Monthly Archives: May 2010

Using Keynote (and yes, Powerpoint too) to train scientists to present: Part 2 – presenting to a diversity of audiences

In my previous post, Using Keynote to train scientists – part 1, I made reference to Nancy Duarte’s Presentation Landscape ideas and lauded them for their usefulness in training presentation skills.

But I also suggested her ideas only went so far in assisting presenters, and in particular, those in the sciences who present to a diversity of audiences.

The challenge for scientists when presenting is that these audiences diverge in their levels of something called Prior Knowledge. Prior to giving you a definition of the term, let me cite an illustration used in a chapter on learning and science from this book:

Reform in Undergraduate Science Teaching for the 21st Century

Dennis W. Sunal, University of Alabama; Emmett L. Wright, Kansas State University;  and Jeanelle Bland, Eastern Connecticut State University, Eds., Information Age Publishing Inc., ISBN 1-930608-84-5 Soft cover  (2004)

The chapter is entitled, “The importance of prior knowledge in college science instruction” by K. M. Fisher.

Here’s how Fisher begins the chapter:

I was waiting for a bus on a street corner in London when I struck up a conversation with the man standing next to me. I said, “I don’t go anywhere without my Macintosh.” He said enthusiastically, “Neither do I.” Our conversation continued for possibly several minutes before we realized that I was talking about my Macintosh computer (hanging on my right shoulder) while he was talking about his Macintosh rain gear (draped over his left arm). We had a good laugh. This illustrates the nature of prior knowledge and the way it can interfere with communication. Misunderstandings can often be quickly clarified in ordinary conversations. But when they occur in one-way information delivery (as in lectures or books), they can persist for weeks or semesters or quite often indefinitely. Sometimes the misunderstandings are direct as in this case, arising from words that have multiple meanings, where each individual associates a different meaning with the word. Sometimes the influence of prior knowledge is quite indirect.

In 1999, the National Science Foundation published a very important book called “How People Learn”. You can go to the National Academies Press homepage and either buy the hardback, or download it for *free* in pdf format by following the link here.

Within its chapters, you will locate three important factors which will help your understanding of how people learn. Here is the slide I build up in my Presentation Magic workshop which summarises these three aspects of learning:

Essentially, the authors of the publication wanted teachers to acknowledge that students did not come to educational classes tabula rasa but even those naive to the subject already held pre-conceived ideas about the subject gained from life experience, whether that be formal teaching or watching television or sitting in the back yard staring at the clouds! And one of the problems faced by teachers of naive students is that sometimes their ideas or beliefs about a subject can form very early and be held very rigidly.

The idea the authors wanted to share was that prior knowledge needed to be acknowledged by teachers and either capitalised upon (if correct) or disturbed and shaken up if incorrect.

The next concept, Deep Foundational Knowledge, goes to the heart of what should be taught in a subject to allow the student to gain some kind of expertise in the subject, and permit them to move into higher levels having understood the basic and then advanced aspects of their field of study.

Metacognition is knowing about knowing, or more directly, how does a student know they are learning, rather than merely regurgitating facts for an exam. In other words being an expert in a field of endeavour is not just having a profound factual knowledge of the subject matter, but knowing how to go about discovering answers to not yet before asked questions, and being able to monitor one’s progress in learning if the answers are right or wrong.

Metacognition can also include self-awareness of how you best learn, whether by lecture, multimedia, hands-on, self-directed or close supervision, and so on.

Let’s apply this to presentation skills, to show why the Duarte Landscape model is incomplete as it currently stands.

Many scientists have multiple audiences to whom they present. They can range from a within-department colloquium where you’re presenting a briefing paper of your latest research directions; it could be a Grand Round for medical scientists where you’re presenting to hospital staff who work in different environments but who nonetheless have an interest in your applied research; it could a a group of politicians to whom you’re trying to get across an important message seeking change, as in climate change policy making; or it could be a lay group to whom you are speaking about lifestyle changes to prevent chronic disease in later life. Their knowledge of science is perhaps limited to what they learnt in high school, plus TV current affairs programs as well as their personal physician’s medical advice.

In all of these examples, the audiences respectively come to your presentation with wildly diverging levels of both prior knowledge, and foundational knowledge. Is it reasonable to give the same presentation to all of these groups and hope to have the same profound effect? I think not!

