Category: Thoughts

Can too much information be bad?

I wrote a draft for a post last Mental Health Awareness Week about an issue I have with ‘listicle’ style articles on mental health; “12 things not to say to someone with depression“, “Feeling sad, read these 5 foolproof methods to brighten your day” – that sort of thing. The overall point was that I’m a little wary of those because, while it’s obviously and measurably a good thing that more people have more access to more information about mental health, giving people only half the story can sometimes cause more harm than good. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and all that.

I never published that article in the end, because I wasn’t happy with the overall message (and also because, in over 500 words, I didn’t really say a whole lot that wasn’t in that paragraph). But I read it again and it struck me that a lot of the issues I have with those articles also translate to other things. Specifically, I was thinking about the EU referendum and the way people used information (and what information they used) to justify whichever side of the fence they were on.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about Brexit, per-say – nor is it a post about mental health. I’m merely using both of these as a vehicle to make my points.

We live a lot of our lives in soundbites – chunks of information that we can call upon at short notice to furnish us with some understanding of a given situation. In the blog-post-that-never-was, I make the point that we love listicle articles because they make the idea of – say, mental health – more accessible. We don’t all have degrees psychology, or doctorates in mental health; we can’t know everything about a situation. Yet more and more we have to understand lots of individual things to navigate our way through an increasingly connected and informed world.

Too much to understand?

By now you’ll have seen the news pieces on ‘leavers remorse’, those people who regret the way they voted, some because they didn’t think their vote would count. There are also claims that, on the day after the voting, one of the top Google searches was ‘What is the EU?’.

Obviously, I’m beyond incensed by both of these things. But taking a dispassionate view on it, I don’t know if I’m really all that surprised. Is it really a shock that the EU – an body most from both sides of the debate agree is horrifically opaque – is a source of confusion? And given that, every time an election comes up, we’re always hearing how the voting system is unfair, should we be shocked that many just assumed their vote would get lost in the noise? If there was any ‘official’ explanation that every single vote mattered because we were going to be treated as individuals rather than as constituents, then I missed it.

Often there is simply too much to understand about politics in general. It’s why issue politics is becoming more prevalent than party politics – why many (myself included) are frustrated that we are trying to tackle global problems with the same two-party-favouring political system that we’ve had since the dawn of Parliament. We struggle to engage with politics in its entirety, not because we are too stupid, but because it is too nuanced and the system isn’t equipped to deal with that.

I’m digressing (shock…), but this was sort of my issue with mental health articles. I do worry that reading a short article is something of a tick box exercise. By reading one interpretation of one aspect of mental health, is there a danger that one internalises that view point and uses it as their primary lens for all people? Again, not because people are stupid, but through a combination of simply not knowing what they don’t know, and not having the time or capacity to get more information.

I guess what I’m trying to get my head around is the concept of “things are too big”.

Are short attention spans the problem?

We’re always hearing that we have such short attention spans. I don’t know if that’s true. I watched the entire election coverage on Thursday night, and then spent the whole of Friday watching the news after the results broke. I know I’m not the only one. Once-in-a-generation news stories aside, I spend hours at a time reading blog posts on mental health, on politics, on startups. I watch countless documentaries and TED talks on everything from clean energy to the education system. I do this because these are things I care about.

But there are plenty of important things I don’t pay attention to. In my city, we’ve got a new bus system being put in that’s part of a multi-billion pound investment strategy to connect different areas and revitalise the community. It’s supposed to bring together sectors, including the tech and startup scenes, and mean more jobs, less traffic, and greater prosperity for the city.

And I don’t care.
I’ve tried – I really have. But the information is so sparse and difficult to come by, and the outcomes seem so arbitrary and intangible, that after a while it wasn’t worth my time to pursue it. I’ll learn about it when it’s done, and in the meantime, I have other things to worry about.

If that’s how I feel about a major redevelopment happening outside my front door, what realistically do I expect from people when we’re asked to consider the nigh-on impregnable enigma that is international economic and political systems?

We don’t have short attention spans, we just have limited capacity to engage deeply with things.

