Archive for December, 2014

On the need for diversity

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014 | Thoughts

One of the topics that Noreena Hurtz covered in her book Eyes Wide Open, but which I felt deserved its own separate post, was on the need for diversity.

It is a hot topic at the moment. There is a lot of research suggestive of females being discriminated against in favour of males for example. The research on academic for example seems to clearly show that if you put a female name on something it will get less attention than if you put a male name on it.

However, we do nominally live in a free an equal society, so many people have asked how this can be the case. After all, it is illegal to discriminate on protected characteristics in the work place for example.

For me, Hurtz has been the first person to do a good job of rounding up the research.

The bias within

Hurtz talks about auditions for musicians to join symphony orchestras. To his credit, Gladwell also talks about this. The biggest change in recent decades is that it is now common for musicians to perform behind a screen, so that the judging committee cannot see them. The result has been that women, who were almost never seen in such orchestras are now far more regularly hired.

How can this be so? One answer of course is that people are just bigots. However, I have always found this difficult to accept. Maybe that was the case 50 years ago, but today, does anyone genuinely believe women should be paid less than men? I simply cannot imaging anyone thinking that. Of course, maybe they do, and I have just lead a sheltered life of high intellectual society. But this seems unlikely as such problems equally permeate the Skeptics movement.

However, Hurtz shows there is an alternative explanation, one on the subconscious. We are all biased. We are biased to people who look like us in terms of gender, skin colour, and even name! Without knowing it, I am more likely to get on with someone also named Chris than I am with someone named Phil, or Matt, or Dan. It is not that anyone is consciously discriminating, it is that our minds have evolved to be more trusting of individuals that look like us. The reasons for this are plentiful and probably fairly obvious to those of us with an understanding of human and genetic evolution.

This does not mean that there is anything inherently bigoted about each of us (or you could also look at it as we are, but we are all as bad as each other), but it is important to accept that there is a subconscious bias that we need to be aware of and try and correct for where possible.

Why it is important

This is important because there is also research to show that better decisions are made when a broader range of diverse people have input. On a large scale, this is being used by governments and the scientific community to try and gather ideas from as wide a range of people as possible.

On a local level, it means trying to actively promote a broader range of backgrounds. If you have two possible candidates for a job for example, and they both seem equally qualified, the one with the background least similar to yours is probably the one you should pick.

What are are talking about here is real diversity. For example, if I was to hire a black woman who grew up in Leeds and studied computing at university, I would not actually add much diversity, because he experiences would be very similar to mine. It is more than skin deep. However, actively seeking diverse backgrounds for genuine reasons – because you want to overcome the subconscious bias and find people that will add a new way of looking at problems – can only help you make better decisions and be more successful.

Eyes Wide Open

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014 | Books

I recently read Noreena Hertz’s book “Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World”. It’s quite a good read. In the book she puts forward some of the problems with decision making in the modern world and how can improve our own thinking.

I have picked out some of my favourite quotes and ideas.

“We need to be better decision makers, have decision making classes in schools”

This I would totally agree with. If people had a better understanding of decision making, scientific analysis and understanding statistics and information you would hope that we would at least some of the time have better decisions making, even if that doesn’t fix political bias.

However, I think some of the picture of the “modern world” being such a problem is unjustified.

“The average copy of the New York Times contains more information than you would have encountered 300 years ago.”

That I would suggest is nonsense. How do you measure information? I am sure the New York Times contains a lots of facts and figures, but if you think about the amount of information you pick up just by living your life, its a lot.

Take cooking for example. There is so much knowledge in preparing ingredients, putting it all together and cooking it, serving it, tasting it – tasting food alone has to be a huge amount of information. The human brain can store loads of information.

She probably means specific information in a context. However, it struck me as an add thing to say. She then goes on to say that this is a lot given we can only hold seven things in our memory. Though the latest research indicates this is only two or three things anyway.

“Our world is increasingly unstable and we cannot rely upon it anymore.”

Again, this to me seems like nonsense. Our world is the most stable it has ever been. On a global level, less people are being killed by war than ever before. However, it is on a personal level were we really have seen the chance.

Hundreds of years ago, if the crops failed, you were fucked. Totally fucked. There was a good chance you would die. Just ask the Irish. Today I can walk into Tesco and buy food 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It will always be there. There is no time when Tesco do not have food.

So who cares if Leman Brothers might collapse overnight. I will still be able to find food, clean water, shelter and medical care tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that.

In short, I think she paints a much bleaker picture than we actually find the world. However, there is plenty of room for improvement. Luckily there were some buzz words to the rescue – lets go about making some empowered decision making.

Intuitive thinking

One of the first things that I liked was that She then says that intuitive thinking is often wrong, in contradiction to Gladwell. She even says something like you can’t just blink and make a good decision. Perhaps as an intention reference to the nonsense Gladwell wrote in his book entitled “Blink”, or perhaps not.

Social media

Hurtz puts forward the idea that the constant ping of emails, phone calls and other distractions utterly ruins our train of thought. “Social media is distracting.” I have not seen the research on this, but it would be interesting to know if this is also true of the younger generation who have grown up with it.

