we did something similar while I used to be on the trading floor on algorithmic trading in European cash equities. Its an interesting way to check the tree and depth of the exchange trading books, specially it gave some great insights on the hourly movement of the spread and liquidity and the shape of the tree...
Saturday, March 3
Our charity, IT4CH, is sponsoring several wonderful runners to run in the London Marathon to raise money for the charity. And look at what they have done to popularise it
Pat Ryan, our wonderful CEO, has been considered to be a race favourite An extraordinary lady indeed.
Friday, March 2
Delivering an exceptional customer experience - 10 Reflections from 35 years of listening to customers
sorry i wasn't able to pick you up last night. I was sleeping when you texted at 2:36am and I had my phone on mute. So anyway, somebody dropped you off so that's ok. But next time, please call us on the home phone or try mamma's mobile as well. I felt bad that I couldn't pick you up.
Anyway, here's the interesting bit which I read today. As I have said before, this is part of my job, to make sure that one of the bank's business improves its sales function. But as you might be considering yourself to be a banker or actually setup your own firm, this is crucial to remember. Everybody sells, son. Mamma is trying to sell her books. I might be an academic and I am trying to sell my ideas. I might be a service provider or a call centre person. Doesn't matter, we always have to sell something to somebody. So its good to learn about these points.
Now usually i find these 10 point plans facile. They are far too generalist and easy to write, son. But the real challenge is to actually implement this. That's where most of the people fail. But many don't even think about these basics, son. Simple things and a great checklist for you to know whether or not you are actually dealing with your customers in a good way. Nothing wrong with this, but yesterday, at an industry dinner, I did a very scientific survey of 6 people who were at my table. They were from different organisations in various industries. All of the FT100 people and we are talking senior managers there. Did you know that pretty much everybody said that they wont be able to tick off more than 2 perhaps 3 points on this list? Points to ponder son, points to ponder. Think about Virgin or Apple, the top firms in customer service and you will realise why people are ferociously loyal to them.
Build better customer service and the world will beat a path to your door.
Just before Christmas, Alex Matthews (customer experience guru for HSBC, M&S and many others) decided to change the pace of his working life and stepped down from HSBC to pursue a portfolio of consulting projects. Having spent the last 3 years getting to know Alex really well I can say without doubt that when he talks on the topic of “the customer” it’s time to sit up and take notes. I am therefore delighted that Alex has been good enough to share with me his collected wisdom from 35 years of listening to customers and working to deliver an exceptional customer experience. Collated below are his top 10 reflections for business leaders looking to get the customer experience spot on.
1. Know Thy Customer – And I mean KNOW
A recent study showed that on any given day the front line were aware of 100% of the customers’ issues... the average UK CEO at the time could name only 4% of them. The smart CEOs seek out real (as opposed to stage managed) opportunities to get in their stores, branches, call centres etc and actually talk to and serve their customers. There is no substitute for this.
2. Know the difference between what the Customer Wants and what the Customer Expects
There are always elements of any product or service that customers just expect and there are some that can absolutely delight them. Being able to distinguish between the “everyday” elements that tend to drive “satisfaction” and the handful of “wow” elements that enable a business to truly differentiate itself is essential. It enables the business to put its energy and resources into being better only where the customer needs it to be great. Don’t try and beat the competition on the everyday stuff. It’s OK to be as good as the best of the rest on the everyday stuff.
3. Understand exactly how the customer makes you money
Understanding that whilst the overall interaction and impression the customer has of the organisation is important it is often how the customer is dealt with at one or two “moments of truth” that will determine the customers’ loyalty and advocacy. Being able to identify what parts of the interaction you have with your customer are truly the “moments of truth” and then aligning your resources to deliver a phenomenal customer experience is essential to maintaining a profitable relationship with your customers
4. The BIG things are often the little things
The “wow” aspects of the customer experience, whilst not always easy to identify are often the easiest to implement by the individual e.g. acknowledging a customer by name, smiling at a customer and saying thank you to a customer in their own words; little things yes but the hardest things for the organisation to implement. It requires a lot of effort to be expended on developing the culture of the organisation to the point where the “little things” are natural.
5. Talk about customers. About what they would think, not what we think of them
Does the leadership at all levels, but especially the top, have conversations about customers? Not high level strategic presentations about customer segment migration (important though these are) but just plain simple conversations. They might be about last week’s complaints or about last week’s store visits (M&S ‘s board would all be in stores at the weekend and those comments would form the early part of the Monday board meeting. Tesco used to have an empty chair at its trading meetings to represent the customer and what she, yes she, might think about what ever was being talked about).
6. It’s about people!
The most important cog in the machine is the person you speak to. I know, I know we can all have wonderful digital lives now but businesses that treat their employees as real human beings tend to find those human beings transferring that feeling to customers. Are staff required to use a script or are they trusted to use their judgement? Are they empowered to make a decision on your behalf or does it have to go to a higher authority? Does the employee look like they enjoy being there??? Old fashioned stuff I know but amazing how often that really is all you need to know!!
7. Look after the middle managers
And of course there is now oodles of research to prove that happy employees deliver a better customer experience and the biggest factor in the creation of happy employees is the quality of their middle managers. They are the biggest influence on how those who serve customers feel about their life at work. How are branch managers, team leaders, etc assessed? Are those who get promoted the best examples of the brand values and are they rewarded on their ability to performance manage? In Disney 50% of a leaders’ performance rating is generated by how they bring the Disney values to life... as judged by their direct reports!!
8. Make it easy
Customers don’t want complicated. Life’s too busy for that already. Numerous channels, numerous products, loads of small print… Over the years, we’ve managed to make it all so complicated. Customers just want it to work. There has to be a cost and profit component to what we do, but we also need to ensure that it’s easy to use and easy to buy. Metro and other new entrants are picking up on that, and building simplicity into their business. The chef Gordon Ramsay is a stickler for a trimmed back menu at all his establishments – learn to think like Gordon
9. Bring the customer in – live transparently
The beauty (and horror) of our digital age is that the customers will be inside our organisations whether we like it or not – the smarter businesses have learnt that trying to keep them at arms’ length is pointless and have thrown wide the doors to invite them into improve all manner of processes including sales and service, product design, ethics and compliance, complaints handling and organisational governance.
