Graham’s WFH Tip #5 – Enjoy You Spaces

I take the word “from” in “Working from Home” to mean that I can work anywhere within easy access of my home location. While I have a place in my home where I primarily work, I do not regard it as the only place where I can work.

The organisation I work for is quite flexible about my working location, I could work almost anywhere, but I like my home. I’m conscious in writing this post that there are people whose work doesn’t look anything like the pattern I’m about to describe. Some of that is because your work needs you to be at a screen all the time, I’m also conscious that some people work in organisations where your screen time is being monitored all the time. What I am about to say probably isn’t overly helpful if your work looks like this. If you work in the later type of organisation, I would seriously question the motivation behind that monitoring.

For many of us, our work includes times when we could be somewhere other than sat at our main screen setup – and there are times when we should. A change of location can have a significant impact on how we see things.

There are times and types of meetings that require us to work in our “office” location. It’s not good manners to do a video call in your local coffee shop. My main reason for saying this is that you don’t want to be that person who disturbs all the other people enjoying their daily brew. Here in the UK we are mostly too reserved to say something, but there are times when we want to walk over and unplug you or push you out of the door. There are also, probably, good security reasons, but most of the time the issue is good manners.

For the other times there are good reasons why you should consider working in different places, even if it’s a change of location within your home.

Within the traditional office space many organisations have been embracing an approach known as “activity based architecture”, or “activity based working” for some time. This approach defines areas within a location and designs them to encourage distinct types of activity. There’s quite a lot of thought gone into that trendy new office with spaces for quiet working, stand-up meetings, one-to-one spaces, etc. Organisations aren’t doing this just because it makes for a cool looking office, they are trying to create productive places.

Our surroundings can have a significant impact on our how we think.

A simple example may be to think about ceiling height. Yes, even the height of the ceiling can have an impact, in this case, the impact is on creativity. There are studies that have shown that a high ceiling increases people’s ability to think creatively. How high should the ceiling be to make a difference? Preferably over 3 metres, or 10 feet, it’s known by some as the Cathedral Effect, I’m sure you can understand why.

Speaking personally, the only place in my house where the ceiling is anything like that high is halfway up the stairs. What I do have, though, is a garden, and there the ceiling is significantly higher than 3 metres. Some of my best thinking is done outside, sat at a table with sheets of A3 paper and a pen. However, rain is a characteristic of the weather where I live, and it’s not always possible to work in the garden, that’s when a local coffee shop provides me with some headspace.

For everyone wondering. Yes, low ceilings are supposed to produce a different effect, and that’s the ability to focus.

The effects produced by high or low ceilings
actually occur because such ceiling heights increase or
decrease vertical room volume, which in turn stimulates
alternative concepts and types of processing.

J. Meyers-Levy, R. Zhu (2007) The influence of ceiling height

Another example. There are times when I need to review a long report. My normal place of work is a place prone to interruption, not by family or anything like that, but by the screens and the constant flow of notifications. This is when I choose a place in my house where there’s an armchair and the notification noise is minimal (and the ceiling is relatively low). It’s a wonderful place to give something some extended focussed thought. I’m someone who prefers to review material on paper and with a pen.

I’m also privileged enough to have a comfortable seat in the home office which I use when I want to think differently about something. It’s still close to the screens and tends to be the place where I corelate several thoughts together. I often use this seating to do my daily planning, something about sitting in this seat helps me to order my thoughts.

Each working space come with a frame, sometimes the frame is visible, in others it’s not. Changing the frame can be an immense help in changing our perception and helping us to think differently.

Different people are impacted by different elements of a frame, it may not be the ceiling height for you. For some people it’s the light in a location, for others the smell, colour also has an impact, so does clutter and tidiness. The important part of this tip is that you start to recognise the frames and use them to your advantage.

Have you thought about the frames that you are working in, and how a different frame would help to create a different outcome?

The biggest challenge I have is motivating myself to get up and move to another space. I know it will do me good, but that doesn’t stop me procrastinating.

This tip has been about static space, some work is better done on the move – perhaps we’ll go there next time.

Header Image: Sunset from a local swimming spot, local enough for an evening dip. It’s a popular place in the day, leave it a little later and we get the place to ourselves.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #4 – Thinking Music

It’s WFH Tips time again 😊

This time we are going to be thinking about the impact of music, and a bit about other sounds in our working environment.

What I really want to encourage you to do in this post is to consider the soundscape around you. Whoever you are, and whatever your preference, sound can have a significant impact on your creativity and productivity. There are elements of the soundscape that we probably can’t influence too much – if you live in a city, it’s unrealistic to expect complete silence – but you can control what sounds you put into your environment. Now you are working from home control of the soundscape is part of your new autonomy so make the most of it.

I wrote a little time ago about the power of a ticking clock, which has become part of my daily soundscape. I also love having music playing while I’m working, but it must be the right kind of music. There is music that helps me to focus, and music that is distracting or even annoying.

When it comes to music, people have all sorts of preferences – that’s part of the joy of music, after all. While I prefer music, others prefer silence, and that’s great as well, personally I find silence lonely.

