Serendipity

December 17, 2017

A few years back, I wrote about synchronicity and serendipity. I recently came across this article which is a post regarding two French books about serendipity. I particularly liked the definition of serendipity as “an ability to discover, to invent, to create or to imagine something new without looking for it, by means of an extraordinary observation and a correct interpretation of it”.  This aspect of discovery or invention is especially important for serendipity whereas synchronicity is more about finding meaning in coincidences.

The article goes further to explore factors that prevent serendipity from occurring in academic or research practices. A reliance on rigorous structures or a failure to be open to interdisciplinary knowledge are two factors mentioned. In addition, the whole area of anomalous research is another area for potential discover of serendipity.

 

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Andrew McAfee at NYU Abu Dhabi

December 11, 2017

I’d first come across Andrew McAfee a few years back with his illuminating articles on the digital economy so when I saw that he was scheduled to speak at an NYU evening event, I had no hesitation in confirming by RSVP, even if it was on a Thursday night after a long week at work.

His Q&A commenced with the statement “We continue to underestimate the speed of advances in technology.” The world’s best chess player, Gark Kasparov, was beaten in 1997 by Deep Blue. But while the rules for good moves in chess are relatively limited, an ancient game like Go is far more sophisticated. There are far too many possibilities for each move so the brute force of computing power doesn’t work. Software programmers need to be more strategic and sophisticated. The problem arises that Go masters cannot easily explain why they make their moves – they don’t know what they know they know – they can’t explain their more intuitive and experienced responses.

And yet, a program called AlphaGo has just beaten the world Go champion. In 2015, the consensus amongst experts was that this would not occur until at least 2027. How did it happen? Through an extended pattern matching exercise based on machine learning. Programmers told AlphaGo to figure out how it works then test these theories by playing against yourself through adversarial play.  Later versions of AlphaGo have taken a fundamentally different approach without the pattern matching component, just the rules. What previously took 21 days now only takes 24 hours for AlphaGo to reach super-human status.

What is important here is that AI’s advances can push human knowledge forward. We are now learning from the way that AlphaGo has developed new approaches to Go.

Andrew then went on to talk about disruption in the economy. When a profound set of new technologies come along, the currently powerful companies tend to be disrupted and do not remain on top after the technologies become established. It’s a maxim that the leadership of old companies tend to underestimate the impact of new technologies. It also rings true for countries as new technologies change the relative influence of power throughout the world between countries.

As technology races ahead, it leaves some people behind. The large stable middle class was created in the USA but is now under threat from new technology that tends to create lower middle class jobs.

In response, McAfee stated that he does not believe that government should restrict market dominance. In the past, people have said that IBM is too powerful, or Microsoft, or AOL, or Netscape, etc.  Or Nokia and RIM for mobiles.  The pattern tends to be that dominance is established but disruption happens that gives rise to another generation of dominant companies. A caveat though: in general, large concentrations of power require vigilance.

There will always be a role for humans. Is a robot going to manage a kids soccer team? That’s impossible for technology to do; it needs people to do that. We will still need leaders, managers, mentors and coaches when people are involved – we still need these jobs. Technology increases the pace of change and change is uncomfortable. We need leaders to mediate between the fast pace of technology and our desire to not change.

In response to questions from the audience, Andrew said that he believes that the notion of a Singularity regarding creating consciousness in technology is unrealistic and stupid. He believes that people read too much science fiction. There is no pathway to get there because the current programs are doing math through machine learning. We don’t understand how brain works. We are not creating artificial brains but AI. It’s like worrying about overpopulation on Mars. It’s so far out there in time it’s not a concern.

When the crazy wins the argument (like we have now with climate change in the US, GMO in the EU, etc) then we all lose. It’s the same with restricting IT and AI. If you want innovation to happen then you don’t want government to be involved.

Machine learning incredibly good at pattern matching. It’s great at crunching data, especially good for health and health outcomes like genetics. Let Machine Learning do what it does best; recognise the connections to accelerate our science.