10. Now and again, let people err on behalf of the customer
The people who interact with your customers, for all intents and purposes, tend to be the most junior in the business. Yet it is what they do that wins or loses those customers. You need to give clear guidelines and support for what decisions they can make – but in the end it’s their decision and they won’t always get it right. Accept it.
Thursday, March 1
How scientists taught monkeys the concept of money. Not long after, the first prostitute monkey appeared
This article is brilliant. How monkeys were taught the concept of money and they understood the concept very well. And they also understood that they could exchange services for money…I quote the end:
Do they understand the value of money or do the monkeys just follow nice treats? Well, on a particular day, a researcher cut circular slices of cucumber, similar to the discs that were handed out to the capuchin as money, and fed them to the monkeys instead of the usual cube-like shape. One of the monkeys took a slice, chewed a bit on it, and then immediately went to one of the researchers to see if she could buy something tastier with it. Oh, and then again there’s stealing too. Not a single monkey saved any of the tokens, but most of them tried to substrate a few more tokens when they were handed out. The monkeys were given tokens one at a time by inserting them in a separate chamber from that of their living quarters, but on one occasion everything sprung into chaos when a capuchin tried to make a run for it with a tray filled with tokens and ended up back with all the other monkeys. That was a tough time for researchers.
Something else happened then too, tough , in what’s maybe the most evident form of one’s grasp upon currency. The idea is that you can use money as a form of currency to exchange for goods or services, as in not just food. Well, one of the researchers, during the chaos event, observed how one of the monkeys exchanged money to another for sex. After the act was over, the monkey which was paid immediately used it to buy a grape…
Wednesday, February 29
I am writing this on the day you are in Eurodisney for your science trip and are heading back to London. Both your mamma and I missed you even though these days you are usually out of the house or locked inside your room doing god only knows what :)
But this is an interesting article for you to think about. Coaching. You know what I miss most these days? I miss the great mentors and coaches I had before. I still do, I still have some good mentors and coaches, but they become progressively rarer as you move up your career. Your mum is a coach for you, so am I and so are your teachers. But as you grow older, go through university and then start a job, see if you can have a coach / mentor. Think about it, all the high performance artists and sportspeople have coaches, that's one of their secret weapons. They have somebody to advice and guide them. Some you might have to pay for, but if you are lucky, you wont need to.
There are two points you need to remember. First is that you have to be open to coaching. People think of themselves as know alls and do not need any external advice. You do, there is nothing or nobody in this world who is perfect, you can always do with advice because you want to constantly improve yourself and challenge yourself. That's where you need to make a difference son, be open to hear from others. I know you are very smart and intelligent, but guard against arrogance of knowing that you know best. You dont have to follow the advice, which is a different matter, but get advice and coaching.
Second is to remember that you have to constantly improve, always. If you are doing a job or you are studying for something or whatever, constant improvement is important. Ask yourself if you have added value in every attempt. Do something quicker, faster, more powerful, less cost, more revenue, etc. etc. All the time, keep improving yourself and coaches help you to do that.
In my experience, its extraordinary how many people are unwilling or unable to open themselves to this constant drive to learn, improve, change etc. Once they reach a particular job, they stop learning. You will see almost 5-6 out of 10 people will fall into this trap. But these people are boring. One way to recognise is to ask what is the value addition they have brought to their lives in the past 3 months. How many new things have they learnt? how have they reduced cost. Or new ways to do something? that's the trick, son, to stop yourself going stale or decaying. But dont take my word for it, here's a great story by a surgeon...
Coaching a Surgeon: What Makes Top Performers Better? : The New Yorker
I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.
During the first two or three years in practice, your skills seem to improve almost daily. It’s not about hand-eye coördination—you have that down halfway through your residency. As one of my professors once explained, doing surgery is no more physically difficult than writing in cursive. Surgical mastery is about familiarity and judgment. You learn the problems that can occur during a particular procedure or with a particular condition, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems.
Say you’ve got a patient who needs surgery for appendicitis. These days, surgeons will typically do a laparoscopic appendectomy. You slide a small camera—a laparoscope—into the abdomen through a quarter-inch incision near the belly button, insert a long grasper through an incision beneath the waistline, and push a device for stapling and cutting through an incision in the left lower abdomen. Use the grasper to pick up the finger-size appendix, fire the stapler across its base and across the vessels feeding it, drop the severed organ into a plastic bag, and pull it out. Close up, and you’re done. That’s how you like it to go, anyway. But often it doesn’t.
Even before you start, you need to make some judgments. Unusual anatomy, severe obesity, or internal scars from previous abdominal surgery could make it difficult to get the camera in safely; you don’t want to poke it into a loop of intestine. You have to decide which camera-insertion method to use—there’s a range of options—or whether to abandon the high-tech approach and do the operation the traditional way, with a wide-open incision that lets you see everything directly. If you do get your camera and instruments inside, you may have trouble grasping the appendix. Infection turns it into a fat, bloody, inflamed worm that sticks to everything around it—bowel, blood vessels, an ovary, the pelvic sidewall—and to free it you have to choose from a variety of tools and techniques. You can use a long cotton-tipped instrument to try to push the surrounding attachments away. You can use electrocautery, a hook, a pair of scissors, a sharp-tip dissector, a blunt-tip dissector, a right-angle dissector, or a suction device. You can adjust the operating table so that the patient’s head is down and his feet are up, allowing gravity to pull the viscera in the right direction. Or you can just grab whatever part of the appendix is visible and pull really hard.
Once you have the little organ in view, you may find that appendicitis was the wrong diagnosis. It might be a tumor of the appendix, Crohn’s disease, or an ovarian condition that happened to have inflamed the nearby appendix. Then you’d have to decide whether you need additional equipment or personnel—maybe it’s time to enlist another surgeon.
Over time, you learn how to head off problems, and, when you can’t, you arrive at solutions with less fumbling and more assurance. After eight years, I’ve performed more than two thousand operations. Three-quarters have involved my specialty, endocrine surgery—surgery for endocrine organs such as the thyroid, the parathyroid, and the adrenal glands. The rest have involved everything from simple biopsies to colon cancer. For my specialized cases, I’ve come to know most of the serious difficulties that could arise, and have worked out solutions. For the others, I’ve gained confidence in my ability to handle a wide range of situations, and to improvise when necessary.
As I went along, I compared my results against national data, and I began beating the averages. My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower. And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.