Yet so often do I see this occur where an esteemed speaker simply hasn’t bothered to evolve their presentation to take into account his or her invited audience, so that too often you hear the speaker say, “We’ll skip over these slides, they’re not really relevant tonight“, which is code for, “it would take too long to explain these complex ideas to this audience (and I was too lazy to remove them)“.

What makes a great science presenter

Great science presenters have a gift whereby they can take complex ideas and present them in such a way that those with the least foundational knowledge still understand the purpose of the research being presented, the journey required to uncover the facts or hypotheses under discussion, and its relevance to their daily lives, either currently or in the near future.

In order to do this, great science presenters must remind themselves to be mindful of their audience, and what they bring to the presentation. So I now wish to add a third dimension to the Presentation Landscape which asks presenters not just to consider the purpose and means for their presentation, but also the audience’s expected level of foundational knowledge in terms of their awareness of the subject matter.

Here’s how in my Presentation Magic talks, I modify the presentation landscape’s two dimensions to three:

Failing to take into account this dimension can see your presentation go over the top of your audience’s heads, or conversely, you go the other direction and insult your audience by painfully dumbing it down. This is known as the expertise reversal effect (pdf), where the same slide or multimedia example aimed at low level audiences can interfere with the rapidity with which high level audiences assimilate the slide’s message. They get it, but could have got it more quickly if there was less interference from slide clutter due to spelling out unnecessary (for them) details.

So great presenters, as I suggested in Part 1, ask about the expected audience well ahead of time so as to prepare a presentation that best matches an educated guess of the audience’s prior and foundational knowledge, and the expectations of the group or individual who has invited you to speak.

As a for instance: An attendee at my October 2009 Presentation Magic workshop to psychologists soon after invited me to present the same workshop to his group of which he was head of department. While this sounds easy, the real effort here is to once more understand this particular group’s needs, as well as their backgrounds as not all are psychologists. I also need to understand what he expects his group to learn, which might be quiet different from his own expectations at the time he enrolled in the October workshop. So what pleased him enough to invite me might not necessarily be on the money for his own group. This is his agenda and I need to be mindful of what he most liked about what I did, and how it can be extended and even “personalised” for his particular group, who are specialist therapists working with torture survivors in Australia.

A few Presentation Magic rules for science presenters

So, a few rules for the road for me to share with you, whether you’re an undergraduate student presenting to his or her fellow students and professor for the first time, or you’re the same professor presenting your current research in a keynote at an international conference:

1. The more you expect there to be a gulf in prior and foundational knowledge between yourself and your expected audience, the more you need to pull out your bag of tricks to provide an engaging, memorable and influential experience. As much as reputation and status can give you a head start in the authenticity and authority stakes, within a few minutes of your presentation your audience will be making their own assessment of whether their pre-judgement of you (their prior knowledge) has been justified.

2. What’s in that bag of tricks? Here is one of my slides where I describe such “tricks”, actually qualities of the presenter:

So, the more you expect a gulf between you and your audience the more you need to especially focus on bringing these qualities to bear. Those will little prior or deep knowledge will not become rocket scientists at the end of your presentation. But they will remember your qualities as a presenter, your ability to bring to them an understanding of complex ideas in a way that does not belittle their limited knowledge base, but instead respects them because you’ve gone the extra distance by helping them understand and enjoy.

One of my favourite TED talks ever was the first I saw of Barry Schwartz, a social psychologist discussing his book, “The Paradox of Choice”. You can view his TEDtalk below (and then come back if you wish).

While his Powerpoint slides needed much working over (and they subsequently were for a second TED appearance here), the bulk of his talk was illustrated using New Yorker cartoons. Scientists using such humorous appliances with lay audiences I’ve found goes over very well, as long as they butt of the humour is not the audience’s own characteristics (e.g. a talk on lap band surgery to prospective customers which makes fun of their girth challenges).

3. Stories and in particular metaphors are particularly important and useful in conveying complex ideas to groups who do not possess fundemental knowledge of the subject. Each culture, creed and religion has its own stories it tells its generations, from Aesop’s fables through to the Digital Age’s LOST television series (sadly concluded, but satisfyingly so), as well as religious parables. Even science has its stories to tell, from Galileo’s pursuit of testable facts in the face of religious persecution, through the image of the scientist beavering away in pursuit of a “Eureka” moment, when in fact thr truer story is one of a team working together over years to make world changing discoveries, such as Howard Florey and his team’s work with penicillin.

