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Maths: things have reached a low ebb

Ok, no more posts about the US election after this, but I can’t help commenting on the press reports regarding New York Times columnist Nate Silver. Essentially, Silver diligently applied mathematical techniques to the available data to predict the outcome of the US Presidential Election. So far, so good.

That his predictions were pretty accurate doesn’t surprise me. But apparently it has come as something as a shock to most of the world’s press and Silver is now being treated as some kind of quasi-mythical genius/magician. Did those same reporters not go to maths class? Do they not know that that’s what maths is for? I mean, landing a small craft on Mars without any human involvement after launch, that’s impressive. Election statistics? Nope.

Everyone has to study maths, so this leads me to the conclusion that we are doing something wrong. Even if you don’t understand the maths required to achieve the statistical analyses carried out by Silver, you should at least understand that it’s not magic, just maths. Note to journalists: find out what maths and tell us*.

Time to start teaching people that maths is a beautiful thing that helps in everyday life, not something to be endured for as little time as possible ….

* for those that are interested click here

How to choose a prosperous career

I am probably not the first person to note that during an election, politicians typically generate an awful lot more heat than light (or insight) and today’s US Presidential election seems little different. But elections are a time when some of the better commentators stop for a moment to reflect upon the deeper issues facing our societies. Clayton Christen’s piece in Saturday’s New York Times is ostensibly a reflection upon the changes needed to stimulate the US economy, but what caught my eye was his analysis of which sectors of the economy create jobs and which ones don’t.

If you have children at school or university, I’d recommend you read the article and think about it deeply, because his analysis correlates very closely with my own experience. To cut to the chase, Christensen (who by the way is a prominent business school professor and author) argues that there are three types of innovation that power the economy and hence create jobs: empowering innovations, sustaining innovations and efficiency innovations. Only innovations in the first category create new jobs and new industries. If a rising tide raises all boats, then starting your career in an industry recently created by a new and empowering innovation will give you much better prospects than starting in an industry that’s cutting costs through efficiency improvements in a vain attempt to stay ahead of the pack.

Given that it’s highly unlikely that an 18 yo school leaver or even a 21 yo graduate will have insight into what an ’empowering innovation’ looks like, it’s almost certain that they will base one of the single most important decisions they will ever make, their choice of career, on false information or chance. To make matters worse, those industries and occupations that are best known will be those that have been around longest and therefore are most likely to be in Christensen’s industries that are either maintaining or cutting jobs. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Facts versus Opinions

American Senator Daniel Moynihan’s famous line, “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts” was reworked by Governor Mitt Romney during last weeks Presidential debate as, “you can have you own office and your own plane, but you can’t have your own facts”. Whilst politicians are hardly in a position to lecture the rest of us about the use of facts, it raises an important point: opinions are NOT facts, but increasingly they seem to be presented as such.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise; we live in an information society, but our ability to process that information probably hasn’t grown much from the time when the Library of Alexandria contained virtually the entire sum of human knowledge within it’s 700,000 books. So we reach for shortcuts or we accept the opinion of people who seem reliable or who are deemed to be experts. In some ways, we’ve become so used to doing this, that such opinions become facts (or factoids) themselves, facts of the “it must be right because so and so wouldn’t lie” variety.

In comparison to the number of blogs and sites offering an opinion on everything from politics to fashion, the number of fact checking sites is tiny. Services such as Truth Squad for politics or computational engines such as Wolfram Alpha to check the raw numbers are in a small minority, but one thing’s for sure on the internet, if the demand is there, the sites will come. So we need to educate ourselves and our children on the importance of differentiating fact from opinion and demand access to the facts or the ability to check on the facts that we’re given to us in everyday life. It’s time we all became a new breed of information connoisseurs.

The lies we tell our children

If you’re a parent or have been parented (so that’s all of us), I’d urge you to read Paul Graham’s essay on the lies we tell our kids. The idea that we end up as adults with a ‘truth debt’ is a nice way to picture the problem. That our views of the world are heavily influenced by our parents is not exactly news, but Graham makes his point from what to me is a different angle. It takes real effort to step outside of the circle that we are brought up in and it’s one of the reasons why the children of doctors become doctors, the children of engineers become engineers etc. Both as adults and as parents, by understanding what we’re doing, we can maintain the benefits whilst guarding against the downside.

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