Clarity and Confusion

October 25, 2017

Writing about scientific research:

“A common mistake of beginners is the desire to understand everything completely right away. In real life understanding comes gradually, as one becomes accustomed to the new ideas. One of the difficulties of scientific research is that it is impossible to make progress without clear understanding, yet this understanding can come only from the work itself; every completed piece of research represents a victory over this contradiction.” – A B Migdal (Russian physicist, contemporary of Lev Landau)

I think this applies to other areas as well.

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Feynman’s Breakthrough, Disregard Others!

October 17, 2017

Feynman (just off centre) at Wangerooge in 1987

I started my career as a theoretical physicist, and in the late-80s I co-organised a specialist workshop on a small island, Wangerooge, off the coast of Germany (see above). I tried my luck and invited Richard Feynman (I had heard he was working in this specific area) and to my surprise and delight he accepted. You can read more about him and his outstanding achievements via WikiWand. There are also a number of posts on this blog that centre on him.

Even though he was an incredibly talented and imaginative physicist, with an outstanding popular touch, it’s interesting to note that even he had occasional bouts of self-doubt.

David and Judith Goldstein write (from here, extracted):

“In the immediate aftermath of his Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman suffered a brief period of dejection, during which he doubted his ability to continue to make useful, original contributions at the forefront of theoretical physics. It was during this time that I joined the Caltech faculty. […]

At Chicago, Feynman and I shared a suite in the Quadrangle Club, the university’s faculty club. On the evening after his talk, we had dinner at the home of friends, Val and Lia Telegdi. The next morning, I wandered down to the faculty club dining room for breakfast a bit late. Feynman was already there, eating with someone I didn’t know. I joined them, introductions were mumbled but not heard, and I sleepily drank my morning coffee.

As I listened to the conversation, it dawned on me that this person was James Watson, discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helical structure of DNA. He had with him a typed manuscript entitled Honest Jim (the title would later be changed by the publisher to The Double Helix), which he wanted Feynman to read, in the hope that Feynman might contribute something to the dust jacket. Feynman agreed to look at the manuscript.

That evening there was a cocktail party and dinner in Feynman’s honor at the Quadrangle Club. At the cocktail party the worried host asked me why Feynman wasn’t there. I went up to the suite and found him immersed in Watson’s manuscript. I insisted that since he was the honoree, he had to come down to the party.

Reluctantly, he did, but he fled after dinner at the earliest moment permitted by civility. When the party broke up, I went back up to the suite. Feynman was waiting for me in the living room. “You’ve gotta read this book,” he said. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll look forward to it.” “No,” he shot back, “I mean right now.”

And so, sitting in the living room of our suite, from one to five in the morning, with Feynman waiting impatiently for me to finish, I read the manuscript that would become The Double Helix.

At a certain point, I looked up and said, “Dick, this guy must be either very smart or very lucky. He constantly claims he knew less about what was going on than anyone else in the field, but he still made the crucial discovery.” Feynman virtually dove across the room to show me the notepad on which he’d been anxiously doodling while I read. There he had written one word, which he had proceeded to illuminate with drawings, as if he were working on some elaborate medieval manuscript.

The word was “Disregard! ”

“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!” […]


The Football Pitch

September 25, 2017

Posted just because I liked it, such an impressive and unusual photo.

From the Guardian:

This is Henningsvær, population 460, although during September the number of people on this remote speck of land off north-west Norway will swell to 5,000 as artists and visitors arrive for the Lofoten International Art Festival (Liaf), Norway’s longest-running arts biennial. Drawings, video and installations, on the theme of “Taste the future”, are on show in three former fish processing plants. The village football pitch – one of the most spectacularly located in the world – will also be used as a backdrop for one performance.

Liaf runs until 1 October.

Photograph: Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost/Getty Images


The Importance Of A Plan B

September 8, 2017

I’m a bit of a sucker for reading business books. At least in my experience, they rarely say anything startlingly new, more often point out one aspect that may be overlooked or perhaps misunderstood and then give lots of examples for context. Nevertheless saying the same things over and again is still useful as quite often factors are forgotten or else accidentally given low priority. It’s always tempting to focus on those bits you like doing the most!

One such book I was reading recently mentioned the need, when you’re doing something new, to have a Plan B. This may seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning. However, as an experiment, I asked a few friends (who are building startups) what their Plan B was and a clear answer wasn’t really forthcoming. I guess they were hoping it wouldn’t really be needed.

The book gave as a simple example pitching an idea for a new training course in a company. You could cold-pitch at the bottom rung of the company and stimulate interest and use this as a base to excite senior management. Alternatively you could aim for a referral to get to a decision maker straight away. The ‘If then, else’ approach to planning would be to try one and, if unsuccessful, then the other. They are quite different ways forward although with the same end result.

The point is that the options are clarified before starting an endeavour not at the end or during a project or initiative. This requires a bit of imagination and might be best carried out through conversations, brainstorming or a myriad other techniques.

An aspect of this occurs in standard business plan proposals (of which I have years of experience). The question is often asked ‘If the funding was reduced by (say) 25% what would be impact be, would it still be a viable and worthwhile project?’. This begs the question of course, as one side will be trying to reduce the funding whilst the other to increase it. It might be better to simply ask for some imaginative Plan Bs!