He took a particularly American view of Universal Basic Income stating that it was not a good idea. For the US it would take 75% of total government revenue. The greater issue is when work is taken away from communities, then you get more boredom and vice – witness the opiod epidemic in stressed areas in the US at the moment. It would be better to try and restore the sense of purpose and dignity and community through work in the coming new machine age. Better policies would be to expand earned income tax credits.

He loves the idea of Blockchain. It’s immutable – the notion of a ledger. His view of Bitcoin is less positive and considers the current price to be based on speculation.

Finally, he would like to see more innovation and entrepreneurship with more breakthrough technologies. He would like to see more Silicon Valleys but to do that you need these four criteria (Great research universities, Tolerance for risk, Rule of law so that you know contracts will be honoured, and a cultural tolerance for failure, weirdos and outsiders). Once established, they are hard to dislodge, although the current US Government is doing its best! It’s also something for the UAE and Dubai to consider in establishing a similar regional innovation powerhouse.


Brexit – Sailing into a Storm with No-one at the Wheel

July 8, 2016

I’ve read quite a bit over the past few days over this Brexit result. Trying to get my head around what has happened. Nearly all of my expatriate UK and European colleagues here in Dubai are wandering around with shell-shocked faces – and that was even before Iceland beat England in Euro 2016.

So here are some of the musings from an Australian looking on with no skin in the game:

  1. Does the Brexit vote mean exit? It’s always hard for politicians to refuse to heed the will of the people. But there have been all sorts of false claims made up to the polling date about NHS funding and whether the vote will stop immigration or deport people. Yet most politicians actually don’t want to leave and think it is not a good choice. What will they decide to do?
  2. It’s an unconvincing majority that voted to leave (about 52%) with a majority in Scotland and Northern Ireland wishing to remain. Scotland have since been quite firm in their resolve as pro-Europe to the extent that they would leave the UK. It’s Scottish referendum all over again. Over the last 30 years or so, polls have moved with regards to whether a majority wishes to stay in or out of Europe. A decision to leave would be one of the most important decisions made by the UK. Do the majority of the UK population wish to disunite the UK, cause all sorts of problems economically to as we are seeing with the depreciation of the pound, as well as flow on effects in Europe and the world, and make a long-term decision to that effect? Is the break-up of the UK a price worth paying for the prize of sovereignty?
  3. Legally, it seems that any move to leave the EU needs to be done by an act of Parliament. Will the politicians stand by their own conviction in what is best for the UK (to remain) and to bypass the view of the majority of the people?
  4. Europe, quite rightly, don’t want to negotiate until the UK are 100% sure that they wish to exit. As far as they are concerned, all that’s happened is a non-binding advisory referendum calling to leave. It seems fair enough that Europe should call the bluff of the UK and make sure that they are serious about exiting before entering into negotiations. That’s what the two year period is for after Article 50 is invoked anyway.
  5. Much of the write-up has been about the differences in voting habits of different segments of the population. England and Wales to leave; Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain. Young people overwhelmingly remain, older people leave. London remain, manufacturing heartland to leave, more educated to remain while less educated to leave, elites remain while those marginalized voted to leave. What seems to have happened is a mix of nationalist and anti-immigration fervour along with a backlash against neoliberal globalization and its accompanying austerity measures that fuelled the Leave vote.
  6. There’s no doubt that there was an underlying racism behind the vote, partly encouraged through the campaign run by the Murdoch press. It’s akin to the views of the Trump popular movement in the US, of pandering to the latent fears of the other borne by the local population.
  7. The failure of the leaders of the Leave movement, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, has been described as like rats leaving the sinking ship. They did it with no plan, as clueless about the post-Brexit future as Blair was for a post-invasion Iraq.
  8. Despite the efforts of the remain camp to note that a Leave vote would have severe economic and political consequences, there were retorts of “I think this country have had enough of experts”. Obviously, the expert opinions were not recognized, somewhat like how views of climate change experts are not heeded.
  9. One of the key findings from this whole episode is the poor judgement exercised by David Cameron. He foolishly made a short term decision which has had long-term consequences and did not conceive of the potential for the Leave vote to be successful. An interesting article from a psychotherapist has pointed the finger towards political leaders that attended British boarding schools as it leaves them ill-prepared for adult relationships and perpetuates a culture of elitism, bullying and misogyny. These people tend to lack emotional intelligence, focusing on survival rather than empathy with the result of poor political judgements.
  10. There’s further complications with Brexit in relation to free movement of people across the UK / European borders. Many people are claiming that you can’t have access to the European market unless you have movement of people across borders. Free trade equals free movement of people. What happens then with the Irish / Northern Ireland border? This was a key outcome of the peace negotiations with the IRA to have free movement of people across the border. Another reason for northern Ireland to secede from the UK?

