Tag: music

evaluationsocial systems

Baby, It’s Cold Outside (and Other Evaluation Lessons)

Competing desires or imposing demands?

The recent decision by many radio stations to remove the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from their rotation this holiday season provides lessons on culture, time, perspective, and ethics beyond the musical score for those interested in evaluation. The implications of these lessons extend far beyond any wintery musical playlist. 

As the holiday season approaches, the airwaves, content streams, and in-store music playlists get filled with their annual turn toward songs of Christmas, the New Year, Hanukkah, and the romance of cozy nights inside and snowfall. One of those songs has recently been given the ‘bah humbug’ treatment and voluntarily removed from playlists, initiating a fresh round of debates (which have been around for years) about the song and its place within pop culture art. The song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was written in 1944 and has been performed and recorded by dozens of duets ever since. 

It’s not hard for anyone sensitive to gender relations to find some problematic issues with the song and the defense of it on the surface, but it’s once we get beneath that surface that the arguments become more interesting and complicated. 

One Song, Many Meanings

One of these arguments has come from jazz vocalist Sophie Millman, whose take on the song on the CBC morning radio show Metro Morning was that the lyrics are actually about competing desires within the times, not a work about predatory advances.

Others, like feminist author Cammila Collar, have gone so far to describe the opposition to the song as ‘slut shaming‘. 

Despite those points (and acknowledging some of them), others suggest that the manipulative nature of the dialogue attributed to the male singer is a problem no matter what year the song was written. For some, the idea that this was just harmless banter overlooks the enormous power imbalance between genders then and now when men could impose demands on women with fewer implications. 

Lacking a certain Delorean to go back in time to fully understand the intent and context of the song when it was written and released, I came to appreciate that this is a great example of some of the many challenges that evaluators encounter in their work. Is “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” good or bad for us? Like with many situations evaluators encounter: it depends (and depends on what questions we ask). 

Take (and Use) the Fork

Yogi Berra famously suggested (or didn’t) that “when you come across a fork in the road, take it.” For evaluators, we often have to take the fork in our work and the case of this song provides us with a means to consider why.

A close read of the lyrics and a cursory knowledge of the social context of the 1940s suggests that the arguments put forth by Sophie Millman and Cammila Collar have some merit and at least warrant plausible consideration. This might just be a period piece highlighting playful, slightly romantic banter between a man and woman on a cold winter night. 

At the same time, what we can say with much more certainty is that the song agitates many people now. Lydia Liza and Josiah Lemanski revised the lyrics to create a modern, consensual take on the song, which has a feel that is far more in keeping with the times. This doesn’t negate the original intent and interpretation of the lyrics, rather it places the song in the current context (not a historical one) and that is important from an evaluative standpoint.

If the intent of the song is to delight and entertain then what once worked well now might not. In evaluation terms, we might say the original merit of the song may hold based on historical context, its worth has changed considerably within the current context.

We may, as Berra might have said, have to take the fork and accept two very different understandings within the same context. We can do this by asking some specific questions. 

Understanding Contexts

Evaluators typically ask of programs (at least) three questions: What is going on? What’s new? and What does it mean? In the case of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, we can see that the context has shifted over the years, meaning that no matter how benign the original intent, the potential for misinterpretation or re-visioning of the intent in light of current times is worth considering.

What is going on is that we are seeing a lot of discussion about the subject matter of a song and what it means in our modern society. This issue is an attractor for a bigger discussion of historical treatment, inequalities, and the language and lived experience of gender.

The fact that the song is still being re-recorded and re-imagined by artists illustrates the tension between a historical version and a modern interpretation. It hasn’t disappeared and it may be more known now than ever given the press it receives.

What’s new is that society is far more aware of the scope and implications of gender-based discrimination, violence, and misogyny in our world than before. It’s hard to look at many historical works of art or expression without referencing the current situation in the world. 

When we ask about what it means, that’s a different story. The myriad versions of the song are out there on records, CD’s, and through a variety of streaming sources. While it might not be included in a few major outlets, it is still available. It is also possible to be a feminist and challenge gender-based violence and discrimination and love or leave the song. 

The two perspectives may not be aligned explicitly, but they can be with a larger, higher-level purpose of seeking empowerment and respect for women. It is this context of tension that we can best understand where works like this live. 