All useful stories help lead us along a pathway to discovery, along the way perhaps mystifying and surprising us, creating tension then resolution. Great science presenters, if presenting to a low prior knowledge audience, will more rely on placing their scientific evidence or discoveries in the form of a story of discovery rather than a vanilla, “here are the facts”. They know that low level audiences don’t know what to make of those facts, while experts can more readily “join the dots” and see how new discoveries not just add to their personal knowledge, but to the field’s accumulated knowledge. They may question methodology or statistical inferences, something low level audiences will not be aware of, but their questioning is centred on issues of data veracity, such that conclusions reached can be considered reliable.

4. One of the other ways, besides storytelling, for science presenters to convey their messages to those with low levels of knowledge (but whose decision making may be crucial to their future scientific endeavours) is the principle of scaffolding.

Bamboo Scaffolding

I remember my first visit to Hong Kong before it was handed over to the Chinese in 1997, where I saw modern high rise constructions with bamboo used as scaffolding, an unusual (for me) mix of the very old with the very new.

As the building grew skywards, the scaffolding would accompany its journey building upon itself.

This is the essence of the metaphor of scaffolding when used in conveying complex ideas to low level audiences. While high level audiences might be given a complex idea directly in a slide, perhaps using an acronym known well by one’s peers, low level audiences must be led through a series of building blocks or “chunks” of information which minimally stretches their knowledge base. From there, more pieces are added in a logical sequence so that the audience is now in possession of a large chunk composed of many smaller chunks, all held together by the presenter’s style of presenting, using spoken words which match any words on the slide, as well as illustrations such as graphics, charts, pictures and diagrams which give picture to the words, and thus appeal to multiple senses.

Often, the building blocks or scaffolds are elements familiar to low level audience, but perhaps not understood in the context the presenters is using. By using pictures and words in appropriate sequences, the audience themselves do the work of putting the ideas and theories of the presenter together, an “uh-huh” moment when they “get it.” So while bamboo may have its agricultural purposes, it can be put to an alternative use to support the construction of large buildings.

Bright audiences attending lectures or presentations in fields other than their own, such as at an international congress or where multiple professions might attend, do well with scaffolding approaches to new learning, as they are so used to their own methods of “joining the dots” as it usually occurs in professions with a body of deep foundational knowledge.

Let’s go the other way for a moment and deal with scientific presentations to peers, where both presenter and audience are likely to share the same depth of foundational knowledge.

In this case, all of these positive features I showed in the slide that lists “engaging… humorous…” etc., can actually be negatives. Scientists like to see themselves as dispassionate, objective, methodic, and curious. Expressions of passion about their research in presentations to peers I’ve observed to be interpreted as “over-invested, emotional, blinkered, and untempered”; not a good thing.

Because they share profound foundational knowledge, peers presenting to each other skip many of the scaffolding and storey telling elements, populating their (usually) Powerpoint slides with busy graphs, bullet points, and the occasional cute animated graphic. The problem is taking these same slides and bringing them to an audience that might be bright but doesn’t possess the same profound knowledge.

Especially when it comes to charts and graphs (I set aside a whole session during Presentation Magic to discuss these elements), science presenters often fall short of the wonderful value these data illustrations can bring to the discussion arena. They too often badly label axes as in the illustration below which asks so much of the audience:

In this slide, notice how the Y-axis is labelled, and see how much work you have to do to decode it – actually just to read it! Why put so many words at right angles to how we normally read? The way it’s usually explained to me is that we read up the Y-axis from the (0,0) postion (where the X and Y axis are each equal to zero). But if that were the reason, why wouldn’t the number then read this way too, instead of being position horizontally like those for the X-axis? It simply means re-arranging the graph layout, but entrenched is this way of constructing graphs that despite the difficulty factor, scientists adhere to this supposedly scientific way of representing data. I think it’s nonsense, and doesn’t conform to what we know about how humans understand complex material.

In part 3 of this minor treatise on scientific presentation skills, I’ll offer some more hints and examples of how to give splendid scientific presentations to a variety of audiences.

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Using Keynote to train scientists to present: Part 1 – knowing your audience

Last October I had the opportunity to lead a full-day Presentation Magic workshop for my psychology peers at my professional society’s annual conference in Darwin.

