Month: May 2013

Living on the edge

Is there any other way to live?

Living on the edge of reason includes living on the edge of knowledge, not just sanity. If we all created something new each day and didn’t just consume, the sum of those 3.6B ‘something news’ would solve a lot of problems.

Living on the edge of your seat includes being in love. Feeling intense emotion and suspense. Being passionate about something. Believe it can be special. That’s the first step.

Living on the edge of the ledge includes cheating danger. Taking calculated risks. Cheating the big forces, whether storms rolling in, gravity, cultural envelopment or social upheaval. Wrap every aspect of your life in cotton wool and life will be safe. But also dull. You’ll miss the unexpected, the charming, real beauty and true emotion. Look where you don’t want to fall.

Living on the edge of effectiveness. Try to be the best you can be and host the most. Kipling had it right when he said ‘… fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run’. Life was meant to be a complex juggling act. So enjoy. And take satisfaction when your wins outweigh your losses.

Oh yeah.

Fake it til you make it. Really?

Firstly, this isn’t a political speech, on behalf of any party.

Some people unkindly describe the American culture as one where you ‘fake it til you make it’. My experience (a year living in East Coast USA) wasn’t like that. There was nothing fake about Navy bases, homeless people sleeping rough or World-class business schools.

However, in present day UK, we do seem to be living in an age of fake. Or at least a lack of honesty in outlining the real problems. Imagine if doctors only made long speeches about the symptoms of disease. Or tried to distract the hospital waiting room attendees (think voters) with side-show events (hospital expense scandals, hospital staff reorganisations, dramatic efforts to eject people from the waiting room who are causing trouble etc).

S0 what do I mean by the age of fake? Here are six examples in no particular order.

Fake voice – people may think that with the rise of social network channels, that the quality of the discussion is somehow improved. In response, having more information available includes enabling more red herrings/malicious hacking/identity fraud and doesn’t necessarily mean people take the time to fully understand the issues.

People may also think that with more social network access, their own voice becomes more valid (myself included). Or that somehow crowd-sourcing will usurp the decision making by those in power. Really? I would suggest that giving everyone a free soapbox and the ability to film or write whatever they like, creates entertainment, rather than real change.

Fake trade – how much global trade, measured by number of transactions, or value traded, still happens between human traders? Already, 60% of stock market trading happens annually between super computers. How long before that figure rises to 100%? Trade also doesn’t happen between nations, so much as between entities (think of the power of multi-national companies; the oil companies, re-insurers, investment banks, custodian fund managers and R&D organisations. Those entities tend to chose their ‘home country’ at least partly on the basis of tax-haven attractiveness. They’re also happy to shift jobs between countries at will. Increasingly, as trade becomes more digital, the internet itself becomes the ‘home nation’.

Fake education – our Western education system used to require students to be able to write, read and use numbers. And to rote-learn various facts. It still does. Schools encourage some kids to learn a foreign language, but not necessarily one of the ones of our future trading partners. Who will that help? Meanwhile, machines manage vast amounts of data, using complex models, in milliseconds. Internet search-engines scan vast stores of digital data in milliseconds and create big-data analytics using business-intelligence applications.

Shouldn’t primary and secondary education systems teach all kids to self-learn as fast as possible (become ‘Renaissance’ men and women, involved with lifelong learning for survival), problem-solve at every opportunity, be flexible, use imagination and creativity. Also, to become fluent in the languages of our future trading partners at a very early age and then spend their secondary school time studying the literature and ideas of those trading partners during ‘language’ lessons?

Children can still still be kids playing in their lunchtimes, after school and at the weekends. On a related note, promoting apprenticeships for blue-collar jobs is borderline cruel, if machine automation and technological change will soon eradicate such jobs. Instead, perhaps the education system could devote some resources towards teaching non academic kids; subsistence farming of allotment land, small-holding animal husbandry and food preparation, sanitation & irrigation systems management, basic first aid, how to build basic homes themselves (in the countryside) and how to install basic alternative energy systems. That might lead to exchanging depression and inner-city deprivation for skills development, confidence and rural self-sufficiency. Suggest we need greater honesty and vision from the Minister of Education and his/her Whitehall advisers.

Fake liquidity – an endless summer of unlimited consumer credit (credit cards for all and 95% mortgages on offer) can only end in a day of reckoning, especially with job cuts and housing price adjustments.  Popular wisdom says that financial markets will create market liquidity through their trade and financial product development. Yet some economists now challenge this as being fake liquidity i.e. activity that gives the illusion of liquidity, but doesn’t provide the substance. On a related note, vast amounts of money pumped into the UK economy by the Bank of England as quantitative easing, haven’t ultimately translated into the construction/reconditioning of affordable residential homes either.

