Thoughts from 200 days of blogs

Today I hit 200 days straight of writing and publishing this blog. I was inspired to do the challenge by a Seth Godin interview on Modern Wisdom, Chris Williamson’s podcast, where they talked about the importance of process in your work. For 200 days, I have sat for an hour at my laptop each evening and shared my thoughts in 500 words.   

Here are the lessons I have learnt: 

1, Just write what you are thinking – the beauty of focusing on the process and the daily deadline is you remove the need for the work to be perfect before you publish. I sit down at the end of the day and write what is on my mind. I was always terrible at writing at school, from special 1:1 English lessons with learning support at primary school to poor marks on essays during GCSEs – I could do maths and science, and I could talk for England, I just did not get writing. It took me years and a lot of work before it clicked, but I still feel self-conscious about producing extended writing for work. The beauty of writing for its own sake is you have space to learn and develop a style – and connect your thoughts with the words you put on the page.

2, Consume with intention – A side effect of writing what is on your mind at the end of each day is that you start to look out for things that make you think, challenge your assumptions, or inspire you. Life becomes a little richer because you pay more attention. My mum instilled a habit of reading through example, constant trips to the public library, periods of no TV growing up, and paying for my first-years subscription to the Economist when I started at the LSE. With a constant flow of input, producing a daily output becomes easy. 

3, Challenge your thinking and make connections – If I got my reading habit from my mum, I inherited my memory from my Dad. I am not a fast reader; I like to read, reread, and spent time deep in thought when something strikes a chord. My wife often catches me in these deep contemplative moments where I stare out the window vacantly, making random connections from something I learned six years ago. When she asks what I am thinking about, as a running joke, I tend to reply ‘football’ (apparently the second most common thought for an Englishman) or, if that fails ‘The tension between utilitarianism and free will’ (an essay question from my ‘Modern political thought’ module at uni). These periods of contemplation allow me to pull up related memories of something I heard on an audible book while shopping in Tescos, from a random article, or a conversation over coffee many years ago. I try to capture these connections in my writing, spending a bit of time finding the source of the memory and adding it to the essay.

4, turn comments off and write your authentic thoughts – I decided that I was writing for the process and not the outcome at the start of this journey. I would be lying if I said I did not care if anyone reads my posts, I have an ego like anyone else, and I am humbled that 184 people worldwide follow my blog and get 20-30 views per day from every corner of the world. It is unbelievably satisfying when someone in a conversation mentions they have read the blog or that something in a post connected with them. However, in the podcast that started my practice, Seth says that he turns comments off so that the anticipation of people’s reactions will not colour what he writes. I wanted my writing to be authentic, so I turned them off too. I have the link to my social media at the top of each page, so I know if there is a fact check, something accidentally offensive, or someone wants to connect, they can; it is just not directly accessibly under my writing. The Economist famously does not include bylines on their articles for a similar reason, and I think it is a great way to remove some of the fear of putting your thoughts out into the ether. 

5, Technology is incredible – Grammarly might just be the best invention since the printing press for writers who lack confidence. I use Grammarly with the assistant turned off as my word processor, then turn the assistant on for edits. Grammarly has a clean interface, the editing tools in the premium version make a substantial difference, and the immediate feedback is teaching me to be a better writer. We do, however, disagree on the use of the Oxford comma, but no technology is perfect. I publish using WordPress.com as its reader tool provides an instant audience. I save articles to Instapaper to read later and highlight key ideas, and I link it to Readwise to automatically save the highlights and send me collections of these daily. I do most of my book reading with a Kindle for the same reason. I link Readwise to Roam Research which allows me to find anything I have ever highlighted with a particular word to supplement my memory making connections. I automatically post links to everything I write to my Twitter account, link to my blog via my Instagram, and post a link to anything I write related to Learning Design to my Linkedin profile.