Cult of the measurable

Hurtz laments the rejection of anything that cannot be measured. SHe claims that domestic violence is ignored because it is hard to measure. This is a big claim, so I would like to see some evidence on that before I believe it. Of course it could be the case, and if it is, that is something we should address.

Measurables are important though. Maybe not with wine, the example Hurtz uses, but they are with most things. How do you measure success without measurables? How do you make an evidence-based decision if you cannot measure the evidence? It provides the justification for your decisions.

Positivity bias

Most people have a positive bias. Ironically, it is depressed people see the world most clearly. Everyone else overlooks the negative stuff. This should be taken into account when making decisions. You should re-adjust your perceptions in case bad things happen.

I discussed this idea with my friends and family. They said, in my case, I was probably adjusting far too much already lol.

Recency bias

I am not sure what the actual name of it is. However, Hurtz tells the story of an ER doctor that had seen a lot of pneumonia cases recently. A patient came in with slightly odd symptoms that did not quite fit. However, the doctor diagnosed it as pneumonia. Another doctor, who had not seen all the cases, immediately correctly the diagnosis to aspirin poisoning.

This is something I could definitely do to be more aware of at work. Often I will be trying to trace down a bug, as it is the same thing I have seen before, but the usual fixes and debugging are getting me nowhere. Usually, it will turn out to be something totally different, but because I am zoned in on a particular problem, I miss it.

Challenger in Chief

Hurtz recommends you appoint someone to pay “Challenger in Chief”. Their job is to challenge your ideas in an attempt to overcome your optimism bias. They can play Devil’s Advocate and put your ideas to the test.

Pick your historical lessons carefully

Do not get hung up on past success and failures. Richard Zanuck, one of the producers of the Sound of Music, went on to commission several more musicals after the huge success of the first. They flopped. History is not always a good indicator.

This correlates with what Duncan J Watts writes. History only happens once, so is a sample size of one. His classic example is the Minidisk. Sony, hurt from losing the VHS Betamax wars, really did learn its lessons and make an excellent product in the Minidisk. But it still flopped, because of the entirely unpredictable rise of file sharing making MP3 devices popular. Do learn from your mistakes. But do not learn too much.

Thinking time

According to Eyes Wide Open, Barack Obama advised David Cameron to allocate large parts of his day to time where he does nothing but sits and thinks.

I cannot find any evidence to support the claim made in the book, but it is good advice anyway. At work, sometimes I just sit and think. That time is an investment, allowing me to work out the pros and cons of my ideas before I implement them, thus saving time in the long run.

It is also a good idea to not implement ideas straight away. When you first come up with an idea your a) probably quite excited about it and b) have not had time to think it through. Put it at the back of your mind and mull it over for a while before doing anything.

This is something I already practice at work and home. If I decided to take on a new project or get involved with a new charity, I will wait a few weeks and see if I am still as excited about it as I was when I first thought of the idea. Only after sustained interest in an idea will I pursue it.

Similarly, at work, if we need a new feature implementing, I will generally leave it to the next day so that my mind has time to process the pros and cons of my approach.

CV writing

Studies on CVs that suggest if you write it in the third person it is taken more seriously. So the next time you are updating your CV, replace “I lead a team and I implemented x” to “Leading a time and implementing x”.

Anchoring

Anchoring is a real problem, and something Kahneman writes a lot about in Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you are not familiar with the problem it is this. If you ask someone who much a house is worth, they will probably give you a reasonable estimate. However, if you tell them the house recently sold for a huge amount, they will subconsciously anchor on this, and give you a much higher estimate.

This is not always a problem, but is a massive problem when it comes to things like sentencing a convicted criminal to x number of years in prison. It is also one of the reasons why you can get a much better pay rise by switching companies.

Once you are aware of these potential anchors and biases, you can try and eliminate them. Hurtz recommends painting a blank canvas. If you are looking round a new house for example, and the current owner has baked some fresh bread to bias your senses, take the time to try and imagine it without it without the smell.

Colours affect our judgement. This is something we saw a lot at Sky Bet. Just changing the colour of a button for example could have a significant impact on whether people clicked it or not.

Narrowcasting

Do not be so hasty to block people with different opinions on Facebook and Twitter. It is important to expose yourself to different points of view, otherwise you find yourself in a bubble where all you ever get is people reinforcing your existing opinions, regardless of their validity.

I have Facebook friends who post material from the far left, and occasionally from the right. I have religious friends and foreign friends with cultural differences, and many of their opinions I do not agree with. However, I am glad they share them with me to challenge my own point of view.

Eli Pariser also has a great TED talk about this.

Summary

While I think the introductory chapter perhaps over-emphasises the problems with modern society, this book is filled with good ideas. Of course I would think that as I already use a lot of them, but there was plenty of useful reminders and new ideas that for me, made this book an excellent read.

eyes-wide-open

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 29th, 2014 | Distractions

Oh, while I remember, happy holidays for eight days ago. Have a good one. Here is a picture of some snow:

snow

Photo by Cynthia Yip.

