Monday, July 27, 2015

Little Red Book

As someone who doesn't believe in passports or pass laws, there is some irony in how excited I am to debut my British passport today. I am both South African and British. Second best would be having a passport for everywhere. The ultimate would be a world where the default was to trust people. 

Global Citizens.

Show me the evidence for borders preventing any of the things you may say they do?

If however you have a passport that allows you to be trusted and travel freely, give it a little kiss. You are a winner of the geographic lottery.

Right... I am off to Lisbon (via Madrid)! See you later.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Identities and Interdependence

We think of new things in ways we already understand. Imagine a horses body with a man's torso. If you were a bat, how would it feel to 'see' with your ears? If you were poor, how would you get yourself out of the situation? It is very hard to strip away how we already see when we look at the world. Quite often we understand the way our world is, and we can visualise the way we want the world to be. We can't quite see how we would get from here to there though. We want to moan about the way things are. But we are scared to change. We don't want to lose what we have. But we want something else.

Daniel Dennett talks about the confusing idea of taking two species and selecting just two bits and asking wouldn't it be better if this had that. A horse with wings. A cat that talked. A elephant with stripes. Things that are possible in isolation may not be possible together. They each came about through millions of small little tweaks that led them to a specific combination. Each characteristic is part of a larger orchestra. It doesn't exist in isolation. You may not be able to get from here to there.

We like to separate things into small chunks. To identify things. To create boundaries. Frameworks. Boxes. Rules. These boundaries are completely artificial and a tool we use to think. To create stories we think we understand. A queen bee, for example, is not distinct from the hive. The worker bee is not distinct from the hive. The hive is a single organism. Extend that further and we are not distinct from bees. No bees. No people.

Computers do amazing things by combining very simple 'dumb' things. Strings of 1s and 0s create decision paths that lead to 'intelligence'. A sensor may just be able to tell if it is light (1) or dark (0), but combined with many, many other small decisions it may be able to drive a car. So once a large, complicated organism grows and sees something else, we are very unsure about what to tweak.

Which is why creative destruction becomes so important. Quite often the change comes from people who are starting from scratch. Once you become very attached to the way you do things, you need to be able to plan a way to transition from here to there. Often that requires a completely different way of looking at things. There is no path sideways. You have to step back. There is no elephant with ears that work as wings. There is an elephant. There is a bird.

Sorry, no Dumbo Dumbo.

This is why change often happens without permission. While people are discussing the path or gaining consensus, someone else gets it done. Change also doesn't happen in an orderly fashion. There is no straight, predictable path of progress. Sometimes things bubble along frustratingly with no progress. Sometimes they go backwards. Then a better way emerges. Some changes uproot everything. Our world was designed around horses. Then the car came along. Now our world is designed around cars. They are everywhere. Maybe they will disappear too as they learn to drive themselves and we don't need so many. Maybe to go forward, we have to go back to walking.

Cars that drive themselves may have dramatic knock on effects. Everything is connected in ways we don't fully understand. If cars drive themselves, do we all need to arrive at work at the same time? Can we live outside the city? Do kids need to go to the same schools to save Mum & Dad driving time?  Do businesses need to have fixed locations? What else can 'drive itself'? What jobs become redundant. How does that change our world?

The world is incredibly complicated and interconnected. The wonder of human creativity is the ability to connect dots. To make wild, illogical, passionate leaps. To ask questions. Then to figure out the balance between conserving the things we love, accepting that things are bound to change, and putting aside the way we see the world to see both how it is and how it could be. A balance between questioning and practising

Exciting, nerve-wracking and without boundaries or identities.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Trusted Feedback

If salaries are a poor measure of worth, reviews at work can loom like a public examination of your soul. I have seen various tactics where the two discussions are split. The 'number' is given first so that an open discussion can be had. It is given last because the discussion is more important than the number. It is given at a wildly different time to the chat so that it doesn't dominate either way. It tends to dominate since it is such a clear signal of what the bottom line impression is.

