Saturday, September 20, 2014

Unfiltered Filter

I joined Twitter in April 2009 largely at the request of a good buddy who was an early adopter. I really didn't get it for a long time. I made various stabs but for a solid 5 years struggled to understand why he was such a passionate evangelist. I thought of Twitter as an 'sms to the world'. More recently I have become a power user and the penny has dropped. I think the power of twitter is primarily twofold

You have direct access to some incredible people. For a planet with 7 Billion people, this has democratised thought leaders. You can engage with Nobel Prize winners (@RobertJShiller and @TheDesmondTutu), celebrated scientists (@neiltyson or for some controversy @RichardDawkins, authors (@nntaleb and @GilbertLiz), politicians (@narendamodi) , comedians (@Trevornoah or @rustyrockets - Russell Brand), Philosophers (Nigel Warburton @philosophybites , @PeterSinger, @alaindebotton), Psychology gurus (@paulbloomatyale and @jonhaidt), Religious Leaders (The pope tweets himself @pontifex and the @DalaiLama) and celebrities of your choosing.

As confirmation that they really see your tweets... watch this very funny clip:

There is so much information on the web, it is daunting to find the stuff that is worth while. Twitter acts as the filter. You find people who are looking for stuff themselves. When they find something interesting they share it. If you find people who are genuinely sharing stuff they find interesting, this is different from traditional media which normally has a particular brand to present and an editorial bias. Here it is individuals - still biased but less constrained. You can use your friends and the world's thought leaders as your filter and you can help provide a filter for others.

As with real human interaction, I think the real power of twitter is when it is used as a conversation rather than a broadcast of just your own ideas. No one likes someone who just talks about themselves. Most people like people who are also interested in them. Most people don't like people who are unpleasant (don't be a troll). As a tool to participate in the important sharing of ideas without borders or thought police - twitter is the embodiment of free speech.

Exciting times.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Arrrrr you Match Fit?

When Marin Cilic was beating Roger Federer, the commentators mentioned that he had been working on learning not to think too much. In a Murray match I watched, he berated himself for not trusting his legs. While our Elephant seems slow and incompetent when it is learning a new skill, once it gets going, our Rider is more of a spectator or coach and largely has to keep quiet. As in tennis, you may get the occasional glance into the crowd, but if you start relying on the coach you have a problem.

This is why when training the Elephant, you need to create the situation and atmosphere in which the action will occur. When studying for an exam, it is not good enough to know the material. You need to be 'match fit' - your Elephant needs to know the material. Elephants don't sit back and ponder - they either know it or they don't. If they don't, they tend to panic and there can be a knock on effect.

An early mentor for my bigger exams taught me to break down questions by the marks and time allocated and practise until I could answer in that time. So for 180 minute exam worth 100 marks, I would spend 1.6 minutes per mark (shaving 0.2 off as a buffer). So 5 minutes for a 3 mark question. In preparing, you do as many past papers as possible 'in exam conditions'. For technical exams, you often find you struggle to answer the questions in the 3 hours in practise conditions. For discussion questions, you have to work up to being able to manage to carry on for the full 3 hours.

Whether tennis, piano playing, or in an exam - your Rider claiming to know something is not enough. When the heat is on, that is when you have to have internalised something. Your Rider may be able to rely on 'Googling it' - but your Elephant is the one who needs to get the job done.

P.S. Happy 'International talk like a Pirate Day' - Arrrrrr

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Find Your Own River

In one of my favourite scenes of all time, Will Hunting gives a Harvard git a working over for trying to pass off other people's ideas as his own and make his buddy look bad.

His lessons:
1) Don't do that
2) You dropped $150k on an education you could've got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.

Education and Housing are two areas where I think we have got the wrong idea of how to make public goods accessible. You don't do it by increasing demand through loans - you do it by removing barriers, reducing transaction costs and increasing competition. Loaning people money while limiting the number of houses or places to study just pushes up prices. Simple.

Enter the internet. It doesn't solve the housing issue but like any industry where the model is based on secrecy or transaction costs - tick tock boom. Musicians had a purple patch. Well, middlemen did when they realised they can record live performances and distribute them charging a lot while paying a little. A fantastic business model, but not one that is sustainable. You can charge for live performances but ideas can't really be contained like that. Music is a good analogy for ideas. You can't charge someone for humming a tune they have heard, and the good ones stick (ok... some bad ones too).