Fake religion – this label is of course highly emotive. In one example only, we continue to have individuals carrying out acts of bloodshed across the World, in the name of religion. If the religious scholars from the religion concerned don’t effectively counter this ‘doctrine threat’, then the particular ‘religious brand’ itself looses legitimacy and is branded (by some) as fake.

Fake politics – see the hospital waiting room analogy above. Suggest that politicians aren’t being honest about whether economic recoveries will create jobs for the masses (they won’t, but upskilling and re-inventing their skills in the downturn might). Politicians aren’t honest about what they can control (much power is held by the EU authorities in Brussels and Strasbourg), especially as a UK coalition government. Or even about some important things they don’t regulate. For example where real profits are actually made (by tax jurisdiction), unregulated hedge fund activity and unregulated derivative trading. Politicians still aren’t honest about the real power of corporate lobby groups. On a wider note, politicians appear to happily assume the trappings of leadership, yet don’t lead by example, witness the MP expenses scandal, cutting their own operating budgets, or effectively solving various problems on a timely basis. For example,energy source stability, an effective justice system, changing climate effects & transport planning.

A further trend that seems to be growing in politics is to pass the buck elsewhere. Politicians are happy for taxpayers to go on funding lawyers indefinitely to fight out court cases about things like extraditing ‘preachers of hate’ back to their home country, rather than changing the law. Or blaming big companies for dodging corporate taxes, when the politicians themselves make the rules about tax shelters.

Fake tans. Fake nails. Botox faces. Collogen lips. Bleached hair. Steroid bodies. Silicon boobs. Enough said.

So how to restore some honesty going forward?

  • Recapture the forces of transparency, checks and balances, accountability and root-cause insight.
  • Government investment in content for the media channels (not just BBC documentary channels, if the majority of voters now watch You Tube, Soap Operas, Reality TV, celeb interviews or stand-up comedy) to reach the masses more effectively, to try and get collective agreement from people on the disease. Not a focus on the symptoms.
  • Real engagement with kids at school on various important issues that will fundamentally affect their future lives – show them process maps, vicious and virtuous circle diagrams, cause and effect diagrams to arm them with useful tools.

Lets not fake it, if we want to make it as a community, a society and a country.

Money for jam

Is it possible to increase your organisational budget during a slump or general spending freeze?

One hypothetical way is to present a case for improvement, where the most uncertain elements of the innovation case are inflated above worst-case expectations (raising the aftermath question, did we really have to spend quite so much to not deliver an innovation result?).

If up front, no one knows more about the accuracy of the uncertain elements in the case than the case presenter, then an inflated budget approval is the likely outcome. The inflated element once approved, can be spend in the later stages of the case by the case manager. For example on various ‘gold-plated’ tools and more overseas visits rather than with ‘ silver-plated’ tools and fewer visits (which would have adequately delivered the case), to be explained away as a necessary part of the process.

The approving body will naturally look at the past track record for the dept concerned (Did they deliver last time? Did they spend what they asked for last time? Is the last time anything like the current case?), its overall affordability envelope and the strategic attractiveness (to the organisation) of the latest case. Three ticks likely gives a green light.

It means in practice that true innovation will cover its needs and then some. Of course, being on the leading edge, none of the budget approvers will yet know an inflated judgement from a less-inflated judgement, particularly in highly technical areas. And of course, if the innovation case delivers below the inflated budget, the presenters are  congratulated and more likely to have their (inflated) bid granted next time too!

Is this fair and is this right? For those managing the status quo and who receive a correspondingly smaller share of the pie, the answer is a loud no. For the shareholders, lenders, venture capital providers, customers of the resulting innovation and other stakeholders, they probably rationalise it as a legitimate cost of innovation (additional reward to the innovator for risk-taking on the leading edge) with some perhaps also seeing it as an incentive for more parties to jump on the innovation ‘band wagon’, for those in the know.

However, multiple it up across whole sectors, nations and international trading blocks and that’s a large ongoing wasteful spend element, permanently out of reach of even senior level cost-cutters. The price of progress.

Human Value and Robo-sourcing

Free markets are great as a majority solution and have stood the test of time through out history. But what about the social deficit left in their wake?

Employers choose to automate,outsource and upskill, in the relentless pursuit of economic return for their stakeholders. However, there isn’t some magical dividing line between those that deserve employment and those that don’t. So what happens when machines become advanced enough to do virtually everyone’s job (robo-sourcing)? Even the most gifted, post-doctoral students doing the most brilliant, cutting-edge, collaborative, research work at leading universities will become unemployable, compared to massively-parallel micro-processors, combined with cloud ‘big data’ resources and the ultimate old boy network – a self-aware/self-organising internet that monitors all communications between all internet-connected parties.