This is the tension in which many evaluations live when dealing with human services and systems. There are many contexts and we can see competing visions and accept them both, yet still work to create a greater understanding of a program, service, or product. Like technology, evaluations aren’t good or bad, but nor are they neutral. 

Image credit MGM/YouTube via CBC.ca

Note: The writing article happened to coincide with the anniversary of the horrific murder of 14 women at L’Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal. It shows that, no matter how we interpret works of art, we all need to be concerned with misogyny and gender-based violence. It’s not going away.  

art & designcomplexityjournalismscience & technologysystems science

300: Crises in Complexity, Opportunities in Design

Designing ideas

Designing ideas

In 2009 Censemaking was launched as a platform to explore issues in complexity and ways we can make sense of it to design for better futures and a sustainable world. After 300 posts it has become evident that there is much more to write as we see ever-new crises from complexity and ever-greater design opportunities to deal with it all.

As I was reflecting on what to write for my 300th post  for Censemaking I found myself — as I often do — drawing some connections between disparate experiences as I started my daily reading and listening. Within moments of sitting at the table with materials, turning on the radio, and scanning online I found the following semi-related stories:

  • On the Stack, the Internet radio show about magazine publishing on Monocle 24, panelists were exploring the crisis of reporting that comes from citizen journalism and the generally lower quality of photography and detail that comes when professional work gets pushed out for reasons of economics and expediency;
  • This followed a profile of Ghost Lab – a hands-on architecture program that runs every summer to teach architects ways to link what founder Brian McKay-Lyons calls “the world of ideas and the world of things”  – a space that many designers are surprisingly disconnected from;
  • In the Globe and Mail newspaper (tablet edition), a column by Kathryn Borel, writes on reading both Miley Cyrus and Syria and the sanctimony that comes when we judge what is worthy reading;
  • The brilliant web comic The Oatmeal has circulated an insightful, funny and sad piece looking at what it takes to draw people’s attention to Syria’s conflict and the crises it promotes;
  • An email exchange from a group of colleagues — journalists and scientists — on how to collectively present the state of research and journalism to an audience of policymakers and peers at the upcoming Canadian Science Policy Conference;
  • Thumbing through two new magazine options that seek to bridge the gap between science, design, and public affairs by relying on quality content and publishing than advertising (The Alpine Review and Nautilus – below)

Premiere Issues of Nautilus & The Alpine Review

Premiere Issues of Nautilus & The Alpine Review

Within each of these categories is a reflection of some form of crisis — an unstable situation affecting many people — particularly the worlds of science, journalism, politics, publishing, policy, and design.

Patterns of complexity

This motley collection of tidbits loosely connects science, design, public affairs, knowledge translation and communication, and the complexity that comes when they intersect. It seems fitting that this greeted me as I sat down to write post #300.

The Censemaking name is a riff on both the name of my social innovation consultancy (CENSE Research + Design) and the term sensemaking that is a trans-disciplinary field / practice of making meaning from complex, divergent data points and experience (which is what I help my clients, collaborators and students do). It has been a vehicle that has allowed me the freedom and pleasure to explore the knotty intersections of these disparate areas of practice and scholarship that don’t fall under any particular umbrella, yet are things that are wrestled with in health promotion, industry, publishing and media, social services, policymaking, the military and social enterprise (to speak of a few).

And as I often do, I find the strangest threads are often the most useful in understanding complexity and our world.

Taking Miley Cyrus seriously

That I would even put those four words above together above might have already turned you off, but stick with me. While the Miley Cyrus reference in the above list of media notes might be the most disparate of them all, complexity science teaches us that there is often gold in looking at weak signals and Miley Cyrus might be the best example of that in this list.

In a week where the once Hannah Montana actor and singer has garnered enormous attention in the media for her moves, her behaviour and her attitude at last weekends’ MTV Video Music Awards, particularly her performance with singer Robin Thicke it seems there is little left to discuss. Or not.

Some media sources commented on Ms. Cyrus’ actions as a tasteless media ploy.

Others jumped on the fact that it was Miley Cyrus who got all the flack for the acts performed while Robin Thicke, a married father, gets away with little public condemnation despite being the main performer of a song with a deeply sexist, near misogynistic lyrics, message and related video.