That’s why listicles, soundbites, and the like work – because we know we should care about things we don’t engage with. We feel guilty that we don’t understand the intricacies of the labour (small L) economy or the effects of fracking, and so we try and keep up by scratching the surface of many things, and only indulging in understanding a few.

Sometimes we can only scratch the surface.

The problem, and for me the worry that instigated the blog-post-that-never-was, is that sometimes we forget that we’re just scratching the surface. We take the ‘knowledge’ at face-value without probing deeper. We think we have all the information we need to understand a subject, not necessarily out of arrogance, but because we don’t know what we don’t know. We take that, and we move on. It’s not that we don’t care (at least, not always). Rather there are simply other things in life that we prioritise;  family, friends, jobs, the latest season of Orange Is The New Black, our health, other news stories that touch us more personally.

Of course there are things that deserve our attention more than others, and I’m not defending those people who are wilfully ignorant of issues. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have tried harder to understand. I also definitely think that both sides of the debate were unforgivably ineffectual at actually providing us with education on the issues, and rather than debasing us all with their mud-slinging, should have raised the level of public debate such that we could all have more informed discussions. But I said I wasn’t going to write a political piece…

I guess all I’m trying to do here is remind myself that sometimes decisions are much bigger than we can understand. And maybe, on some level, that’s OK.

That and recycle old blog drafts. Obviously.


Why Twitter is my favourite platform

Twitter usage is dwindling. With so many social media options around these days, it was always going to be difficult to maintain traction on any single one. Instagram continues to gain in popularity – despite being (or perhaps because it is) a largely one-sided platform. Facebook, obviously, doesn’t seem likely to die soon. I’ve still no idea what Pinterest is for, but they made the news recently with some new feature, so I guess they’re doing ok.

For me though, Twitter will always be my default platform. My go to place to interact with the world. I really do think it’s a shame that the site is losing favour. So, in solidarity with the little blue bird, here are a few of the reasons why I’ll continue to stick with it.

Twitter lists & Tweetdeck

A perfectly valid criticism of Twitter is that, as an ‘all things to all people’ space, if you follow different people for different reasons your feed can get incredibly messy. It’s actually the same reason why I dislike Tumblr – in theory it should be awesome, and it is by far and away the easiest platform to share any content. Yet for some reason it doesn’t work unless you a) use it to host your own blog and point people directly to it (rather than, say, Medium, where people can ‘stumble’ onto your content much more easily) or b) you’re looking to fangirl/boy over a specific TV show.

I digress. Twitter lists cut through all of that. I can follow any mix of people, sort them into lists (I used the visually challenging, but nevertheless robust Twitlistmanager) and then use Tweetdeck to follow those lists all from one screen. Tweetdeck also allows me to create columns for specific topics (eg. general themes such as #socent or topical threads such as #juniordoctorsstrike) and keep up to date with the latest information, regardless of who I follow.

Some of the channels I follow using the Tweetdeck platform.

Integrations with other services

Of all the social media platforms, none seem to be as accommodating with their APIs as Twitter (I’m looking at you, LinkedIn…). As a result, there are countless services you can use to get the most out of the platform – whether you’re someone who wants to consume content, share it, or create it.

My personal favourite mix of platforms at the moment is a Feedly -> Pocket -> IFTTT -> Buffer -> Twitter coalition. It sounds horrifically complex, but is actually very simple.

  1. I use Feedly to catch up on the latest headlines
  2. I save anything that catches my eye to Pocket
  3. I’ll read the articles on Pocket, and add any relevant tags to it as I go (#tech, #mentalhealth, #innovation, etc)
  4. If I want to share something, I’ll favourite the Pocket
  5. A preset IFTTT script will periodically pull favourited articles from my Pocket, and add them to a Buffer queue.
  6. Buffer (again, already preset) will periodically tweet those links on my behalf, adding the Pocket tags at the same time. If I want, I can log into my Buffer at any point, and edit the tweet before it’s posted – for example to add a comment of my own.

