Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Why the Tea Party really wouldn’t like Charles Dickens

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 15, 2012

The young Charles Dickens

I came across the following passage from Dickens’ ‘American Notes’ last night. American Notes is his account of his first visit to America in January 1842, when he was 29 years of age. Based on what I’ve read so far it’s well worth a read. His account of his extremely stormy Atlantic crossing is hilarious. The thought crossed my mind as I read it that, if he were alive today, Dickens could have had a backup career as a stand-up when he wasn’t actually writing novels. (Are there any stand-up comedian novelists, I wonder? And if not why not?)

Anyway, here’s the passage that the Tea Party really wouldn’t like. It’s written as part of a reflection on his visit to Boston and its nearby ‘University of Cambridge’.

Above all, I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect, as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them. I never in my life was more affected by the contemplation of happiness, under circumstances of privation and bereavement, than in my visits to these establishments.

It is a great and pleasant feature of all such institutions in America, that they are either supported by the State or assisted by the State; or (in the event of their not needing its helping hand) that they act in concert with it, and are emphatically the people’s. I cannot but think, with a view to the principle and its tendency to elevate or depress the character of the industrious classes, that a Public Charity is immeasurably better than a Private Foundation, no matter how munificently the latter may be endowed. In our own country, where it has not, until within these later days, been a very popular fashion with governments to display any extraordinary regard for the great mass of the people or to recognise their existence as improvable creatures, private charities, unexampled in the history of the earth, have arisen, to do an incalculable amount of good among the destitute and afflicted.

But the government of the country, having neither act nor part in them, is not in the receipt of any portion of the gratitude they inspire; and, offering very little shelter or relief beyond that which is to be found in the workhouse and the jail, has come, not unnaturally, to be looked upon by the poor rather as a stern master, quick to correct and punish, than a kind protector, merciful and vigilant in their hour of need.’

Good, isn’t it? (I’m not talking to you, Tea Party members.)

Overall, Charles Dickens was famously unimpressed by the USA but I haven’t read that part yet.

American Notes is available to read free online and if you use the wonderful Calibre software it will send it to your e-reader of choice.

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Cognitive surplus revisited

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 17, 2010

Since I first blogged here about Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus (and set up a separate blog containing a review of his first book, Here Comes Everybody) a couple of relevant things have happened.  First, Shirky published a second book this year; Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  Secondly, the UK has acquired a new government which promotes as one of its fundamental principles the idea of ‘Big Society‘ the aim of which is to to “create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people”.

One of the criticisms of Shirky’s new book is that the ideas on which it is based are fine in theory but Shirky appears to have no practical experience of applying them himself.  Unlike, for example, this chap.  I’m not sure how many of our current Cabinet have organised volunteer groups but those who, like me, have will know that it involves a number of  ‘challenges’.  I won’t elaborate for now – most of the problems are fairly obvious – but I will return to them in another post.  In the meantime it will be interesting to see how the  Big Society develops.

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“…if you tell a big enough lie…”

Posted by Andrew Cooper on March 30, 2010

Those of you who aren’t in the UK may not be aware that a general election is looming here.

As elections are all about attempting to weigh up the pros and cons of each party’s policies and coming to an objective, rational and informed decision about how to vote,*  I thought it might be useful to provide a guide to some of the ways in which our thinking can become a little warped.

So, here is list list of what are known as ‘cognitive biases’ which you might encounter in your own thinking or in that of others, during an election period. I’ve highlighted those that seem particularly relevant to elections (which is most of them, as it turns out, although some – like ‘herd effect’ and ‘confirmation bias’ should probably be underlined as well.)

Do try, as you weigh up the pros and cons of each party and its policies,  to make sure none of these apply to you.