I had submitted it as a proposal for several consecutive years, and finally someone decided to take a chance on both the subject matter and me. I have presented workshops for the conference in the past (but not presentation skills), as well as local workshops for state sections.

The workshop attracted a diversity of academic and professional psychologists. I knew this beforehand because I asked the conference science committee to send me the class list. Fortunately, I was sent an Excel spreadsheet which included attendees names and their institute, including if they were in independent solo practice.

There are several things you could do with this data set which numbered 25 attendees, the top limit I had imposed.

Making Assumptions

I made the early assumption that I would attracted a diversity of attendees, partly based on the writeup I had submitted to interest potential audience members which actually described the diversity I was aiming to assist. Here’s what it looked like on the website:

So let me go through some of the assumptions and actions that follow which I made in preparing for this challenging workshop. I say challenging because most attendees at Presentation Magic workshops aren’t up on the psychological aspects I bring to them, while I expect psychologists will… which means some of the element of surprise and delight may be underwhelming to this audience. Add to this dimension that I’m likely to know some of the attendees personally, and likely to bump into them again at future functions. No “hit and run” possibilities if you do a poor job!

So where to start in preparing? Well, I have a syllabus from previous Presentation Magic workshops and seminars, delivered to a variety of audiences, and continually tweaked via a feedback loop each time I present. The question is one of focus, emphasis and de-emphasis, second-guessing what the audience will want to experience given the write-up that attracted them in the first place.

My other preparation starting point was an assumption that psychologists’ presentations would be the usual Powerpoint stuff, even if they had bought a new Mac and were using Keynote. This is the voice of experience in your head, having been to my fair share of psychologists presenting. So I felt safe that my information and presentation style would engage the audience. The task was to refine the focus for this particular group.

I started by Googling the names of all the attendees, placing their names in Safari’s Google search window, but adding .ppt.  This allowed me to quickly locate any presentations attendees had offered in the public domain. The chances of a private practitioner being located this way are small, while it increases for academic psychologists. I located a few presentations by professors who were attending, as well as recent post-docs who had been doing the rounds of local conferences displaying their work.

What did turn up was interesting once I removed the ppt keyword and just searched on names: a mix of results that told me that some of my attendees were actually presenting at the same conference after my workshop; and the nature of the work they were performing in their employment.

The first part – that some were presenting – gave sense of immediacy to my upcoming workshop. Would it be possible to offer guidance some of the audience could use immediately, or would they lose confidence because their presentation slides contained many faults I was going to highlight (the usual suspects: too many words per slide, lousy clip art, poor colour choice, overused backgrounds, cliched animations, etc)?

But one must bear in mind another assumption that follows: that those people already up for a presentation and are willing to take time from the conference to attend a presentation workshop are sufficiently insightful to know they need assistance, that there is a better way – but what? So, rather than being concerned about the situation, I decided to take advantage of it. My thought was to side with them and offer that most people present the same way, and it’s not their fault.

If the cognitive style of Powerpoint is what powers most presentations, it takes a lot of confidence to go against the grain. This reinforced my desire to discuss early in the day the concept of “social conformity”, familiar to my audience, and how it can even impact on how psychologists present. I made the assumption that something they learnt about in Psychology 203 but applied directly to them so much later in their professional lives, and in ways they hadn’t thought of, would surprise and delight them. It would also offer me up as someone who “knew his stuff “as a professional psychologist and add to my authority status.

If they could experience surprise and delight on several occasions throughout the workshop, then perhaps they would appreciate its importance when it came to constructing their own presentations, even if the subject did not immediately lend itself to these concepts. But “surprise and delight” is what I want audience members to experience, because I assume it assists the likelihood my messages will be remembered, and my workshop too will be remembered as one to tell colleagues about, and score well in evaluations.

More assumptions about the audience

By looking at who was attending and where they worked, I made further assumptions. I began to make assumptions as to who my audience’s audiences were! In other words, to whom would they apply what they had learnt from me? Would it be inhouse training, presenting to politicians, pitching for tenders, training juniors, working directly with patients and clients, lecturing to students, developing e-learning tools, etc.