Education is going to be disrupted in a similar way. Wikipedia replaced the World Book. Textbooks struggle to keep up with the internet. Fancy buildings create a wonderful atmosphere... but that is not what you are paying for. Great professors don't need to limit their classrooms to 400 people hanging from rafters and clogging the stairwells when they can provide high quality recordings with the same content. Best of all - peer to peer learning becomes easier and easier when we can connect our 7 billion global citizens. If you want to learn English, and I want to learn French/Mandarin/Zulu/Arabic... let's chat. Skype? Whatsapp? Twitter? Even networking becomes less of a drawcard when you can develop relationships with people via social media.

I love the atmosphere of Oxford and Cambridge. Ever since I read 'The Power of One' I dreamed of one day being lucky enough to get to Oxford. Now the internet is democratising ideas.

While you may need someone to decide you are worthy of a scholarship or the financial muscle to make your own decisions, higher education is becoming much more accessible. In the short (<10min) clip below, Shai Reshef talks of an ultra-low cost degree programme they have put together. You only pay $100 for the exam. All you need do is find your own beautiful river to sit beside as you ponder, and a lot of those are free.

We live in exciting times.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Small Chunks

We learn in small chunks. Full concentration is taxing. That is the theory behind TED keeping its talks to under 20 minutes. No matter how engaging the subject matter we can't concentrate long. The exception may be when you are in a state of Flow - 'the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.' Then time can simply disappear. That is at an advanced stage. That is when you rock. In the early stages of picking up a skill or idea, we are very conscious of time. Our Elephants need time to chew.

The Gettysburg Address was 2 minutes and 270 words long. 270. So you don't have to be long to have impact - HT Presentation Zen

Lincoln at Gettysburg 

Salman Khan talks of the idea of flipping the classroom. Allowing kids to do their 'schoolwork at home' - i.e. the lessons, and their homework at school, i.e. working collaboratively or doing tutorials. This gives the ability to pause lessons, mid-sentence, without embarrassment to repeat... and chew. Then once you grasp an idea you can bounce it off other people. Perhaps there is a workplace equivalent? Could we flip the office? If that is where we need to be to communicate, build relationships and roll-up our sleeves... maybe we need to be somewhere else to learn.

One of the things I miss about being a kid is that it was pre-specialisation. You did a variety of subjects, and in the afternoons you did sport. Yes, hour long lessons could feel like an eternity (and with folks like Khan leading the way - that can change), but there were always different flavours to chew so you could push through the tough bits.

Taking small bites seems to help us move forward. Tim Hurson says 'We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term, and underestimate what we can do in the long term'. That feels right. If you do something small and hard everyday - it does add up. Throwing yourself at something large is overwhelming. And life is large.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Out of Mischief

'In Praise of Idleness' (pdf) is the first of a collection of essays in a Routledge Classics Series on Bertrand Russell.

As a 1932 precursor to Tim Ferriss' 'Four Hour Workweek' he discusses some of the philosophy behind work, why we do it, and why we believe that 'Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.' The shifting nature of what we consider the basic necessities of life (and even of what we consider poverty) keeps us hard at it. Russell argues that work was also used as a means of the wealthy keeping the poor occupied saying, 'The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery'. Russell doesn't argue that we shouldn't work at all. In fact he makes a few disparaging remarks of those idle who can do so because they inherit/marry money, but says that he does not think their idleness is as harmful as wage earners over-working or starving.

Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, Education has become primarily about training people to work. Ken Robinson is the most eloquent current advocate for increasing the time we spend on the creative side of education I have come across. Russell argues, rather than from the point of identifying strengths like Robinson, that wider education can be aimed in part at helping people use their leisure time intelligently.

I really think we can give ourselves a large collective pat on the back for our advances towards ending poverty. Our hard work ethic has paid dividends. It has also had costs. One example is our complaint about how much leisure time is spent passively in cinemas, watching sport, and in front of computer screens. Russell argues that this is in part because our active energies are fully taken up with work. He argues that if there was more leisure time, there would again be pleasures in which they took an active part. He uses the example of the dying out of traditional dances in the urban working population.

I for one would be all for more dancing round fires. Read his short essay at your leisure.

'Leave all the afternoon for exercise and recreation, which are as necessary as reading. I will rather say more necessary because health is worth more than learning' Thomas Jefferson

Monday, September 15, 2014

Eating Consciously

We need little convincing of the impact of Food on happiness. It is also a great example of where the Rider and the Elephant don't see eye to eye. What we want to put in our mouth now, and want we want to have put in our mouth once it has travelled South are two very different things. Once you have conquered having enough to survive, the problems don't stop....
The Economist pointed to two books this week on links between food and culture - one a little lighter on cupcakes, fondue and Sex in the City. The other is described as an ambitious undertaking, a more scholarly approach, and 'not fast food - it requires concerted rumination'. In 'The Culinary Imagination', Sandra Gilbert explores 'mortality, religion, plentitude and denial, children's Utopias and dining as a spectacle, with food as her constant muse.' I will add it to my list and tell you what I think.