  • Actor-observer bias – the tendency for explanations of other individuals’ behaviors to overemphasize the influence of their personality and underemphasize the influence of their situation (see also fundamental attribution error).
  • Ambiguity effect – the avoidance of options for which missing information makes the probability seem “unknown”.
  • Anchoring effect – the tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor,” on a past reference or on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (also called “insufficient adjustment”).
  • Attentional bias – neglect of relevant data when making judgments of a correlation or association.
  • Attribute substitution – making a complex, difficult judgement by unconsciously substituting an easier judgement
  • Authority bias – the tendency to value an ambiguous stimulus (e.g., an art performance) according to the opinion of someone who is seen as an authority on the topic.
  • Availability cascade – a self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or “repeat something long enough and it will become true”).
  • Availability heuristic – estimating what is more likely by what is more available in memory, which is biased toward vivid, unusual, or emotionally charged examples.
  • Bandwagon effect – the tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same. Related to groupthink and herd behaviour.
  • Base rate fallacy – ignoring available statistical data in favor of particulars.
  • Belief bias – an effect where someone’s evaluation of the logical strength of an argument is biased by the believability of the conclusion.
  • Bias blind spot – the tendency not to compensate for one’s own cognitive biases.
  • Capability bias – The tendency to believe that the closer average performance is to a target, the tighter the distribution of the data set.
  • Choice-supportive bias – the tendency to remember one’s choices as better than they actually were.
  • Clustering illusion – the tendency to see patterns where actually none exist.
  • Confirmation bias – the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.
  • Congruence bias – the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, in contrast to tests of possible alternative hypotheses.
  • Conjunction fallacy – the tendency to assume that specific conditions are more probable than general ones.
  • Consistency bias – incorrectly remembering one’s past attitudes and behaviour as resembling present attitudes and behaviour.
  • Contrast effect – the enhancement or diminishing of a weight or other measurement when compared with a recently observed contrasting object.
  • Cryptomnesia – a form of misattribution where a memory is mistaken for imagination.
  • Déformation professionnelle – the tendency to look at things according to the conventions of one’s own profession, forgetting any broader point of view.
  • Denomination effect – the tendency to spend more money when it is denominated in small amounts (e.g. coins) rather than large amounts (e.g. bills).
  • Disposition effect – the tendency to sell assets that have increased in value but hold assets that have decreased in value.
  • Disregard of regression toward the mean – the tendency to expect extreme performance to continue.
  • Distinction bias – the tendency to view two options as more dissimilar when evaluating them simultaneously than when evaluating them separately.
  • Egocentric bias – occurs when people claim more responsibility for themselves for the results of a joint action than an outside observer would.
  • Egocentric bias – recalling the past in a self-serving manner, e.g. remembering one’s exam grades as being better than they were, or remembering a caught fish as being bigger than it was
  • Endowment effect – “the fact that people often demand much more to give up an object than they would be willing to pay to acquire it”.
  • Extraordinarity bias – the tendency to value an object more than others in the same category as a result of an extraordinarity of that object that does not, in itself, change the value.
  • False consensus effect – the tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which others agree with them.
  • False memory – confusion of imagination with memory, or the confusion of true memories with false memories.
  • Focusing effect – prediction bias occurring when people place too much importance on one aspect of an event; causes error in accurately predicting the utility of a future outcome.
  • Forer effect (aka Barnum Effect) – the tendency to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. For example, horoscopes.
  • Framing – Using an approach or description of the situation or issue that is too narrow. Also framing effect – drawing different conclusions based on how data is presented.
  • Fundamental attribution error – the tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior (see also actor-observer bias, group attribution error, positivity effect, and negativity effect).
  • Halo effect – the tendency for a person’s positive or negative traits to “spill over” from one area of their personality to another in others’ perceptions of them (see also physical attractiveness stereotype).
  • Hawthorne effect – the tendency of people to perform or perceive differently when they know that they are being observed.
  • Herd instinct – Common tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.
  • Hindsight bias – filtering memory of past events through present knowledge, so that those events look more predictable than they actually were; also known as the ‘I-knew-it-all-along effect’.
  • Hyperbolic discounting – the tendency for people to have a stronger preference for more immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs, where the tendency increases the closer to the present both payoffs are.
  • Illusion of asymmetric insight – people perceive their knowledge of their peers to surpass their peers’ knowledge of them.
  • Illusion of control – the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they clearly cannot.
  • Illusion of transparency – people overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.
  • Illusory correlation – beliefs that inaccurately suppose a relationship between a certain type of action and an effect.
  • Illusory superiority – overestimating one’s desirable qualities, and underestimating undesirable qualities, relative to other people. Also known as Superiority bias (also known as “Lake Wobegon effect”, “better-than-average effect”, “superiority bias”, or Dunning-Kruger effect).
  • Impact bias – the tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of the impact of future feeling states.
  • Information bias – the tendency to seek information even when it cannot affect action.
  • Ingroup bias – the tendency for people to give preferential treatment to others they perceive to be members of their own groups.
  • Interloper effect – the tendency to value third party consultation as objective, confirming, and without motive. Also consultation paradox, the conclusion that solutions proposed by existing personnel within an organization are less likely to receive support than from those recruited for that purpose.
  • Irrational escalation – the tendency to make irrational decisions based upon rational decisions in the past or to justify actions already taken.
