Visiting Totnes in Devon

I made a visit to see my mother in Torquay, Devon and took the opportunity to revisit the town where I went to secondary school, Totnes. Here are a few photos I took of this unusual and attractive small town.

There’s a plaque on the wall which states

The Mansion

Built in 1795

Bought in 1887 by the Foundation Governors for King Edward VI Grammar School (founded 1553). This building now forms part of King Edward VI Community Collge and is a centre for community education

Charles Babbage (father of the digital computer) was a pupil at the school for a short time but ill health obliged him to transfer to a private tutor.

I remember having school dinners in a large room at the back of this nearby local pub

The main street, looking upwards

Entrance to historic St Mary’s Church (built in the 15th century)

Not there in my time, but the town now has some interesting coffee shops

An imaginatively titled beer tasting venue

Interesting and surprising connection to the Bodleian Library in Oxford

The very attractive main street, looking downwards

There is also Totnes Castle (closed when we visited) plus St Mary’s Church and the Butterwalk to explore. Just outside Totnes is impressive Dartington Hall and it’s Gardens, now managed by the Dartington Trust:

“The Dartington Experiment began in 1925, when Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst bought a crumbling estate and began to explore how a place could change the world – attracting some of the greatest artists, educators and political philosophers of the 20th century in the process. Important British institutions – including the NHS and the Arts Council – emerged, and ground-breaking experiments in land use, farming and education took place.”

Main Hall Entrance, Dartington (picture credit  here)

Small Experiments and Grand Plans

From here:

This story is from Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

In addition (here):

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” – Scott Adams (cartoonist)

Critical Thinking and Rough Estimates

I’ve always been a fan of qualitative (back of the envelope) calculations. This started when I was an undergraduate doing my physics degree. After my career in academia ended and I moved to government and commercial work, I was interested to find that similar methods can also be used there (adapted accordingly of course). The idea is you can you come up with a ball park figure for something (usually by using values for proxies) to set the scene. If your rough estimate is wildly out, it’s not a problem, it just means that some of the assumptions are wrong and there’s a chance to learn something new.

However this approach never seemed particularly popular (maybe because it involves out of the box thinking) although such questions are sometimes mentioned in hiring interviews. An example is “How many gas stations are there in the US?”. At first sight this seems an impossible question but by some reasonable assumptions you can actually get a good estimate (see here plus look at the detailed comment from a reader who goes through the steps).

In this context, whilst reading a talk by the computer theorist and mathematician Richard Hamming, I came across this:

“The reason back of the envelope calculations are widely used by great scientists is clearly revealed—you get a good feeling for the truth or falsity of what was claimed, as well as realize which factors you were inclined not to think about, such as exactly what was meant by the lifetime of a scientist. Having done the calculation you are much more likely to retain the results in your mind. Furthermore, such calculations keep the ability to model situations fresh and ready for more important applications as they arise. Thus I recommend when you hear quantitative remarks such as the above you turn to a quick modeling to see if you believe what is being said, especially when given in the public media like the press and TV. Very often you find what is being said is nonsense, either no definite statement is made which you can model, or if you can set up the model then the results of the model do not agree with what was said. I found it very valuable at the physics table I used to eat with; I sometimes cleared up misconceptions at the time they were being formed, thus advancing matters significantly.”

The connection to what you hear in the media is fascinating and reminded me of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect:

“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues… In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.” – Michael Crichton (author, film producer)

Regarding the news and media, there’s often an element of simply repeating what you’ve read or seen if it’s not in your area of expertise. So critical questioning is a good thing and having rough estimates for key quantities can be helpful in this.

Finally, an apposite quote on the fragility of knowledge:

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way – by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile.” – Richard Feynman (physicist)

COVID-19 and The Swiss Cheese Model

I’d not heard of the Swiss Cheese Model as a way for understanding risks and their management:

“The Swiss cheese model of accident causation is a model used in risk analysis and risk management, including aviation safety, engineering, healthcare, emergency service organizations, and as the principle behind layered security, as used in computer security and defense in depth. It likens human systems to multiple slices of swiss cheese, stacked side by side, in which the risk of a threat becoming a reality is mitigated by the differing layers and types of defenses which are “layered” behind each other.”

