The Perfect Plastic Bag

October 5, 2015

From the BBC (Business) News:

The number of plastic bags given out by major supermarkets in England has risen by 200 million in the past two years to exceed 7.6 billion last year – the equivalent of 140 per person and amounting to 61,000 tonnes in total…

Many shoppers in England will have to pay 5p for plastic carrier bags from Monday (5 October 2015) in a bid to slash the 7.6 billion handed out every year…

The government hopes the English scheme will cut use of plastic carrier bags by up to 80% in supermarkets, and by 50% on the High Street. It also expects to save £60m in litter clean-up costs as well as generating £730m for good causes over the next decade.

I have to admit that I’ve loads at home and this nudge is what’s needed to get me to change. It’s really odd that it’s not happened before and even odder that there’s not been a technological (biodegradable) solution (although I’m sure there have been many attempts).

On the radio today, as it’s topical, there was a discussion on the challenges of developing ‘the perfect plastic bag’. The main problem seems to be to find a polymer that efficiently degrades in very different environments, those with oxygen and those without (such as landfills).

Carl Boardman, from the Open University, was interviewed and he’s optimistic that they’ve found a suitable candidate.

A team at the OU’s Integrated Waste Systems (IWS) research group is working on an ambitious partnership worth around £250,000 with a UK SME, and funded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to develop a new type of biodegradable single-use plastic carrier bags that is recyclable, biodegradable and will have no harmful effects on plants or animals.

Egged on, he was asked ‘Come on, what can you tell us about it?’ and very sensibly replied with an alarmingly honest ’Nothing!’. Let’s hope it all works out, both technically and commercially.

More info here:

They’re All Made Up

July 27, 2015

Nice short post from Euan Semple:

Present a human being with disparate bits information and we will try to make sense of them, to give them meaning, to get them to tell a story. We can’t help ourselves and do it all the time.

We also try to get the world to fit our pre-existing stories. Those we learned from our families, our colleagues, our neighbours. We feel better when it does.

In fact having our stories disproved unsettles us and challenges our very sense of self. We cling to them for dear life. We cause ourselves untold stress and unhappiness when the world doesn’t conform to our stories. We even fight wars over the need to prove that my story is more true than yours.

We would do well to remember that they are all made up.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the various things I’ve done over the past ten years and some days a short insight will present itself (seemingly for no reason whatsoever). The above post summed up my current feelings really well. It’s particularly relevant when you realise that you’re actually trying to convince someone (or they you) that your story really is ‘true’!

Getting And Presenting Ideas Gone Wrong

July 9, 2015

Other similar and amusing videos from Duarte here.

Thought Experiments And Thinking Differently

July 7, 2015

The following thought experiment is attributed to the German Gestalt psychologist Karl Dunker:

One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

Here’s the way to approach thinking about it:

If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed  or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

As always, it’s easy when you know how!

Applying this to business (or other) problems, the point is to try thinking about the issue from a variety of quite different viewpoints even though that may initially seem quite alien, strange or unproductive.

This situation reminded me of the time when I was an academic and one year there was quite a fuss over a (physics) exam question that had been set. You could work it out from first principles and it would have taken about 30 mins for an average student. This assumes no slips were made along the way (and the greater the number of steps the more likely that this is to happen).

However, by using a conservation principle, you could also work out the answer in about 5 mins! To do this this you needed to think a bit differently right from the start and not get trapped into immediately using the standard approach. Even though some spotted this, as the question was so ‘easy’ using this insight, they were then worried that they were misunderstanding the original question!

As you can imagine, this resulted in a lively discussion of what constituted a ‘fair’ exam question. In practice, it’s helpful to know how to do it both ways of course, as one often elucidates the other.

You can read about the topic of thought experiments in the original post by Michael Michalko here.

Imagination And Knowledge

June 23, 2015

An interesting and vivid analogy on the role of imagination in coming up with new ideas and approaches, from the blog of Michael Michalko:

Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene, even though there is no dog or leash.

In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea.

This is why Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge.

The Trials Of Leadership

June 17, 2015

Because of excellent reviews, last year I started reading a couple of books on D-Day and the Battle for Normandy eg here. However, even after just a few chapters, the complexity and uncertainty in nearly everything was both daunting and revealing (the famous ‘fog of war’). Directing and managing this must have been a nightmare as well as extraordinarily stressful.

However, especially in the popular media, Eisenhower (the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces) gave the impression of coping well, not just with the decision making but also with handling the powerful and often eccentric egos of the key players. I was curious how he did this and managed to keep sane at the same time!

So, I was interested to recently read (from the Economist):

‘The ultimate sin, for the Oprah generation, is to be repressed. Nonsense, says Mr Brooks. Dwight Eisenhower spent his life repressing his inner self, and it helped the Allies win the second world war. He “spent the nights staring at the ceiling, racked by insomnia and anxiety, drinking and smoking”. Yet “he put on a false front of confident ease and farm-boy garrulousness” to raise the troops’ morale. He was splendidly inauthentic. Later on, as president, he was willing to appear tongue-tied if it would help conceal his designs. Indeed, he was happy to let people think him stupid, which “is how we know he was not a New Yorker”.’

As an aside, in productivity books and articles, the so-called Eisenhower matrix or box (see below) is often cited:

Eisenhower MatrixPicture credit: here.

Starting From Success

June 12, 2015

Interesting little story found in a recent post by James Altucher on learning new skills:

Tony Robbins told me about when he was scared to death on his first major teaching job.

He had to teach a bunch of Marines how to improve their sharpshooting. “I had never shot a gun in my life,” he said.

He studied quite a bit from professionals but then he came up with a technique that resulted in the best scores of any sharpshooting class before then.

He brought the target closer.

He put it just five feet from them. They all shot bullseyes. Then he moved it back bit by bit until it was the standard distance.

They were still shooting bullseyes.


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