I agree with the principle that if you discover anything that comes as a big surprise in an annual review, the relationship is dysfunctional. If a manager is relying on sitting down with a bunch of data to examine how someone has performed, the relationship is dysfunctional. The only form of feedback that I think we take kindly to is from someone we trust. Trust comes from a belief that someone has a good understanding of what you are doing, what you are trying to achieve and why you are doing what you are doing. Many of these things are ridiculously hard to communicate. The person who has best articulated this for me is Virginia Postrel. Which is why I call the heart of the problem the Postrel Problem.

The last century has seen the magic of the industrial revolution. Through division of skills and the introduction of machines, productivity has exploded and much of the world has been ripped from poverty. The last three decades in China are nothing short of miraculous. Many of the gains come from cutting out inefficiencies and standardising. If things are standardised they are easily communicable. Once you can do something well, you can roll it out. You can use a cookie cutter approach. Decisions can slowly but surely be made further and further away from the customer.

Except they can't. At some point we get beyond the stuff we have to do, and to the stuff we want to do. Jobs are not just jobs. They are an expression of personality. They give meaning. They are a source of relationships. They start conversations. This is the kind of stuff that can't be communicated through data or even written feedback. Sit down and try write just 100 words on the 10 most important people in your life and why that is the case. It is hard! It is ridiculously hard.

A lot of our knowledge is tacit. We don't even understand that we understand it. It comes through time, nuance, relationships, empathy, connecting and a web that can't be expressed except through experience. That is why Postrel argues convincingly that decisions should be pushed down not up. The role of a manager in a world they don't understand shouldn't be to try. The role should be to remove obstacles. To ask how they can stop getting in the way and how they can provide resources and perspective. Or they should just roll up their sleeves and work with people.

The reason reviews often end up being awful is because managers are typically busy. They don't work with people, people work for them. The best feedback comes from people you work with. It doesn't come in an annual review. It comes over time. It doesn't always come through words. And it certainly doesn't come in the form of a number.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Worth, Water and Salaries

Price is not a signal of value. It is a management tool that helps control supply and demand of limited resources. Water and oxygen are the obvious examples of something that is incredibly valuable, yet this is not reflected in the price because (for now) there is enough. 

Enough Oxygen and Water for Now
NASA's latest blue marble

I have heard of bars that display an electronic price board that changes depending on how much people are ordering, and how much is left. As a particular brand runs out, its price increases. The less popular brands prices fall. The price moves to best meet the demand of the customers. Betting odds are also a great example of price as a signal. Jeremy Corbyn started out as a 200/1 outsider to win the leadership of the Labour Party. Only 5 people took that bet. He is now a close favourite and only getting 2/1 odds. Plenty of people are willing to take that bet. Price is a signal of supply and demand.

YET we sell our labour for a salary. A salary is the price of our labour. Since we often define ourselves by our work, lots of the strengths of pricing fall away. If you aren't going to listen to the signal of price because you are going to do what you are doing anyway, those who are more flexible will set the price. A price is a negotiation. If your position is fixed, good luck. If I was to choose one rule for investing, a strong candidate would be 'Never be a forced buyer or seller'. I have learnt to my peril that the same rule applies in dating. Nothing is as unattractive as desperation. Arguably, work is a lot more like marriage than marriage given how much time we spend with our colleagues.

On the front lines of a business, the customer is the boss. For all the accusations of Corporate dominance of the world, they live or die by the commands of supply and demand. Ask Kodak, Blackberry, A&P or perhaps even the all powerful oil companies as they look at Mr Musk pointing at the ball of energy in the sky and saying 'Isn't that free?'. 

But the signal of supply and demand determining profit falls away when it comes to employees. When you are an employee, you want your salary to reflect the difficulty of your education. You want it to reflect how well you work with your teammates. You want it to reflect your integrity, commitment, effort and status. We demand a lot of salaries as a measure of value. I am not sure they ever offered that. Management have to somehow wave a wand between the pile (or hole) of money the business creates (or destroys) and the emotional expectations of the employees looking for recognition and motivation.

