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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?

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