Maybe this is what happens when you turn forty-five. Surgery is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career. It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty. Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which S. & P. 500 chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four. Surgeons apparently fall somewhere between the extremes, requiring both physical stamina and the judgment that comes with experience. Apparently, I’d arrived at that middle point.
It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d hit a plateau. I grew up in Ohio, and when I was in high school I hoped to become a serious tennis player. But I peaked at seventeen. That was the year that Danny Trevas and I climbed to the top tier for doubles in the Ohio Valley. I qualified to play singles in a couple of national tournaments, only to be smothered in the first round both times. The kids at that level were playing a different game than I was. At Stanford, where I went to college, the tennis team ranked No. 1 in the nation, and I had no chance of being picked. That meant spending the past twenty-five years trying to slow the steady decline of my game.
I still love getting out on the court on a warm summer day, swinging a racquet strung to fifty-six pounds of tension at a two-ounce felt-covered sphere, and trying for those increasingly elusive moments when my racquet feels like an extension of my arm, and my legs are putting me exactly where the ball is going to be. But I came to accept that I’d never be remotely as good as I was when I was seventeen. In the hope of not losing my game altogether, I play when I can. I often bring my racquet on trips, for instance, and look for time to squeeze in a match.
One July day a couple of years ago, when I was at a medical meeting in Nantucket, I had an afternoon free and went looking for someone to hit with. I found a local tennis club and asked if there was anyone who wanted to play. There wasn’t. I saw that there was a ball machine, and I asked the club pro if I could use it to practice ground strokes. He told me that it was for members only. But I could pay for a lesson and hit with him.
He was in his early twenties, a recent graduate who’d played on his college team. We hit back and forth for a while. He went easy on me at first, and then started running me around. I served a few points, and the tennis coach in him came out. You know, he said, you could get more power from your serve.
I was dubious. My serve had always been the best part of my game. But I listened. He had me pay attention to my feet as I served, and I gradually recognized that my legs weren’t really underneath me when I swung my racquet up into the air. My right leg dragged a few inches behind my body, reducing my power. With a few minutes of tinkering, he’d added at least ten miles an hour to my serve. I was serving harder than I ever had in my life.
Not long afterward, I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every élite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.
But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?
What we think of as coaching was, sports historians say, a distinctly American development. During the nineteenth century, Britain had the more avid sporting culture; its leisure classes went in for games like cricket, golf, and soccer. But the aristocratic origins produced an ethos of amateurism: you didn’t want to seem to be trying too hard. For the Brits, coaching, even practicing, was, well, unsporting. In America, a more competitive and entrepreneurial spirit took hold. In 1875, Harvard and Yale played one of the nation’s first American-rules football games. Yale soon employed a head coach for the team, the legendary Walter Camp. He established position coaches for individual player development, maintained detailed performance records for each player, and pre-planned every game. Harvard preferred the British approach to sports. In those first three decades, it beat Yale only four times.
The concept of a coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They’re not your boss—in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach—but they can be bossy. They don’t even have to be good at the sport. The famous Olympic gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi couldn’t do a split if his life depended on it. Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide.
Coaches are like editors, another slippery invention. Consider Maxwell Perkins, the great Scribner’s editor, who found, nurtured, and published such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. “Perkins has the intangible faculty of giving you confidence in yourself and the book you are writing,” one of his writers said in a New Yorker Profile from 1944. “He never tells you what to do,” another writer said. “Instead, he suggests to you, in an extraordinarily inarticulate fashion, what you want to do yourself.”
The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself. This is how élite musicians are taught. Barbara Lourie Sand’s book “Teaching Genius” describes the methods of the legendary Juilliard violin instructor Dorothy DeLay. DeLay was a Perkins-like figure who trained an amazing roster of late-twentieth-century virtuosos, including Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, Midori, and Sarah Chang. They came to the Juilliard School at a young age—usually after they’d demonstrated talent but reached the limits of what local teachers could offer. They studied with DeLay for a number of years, and then they graduated, launched like ships leaving drydock. She saw her role as preparing them to make their way without her.
Itzhak Perlman, for instance, arrived at Juilliard, in 1959, at the age of thirteen, and studied there for eight years, working with both DeLay and Ivan Galamian, another revered instructor. Among the key things he learned were discipline, a broad repertoire, and the exigencies of technique. “All DeLay’s students, big or little, have to do their scales, their arpeggios, their études, their Bach, their concertos, and so on,” Sand writes. “By the time they reach their teens, they are expected to be practicing a minimum of five hours a day.” DeLay also taught them to try new and difficult things, to perform without fear. She expanded their sense of possibility. Perlman, disabled by polio, couldn’t play the violin standing, and DeLay was one of the few who were convinced that he could have a concert career. DeLay was, her biographer observed, “basically in the business of teaching her pupils how to think, and to trust their ability to do so effectively.” Musical expertise meant not needing to be coached.
Doctors understand expertise in the same way. Knowledge of disease and the science of treatment are always evolving. We have to keep developing our capabilities and avoid falling behind. So the training inculcates an ethic of perfectionism. Expertise is thought to be not a static condition but one that doctors must build and sustain for themselves.
Coaching in pro sports proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own. One of these views, it seemed to me, had to be wrong. So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.
I asked him why concert violinists didn’t have coaches, the way top athletes did. He said that he didn’t know, but that it had always seemed a mistake to him. He had enjoyed the services of a coach all along.
He had a coach? “I was very, very lucky,” Perlman said. His wife, Toby, whom he’d known at Juilliard, was a concert-level violinist, and he’d relied on her for the past forty years. “The great challenge in performing is listening to yourself,” he said. “Your physicality, the sensation that you have as you play the violin, interferes with your accuracy of listening.” What violinists perceive is often quite different from what audiences perceive.
“My wife always says that I don’t really know how I play,” he told me. “She is an extra ear.” She’d tell him if a passage was too fast or too tight or too mechanical—if there was something that needed fixing. Sometimes she has had to puzzle out what might be wrong, asking another expert to describe what she heard as he played.
Her ear provided external judgment. “She is very tough, and that’s what I like about it,” Perlman says. He doesn’t always trust his response when he listens to recordings of his performances. He might think something sounds awful, and then realize he was mistaken: “There is a variation in the ability to listen, as well, I’ve found.” He didn’t know if other instrumentalists relied on coaching, but he suspected that many find help like he did. Vocalists, he pointed out, employ voice coaches throughout their careers.
