The Black Swan – first impressions

I’m still in the prologue, and already I deeply dislike this book. I’m hoping that the prologue is ironic, because if not, then it appears both arrogant and unaware of much of the work on risk management and risk perception that started out in artificial intelligence with the frame problem, nonmonotonic logics and some very long (as in decades-long) arguments about value and uncertainty.

I’ll probably persist, because I was given the book to read by someone whose judgement I rate, but I suspect I’m going to find it difficult not to shout at the pages sometimes. Maybe it would have been easier if I hadn’t started this book right after the academic joy that was reading Stumbling on Happiness.

Learning Japanese, I think I’m…

Well, not really: I learnt Japanese at uni 20 years ago, and since then several other languages have caught my eye. But sometimes it’s useful to remember enough to ask the right question. Which is how I ended up on the grammar and translation sites this morning, and why I’m now amazed at how much Japanese language teaching has changed since the *cough* 1980s. Thanks to the Internet, we now have more access to native language sites and university notes than was ever possible back then, and like French-English teaching (more of which perhaps later *), the emphasis is very different now.  Most significant is the much greater emphasis on learning charactersets. When I first learnt Japanese, I learnt the hiragana characters and some useful bits of kanji (in case some joker decided to encrypt the labels on the toilets again – if you never learn anything else in a language, memorise please, thank you, do you speak English, men and women), but much of what I was reading and speaking at first was latin alphabet phonetics (romaji).

So I thought, a little light reading-up on grammar, a quick play with the translators (e.g. Babylon8) to check I wasn’t calling anyone a starfish, and off I’d go. Oh no. Not any more. And I really should have expected this after learning pinyin (latin phonetic) and chinese characters alongside each other in my Mandarin lessons, but along with the more grown-up phrasesets (I fondly remember the ideosynchrasies in my copy of Japanese for Busy People), there’s an almost total reversion to kanji for everything. Which would be great if I needed to relearn Japanese, but not so useful for a quick amusement involving a site with unknown characterset support. So if you ever find yourself in this situation too, the best places to go are this English-romaji dictionary  and this kanji-romaji converter.

I think I just about got there on the translation, but I still suspect I managed to call someone a starfish.

*Footnote: If you’re ever stuck in a foggy French town and have run out of museums to visit and books to read, try this. Find a bookshop. Go to the languages section. And buy a “how to speak English” book. In French. Then spend the rest of said foggy afternoon drinking coffee and giggling over what the French writers thought were appropriate and useful English phrases.  Sadly, I suspect this game also works well in reverse for French people stuck in foggy English towns for the afternoon. As does the “everyone get their phrasebook out” game where people from several nationalities share their favourite translations into language X, and learn things like “Italian-X phrasebooks include a section on how to swear”.

Company Sizes

A discussion, this week, about the sizes and lifecycles of companies. With someone who had a vested interest in the subject (being the MD of a growing small company), but believed that all large companies were essentially doomed to die.

An interesting discussion though- starting as it did with something that looked suspiciously like the Gartner hype cycle, with small companies growing rapidly at the start of the graph, and larger ones down the back of the curve, desperately trying to recapture the spirit and entrepreneurship that drove them when they were smaller. He also cited Racal as the only British example of a large company that got it right.

But wait – trying to capture the spirit yadda sounds suspiciously similar to what innovations managers are trying to do. Creating subcompanies, building fast-response groups, developing rapidly into new markets – all things you’d expect to see in a set of startups. And all needing a similar set of skills. Which I’ve known for a while, but I’vI haven’t yet thought hard about what the real differences between these two situations are. So.

Small Big
Funding – from investors – risk in early years of outgrowing cash supply Funding – from PV or customer programs. Risk of outgrowing budgetholders goodwill (“funding valley of death”)
Resources – whatever you can acquire, plus anything provided by small business schemes. Usually enthusiastic, usually skilled, unlikely to cover very wide range Resources – whatever you have, plus whatever you can buy in. Variable levels of enthusiasm and experience, range might be wide, but might not if the company has overspecialised
Politics – external, often benign, sometimes positive; company is often image-sensitive Politics – external plus internal, rarely benign

Smart Cities

Like many people, I often wonder how I can best be useful to society. Not all the time of course (that would either make me a saint, deluded or both), but I do take the time sometimes to look at what I do and ask myself whether it’s making a difference (the answer, by the way, is yes – in very small ways as befits my very small footprint on the planet, but a hopeful, little-by-little ‘yes’).

