the ground as the tree was in leaf), so in the end he decided to descend a bit to see if he could dislodge the obstruction with his body weight.

To his surprise, when he finally got a clear line of sight to the ground, he discovered the source of entanglement: one of the reindeer had managed to get his antlers firmly tangled in the arborist’s climbing line and was beging pulled up into the tree.

One session of disentangling later, the arborist was able to continue his work – and a sheepish reindeer pottered off to find something else to snack on.

Now where was that tick box on my risk assessment form for climbing line tangled in reindeer antlers? What? Not in there?! What kind of risk assessment form is this anyway?!

Syntax error

Back from the US and a whirlwind stint at the TCI Expo in Pittsburgh – feeling dazed and confused.

But hey, what’s new?!

But I am not the only one…

I was down at breakfast at the hotel we were staying at in Pittsburgh, working my way through the buffet, in an attempt to find something that would not make me feel like I was on a steady diet of expanding foam. I ended up standing next to a young fellow whom I know from sight who is a trainer with one of the large US training outfits .

I decided I ought to make an effort to be sociable, after having suffered a rather acute attack of people poisoning the day before and having reverted into hermit mode…

Consequently, there ensued following, rather comical, dialog.

Me: Hiya, show going ok for you?

Him: Yes… (nonplussed expression creeps onto his face) Errr, can you remind me of your name? (OK, I actually know his name – but that is not part of this story)

Me: Mark

Him: Right. (I can almost see the cogwheels attempting to make a connection at this point) You’re with Petzl right?

Me (at this point I think I snorted a bit of snot out of my nose – sorry, graphic, but true): Uhhhh. Nope. Not really. On the other team… treemagineers, savvy? 

Him: Huh.

Being sociable is over-rated. Back to Johnny-no-friends mode.

Sometimes, there is not sitting on the fence

During a post-event TCI Expo party in Pittsburgh early yesterday evening the tragic news from Paris started to trickle in.

There are those moments when you sense that something momentous is happening – and you are witnessing it. This was one of them. Many innocent lives have been lost, people whose only crime was to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Extremely disturbing and very, very sad. It is impossible to imagine what kind of ideology can justify or even encourage such acts of senseless violence.

But I fear that the repercussions from these horrendous, senseless, inhuman acts will be far-reaching and represent a turning point.

The media are already reporting today that at least one of the attackers held a Syrian passport and passed through the Greek Island of Leros in October. Without any doubt those who wish to fortify Europe and close its doors to all those fleeing abject poverty, war and rape will use this event to justify the militarization of the borders and the erection of ever higher fences and barriers.

This is doubly cruel in view of the fact that many of the people who had to leave their homes behind were forced to do so by organizations such as Islamic State – and will now likely have to bear the consequences of the attacks in Paris yesterday, perpetrated by those following the selfsame ideology of bigotry, ignorance and hate as the aggressors in their home countries.

I believe these are issues in the face of which you cannot remain neutral or distanced, there is no sitting on the fence, as they concern each and every one of us – as fellow human beings.

So yes, indeed, our thoughts and compassion ought to go out to those who lost their lives or were injured in Paris and to their families – but we should also not forget those who have left absolutely everything they ever possessed behind in order to save their lives and those of their families – and not confuse aggressors and victims.

Crank up the volume?

In their 2010 book, The Invisible Gorillawhich I can highly recommend, one of the topics Chris Chabris and Dan Simons explore is the illusion of self-confidence.

This phenomenon describes how we on the one hand have the tendency to rate our competences higher than those of people around us (just think of traffic situations… what a bunch of numpties! I seem to be the only person round here who can drive! Or maybe not?) but on the other how we will often perceive self-confidence as an indicator of  a person’s competence, knowledge and abilities.

These tendencies lead to what Chabris and Simons refer to as the illusion of self-confidence.

Self-confidence is not necessarily proportionally in-step with these qualities in a person. Chabris and Simons demonstrated this by studies they did of competitive chess players. Often in our professional lives, we lack an objective scale of comparison in regards to how well we perform a task compared to others. Chess players, however, have a very precise means of measuring their skills, which is a numerical ranking system based upon a mathematical calculation of the number of victories, draws or defeats. This calculation also takes into account the ranking of the opponent, awarding more points for a victory against a stronger opponent and accordingly less in the instance that the opponents was of a lower ranking.

The average ranking of the players of the US Chess Federation in 1998 was 1337 points. 2200 points earns you the title of Grandmaster – of which there are relatively few and far between.

In interviews that the two researchers conducted at a number of chess tournaments,

  • 21% of interviewees felt that their ranking corresponded with their abilities,
  • 4% reckoned they were ranked to highly, and
  • a whopping 75% felt they were ranked too low by an average of 99 points. This is a considerable margin, in view of the average ranking of 1337 and the step up to a Grandmaster at 2200 points 100 points constitutes a considerable step up.

When Chabris and Simons looked closer, it transpired that the players who felt most under-rated were actually at the lower end of the range of abilities, whilst stronger players saw the mismatch as less pronounced. So the conclusion from that study was that the stronger players tended to rate themselves slightly higher, unlike weaker players, who over-estimated their abilities by a considerable margin. Put differently, the level of self-confidence and the ability to objectively asses ones level of competence are proportionally inverted. Or to express the correlation in a more positive fashion: a more competent person is better equipped to objectively assess their skill levels.

What is the consequence of all this for us and why am I rattling on about chess?