How Reliable Are First Impressions?

August 22, 2017

From an interesting article in Ars Technica on how we can overestimate what we extract from first impressions:

Other people’s faces are thus more akin to mirrors reflecting our own biases than to windows revealing their owners’ inner lives; the first impressions we make of other people based on their faces say more about us than about them.

The article is a review of a recent book: Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions by Alexander Todorov (Princeton Uni Press, 2017):

We make up our minds about others after seeing their faces for a fraction of a second—and these snap judgments predict all kinds of important decisions. For example, politicians who simply look more competent are more likely to win elections. Yet the character judgments we make from faces are as inaccurate as they are irresistible; in most situations, we would guess more accurately if we ignored faces. So why do we put so much stock in these widely shared impressions? What is their purpose if they are completely unreliable? In this book, Alexander Todorov, one of the world’s leading researchers on the subject, answers these questions as he tells the story of the modern science of first impressions.


The Design Museum, London

August 8, 2017

The Design Museum and some surrounding buildings, that are also very impressive, which all adds to the overall vista

“The world’s leading museum devoted to contemporary design in every form from architecture and fashion to graphics, product and industrial design.”

The striking entrance to the museum

I’ve been meaning to visit the Design Museum for years. It used to be near Tower Bridge so was a little out of the way for most of my visits to London. However in November last year it was moved to a very impressive and much larger new building in High Street Kensington.

As you can see the bulk of the building is empty space with rooms at all levels around the sides. There are a variety of exhibitions, events and workshops running.

The impressive Designer motif (that changes to Maker and User through flipping screens)

The free permanent exhibition, Designer Maker User (the only one I had time to view, see above), presents it’s themes clearly and interestingly. It was however quite a bit smaller than what I would have imagined considering the remit of the museum (perhaps there are various practical constraints). Other (and rather mixed) views on visiting the museum can be found on TripAdvisor.

Some example text from the permanent exhibition

The famous Anglepoise type lamps

The Design Museum is certainly worth a visit, for families as well as schools, and the very attractive Holland Park is also nearby.

Approaching the museum from Holland Park

Some interesting additional background on the museum (extracted from from Wikipedia):

The museum was founded in 1989 by Sir Terence Conran and was originally housed in a former 1940s banana warehouse on the south bank of the River Thames in the Shad Thames area in SE1 London.

In June 2011, Sir Terence Conran donated £17.5 million to enable the Museum to move in 2016 from the warehouse to a larger site which formerly housed the Commonwealth Institute in west London.

The move brought the museum into Kensington’s cultural quarter, joining the Royal College of Art, V&A, Science Museum, Natural History Museum and Serpentine Gallery.

The top-floor space under the spectacular museum roof houses a permanent display, Designer Maker User, with key objects from the museum’s collection. It is the only one in the UK devoted exclusively to contemporary design and architecture.


How to Talk and How to Listen

July 2, 2017

Celeste Headlee (from a TED Talk, see here which includes a transcript)

There are quite a few posts on my blog that orient around the role and importance of face-to-face conversations. Some of these focus on actual events that promote and stimulate (group) conversations, such as the Knowledge Cafes pioneered by David Gurteen (for example, see here). Another aspect that interests me are the conversational skills we all have and, importantly, how these can be developed further.

This was brought home to me in a vivid manner a few years ago when I heard a talk on ‘how to have better conversations’ and approached the speaker afterwards with some queries. He then duly broke most of the advice he had just given out eg didn’t listen, didn’t ask questions, ignored my body language etc. Apart from being wryly amusing (not to mention disappointing), it provided a good example of the common disparity between theory and practice! That being said, I expect we’ve all done this at some time or other, or maybe we’ve simply been trained and educated to act this way?

In many organisations there are opportunities for developing communication skills (say through formal training) although these rarely seem to cover conversation. Conversation seems to be thought of as an ad hoc skill which you just ‘have’.

Anyway, this leads on to the funny and insightful TED talk (above) by Celeste Headlee (which has had over 3 million views). As she says, even if you master just one of the ways she recommends you’re doing great!

Interesting quote from the video: “Conversational competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach.”

After listening to this video, and as a trial, I’ve tried to ‘listen’ more and it really does work. I catch myself bursting to say something and then just say ‘let it go’ and it’s quite amazing how the conversation develops (the other person realises you really are paying attention to what they’re saying and are quite often surprised!). I’m now going to try a few of the other suggestions (see list below; mainly being briefer, staying out of the weeds and less repeating).

Another illuminating activity is to just listen to people having conversations and figure out what works and what doesn’t and then try to incorporate the better points. In TV interviews, repetition, unnecessary details and rambling really do stand out like a sore thumb.

Why not give one or two of the topics a go yourself, you may be (pleasantly) surprised at the results!

As a list, the ten points are (however, best to just watch the 12 minute video):

  1. Don’t multitask.
  2. Don’t pontificate.
  3. Use open-ended questions.
  4. Go with the flow.
  5. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know.
  6. Don’t equate your experience with theirs.
  7. Try not to repeat yourself.
  8. Stay out of the weeds.
  9. Listen.
  10. Be brief.