If we weren't defined by our jobs. If we weren't working for just one company. If our skills were flexible. Things would be different. The reason talking about salary messes with happiness is it strikes at the heart of us measuring our worth. That is just silly, but we can't help it. Numbers are like sugar, fat and salt. We are addicted to their simple, powerful signal. Worth is more nuanced and complicated. Worth is personal and social. Worth is about meaning. Worth is our water and our oxygen.

If salary was a measure of worth, it wouldn't be a number, it would be a discussion.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Saving the Planet for Nothing (Georgie George)

One of the challenges with science is that you can't really prove things. You can disprove things. With maths we know the rules because we set them based on obviously true conceptual facts and build up from there. Science is more complicated. There are normally lots of people arguing. It is tempting to just find the people that agree with you. Sometimes the experts are wrong because the smart people have moved on to unsolved problems. Sometimes the consensus is wrong. Ask Galileo. I still think you can make reasonable life choices if you keep your wits about you and keep half an eye out for whether you are on the side of the crazies. Bad science gets found out. 

For the Australians out there, I apologize for Georgie's banter. I recognise it well, we met representing our respective residences at university. My residence was for the good looking, intelligent, athletic, witty and inspirational guys. His was for the others. Despite that, he's a good guy.

Saving the Planet for Nothing
Georgie George

In 1988 James Hansen (who none of you have ever heard of), a climate scientist from NASA, gave testimony before the United States Congressional hearings on the “Global Warming trend”. This testimony gave way to the conference in Rio De Janeiro which then gave way to the Kyoto protocol which then gave way to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Again, most of you would probably only have heard of the Kyoto Protocol? In short, what all these conventions and expert panels are supposed to achieve is a common agreement between all participating countries on the levels of atmospheric emissions we should limit each country to, to ensure that the average global temperature increase does not exceed 2 degrees. The idea is that the more harmful gases (specifically carbon dioxide and methane) we emit into the atmosphere, the warmer the planet is going to get. It’s like sitting in your car in the hot sun, windows closed, chain smoking and eating a lot of baked beans. It’s not going to end well!

Between Hollywood and South Park, some of these concepts should be familiar? There have been numerous models demonstrating the impacts on the planet with a 2 degree rise in temperature, like the rise in sea levels by 1m in some places, completely swallowing California (not so great) and parts of Australia (I can live with that), the shift of the global weather patterns which completely destroys global food security. Essentially the “worst parts of the Bible”, or any apocalyptic movie… that does not have Zombies, or Aliens, or flying sharks…

Anyway… what was my point?.... oh yes…  Most of you probably haven't made up your mind on the whole issue of climate change or global warming. 'The fact is the science is darn confusing and there is just as much research disproving global warming as there is proving that it is already occurring.' The most common excuse is that “the planet is just in another natural warming cycle, things will balance out”. I am by no means an expert on the topic. There are many more qualified people out there with many more consonants behind their name that are much more appropriate to speak on the subject. But I'm pretty sure the planet didn’t have large industries, cars, Burger King (that’s right you big yellow M franchise… you have been replaced in colloquial language) or the internet. Surely there must be some merit to the argument that humans had/have a hand in destroying the planet?

Let’s forget for a moment all the science and all the theories that have been put forward on the warming of the planet or the death and destruction that awaits us all. Let's just focus on our (the humans) impact on the planet and see if we can appreciate the part we play in it. Let's limit our sphere of influence to a single day, from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night (I'm going with a basic case where you are a single individual living in a one bedroom apartment, driving a modest car…ok, you can have a convertible, and you have a corner office in a trendy part of town…any town…except anywhere in Australia… or Canada… there is nothing trendy there). I'll try not to go into too much detail, but I want you to think about every activity throughout this period in terms of “using energy” i.e. electricity, gas, or generating waste i.e. “trash or anything you have to flush away, or expel into the atmosphere”. Does it make sense?

