Monthly Archives: January 2013

“Hotpants vs Knockout Mouse” feat. Quad Bumlines (Sustainability Remix)

Imagine that planet Earth were a corporation with shareholders, how would investors be feeling? What would go in the annual report? It all comes down to exactly what it is the shareholders are interested in. One would usually assume that the corporation is interested in revenue, profit, capital gains of one sort or another; return on investment. So how is Earth Corp doing? Well it depends what you measure.

Could global human population represent “profit”?

Shows how dramatically human population has grown in last 200 years

Human Population

If global human population is the measure of success, then Earth Corp is doing pretty darn well.

But what else could we measure, that could be analogous to profit? Let’s be a little less abstract about how this corporation is measuring its success, and say that Earth Corp is measured by the Gross World Product, how much all of the economies in the world are worth. In that case you get something a bit like this:

Graph showing gross world product over last 80 years

Gross World Product

Also, not bad at all. The time frames on the two graphs are completely different, so don’t make a direct comparison, but the point is they’re both going up steeply. Population and economic output are growing.

In fact, there are very few measures that don’t fit with this trend of the graph goes up dramatically during the time of modernity.

 Try out global temperatures, you get the same pattern:

Global Temperature

Global Temperature

I’m sure most people are aware that if you overlay carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere with this graph, they are very well correlated.

But maybe Earth Corp has some understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility, so the board are ensuring that they’re trying to move their activities to be in accord with the concepts included in the triple bottom line (TBL). TBL is akin to “full cost accounting”, and the idea is to incorporate several factors into a single measure of success, specifically economic, societal, and environmental factors. In fact the graphs above, could conceivably relate to the triple bottom line. So how do we interpret those graphs in relation to the TBL. Well… I guess the rise in economy means more wealth, which is good. The rise in population means that society must be working on some level, and maybe that health is improving, so that’s good too. And from where I sit, the increase in global temperatures, and correlation to CO2 output, is probably a bad thing.

So so far I’ve just pointed out some obvious facts. What I’m interested in is making sustainability tangible. How can we become more sustainable? Looking at each of those graphs, the one big question that occurs to me is how long can that go on like that?

Stuart Walker, speaking to me and a my cohort at Lancaster University, introduced me to the triple, and then quadruple bottom line only very recently (so admittedly, it’s something I’m still getting my own head around). The extra element added to the trio to arrive at the quadruple, is a spiritual element (also known as the personal element). I was surprised how much of an accord this had with me: I’m an atheist. However I do think there’s a place for spiritual understanding in the world (anyone who has a tension with being a spiritual atheist should probably consider exactly what spiritual means, or how it is meant) and actually where this idea of the triple or quad bottom line is concerned, it is essential in order to give the other factors some sort of context.

Another of the revelations that Stuart imbued was related to how the economic factor plays out in these models. In it’s pure form, the TBL is just an spectrum for measurement, that includes several factors. Great. However if you look at how it is implemented, used, how the world actually works.. then 9 out of 10 times the economic factor is an “end not a means” (quoting Stuart). The big point here is to view the triad of society, environment, and personal as the ends, and the economic factor as the means. Value beyond money, I suppose. I mean, who cares how much money you have, if there is no society or environment for you to personally enjoy it in. It is a fantastic idea, but sadly at the moment seems a bit Utopian.

Stuart concludes his lecture series with;

A more holistic approach…. From a knowledge economy based on what we can do, to a wisdom economy based on what we should do..

Stuart tentatively lays the foundations for some answers to the big questions like “is it possible to live in the world in a sustainable way?” (and similar) but purposefully doesn’t begin to address them directly. And who can blame him; our unsustainable way of living, isn’t something you can solve with a discrete solution, it is a wicked problem, and the unsustainable traits of modernity are so deeply ingrained it seems almost impossible to imagine a world where we’ve moved forward.

It’s one thing to talk about possible innovations that might help, but for now I’ll avoid that (I’ve got some ideas.. but they can wait for a future blog). What I want to talk about is the nature of innovation. How does innovation relate to risk? How do established norms relate to innovations? What strategic position is best to adopt when faced with a wicked problem? (in particular this wicked problem)

In order to answer this there are a few points I want to join together: the un-understood behavior of Kingfish, a reference to innovative heated hot-pants (the counterpoint to which is the maverick personality responsible for “knockout mice” and gene therapy), mentioning the complexity involved in figuring out the carbon footprint of the BBC… and then using those four points to ask, what is it those calling for innovation actually want?