Well, I reckon we have all encountered situations in which the dominant person in a work team is the person who is most assertive, self-confident and vocal. However, as Chabris’ and Simon’s work clearly demonstrates, it is perfectly possible – and probably even likely – that that person is not most competent or experienced in the group, but merely the most self-confident. And that the group is falling prey to the illusion of self-confidence. The net result being that the overall level of competence in a team is watered down to the smallest common denominator.

Have you ever felt intimidated or cowed by a very pushy, self-assertive member of a team? Well, maybe remembering this study will encourage you to stand up to them…

Jacob Dunn at the University of Cambridge and colleagues recently concluded a study where they compared howlers monkeys’ hyoid bones. These bones, found in the neck, are enlarged in male howler monkeys to hold a sound-amplifying air sac.

They found that species with more males per group tended to have smaller hyoid bones and bigger testicles. But there was also a direct relationship between large hyoids and small testicles. Alternatively, big voiced-males might be able to fend off other males, reducing competition for their sperm, and so not need large testes. “I suspect that there might well be an element of both,” says Dunn.

So, the conclusion was that the louder howler monkeys had smaller testes. And vice versa.

Hmmm. That is food for thought… Did anyone say social media? 😉

So remember, that person standing up there on the soap box expounding upon merits of the newest, biggest and best thing since sliced bread or about the best way to resolve a situation may actually not be as knowledgeable or competent as he seems… and – if howler monkeys are anything to go by – may well be testacularly under-endowed!

Just saying’…

Chicago red eye-special

En route to TCI Expo in Pittsburg.

Well, I say en route, when actually, right now that is a bit of a euphemism. Stranded in Chicago would be a more appropriate description, after American decided to cancel their part of a code share flight with British Airways due to weather and air space congestion.

So, I find myself in a Holiday Inn, unable to sleep, drinking a distant, watery relative of coffee.

To say they were apologetic about it would be an exaggeration. And, oh no, they will not pay for a hotel as they do not consider it to be their fault that they cancelled the flight. Interesting point of view that, I will have to remember it to smooth over future mishaps. Picture this: after we have just slammed a large lump of wood onto the carport with the tree owner’s 380k fully pimped-up Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 Roadster parked in it, I will stay cool as a kipper, turn around to the owner’s wife and say that I do not really consider the incident to be our fault, rather, I blame it on gravity.

Ha! Nice one!

But in the end, BA did shout us a hotel and food vouchers. They are by far not the worst out there…  thanks, BA.

So, with high winds forecast for at least part of the day it remains to be seen how we make it to Pittsburgh. I have decided just to take this as a road trip.


Wrapping up Ireland

Ireland was a fantastic experience.

I enjoyed the landscape, the feel of the place and the people I got to spend some time with. To quote a CowellismArborists? Either misfits or hyperactives. Or both. There is more than a grain of truth in this, it is certainly an unusual crowd who seems to be drawn to this profession (ok, I am really layering on the stereotypes thick here, I realise) – that in all honesty I love spending time with.

During the two days workshop in Cork we had a group of about thirty arborists – I was duly impressed by the breadth of competence and professionalism I encountered. I rattled away, but the guys (yes, once again, a male only event… *sigh*) were very patient and stuck with me, so thanks for that.

It is with immense satisfaction that I am witness to the process of the Irish arborist community joining the rest of our dispersed tribe of climbers within arboriculture– this event for me was as much part of this as having an Irish team join us at ETCC in Monza this year. I would like to credit Donal Roe here for his tireless persistence and doggedness in making this happen.

Also, of course, I would like to thank all at Arborist.ie and the Douglas Forest and Garden, Greg, Kieran, Ann, for being gracious hosts and for making us feel welcome.

Last but not least I would like to thank everybody who joined us for the event – as obviously, without you, it would not have happened. Or I would have felt a bit like Johnny-no-friends.

The trip home? It was quite a haul, 18 hours on the boat to Cherbourg and then eleven hours driving. And guess what, once we left Ros Lair harbor, it transpired the see was anything but calm. And so ensued a night of merry rolling and pitching… I revised my plan and decided not to read after all, but rather opted for sleep – and oblivion.

Probably just as well, actually, as I picked up a book in Ireland by a Chinese author. I was really struggling with the Chinese idioms and names – and a whole style of narration that is just… very different from a tradition and style of writing you are used to from Western authors. I got through the first couple of chapters without really having a clue of what was going on – to finally realize that the book is the second part of a trilogy. Sigh. Yes, indeed, a classic misconfiguration.





Well, or something of the kind… I ran out of steam would be another way of describing what happened. Got back from Ireland in the wee hours of Sunday, big crane felling on Monday – and off to TCI Expo in Pittsburgh today. Bit of a rush.

But fear ye not, I am not running out of stuff to chat about, au contraire, in fact, so…


I have been in Ireland since yesterday, drove across over the weekend, took the boat from Cherbourg to Ros Láir and am thoroughly enjoying myself. What an interesting place! I am in Galway right now and it is striking how quickly you can travel from a very urban, bustling city environment to something very rural, wild and wooly. The trip from Galway to the Burren, south of the Galway Bay is maybe 50 minutes – yet it makes a huge difference. Certainly makes you want to spend more time and see more!

Tomorrow we travel down to Cork, where a workshop will be taking place on Wednesday and Thursday, hosted by Arborist.ie at the Frankenfield Golf Club. A big thank you to Greg Marah for having made this happen at fairly short notice – and for rustling up a good crowd, by the sound of it.

Stay tuned for more pics…