 

So what’s next?

The Brexit Referendum became a contest between technicians in favour of the status quo and populists promising a return of a Little England narrative. But now that the populists won the popular vote, which Brexit is going to be considered?

It could be argued that it is better in the long term for the UK to exit Europe: the common currency is a disaster, immigrants are taking advantage of UK’s welfare state, the EU does not appear to be democratic. There is a potential for the UK to exit and negotiate more advantageous trade policies with other countries independently. It’s actually an opportunity as George Monbiot has outlined, an opportunity to counter some of the less satisfactory regulations and excesses of the EU and create a better environment that is more environmentally sustainable and innovative.

I tell people that this is still very early days. Either of two potential scenarios; a negotiated Brexit that will be protracted and messy or a political exit from Brexit with either MPs refusing to follow the popular will and/or another vote on a more detailed Brexit plan that fails to get a majority.


Future of Trade

November 10, 2015

Earlier today I was one of 40 or so participants at the Future Agenda Future of Trade workshop in Dubai.  It is nearing the end of this open foresight project. Our organization had earlier in the year hosted a Future of Education workshop and it was really good to be able to participate in another one.

I really like the process for the workshop. Went something like this:

  1. Everyone introduce themselves and state one topic that you think will be incredible for the future of trade over the next 10 years. These are captured on post it notes on the wall by a facilitator.
  2. Next is to introduce a series of slides that have been gleaned from previous documents and workshops. Basically, they are a series of insights that prompt discussion. These slides also are in card format for each table and the deck of 60 cards is sorted into high/medium/low priority by 5 separate groups.
  3. While the teams have a refreshment break, the high priority sets are collected and noted on the slides how many times they were selected by the teams. These slides are then sorted from higher priority (5 ticks) to lowest priority (no ticks). That’s then shared with the group as a whole.
  4. Next look at what’s missing. What are the items that might have come up in the initial introductions or in the groups that are missing from the slides. These are discussed in groups and fed back to the whole group. They are noted on post it notes on the wall.
  5. Each person then gets a set of three heart shaped post it notes. While the previous discussions focused on global trends, now each person could place one of their items on three topics that they felt had the most regional/local importance.
  6. Finally as a closing, people were asked if their views changed as a result of participating in the session. This gave time for some reflection.

This process was relatively short (total about 3 hours), it kept things moving, everyone got to have their say, and global as well as local implications were covered. Participants enjoyed the conversations in groups as they were able to examine the future outside of their normal transactional activities.

Some of the key issues that surfaced included the rise of digital printing, regional rather than global free trade agreements, cyber security risks, trade in services, availability of finance, the rise of mega cities, and issues around China and Africa.

Finally, a closing comment for public servants: regulators are the only lawful monopoly the world still allows!