A visual of the general approach is given below (from the wikipedia link above):

A virologist, Dr. Ian Mackay, has produced a nice graphic to illustrate it’s application to COVID-19. A really helpful way of communicating the role of each intervention to the general public. Sometimes a visual is more effective than a thousand (often confusing) words! Click to enlarge.


Swiss Cheese Model for COVID-19, illustrating that no single intervention is enough to prevent spread (click to enlarge)

Selling Science

From a talk on carrying out successful research by Richard Hamming, a distinguished American mathematician and computer theorist:

“While going to meetings I had already been studying why some papers are remembered and most are not. The technical person wants to give a highly limited technical talk. Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. As a result, many talks are ineffective. The speaker names a topic and suddenly plunges into the details he’s solved. Few people in the audience may follow. You should paint a general picture to say why it’s important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done… The tendency is to give a highly restricted, safe talk; this is usually ineffective. Furthermore, many talks are filled with far too much information. So I say this idea of selling is obvious.”

Whilst communication methods have progressed rapidly since his talk (given in 1986), the basic precept remains. It links to a previous post on problem solving in teams and how communication of generalities is often as important as research or development specifics (ie detailing what you have actually done).

Hamming’s article (a transcription of a talk) is entitled ‘You and Your Research‘ and covers many interesting points.

A Key To Problem Solving

I came across this interesting tweet from @theresiatanzil:

“The difficult part of problem solving is rarely about coming up with the solution, but rather

1) getting people to agree what the problem is,
2) which solution we decide to try,
3) how to coordinate and work together to solve it, and
4) committing to keep it solved.”

It’s a succinct reminder that the key factor is rarely tools, techniques or systems but rather people. Stated this generally this can become just a bland platitude so I thought the point above on getting ‘agreement’ was a good one to focus on. However to get agreement, you first have to have understanding and this can sometimes also be a problem.

I was reminded of this when I was asked to interview the lead managers of (an admittedly) rather complicated international tech project. The managers (project directors more accurately) all had ‘people’ and technical issues in their own specific areas but had ways forward.

However I was surprised to find that few of them had a clear and simple understanding of what the other (highly technical) areas in the project were doing (very good that they were honest about this though). Consequently there was no compelling joined-up picture, so when a project wide issue appeared it was difficult to make progress.

To overcome this it was necessary to simplify things to the bare essentials (but not to the point of banality) so the key ideas could be communicated widely. This was an iterative (and revealing) process and one that had to be repeated (as people quickly forget). However it allowed a much better ‘feel’ to the project as a whole, with everyone having a significantly better understanding of their project-wide role and commitments.

It’s a side effect of the silo mentality that can all too easily take over in large organisations and projects.

Linked to this communication issue is the famous quote:

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein

However this is a very subtle point, often ignored or misunderstood!

Books And Their Conversations

“The book you are reading – as I would guess is the case with most books – is the result of many conversations I’ve had over the course of many years, in my case with both humans and nonhumans. Many of them happened while I was writing this, and all of them changed my mind. Now, as you read it, this book forms a conversation with you as well.” – from “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell

I came across this book via an article in the Guardian, started reading it and quickly became engrossed. Very well written and with many stimulating insights and views. I’ll write more about it later. The above quote jumped out at me as there are many posts on this blog linked to the (usually underestimated) importance of conversations. Some examples are:

Thinking Allowed

“We live in a culture that tends to view thought with a degree of suspicion. Thinking is frequently associated with uselessness, idleness, laziness. These suspicions can be somewhat allayed when thinking can be directly tied to some kind of purpose or tangible result, of course. Accordingly, we tend to conceptualize thinking in terms of learning. In turn, we think of learning largely as a matter of acquiring marketable skills. However, when overtly attached to products and outcomes, thinking and learning become just another mode of commerce. They thus can become constrained and corrupted by worldly ambitions. The idea that learning can be a mode of release from those ambitions, and thus a kind of liberation from the world, seems to have been lost to us.”