My life now

I drove down to the south coast a few days ago, and my wife put on a podcast with Alan De Botton, who made a brief comment on how religions all seem to understand that the effectiveness of learning is highly related to the architectural environment where you learn. That observation got me thinking, while driving, about learning spaces and the vast investment universities make in beautiful campuses. The seed was watered today when I visited the Canterbury Cathedral – how much easier it must have been in 1000 AD to understand the idea of an all-powerful God when you were sat in an incredible, gigantic, and ornately decorated space. The idea will continue to percolate while I stare out of our Margate Airbnb’s third-floor window overlooking the sea. Tomorrow I will find the podcast again and listen to the clip to note it down accurately before searching out some research on how our learning is connected to the environmental context. I will then sit down in front of the sea-facing window and write 500 words on the importance of learning spaces.

Beating existing hierachical systems

I just got my pre-ordered book from Dan Bigham, Start at the end: How reverse-engineering can lead to success. Dan is the brain behind one of the most exciting and innovative sporting stories in recent memory; how four friends from Derby took on the world’s national teams at track cycling’s individual and team pursuit, and won.

In the book, Dan argues that…

‘Every hierarchical system based on performance contains some element of complacency, of lazy thinking and of vested interest. That means these systems can be beaten.’

Dan Bigham

Dan suggests taking the reverse engineering approach of committing to an ambitious goal, identifying precisely what it takes to achieve it, identifying where you are now, and creating a plan to bridge the gap.

Reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is a process that can be used to learn anything given enough time. The goal is to make a big jump in performance based on a target endpoint. 

  1. Set a goal
  2. Take it apart – know precisely what it will take to achieve that goal
  3. Assess your resources – what you have and what is missing
  4. Develop your tools needed to bridge that gap
  5. Set the plan into motion – creating positive feedback loops
  6. Deliver the performance

Once you have achieved your goal, and if you choose to stay in the same environment and team, you need to move to continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is the pursuit of minor incremental improvements to keep you at or above your previous goal. A famous example of this approach is Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen (Kai = ‘change’, Zen = ‘for good’):

  • Teamwork
  • Discipline
  • Organisation
  • Standardisation
  • Quality cycles

To make continuous improvement work, there needs to be a feeling of psychological safety. A culture of risk-taking and creativity is developed through the freedom for team members to make mistakes. This fearless culture empowers employees to contribute ideas and feedback, knowing they will be taken seriously.  

Getting to Zero and Building Back Better

Zero: Building back greener

The UK released around 600m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) into the atmosphere in 1990. As signatories of the Paris Climate Accord that aims to limit average temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, they have committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Since 1990, the UK has reduced its emissions by 40%, a faster reduction than any other major developed country, and aims to get that number to 78% by 2035.

The UK achieved this reduction in large part to cleaner electricity production, moving from coal to gas and renewables. Other factors include the reduction of energy use by both industry and homes, few total miles being driven and more efficient vehicles.

2019 UK Carbon emissions produced by sector:

  • 27% transport
  • 21% energy supply
  • 17% business
  • 15% residential
  • 10% agriculture

In 2020 The Government released the ‘Ten point plan for a green industrial revolution’ that included an investment promise of £12 billion by 2030 to be directed to green technologies including hydrogen, offshore wind, nuclear, electric vehicles, heat, and buildings.

By 2030 the UK Government has committed to:

  • 600,000 heat pump installations per year (2028) to replace gas-based heating systems
  • 40 GW from Offshore wind, including 1GW of advanced floating rigs 
  • Capture 10Mt C02 per year using Carbon Capture Usage and Storage (CCUS)
  • 5GW of low carbon hydrogen energy
  • Ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans and accelerating EV charging rollout
  • Building net-zero ready homes

Read the full Build Back Better paper on the UK Government’s website.

People want economic security and to be left alone

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

In a recent interview, Chamath Palihapitiya said, “people just want economic security and to be left alone”. The ‘left alone’ part needs no explanation, but what exactly does economic or financial security mean? 

Economic security or financial security is the condition of having stable income or other resources to support a standard of living now and in the foreseeable future. It includes:

– probable continued solvency.