Of course, if you’re commissioned to develop a workshop you will spend considerable time with your contact drilling down on the audience’s composition, and your contact’s hopes for the workshop. (After all, long after you’ve left the scene, his or her work colleagues will remind him or her of what a great or lousy job he or she performed by contracting your services). Consultants develop this skill so as to properly target their audience, again with their intention of delighting them, while they gain an education they can immediately apply. That’s one of my personal mission statements.

Probably because so much of my early training in clinical psychology was learning to be part of a therapy team which focussed heavily on the intake process, that training has stayed with me beyond my work as a psychologist. Let me expand a moment, because it also explains why I personally take calls from patients wishing to make a first appointment. It surprises and delights them that they speak directly with me, rather than a secretary or PA. Those who feel it takes away from my professional status are best to seek help elsewhere – it’s a poor match from the get-go.

Part of the intake process is not to ask “what’s wrong”, but to work out if the caller’s desires are ones you can satisfy. This may have to do with what they wish to change (the biggest and most important assumption); how they see the change occurring and the role they expect you to play; how long they expect the process will take; what attempts have been made in the past (with or without professional help); who else is involved in their current concern and would it be appropriate for them to attend too; are there legal issues involved (will I sooner or later be asked to give evidence in court); how did they learn about me (being careful not to acknowledge the names of any patients who provided your name to their friends or family members); and of course, who’s paying and when do you expect to start?

Some professionals keep an intake checklist they go through to cover all basis, while others prefer a more conversational style which doesn’t sound like they’re ticking boxes and patients are just another number. I believe a good intake interview is worth a couple of face to face sessions, and can save the psychologist and the patient a lot of trouble down the track.

I mention all this because those of you who wish to go beyond the mechanics of slide construction no matter your creative tool of choice may also find yourselves in the role of consultant, employing your skills as I do helping others, as well as creating training materials leveraging your presentation skills, e.g., web-based learning, curriculum design, etc.

Returning to my audience for the October workshop, not only did it help me with my material preparation to know more about them, but I greeted each attendee as they arrived by name. I had printed out first name tags before I left for Darwin (using a Dymo Labelwriter 400 and folded-over 3 x 5 cards), and asked each attendee to place it in front of them when they were seated. When they picked up the label from the front table on entry to the room, I greeted them personally and using memory said something like, “Oh, Anne, you’re in private practice in Adelaide” or “Michael, you work with the Smith Agency in Sydney… what sort of work are you doing there?”

With much larger audiences where all this research is not feasible, I arrive early at the venue, make sure the technology including my own is working (I actually run through as many slides as possible to double-check), then walk around the group saying hello and generally “working the room” before we make a start. The higher up you get in the public speaking sphere, the more presenters want their entry on stage to be a big deal, so getting to know the audience just doesn’t happen. I learnt this going to television shows where a warm-up artist would get the audience in a good mood, let them know their role in the television recording (when to cheer, applaud, be quiet, etc) and then the main host would enter to huge applause. Occasionally, some hosts would come out early and warm up the audience themselves, especially if there was to be audience involvement as part of the show.

These first few moments before you start can be critical, literally setting the stage, and giving you a chance to reach out to the audience way before you show your first slide. Don’t ever underestimate its importance in getting you over, and helping settle any apprehensions you may have. In my October session I located a few professors to whom I would direct questions later, a Jungian analyst to whom I would sidle up and openly discuss archetypal stories, and a psychiatrist who was feeling like a fish out of water but had come especially for the workshop, deeming it an important aspect of his professional development. Later in the workshop I was able to utilise his unique (for this audience) knowledge base. Again, knowing what he might know from his psychiatry training added to my authority.

Assumptions and risk taking

Making assumptions always carries risks of being wrong. Good presenters I believe do their audience research, construct their presentations with a knowledge base in mind, then act on that knowledge base ever mindful of how they’re getting their message across. They have stories to tell, ideas to share, and good antennae for knowing how they’re doing.

In Ocotober, I decided to throw caution to the wind, not sure if I’d ever be invited back, and try some new ideas for the first time. It wasn’t as risky as you might first think, because I decided to co-opt, then augment some ideas from my mate Garr Reynolds and his mate, Nancy Duarte. Just a few days before I left for Darwin, Nancy had blogged, with video, some time she’d spent with Garr in conversation about scientific presentations. I liked the ideas discussed, and so at some early point in my workshop, having made some assumptions about the audience, I employed their ideas. It was based on the diversity of audience members whom I assumed wanted something a little different because of their audiences.