The Belle Jar Blog points to how Miley’s appropriation of black culture is a racist and patriarchal act that deserved the real condemnation as much as any sexual act that it was associated with, something that only adds to the slut-shaming says the Washington Post who nevertheless seek to question the fuss.

Reading and contemplating Miley’s performance could at once be seen as juvenile, offensive, and racist, while also represent shrewd marketing, behaviour not inconsistent with previous VMA awards and its time-honoured practice of female sexualization to draw eyeballs (and commentary) , and a situation reflective of a woman growing up at a time and place where the lines between activities rooted in a particular racial, ethnic, geographic, socio-demographic heritage are — no pun intended — quite blurred and may be genuinely obscured to her.

This is a rather banal, yet clear example of the way complexity and wicked problems rise up from an interconnected, multimedia, 24/7, global culture of communication that we’ve created for ourselves. Miley is at once a perpetrator, a victim and a bystander all at the same time. She is a social construction and a real person who is accountable for what she says and does (but to whom and for what?). That is complexity in the modern age of public engagement, expression and media.

It’s one example. We are facing similar thorny, hairy issues with vaccination, big data, chronic disease, community planning, social media, journalism’s independence and viability, educational policy and the structure of learning, private-public partnerships for social benefit and beyond. There is no simple answer or simple problem. Sensemaking is a way to understand complexity and then determine what it means.

Designing compelling futures

When you know better you do better – Maya Angelou

Better knowing is the biggest step towards better doing. Sensemaking complexity means looking broadly and deeply, consulting widely and taking the time to reflect on what it means. Being mindful of our time, and its disruption, is critical.

What comes from that is the possibility not just to understand our world, but to shape it into something we deem to be better for us all. This motivation to shape is what makes us human. We are the one species that creates for enjoyment, expression, and practical need. We are makers and designers and often both at the same time.

Design is the conscious intent to shape things while design thinking is a means of engaging complexity to foster more effective designs. We cannot control complexity, but we can design for it (PDF) and work with the emergent patterns it produces. This process of design for emergence and developmental design, which brings together sensemaking, structured feedback through ongoing developmental evaluation, and foresight methods allows us to take account of complexity without letting it take hold of us. It helps us make the world we want, not just accept the world we get.

Thank you

Thank you to all of my readers — the tens of thousands of people who have come to Censemaking since it started and the many of you who come regularly and share it with the world. In a world of attention scarcity, I am deeply appreciative of you spending some of your time with my work.

I am a believer in what popular math video-blogger Vi Hart says about blogging: do it for yourself.

Create your own audiences.  I am honoured to have been able to create the audience I have; thank you for being a part of it. I hope to continue to provide you with things to contemplate and help you make sense of.

I look forward to the next 300 posts and finding new ways to navigate and contemplate complexity and design for innovation.

Image: Thinkstock used under license & Cameron Norman


Lessons in Innovation from Sting


This week I had the good fortune to see Sting perform live with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra not once, but twice. The show was designed around a re-working of some of the great hits and more obscure songs from the deep catalogue of Sting and the Police. While many artists have incorporated symphonic elements into pop or rock music, very few have opted to orchestrate a tour of three-hour performances where songs have been re-worked to suit a wholly different format.

Whether Sting’s music is your cup of tea or not, it is hard not to be impressed with this feat. One of the reason’s I’ve followed Sting’s music since before I was a teen was that he brings so many different elements into each album, both musically and lyrically. A sample of his catalogue will find music that has elements of punk, reggae, jazz, classical, country, Arabic, Celtic, and even an entire album tribute to 16th century “pop” musician John Dowland. His bands typically involve musicians trained in different disciplines, yet can work across formats to accommodate this broad spectrum of sounds.

As a former school teacher and fan of literature, Sting incorporates passages and themes from a wealth of literary sources. One will also find psychoanalytic references, political commentary, Biblical references, and even comedy. He’s been nominated for Grammy Awards, Academy Awards, and had top hits on the Pop, Country and Classical charts in the same decade. It’s quite impressive and also instructive for those looking to innovate and do so over a period of time as Sting has.

Firstly, Sting works with good people. His bands have featured some of the best musicians in the world, not only because of their ability to play their instruments well, but because they can play across different genres. For example, rather than recruit the best Rock drummer, he aims to recruit the best drummer who can play Rock music.

He also recruits people who challenge him and, sometimes, are better than him. Sting is an excellent guitarist and bassist, but will go out of his way to get musicians who play those instruments in a manner that improves his own play.