– predictability of the future cash flow of a person or other economic entity, such as a country.

– employment security or job security

Wikipedia

To have economic security, you need to have and maintain a reasonable standard of living. Beyond the basic needs of shelter, warmth, and food, this standard tends to be heavily comparative and determined by the living standards of those around you. Someone who has a standard of living near or above the average of those they interact with will feel like they have economic security. However, this standard of living must be sustainable through continued solvency, a predictable future cash flow, and job security.

Continued solvency means that you have more assets over time than you have liabilities, so the total value of equity in your house and car and the amount you have in savings and investments is greater than the value of your mortgage, loans, and credit card debt. The predictability of cash flow means that you have a good idea of your income over the next few months to a year, either through a reasonable promise of continued employment as an employee or entrepreneur and/or a stable investment income from stocks, bonds, or a pension. Employment security refers to the confidence that if you continue to do your job, you will keep it and that you have control of your continued employment.

Anything else?

Beyond a comfortable living, what other factors are essential in living a happy life? Since early 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has been identifying and tracking metrics that the government can use as a measure of prosperity separate from the financial measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

According to this well-being study, you are happier in Britain if you have a high level of perceived health, are married, employed, own your home, and earn slightly above the average household income of £29,900 per year. You are also happier if you are female. Multiple studies show that self-reported life satisfaction is heavily age-dependent following a U shape, with a dip in happiness in your late thirties and early forties. 

So if you want a safe bet at happiness, you need to find a stable job that pays just above the national household average, live below your means, avoid unsecured debt, build security with additional income streams, stay healthy, get married and buy your home. 

If you are a government, you should focus your efforts on getting as many people as possible to the situation described above and then leave everyone alone. 

Project Hail Mary

There are certain books and films that make me want to be smarter. These works of art are celebrations of intelligence and innovation and raise expectations of what is possible. Films like Good Will Hunting, The Theory of Everything, Hidden Figures, Limitless, all three Ironman movies, and The Imitation Game inspire me to think differently about solving problems. However, there is no better celebration of maths and science than Andy Weir’s books.

Weir wrote his first released full-length novel, The Martian, as a series of blog posts as an intellectual activity while working as a software engineer. He built up an audience of around 3000 hard-core science geeks by writing stories that included lots of maths and science. He researched using Google and got help and feedback for readers on the areas he was not so sure about, like chemistry and electrical engineering.

I have just finished Weir’s latest book, Project Hail Mary. I will not add spoilers, but if you loved the highly competent characters and pragmatic problem solving mixed in with a series of science lessons and sarcasm does not disappoint. 

Why equality, diversity, and inclusion matter

Equality is one of the central ideals of a liberal democratic society; Everyone is created free and equal and should be treated as such by law. Equality is also the route to prosperity and ensuring that every generation will be better off than their parents. It is about a universal commitment to individual dignity, an open market of ideas, and a belief in human progress brought about by debate and reform.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article one, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

There are significant problems in human society; extreme poverty and widening inequality, the need for universal health care and education, and a changing egology brought about by human industry. People need the freedom to choose how to live and a commitment to the common interest for these issues to be addressed.

A competitive meritocracy creates prosperity by ensuring that the best ideas win, but it is often closed to the poorest in society, and there are barriers to entry that need to be removed. Providing people with individual dignity and self-reliance generates sources of new thinking and better ideas. Society needs to value equality, diversity, and inclusion and understand that different perspectives are essential for progress.

Equality, diversity, and inclusion

The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights set out in 1948 lists thirty articles providing an international standard of equality. Within the UK, The Equality Act 2010 lists specific characteristics that are protected under law:

  • age
  • gender reassignment
  • being married or in a civil partnership
  • being pregnant or on maternity leave
  • disability
  • race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation

Equality: the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.

Oxford Languages 

Diversity:  the practice or quality of including or involving people from a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds and of different genders, sexual orientations, etc.  

Oxford Languages

Inclusion: The practise or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups.  