  • Just-world phenomenon – the tendency for people to believe that the world is just and therefore people “get what they deserve.”
  • Last illusion — the belief that someone must know what is going on. Coined by Brian Eno.
  • Loss aversion – “the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it”.
  • Mere exposure effect – the tendency for people to express undue liking for things merely because they are familiar with them.
  • Money illusion – the tendency of people to concentrate on the nominal (face value) of money rather than its value in terms of purchasing power.
  • Moral credential effect – the tendency of a track record of non-prejudice to increase subsequent prejudice.
  • Need for Closure – the need to reach a verdict in important matters; to have an answer and to escape the feeling of doubt and uncertainty. The personal context (time or social pressure) might increase this bias.
  • Negativity bias – phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to and give more weight to negative than positive experiences or other kinds of information.
  • Neglect of prior base rates effect – the tendency to neglect known odds when reevaluating odds in light of weak evidence.
  • Neglect of probability – the tendency to completely disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty.
  • Normalcy bias – the refusal to plan for, or react to, a disaster which has never happened before.
  • Not Invented Here – the tendency to ignore that a product or solution already exists, because its source is seen as an “enemy” or as “inferior”.
  • Observer-expectancy effect – when a researcher expects a given result and therefore unconsciously manipulates an experiment or misinterprets data in order to find it (see also subject-expectancy effect).
  • Omission bias – the tendency to judge harmful actions as worse, or less moral, than equally harmful omissions (inactions).
  • Optimism bias – the systematic tendency to be over-optimistic about the outcome of planned actions.
  • Ostrich effect – ignoring an obvious (negative) situation.
  • Outcome bias – the tendency to judge a decision by its eventual outcome instead of based on the quality of the decision at the time it was made.
  • Outgroup homogeneity bias – individuals see members of their own group as being relatively more varied than members of other groups.
  • Overconfidence effect – excessive confidence in one’s own answers to questions. For example, for certain types of question, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.
  • Positive outcome bias – a tendency in prediction to overestimate the probability of good things happening to them (see also wishful thinking, optimism bias, and valence effect).
  • Post-purchase rationalization – the tendency to persuade oneself through rational argument that a purchase was a good value.
  • Primacy effect – the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events.
  • Projection bias – the tendency to unconsciously assume that others share the same or similar thoughts, beliefs, values, or positions.
  • Pseudocertainty effect – the tendency to make risk-averse choices if the expected outcome is positive, but make risk-seeking choices to avoid negative outcomes.
  • Reactance – the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants you to do out of a need to resist a perceived attempt to constrain your freedom of choice.
  • Recency effect – the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events (see also peak-end rule).
  • Reminiscence bump – the effect that people tend to recall more personal events from adolescence and early adulthood than from other lifetime periods.
  • Restraint bias – the tendency to overestimate one’s ability to show restraint in the face of temptation.
  • Rosy retrospection – the tendency to rate past events more positively than they had actually rated them when the event occurred.
  • Selection bias – a distortion of evidence or data that arises from the way that the data are collected.
  • Selective perception – the tendency for expectations to affect perception.
  • Self-fulfilling prophecy – the tendency to engage in behaviors that elicit results which will (consciously or not) confirm existing attitudes.
  • Self-serving bias (also called “behavioral confirmation effect”) – the tendency to claim more responsibility for successes than failures. It may also manifest itself as a tendency for people to evaluate ambiguous information in a way beneficial to their interests (see also group-serving bias).
  • Semmelweis reflex – the tendency to reject new evidence that contradicts an established paradigm.
  • Status quo bias – the tendency for people to like things to stay relatively the same (see also loss aversion, endowment effect, and system justification).
  • Stereotyping – expecting a member of a group to have certain characteristics without having actual information about that individual.
  • Subadditivity effect – the tendency to judge probability of the whole to be less than the probabilities of the parts.
  • Subjective validation – perception that something is true if a subject’s belief demands it to be true. Also assigns perceived connections between coincidences.
  • Suggestibility – a form of misattribution where ideas suggested by a questioner are mistaken for memory.
  • Survivorship bias – concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and ignoring those that didn’t, or arguing that a strategy is effective given the winners, while ignoring the large amount of losers.
  • System justification – the tendency to defend and bolster the status quo. Existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives disparaged sometimes even at the expense of individual and collective self-interest. (See also status quo bias.)
  • Telescoping effect – the effect that recent events appear to have occurred more remotely and remote events appear to have occurred more recently.
  • Texas sharpshooter fallacy – the fallacy of selecting or adjusting a hypothesis after the data is collected, making it impossible to test the hypothesis fairly. Refers to the concept of firing shots at a barn door, drawing a circle around the best group, and declaring that to be the target.
  • Trait ascription bias – the tendency for people to view themselves as relatively variable in terms of personality, behavior and mood while viewing others as much more predictable.
  • Ultimate attribution error – Similar to the fundamental attribution error, in this error a person is likely to make an internal attribution to an entire group instead of the individuals within the group.
  • Von Restorff effect – the tendency for an item that “stands out like a sore thumb” to be more likely to be remembered than other items.
  • Well travelled road effect – underestimation of the duration taken to traverse oft-traveled routes and over-estimate the duration taken to traverse less familiar routes.
  • Wishful thinking – the formation of beliefs and the making of decisions according to what is pleasing to imagine instead of by appeal to evidence or rationality.
  • Zero-risk bias – preference for reducing a small risk to zero over a greater reduction in a larger risk

