Because it’s Friday: “Rainbow Paint on a Speaker – 12,500fps” by The Slow Mo Guys

Having been paid to do a fancy show with a big crewe and a budget The Slow Mo Guys return to their roots in the garden messing about with paint and a speaker.

The Slow Mo Guys are at their best when it’s wonderfully Heath Robinson (apart from the top of the range Hassleblad and Vision research cameras that they’ve been loaned).

I’m reading… “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” by James Rebanks

It seems appropriate to start this post by defining my own relationship with the countryside. I am basically a townie, but it’s more complicated than that.

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I’ve never been a city person although I now live in somewhere called a city. I have always lived in towns, and nearly always on the edge of towns with a significant amount of countryside around them. The secondary school that I went to was a combination of town people and country people; we mixed quite well and I would cycle out of town to visit a friend who lived on a farm. My first experience of driving was in a tractor.

I’ve always loved to be out in the countryside, as you may have picked up from my instagram timeline, but I’ve never regarded the English countryside as a picture-postcard place, I’ve always seen it as somewhere that has been crafted and maintained by generations of people. This crafting is especially true of the English Lake District where I love to walk.

My wife’s family are lakeland people, her father was born in a small hamlet above Derwentwater where her grandfather was a fell farmer. There are relatives who live and make their livelihood there to this day. I’ve walked the fells around the farm with my wife’s dad and soaked in the stories of the life that they led there; stories of harsh winters, stories of dry-stone walling, stories of hunts, stories of visiting catalogue salesmen, stories of pig slaughter and blood for black puddings, and stories of summers spent sleeping in the barns so that paying visitors could have a bed in the house. In short, stories of a countryside shaped by people and a people shaped by the countryside.

James Rebanks (Herdwick Shepherd) is the son and grandson of lakeland fell farmers. Farming is in his blood and was all that he wanted to be as a child. He lives a way of life that has existed in the northern Lake District for centuries, taking on changes as they have been needed, but continuing to use many of the tried and tested practices. The traditional Herdwick sheep, which he shepherds, characterise the Lake District for many, but they aren’t there for show, they are people’s livelihoods and have been there (probably) since the Vikings brought them over in the 10th or 11th century.

This book is an autobiographical walk through James Rebanks his own upbringing whilst also stepping through the shepherd’s year. I love to read books about other people’s lives, it opens my eyes to the diversity of our ways of life are. Herdwick Shepherd lives just over a hours drive away from my home and yet he lives a life that is in so many ways different to mine. I’ve never rescued a sheep from a snow drift, participated in a livestock auction, delivered a lamb or judged the quality of a tup. Yet, there are many connections with my own story, that of my father-in-law and other lakeland folk that I know. I suppose that’s the power of biography, the differences that interest us and the similarities that connect us.

This isn’t a sanitised, National Trust, portrayal of the Lake District, this is a book that talks about the tragedies of life as well as the wonders of the environment. The sections that talk about the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 are bleak and nearly had me in tears. The descriptions of times in the fells are wonderful.

Many of us have lost the connection between the food that we eat and the farmers and land that produce it. We see so much of our food as a commodity that we want to be cheaper each time we visit the supermarket. One of the lessons from this book is that our drive for cheap risks the very things that we value.

If you are one of those people who love to visit the Lake District, and millions do, then you will learn a lot about what makes this place what it is and it will improve you appreciation of the place on your next visit.

I’m reading… “The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country” by Helen Russell

I’m quite happy with where I live, but that doesn’t stop me wondering what it’s like for different people to live where they choose to live.

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I’ve been to Denmark several times, mostly to Copenhagen, and always loved the country.

Helen Russell is a lifestyle journalist who is, at the start of the book, based in London with her husband. They work, they eat, they sleep, and not a whole lot more. Then her husband gets a job in Denmark at that landmark organisation Lego.

This book documents Helen’s journey during those first twelve month of living in Denmark. Helen finds a country that works very differently to London, and it has to be said, to the rest of the England. I say England, and not Britain, because I think that there are parts of Scotland where much of what Helen found is present, but for the most part we operate very differently.

Not only does Helen find a country that works differently, but Denmark is also regularly ranked as the happiest country in the world, so what is it that makes it happy? Not surprisingly it’s not a single thing, it’s many things. I suspect that it’s all of it that makes it a happy country, I didn’t read something and say, “if we only did that in England we would be much happier”, but I did think, “if only we did that, and that, and that, and weren’t like that, then we’d be happier”. It’s difficult to change one thing in a whole nation, it’s almost impossible to change the whole thing. For starters, the population of England is nearly ten times greater than that of Denmark, there are one and a half times as many people in London alone, and population size is a factor in happiness.