The good thing about that system is that I can cut in at any point – either Pocket something from another website (maybe a Medium blog post that I like), or even send something straight to Buffer. I’ve linked Buffer with my account, so I can track what people engage with, and adjust my tweeting style based on what my audience interacts with the most. (In theory. I don’t actually do that last bit – but the point is, I could…)

Beyond existing services, if you’re a coder, or know someone who is, you can have all sorts of fun playing around with APIs.

You can converse with anyone

Absolutely no other platform allows you to engage with anyone about any conversation the way Twitter does. Yes, in theory Tumblr should; in reality though I’ve always found you have to really try to get the content that you’re looking for. By my super-scientific method of plucking a number out of thin air, about a third of the funny images you see on the web originated on Tumblr – yet you only ever see them shared on other social platforms. Does that not seem weird to anyone else?

I digress again. Hashtags – since used by other platforms, but pioneered on Twitter – let you dive head first into any conversation. Not only that – you can talk to anyone; whether it’s a fellow Heroes Reborn fan from the other side of the world (despite Tim Kring’s seemingly best efforts, there are some of those still knocking about – I, lamentably, am not one of them. That ship sailed, Tim. That ship sailed…), the CEO of a multinational organisation, or the celebrity host of your current favourite podcast. Because, unlike platforms like Facebook for example, you don’t need to be followed to have your voice heard, Twitter is one of the best ways to interact with people about really specific issues.

Also on this point: because Twitter is such an open and transparent platform, it’s also the best way to get in front of brands and public figures for whatever means you see fit. Few things make big companies more nervous than bad social media, so if you have an issue with your broadband, your train service, or even your local MP, ping them a tweet and watch as they fall over themselves (sometimes) to make sure you’re happy.

(This doesn’t always work… One time I was a little too sarcastic to a certain Railway company that services my area – the Western region of this Great country – and had my sarcasm well and truly put in its place. I maintain it’s always worth a go though.)

You only have 140 characters to make your point

This, probably more than anything else, is the sticking point for many users. I myself fall in and out of love with this aspect of Twitter at least 8 times a day. Overall though, I think the pros of the character limit by far outweigh the cons.

Firstly, it means that I can consume a lot of content in a short amount of time. I’m super lazy, and the character limit puts the onus on the other party to make sure that, if they want me to engage with them, they are doing all the work. Yes, it has meant that ‘clickbait’ has made its way into our lives – both as a hideous piece of terminology, and as an actual thing we have to deal with. But I think that is a small price to pay to be able to scroll through dozens of tweets a minute and only engage with the things that I want to.

The other reason I like it (and hate it, but this is a positive piece), is I genuinely think it makes me more creative as a sharer of content. Yes I fall into the trap of creating poor clickbait now and again, but other times I enjoy trying to condense my thoughts into such a restrictive format. If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you’ll know I can be a little superfluous in the illustrative language I use to instantiate my points; tweeting forces that out of me and makes sure I get to the heart of my message.

Bonus point: Tweeting during events

I’ve experimented with Liveblogging once or twice – and I like it as a method of keeping things for posterity. In the event though, I haven’t found a platform (or at least a free one…) that is as easy, accessable, and – crucially – as social, as tweeting (see also: hashtagging above).

As a platform, its definitely not for everyone. For me though, Twitter ticks a lot of boxes. Interestingly, they have just recategorised themselves out of the ‘social networking’ bracket in the iOS App Store, in favour of being a news app. It makes sense – having a list set up with your favourite news sources would give it a very Feedly-like appeal. We shall see whether that is enough to boost their numbers.


Some thoughts on The Apprentice

This year is the first in the 12 years of the BBC’s The Apprentice that I haven’t been watching. I’m not boycotting it or anything, but I have to say that I’m not missing it at all.

It’s weird because, on paper, it’s exactly my kind of show – a business competition; reality TV with an intellectual element. The Apprentice is also a show that I’m arrogant enough to think I would do well in, so there’s that element of yelling obnoxiously at the TV that you get with basically every TV Quiz show that isn’t University Challenge. I love that element of TV.