What I used from Garr and Nancy

Below is the video from Nancy’s website which I decided to use as a starting point where they discuss the concept of the Presentation Landscape:

And here is the associated diagram Nancy produced on her website to highlight this two dimensional diagram:

Let me sum up by writing that what Nancy is saying is a useful heuristic when considering your audience and matching your presentation to their perceived need:

You can consider your presentation as existing on two orthogonal axes. One, the horizontal in Nancy’s landscape diagram represents the structure or sophistication of the presentation. At one end, the presentation in fact is merely a handed-out document of the slides – a slideument to use Garr’s expression – which is merely a Word diagram imported into Powerpoint and made to look like a Powerpoint slide. This might be the pdfs of slides students download before they attend a lecture. There’s room to annotate it as the lecture proceeds. At the other extreme is the full-on presentation delivered with all the whistles and bells modern multimedia can offer up.

The vertical axis is a measure of what the presenter brings to the audience, and so also includes audience characteristics. At one extreme is an informal presentation, perhaps to one’s colleagues over a lunchtime meeting; at the other, is one where to use Nancy’s terms, you put on your “Game Face”, where your presentation really counts, where you pull out all your presenter training and gifts. Lots hangs on this presentation.

Notice in the Presentation Landscape that the most populous quadrant suggested by Nancy is the one that more combines formal with presentation, which one presumes is where much of Nancy’s experience (and income) resides. The least is the full-on presentation in an informal domain. This is where I spend a lot of my clinical time, showing patients complex information about their disorders and concerns and using Keynote to break down these ideas into manageable chunks, letting the slides tell a story. From time to time, I also use Keynote to illustrate fearful situations or objects especially for those who have a severe phobia, and this forms part of an exposure-based program, a gold standard for phobia treatment.

In Darwin, I used this structure as a starting point, and gave my audience a chance to break into small groups of five and describe to their colleagues how this  2 x 2 matrix fitted for them. Now, since these were new ideas about presenting, I wanted to offer the group a way to visualise their task, so I offered up some illustrations of the four elements of the matrix (I didn’t show them the Garr/Nancy video, but preferred to use psychology based examples to aid the learning process).

Here’s what I showed them, with my recorded narration (and I used the same slides at Macworld this year too):

Now the Landscape model is a reasonable one, and easy to teach in a presentation class. But I fear it is missing a third, and extremely important dimension, one that comes from the neuroscience of learning: the dimension of Prior Knowledge.

How Garr and Nancy’s Presentation Landscape model is missing this vital piece will be covered in Part 2 of this entry, next.

In the Gizmodo/iPhone prototype story, the journalism shield law is the side salad; the main meal is the revelation of trade secrets and how they were obtained

What do these names mean to you?

Chana, Dongfeng, Zotye, Gonow, Roewe, Hawtai, Lifan, Chery, Geely and BYD

Not much perhaps…

But if you’re on the Boards of Ford, Chrysler, General Motors or Honda, all of whom manufacture motor vehicles in the USA, you know these names very well, and they worry you.

You see, they are all Chinese auto manufacturers preparing to export their vehicles to the West and give local brands a run for their money. Geely, for instance, now owns Volvo. BYD is one of the largest auto manufacturers in the world. And already on local Aussie television, I am seeing advertisements for Great Wall Motors 4WD, passenger and utilitarian vehicles (see advertisement below). These are often two-thirds of the price of local vehicles, but if they come with a three year warranty at the same price as a used well-known vehicle…

GM, which required US tax payers money to bail it out, has opened a major factory in China in an effort to reverse the import drain and find a profitable presence in the Chinese economic powerhouse.

Western companies face a major dilemma when it comes to competing with the Chinese. They manufacture there in order to keep costs down, and it’s likely that the computer you’re using to read this blog may have been designed in the US, but it will have been manufactured in China. The Chinese, like the Japanese before them, are becoming master emulators, reverse engineering US designed goods to a quite high specification.

China is already building its own commercial passenger jets, having been a major Boeing and Airbus purchaser for a decade now, with a huge and growing internal marketplace for civil aviation. It’s using home-grown R and D, plus the purchase of American know-how from household names, like GE. For years, Chinese companies have manufactured elements of Boeing 737s, and are also involved in the new materials 787, currently being tested for certification for first deliveries next year.