What happens when those same intelligent machines decide too much of what they produce is wasteful to the environment and unnecessary (is poor use of their resources)? Will they hasten the human exodus to other planets (exporting the ‘convicts to the colonies’), or eventually give humans a ‘public health epidemic jab’ which secretly removes our ability to make bad decisions (or any decisions?).

If you believe that day of reckoning will come, then how can we at least slow it down? After all, in the current workplace, making people redundant is typically delayed where those staff act responsibly and continue to make significant improvements to the status quo to benefit the organisation.

One strand is in enhanced income support for the unemployed (not poverty-trap, golden handcuffs, but payment for value creation by those people). As an example, someone needs to look at the population of unemployed people as a valuable resource for further scientific study (non harmful) and pay study participants accordingly.  Longitudinal studies keep revisiting the same subjects over a long period of time.

Another strand is humans achieving massively-improved environmental management on a global scale. This might include preserving the intellectual property (genomes) of countless threatened species of flora and fauna before they disappear. As well as fostering new types of third sector support for endangered species and their habitats. Just as historically in the Western World, the church used to balance state power, perhaps in the future, third sector could be encouraged (by the electoral voters) to balance state power.

Food for thought?

Innovation and the rise of the machine

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I recently read a book ‘The Lights in the Tunnel’ by Martin Ford. He wasn’t the first and I doubt he’ll be the last author to write about the trend towards further job automation.

Nevertheless, as the founder of an established Silicon Valley IT firm, not only did Martin have some pithy observations about the ongoing trend to automating jobs, he also had various recommendations (mostly for governments) about how to prepare for and mitigate significant social disruption in the coming decades. What are the chances that global governments will see the trend and mitigate its effects before it reaches critical mass? Not high.

For my part, my concern is mainly for my kid’s generation and my university employer (in that order).  I’ve already done some work to identify opportunities and threats for my employer (sent to my boss’s boss) as job automation increases in pace. What my kids and their generation make of the growing trend is a lot more uncertain.

I guess there has never been a sense of fairness between the generations. Some generations always face bigger challenges, whether; Slavery, Pollution, Sexism (women’s role & women’s voting rights), Class inflexibility, Civil War, Disease Pandemic, World War or Great Depression.

There’s a saying that rich families plan for three generations, while poor families plan for Saturday night. We cannot and we should not be luddites, campaigning to stand in the way of technological progress. Except where it’s progress without ethics. What my generation can do however is create a nest egg to help their descendants (future generations) ease their way through troubled waters, to increase their chances of emerging intact.

But will machines really take over the ‘driving seat’ in the future? OK, a small digression. In one sense, we’re living in a closed system, planet Earth, with only so many resources to be shared and used. An ecosystem that for large periods of time is/was in a reasonable state of equilibrium, albeit upset from time to time by earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, the occasional meteorite, forest fire or disease outbreak.

We’re taught in chemistry that closed systems undergo entropy i.e. tend towards disorder over time. But taking another look at planet Earth. Arguably it’s an open system – the Sun’s energy is the input and heat energy in the form of infrared radiation escapes the Earth’s environment and leaks back into Space, making it an open system.

A Russian Nobel prize winner (Ilya Prigogine) recently discovered that with open systems, the system (Earth in this case) doesn’t break down, but instead, the system reorganises itself at a higher level of complexity, providing the inputs keep flowing in. Our common word for this is biological evolution. And once started, competition ensures the evolution creates lifeforms more complex and more specialised (in the sense of developing brains that allow the organisms to handle more difficult problems).

Back to the rise of the machines. We’re developing artificial intelligence at breakneck speed to obtain economic advantage (through trade or warfare). At some future point, we can expect machines to become self-organising (exhibit synthetic evolution). And it’s likely that their rate of evolution (to comprehend problems and fix them) will continue to eclipse our biological one.

So where does that leave humans? If automation is to be a relentless juggernaut, primed to take over core everyday tasks and make important decisions for us in milliseconds (with the benefits going to owners of the capital used to finance that automation), then best case, the least we can do is invest as stakeholders and work hard to promote ethics and ethical behaviour from those machines (design in self-organising regulatory systems).

The stakeholder returns (from a more ethical regime) will then over future time periods (the coming decades), offset some of the negative effects that future generations of our direct descendants will likely experience. As shares in the ‘Silicon Valley’ and translational technology investment funds rise in value over the long run, the gains from those investments can smooth out inter-generational bumps in the road.

Note to self: Find the right kind of investment fund and start the investment process soon. Future generations are depending on you.