In fact, a few years ago there was a change to the format of The Apprentice that should have made it even more appealing. Instead of competing to win some obscure job deep in the unknown depths of an Amstrad subsidiary, contestants were gunning for the chance to win money and backing for their own start-up ventures.

It was great news, and entrepreneurs nationwide rejoiced. While there was a lot of speculation as to the ‘real’ reason for the shifting goalposts (most prominent perhaps, the lawsuit by a former Apprentice winner against Lord Sugar), Sugar’s outward reasoning was a strong one. He declared that he wanted to prove to everyone up and down the country that anyone can start a very successful business with a relatively small amount of money. It was, in his own way, a show of force for the enterprising community.

And herein lies my major gripe with the show. Its not that it has become a petty ratings driven hour of drivel. Its not that the show does a shocking job of portraying women in the workplace. And its not that the whole thing is now so formulaic you can predict the outcome from about 20 mins into the first episode.

The show inspires the next generation of entrepreneurs

No. While these are all damning indictments of the show, the issue I wanted to talk about is that the sum of money that people are competing for – the Holy Grail of proof that anyone can start a successful business regardless of circumstance – is £250,000.

Now I know that this, in the grand scheme of business – and certainly to someone like Lord Sugar – is in fact a relatively small sum of money. Its just that if the ‘new’ aim and direction of The Apprentice really was to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to follow their passions, this seems a big number to jump for right out of the gate.

A counter argument I’ve heard to this train of thought is that the changing focus of the show isn’t to inspire more people to become entrepreneurs, but rather to encourage more people to see The Apprentice as an avenue to explore to that end. I’ll ignore the fact that, if true, this is a ridiculous aim, and instead focus on something else. Roughly the same number of people apply every year for a spot on The Apprentice as do for an undergraduate course at the University of Cambridge. Through the magic of statistics, you are therefore 600 times more likely to gain a place studying at arguably the most prestigious university in the world, than you are to become a contestant in any given year. 

The show acts as an education into the world of entrepreneurship

How about the fact that, just by watching it, you are getting to grips with business saavy that might otherwise escape you? 

On the face of it, this is perhaps not an entirely unreasonable claim. The show does place a focus on profit and loss, on the interactions and sales pitches of the contestants, and on the the ideas that they generate in relatively short spaces of time.

Again though, if this were the aim, The Apprentice falls laughably short. The show holds up these challenges as if they are the Gold Standard of business acumen. Every week they run a different challenge to see which team makes the most ‘profit’ from a task. Yet they utterly fail to take into consideration basic business such as fixed costs, staff time, etc.

Here, I know, I’m being incredibly pedantic. The point is to pit the two teams against each other, so if you assume all their fixed costs are the same it makes for easier viewing to just taking into account how the teams differ. I just think that in so doing you are missing a large chuck of the business mindset. 

Winning the challenges demonstrates the right skills

The biggest respect I ever had for Lord Sugar whilst watching The Apprentice was in one episode a few seasons back. I forget what the task was, but both teams did shockingly poor – it was the kind of thing that I was embarrassed to watch, and I had zero affiliation to anyone close to the programme. The norm is that the winning team every week gets a reward – a track day at Silverstone, a night making cocktails at some high end London club, etc. In this particular case, there was a winner for the task – or rather, one team did less poorly than the other. However, Sugar was so incensed with how badly everyone had done that no team got a reward.

I’ll skip over the fact that the entitled bunch reacted as if someone had shot their cat, and instead ask: why isn’t this the norm? Shouldn’t they have to fight for the prize? If the aim of The Apprentice really was to make better business people (let’s not forget that the show is aired by the BBC, whose mission statement is to “…inform, educate and entertain.” – so it isn’t totally out of the question), wouldn’t that make more sense?

Instead the show seems to reward arrogance and deceit, just as much as good business sense. I don’t mean to get all high-and-mighty, but all of the negative connotations we have about entrepreneurship and business, The Apprentice glorifies. And that’s totally fine – I love watching people have it out in the boardroom as much as the next person. But let’s not pretend we’re watching anything other than that. And let’s certainly not pretend that The Apprentice is doing anything good for the UK’s future and existing entrepreneurs.