Having said that, this book shines a light into some English orthodoxies that tell us “we’ll be happy if…” and exposes them as problematic, at best, and downright untrue at worst. In England we believe that long work hours show that you are committed to your work, and that has to be a good thing? In Denmark the working week is significantly shorter and yet they are significantly more productive than we are. In England we tend to believe in small government because we are suspicious of everything that government does, Denmark’s government is significantly larger than ours and yet they are happier. In England we downgrade tradition, always looking for the new thing, in Denmark tradition is highly regarded and seen as the bedrock of much of what they do. In England we regard the accumulation of more possessions as a good thing, it’s not the same in Denmark where things are so expensive that they focus on a few high-quality things.

We have much to learn.

Because it’s Friday: Massive “Time-Lapse” of London – all 7.3 gigapixels of it

London by day and London by night.

24 Hour London is a set of 24, 7.3-gigapixel, photos showing in intricate detail the change in London throughout the day. There are a few images below, but you really need to go to the site to get the full experience.

I prefered the nighttime images, being able to see how the lights changed, but also how much of London was still lit up at 4:00am.

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“If you’re serious, you really understand that it’s important that you laugh as much as possible… Maya Angelou

If you’re serious, you really understand that it’s important that you laugh as much as possible and admit that you’re the funniest person you ever met. You have to laugh. Admit that you’re funny. Otherwise, you die in solemnity.

Maya Angelou

I’m Reading: “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil

We are surrounded by algorithms. We are constantly being evaluated by criteria that is invisible to us.

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What I see on Google is different to what you see. What I see on Facebook is different to your perspective and not just because I have access to different thing to you.

I pay for insurance for a number of things, the cost of that insurance is governed by a set of parameters that are unknown to me; many of which I can’t change or even validate whether they are correct.

Weapons of Math Destruction explores some of these algorithms and their impacts on individuals and society in general.

Statisticians have known that many statistics have a dark side creating unintended consequences and perverse outcomes. As we increasingly use data, and the associated statistical algorithms, we need to understand the dangers of the perverse outcomes that we are creating.

Cathy O’Neil uses examples to illustrate the challenges that we are facing. The bulk of the book is examples of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD) that already exist. There are examples for algorithms being used for politics, employee candidate selection, criminal justice, insurance, education ratings and advertising, to name just a few. The extent of these algorithms means that it’s unlikely that you haven’t been impacted in some way by one of them, but how do you know that the assessment of you is fair, or even accurate. How do you know what parameters have been used to calculate your insurance premium?

In many of the areas outlined in the book the unintended consequences lead to significant mistreatment of individuals and whole people groups. Many of these people groups being the same people groups that have been mistreated by society for generations – the poor, those living in certain neighbourhoods, ethnic minorities and women being particularly negatively impacted.

The book talks about a lot of examples and raises a lot of questions and concerns, the book doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the potential resolutions to the issues raised. There are a few great thoughts in that direction but it’s not that primary topic for this book.

I’m quite sure that we don’t, yet, have the necessary regulatory framework in place for these algorithms. I’m also convinced that we will make progress towards the right framework, but in the interim, damage is being caused.

I read this book in the middle of a political and media storm about an organisation called Cambridge Analytica who collected data from Facebook on 50 million people. This story was pioneered by The Guardian with a lot of coverage on 17th March 2018 quoting whistleblower Christopher Wylie, but it’s worth noting that Cathy O’Neil’s book was published in September 2016 and contains many of the same details about Cambridge Analytica that we now regard as shocking. Perhaps news doesn’t travel as quickly as we think it does.

I was first prompted to read this book by Cathy’s TED talk which will give you an idea of the WMD that she has collected:

Office Speak: Super Excited

This may be a common term in other cultures, but I’m British and being excited about anything is something that we only attach to major family events. We find it somewhat baffling when we walk into a business meeting and the people in there tell us that they are super excited to be together.

It’s probably a stretch for most Brits to say that they are excited about a birthday, even a major birthday wouldn’t count as super excited.

The birth of a new child counts as excited. I’m not sure what would need to happen for someone to be super excited about a new birth? Perhaps a couple who have struggled to conceive would make it to super excited when a much desired offspring is born.

So what is it about a routine meeting in a grey room with limited air conditioning and a 1000 bullet point PowerPoint presentation that would make someone super excited?

I was recently given a mug that says:

Meetings: The place we discuss all the things which must happen but will never actually happen.

It doesn’t sound very exciting to me.

The various dictionary definitions of excited talk about being emotionally aroused, something I would expect to see in abundance in the people that tell me they are super excited. Emotional arousal is rarely something I see in the business context, perhaps I’m not as empathetic as I think I am, but I think I ought to be able to see super emotional arousal.

All that I can conclude is that this is Office Speak. It’s no longer good enough to say that you are pleased to be in a meeting, or even excited to be in a meeting, the constant ratcheting up of Office Speak means that people now need to be super excited. Ah well, that’s the way it goes, I wonder what will follow; colossally excited, gigantically excited or perhaps we’ll choose a different word to excited, orgasmic?

Off now to be super excited about a cup of tea.