The full list, together with links and further explanations, can be found here at Wikipedia.

*elections aren’t about this at all, of course: the vast majority vote for the party they’ve always voted for and that’s usually determined by how their parents voted.

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The future?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on March 4, 2010

Long time, no blog but I thought you’d like to see this video which I came across while working on another website.  It’s Microsoft, I know, but I defy you not to smile.

It’s all very exciting, isn’t it?  I love the idea of the interactive window between classrooms in different parts of the world.  It’s also nice that it all works – not a single application crashes and there are no network connection problems. I’m a little concerned that there’s only one person who appears to be over 50 in this particular vision of the future. There are none of the balding/greying heads that you’d usually see in that business class cabin – what have they done with them all? Also, it seems that ties are back in 20?? – surely not?

There are, of course, some excellent parodies of this kind of thing around as well.  Here’s one of them.

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The future of blogging

Posted by Andrew Cooper on June 25, 2009

arrowHere’s Charles Arthur in today’s Guardian noting that ‘the long tail of blogging is dying’ and explaining why.

My feeling is that blogs which serve a very specific purpose – like keeping relatives and friends in touch with an overseas trip – or reporting on a live event or TV programme will continue, not least because it’s much easier to integrate photos, sound and video that it is with Twitter.  But both of those applications are time limited and targeted at a specific audience.  Perhaps it’s the long-term ‘blog as a journal’ that will tend to die out, not least because – as Arthur points out – they need a lot of work.

Blogs and Twitter feed a basic human need to communicate, but those who can meet their needs with the least resources tend to win – in evolution, at least.  It’s taken over 5 minutes to write this, find the links and post it.  A ‘retweet’ of Arthur’s original Twitter post – which is how I learned about the article –  took about 10 seconds, including adding (within my 140 characters) a note that most of the social media commentariat I’ve been following via Google Reader have drastically cut down on their number of blog posts.

