Turn off the news, change your world

I don’t read the news anymore.

When did this happen? I used to have them all on preloaded tabs – BBC, Aljazeera, The Guardian, Huffington Post… I even used to buy the Independent once or twice a week.

When did I switch off? Well, maybe I didn’t entirely. A lot of stuff pops up on my Facebook feed, though this is inevitably weighted to the sensational or reposts of Upworthy. Blood Upworthy.

Still, my news consumption has gone waaaaay down. Surely this is a bad thing?

Hardly. I can’t think of anything that’s come up in the news that has driven me to act on something, or else has really changed my thinking. How could it? I don’t have my own life in order, how can I really be a change in the world?

I’m reminded again of FW. He had me imagine I was a teabag, trying to make a brew in a jug or a bath by myself. It can’t happen. You can only make the tea in your own cup. Then if that spurs other people to take the plunge into hot water, great – but it always starts with you and your pathetic little cup.

Get yourself in order. I’m not saying you can’t be happy where you are, but unti

Turning the uni essay on its head

I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it. Spend weeks and weeks with great intentions to start an essay, and in the end just smash it out over a couple of sleep-deprived days, dangerously close to the deadline.

The result? Hopefully you’re like me and you end up getting a decent grade anyway. Good enough for an upper first? So what was I doing with all my time and money if I could have done this in a fraction of a semester!

I realise this isn’t the story for some courses that are continually assessed, such as a history degree in Oxford where freshers will write sixteen 3000 word essays in the first eight weeks. Just for fun though, let’s imagine that we START with the essay.

“Welcome to university. Okay you miserable maggots, 4000 words on the internet marketing strategy of an organisation of your choice. Here’s a few sources. You have three days.”

What a rush! There must be people whose work involves a lot of scenarios like this – wouldn’t it make sense if the university experience tried to recreate it? After that, a provisional mark on the essay and into teaching, before the student has to rewrite it for a final submission. More work for the examiner yes, but the outcomes might be way higher.

How about collaborative essays? My masters course has given us a few goes at group presentations which has obvious relevance to the business world, but only one standalone written group assignment. Working together to structure written work is a challenge in itself that I feel is a bit underrated.

I’ve also seen what happens when people are thrown into a group without getting to know each other. Not pretty if you’ve not anticipated its possibility. This happens in the real world too!

I’m not saying we need to throw away traditional essay writing, just mix up the context a bit. What else would you throw into the mix?

Guns, gold, and Jesus

This is a sloppy caricature of a good friend’s belief in what is holding the USA together, with attacks on all three hastening the state’s demise. In Britain we’re already further down the road to becoming a failed state. Forgive me FW, it’s a good springboard to talking about trust.

Guns

FW hates Piers Morgan. In feeling such he is a member of a very large club, but his recent ire was raised by Piers Morgan attacking a gun rights advocate who felt it necessary to keep an AK47 at home. “If he doesn’t like the Second Amendment, why does he stay in the USA?”

Well I think he’s exercising his First Amendment right FW, but you brought up an interesting idea. Do people really need to have the same grade of weapons as their military to protect themselves from the government? I think this was the context of the Piers Morgan interview, correct me if I’m wrong. Keep some assault rifles handy in case DC decides to turn the troops on you. I’ve yet to research when the last time the USA had a command to shoot civilians in peacetime, but for now it’s not important. The important thing is that the gun advocate and FW seem to have no trust in the men and women of the US armed forces not to take up arms on command and start killing civilians. Seriously? The whole army? It’s not a monolithic structure, it’s over a million and a half active personnel, and they all have families, friends, neighbours, churches even! Just a pause for thought.

Gold

FW is a strong proponent of currency backed by a metal reserve i.e. gold or silver, rather than a fiat currency. The problem according to FW is that confidence in a fiat currency is necessarily tied to the subjective confidence of the global market in a state. FW gives an estimate of sixty years from the issuance of a fiat currency to its collapse through loss of backing – loss of trust. A notable exception to the apparent rule is the Iraqi Swiss dinar, which was still used in Kurdish regions even after it was disendorsed by the Iraqi government in 1990. As the supply of Swiss dinars stayed the same or decreased while the new Saddam dinar’s supply increased, it appreciated against the latter. A stable money supply which kept the Kurdish regions safe from the rampant inflation that beset the rest of the country, based on nothing more than mutual trust in paper money. No gold? No problem!

This one example notwithstanding, I can see a much more compelling argument from FW here. We need to rethink how we back our currencies. Returning to a gold standard would increase the price of gold 25-50 times, or else bring about a massive global wave of deflation (I think), and ignores the potential for all sorts of decentralised currencies that our highly connected world allows. I’m not just talking about Bitcoin – take a look at this little report on the future of money by Envisioning, a research organisation based in Brazil.

Jesus

FW is a Christian, and decries the secularisation of the USA and other formerly Christian countries. In his opinion, it’s a loss of belief in moral absolutes that is the catalyst for social decay.