Oxford languages

A commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion provides a fair society where everyone has the chance to create the life they want and have a positive impact on society. Institutions like universities must provide access to opportunities for anybody prepared to put in the hard work to create a better life. They also must provide society with a broad and diverse range of skilled individuals with unique ideas and perspectives to solve the complex problems we face. 

How many hours will you work in your career?

The website 80,000 hours, created by academics at Oxford University, provides a rough estimate of the average number of hours people will work in their lives:

80,000 hours of work in your career = 40 years x 50 weeks x 40 hours

But how does this relate to the reality for someone in the UK?

92,684 hours of work in a UK career = 47 years x 46.4 weeks x 42.5 hours

This number is considerable, but the equation is highly variable based on your work. If you take an academic working at an English university, the working years, weeks and hours contracted will be less, but actual hours might be greater. 

If you started paying into a pension before 2011, it might be possible to retire at 60, and you likely stayed in education through to a PhD so graduated at 26, giving just 34 years of ‘work’. A full-time academic ‘contracted’ hours might be 37 per week, and work 44.4 weeks with 38 days of leave, including bank holidays. 

This fictional academic could work just 55,855.2 hours in their career based on contracted hours. However, this is a romantic bare minimum, and self-reporting on working hours is much higher. 

The question is, what will you do with the hours you have left? 

UK Food Banks

My parents are members of a growing group of forty thousand volunteers that collectively give over four million hours per year at food banks set up and run by their church, community, or a charity to support those struggling to buy food. The Black Country Food Bank is one of over 2,200 food banks in the UK that give out emergency food parcels at least once per week. 

A food bank is a charitable resource which distributes food to those in need of it at least once a week.

Commons Library
Source Trussell Trust

Food banks began appearing in the UK around 2000 when the Trussell Trust opened its first in Salisbury. As of February 2021, the independent charity Trussell Trust runs over 1300 of the nation’s food banks, with a further 900 independent food banks registered with the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN). Food backs were started in the US in the 1960s and are now present in many healthy countries. According to the food aid network, over half of the registered food banks in the UK are run by Christian groups, 43% by secular groups, with the remaining run by other religious groups such as Sikhs and Muslims.  

According to the Trussell Trust, “people use food banks only when they really have to“, with referrals to these services living on an average of £50 per week after housing costs and 20% saying they have had no income at all in the month before they receive a food parcel. These people often have to choose between paying to keep their home, gas and electricity, and food. 75% of households that use food banks have at least one member with a health issue, and 54% are somehow affected by mental health problems. Problems with the introduction of Universal Credit and cuts to public services have increased the use of Food Banks by 73% over the last five years, and 75% of the existing food banks have opened since the banking crisis in 2008.

Stats on usage increases over the last year vary and use a variety of time frames. According to the Government’s Food banks in the UK report, the number of emergency food parcels provided by Trussell Trust during the pandemic has increased by 47% to over two and a half million, and 88% from independent providers according to IFAN. Pre-pandemic, the Trussell Trust State of hunger report estimated that up to 2% of UK households had used a food bank in 2018/19. Since the pandemic, the number has risen to 7% and 13% of those with children, according to Government COVID-9 consumer research

The food that makes up the emergency parcels is provided primarily by individual donations but is supported by the UK Government, supermarket chains, and local businesses. The public gives up to 90% of the food handed out by the Trussel Trust; you can find out how to donate to your local bank on their website.

You can read the governments full research briefing on Food Banks in the UK on the House of Commons Library website. 

Phylagen Origin: track and trace using microbial DNA

I started my MBA with Quantic school of business and technology last week. My favourite part of studying at a university is the lecture series, and this evening I attended (virtually) my first guest lecture delivered by Jessica Green from Phylageny

All geographic locations have a unique microbial DNA signature. These genetic codes can be used to identify where a product or material has come from in the same way as DNA testing is used in criminology. The company uses the blockchain to store critical information for companies so that checks can be carried out along a supply chain and authenticate that the genetic markers such as the origin factory are as expected.