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Dear Sir Patrick

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 22, 2009

Dear Sir Patrick,

In the summer of 1973, when I was seventeen years old, I attended a sixth form conference in Oxfordshire (at a school in Banbury, I think).  I only remember two things from that event: dancing to a live band in the evening and listening to you talking to us about the future.

In general my memory of  your talk is rather hazy, but I’m pretty sure that you spoke about the Apollo programme and the future of space exploration. The last humans to walk on the moon – indeed, the last humans to leave Earth orbit – had done so the previous December and we all knew you from the BBC’s coverage of Apollo. 

One point you made stuck in my mind, however.  You said that when we were your age – you were 50 at the time and I am now 53 – there would be computers “no larger than a packet of cigarettes” which would fit in our shirt pockets.  

I wish I could remember what you thought these computers would be able to do.  I expect we imagined that they would be like sophisticated calculators – one of my friends owned an early Hewlett Packard scientific calculator, which seemed pretty astonishing to us the time.  

Now, thirty six years later, I know the answer.  I have just been standing in our garden looking at the night sky with a shirt-pocket sized computer as my guide.  

The computer in question can do many things. I can use it to  read messages from friends and colleagues; it can read any of the billions of pages from something called the World Wide Web; it can take photographs and videos and transmit them to others.  It can also, thanks to someting called “Google Sky Maps” guide me around the night sky.  If I ‘point’ it at the sky it shows me the names of the stars and planets at which I’m looking – just now it picked out Saturn.  It is really quite amazing – a pocket sized planetarium.  I can even point it at the earth below me and it shows me what I could see if was standing on the other side of the planet.  

My pocket sized computer also, incidentally, can be used to make telephone calls.  Quite astonishing.

Very many thanks for talking to us, and inspiring us, way back then.

Best regards
Andrew Cooper

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Simon Jenkins on Sir Humphrey

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 22, 2009

sir humphreyHere is Simon Jenkins suggesting in today’s Guardian that one explanation for the  UK government’s current impersonation of a mammoth sinking into a tar pit is that ministers no longer take advice, at least on matters political, from permanent secretaries.  Instead political advisers rule the roost leaving senior civil servants to manage and administrate.

‘Blair, like Thatcher over the poll tax, replaced Whitehall’s “scepticism first, loyalty afterwards” with loyalty first and then chaos. Brown as chancellor, who rarely consulted even his Treasury officials, endured one fiasco after another, as on tax credits and rail privatisation. At No 10 he conveys the image of a prime minister alone in his office, attended by a small and devoted cabal, unable to handle contradictory advice or exercise judgment based on it. A lost victim of circumstance, he seems to have no traction on the machinery of government.’

Jenkins predicts that Sir Humphrey will return.  I’m not so sure: the Oxbridge classicists who once dominated the ranks of  the senior civil service (Sir Humphrey was undoubtedly one himself) are no longer so sniffy about ‘commerce’ and are happy to head off to the private sector.  Once a tradition has been broken, it’s broken.

I mentioned my encounter with a real Sir Humphrey here, incidentally.

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Power to the people – part 3

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 17, 2009

John Locke

John Locke

As John Locke pointed out, democracy relies on electors allowing a small group of individuals to have power over the rest of us.  We give them our consent to let them govern us.  Here in the UK the general mood of the public suggests that we have – mentally at least – withdrawn it.

The expenses scandal which is currently, to put it mildly, fuelling much debate here and has led to this state of affairs is pretty small beer compared with the kind of outright corruption I’ve come across in many of the countries I’ve visited (e.g. Ireland).  However it has seriously undermined the public’s trust in those we have put in positions of power.

Writing in today’s Observer newspaper, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, suggests a range of ideas aimed at restoring that trust.   He argues for proportional representation (something that the Libdems have wanted for many years) and the development of a “short constitution setting out what rights people enjoy and making clear the subservience of Parliament to the people” which would be drawn up by “A constitutional convention, overseen by 100 randomly selected voters”.

I’ve blogged before about the idea of involving randomly selected members of the public in governing the country.  I have never previously thought that the idea would fly – apart from it’s general wackiness, there are far too many vested interests in and around Westminster to allow it to happen.   The 21st century’s version of the establishment – big business – depends on its ability to lobby and exert pressure via networks (all those senior ex-ministers and permanent secretaries who end up on the boards of banks, for example) and they just wouldn’t allow it to happen.

