Necessary And Sufficient Conditions

July 31, 2012

I was interested to read this comment from Vince Cable (UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills) on the UK economy:

“I think it is right and necessary that we have budget discipline. That is the path we have embarked on and we must stick with that. …

What we are putting in place is called Plan A-plus, which is that we do the budget discipline – which is absolutely necessary but is not sufficient – and we have to put in place measures supporting infrastructure and housing. They are coming through.”

I first came across the idea of ‘necessary and sufficient conditions’ when I was taking an undergraduate course in maths. It’s very helpful in getting ideas straight, such as whether a system is stable to small changes or not.

The comment above made me think about non-science applications of the approach. Thinking through whether actions or initiatives are (really) necessary to achieve an aim (maybe there are simpler or different ways?) and whether the sum of the activities is actually likely to be sufficient could be very helpful.

Whilst it’s obviously not watertight (in maths you make sure a problem is well-defined whilst in business many activities are and always will be fuzzy, dynamic and highly interconnected) it may still yield qualitative insights or at least encourage consideration of other viewpoints (as above).

From the point of view of logic theory:

A necessary condition of a statement must be satisfied for the statement to be true.

A sufficient condition is one that, if satisfied, assures the statement’s truth.

A condition can be either necessary or sufficient without being the other.

Feynman In Pictures

July 31, 2012

Based on two very positive reviews (Dyson, Physics Buzz) I bought ‘Feynman’ by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick a few months ago.

Last week I got round to looking at it and was completely transfixed! Although it wasn’t my intention, I ended up ‘reading’ most of the book in one sitting. I write ‘reading’ as it has a comic/manga book style and an example page is given above (most of the book isn’t as technical as this).

In my opinion the pictorial approach works really well and is a good complement to the many biographies that are already available (see here). It may also introduce Feynman and physics to a much wider audience.

The book is structured via topics that cropped up during his life eg computing machines (1945), trust (1984), you’re joking mr feynman (1985) and some of the themes that are brought out include:

  • He was a very visual thinker – he even saw equations in colours
  • He liked to think things through his way and not be too influenced by others
  • He worked very hard
  • He had wide interests, including women!

Where it didn’t work quite so well for me was where they tried to explain some of the physics ideas – I think for this you really do need to go into a bit more detail. However as the text in this type of book is necessarily very limited, maybe the taster they give is perhaps a reasonable compromise. Thinking about it, a hybrid book may be the best option, a fluid mixture of annotated pictures and pure text. The authors give a good commented bibliography at the end if you want to find out more.

On a personal note I first came across Feynman when I was a physics undergraduate at Queen Mary College. I was in a problem-solving session one day and my tutor (Dr William Yeung I think it was) had some research journals lying around. I took a look, as I was hoping to get into research myself, and was amazed to see lots of pictures (Feynman Diagrams) all over the place! Up to then physics had been all equations. Somehow it didn’t seem ‘serious’ but he assured me that it was and very clever too. Some examples of Feynman diagrams are given in the image above.

Later, when doing my doctorate in particle physics at Imperial College, I decided to read some of Feynman’s original papers. I still remember being struck by this phrase in one of his most important papers:

It is as though a bombardier flying low over a road suddenly sees three roads and it is only when two of them come together and disappear again that he realizes that he has simply passed over a long switchback in a single road.

All the other papers I’d been reading were written in a very academic and conservative style – I was really surprised at his almost conversational (although very effective) way of describing new ideas!

Finally I had the good fortune to meet him in the late 80’s. I co-organised an international workshop on an approximation method (in quantum field theory) that I’d been working on. As I’d heard through the grapevine that Feynman was also working on this topic, I thought I’d take a chance and invite him. To my surprise and delight he accepted and he took part in the meeting that was held on the island of Wangerooge (photo below), off the coast of Germany, in September 1987.

I’m planning on writing a few of the Feynman stories up from this meeting as I’ve never found his visit there mentioned anywhere else. He unfortunately died of cancer in early 1988.

Picture credits: bottom.

This post was accidentally dated 31 July – it was actually published on 8 August. To avoid further confusion I’ll keep things as they are!

One Plus One Makes Three

July 25, 2012

Thought provoking clip on story featuring Ken Burns, the famous director/producer of documentary films.

Storytelling in business is an established communications method and it can also be helpfully applied in science.

The clip reminded me that it’s always good to think through the stories you want to tell to make new ideas stick and to get people to remember you when your meeting or presentation is over!

Rules And Regulations

July 23, 2012

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour. Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.” – Dee Hock (founder of VISA)

Tiny Desk Concerts

July 21, 2012

Tiny Desk Concerts: intimate performances, recorded live at the desk of All Songs Considered with host Bob Boilen. A clever and simple idea!

Lots of them and all very good.

Two recent examples:

Start The Day With An Unfinished Sentence

July 18, 2012

I’ve been dabbling with the idea of writing a business book, in part based on the content of this blog. So, now and again, I read about how successful writers go about their craft.

The video above, featuring an interview with the author Steven Johnson, gives some nice tips and has a ‘real-life’ feel to it.

Some of the things that work for him are:

  • Write in the morning (helped by coffee), do research and catch-up stuff in the afternoon and maybe try some additional work in the evening (with a glass of wine)
  • Software, like DEVONthink, can be helpful in prompting long-forgotten or unusual connections
  • Have a real writing target, say 500 words a day, and keep to it

One interesting tip was to end your daily writing by starting a sentence (that you pretty much know how to end, including any research) but don’t actually finish. This means that the next day you can start fluidly rather than with a bout of procrastination!

There’s a video of Steven Johnson talking at the RSA on his book ‘Where Do Good Ideas Come From?’ here.

Management As A Liberal Art

July 13, 2012

“Management is what tradition used to call a liberal art – ‘liberal’ because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; ‘art’ because it deals with practice and application. Managers draw upon all of the knowledge and insights of the humanities and social sciences on psychology and philosophy, on economics and history, on the physical sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.” – Peter Drucker

Spotted here, which also has a discussion of how you may be able to achieve this lofty goal!