Friday, 3 September 2010


After todays’s explosion of debate between the cloistered atheist-academics ‘Hawking and Dorking’ and their frankly relatively speaking, urbane antithesis in the likes of the Archbishop of Canterbury or Lord Sachs I felt inspired to write something down.

The most provocative thing I have read came from Hawkings partially published book in the Times Science Supplement. (Eureka). In this he said that ‘Philosophy is dead – it has not kept up with the modern developments of Physics’. I would differ with him on this point, and say that philosophy is increasingly vital, but as an activity that focuses on building a just and sustainable society. In this Endeavour – modern physics barely has a walk on part. The sciences of evolution and pure biology have little more to add except perhaps in as much as they play a part in helping us understand ourselves.

And it is this context that I want to comment on the current debate between science and religion.

One of Dawkins underlying motivations for his ferocious attack (so I understand) on religion is the great, large-scale ‘evil’ done in its name (such as the Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, etc etc).

I suspect though, it can be said that religion is an organizing force in society, and at many levels from the inter-personal to the inter-continental. Is it this success which makes it a lever for focusing so much suffering at the boundaries between religions.

But what would society look like without religion?

I think there are the following exhaustive and mutually exclusive answers to this question:
1) Religion is the only possible socially organizing force for Homo-Sapiens beyond family. As a species we remain at the clan/hinter-gatherer level of group organization;
2) Some other pantheon of socially motivating forces arise and:
a. Conflict and mass destruction arise at the boundaries of these forces – it is human nature to be in conflict with ‘other’;
b. These forces live in cohesion with one another – conflict is an intrinsic property of religion, and not of people;
3) Some perfectly organizing harmony arises, which is presumably blocked today by the ‘local evolutionary optima’ of religion.

The debate around religion has two thrusts:
1) is it meta-physically true;
2) is it valuable to society, in absolute or marginal terms, to other possible organizing forces for society;

My view is that whilst the answer to 1) is interesting (mainly to teenagers , academics and septuagenarians who have the time to worry about these things), it is the answer to 2) which is the really important one, and the questions above need to be answered to determine that.

To paraphrase Churchill, perhaps religion is the worst system of social organization, except for all the other systems.

Call this the administrative view of the existence of god…

Monday, 17 May 2010


There are three definitions of poverty in Daniel Dorlings recent book 'injustice'.

Definitiion 1 (Academic):
A person will have two of the following:
a) Feel poor
b) Unable to participate socially due to inadequate resources
c) Insufficient money to live

Definition 2 (US):
A person has below $x per day in income

Definition 3 (Europe):
A person has below the x percentile of population income.

I watched a surprisingly good TV programme with an architect (Kevin Mcleod) living in a slum in Mumbai. Many of the people living there would pass test 1), but fail 2) and 3).

1/5 of people in UK fail test 1)

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Loosing the Plot

Today we went for a walk with our 3 year old Daughter around Westonbirt Arboretum.
She wanted to bring her push-along tricycle, so we need to follow a route suitable.

We consulted the map and made a decision to follow 'the yellow route', because it was suitable for wheelchairs.

I then blindly and obstinately stuck to this 'yellow route', despite by-passing numerous alternatives that were clearly better for the tricycle. We had made our decision and needed to stick to it!!!

That's how quick plan's and decisions loose their context!! Especially if you're not very bright.

I discussed with a friend of mine on Friday new economic models involving micro commodity transactions within facebook games and online worlds such as world of warcraft (with real sweat-shops based around accumulating artefacts and characters - i.e.

Similar stories I thought.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009


This post could be part of an emerging thread of comments I might call 'grumpy old-man'. However, I don't apologise for it. These things must be said, again, and again. And I hope, one day, one of us will do something about it....

I received a letter from my local hospital today (Friday) saying:
"We are writing to confirm your appointment (for the first time - ed) on Monday" (I was due to be in Scotland on Monday).

I wouldn't be too upset, but it was part of a very worrying programme of treatment, for an appointment I had been waiting for for 6 weeks. There was a particularly laughable clause in the letter saying....
"It is important to us that you have received a choice of date and time for your appointment.....
If you do not attend your appointment.... you may be referred back to your GP"

Crikey, not much time to exercise my choice.