It’s a nice thought, though.  When I’ve mentioned the idea of the self-immolating ‘Systems Party’ (as soon as it it gains power, it introduces legislation replacing voting as a means of selecting members of parliament with random selection) to others, one of the principle objections is that they wouldn’t want most of the people who one sees wandering up and down our local high street to be given power over anything.   I disagree with that view: I think most people, when given actual responsibility, treated like adults and shown the arguments for and against a particular idea or policy are perfectly capable of thinking things through and making good decisions. The fact that the popular press, for example, treats most of the public as if they were idiots doesn’t mean that they actually are.

Clegg says in the Observer item that we need a system of government that’s fit for the 21st Century.  I think that there’s a strong link here to another recurrent theme in this blog – Clay Shirky’s idea of ‘cognitive surplus’.  As you’ll recall (see link to my review of his book in the right hand side bar) Shirky argues that we only needed pyramid shaped, hyerarchical organisations in the past because there was no other way of organising.  However, the ‘social media’ alongside a carefully constituted jury-like system, so that as many people as possible could play an active part in politics, might just work.

Not on this planet, though.

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Meltdown reading

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 3, 2009

If, like me, you are a bit short of time to read the three books that Will Hutton reviews here, the review itself is worth a look.   We’ve all seen the re-runs of Gordon Brown’s remarkably un-precsient Mansion House speech in 2007, during which he praised the assembled investment bankers for, in what Hutton describes as “language so purple it would make a cardinal blush” creating “an era that history will record as a new golden age for the City of London.”  Perhaps all new Prime Minister’s should be required, by law, to watch a video that speech.  Every day.  Before breakfast.

Here’s about as much of it as you’;

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Call this a situation room?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on April 30, 2009

Fellow fans of the West Wing – or anyone who has seen any Hollywood representation of the White House’s situation room – will know what it’s supposed to be like.  Dimly lit, packed with technology, huge screens dominating the walls, most of the participants in meetings wearing enough gold braid to sink a medium sized battle ship.  And so on.

The real thing – courtesy of the White House’ Flickr stream (photographer one Pete Souzas) is distinctly disappointing.


The only technology I can see is the single coffee flask at the rear of the room.  There are some blotters and a bunch of middle aged men (and one woman) reading paper documents.  Paper documents!  That’s it.  Come on guys, where’s your sense of theatre?

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Posted by Andrew Cooper on March 15, 2009

I’m blogging from Tanzania here while I’m away on my current trip.   It’s mainly for the benefit of friends and family, but if you’d like to find out what it’s like in downtown Dar es Salaam you’ve very welcome to visit.  Back in the UK on 9th April.

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Chimp innovation

Posted by Andrew Cooper on March 4, 2009

A very hectic week here at Mindworks Towers as my departure for Tanzania on Saturday approaches rapidly, so very little time for blogging.  But I couldn’t resist linking to this story which jumped out at me from the BBC news home page.  Onwards and upwards.

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Left alone in a cage with a mountain of cocaine, a lab rat will gorge itself to death.

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 28, 2009

goodwinThat’s the first sentence of this article, which has nothing to do with Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension, but is the only explanation I can think of for why this banker is behaving as he is.  No doubt if we could interrogate the rats they’d say, shortly before they expired,  ‘you really can’t get enough of this stuff’.  When he was working and receiving bonuses he earned more in a year than most of the population would need for a lifetime of reasonably comfortable living.   He really doesn’t need the money.  It’s easy to think that his behaviour is driven by greed, but perhaps he – like the lab rats – is suffering from an addiction and is in need of help and understanding rather than pure approbation.  Just a second – no, it is just greed.

According to BBC Radio 4’s Money Programme today, if HBOS had failed – ie if it hadn’t been bailed out – Fred would have received £28,000 a year instead of the £695,000 to which, he maintains, he’s entitled.