I think sometimes about how societies form and break, and about how we cynical noughties are ever going to repair the societal damage that occured in Mrs Thatcher’s 80s. I look around, and see communities of two or three houses, three or four flats in a block instead of the villages and areas that used to keep an eye out for each other, and I wonder where the modern equivalent is (possible answer: activity based, work, online), and what it would take for people to start connecting again.

There are schemes out there, but they too have the stamp of the authoritarian, wait-for-permission society in which we’ve found ourselves. One of these is The Big Lunch – a day held to meet and get to know the neighbours in your street. I blinked and missed it – and presumably there isn’t another organised “meet your neighbours day” for another year now. Another, and yet again controlled from above, is the Smart Cities initiatives. Or rather, there are several Smart Cities initiatives; the EU, IBM, various US cities. The projections are pretty staggering: IBM estimates that, by 2050, 70% of the world’s (9 billion) population will live in cities. That’s a) quite a lot of people per city, and b) one heck of a chance to improve how those people live – and specifically, to improve how they use and share resources. Interestingly, from reading the reports, it appears that right now the most positive actions people can take are to insulate their lofts (if they have them, given that many cities contain apartment buildings) and to go down the pub when there’s a big sporting event on (thus removing several dozen televisions from the total energy consumed). But there will be much more to do than this, and optimisation and information using technology will definitely be playing its part.

Elsewhere is a quote that cities account for 2% of the world’s geography. That seems quite a lot of geography, given how much of it there is. So I had a look at said geography in the hope of getting a finger-in-the-air estimate of city population densities. So, assuming that they meant the usable geography (i.e. land), ignoring Antarctica and using WikiAnswers, I make that 134987000 square km to play with, of which 2% is 2699740 square km. And 6398500000 people now – so at 70% of current population, that would be 4478950000 people to fit into the cities, 1659 people per square km, or 600 square metres each. Which, allowing for roads, offices, apartment blocks, hospitals, schools etc is still quite a decent acreage. That shrinks a bit when we use the estimate of 9.7 billion total population in 2050 (and sheesh, those Europe percentage figures are scary) – at 6.79 billion people in cities, that gives 2515 per square km, or about 400 square metres each, which all-told suddenly doesn’t seem like quite as much space anymore. And equally suddenly, what looked like a cute idea to make cities a bit more energy-efficient starts to look like a climate-change-sized oncoming train. We lost the tipping-point (the time at which positive action would have made a big difference) on climate change because nobody in power was listening. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve learnt their lesson and are starting to prepare early this time.

Ah, perception

Dealing with difficult people, part one. I believe in people. I believe that the prime role of a manager is to create the environment in which the people that work with them (note: with, not for) can concentrate on their job. In practice, this means providing tools, training, encouragement and psychological safety that anything untoward that’s heading for them will be stopped at a level above them. This may sound naive – and in part, it’s deliberately naive, in that although I know about the monsters that lurk out there in office world, I don’t want my people exposed to them any more than they need to develop a basic toolkit to deal with them. And mostly, this works (with engineers it does, anyway) – I have watched my people grow and become in many ways better than me, and I’ve been proud of every single one of them. Yep, even the one that tried to get me sacked. But it’s difficult to keep taking the knocks sometimes.

This week, I volunteered at W-Tech: the recruitment and career development fair for women in IT. I’ve stopped trying to get a new job for the moment myself (it’s not the right time out there, and it’s been quite a long journey to work out what exactly I want to be next), so it was quite good fun to kick back, relax, listen to the talks and try to connect as many women as I could to the chances of getting somewhere better than their current job – or in the case of far too many good people at the moment – of getting somewhere that won’t mistreat them post-redundancy. Which is probably a whole post in its own right.