I started this post by saying that I wasn’t intentionally boycotting The Apprentice, and then proceeded to take 800 words to argue how bad it is. I’m not actively taking a stand against the show, and I do recognise that it does represent some of the better television entertainment that exists (there’s a separate discussion to be had as to what that says about TV today…). And, of course, if you watch it I hope this series is a good one.

I guess my problem, ultimately, is that if the show needs to justify itself (and it does – every single show on the BBC does) it falls very far short.

All of that said, I might well tune in for the penultimate episode. While I stand by everything I’ve just said, the interviews do make for great television.


On politics and the dichotomy of the human condition

This post took a lot of thought detours in its creation, and in so doing strayed very far from its roots. Nevertheless, it has been a while since I’ve posted a genuine ‘musing’.

At any rate, this post started life as a tweet.

Oh good, always nice to see news that makes me proud to be a ‘liberal’ leftie… Some days I’m embarrassed I even studied politics.

Today was the Conservative Party Conference, an event marred by the thuggish behaviour of a small number of otherwise peaceful protesters. It was yet another story about how a subset of the wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose left had been perpetrators of violence and acts against the fabric of democracy itself.

I’d made mutterings when similar behaviour occurred after the General Election. But the sentiment expressed in the tweet I mentioned above (which, incidentally, I ended up not posting) wasn’t a fair one. It wasn’t fair to the rest of the left who don’t throw eggs or spit on people. It wasn’t fair to the right, who’s anger I was stealing and making my own. I was being, as much as it is possible to be in 140 characters, entirely self-serving.

Yet I am frustrated by events like this, and not just because they are brainless acts of cruelty.

To my mind, I have the brain of an economist. I studied Economics at A level and onto my Bachelors degree. I believe in free markets and in the power of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. I believe that supply and demand should be the sole arbiters of value, and there is still a tiny part of my brain that believes in the logic of the ‘trickle down effect’ (despite all evidence to the contrary). On paper I agree with the notion that government should be as small as possible, and – to quote the character of Ainsley Hayes from The West Wing – we should “just stick to the [laws] we absolutely need to have water come out of the faucet and our cars not stolen.”

But that’s my head – the cut and dried academic in me.

I also believe in social security, in a state funded healthcare system where doctors and nurses are appropriately compensated for the incredible work they do. I believe in benefits for those who cannot provide for themselves. I believe that price gouging is not just reprehensible, but should be illegal. And I believe that those who earn more should be taxed more. I’m not saying that these are things that people on the right can’t believe, of course. But by and large when these issues are raised in a discussion I fall decidedly to the left.

The two don’t compute. To grossly oversimplify things, how can I on the one hand agree that markets work best when they are left completely free, and at the same time demand there be a state-mandated minimum wage? Does it make sense that I want government to be as small as possible, and yet want it to subsidise things like public transport and to regulate the banking sector?

I know that there is a middle ground with all of these things. It just frustrates me that those lines have to be drawn by political parties. Whenever the media reports on politics with an ‘us vs them‘ attitude – regardless of who is on what side, that is what goes through my mind. Party politics is, in my opinion, one of the most damaging things to our country’s interests. It facilitates, no – it encourages, ignorance of the issues at stake in favour of ideological entrenchment.

This, incidentally, is not merely the insomnia inspired ramblings of someone going through a minor existential crisis (though, I can’t entirely deny that might be a contributing factor). I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on political apathy in the ‘younger generation’, and a similar set of feelings played a large part in the lack of engagement.

Politics is seen by many – and perhaps younger people moreso – as nothing more than childish. Sure, we occasionally have flickers of real moments from our elected officials. Ultimately though, politics just seems too small a vehicle to tackle today’s issues. It sounds like an insolent thing to say, but all politics ever seems to do is divide people – strange, when you consider the Ancient Greek root of the word means ‘for the citizens’.

Throughout history, great leaders have stood at the genesis of their terms in office and promised a new way of thinking. We have been told that “what unites us is far greater than what divides us.” That we can “go forward together with our united strength.” That change will come “block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”

And yet the narrative never changes. And the media, eager to retain our fickle attentions for as long as possible, focuses on the conflict because it makes for the more interesting story. We – driven to the gossip like lab rats on dopamine drips – lap it up.