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Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 26, 2009

dsc034961I expect that you’re wondering, reader, what happend to the project in Tanzania which I started way back in October ’08 and was which due to restart after a 3 week break.  Well I’ve just booked my flights – some four months later – and am looking forward to updating the Habari Tanzania blog I started here. I’ll be arriving in Dar es Salaam on 7th March, in the meantime there’s a lot to do.

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Doom and gloom predictions at gloomiest level since records began

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 16, 2009

graphOK, chaps – and they are all chaps, aren’t they? – we’ve got the message.  It’s going to be really bad.  But talk about laying it on with a trowel.  Seems to me that every time I check the news headlines someone or other has come out with saying something like ‘ it’s going to be much worst than everyone says it’s going to be’.   Statements of this kind have, to my knowledge, been made twice in the last 48 hours. First the CBI said it’s going to be much worse than everyone thinks and now, unbelievably, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England is saying that the economy is ‘likely to perform much worse than the Bank of England expects’.  That’s right.  Charles Bean (I’ll avoid the obvious bean counter joke) is, according to the Guardian, saing that the economy is going to be in a worse state than the organisation of which he is deputy governor says it’s going to be.   

Extrapolating from the ‘even worse than we thought it was going to be’ announcements made over the last week, I think we can be confident that by the end of February the outlook is going to be the worst it has been since people stopped swapping sharks teeth for goods and services rendered and started using money (which, based on a quick Google was in Mesoptamia – aka Iraq – some 5,000 years ago).  

I propose that we all notify the assembled pundits, gurus, economists and bankers that we have got the message that things are worse than we can possibly imagine and that, until they inform us that the needle is nudging in the other direction, they can save their breath.

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Budhhism bus?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 12, 2009

I think I can safely predict that this website is going to cost the UK economy some billions of pounds today – the rate at which it’s spreading across the various web feeds I follow is astonishing.  Here’s my attempt:


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What goals and how goals – part 2

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 10, 2009

Way back in mid-January I posted about the distinction that sports psychologists make between outcome goals and process goals.  In a nutshell, focusing on winning a race (an outcome goal) can be counterproductive because everyone else has the same goal and simply wanting to win clearly doesn’t guarantee that you will.  It’s much better, they argue, to focus on the things you need to do to maximise performance (process goals). 

Here’s the excellent Oliver Burkeman making similar points with better examples in his Guardian column last Saturday.

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The worst possible system of government, apart from all the others that have been tried.

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 10, 2009

Earlier this morning I commented on the blog post here  which is about a subject that interests me.

Over the past three or four years there has been a lot of talk about re-engaging people in politics, much of it prompted by the idea that technology can help this happen.  But terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘involvement’ are often used without serious consideration of what they would actually mean in practice.  Our systems of government are deeply engrained, based in long established institutions, legal frameworks and, perhaps most importantly, customs and practice.  Just because current information technology enables broader involvement doesn’t mean that it will happen.  

As I suggested in an comment on the same blog, portable  networked computers been around for many years – I sent my first email from a laptop device over 20 years ago.  For most of those two decades pundits predicted that teleworking would revolutionise our working habits and travel patterns.  It still hasn’t happened – those of us who telework are at the margins, most people still travel to their place of work and the airlines still rely on business travel for much of their income.  The reasons we don’t telework (or tele-educate, for that matter) have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with how we best interact with one another in groups.

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Krugman on the meltdown

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 7, 2009

I’ve been very unfair to economists here, once or twice suggesting the fact that very few of them appeared to notice the looming Global Economic Meltdown reflected badly on their profession.

This, however, is an economist who is worth listening to.  I’ve felt for some time that adversarial party politics simply can’t cope with the depth of our current economic crisis.  Krugman feels the same way, I think.  For example:

‘Somehow, Washington has lost any sense of what’s at stake — of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much economic trouble we’re in. The crisis began with housing, but the implosion of the Bush-era housing bubble has set economic dominoes falling not just in the United States, but around the world.’

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Free laptops, anyone?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 3, 2009

According to this a £7 laptop is being developed by a ‘UK-Indian consortium’.  Makes the $100 laptop seem probitively expensive.  £7?  Surely that would only cover the postage and packaging?  More information needed, I think.

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