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


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!


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.

Searching For A Cause

January 3, 2015

Tidying up the kitchen recently, I turned on the radio and a 10 hour BBC dramatisation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace was on (here)!

During the short part I had the time to listen to, I heard this:

It is beyond the power of the human intellect to encompass all the causes of any phenomenon. But the impulse to search into causes is inherent in man’s very nature. And so the human intellect, without investigating the multiplicity and complexity of circumstances conditioning an event, any one of which taken separately may seem to be the reason for it, snatches at the first most comprehensible approximation to a cause and says ‘There is the cause’……

There is, and can be, no cause of an historical event save the one cause of all causes (i.e. God). But there are laws governing events: some we are ignorant of, others we are groping our way to. The discovery of these laws becomes possible only when we finally give up looking for causes.

A bit more on this topic, causation and complexity, in relation to Tolstoy’s War and Peace can be found on the Oxfam blog, From Poverty To Power.

The Wisdom To Be Successful

January 2, 2015

The TED clip above features cardiologist Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein and he makes the case that age is/can be an advantage in making discoveries or coming up with new ideas and products.

He also makes the point that it’s your obligation to do something about any insights you might have, as even though you may not have the ‘energy of youth’, you do have the wisdom of experience. He gives a variety of interesting examples that support his case and has the nice turn of phrase ‘the wisdom to be successful’.

I found his own story very compelling (15:45 in the video) where he had a hunch that something was wrong with a widely acclaimed drug for heart disease. The end result was that the drug got turned down, making a massive impact on healthcare (financial and medical). The process for carrying this through must have been unbelievably tough, both in steadfastly believing his hunch as well as relentlessly pursuing it’s consequences. Obviously sometimes you’re going to be wrong but that shouldn’t be an obstacle to taking action (fear of failure).

I have to admit that I’ve fallen into this trap myself, thinking that most interesting things need the vitality and curiosity of youth. That obviously has an important role to play but, as he emphasises, it’s only part of the story and ‘making a difference’ can anyway take a variety of forms. Like Fleming (who was 47 at the time), keep an eye out for your mould, it’s probably already in front of you!

I came across this clip by chance and found it very inspiring, especially as the New Year is just starting.

Looking In The Wrong Place

December 12, 2014

Thought provoking snippet mentioned on the blog of Tim Harford:

“In 1943, the American statistician Abraham Wald was asked to advise the US air force on how to reinforce their planes. Only a limited weight of armour plating was feasible, and the proposal on the table was to reinforce the wings, the centre of the fuselage, and the tail. Why? Because bombers were returning from missions riddled with bullet holes in those areas.

Wald explained that this would be a mistake. What the air force had discovered was that when planes were hit in the wings, tail or central fuselage, they made it home. Where, asked Wald, were the planes that had been hit in other areas? They never returned. Wald suggested reinforcing the planes wherever the surviving planes had been unscathed instead.

It’s natural to look at life’s winners – often they become winners in the first place because they’re interesting to look at. That’s why Kickended (a site that details projects that receive zero crowdfunding on Kickstarter) gives us an important lesson. If we don’t look at life’s losers too, we may end up putting our time, money, attention or even armour plating in entirely the wrong place.”

See also Financial Innovation – Alternative Finance 2014.



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