The professional singers I spoke to describe their coaches in nearly identical terms. “We refer to them as our ‘outside ears,’ ” the great soprano Renée Fleming told me. “The voice is so mysterious and fragile. It’s mostly involuntary muscles that fuel the instrument. What we hear as we are singing is not what the audience hears.” When she’s preparing for a concert, she practices with her vocal coach for ninety minutes or so several times a week. “Our voices are very limited in the amount of time we can use them,” she explains. After they’ve put in the hours to attain professional status, she said, singers have about twenty or thirty years to achieve something near their best, and then to sustain that level. For Fleming, “outside ears” have been invaluable at every point.
So outside ears, and eyes, are important for concert-calibre musicians and Olympic-level athletes. What about regular professionals, who just want to do what they do as well as they can? I talked to Jim Knight about this. He is the director of the Kansas Coaching Project, at the University of Kansas. He teaches coaching—for schoolteachers. For decades, research has confirmed that the big factor in determining how much students learn is not class size or the extent of standardized testing but the quality of their teachers. Policymakers have pushed mostly carrot-and-stick remedies: firing underperforming teachers, giving merit pay to high performers, penalizing schools with poor student test scores. People like Jim Knight think we should push coaching.
California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.
Knight experienced it himself. Two decades ago, he was trying to teach writing to students at a community college in Toronto, and floundering. He studied techniques for teaching students how to write coherent sentences and organize their paragraphs. But he didn’t get anywhere until a colleague came into the classroom and coached him through the changes he was trying to make. He won an award for innovation in teaching, and eventually wrote a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Kansas on measures to improve pedagogy. Then he got funding to train coaches for every school in Topeka, and he has been expanding his program ever since. Coaching programs have now spread to hundreds of school districts across the country.
There have been encouraging early results, but the data haven’t yet been analyzed on a large scale. One thing that seems clear, though, is that not all coaches are effective. I asked Knight to show me what makes for good coaching.
We met early one May morning at Leslie H. Walton Middle School, in Albemarle County, Virginia. In 2009, the Albemarle County public schools created an instructional-coaching program, based in part on Knight’s methods. It recruited twenty-four teacher coaches for the twenty-seven schools in the semi-rural district. (Charlottesville is the county seat, but it runs a separate school district.) Many teacher-coaching programs concentrate on newer teachers, and this one is no exception. All teachers in their first two years are required to accept a coach, but the program also offers coaching to any teacher who wants it.
Not everyone has. Researchers from the University of Virginia found that many teachers see no need for coaching. Others hate the idea of being observed in the classroom, or fear that using a coach makes them look incompetent, or are convinced, despite assurances, that the coaches are reporting their evaluations to the principal. And some are skeptical that the school’s particular coaches would be of any use.
To find its coaches, the program took applications from any teachers in the system who were willing to cross over to the back of the classroom for a couple of years and teach colleagues instead of students. They were selected for their skills with people, and they studied the methods developed by Knight and others. But they did not necessarily have any special expertise in a content area, like math or science. The coaches assigned to Walton Middle School were John Hobson, a bushy-bearded high-school history teacher who was just thirty-three years old when he started but had been a successful baseball and tennis coach, and Diane Harding, a teacher who had two decades of experience but had spent the previous seven years out of the classroom, serving as a technology specialist.
Nonetheless, many veteran teachers—including some of the best—signed up to let the outsiders in. Jennie Critzer, an eighth-grade math teacher, was one of those teachers, and we descended on her first-period algebra class as a small troupe—Jim Knight, me, and both coaches. (The school seemed eager to have me see what both do.)
After the students found their seats—some had to search a little, because Critzer had scrambled the assigned seating, as she often does, to “keep things fresh”—she got to work. She had been a math teacher at Walton Middle School for ten years. She taught three ninety-minute classes a day with anywhere from twenty to thirty students. And she had every class structured down to the minute.
Today, she said, they would be learning how to simplify radicals. She had already put a “Do Now” problem on the whiteboard: “Simplify √36 and √32.” She gave the kids three minutes to get as far as they could, and walked the rows of desks with a white egg timer in her hand as the students went at it. With her blond pigtails, purple striped sack dress, flip-flops, and painted toenails, each a different color, she looked like a graduate student headed to a beach party. But she carried herself with an air of easy command. The timer sounded.
For thirty seconds, she had the students compare their results with those of the partner next to them. Then she called on a student at random for the first problem, the simplified form of √36. “Six,” the girl said.
“Stand up if you got six,” Critzer said. Everyone stood up.
She turned to the harder problem of simplifying √32. No one got the answer, 4 √2. It was a middle-level algebra class; the kids didn’t have a lot of confidence when it came to math. Yet her job was to hold their attention and get them to grasp and apply three highly abstract concepts—the concepts of radicals, of perfect squares, and of factoring. In the course of one class, she did just that.
She set a clear goal, announcing that by the end of class the students would know how to write numbers like √32 in a simplified form without using a decimal or a fraction. Then she broke the task into steps. She had the students punch √32 into their calculators and see what number they got (5.66). She had them try explaining to their partner how whole numbers differed from decimals. (“Thirty seconds, everyone.”) She had them write down other numbers whose square root was a whole number. She made them visualize, verbalize, and write the idea. Soon, they’d figured out how to find the factors of the number under the radical sign, and then how to move factors from under the radical sign to outside the radical sign.
Toward the end, she had her students try simplifying √20. They had one minute. One of the boys who’d looked alternately baffled and distracted for the first half of class hunched over his notebook scratching out an answer with his pencil. “This is so easy now,” he announced.
I told the coaches that I didn’t see how Critzer could have done better. They said that every teacher has something to work on. It could involve student behavior, or class preparation, or time management, or any number of other things. The coaches let the teachers choose the direction for coaching. They usually know better than anyone what their difficulties are.
Critzer’s concern for the last quarter of the school year was whether her students were effectively engaged and learning the material they needed for the state tests. So that’s what her coaches focussed on. Knight teaches coaches to observe a few specifics: whether the teacher has an effective plan for instruction; how many students are engaged in the material; whether they interact respectfully; whether they engage in high-level conversations; whether they understand how they are progressing, or failing to progress.