One of the first things to go when time becomes tight is the conscious preparation and consumption of food. Eating at the desk. Eating on the run. Good food has become cheaper and cheaper, and easier to source and prepare. Eating consciously becomes less a money issue in developed countries. It becomes a time issue.

This is one area I am certainly no expert at all... so please bear with me as I 'think and write aloud'. Any suggestions of books to read or recipes to try would be gladly appreciated. And of course, if the only way you can explain your thoughts on food is to invite me for a meal...

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Role of Stories, Rule of Law

I am as pleased that Judge Masipa was in charge of the Pistorius Trial rather than having a popular court as I am that Vascular Surgeons perform surgery rather than a chap in a restaurant who likes his steak bloody and is good with a knife. There is a reason we outsource justice rather than having mob courts. Justice should be slow, deliberate, thoughtful and free from emotion given the knock on effects. If there was a popular vote in South Africa, I am pretty sure that depending on the latest high profile case, there would be strong support for the death penalty. I am glad there is no death penalty. 64% of Muslims in Egypt and Pakistan support the death penalty for leaving Islam. I believe in Democracy, but not in the sense that we should all get to make all decisions. Delegation is really important when issues are complicated.

No one wins when these tragedies occur. Courts of law may try, but unless it is a civil case with money involved, you can't make things right. You can look to put things in place to try move forward in the best possible way. The mandate of courts should be limited in the same way as governments - the aim should be to deal with facts. It is up to the rest of us to heal and make the world a happier place.

 Rebecca Davis (@becsplanb on twitter) is a smart, thoughtful and funny journalist who seems to do a good job conveying the popular opinion. She often tweets on the views of car-guards and restaurant owners. She followed the case closely and her summary is worth reading.

She says:
But the intruder story is now the story. We can’t talk about violence against women, or how domestic violence spans all sectors of society, or how women’s bodies become the site on which the rage of angry men is vented. Because that’s not what happened here.

I agree that we can't talk about these issues because of Pistorius, but we should talk about all and any issues that can make the world a better place. Courts of law give beyond reasonable doubt because that makes the world a better place. Civil Courts work on a balance of probabilities because they deal with financial restitution and mistakes are easier to deal with. In public we can do what we want. We can imagine whatever we think MIGHT have actually happened, and we can prioritise responses that will make the world a better place. Conn Iggulden does that with Genghis Khan. He uses historical facts, but then embellishes to create a story in the bits we don't know. There could be multiple versions. There are a few facts that aren't in dispute in the Pistorius case. I would dispute that even Oscar knows exactly what happened. His memories would have been severely warped by the emotions surrounding the tragedy. The replays in his head and his court case in his head must be the stuff of nightmares and will go on. I have 0% doubt that he wouldn't choose to have that night undone.

So I think we can talk about violence against women. Even if courts can't get into bedrooms, dark alleys, or anywhere vaguely private where tragedies with just the victim and the accused occur - our imaginations can. They allow us to learn and make the world better. That is more important than a justice than 'makes things right'. It also means that we need to think about the areas where justice can't reach. We need to spend more time teaching men how to treat women. Rather, we need to spend time teaching people how to behave with people. We need to reduce the fear that controls us. We have lots to do.

We can't make the past right. We can influence the future.

Genghis Khan - art & stories help us learn where we don't and can't know

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Happiness Machine

Hans Rosling is a magical presenter and master of putting powerful data into stories. This particular presentation is less than 10 minutes and is a real eye opener. As we get wealthier and start worrying about the finer things in life, it is very easy to lose track of the real big wins in terms of happiness we have made. It is also very easy to overlook the work that needs doing and start prioritising the wrong things. I know this is controversial, but I have to put it out there that it is hard to feel that sorry for 'the 99%' in America and the anger over income distribution when the fact remains that they are American. I don't dispute that distribution is an issue that needs resolving. But in our 'laundry list' of concerns - washing machines place higher. Lifting masses of the developing world out of poverty over the last few decades with the shift of manufacturing jobs towards lower wage countries has been a huge win.

The clip is also a reminder of how the last century has freed up time. Time to read. Time for mothers to spend with their children. Slowly we are being emancipated from being machines ourselves.

Exciting times.