I go to a lot of women in technology events – the WIT, the Girl Geeks etc., so I’m not unused to the kind of sensible work advice that was given out at the fair. But it was still quite an eye-opener, from just why men are so different in the office (I’ve fought it for years, but even I have to admit that the 9-week change in foetal brain chemistry just can’t be ignored any more) to what the differences between relationship-based and meritocracy-based office politics are. It would be no surprise to anyone except me to find that I’ve been using a meritocracy-based approach in a relationship-based system. I hope the advice from these talks will help me a little, and I’ll be (slowly) publishing my notes in the hope that it might help other people (both male and female) too. But the juiciest piece of advice came from one of the evening speakers – a very sane, sensible director – “if you’re using your Blackberry whilst exercising a horse, be sure to get your balance right”.

On being a geek

I went to a geeky event this weekend. It was fun, but it’s left me in a reflective mood. It’s one of those scales-from-the-eyes moments. I know that I’m geeky. But I also know now that that’s not such a good thing.

The problem, I think, is intelligence. For too long, I’ve bought the popular (and blue-collar) line that to be seen as being geeky is to be seen as being bright. I’m wrong.

As always, it took two events. One, me upsetting one of the other girls by getting over-passionate about an image processing technique, then not being able to explain why to her as I apologised the next morning. And listening to an old fart (there’s nothing wrong with being old; it’s the fart part that I had problems with) rattle on around midnight about some subject that I knew he was right about but desperately wanted to tell him to shut the f up. I heard him, I agreed with him, but something about his delivery just made me want to shove in some earplugs and pretend I wasn’t there. Which was a deeply uncharitable reaction, even for 1am at the Guardian. So I thought about why.

Being geeky is not a state of mind – it’s a signal. It says “I believe you should hear my thoughts and enthusiasm about this technology”. Like prayer, and religion, it assumes an interaction from the listener, an acknowledgement of involvement regardless of the listener’s state or status. And that’s not really fair. Unless the person you’re talking to is also a geek, and one interested in the same things that you are. But I’m also driven by a fear – that if I think about something and don’t say what I think, I’ll lose those thoughts and they’ll have no validity without a listener.

I need to work on this. It’s not going to be easy. I need to gauge who I am talking to, to test and read their responses. I need to manage my enthusiasm, to find other ways of recording and testing my thoughts (like carrying around an ipod or notebook everywhere with me).

I also need to think carefully about the value of my thoughts – especially following an honest conversation with Hwsgo about just how bright/ capable I am.

Don’t neglect the simple things

A lot of innovation is about showmanship. It’s not enough to have a great idea and develop it, to understand how it fits into the world and how to make money from it: you have to sell it. And one of the easiest ways to sell something is with simple, pretty demonstrations. If they can see it and play with it, then people (and by this I mean the people with the real money) are more likely to buy into it. And that includes innovations groups too: doing great things will not be as crucial to survival sometimes as being seen to do small but visible things. So today I did some small things, like linking all our company webmasters together. And a lot of people are happier for it.

Who needs innovation?

Or rather, who needs innovations groups? Once upon a time, people had ideas. People in big companies had ideas. And told their friends, and took them to their bosses, who if they were good ideas often took them to their bosses who had private venture funds that they could allocate to promising-looking ideas. 20-odd years ago I got my own crazy ideas funded that way: some of them turned into products, some of them died, but none of them needed someone specifically dedicated to innovations processing to make them appear.

So what changed? I worked for monolithic companies back then, I work for monolithic companies now, and engineers have always been engineers, whatever the decade (although there wasn’t really the concept of a ‘hip’ engineer back in the 1980s). So maybe the environment changed. Maybe the standards for what makes a good engineer have changed, maybe it’s the move from 5% training and PV budgets, maybe it’s even the style of management changing from hierarchical and experienced to village market and image-driven. But whatever has changed, it’s driving a need for people who can make the safe space in which innovations can thrive, and champion ideas to the image-makers and transient.