Novice teachers often struggle with the basic behavioral issues. Hobson told me of one such teacher, whose students included a hugely disruptive boy. Hobson took her to observe the boy in another teacher’s classroom, where he behaved like a prince. Only then did the teacher see that her style was the problem. She let students speak—and shout, and interrupt—without raising their hands, and go to the bathroom without asking. Then she got angry when things got out of control.
Jennie Critzer had no trouble maintaining classroom discipline, and she skillfully used a variety of what teachers call “learning structures”—lecturing, problem-solving, coöperative learning, discussion. But the coaches weren’t convinced that she was getting the best results. Of twenty kids, they noticed, at least four seemed at sea.
Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components. In sports, coaches focus on mechanics, conditioning, and strategy, and have ways to break each of those down, in turn. The U.C.L.A. basketball coach John Wooden, at the first squad meeting each season, even had his players practice putting their socks on. He demonstrated just how to do it: he carefully rolled each sock over his toes, up his foot, around the heel, and pulled it up snug, then went back to his toes and smoothed out the material along the sock’s length, making sure there were no wrinkles or creases. He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. “Details create success” was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.
At Walton Middle School, Hobson and Harding thought that Critzer should pay close attention to the details of how she used coöperative learning. When she paired the kids off, they observed, most struggled with having a “math conversation.” The worst pairs had a girl with a boy. One boy-girl pair had been unable to talk at all.
Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
At lunchtime, Critzer and her coaches sat down at a table in the empty school library. Hobson took the lead. “What worked?” he asked.
Critzer said she had been trying to increase the time that students spend on independent practice during classes, and she thought she was doing a good job. She was also trying to “break the plane” more—get out from in front of the whiteboard and walk among the students—and that was working nicely. But she knew the next question, and posed it herself: “So what didn’t go well?” She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.
“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.
She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”
“What else did you notice?”
“My second class has thirty kids but was more forthcoming. It was actually easier to teach than the first class. This group is less verbal.” Her answer gave the coaches the opening they wanted. They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”
Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.
For half an hour, they worked through the fine points of the observation and formulated plans for what she could practice next. Critzer sat at a short end of the table chatting, the coaches at the long end beside her, Harding leaning toward her on an elbow, Hobson fingering his beard. They looked like three colleagues on a lunch break—which, Knight later explained, was part of what made the two coaches effective.
He had seen enough coaching to break even their performance down into its components. Good coaches, he said, speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. Hobson and Harding “listened more than they talked,” Knight said. “They were one hundred per cent present in the conversation.” They also parcelled out their observations carefully. “It’s not a normal way of communicating—watching what your words are doing,” he said. They had discomfiting information to convey, and they did it directly but respectfully.
I asked Critzer if she liked the coaching. “I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning.” She had been concerned for a while about how to do a better job engaging her kids. “So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”
She told me that she had begun to burn out. “I felt really isolated, too,” she said. Coaching had changed that. “My stress level is a lot less now.” That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.
I decided to try a coach. I called Robert Osteen, a retired general surgeon, whom I trained under during my residency, to see if he might consider the idea. He’s one of the surgeons I most hoped to emulate in my career. His operations were swift without seeming hurried and elegant without seeming showy. He was calm. I never once saw him lose his temper. He had a plan for every circumstance. He had impeccable judgment. And his patients had unusually few complications.
He specialized in surgery for tumors of the pancreas, liver, stomach, esophagus, colon, breast, and other organs. One test of a cancer surgeon is knowing when surgery is pointless and when to forge ahead. Osteen never hemmed or hawed, or pushed too far. “Can’t be done,” he’d say upon getting a patient’s abdomen open and discovering a tumor to be more invasive than expected. And, without a pause for lament, he’d begin closing up again.
Year after year, the senior residents chose him for their annual teaching award. He was an unusual teacher. He never quite told you what to do. As an intern, I did my first splenectomy with him. He did not draw the skin incision to be made with the sterile marking pen the way the other professors did. He just stood there, waiting. Finally, I took the pen, put the felt tip on the skin somewhere, and looked up at him to see if I could make out a glimmer of approval or disapproval. He gave me nothing. I drew a line down the patient’s middle, from just below the sternum to just above the navel.
“Is that really where you want it?” he said. Osteen’s voice was a low, car-engine growl, tinged with the accent of his boyhood in Savannah, Georgia, and it took me a couple of years to realize that it was not his voice that scared me but his questions. He was invariably trying to get residents to think—to think like surgeons—and his questions exposed how much we had to learn.
“Yes,” I answered. We proceeded with the operation. Ten minutes into the case, it became obvious that I’d made the incision too small to expose the spleen. “I should have taken the incision down below the navel, huh?” He grunted in the affirmative, and we stopped to extend the incision.
I reached Osteen at his summer home, on Buzzards Bay. He was enjoying retirement. He spent time with his grandchildren and travelled, and, having been an avid sailor all his life, he had just finished writing a book on nineteenth-century naval mapmaking. He didn’t miss operating, but one day a week he held a teaching conference for residents and medical students. When I explained the experiment I wanted to try, he was game.
He came to my operating room one morning and stood silently observing from a step stool set back a few feet from the table. He scribbled in a notepad and changed position once in a while, looking over the anesthesia drape or watching from behind me. I was initially self-conscious about being observed by my former teacher. But I was doing an operation—a thyroidectomy for a patient with a cancerous nodule—that I had done around a thousand times, more times than I’ve been to the movies. I was quickly absorbed in the flow of it—the symphony of coördinated movement between me and my surgical assistant, a senior resident, across the table from me, and the surgical technician to my side.
The case went beautifully. The cancer had not spread beyond the thyroid, and, in eighty-six minutes, we removed the fleshy, butterfly-shaped organ, carefully detaching it from the trachea and from the nerves to the vocal cords. Osteen had rarely done this operation when he was practicing, and I wondered whether he would find anything useful to tell me.
We sat in the surgeons’ lounge afterward. He saw only small things, he said, but, if I were trying to keep a problem from happening even once in my next hundred operations, it’s the small things I had to worry about. He noticed that I’d positioned and draped the patient perfectly for me, standing on his left side, but not for anyone else. The draping hemmed in the surgical assistant across the table on the patient’s right side, restricting his left arm, and hampering his ability to pull the wound upward. At one point in the operation, we found ourselves struggling to see up high enough in the neck on that side. The draping also pushed the medical student off to the surgical assistant’s right, where he couldn’t help at all. I should have made more room to the left, which would have allowed the student to hold the retractor and freed the surgical assistant’s left hand.