First, the Kingfish. I only know about the Kingfish because I watched a recent episode of Africa on the BBC, presented by David Attenborough. The interesting thing about the Kingfish is that, despite being solitary hunting animals, they swim upstream once a year, in a large group, and then spontaneously begin circling round and round in the water. The Kingfish don’t spawn there, they don’t mate there, they don’t die they, and they aren’t from there. There’s no explanation for the behavior. Attenborough called them pilgrims. If these fish were people, deciding to go there, then you might say they had a cognitive bias, which in the words of Paul Ralph is a “systematic deviation from normal judgement”. Something that you do, because it’s the way its always been done.

Kingfish circling (screen grab from BBC's Africa)

Kingfish circling (screen grab from BBC’s Africa)\

Second, the “hot” pants. The pants in question are designed to keep cyclists’ muscles warm in the time between the warm-up finishing, and the race starting. The pants were part of the “marginal gains” programme that the British cycling team developed in the years preceding the Olympics. Matt Parker, head of the programme, realised that the pants would give the Brits a tiny advantage. There were no end of these tiny advances, each a little innovation in its own right. Another marginal gain was the practice of applying alcohol to the wheel rims (reducing dirt, and friction). None of these advances will redefine cycling though, in fact in sporting events this kind of practice either becomes standard (i.e. everybody does it) or gets banned. So in some way, it is a temporary gain.

My third point centres around Mario Capecchi’s “knockout mice”. Capecchi won a nobel prize for his work on the mice. I can’t confess to fully understand the process, but the context here is how and where he got the funding to do the work. When Capecchi said what he wanted to do, those funding the project told him they respected his work, and his talents, didn’t trust that his research would work – it was just so far out. So radical. Nobody believed he could do it. They did want to invest in the man though, so they said sure you can have the money, but please just do something boring, something sensible, something that is ‘doable’, something that will definitely work. Capecchi said fine, took the money, and did the mouse research anyway. He totally ignored the wishes of the funding body. The knockout mouse, as it happens, is the foundation for all gene therapy. It is invaluable work. And the body that funded the work were, retrospectively, grateful for Capecchi’s decision to ignore them! A maverick person was required in order to stimulate radical innovation, which in turn, may well see radical change in society as the cutting edge work founded in the knockout mouse begins to filter through to practical applications.

My fourth point is about bundles and complexity, in this case characterised  by how the BBC are trying to quantify their sustainability credentials. If you consume television media, have you ever considered what it’s environmental impact is? Have you ever wondered what the “best” way to consume content is? I have, but only so far as whether I listen to the sound through my hi-fi system, or use the TV speakers. If you’re the BBC and you’re trying to figure it out, it gets rather more complex. How many people watch via the digital terrestrial network)? How many watch online? Out of either group who records the programme, and who is actually watching it? How many people are sat in front of the TV? How big is the screen it’s connected to? This is all before you start to think about the resources that go into actually making the programme to start with.. For the BBC to figure out a method, which in turn will figure out a value, for a specific viewing of a specific programme. That’s tricky. For information, there is some relationship between distribution method (IP via iPlayer vs radio via digital terrestrial network) and number of viewers. If there is a single viewer, it would be most efficient to only distribute via IP. However if there are, for example, 10,000,000 viewers 90% of which are watching via radio, then those watching via IP will be consuming far more energy than those watching via radio. Probably… it’s complicated! The BBC have employed Janet West to look at these issues.

So how are these things related? Well, firstly they’re all to do with the BBC (the British Cycling/Capecchi examples came from Tim Harford’s new podcast).. but that’s more to do with chance than anything. Harford was making the point that although the marginal gains programme meant that the British cycling team was far more successful than any other in the Olympic velodrome, that fundamentally the marginal gains are quite boring. Boring, but easy to get funding for. Easy to convince people it’s the right thing. In fact the English Rugby Football has poached the man behind the marginal gains for their own needs. In a sense you might say this sort of innovation is fine on its own, but it won’t bring about a paradigm shift. On the other hand, the sort of “radical” innovation that Mario Copecchi brought about with his knockout mice is much riskier. Radical innovation will (yes, definitely, will) completely fail a lot of the time, but.. when it works, you get major advances. Marginal gains vs major advances… who is the winner? Well…

We need to stop being Kingfish. We can’t just continue doing things in the way characterised by modernity, congested with cognitive biases that are predicated on the fact that ‘this is the way its always been done’. We need to shake things up and get radical. At the same time however we need to be accepting of that fact that marginal gains do bring about advances. Understand that risky research will arrive at massively significant outcomes (but maybe only 1% of the time), less risky research will arrive a marginal improvement, but quite frequently. We need to spread our bets.