This is a massive topic that I can do no justice to here. What I will say is that regardless of one’s religious beliefs, churches were central social hubs in every British community, which for the most part have been replaced with… nothing. Mind you, the decline of the pub in the UK is also a symptom of a huge shift in the way we live. So there’s two social hubs we’ve lost! I posit that it’s a change in the world of work along with the rise of consumerism after World War Two that has been the real atomising force in our culture. And when you don’t know you neighbours because now you sit at home watching Ant and Dec instead of going out and meeting in groups, how can you trust your neighbours? And when you can’t trust your neighbours, how can you have a healthy society? Consider also that the Nordic countries all score very high on quality of life markers while having some of the lowest reported religiosity in the western world. It may be that FW is making a causation from a correlation, or is making a reduction fallacy, but I can’t say that for certain.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. It just means we need to rethink how we acquire and display our trustworthiness. Here’s Rachel Botsman at TED Global on trust as the currency of the new economy.

Blame the system

American statistician W. Edwards Deming defined two origins of variation in a process or system. Common cause of variation is the noise in the system, constantly occurring and predictable by a measure of probability. Special cause of variation is one that is novel and unpredictable, one that is always a surprise – this is the signal in the system.

Deming wasn’t the first person to distinguish between the two – credit should also be given to his contemporary Walter Shewhart – but he’s as good an introduction to the concept as any.

In questions of management and organisation, it’s vital to distinguish between the two. Treating common causes, i.e. those arising in the system, as if they were due to individuals in your work force not only gives you no insight into the function of the system, but also runs the risk of demoralising your team. The tendency to do this is particulaly prevalent because experiments by Deming have shown that this type of variation is not evenly distributed among workers, because the system affects people in different ways. The fact that a member of your sales team sells on the lower end of a given range compared to a colleague is in as much as 94% of cases (Deming’s approximation) the product of the system.

Want to change the system? You can’t do it by forcing your workforce to work harder. This only breeds resentment. It is the responsibility of management to see how behaviour is affected by the system, and consider how the system can be changed to improve outcomes.

For more information on Deming’s ideas, try starting with this video on burnt toast. Never stop learning!

Maths nightmares

I only have one nightmare theme these days.

I’m almost always back in Llandrillo College, before I went to university. It goes one of two ways: I suddenly remember a maths class I’m supposed to have taken, or I find myself sitting in a maths exam I’ve not prepared for. I’m overcome with absolute dread as I struggle to think how I ended up at this pathetic state of ignorance.

Then I wake up. The exam isn’t real, but the dread of my relative innumeracy is very real.

It’s not like I absolutely can’t do maths. Couldn’t pass a proper maths A level though, let alone the IB Higher Maths exam. I got lost somewhere between algebra and calculus.

I’ve tried Khan Academy before, but at the time it had no way of estimating your ability of big chunks of the math curriculum, and going through all the really elementary stuff was way too time consuming. Now I’m pleased to see they have a pretest which immediately skips the stuff you know well enough to progress.

It’s been a few months since my last nightmare. My old maths teacher Tony Thomas made a cameo appearance, handing me a dismal failing grade on a practice paper just like he did in 2007. Except he wasn’t in a pub kitchen at the time like the dream.

Now I’m studying something a little more in the realm of the computer scientists and economists, perhaps there’s more incentive to get the maths up to speed. Will 2014 be the year I reclaim the love of maths I lost somewhere around the age of ten? We’ll see.

When I grow up, I want to be…

Photo by Murdo Macleod for The Guardian

Melvyn Bragg.

What a joy it must be to spend your days reading up on interesting stuff and then getting to throw some questions at a selection of boffins in the relevant subject area.

I’m amazed that I didn’t discover In Our Time until a year or two ago, nerdy child that I was/am. The show, broadcast every week on Radio 4, is pushing 650 episodes on subjects of science, art, history, culture and religion, all free to listen from its archives. If you want a digestible introduction to all sorts of subjects, with the charming dulcet tones of Bragg, then tune in.

Innumeracy

When I was nine I did a standardised reading test in school and came out with a reading age of sixteen. Not surprising as I read more than anyone could without becoming a social recluse. If you had reversed the ages, most people would be alarmed, and I’d probably be the subject of ridicule besides. Alex Thompson did a great piece on failing literacy standards in UK primary schools back in 2007. I reckon even the chavs would make fun of each other if they found an illiterate in their midst, although I’m too cowardly to have asked. They were bigger boys!

https://math.temple.edu/~paulos/

When it comes to innumeracy though, it seems it’s both socially acceptable at all ages and a source of pride for some. But numbers, like text, are everywhere. No one’s saying we should all be able to do linear algebra in our sleep, but anecdotally I can think of some ridiculous demonstrations of the failure to grasp maths concepts that should have been mastered in primary school.

I recall an old school friend saying that mixing drinks is bad because “if you mix one drink that’s 30% with one that’s 40%, that’s like 70%”. WHAT? HOW CAN YOU FUNCTION? You probably think playing the same lottery numbers every week is a winning strategy too.

Indirectly it also limits understanding of some aspects of natural sciences, as you can’t handle the foundational maths involved. Again, not everyone needs to understand advanced chemistry, but it’s good for your health and your pocket if you can understand molar masses and why this helps us see that homeopathy is 100% insanity.

Remember that distance or flexible learning isn’t an entirely new idea.

Lots and lots and lots of people had a terrible time with maths in school, be it from teachers or uninspiring curricula. It’s never too late to start again though, especially with so many free resources. Start with Khan Academy – it’s great because you’ll see exactly where your teacher abandoned you before, and see how everything progresses from the most basic number line all the way to stuff you’d be learning in the beginning of a university degree. Want to go further? Perhaps Coursera or Udacity.

Never stop learning. Good luck.