Osteen also asked me to pay more attention to my elbows. At various points during the operation, he observed, my right elbow rose to the level of my shoulder, on occasion higher. “You cannot achieve precision with your elbow in the air,” he said. A surgeon’s elbows should be loose and down by his sides. “When you are tempted to raise your elbow, that means you need to either move your feet”—because you’re standing in the wrong position—“or choose a different instrument.”
He had a whole list of observations like this. His notepad was dense with small print. I operate with magnifying loupes and wasn’t aware how much this restricted my peripheral vision. I never noticed, for example, that at one point the patient had blood-pressure problems, which the anesthesiologist was monitoring. Nor did I realize that, for about half an hour, the operating light drifted out of the wound; I was operating with light from reflected surfaces. Osteen pointed out that the instruments I’d chosen for holding the incision open had got tangled up, wasting time.
That one twenty-minute discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years. It had been strange and more than a little awkward having to explain to the surgical team why Osteen was spending the morning with us. “He’s here to coach me,” I’d said. Yet the stranger thing, it occurred to me, was that no senior colleague had come to observe me in the eight years since I’d established my surgical practice. Like most work, medical practice is largely unseen by anyone who might raise one’s sights. I’d had no outside ears and eyes.
Osteen has continued to coach me in the months since that experiment. I take his observations, work on them for a few weeks, and then get together with him again. The mechanics of the interaction are still evolving. Surgical performance begins well before the operating room, with the choice made in the clinic of whether to operate in the first place. Osteen and I have spent time examining the way I plan before surgery. I’ve also begun taking time to do something I’d rarely done before—watch other colleagues operate in order to gather ideas about what I could do.
A former colleague at my hospital, the cancer surgeon Caprice Greenberg, has become a pioneer in using video in the operating room. She had the idea that routine, high-quality video recordings of operations could enable us to figure out why some patients fare better than others. If we learned what techniques made the difference, we could even try to coach for them. The work is still in its early stages. So far, a handful of surgeons have had their operations taped, and begun reviewing them with a colleague.
I was one of the surgeons who got to try it. It was like going over a game tape. One rainy afternoon, I brought my laptop to Osteen’s kitchen, and we watched a recording of another thyroidectomy I’d performed. Three video pictures of the operation streamed on the screen—one from a camera in the operating light, one from a wide-angle room camera, and one with the feed from the anesthesia monitor. A boom microphone picked up the sound.
Osteen liked how I’d changed the patient’s positioning and draping. “See? Right there!” He pointed at the screen. “The assistant is able to help you now.” At one point, the light drifted out of the wound and we watched to see how long it took me to realize I’d lost direct illumination: four minutes, instead of half an hour.
“Good,” he said. “You’re paying more attention.”
He had new pointers for me. He wanted me to let the residents struggle thirty seconds more when I asked them to help with a task. I tended to give them precise instructions as soon as progress slowed. “No, use the DeBakey forceps,” I’d say, or “Move the retractor first.” Osteen’s advice: “Get them to think.” It’s the only way people learn.
And together we identified a critical step in a thyroidectomy to work on: finding and preserving the parathyroid glands—four fatty glands the size of a yellow split pea that sit on the surface of the thyroid gland and are crucial for regulating a person’s calcium levels. The rate at which my patients suffered permanent injury to those little organs had been hovering at two per cent. He wanted me to try lowering the risk further by finding the glands earlier in the operation.
Since I have taken on a coach, my complication rate has gone down. It’s too soon to know for sure whether that’s not random, but it seems real. I know that I’m learning again. I can’t say that every surgeon needs a coach to do his or her best work, but I’ve discovered that I do.
Coaching has become a fad in recent years. There are leadership coaches, executive coaches, life coaches, and college-application coaches. Search the Internet, and you’ll find that there’s even Twitter coaching. (“Would you like to learn how to get new customers/clients, make valuable business contacts, and increase your revenue using Twitter? Then this Twitter coaching package is perfect for you”—at about eight hundred dollars for a few hour-long Skype sessions and some e-mail consultation.) Self-improvement has always found a ready market, and most of what’s on offer is simply one-on-one instruction to get amateurs through the essentials. It’s teaching with a trendier name. Coaching aimed at improving the performance of people who are already professionals is less usual. It’s also riskier: bad coaching can make people worse.
The world-famous high jumper Dick Fosbury, for instance, developed his revolutionary technique—known as the Fosbury Flop—in defiance of his coaches. They wanted him to stick to the time-honored straddle method of going over the high bar leg first, face down. He instinctively wanted to go over head first, back down. It was only by perfecting his odd technique on his own that Fosbury won the gold medal at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, setting a new record on worldwide television, and reinventing high-jumping overnight.
Renée Fleming told me that when her original voice coach died, ten years ago, she was nervous about replacing her. She wanted outside ears, but they couldn’t be just anybody’s. “At my stage, when you’re at my level, you don’t really want to go to a new person who might mess things up,” she said. “Somebody might say, ‘You know, you’ve been singing that way for a long time, but why don’t you try this?’ If you lose your path, sometimes you can’t find your way back, and then you lose your confidence onstage and it really is just downhill.”
The sort of coaching that fosters effective innovation and judgment, not merely the replication of technique, may not be so easy to cultivate. Yet modern society increasingly depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for doing extraordinary things: operating inside people’s bodies, teaching eighth graders algebraic concepts that Euclid would have struggled with, building a highway through a mountain, constructing a wireless computer network across a state, running a factory, reducing a city’s crime rate. In the absence of guidance, how many people can do such complex tasks at the level we require? With a diploma, a few will achieve sustained mastery; with a good coach, many could. We treat guidance for professionals as a luxury—you can guess what gets cut first when school-district budgets are slashed. But coaching may prove essential to the success of modern society.
There was a moment in sports when employing a coach was unimaginable—and then came a time when not doing so was unimaginable. We care about results in sports, and if we care half as much about results in schools and in hospitals we may reach the same conclusion. Local health systems may need to go the way of the Albemarle school district. We could create coaching programs not only for surgeons but for other doctors, too—internists aiming to sharpen their diagnostic skills, cardiologists aiming to improve their heart-attack outcomes, and all of us who have to figure out ways to use our resources more efficiently. In the past year, I’ve thought nothing of asking my hospital to spend some hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the surgical equipment I use, in the vague hope of giving me finer precision and reducing complications. Avoiding just one major complication saves, on average, fourteen thousand dollars in medical costs—not to mention harm to a human being. So it seems worth it. But the three or four hours I’ve spent with Osteen each month have almost certainly added more to my capabilities than any of this.