We are homo sapiens – a species literally defined by a thirst for knowledge. In the last 100 years we have advanced further, seen more, and achieved greater than in the 1000 before that. Relatively recently, we fired a probe at a rock over 500 million miles away, on a journey that would take 10 years, just to see what we could learn. A rock the size of a town travelling at 150,000 feet per second, and we hit it, missing the ‘ideal’ landing site by only half a mile. And that was only because a harpoon didn’t fire and the damn thing bounced.

This year – to continue this space theme I’ve got going on – we’ll watch a science fiction film about a guy stranded on the surface of Mars that is actually more science than it is fiction. And one of those pieces of fiction? The film’s costume designer decided to make edits to the character’s space suit because, and I swear I am not making this up, the actual NASA concept is “far too futuristic”. We live in an age where fact is more unbelievable than fiction.

I mention these things to ask whether it seems ridiculous to anyone else that this is happening? That, not resting on the laurels of eradicating polio, we are developing cures to some of the most terrifying diseases in the world. That we are so dissatisfied with what we know of our universe that we built a 17 mile long magnetic ring to smash particles together as fast as humanly possible, just to see what would happen. That we have developed a way to literally print ways to repair the human body. Yet at the same time we are programming cars to falsify emission tests. We’re destroying rainforests in the name of profit. We are throwing eggs at people whose political views don’t align with ours. And even that – not to diminish the act – seems laughably benign compared to the countless atrocities facing the oppressed around the world.

Its a strange and lamentable dichotomy of the human condition.


On the prevalence of motivational quotes

“It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.”

— Plato

I love a good quote as much as the next guy, but something about using these sorts of sayings – particularly in a business context – bugs me. My personal favourite one to hate at the moment is the whole “fall down 7 times, get up 8” thing, mostly because if you fall down 7 times you have to get up 7 times. Getting up 8 times after only falling down 7 times is impossible.

Quotes in business are so prevalent that it has become incredibly difficult to find anyone’s actual opinion of them. Put the terms ‘inspiration’, ‘business’ and/or ‘quote’ anywhere near a Google search and you’ll get anywhere between 3 and 7 hundred million hits (I have a penchant for hyperbole, but in this case that number is accurate). And most of them are just pointing you at the Top 10/11/37/other random number quotes about business. Other than the odd preamble about how a good quote maketh the man (or, presumably, woman), no one seems to want to talk about them.

I find it interesting that we all just seem to accept this as a good thing. I’m also fully aware that I’m part of the same flock here, with my personal landing page spitting out a random quote every time you visit.

I suppose my problem comes when people substitute in quotes from the likes of Aristotle and Branson in favour of actual advice. I’ve even seen it done regardless of the contextual relevance of the quote – the point, presumably, being to make the writer/presenter seem more wise. I think that’s perhaps what I dislike the most – quotes as a shortcut to trust. If Person X is quoting the likes of Plato, and I understand that Plato was a pretty clever guy, then Person X must also be clever. Did any of you know that it wasn’t actually Plato who said the quote at the top of this piece, but Confucius? I don’t suppose it matters much either way to the overall message – Confucius was also wise, as Plato was wise…

Perhaps I’m being overly critical. In the words of another incredibly famous person “It takes less courage to criticise the decisions of others than to stand by your own.” Those seem like sage words. Should it bother me that they came from Attila the Hun, who is more famous for his slaughter of pretty much anyone who got in his way that he is for advice?

Quotes are great things. They are a shortcut to a particular feeling, or expression – and, yes, sometimes trust. They can be a way of quickly showing a reader, or a customer, or someone you are training that your views align with theirs. I’m certainly not saying that we should all stop quoting other people. But I do think that we should be a little more careful sometimes about how we use them. It is a very fine line between showing someone you’re on the same page, and convincing them that you are.

Quotes can be powerful things, and in the words of the late, great Benjamin Parker: “with great power, comes great responsibility.”