Dubai Gran Fondo recap

March 30, 2015

So something a bit different – a post on my thoughts of my first UCI cycling event – the Dubai Gran Fondo – about 120 km around the streets of Dubai.
My Strava for the event. Average of about 40.7 km/h once the flag went down.
I’ve had a bit of a look through the premiertiming site as well as the photos and videos that were taken and thought I would share what I found.
Strategy A people (the faster ones) headed off in or near the front of the main group
Strategy B people (the rest of us) stayed near the back of the first group. I remember looking around when heading towards the 611 for the first time doing 50+ for 2km and getting some knowing glances that I could sum up as “yep, let’s try and hang off the back of this group”.
While there were some attacks at the front, by the time they filtered through to the back, it was a fairly steady pace with little concertina action. Going up towards JLT after Meadows/Springs the group would have been close to 180-200 riders. Photos at this time show a big bunch with a long tail and starting to drop some riders.
Coming back through JLT the second time and the group is smaller and with a longer single line at the front. Strategy B riders are still at the tail end of the group. There was a significant slowing down with corners that required hard work to catch up afterwards but the group was able to stay together at these times.
The race changed with the stack on the exit from Discovery Gardens into Al Furjan on the tight right hander. I was lucky to sneak through on the inside but others on the team got caught behind. By the timing mat at the U-turn in Al Furjan soon afterwards, I was 31 seconds down on Paul Cheetham who was through first, Graham was 6 seconds ahead of me, Andy was 3 seconds behind me, Nichola James and Lena were 10 seconds and 25 people behind me, and Lee and Phivo were another 3 seconds behind them. After the stack, I had 10 minutes of a high HR zone for me (160+) doing 45+ km/h average to get back on to the back of the main pack. Andy joined soon after although he was “spent” and had been to “a place he had never been before”.
The video near JLT was 9 km after the timing mat point and shows Andy and I on the back of main group and only 10 seconds behind the leaders. Goes to show how much the group spreads out during these narrow sections. Nichola and James were with a small group of 8 at this stage 200 metres or so behind. Marnie’s photos later going through Meadows/Springs shows their group was still the same distance behind and the next group not far behind them.
Going through Meadows/Springs for the second time was the easiest part of the ride. Back of the main group, HR in a comfortable zone, and the pace about 37-40 which allowed Nichola, James and their group of 8 to join up on the back of the main bunch. The old guy in blue was actually 10 seconds behind Nichola at the timing mat point so shows what a strong rider he was.
Going through the tight Sports City section after Hessa Street and the pace and HR shot up again and the large group of 140 split into a front group of about 90 and a second group of about 50. Once we came back out onto Hessa Street and Umm Suqeim and Al Qudra Road, the second group was small enough and tight enough to sit behind very comfortably and the front group was long gone.
Our team all managed to escape the carnage of the crash coming along Al Qudra road after the 611. I then came further forward in the group while Graham and Nichola were much nearer the front. James went around the outside near the far roundabout and Graham took off after the roundabout for his usual turn up the generator hill. It was great knowing the route and contours to be able to time any runs. The group was tight and there were a couple of times when I could jump a few positions when some space opened up ahead. Never could get towards Nichola to help her out but I could tell that Natasha had been left behind a while back. The timing mats at the end were quite narrow so took the foot off the gas at the end and lost some places to make sure that I had gone through correctly and upright!
The first group had 60 riders go through within 3 or 4 seconds of the first finisher. In comparison, the bunch of the second group had 30 go through within 3 or 4 seconds and I thought that was pretty tight! Probably because the first
There were 10 people in the large first group that would have been still together just before Al Farjan and who went through the timing mats but did not finish – that’s a 5% DNF rate for the second half of the race.
Key learnings:
On flat wide roads with little wind, it’s easy to stay on the back of the bunch. Drafting well behind the packed bunch felt OK with little wind resistance and sufficient time to get out of the way if there was any problems with the pack. There may have been less drafting with being right at the back of the main bunch.
The bunch tended to speed up in the narrow and tighter sections of the track. At least if felt like that. In these areas, the group will string out so it makes sense to be nearer the front of the group before you enter these areas to reduce the risk of getting dropped.
Keep out of trouble and stay upright is the best policy for me at least!

Gran Fondo


Happiness at Work

May 1, 2014

Over the past week, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to a couple of workshops by Nic Marks on happiness in the workplace and society at large. Nic has created the Happy Planet Index to measure the extent to which countries deliver long, happy, sustainable lives for the people that live in them.  Below are some notes from the talks.

Happiness is a universal emotion. It has an evolutionary function – otherwise, why would we have 40 muscles dedicated to communicate emotions? Anger and fear are well understood emotions that elicit the fight and flight responses; they immediately galvanise energy to respond to these emotional inputs. Other negative emotions like sadness indicate a lack of support with the effective response being to save energy and tread carefully until conditions improve.