And therein lies the dilemma: Use cheap Chinese labour to maintain profitability in the short term while waiting for the Chinese to develop their own products to compete with the West in the long term. And guess how the Chinese will develop the knowledge to become competitors for American products? From their building American products for American corporations plus their own home-grown R and D plus the purchase of American know-how.

If the US has one great advantage over the cheap labour of the East, it’s the ability to innovate, to stay an intellectual step ahead of its competition.

Companies like Apple, which design both the software and hardware for its products, show what happens when you control the whole widget because as its increasing sales quarter after quarter shows, it’s a very hard act to emulate. But to maintain that level of emulation difficulty requires secrecy and strategising over a number of years of a product’s being brought to market. It’s part of Apple’s DNA, given how the emulation of its core OS features that made a Mac a Mac was “emulated” by Microsoft after Steve Jobs gave Bill Gates a Mac for software development.

So when Apple’s intellectual property is made visible to the world not as the finished product for sale, but in an effort to scoop other web-based publications which could allow competitors several months head start to ramp up their copying, Apple no doubt sees it as a threat to its ability to conduct business its way. We’re not talking about some pissant backwater low-tech company, but a major US corporation which has been a financial powerhouse in recent years of overall poor US financial performance amidst questionable ethical behaviour by leading corporations.

If some disaffected employee, recently fired from Apple, had decided to visit Gizmodo and spill his guts in breach of his NDA, and Gizmodo had decided to publish that information, that’s one thing, which may have its own legal consequences for both parties to the publication.

But in the iPhone case, we’re not just talking about a seemingly nice young man who probably should have done more to return the iPhone to its owner (the guy who brought it into the bar), according to his own lawyer in a statement that one tends to hear after a guilty plea has been entered in order to mitigate a sentence (I mean, the 21 year old who found it has not been charged yet and his lawyer is almost rolling over with pleas for clemency). We appear to be talking about hawking about the place, property of a sensitive nature to the highest bidder once its uniqueness became known, and an effort was made to place a value on that uniqueness. The iPhone prototype is not unique; there are probably dozens of them in Apple employee hands doing exactly what Gray Powell was doing: roadtesting in the wild according to the usual pre-production plans and strategies (although after this security breach, Apple may have gone to Plan B for its road testing). What made his iPhone unique was it was the first device which found its way into the hands and onto the pages of a technology-based website without Apple’s consent.

That it found its way there through dubious, and likely illegal means (the latter of which will shortly be tested), is but one part of the story as is the reports of  “breaches” of California shield laws in the seizure of Jason Chen’s computer equipment which has the journalism world spending much time navel gazing. But from this distance, it’s the exposure of trade secrets which I believe is uppermost in Apple’s corporate mind, and will eventually see a civil suit brought against Gizmodo, with the criminal law enforcement officials looking at the issues surrounding the iPhone’s non-return in the first place, including Jason Chen’s and Gawker Media’s involvement.

Consider this: What if the finder and his associates in their hawking the iPhone had turned it over to someone purporting to be a mainstream website, but who in the exchange of money for the iPhone turned out to be the representative of a far-east manufacturing facility with the means to quickly reverse engineer and begin the manufacture of thousands of such phones, which could take Apple months if not years to halt production and selling through legal avenues? Not in the US where of course it could bring an order for their immediate non-importation. I’m talking of the Asian and sub-Asian continent where billions of dollars of counterfeit US-designed products have already flooded the market.

So, yes, let’s have a little fun at Apple’s expense via The Daily Show (who as funny as it may have been in asking Steve Jobs for some personal time on Camera 3), but let’s not obscure through mirth and omission of salient facts the seriousness of what’s occurred. While journalists, pseudo-journalists and lawyers can blather on about the protection of rights, such as who is a journalist as in this meandering “think piece”, there is a bigger question at stake about the levels of protection against the plundering of intellectual property US citizens are willing to tolerate.

Let me put what’s happened another way, similar to the car analogy in my previous blog entry, which seemed somewhat convincing to many readers.

The son of a very senior industrial chemist who happens to work in Atlanta for Coca-Cola quickly needs to make a copy of last night’s Daily Show with Jon Stewart to give to a friend he’s meeting in a downtown bar. He enters his father’s study, and removes a USB thumbdrive from his father’s draw, where he knows quite a few are kept, complete with Coke logo. He takes it back to his PC, copies the video file, and tells his friend to meet him where he’ll give him the USB drive.

