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.



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.

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

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.

Richard Florida – The Role of Great Cities

January 19, 2013

Once again, the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University has convened an excellent presentation and I was one of the fortunate few who was able to attend, bringing a couple of friends from Dubai with me. Richard Florida is an urban theorist that I have followed since he published The Rise of the Creative Class when I studying for my Masters. A gifted orator; he was able to hold the attention of the audience for more than an hour without notes or powerpoint slides before following up with answering questions.

His talk was on the role of cities in powering economic development. The world has crossed a threshold and now more than half the global population live in cities. Soon it will be three-quarters. Urbanisation will be rapid with fewer resources than current cities. He posed and then repeated that the grand challenge of our time is to work out how we can tackle this next wave of urbanization and build the next wave of great cities.

Economic growth is based on 1) technology 2) knowledge as the accumulation of human capital and 3) urbanization. Florida made a point about Thomas Friedman’s thesis of the world being flat. While the world may be flat for simple business processes and manufacturing that could occur anywhere, knowledge development requires people to cluster together and this occurs best in cities. The world has actually become spikier with the people living in cities anywhere in the world more alike than ever. However, the people outside cities are very different.

Cities derive their economic power as the speed up the pace of life. The needs of cities have a faster metabolism than other places. Mega regions that combine cities have increasing importance. It is not just Mumbai but the region between Mumbai and Bangalore. The 40 largest ones in the world only have 18% of the world’s population but generate two-thirds of the economic output and 90% of the world’s innovations. In this instance, Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and the other emirates up to RAK) form such a megalopolis.

Florida also discussed how Michael Porter’s and the approaches of other classical economists around the theory of the firm might be fine to drive efficiencies and create cheaper goods, but they are not suitable for creating new work where technological innovation is required. This needs cities to effectively function. The industrial revolution created wealth through physical assets and where location was important. Policy in this period tended towards investment attraction where transparency, favourable tax arrangements and good infrastructure were important. It is about helping firms rather than cities. Cities need a good people climate to attract and retain talent and the main talent cluster is universities. But great cities also need energy as the creative class can pick where they want to live. They want economic and civic and social opportunities; a place which Florida termed a mating market! Not all clusters or areas of technological development function effectively. Cities need a buzz – an energy which comes from these opportunities.

Florida spoke of his three T’s of technology, talent and tolerance (the latter is an openness and diversity with arts/bohemian lifestyles that generate the spark within cities). He added a fourth that I had not heard of before which is quality of place (note not quality of life). Universities are a hub for that and quality of place is about generating an idea capital. Quality of place is about what is there (natural factors and built environment), who is there (those artists and bohemians again that provide the spark) and what is going on (which creates the energy).

Florida then talked about how great cities have a hierarchy of needs. At the bottom is basic opportunity through the labour market and then basic services of infrastructure and safety. Town planners are very good at succeeding in developing these factors. But beyond these basics are valuing openness and diversity (his third T of tolerance) and then at the apex, an aesthetic character of place (his fourth unnamed T). He quoted Jane Jacobs many times – such as new ideas require old buildings so you have to look for the authentic.

In responding the questions, Florida mentioned that Abu Dhabi and Dubai are wonderful living experiments in city building. They have the ability to leverage off each other by being complementary. If Abu Dhabi and Dubai wish to attract and retain talent then they need to change the mobility of the workforce so that people don’t just live in the city for 4 or 6 or 7 years but will gain permanence and emotional attachment to the city.

Since the presentation, I have been thinking about the approach of Dubai and Abu Dhabi towards this topic. They are indeed complementary with differences in business approach. Abu Dhabi has large amounts of public resources through oil wealth that can be invested while Dubai is more reliant on private sector investments to grow its economy. At this stage, Dubai has more of the qualities associated with Florida’ depiction of cities as somewhere the creative class wants to live. Dubai is home to many younger people with an active nightclub, artistic and sporting scene. Corporate headquarters of many companies have become established in Dubai’s Free Zones, attracting talented people from around the world to come to Dubai. It has strong business links with India, Pakistan and Iran. Abu Dhabi is developing its infrastructure but it is yet to become a place with artist/bohemian lifestyles or with an aesthetic quality of place. This may well come with developments on Saadiyat Island for example with the Louvre and Guggenheim but the key will be whether these translate into attracting the cultural capital of emerging artists.

The importance of the education sector cannot be underestimated. Apart from providing the local human capital, its quality and capacity is a major element in the shopping list of items that need to be met too attract and retain knowledge workers in the creative class.

Helping Children Love Reading

September 18, 2012

One of the big issues that we have in Dubai’s private schools is parent engagement in their children’s education.  Too many parents feel that it is the school’s responsibility to educate their children and that the parents can hand over that responsibility in full to the schools.  Yet many research studies have identified the link between improved early childhood development through reading and play with improved performance in academic and social outcomes later in life.  Therefore, it is essential that parents take the time to read to their children and foster a love of learning at an early age.

And so this article from the Guardian that identfies that reading aloud to children is the single most important activity for creating motivated readers.  The author highlights that parents need to model reading for pleasure so that their children can imitate that behaviour.  Even more importantly, he points out that reading to your children should be done in a theatrical manner, building suspense, being emotive and expressive.  Only in this way, will children see that reading is pleasurable and fun and that they will want to learn how to read for themselves! 

Luxury in Dubai

January 12, 2010

An article in the Gulf News today looks at the preference of many in the Middle East, particularly Dubai, for high-end luxury items.  An international survey found that the response by people that received the highest numbers from people in Dubai was for “luxury is a lifestyle”.  Other countries had a greater preference for a response that classified luxury as “something over and above what you need”.

This penchant for things luxurious is said to be one of the hallmarks of Dubai living, which boasts mega-shopping malls with many high-end brand name stores.  Dubai shoppers are more likely to buy impulsively and less likely to research items before buying an item that has the best value. The virtue of delayed gratification has taken a backseat to the instant elixir of a full shopping bag.

I feel really good about being one of the exceptions to this preponderance of free-wheeling luxury shoppers with more money than sense.  I must admit to never having a great desire for luxury brands and fail to see the need to identify myself with particular brands.  A marketer’s nightmare in other words!  For me, the term “luxury is a lifestyle” makes no sense, perhaps because I try not to live that lifestyle, or perhaps (and this requires some meditation on tonight) that I am living that lifestyle in Dubai and I am not even aware of it!