Ready? … let's give it a try
  • 5:30  - wake up
    • alarm clock probably plugged in – energy used
    • if you are guy, you probably broke wind  - waste expelled
    • If you are a lady… you probably did too – but it was cute and I won’t count it
    • Unplug smartphone –energy used
    • Check Facebook, twitter, tumblr etc and check how many “likes”, “retwits” you got – poke a few people- retweet etc– how much energy is used to “Power the internet”? Answer – a lot of energy and a lot of waste expelled (take my word for it… I still have a few consonants in the relevant field after my name)
    • Evacuation (like in Austin powers?) – waste expelled (if you had curry the night before… a lot of it evacuated…painfully)
    • Brush teeth – waste expelled (not sure if you want to switch evacuation and this one?)
  • 5:45 – Cup of coffee
    • Boil kettle – energy used
    • Coffee – energy used at some point to buy it… more energy used and waste generated getting the coffee to the shelf. =>  does this make sense? If you are in London and are drinking coffee, there is no way was grown in TESCO’s backyard. The coffee beans were grown in some poor country where even poorer people picked the fruit, and roasted the fruit to get the beans which were transported to another country that was then roasted again and then ground to a coarse texture. Then it had to be packaged, branded and then shipped to the store shelf. I am leaving out a great amount of detail here. But you get the point? Things don't just appear on the shelf. It has gone through a process to get to you. => don't forget, at some point, you will throw that tin of coffee away => waste generated
    • Milk from the fridge – energy used to keep milk cold, waste generated from milk carton at some point => now do the same thinking process for milk, or electricity that we did for coffee :-)
  • 6:00 -  all packed and out the door
    • Get in car, drive to gym -  energy used, waste expelled
    • Most of you probably used your phone while driving? – energy used, waste expelled
  • 6:30 – 7:30  - gym and shower
    • Using a facility with excessive lighting, TV’s everywhere, loud music and central air conditioning – copious amounts of energy used and lots of waste expelled
  • 8:00  - drive to work - energy used, waste expelled
  • 8:15 – another cup of coffee – energy used and waste expelled
    • But you used a paper cup – waste generated
    • And there was a plastic spoon – waste generated
    • Oh… but you spilt some coffee on the floor, need a paper towel – waste generated (because you are a decent person and you wouldn't leave it for the janitor)
  • 8:30 – 10:00 – Check emails / surf daily news – energy used and waste expelled
  • 10:15 – Toilet break – waste generated
  • 10:17 – Coffee break 2 – see above
  • 10:30 – Meeting – death by PowerPoint, more coffee => energy used, waste generated and expelled 
  • This is getting tedious… fast forward to getting home at 18:00 (there was lots of internet surfing, office banter, checking of social media / using smartphone and more coffee drinking during the course of the day… you probably printed a few reports that no one will ever read) => lots of energy used and lots of waste generated
  • Shower – energy used and waste expelled (geyser was probably on all day… so lots of energy used and lots of waste expelled somewhere)
  • Supper, take out – waste generated
  • 20:00 – Watch TV – energy used, waste expelled.
  • 22:00 – go to sleep
    • If you are a guy, you definitely broke wind – waste expelled
    • If you are lady… stop it… it was only cute the first time!

This was a very brief example and by no means exhaustive. The point I was trying to make was that every action we take has a consequence, either from the amount of energy we consume to the amount of waste we generate. Now add in your family members to the scenario above, co-workers, friends, random strangers, all those cows to give us those delicious bovine products (especially Biltong). Suddenly there is a lot of energy being used and there is a lot of waste being generated / expelled. But where does all the waste go? Well…the large amounts of gases go into the atmosphere… and the solid stuff…goes… into landfills, or the oceans <= The real picture of the actual waste disposal process is not pretty, so I'll leave it vague.

I wasn't trying to convince you of the link between human emissions and climate change. What I was trying to illustrate was that:
  • you spend too much time on your smart phones / social media / reading useless pieces on the internet (not this one of course)
  • you need to drink a few more glasses of water a day
  • you need a bit more roughage (it will make evacuation easier)
  • your impact to the environment and the planet is not inconsequential.
Whether you are convinced that the planet is getting warmer, or that there may be a human influence on climate change or not, you have to appreciate the impact you have on the environment around you? Hopefully you will think a bit more about you actions going forward, who knows, you might even join a Facebook campaign to save the planet… 