Another thing he does is provide ‘features’ for his band to showcase their work. Musicians like jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, sax player Branford Marsalis, guitarist Dominic Miller, and singer Joy Rose are just some of the artists that have benefited from this treatment having worked with Sting over the years.

Even though his various bands are made up of individuals, he treats each like an integrated unit made up of stars. Although some members get solos and great profile, these individualized moments pass quickly to allow the audience to remember that each person is part of a bigger entity. At one of Sting’s concerts you know you’re seeing great artists play, but you also realize you’re watching an entire band. Watching interviews with his players, you get the sense that they all feel a part of a team and as respected individuals.

None of this success would be possible without a vision, integration, discipline and the flexibility in the path to achieving that vision. In the case of Sting, the vision is tied to an idea of what a song could be by crafting a structure that allows words to come to life with the music, and the discipline to integrate these two parts of the song together. However, the manner by which the song is composed, its subject matter, and the length and tempo of the songs – including the instruments used to create the music — is always fluid and fits with the context. Sting discussed some of this work during the concert as he has elsewhere.

As an artist, Sting has entertained millions. As an innovator, he has the opportunity to educate millions more. The lessons from this former schoolteacher are many for those of us working with teams and hoping to create products that not only last decades, but transform and evolve during this time into something unique and special.


Amazing Stuff: The Inspirational Sound and Vision Edition


Occasionally this blog departs from the usual discussion and offers to share something that I find amazing (or highly notable) that has come across my ‘e’ desk or captures the wonder of social media, networks and the Web as a whole. Here is the first Amazing Stuff of 2010 with a theme fitting for a new decade: inspiration.

It’s the first Amazing Stuff issue of the second decade of the 2000’s and depending on how last week went, you might be thinking 2010 is really the start of something new and exciting (all New Year’s Resolutions aside) or that you’re in for the same thing, maybe worse. In the case that your 2010 has not started out as well as you wanted it to, I present a list of Amazing Stuff on video that just might help remind you how good the world is and what the power of a dream, an open mind, a kind heart or all of those things might do for you. And if you’re already in that space, then recommend something to 1000 Awesome Things to show it off to the world.

If you’ve seen these before, perhaps its time to view them again.

1. Free Hugs. The Free Hugs Campaign was started by Juan Mann in Sydney, Australia and began with the simple premise that everyone could use a hug now and again and why not spread a little cheer by offering them for free, at near random, to anyone who walked by and would accept one or ask for it. The story was captured in a great music video by Sick Puppies that is not only inspirational, but a great rocking song too.

2. High Fives Project. If hugs aren’t your thing, how about a high five? Colleen Smith has embarked a journey similar to Juan Mann and has decided that a good old high five is a pretty good way to get people smiling and thinking differently. And you know what? It does (at least according to the video of Colleen in action).

3. Benjamin Zander on TED. Benjamin Zander is part conductor, part motivational speaker and all enlightening or entertaining (or both). In his TED talk a few years ago he outlines the way to listen to classical music in a manner that inspires creative thinking. If you’re even marginally interested in classical music, you’re likely to get a lot out of your next listen after seeing this. If you’re not a classical music fan, you just might be after seeing this.

4. Fun Theory. Imagine Richard Simmons meets Tom Hanks (as the “boy” in Big, jumping on the piano in F.A.O. Schwartz) or consider health promotion if it were designed by an 8-year old. That’s what you get here. Seeing is believing and believing means that you’ll start to wonder why the stairs in your subways, malls and buildings aren’t a little more entertaining to take.

5. Anvil: The Story of Anvil. This isn’t a video in the same sense as the others, rather it is a full-fledged documentary. And a very good one at that. The touching, funny and curious story of one of the legends of heavy metal music, Canadian rockers Anvil and their unusual persistence in the face of rock obscurity and erstwhile fame.  You don’t even have to like heavy metal to find something in this connection between music and video something inspiring and showing the power of positive thinking (and perhaps reasons to have a good manager) in pursuing your dreams.

I hope that there is some inspiration found in some of these.

And if not, one bonus video is Warren Miller’s 2008 movie “Children of Winter“. It is a visual masterpiece and something that, when the weather outside gets frightful, is a delight to watch indoors to make you enjoy those moments outside even more.