Holiday Food Drive 2014

Friday, December 26th, 2014 | Foundation, Humanism

A big thank you to everyone who contributed to the Humanist Action Group‘s 2014 Holiday Food Drive for local homeless shelter. Our final boxing was a long hard day but well worth it in the end. We are pleased to announced so far we have raised in-kind donations worth…

£4,934.81

The donations went to four local homeless shelters and will benefit all of their residents. Thanks to your kind contributions a hundred people that would have woken up with nothing over the holidays will now receive much needed food, clothing and toiletries.

hood-drive-2014

You can see all the photos from the event on our Flickr page.

Christmas card

Sunday, December 14th, 2014 | Video

One of the best things about receiving a “son and your fiancee” card from my parents was that it really reminded me of this Fry & Laurie sketch.

My favourite xkcds

Saturday, December 6th, 2014 | Distractions

This is more a reference for me than anyone else; I’ll probably add it to as time goes on. Other suggestions welcome.

Correlation

Correlation.

The Cloud

The Cloud.

Tornado Guard

TornadoGuard.

Blink

Friday, December 5th, 2014 | Books

How to we make snap decisions that are more accurate than well thought out evidence-based ones.

It should have been a quite short book, because the answer is that we don’t. At least more often than we would like to think. Gladwell says that the biggest problem is that these conscious decisions are locked away from our conscious minds. But the problem is that they are often inaccurate.

This is something that Daniel Kahneman addresses in Thinking, Fast and Slow. You can develop excellent intuitive thinking. But only only certain circumstances, those being where you get immediate feedback. For example if an anaesthesiologist “gets a hunch” that something is wrong you should probably listen to them; if a oncologist or psychiatrist gets one, you should probably ignore then. That is because the anaesthesiologist will find out if their hunch is correct almost immediately, the others will not find out for months, maybe ever, and so never get to refine this decision-making process.

This struck me in Gladwell’s discussion of a marriage analyst who claims he can tell if a couple will divorce just based on overhearing a conversation in a restaurant. Realistically, he doesn’t know if he can actually do that. How could he? He’ll never get feedback on whether that couple did eventually break up or not.

His discussion of biases and prejudices was interesting. He discussed what he called the Warren Harding error. Harding “looked like a president” but when he got to the Whitehouse, it turned out he was rubbish at it. Conversely, the way orcestras started recruiting more women was to do blind auditions (where the musician would be behind a screen) to prevent people from judging them based on what they looked like, for example, do they have a pair of tits.

He also discussed a heart attack decision-tree adopted by Cook County Hospital. This simple decision tree was actually more accurate than doctors were at diagnosing whether people were having a heart attack. Gladwell claimed that people can be overloaded by having too much information and this actually impairs their decision making.

This is something that struck a chord with me. It is one of the things that we have found in my work in predicting sporting outcomes is that too much information can cloud your models. In fact it is pretty much what Nate Silver’s book The Signal and The Noise is about. And the answer is the same – do some logistic regression.

blink_malcom_gladwell

Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 | Video

Outliers

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 | Books

I expressed some of my concerns about Malcolm Gladwell’s writing in my review of The Tipping Point. This included his analysis of the 10,000 hours rule (which is almost certainly wrong) which features in this book. It was still an interesting read however.

Outliers: The Story of Success looks both at some of the most success people, but also how we think of success. He begins by talking about the Matthew affect. This is where sports have cut off date, say 1 January, and so kids born in January are competing against kids almost a year younger than them (kids born in December). The result is that kids in January look better, thus are put in a higher ability stream, get extra coaching and thus become world-class athletes.

According to the research Gladwell points to, this has a huge affect. Almost all sports starts are born in the first three months, and almost none after September. When there is ability setting in school, September births outperform August births by a big margin too.

He then goes on to talk about the 10,000 hours rule, and finally goes on to talk about success is a result of opportunity. Take Bill Gates for example. At 13 years old, his high school got access to a computer system and so by the time he got to founding Microsoft in 1975 he had done more programming than basically anyone else in the world at his age.

This is where the book makes a great point. Gladwell uses the term opportunity, which is a combination of luck and privilege. Bill Gates worked incredibly hard, but he also had an opportunity that almost nobody else in the world had in that he spent his childhood, from 1968-1975, programming.

He is a excellent storyteller. I had the same kind of epiphany that I had when reading Michael Lewis’s Boomerang. They are both such good story tellers that they a) write excellent books and b) make us less critical because of it.

In summary, Outliers is a very engaging book, but that does not make it true. Gladwell is known for over-simplifying problems and he does it equally frequently in this book. If the message you take away is that success is more a product of opportunity than being a meritocracy of hard-work though, the book has probably been of some benefit.

As a final footnote, I had the audiobook edition and one of the things I found quite annoying was what happens with quotes. Gladwell reads it himself and goes into quotes without changing his voice or indicating it. So he will read something out and then say something like “says John Smith” and then you have to try and backtrack to where the quote starts from.

Outliers

MA53 AVW

Monday, December 1st, 2014 | Photos

terrible-parking

If you’re going to mark on double yellow lines, at least get it near the curb. Or consider turning your wipers off when it is not raining.