Phylagen Origin is a startup service that collects genetic material from locations worldwide and uses these to provide traceability. Examples include:

  • Verifying a ships log from dust particles on that boat.
  • Checking T-shirts come from a specific factory and not from outsourced factories with lower labour standards.
  • Checking medicines come from authorised materials. 
  • Tracing the origin or raw materials such as cotton, the product journey, and growing practices.

Phylagen collects DNA samples, generates the microbiome features, and then uses machine learning to distinguish features. Tracking cotton involves collecting cotton samples from around the world, logging their features, and then allowing machine learning to create a model of these features to use against future samples. When an unknown sample is tested, its genetic fingerprint is then crossreferenced to the model and a probability generated for its origin and any other characteristics modelled. 

The talk was fascinating and showed a glimpse of how new technologies such as microbiome testing, the blockchain, and machine learning can be used to solve genuine issues. It will be possible in the future to ensure a product you buy has not used slave labour at any stage of the supply chain, track pollution back to offending companies, or follow the spread of infectious diseases back to the source.  

I am happy to be back at University.

The English Indices of Deprivation 2019

The Indices of deprivation (IoD) is a collection of seven measures of deprivation used to relatively rank areas of England. The aim is to order the 32,844 small areas, with an average population of 1,500 or 650 households, from the least deprived to the least, and monitor changes in these ranks over time. The indices were introduced in the 1970s by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to measure local deprivation across England. These neighbourhoods are officially called Lower-layer Super Output Areas (LSOAs).

Poverty is a lack of financial resources, whereas deprivation includes multiple aspects of individuals living conditions to measure a lack of resources. There are 39 indicators organised into seven domains combined using weightings that value income and employment more heavily than other forms of deprivation such as health or risk of crime. As a relative measure, there is no threshold where an area is considered deprived, but rather it is used to measure the relative deprivation between local areas.

The seven measures that make up the IoD are:

  • Income (22.5%)*: Measures the proportion of the population experiencing deprivation relating to low income
  • Employment (22.5): Measures the proportion of the working-age population in an area involuntarily excluded from the labour market
  • Education (13.5%): Measures the lack of attainment and skills in the local population
  • Health (13.5%): Measures the risk of premature death and the impairment of quality of life through poor physical or mental health
  • Crime (9.3%): Measures the risk of personal and material victimisation at local level
  • Barriers to housing and services (9.3%): Measures the physical and financial accessibility of housing and local services
  • Living environment (9.3%): Measures the quality of both the ‘indoor’ and ‘outdoor’ local environment

*Percentages represent weighting used when combining the domains

The latest data was collected in 2015 and 2019. Deprivation is distributed across England, with 61% of local authorities having at least one of the highest deprivation areas. The most deprived areas of the country tend to be concentrated in cities, particularly those that used to have heavy industry, including Birmingham, Nottingham, and Hartlepool, coastal towns, and parts of east London. Blackpool is considered the most deprived area of England, with eight of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in the indices.

The indices can be used to compare neighbourhoods across England, identify the most deprived small areas, and compare larger regions based on the relative deprivation within the LSOAs, such as the number of areas in the bottom 20% of the indices. The data can also be used to explore individual domains such as levels of education, health, or crime in particular areas. Movements in the relative rank of a given area can be used as evidence of the effectiveness of development programmes or targeted interventions. 

The Indices of Deprivation is becoming more critical for Universities. The Office for Students puts pressure on higher education institutions to narrow gaps in access, progression, attainment, and outcomes between different groups of students. Gaps in the four areas existing between those that come from regions ranking lower than those that rank higher. Universities must make sure they are narrowing the gaps by seeking to recruit students from areas of high deprivation, putting in place interventions to help these students stay at university and achieve a good degree, and support them to find a graduate-level job once they leave.

Being aware of the indices is essential, first to understand that deprivation is not just about income, and secondly that you can use it over time to measure the impact of your work. You can read the complete reports and access the data on the UK Government website