Barbara Fredrickson has developed a “Broaden and Build” theory of positive emotions. Happiness broadens our ability to respond to the environment; we are more flexible if we are in a good mood. Happiness also builds self-confidence through positive experiences through learning physical and emotional skills as well as the willingness to take risks to enhance themselves. In addition, we have more peripheral vision if we are happier; happy waiters are more likely to attend to your needs than surly ones.

Unlike the negative emotions of sadness, fear, anger and distrust that indicate threats, positive ones (enthusiasm, interest, contentment) are about opportunities and thriving. Happiness is a social emotion – it’s contagious like a virus; if someone is laughing alone, they are often considered mad! Happiness and sadness are known to impact (statistically significant) on the third degree of separation (friends of friends of friends).

Happiness is not just an outcome but also a predictor of future success. Happiness is twice the predictor of future high performance than high performing teams are a predictor of future happiness. There is a virtual cycle between the two.

Happiness is a better predictor of life longevity than smoking or obesity are predictors of lower longevity. So therefore, we should be spending more time and resources on building supportive environments for happiness. There is also a correlation between income, marriage/divorce, health and whether someone is smiling in their college year book photos.

Too much positivity is bad. The optimal range is between three and eight positive behaviours or utterances to negative ones.

You want to be able to give people a broad array of emotional experiences as well as strong decision making skills (cognitive regulator function). A stable supportive positive environment is better able to respond to a negative signal than unsupported work environments that may miss the significance of such a signal.

The currency of happiness is time; about being available. There are two ways of thinking about happiness. The first is satisfaction such as “I am happy with …”. The second is more emotional – I feel happy”.

Trust and happiness are critical to learning outcomes in school environments.

In 2008, the UK Government through their Foresight area produced a report on Mental capital and wellbeing and offered 5 ways to better wellbeing

  1. Connect – with other people
  2. Be active – emotions we feel in our bodies – if in bad mood, move!
  3. Take notice – reflective, meditative, mindfulness
  4. Keep learning – not about formal learning, but hobbies, etc
  5. Give – we feel good when we give to others – needs to be authentic

Finally, you can’t make people be happy – but you can invite them into a space where happiness could occur.

THE END IS INSIGHT


Heart or Head in Decision Making

April 21, 2014

Last night, I went to a talk by Professor Liz Phelps, hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi. The title of her talk was Heart or Head? How Brain Science Alters Our Understanding of Emotions and Decisions.

She commenced her talk on the dualist debate about decision-making. Heart decisions are supposed to be fast, risk-taking, impulsive, hot, and now-focused. Head decisions are considered to be slow, cognitive, reflective, logical, and focus on later rewards. She focused her talk on intertemporal choice – looking at how much people would delay taking an instant reward for a greater reward later. This has implications for societal issues such as obesity, poor savings, problem gambling, etc.

The main thesis of her talk was that this dual system (heart vs head) does not stand up to science on brain imaging and autonomic responses. What research has found is that emotional arousal comes from future reward; emotion drives rational choices. It is becoming more known that emotion has a modulatory role in cognition, memory and perception. She focused on the amygdala and the striatum; the striatum in particular codes subjective value and responds to money, food, cocaine, co-operation and beauty.

There are two components to risky decisions; loss aversion and risk sensitivity. People tend to weigh losses more than the potential gains. The amygdala and autonomic responses are correlated with loss aversion but no relationship was found with risk sensitivity. More interestingly, when the trials turned to auctions (which have a tendency for overbidding), responses are linked with potential losses rather than gains. It is actually the fear of losing that drives overbidding rather than the joy of winning.

Ways to limit a loss aversion response include beta blocker drugs and cognitive therapy. Once again no effect was found on risk sensitivity. Side effects include finding that the drugs actually limit memory. Also of note was that the drugs were less effective in high BMI people. Cognitive therapy was helpful if people thought of a portfolio of decisions rather than just one decision.

In summary, Phelps finds no evidence of dual systems in the brain. Emotion and cognition work together in decision-making. There are multiple neural pathways dependent on the context and no link to the limbic system was found.