That weekend, we had a picnic, with some hard boiled egg.
I noticed the following helpful warning inside the lid of the egg-box:

Allergy Advice: Contains Eggs!!!


That was close.

These two incidents are related. Technology allows us to force data upon other people. In a way, under advisement from lawyers, that allows us to feel that we have protected ourselves from litigation.
Consequently we either increase anxiety, or burden of activity, for an enormous number of people.

If we were to measure the negative psychological impact (in lost dollars, of course) of these defensive mass-market campaigns, and compare it to the savings they generate for society, my guess is that they would be in at least a 10:1 ratio.

Its a shame though, but I guess we'll never know!

There is one thing to do differently.

If you have to do something that is to help improve the lives of other people through the production of information, by all means, involve lawyers, but limit their fees at the start of the project to £500.


Thursday, 21 May 2009

Blinkey Blears' next job...?

At a conference on cloud computing in London today, I decided to seek some leadership from our Political Masters....

And this is what I found:

Oh well...

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Psychology of Everyday Things

What could be more disturbing and embarrassing? Minding your own business, sitting on the toilet, and suddenly the door opens and you are left, red faced, trousers round ankles, facing the first class carriage of the 8am London to Edinburgh. Not much, Id say.

So I was very interested to see the level of effort and information that had been put into the toilet compartment of said service to ensure this didn't happen to any unlucky visitor.

A very large sign, saying don't use the toilet unless you have locked the door:

And a detailed '5 point plan' to follow to ensure the door is, indeed, locked.

Why should such a simple task require the rail company to put so much effort into explaining it?

I think the answer lies in the functional design of the door buttons themselves....

A more appropriate user interface might be apparent. Indeed, the extra flexibility of the available 'use cases' of this design could only be useful for people with tasks in mind that are not necessarily what the rail company would find acceptable!!!

The Psychology of Everyday Things was recommended to me as a read on this subject a few weeks ago. Written in the mid-80s it talks with great clarity on this subject, and is now compulsory reading (so I understand) for any design engineer. If it were really absorbed and followed by humans with design responsibility none of the above would be the case.

In fact, it so commonly is the case that we tend to be delighted beyond words when we encounter something that is well designed for humans to use. Oh, and quite prepared to spend money on it.

So why arent we surrounded by well designed objects that add to the spiritual quality (or at least dont subtract) of our lives.

One reason is that its hard. But we have done many very hard things (men on the moon, etc).

The answer may lie in our business vocabulary:
  • Time to market;
  • Cost income ratio;
  • Business model.
A new paradigm beckons:

The Design-Led Business

Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Failure of Risk management

'"Well then, how will our state supply these needs? It will need a farmer, a builder, and a weaver, and also, I think, a shoemaker and one or two others to provide for our bodily needs. So that the minimum state would consist of four or five men...." (The Republic, Page 103, Penguin Classics edition.)

"When every individual person labours a-part, and only for himself, his force is too small to execute any considerable work; his labour being employ’d in supplying all his different necessities, he never attains a perfection in any particular art; and as his force and success are not at all times equal, the least failure in either of these particulars must be attended with inevitable ruin and misery. " (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature" (1739)):

These are two views on the division of labor. One speaks to its necessity for a wealthy and productive society, and the other to its destructive impact. I think the creation of Finance as an industry is an example of the former, whereas the creation of Risk Management as a sub-industry of Finance is an example of the latter.

Why do I think this? Well, it is to do with the separation of decision making, reward and responsibility.

Investors often talk about 'taking risk'. We choose to either 'take risk' or 'not take risk'. And responsibility for making a good decision lies with the decision maker.

To seperate the measurement or management of risk, from the decision to take the risk itself, not only confuses the responsibility, but dis-empowers the actors in the decision.
And creating adversarial environments between risk and profit (as most banks do) only puts risk in the junior position.

Therefore I think risk management is a discipline, not a profession. And as with mathematics, all should be literate and responsible in its practice. Risk cannot be delegated like Law, or Carpentry...

But worse than this is the scale such a division of labor between decision makers and 'professional reviewers' allows. Partly because it requires less training to reach 'competence' in one of the divorced skills, but also because of the sense of safety that such an organised and professionalised environment creates.

The failure then of risk managers (and I count myself very much in this) is that they, as individuals, submitted to, and encouraged this organisational slight of hand.