Risk versus Uncertainty

March 21, 2019

From the FT recently, on the difference between risk and uncertainty, and its implications:

“It (the distinction) was first made back in 1921 by the University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. Risk, he said, is something we can quantify, as when we say there’s a one-in-six risk of a die rolling a one. Uncertainty, however, cannot be quantified…

The biggest uncertainty is: technical change. Only one in eight of the US’s largest 500 companies in 1955 are still in the largest 500 today. And only two of the UK’s largest employers in 1907 are independent stock market-listed companies today: Prudential and WH Smith.

Herein lies a big difference between risk and uncertainty. Some risks diminish over time as losses are followed by gains…

Uncertainty, however, increases with time. We have a fairly good idea of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunuties and threats facing a particular company over the next 12 months. But if we’re honest, we haven’t a clue about them over the next 30 years.”

In this context it’s revealing how tricky it is to forecast long term change, say through research planning, see here.

Famous Physicists At Cambridge

February 26, 2019

St John’s College at Cambridge (UK)

I recently paid a visit to St John’s College at Cambridge (see above). One evening we had dinner in the impressive Great Hall. Afterwards I took at the look at the portraits on the walls of past Fellows.

Paul Dirac, Fellow of St John’s

I knew that Paul Dirac (one of the world’s greatest theoretical physicists) was a Fellow but I was quite surprised to see a portait of Abdus Salam as well who I didn’t know was a Fellow. Abdus Salam was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 along with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow.

Abdus Salam, Fellow of St John’s

I’ve given a story (see here) about a discussion I had with Salam (who was then a Professor at Imperial College London) that made me realise the skill and awareness needed to take unconventional career advice.

St John’s has impressively produced nine Nobel Laureates (five in Physics, two in Medicine, one in Chemistry and one in Economics, see here).

The Iceberg Illusion

September 11, 2018

Something to reflect on and always bear in mind! Sylvia Duckworth is an award-winning teacher from Canada and uses sketchnotes (as above) extensively.


Feynman and Climbing Mont Blanc

August 28, 2018

Poster for a current Caltech Archives special exhibition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth (1918-1988)

I’ve written previously (see here) on how the famous physicist Richard Feynman figured out how to get out of a creative block that occurred after his initial revolutionary successes (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965):

That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!”

However recently I came across an article by John Preskill of Cal Tech which mentions another viewpoint attributed to Sidney Coleman (who was a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard University). Preskill is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech:

Feynman often told students to disregard what others had done, to work things out for oneself. Not everyone thought that was good advice. One who disagreed was Sidney Coleman, a Caltech grad student in the late 50s and early 60s. Coleman says: “Had Feynman not been as smart as he was, I think he would have been too original for his own good. There was always an element of showboating in his character. He was like the guy that climbs Mt. Blanc barefoot just to show it could be done. A lot of things he did were to show, you didn’t have to do it that way, you can do it this other way. And the other way, in fact, was not as good as the first way, but it showed he was different. … I’m sure Dick thought of that as a virtue, as noble. I don’t think it’s so. I think it’s kidding yourself. Those other guys are not all a collection of yo-yos. Sometimes it would be better to take the recent machinery they have built and not try to rebuild it, like reinventing the wheel. … Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart. He really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot.” 

There are lots of nice stories and insights in the Preskill article (entitled ‘Feynman After 40’) which is well worth a read.

Grand Challenges and Anticipating the Future

August 22, 2018

I met up with a colleague recently who works in the transport area and she recommended I take a look at a couple of articles including (for general context) the UK Innovation Strategy. The document detailing this (published in Nov 2017) can be found here, including:

“As well as setting a path to improved productivity, our Industrial Strategy sets out four areas (Grand Challenges) where Britain can lead the global technological revolution.”

It’s interesting to consider these big picture themes as it’s all to easy to get locked into details in specific projects.

The Four Grand Challenges are (plus some further explanatory extracts, see here):

1. Artificial intelligence and big data

They can be seen as new industries in their own right, but they are also transforming business models across many sectors as they deploy vast datasets to identify better ways of doing complex tasks – from helping doctors diagnose medical conditions more effectively to allowing people to communicate across the globe using instantaneous speech recognition and translation software.

2. Clean growth

The move to cleaner economic growth – through low carbon technologies and the efficient use of resources – is one of the greatest industrial opportunities of our time. By one estimate, the UK’s clean economy could grow at four times the rate of GDP. Whole new industries will be created and existing industries transformed as we move towards a low carbon, more resource-efficient economy.

3. The future of mobility (people, goods, services)

The UK’s road and rail network could dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants, congestion could be reduced through higher-density use of road space enabled by automated vehicles, and mobility could be available when we want it, where we want it and how we want it.

4. Meeting the needs of an ageing society

The prospect of longer lives will require people to plan their careers and retirement differently. Ageing populations will create new demands for technologies, products and services, including new care technologies, new housing models and innovative savings products for retirement.

The first three you could see as predominantly technological challenges but the fourth is far more complex as it will need to take into account inter-generational attitudes and mindsets. A good example of a cross-disciplinary project.

A Playbook for Innovation Learning

May 18, 2018

Sample page from (free) NESTA Innovation Playbook

Interesting collection of innovation practices from NESTA:

Over the past four years, we’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues, partners and practitioners about how to build innovation capacity within both the public sector and development sector. We’ve often found ourselves quickly sketching a model or pulling out a diagram to support the conversation, and so we have collated these in the ‘Playbook for innovation learning’.

The playbook includes 35 diagrams, each with a short description explaining its purpose and background and how we use it to help others think about and discuss learning for innovation. We see this playbook as a collection of learning ‘design patterns’ that can be used in a non-linear, interactive way by combining and ‘mashing-up’ different tools to get the job done.

The playbook is aimed at innovation practitioners with several years of experience, but we believe that newcomers might also find it useful.

How To Achieve Great Things

May 6, 2018

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein

Regarding the latter point, it’s insightful that when a tight deadline is sprung on you, it’s easy to figure out what’s critical and what isn’t (OK we’re not talking about great things here, but often quite important things).

Sometimes you can actually have too much time to get things done, as you end up looking at all sorts of possibilities that are merely ‘elaborate procrastination’.

Unfortunately, I’ve never found a way of tricking myself into believing that I had a deadline to work to when I didn’t!