They meet, the USB drive is handed over with the promise it will be returned next time they meet. The friend later lends the same drive to another friend with the Daily Show and now a copy of this week’s Lost on it, and the friend who happens to be studying chemistry at Berkley discovers on the USB a text file with a chemical formula. He figures it’s the formula for a possible new version of Coke. (Silly Coke chemist for having such vital data sitting in his study drawer). What should the person do? What would you do?

Do you take the story to the New York Times, and ask for $5000 to send them the stick, having perhaps sent them some of the formula for them to have it verified by experts? Do you ring up Coca-Cola? Do you retrace the USB stick’s chain of ownership, perhaps more likely if you’ve been following the Gizmodo situation. Do you wipe the stick? Do you publish it on Facebook? Do you perhaps take it to Pepsi? Or do you locate a cola manufacturer in a foreign country and begin negotiations, knowing that millions of dollars are at stake, and thousands of US jobs?

I mean, it’s Coke after all. They don’t make defibrillators, anti-depressant medication, commercial jets, or anything truly meaningful other than sugar water, if you’ll pardon the historical pun. What community harm can be done?

Enough with the rhetoric. The more this situation goes on without Jason Chen/Gizmodo either being charged, subpoenaed or having his equipment returned, the more it turns into the old familiar Apple fan versus Apple hater soap opera, with a side-dish of who’s a journalist and what rights do they have, and the true potential harm is obscured. And perhaps that’s something Apple is happy to do, until they reveal it on their own terms in a civil action.

UPDATE: As I was composing this blog entry, a US friend sent me a media release from the United States Attorney’s Office for the central district of California regarding a matter where a UCLA medical researcher, having been terminated, looked into the medical records of his supervisor’s patients, including some well-known celebrities, in breach of the HIPAA. Below is part of the media release, important because this is the first instance of incarceration for a breach of the privacy provisions of HIPAA – ie., just for looking, not even on-selling to the media.

Moral of the story: Some things are simply meant to be taken seriously, even where there appears on the surface to be no victim or harm done, if you choose to look at it that way. Which is the wrong way, as it turns out:

A former UCLA Healthcare System employee who admitted to illegally reading private and confidential medical records, mostly from
celebrities and other high-profile patients, was sentenced to four months in federal prison.

Huping Zhou, 47, of Los Angeles, was sentenced by United States Magistrate Judge Andrew J. Wistrich, who condemned Zhou for his lack of
respect for patient privacy.

Zhou pleaded guilty in January to four misdemeanor counts of violating the federal privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and
Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Zhou specifically admitted to knowingly obtaining individually identifiable health information without a valid reason, medical or otherwise.

Zhou is the first person in the nation to be convicted and incarcerated for misdemeanor HIPAA offenses for merely accessing confidential records
without a valid reason or authorization.

Zhou, who is a licensed cardiothoracic surgeon in China, was employed in 2003 at UCLA Healthcare System as a researcher with the UCLA School of
Medicine.

On October 29, 2003, Zhou received a notice of intent to dismiss him from UCLA Healthcare for job performance reasons unrelated to his
illegal access of medical records.

That night, Zhou, without any legal or medical reason, accessed and read his immediate supervisor’s medical records and those of other co-workers.

For the next three weeks, Zhou’s continued his illegal accessing of patient records and expanded his illegal conduct to include confidential
health records belonging to various celebrities.

UPDATE: MAY 3 – Lawyer and blogger Peter Scheer, who is also Executive Director of the First Amendment Coalition, has a well-reasoned article in this weekend’s Huffington Post, entitled “Strip-searched: Lost iPhone probe shows why search warrants should never be used on journalists”.

It puts the California Shield laws at the centre of this story, whereas I see it as almost a red herring. But as a non-US citizen, I am not as steeped in First Amendment lore (and law) as someone like Scheer. Do read his article; it’s well written. (Although when you get to the section on how a person’s life would be turned upside down if their servers would be removed you’d wonder about issues of backing up essential items for work continuity. And you’d also wonder if perhaps secret information sources might be just a tad perturbed by the actions of Gizmodo and Jason Chen prior to the seizure warrant being issued, such as when they went very public with their iPhone story. If it was me, I would have mailed them to destroy all email correspondence because I considered a raid was imminent.)