Bashers and Swoopers

Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

Kurt Vonnegut, Time Quake

When George V died, on the night of January 20th 1936, the German composer Paul Hindemith happened to be in London. Spotting an opportunity, I suppose, he wrote an elegy – the Trauermusik, for viola and string orchestra – the following day, between 11am and 5pm (in an office made available to him by the BBC), and it was given its premiere by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, with the composer as soloist, that evening.

Hindemith must have had something on the go, you would think; either that, or he gave the piece – a full eight minutes of music – some remarkably condensed thought. By contrast, when Anton Webern came to compose his String Quartet op. 28, he spent nine months over the first movement alone, at a rate of sixteen bars of music a month, or a bar every two days. Most of the bars have no more than two notes in them. He wrote therefore at the rate of a single note per day, or thereabouts. Any slower and he simply would not have been composing (and in fairness he went a little quicker with the second and third movements, completing each in a matter of three or four months).

Webern’s music operates at an extreme of condensation (a complete performance is only a few minutes long), and in fairness he most certainly did not take it a note at a time, since the whole principle of the work, as of all his work, is of an extreme structural integration. But I would imagine he was pretty handy with the eraser.

I do not know that Webern was a basher and Hindemith a swooper, but I would lay odds. I see the same pattern with my students. Every Monday they settle to do a bit of writing. They have half an hour and a choice of subjects. Some get their heads down and proceed steadily using the eraser copiously; others dash down whatever and then scratch emendations over the top. The former tend to have neat handwriting, the latter less so. I doubt whether there is a correlation between good writing and one approach or the other; good writers tend to read back over longer portions of text more frequently, which might be a characteristic of the basher rather than the swooper; to judge from their manuscripts, both James Joyce and Charles Dickens were swoopers; and so on. Both get there in the end.

Periglacial Working Patterns

What difference does it make if you hate your colleagues?

Photo: Hannes Grobe (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

Photo: Hannes Grobe (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

This thought is not prompted by personal experience, I should quickly note. My colleagues are just fine. But one of my students today told me an interesting story about an experimental study carried out at MIT, or by a group operating out of MIT, which made an analysis of the affective patterns in a group of two hundred or so call-centre workers. This was achieved, not by asking the workers to self-report on their happiness, or on their colleague, but by wiring them up to sensors which monitored their blood-pressure, pulse rate and so on. The researchers then compared individual workers’ physiological markers when then were at rest on their breaks, and when they returned to their workstations, and started to draw tentative conclusions about whether they were happy or not with their workplace position.

Since the call-centre workers were typically sharing a desk with three co-workers, the researchers speculated that by moving the apparently most tense workers to other groups they might increase their happiness, and thereby increase their productivity. And it worked. My student told me that the annualised increase in productivity could be measured in the millions of dollars.

I cannot vouch for the details or the conclusions of the study as I relate them – for example, I don’t know whether the researchers correlated the physiological data with psychological profiling, placing the naturally strong introverts together, for example – but it pleases me no end to think of a more rational seating arrangement in a workplace emerging over time from the raw data. There is a process of periglaciation which sorts stones by size year after year as the ground heaves gently up and down over its cycles of freezing and thawing, producing odd, geometrical arrangements known as lithalsas, or stone polygons (see picture, above). The idea that workers might one assemble themselves into efficient polygons under the gentle pressure of personality gradients and mild compatibility is, in a post-industrial world, and short of full-automation of all call-centre work, a vision of sanity (albeit one predicated on somewhat invasive data mining).