Outstoried Stories

If you have ever had the privilege of popping over to the opposite side of the world, you will have felt the joys of jet lag. The body being forced to adjust quickly to a rhythm it doesn't recognise. You don't need a long haul flight or to be surrounded by people who give nicknames to everything to understand this. Most people who work Monday to Friday enter a similar sort of rhythm. My big city rhythm involved getting up early enough to avoid a sardine can commute, and working till things calmed down to leave. I would get home just in time for an 8pm Yoga class, grab something light to eat afterwards and soon be off in dreamland. Next morning I would lock and reload. Every now and then there was the good old feeling of Groundhog day. Getting ready in the morning can blur into a series of toothpaste being squeezed onto a toothbrush that really should be replaced. 

We can get into colliding rhythms with people doing different things. Interpersonal jetlag. When you are sitting in a coffee shop all relaxed and the couple next to you are tearing 51 shades of violet out of each other, it can be tough to hum along to Jack Johnson. I think it is part of our fight or flight tendency that we adjust to the rhythm of most discontent. We look for fires to put out if they are around us before we relax.

One form of adjusting rhythms is the debrief. When I have seen something that grates me the wrong way, I feel the urge to tell someone. When I have had a bad day. When I have had a good day. By telling someone, the rhythm spreads and we aren't facing things alone. We can then move on. When people are working, this adjustment often takes the form of a 'post work debrief'. An answer to the question, 'how was your day?'.

If you, like me, have ever had a family member, friend, housemate or romantic partner who was a medic - your debriefs may be more tentative. I fast learnt that my problems never involved someone dying. My stories could always be outstoried. The advantage of perspective.

Once we are into a rhythm, once groundhog day sets in, it is easy to forget that there is a whole different world out there. South Africans, for example, may look at foreigners in the country and think they came believing the grass was greener on the other side only to get a horrible surprise. Umm, no. Do some wiki-walking about the wars in the Congo which didn't get much press. Read 'A Man of Good Hope' about one of the Somali refugees who made his way to Cape Town before the Xenophobic attacks. The grass is greener. What drives someone to uproot and search for hope? Not realising your story can be outstoried is not a uniquely South African issue. We all tend to focus on our local problems and look after 'our own'.

As a lighter example, I enjoy going to Conferences even though the presentations are normally mostly awful. They help pull me out of whatever I am focussing on and connect with other people doing other things. I enjoy watching those YouTube clips showing how small the earth is relative to other planets. How 100,000 years on earth is a relatively short blip in the story of life on earth.

Rhythm helps us focus. Disruption gives perspective.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Not Normal

'Never forget the six-foot man who drowned crossing the river that was five feet deep on average' (Howard Marks)

The average actually tells us very little about something. The average family in the UK has 1.7 children. In other words, there is no average family. Enter the mathematicians and statisticians and you get various curves and distributions to describe things in more detail. Something like a map of the river that would have been useful for the six-foot man.

The most basic of all of these river maps is the normal distribution, otherwise known as the Bell Curve for obvious reasons. It is amazing how many things are distributed in roughly this shape. So much so that with a few other points (called moments), statisticians can give pretty good maps. You can make very good predictions about what is going to happen if you know how tall and how wide the bell is, and whether it is leaning to one side or the other.

Unless you get 'Fat Tails'. In the sculpture above, the tails are the white one on the left and the black one on the right. These tails are outliers. Normally, there aren't very many of them and they don't tell us very much. Normally they aren't fat. Roger Federer is an outlier. He doesn't tell us very much about the normal experience of playing tennis. What we are normally far more interested in is what is going to happen to most people. You can't plan your life around being Roger Federer.

A Fat Tail is when the Federer's matter because there are lots of them. Then there are game changing events where the distribution doesn't actually matter. Nassim Taleb calls these single events which change everything 'Black Swans'. It doesn't matter how many white swans you see, you can't claim that all swans are white. The absence of evidence of a black swan isn't evidence of absence of black swans. One Black Swan changes your whole view.