Lastly. What is it we’re trying to achieve? It is fine to be aware of our (complete lack of) sustainable living, but are you prepared to act? Are you happy to go through your life, along with the masses, living out marginal gains that will ultimately have negligible effect? (recycling your waste, doing a car share, using toilet paper from renewable sources) Or are you driven to radically innovate, shout your cause (whatever side of the argument you’re on) from the rooftops, and take a chance on being the fly in unsustainability’s ointment? What would you be willing to change, to live sustainably?

I don’t think it’s an easy one to answer.


How to fix “Error 2908”

I’ve been struggling for the last 3 weeks with this “Error 2908” issue. Now I’m quite technically minded, and have worked in computer support, so I’ve been very frustrated that I couldn’t get to the bottom of it. It seems quite clear that the issue is something related to the .NET framework (I’m running a Windows 7 PC by the way), and probably would be something in the registry.. but after no end of different proposed solutions, and no end of attempts I had nothing.

Finally, I decided to just remove all mentions of the .NET framework from my Add/Remove programs panel. That has fixed it! I’m sure I’ll have to reinstall the framework at some point, that’s fine, but if you’re suffering from this “Error 2908” issue, I strongly recommend trying to remove it as your first port of call.

What technology will have the biggest impact on our lives in the near future, and why?

The New Scientist are hosting a competition to answer the question:

What technology will have the biggest impact on our lives in the near future, and why?

This is exactly the sort of questions (exactly the sort of Wicked Problems) that HighWire students are attempting to address, so I dived in and gave an answer. I believe the potential is there, although given the 100 word limit I’m seeing this more as a practice in abstract writing than anything else! I did a couple of entries, first, 3D printing:

The 3D printing revolution will be as significant for the world, as the web and mass internet access continues to be. 3D printing is post-modernity: the first significant step towards a sustainable world. 3D printing will disrupt the long established norms of modernity and finally allow a sustainable, but modern, world to emerge from concepts such as the quadruple bottom line. What has the power to make people care about where, and how sustainably, their goods are manufactured? What can facilitate practical modular design? What will make near-perfectly efficient use of global resources and disrupt dependency on shipping? 3D printing.

.. and second.. The semantic web:

How to use energy sustainably? The complexity of the question is baffling. How can we differentiate energy intensive practices from energy neutral ones? The problem is exacerbated when links of activity join up into supply chains: with so many links, how can we understand where the bottlenecks are? Lack of understanding breeds apathy. Linked data and the semantic web will exploit human effort to describe energy relationships in the world we inhabit, thus enabling number crunchers to understand the complexity of the relationships at hand. Armed with meaningful information, we can effect change. Linked data can power the energy revolution.

Spesh To’ics Week 2; Deciding on a theme

Well I’m still bitterly working my way through the assignment on software engineering. I guess not so bitterly actually though. Having spoken with the horse, and taken words directly from its mouth – life is much simpler. I worked for about 16 hours yesterday, and figuratively speaking broke the back of the report, even leaving time to contemplate my special topic towards the end of the day; a topic that I was to present today! Despite one of my peers saying to me, immediately afterwards – “well… I see you were making it up on the spot” –  I thought it went well though. I wasn’t making it up on the spot, although I’d done scant reading or proper research before getting up and speaking.

The three doctors in the room – Patrick Stacey, Keith Cheverst and Martyn Evans – all seemed relatively positive about the concept, unformed as it was, so that’s a pleasant surprise. I think coming up with an idea, and articulating why I think that’s interesting is one of my strengths. At the same time I’m very aware that the counterpoint to that is one of my most fundamental weaknesses: the trouble I have with taking the ideas and putting the flesh on them. I’m not knowledgeable enough about knowledge to do it intuitively, and I’m not experienced in the techniques required to develop that knowledge, put the argument together cohesively, and then deliver it. I know that it’s within my ability, that isn’t the problem… it’s more an issue of frustration and maybe laziness. This is in fact why I ended up choosing this topic to pursue in ‘Special Topics’.

I haven’t mentioned the topic! So… now would seem like the right time.