Spotted here and something I strongly agree with.

There is a downloadable BBC radio programme of the same name, Thinking Allowed, that covers and questions many different areas. 655 episodes available at present. I like listening to it when I have the time.

Recent examples include:

  • The Rich in London. Also, global attitudes towards the wealthy.
  • Elites: Laurie Taylor considers why anti-elitism has become such a common staple of media and political rhetoric.
  • Strategic ignorance and knowledge resistance: Laurie Taylor explores the ways in which we refuse insights from others.
  • The religious right in the US – Laurie Taylor explores their route to political power.

Collecting And Finding Things In The Digital World

One of the things that bothers me is, although I assiduously collect lots of digital stuff (web links, pdfs etc) actually finding useful information afterwards is quite difficult (or perhaps just time consuming).

I thought that was just me being very inefficient but now I think that probably isn’t so. This week I listened in to an informative webinar by Shawn Blanc  of The Sweet Setup on using the Ulysses writing app. One benefit he emphasised was that you could keep all your thoughts and info together with your writing in the same app. So you search in just one place (database). However there was a question at the end of the talk which asked about using this acquired info. He replied that it was often quicker and easier just to do a Google search! This is exactly what I do. So what is the point in saving the link or pdf or whatever in the first place? Maybe just doing this keeps a tiny memory that is sufficient for a search later on.

Some people may be quite assiduous in information gathering and tag entries or use folders to categorise plus maybe even make a contextual note on the info. However it all takes time and discipline. Even if you do this, quite often you later realise that another organisational scheme would be better and then there is the saga of whether or not you’re willing to spend the time setting this up. What is the real price of not doing this, would it really make a big difference? Would the order in the seeming ‘chaos’ bring a noticeable payoff (I think the answer may depend on the person).

The other problem I have is that I use many different apps for collecting things. Partly this is due to wanting to keep up with developments (innovative new ideas from software developers) and figuring out whether one app stands out above all others (so far this has never been the case, fleeting superiority at most). It’s a highly dynamical situation, with upgrades and new versions popping up all the time. I guess I shouldn’t be so easily swayed by the alluring and usually overhyped marketing, it is really interesting though. On this note, TheBrain 12 (beta) looks very impressive, and is my current distraction!

Another aspect is that many apps these days can be quite sophisticated with challenging or time consuming learning curves. What is the return on your time investment?

Here is the list of some of the apps I’ve tried so far this year (in alphabetical order, not by usage). Most only run on Apple operating systems. I use some for data gathering, others for shaping or structuring thoughts:

Apple Notes
Google Keep Notes
Keep It
The Archive

I do all my writing in Scrivener, which I have left many times like an errant lover, but return to each time and wonder why I was tempted to leave. So, luckily, that is a useful fixed point. It’s the general note taking and thought shaping that’s the problem. Currently I mainly use a combination of DEVONthink 3 and Tinderbox 8.

I use an Android phone so that’s sometimes a constraint and explains my use of Evernote and Google Keep which have good Android versions. Of course, in the end, it’s not so much the apps you use as the system (workflow) and this is the real issue I’m struggling with. I do most of my writing and research on a recently bought MacBook Air, make little use of my iPad (partly as quite dated by now) and a lot of quick stuff on the smartphone. To this end, I’ll soon be buying a new iPad and (in spite of the price) I’m considering getting an iPhone 12 Mini. I can imagine that I’ll tend to become much more iPad and iPhone centric over the next 5 years. This being the case, there is then the question of using apps that have a good version that runs on iOS, further complicating matters. However in the end it should all be a lot simpler but I may need to leave some old friends (apps) behind which will be sad.

A complex but interesting blend of possibilities.