Normally we build up our view of the world from what we see. We watch, we learn, and then when we think we understand, we act. This works very well when the underlying map of the river is reliable. This normally works very well. When there are Black Swans however, all the information that matters isn't how high the curve is, whether it is bending to the side, or how thick it is. What matters is the Black Swan.

Insurance works on normal things. When they happen often and predictably. Then you can spread the risk amongst lots of people so what you do matters more than luck. Insurance doesn't work for 'Acts of God'. Things like Earthquakes, Hurricanes and huge disasters crashes. They change everything.

There is a big fight going on between Steven Pinker and Nassim Taleb over whether the world is indeed getting better. Pinker has written a wonderful book called 'The Better Angels of our Nature' which talks about the bumpy progress of mankind in creating a more peaceful world. Max Roser has created many visual graphs on showing how much better life is today in many, many ways. Taleb thinks both of them basically don't understand statistics. He believes Peace is a 'Fat Tailed Distribution' and that we are basically getting much better at wiping ourselves out in some tragic disaster.

'As technology increases, misunderstanding of ruin by a small segment of the population is sufficient to guarantee ruin' Taleb

Knowing you can't insure for something doesn't mean you can't do anything about it. It just means you can't avoid it hurting. You can't insure against the emotional side of a break-up, a divorce, a death, being fired etc. You can plan around the things that normally happen, and you can build resilience around the Black Swans. You can wrap your head and heart around worst case scenarios and try think of ways to not let them destroy you. To get back up.

I think Pinker and Roser are right. I do think the world is getting better and we should celebrate that. I also think that Taleb is right. We should always think about risk more deeply than the surface things we observe. A full picture of risk can't be reduced to a number or a map. The truth is always more complicated than that. 

We can plan and do. But things can happen that change everything. We should be careful and we should invest in our ability to get back up. Being insured and investing in resilience are different things. 


Hugh Du Toit correctly points out that Black Swans don't make tails Fat. They make the whole distribution irrelevant. There can be fat tail and long tails. With a bunch of outliers still being part of the distribution, but very important. A Black Swan makes the observations largely irrelevant. I changed 'Nassim Taleb calls these Fat Tails 'Black Swans' to 'Then there are game changing events where the distribution doesn't actually matter. Nassim Taleb calls these single events that change everything 'Black Swans''. Thanks Hugh.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Are What They Are

My cousin Charles is a psychologist who helps people with Chronic Pain. The pain that doesn't go away. It seems to me we are mostly wired to take action. To come up with a plan to get from where we are to somewhere better. Charles says a big part of what he does is helping people accept the pain. By acknowledging the pain, you are able to give it the necessary attention. But no more. It reminds me of the Hulk when Iron Man is trying to irritate him into getting mad. He says he has learnt a trick to control it. You assume it is a trick to remain calm. But no.

'That's my secret Captain. I am always angry' Hulk

One of the things I have to work on the hardest is to just listen. I am a talker. When I go into meetings with a conscious decision to just keep quiet and listen, it almost never works. I have a buddy who was a little like Iron Man. He liked to poke. He used to get great pleasure out of listening to me planning a strategy for silence, and then just before the meeting whisper something like, 'but you wouldn't be you if you kept quiet'. Inside, I am always talking.

The talking comes from a bubbling of ideas of how and what we can do to defeat all the challenges in the world. The 18 year old idealist in me doesn't seem to have realised he has doubled in age. I have met lots and lots of equally passionate people. Everyone has something that gets us going. Something that sparks us off to rage against the world. Something we desperately want to change.

Yesterday I was wiki-walking through various philosophers. It turns out one of my favourite authors, Ursula Le Guin (The Earthsea Quartet) has written a book about Lao Tzu who another of my favourite authors, Josh Waitzkin, regularly talks about. So that will be my introduction to Taoist philosophy. I did enjoy one famous Laozi saying I found, 'Try to change it and you will ruin it. Try to hold it and you will lose it.'

It seems some of the big challenges in the world are pains we need to acknowledge rather than fix. Some require more listening to solve than action with big ideas. I said yesterday that happiness, for me, is a combination of a question and a practice. The bit that is missing there is the acceptance. Some things are what they are.