Well, it isn’t very honed yet, but I hope I can frame it in a meaningful way…

Referencing, when producing academic and/or scholarly ‘stuff’. That’s the general area. Specifically, there are two things that I think deserve some research, and they also upset me and annoy me (both good motivational factors). Firstly, access to journals (for both readers, and writers, but I’m focussing just on the readers really..) is, in my view, ridiculous. Asked rhetorically… these are my questions: Why are articles so expensive? Why do Universities only subscribe to some of the available journals? Why is it that I know the paper I want is there, but I can’t access it? Why isn’t all scholarly data in the public domain? Okay. So that’s the first issue. The second one is that of referencing. Again, rhetorically asked, these are my questions: Why is referencing, for want of a better term, such a ‘ball-ache’ to do? Why hasn’t anybody done anything to distinguish honourable citations from those that are really included in papers to further somebody’s careers somehow? Most importantly, most significantly, why isn’t the data that describes the relationships between papers (who has cited who, and why)…. why isn’t that data available? Could the principles of the semantic web and linked data be applied to this problem?

So those are the two issues I’m concerned with.. which are, admittedly, massive. Where to go from here is the problem.

To be reflective for a moment, I have mixed feelings about this ‘new’ area that I’ve become enticed by. I’m really excited… probably the most passionate I’ve been about anything since starting the HighWire programme. However, it’s yet another distracting idea to be concerned with. I’m not sure how I feel about that, is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? Will this phenomenon of constantly being distracted by something new lead into a problem. I don’t know. But for the time being I’m riding the wave, and trying to soak up the excitement of it, plus who knows, maybe I’ll end up fixing both of those problems. Unlikely, but I think there’s value in the dream.

Spesh To’ics Week 1, incorporating meta-stress, buoyancy, being reunited, divergent thinking

I find my self,
Back here again,
In pressure to the core (of emotion, work, and more),
Called it ‘meta stress’,
A serious test,
Like collapse,
A moreish emotion,
And sure enough,
That’s the pain of a concrete bucket,
In the head of a man,
I’m happy to be back here,
I’m happy that it’s hard,
I’m happy that I’m stressed,
But I can’t believe I said that,
Special topics? Special topics!
While grappling with the aforementioned stress,
While sorting through a, frankly, torturous assignment on,
And a nonsense data set,
But special topics..? Special topics!
Sounds like fun,
I feel like I’m floating (just),
Buoyed by inspiring academics,
Buoyed by my growing lists,
Buoyed by my happy-to-be-backy,
Thoughts akimbo,
Divergent thinking

So! A poem to start. I’m inspired by Mari on that one, to be honest. What I’m trying to say is… this whole “being a HighWire student” thing, it’s still sinking in. I’m still trying to harness any degree of plasticity still left in my aging brain, and learn the tricks of the trade required to be a (good?) PhD student. I am stressed, to the core. I’m not that happy with my personal life, but there’s little to do about it at the time being, and, if anything, I’m seeing the stress as a good thing as regards my personal life. Distractions are always good. This cognitive compromise, alongside some achievements on the previous terms projects (and a couple of personal projects), finally allied with the inspirational seminars delivered from various academics already this term (and I’m only 3 days in) – that brings the buoyancy.

I’m excited about the idea of the “special topics” module, mainly because for the first time I will – alone – be able to determine my own direction. I’m not a control freak, but I do have serious issues with (things that I perceive to be) futile. So, hopefully, I can avoid that.. which I hope will give me more motivation, more excitement, and better outcomes.

(back to stress, just need to get these other assignments out of the way)

And now, the divergent thinking part. I currently have these ideas to work with (for all, assume ‘something in the field of’):

  • After death, digital legacies
  • Dynamic television, film, or other media, that can reform itself according to the viewers’ use of secondary screen-based media (so a TV programme that realises when you’re checking Facebook and automatically reformats itself accordingly, seamlessly)
  • Sonification as story telling, maybe in healthcare
  • Preserving digital formats (so, what if the ‘original’ version of Hamlet was in a Word Perfect file, but all machines that can run Word Perfect are no longer working… is that a problem?)
  • Can music be an aid at different stages of ideation? What changes how effective it could/can be?
  • A better model for academic referencing; the “semantic web” for academic literature
  • The importance of seed content (as mentioned by Keith), demonstrable in various iterations of my antimatable project
  • Is there space for distance learning (or tele-teaching) to be the preferred method of teaching, in some scenarios? What are the barriers to that, and what would be the potential advantages?
  • …. hard to sum up, but, multi-dimensional sketchnoting on e-ink tables, with the ablity to 3D print the results for physical review (sculpture meets analogue note taking)
  • Is now the time for consumers to power a revolution moving towards modular consumer electronics?