Talk about medical progress, and people think about technology. We await every new cancer drug as if it will be our salvation. We dream of personalized genomics, vaccines against heart disease, and the unfathomed efficiencies from information technology. I would never deny the potential value of such breakthroughs. My teen-age son was spared high-risk aortic surgery a couple of years ago by a brief stent procedure that didn’t exist when he was born. But the capabilities of doctors matter every bit as much as the technology. This is true of all professions. What ultimately makes the difference is how well people use technology. We have devoted disastrously little attention to fostering those abilities.
A determined effort to introduce coaching could change this. Making sure that the benefits exceed the cost will take work, to be sure. So will finding coaches—though, with the growing pool of retirees, we may already have a ready reserve of accumulated experience and know-how. The greatest difficulty, though, may simply be a profession’s willingness to accept the idea. The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure. I thought about this after another case of mine that Bob Osteen came to observe. It didn’t go so well.
The patient was a woman with a large tumor in the adrenal gland atop her right kidney, and I had decided to remove it using a laparoscope. Some surgeons might have questioned this decision. When adrenal tumors get to be a certain size, they can’t be removed laparoscopically—you have to do a traditional, open operation and get your hands inside. I persisted, though, and soon had cause for regret. Working my way around this tumor with a ten-millimetre camera on the end of a foot-and-a-half-long wand was like trying to find my way around a mountain with a penlight. I continued with my folly too long, and caused bleeding in a blind spot. The team had to give her a blood transfusion while I opened her belly wide and did the traditional operation.
Osteen watched, silent and blank-faced the entire time, taking notes. My cheeks burned; I was mortified. I wished I’d never asked him along. I tried to be rational about the situation—the patient did fine. But I had let Osteen see my judgment fail; I’d let him see that I may not be who I want to be.
This is why it will never be easy to submit to coaching, especially for those who are well along in their career. I’m ostensibly an expert. I’d finished long ago with the days of being tested and observed. I am supposed to be past needing such things. Why should I expose myself to scrutiny and fault-finding?
I have spoken to other surgeons about the idea. “Oh, I can think of a few people who could use some coaching” has been a common reaction. Not many say, “Man, could I use a coach!” Once, I wouldn’t have, either.
Osteen and I sat together after the operation and broke the case down, weighing the decisions I’d made at various points. He focussed on what I thought went well and what I thought didn’t. He wasn’t sure what I ought to have done differently, he said. But he asked me to think harder about the anatomy of the attachments holding the tumor in.
“You seemed to have trouble keeping the tissue on tension,” he said. He was right. You can’t free a tumor unless you can lift and hold taut the tissue planes you need to dissect through. Early on, when it had become apparent that I couldn’t see the planes clearly, I could have switched to the open procedure before my poking around caused bleeding. Thinking back, however, I also realized that there was another maneuver I could have tried that might have let me hold the key attachments on tension, and maybe even freed the tumor.
“Most surgery is done in your head,” Osteen likes to say. Your performance is not determined by where you stand or where your elbow goes. It’s determined by where you decide to stand, where you decide to put your elbow. I knew that he could drive me to make smarter decisions, but that afternoon I recognized the price: exposure.
For society, too, there are uncomfortable difficulties: we may not be ready to accept—or pay for—a cadre of people who identify the flaws in the professionals upon whom we rely, and yet hold in confidence what they see. Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Yet the allegiance of coaches is to the people they work with; their success depends on it. And the existence of a coach requires an acknowledgment that even expert practitioners have significant room for improvement. Are we ready to confront this fact when we’re in their care?
“Who’s that?” a patient asked me as she awaited anesthesia and noticed Osteen standing off to the side of the operating room, notebook in hand.
I was flummoxed for a moment. He wasn’t a student or a visiting professor. Calling him “an observer” didn’t sound quite right, either.
“He’s a colleague,” I said. “I asked him along to observe and see if he saw things I could improve.”
The patient gave me a look that was somewhere between puzzlement and alarm.
“He’s like a coach,” I finally said.
She did not seem reassured. ♦
Tuesday, February 28
I read this and was gobsmacked. A British Minister actively going against the judiciary, telling people to ignore judicial pronouncements and violating the basic principle of separating church from state. Mr. Pickles, you should be ashamed of yourself, pandering to medieval religious claptrap. I quote
Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, is poised to use new powers to strike down the restriction, which stems from a legal challenge launched to the tradition by an atheist parish councillor.
Mr Justice Ouseley issued a declaration that there was no “lawful” place for prayer during formal proceedings.
It came after Clive Bone, a former member of Bideford Town Council in Devon, brought a legal challenge against the tradition of opening council meetings with prayers.
He argued that the custom left non-believers excluded but the council has twice voted to retain the prayers despite Mr Bone’s complaints.
His case was backed by the National Secular Society which campaigns for the separation of religion and the state.
Yesterday the judge rejected claims that the practice was against Mr Bone’s human rights or amounted to discrimination.
But he nevertheless concluded that it was “not lawful” under the Local Government Act to say prayers as part of formal council meetings.
Secular campaigners hailed it as a victory for equality but Bishops and MPs said the ruling threatened Britain’s Christian heritage.
Mr Pickles said the judgment undermined the “fundamental and hard-fought British liberty” to worship.
"Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation,” he said.
“Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.”
However he pointed to the Localism Act – already on the statute book and due to come into effect in the next few weeks – which gives councils a new “power of competence” to determine their own procedures.
"[It] allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law,” he said.
“Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."
A source close to Mr Pickles said: “We want to give a reassurance to councils that they shouldn’t panic about this and the general power of competence gives them the protection to continue to have prayers if they want to.”
When the act comes into force it will also give Mr pickles the power to strike down the restriction, if needed.
Monday, February 27
This is a classic example of how good intentions are used as paving stones on the road to hell.
CAIRO — It is unlikely anyone has ever come to this city and commented on how clean the streets are. But this litter-strewn metropolis is now wrestling with a garbage problem so severe it has managed to incite its weary residents and command the attention of the president.
