Theories Of Everything, Mapped

February 3, 2016

Theories of EverythingClick here

I started my career as a theoretical physicist working on the problem of quark confinement and related matters. I still try to keep my general interest up and nowadays there are a number of excellent semi-popular resources for this.

Quanta is one of them. Here’s a really impressive pictorial overview of the current ideas and theories in our fundamental understanding of the universe – a very slick web site!

The map provides concise descriptions of highly complex theories; learn more by exploring the links to dozens of articles and videos, and vote for the ideas you find most elegant or promising. Finally, the map is extensive, but hardly exhaustive; proposed additions are welcome below.


Explorers, Alchemists, Wrestlers And Detectives

December 10, 2015

An interesting article from the mathematician David Mumford:

“I think one can make a case for dividing mathematicians into several tribes depending on what most strongly drives them into their esoteric world. I like to call these tribes explorers, alchemists, wrestlers and detectives. Of course, many mathematicians move between tribes and some results are not cleanly part the property of one tribe:

  • Explorers are people who ask — are there objects with such and such properties and if so, how many?
  • Alchemists, on the other hand, are those whose greatest excitement comes from finding connections between two areas of math that no one had previously seen as having anything to do with each other.
  • Wrestlers are those who are focussed on relative sizes and strengths of this or that object.
  • Finally Detectives are those who doggedly pursue the most difficult, deep questions, seeking clues here and there, sure there is a trail somewhere, often searching for years or decades.”

It makes you think about how you and others go about their work, particularly in a research setting. Just what are the aspects that most fascinate you and why and can you think of a catchy word to summarise your approach.

The detective connection, in a more general setting, is also mentioned here.


Cooking Up Failure

December 7, 2015

I’ve been developing my cookery skills over the last few months and (fortunately for all concerned) it’s starting to pay off. As part of this I’ve been reading lots of books and articles for tips and insights.

As an interesting link to R&D (which I’ve spent most of my professional life doing), here’s an illuminating quote from the well-known chef Jamie Oliver:

Some people think I am a businessman or massively strategic,” he said, speaking with PR chief Richard Edelman at the Cannes Lions festival. “[But] I worked out the other day, I took a little review of my 17 years – we’ve done all right, I’ve sold a few books and we’ve made a few quid – I realised that I think I wasted and fucked up about 40%.”

Oliver, who the Sunday Times Rich List estimates is worth £180m, said while the failures have been “painful” he has come to consider the learning curve as research and development.

“I don’t know if that is acceptable or not acceptable,” he said. “That 40% is quite painful. But then I sit back and look at it: Would I change anything? Did the mistakes not teach me powerful lessons? I’m trying to turn those mistakes into what maybe you guys call R&D. What is the percentage of turnover that is right for innovation? What is healthy? Is it 10%, 20%? Is 40% reckless?

It’s a really interesting question. Of course, fixing the budget to a set number is not the point, it’s more it’s use as a rough indicator and to motivate people to think and talk about ‘sustainable innovation’ (even if that goes against vested interests).


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:


Startup Stories

March 11, 2015

CB Insights have put together a fascinating set of stories of how 101 startups ‘failed’, collected from their founders and investors.

Here are some examples:

Ultimately, I didn’t heed the lessons of so many failed music startups. It’s an incredibly expensive venture to pursue and a hard industry to work with. We spent more than a quarter of our cash on lawyers, royalties and services related to supporting music. It’s restrictive. We had to shut down our growth because we couldn’t launch internationally. It’s a long road. It took years to get label deals in place and it also took months of engineering time to properly support them (time which could have been spent on product).

We didn’t spend enough time talking with customers and were rolling out features that I thought were great, but we didn’t gather enough input from clients. We didn’t realize it until it was too late. It’s easy to get tricked into thinking your thing is cool. You have to pay attention to your customers and adapt to their needs.

I started to feel burned out. I was Blurtt’s fearless leader, but the problem with burnout is that you become hopeless and you lose every aspect of your creativity. I’d go to work feeling tired and exhausted. I was burning the candle at both ends.

Do not launch a startup if you do not have enough funding for multiple iterations. The chances of getting it right the first time are about the equivalent of winning the lotto.

The full report is a free download on their site.

See also: More Lessons From Startups


Getting Rewarded For Your Skills

February 24, 2015

Emberton-Graph-1

The topic of getting suitably rewarded for your skills is one that crops up regularly in discussions with colleagues. There often seems a conflict between doing what you really want to do and making that financially viable and sustainable.

There’s an interesting post on this at ‘The problem isn’t that life is unfair – it’s your broken idea of fairness’ from which the diagrams above and below are taken. Although they are obviously a bit simplistic, they do make a key point very clearly.

The only change I’d make is that the top picture illustrates how we like to think reward works even if we know that the picture below is far more more realistic, and probably a lot more uncomfortable. The question then arises as to where an acceptable compromise point is, which is where personal values and circumstances come in.

However it’s a step forward to be aware that a decision on this matter is always being made, either knowingly or by default. So it’s helpful to regularly question this compromise point, preferably with others (to get a spread of views and experiences).

A slight change of direction may yield a delightful improvement!

Emberton-Graph-2

Images: from the site above.


The Allure Of A Happy And Meaningful Life

January 23, 2015

ons - measures of national well-being

I guess most people would like to lead a ‘happy and meaningful’ life and over the last few years the notion of ‘well-being’ has even found it’s way into national surveys (see screenshot above and link below).

So I was interested (and a bit surprised) to recently come across this

Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness.

The underlying research project is described here, and some extracts are

Our findings depict the unhappy but meaningful life as seriously involved in difficult undertakings. It was marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others, and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.

One can also use our findings to depict the highly happy but relatively meaningless life. People with such lives seem rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If they argue, they do not feel that arguing reflects them. Interpersonally, they are takers rather than givers, and they give little thought to past and future. These patterns suggest that happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.

Our findings are broadly consistent with the framework that happiness is natural but meaning is cultural. Although humans use money and other cultural artifacts to achieve satisfaction, the essence of happiness was still consist in having needs and wants satisfied. The happy person thus resembles an animal with perhaps some added complexity. In contrast, meaningfulness pointed to more distinctively human activities, such as expressing oneself and thinking integratively about past and future. Put another way, humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so.

It’s certainly food for thought – in particular, I’m now wondering if I should try to make my life a bit less meaningful!

On a more practical note, there’s an interactive graphic on some measures of national well-being here (provided by the UK Office of National Statistics). The screenshot above is taken from this site.


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