A woman picked through garbage in Cairo. A delicate balance of trash collecting has been upset, and garbage is everywhere.
“The problem is clear in the streets,” said Haitham Kamal, a spokesman for the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs. “There is a strict and intensive effort now from the state to address this issue.”
But the crisis should not have come as a surprise.
The pigs used to eat tons of organic waste. Now the pigs are gone and the rotting food piles up on the streets of middle-class neighborhoods like Heliopolis and in the poor streets of communities like Imbaba.
Ramadan Hediya, 35, who makes deliveries for a supermarket, lives in Madinat el Salam, a low-income community on the outskirts of Cairo.
“The whole area is trash,” Mr. Hediya said. “All the pathways are full of trash. When you open up your window to breathe, you find garbage heaps on the ground.”
What started out as an impulsive response to the swine flu threat has turned into a social, environmental and political problem for the Arab world’s most populous nation.
It has exposed the failings of a government where the power is concentrated at the top, where decisions are often carried out with little consideration for their consequences and where follow-up is often nonexistent, according to social commentators and government officials.
“The main problem in Egypt is follow-up,” said Sabir Abdel Aziz Galal, chief of the infectious disease department at the Ministry of Agriculture. “A decision is taken, there is follow-up for a period of time, but after that, they get busy with something else and forget about it. This is the case with everything.”
Speaking broadly, there are two systems for receiving services in Egypt: The government system and the do-it-yourself system. Instead of following the channels of bureaucracy, most people rely on an informal system of personal contacts and bribes to get a building permit, pass an inspection, get a driver’s license — or make a living.
“The straight and narrow path is just too bureaucratic and burdensome for the rich person, and for the poor, the formal system does not provide him with survival, it does not give him safety, security or meet his needs,” said Laila Iskandar Kamel, chairwoman of a community development organization in Cairo.
Cairo’s garbage collection belonged to the informal sector. The government hired multinational companies to collect the trash, and the companies decided to place bins around the city.
But they failed to understand the ethos of the community. People do not take their garbage out. They are accustomed to seeing someone collecting it from the door.
For more than half a century, those collectors were the zabaleen, a community of Egyptian Christians who live on the cliffs on the eastern edge of the city. They collected the trash, sold the recyclables and fed the organic waste to their pigs — which they then slaughtered and ate.
Killing all the pigs, all at once, “was the stupidest thing they ever did,” Ms. Kamel said, adding, “This is just one more example of poorly informed decision makers.”
When the swine flu fear first emerged, long before even one case was reported in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak ordered that all the pigs be killed in order to prevent the spread of the disease.
When health officials worldwide said that the virus was not being passed by pigs, the Egyptian government said that the cull was no longer about the flu, but was about cleaning up the zabaleen’s crowded, filthy, neighborhood.
That was in May.
Today the streets of the zabaleen community are as packed with stinking trash and as clouded with flies as ever before. But the zabaleen have done exactly what they said they would do: they stopped taking care of most of the organic waste.
Instead they dump it wherever they can or, at best, pile it beside trash bins scattered around the city by the international companies that have struggled in vain to keep up with the trash.
“They killed the pigs, let them clean the city,” said Moussa Rateb, a former garbage collector and pig owner who lives in the community of the zabaleen. “Everything used to go to the pigs, now there are no pigs, so it goes to the administration.”
The recent trash problem was compounded when employees of one of the multinational companies — men and women in green uniforms with crude brooms dispatched around the city — stopped working in a dispute with the city.
The government says that the dispute has been resolved, but nothing has been done to repair the damage to the informal system that once had the zabaleen take Cairo’s trash home.
The garbage is only the latest example of the state’s struggling to meet the needs of its citizens, needs as basic as providing water, housing, health care and education.
The government announced last week that schools would not be opened until the first week of October to give the government time to prepare for a potential swine flu outbreak, a decision that could have been made anytime over the past three months, while schools were closed for summer break, critics said.
Officials in the Ministry of Health and other government ministries said they had not made this decision — and that they had counseled against pre-emptive school closings.
It appears to have been ordered by the presidency and carried out by the governors, who also ordered that all private schools, already in class, be shut down as well.
“We did not propose or call for postponing schools, so the reason is not with us,” said an official in the Ministry of Health who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak to the news media.
The heads of three large governorates, or states, in Egypt announced Wednesday that their strategy for keeping schoolchildren safe was to take classes, which on average are crowded with more than 60 students, and split them in half and have children attend school only three days a week, another decision that was criticized. There have been more than 800 confirmed cases of H1N1 in Egypt, and two flu-related deaths.
“The state is troubled; as a result the system of decision making is disintegrating,” said Galal Amin, an economist, writer and social critic. “They are ill-considered decisions taken in a bit of a hurry, either because you’re trying to please the president or because you are a weak government that is anxious to please somebody.”
Cairo’s streets have always been busy with children and littered with trash.
Now, with the pigs gone, and the schools closed, they are even more so.
“The Egyptians are really in a mess,” Mr. Amin said.
Sunday, February 26
First the story.
Islamists stormed the the Madives’ National Museum and destroyed the entire collection of 12th Century Buddhist relics. At the Maldives’ National Museum, smashed Buddhist statues are testament to the rise of Islamic extremism and Taliban-style intolerance in a country famous as a laid-back holiday destination.
“They have effectively erased all evidence of our Buddhist past,” a senior museum official told AFP at the now shuttered building in the capital Male, asking not to be named out of fear for his own safety.
“We lost all our 12th century statues. They were made of coral stone and limestone. They are very brittle and there is no way we can restore them,” he explained.
“I wept when I heard that the entire display had gone. We are good Muslims and we treated these statues only as part of our heritage. It is not against Islam to display these exhibits,” he said.
People who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. But then, welcome to Salafi Islam. This is what these obscurantists have done to a wonderful religion. They have reduced it to an image of violent barbaric behaviour. Good for them. Very soon, their lives will be reduced to a black and white, unemotional barren desert. The Prophet would be weeping at the thought of what these barbarians have wrought on the message he delivered to the world.
Also, just like Greece, Maldives lives for tourism. So its good to hear that mindless violence like this is going to really make tourists visit this country as well. bah
I didn't even know that Maldives had a Buddhist past, but I guess it wont be allowed to be even spoken about now. Tragic. I am just waiting for the pyramids and other pre Islamic art in Egypt to be destroyed..