If you search the internet, you will find people declaring music as a productivity improver, the popular posts are mostly subjective, but there are some that focus on research. One of the better ones is comes from Cognition Today – How does background music affect work productivity and creativity? 9 research findings – Cognition Today. As you might expect, the answer isn’t that music = better productivity, it’s more subtle than that. Let’s face it the definition of productivity is itself dependent upon the context in which it is being measured and the role being performed. Perhaps the most interesting study is the last one in this article that basically says that if you think music is helpful then it will be, but if you think it’s distracting, then that’s also likely to be true.

These are my focus music tips, which I accept may be completely opposite to yours:

  • Instrumental music – I find music with lyrics distracting, which aligns with some of the studies.
  • Curate your playlists – I use Spotify for my music and have playlists specifically built for focussing. I have different ones for types of instrumental music. It’s worth the effort to curate ones where the music fits with what you regard as pleasurable.
  • Observe the emotions – instrumental music can have a significant impact on our mood and it can creep up on you. One of my focus playlists includes music from soundtracks. When I was first building this playlist, I copied in some music from a nature program which accompanied a scene where a leopard seal was chasing a penguin. When I noticed that it was subconsciously making me stressed, I removed it.
  • Time for a change – I have several playlists because I find that music can move from pleasurable to annoying if I listen to it too much. That’s also one of the reasons that the playlists are long.
  • Keep it low – there are times when I like loud music, it’s not great for focus.
  • But not too low – music that is too low can also be distracting.

The music in my home office plays through a smart speaker which enables me to quickly turn it off when I need to respond to a call or other interaction. If I am at home on my own, I play the same music throughout the house. There’s something about walking into an empty room where music is playing that I find reassuring.

One of my favourite pieces of thinking music, at the moment, is the soundtrack to Planet Earth II. I’d love to hear some of your choices.

Here are a few of my playlists if you fancy a listen:

“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

Edward Elgar

Header Image: This is a local sunset looking out across the Irish Sea and the wonderful expanse of wind turbines. You can just see the turbine sticking up alongside the setting sun.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #3 – Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)

Working from home means that you are working in a different location, but it doesn’t mean that you have to work in the same way. You have been liberated from the office, which for most of us was a noisy open plan disaster of a location where you were impacted by all sorts of other people’s poor behaviour. You now work in a location where, for most of us, you have significantly more control.

There is no need to work in the same way as you did in the office – you have superpowers.

You have the superpower of invisibility.

You are no longer at the beck and call of everyone who just happens to be walking around the office farm. There is no need to join others for a brew, or for lunch, just because it would be impolite not to join them. No one needs to know where you are – you are invisible, unless you make yourself visible.

Many people make the mistake of giving up their invisibility too easily. They feel like they need to answer every email and every text immediately. If there’s a call they feel like they have to join it. There’s a worry that others might think that they aren’t working hard enough if they aren’t immediately responsive. This is a mistake, by going invisible you will achieve far more.

You have the superpower of focus.

Open plan offices are such distracted places. The noise, the interruptions, the coming and the going. For many of us we are employed for our ability to solve problems and solving problems requires focus. Outside of the bustle of the office factory you can make the space to focus. You do need to talk to people and let them know about your progress, you need to collaborate with people and seek consensus, but you shouldn’t let that steal your focus time. In your focus time is your strength.

You have the superpower of time shifting

The 9-to-5 is such a cliché yet there are millions of people following it every day.

Why?

Some of this is a particularly British thing. In my culture good people are in the office from 9-to-5, five days a week and only take 30 mins for lunch. If you are particularly hard working you will take your lunch at your desk and not leave until 6. No one would dream of taking time out in the middle of the day, and if they did they would definitely make sure that everyone knew that they were just popping out for an hour to have a major organ removed. Presenteeism is highly valued.

Even organisation that have flexible working hour look on people who start early and leave early, or start late and leave late, with a suspicious eye.

There is good scientific evidence for this being a terrible way to organise a business if you want to get the best out of people. Some people work better early, others work better later. For most of us an afternoon nap would be highly beneficial. The four day working week has been shown to provide significantly better productivity. Taking time off work when ill leads to fast recovery. It goes on.

How much time flexibility you have depends on your role and your employer. For many reasons I have high levels of flexibility and I aim to put it to good use. I try to stick to a routine, as I suggested in the first tip, but it’s not 9-to-5. It’s taken me a long while to settle on a working schedule that, I hope, makes me productive. I don’t know what time flexibility you have, but perhaps you have more flexibility than you think you do?

You have the superpower of autonomy

I’ve previously quoted Daniel Pink as saying this (emphasis mine):

“When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:

1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
3. Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Daniel Pink

I return to these three words regularly – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Working from home should extend your autonomy and you should seize it with both hands.

You have the superpower of space shifting.

The

You have the superpower of space shifting.

The desk isn’t always the best place to work – I’m going to spend some more time on this one in a dedicated post, so that’s probably enough for now.

I titled this post “Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)”. Overuse of your superpowers can be detrimental to your own wellbeing and also to your productivity. Time shifting needs to be balanced with routine. Focus needs to be balanced with communication and collaboration. Invisibility needs to be balanced with visibility.

Time to get those superpower to work, don’t be shy…

Header Image: A lovely day in the Lake District – this is Buttermere. A glorious walk, a lovely swim. While we were there we were enthralled watching a crew filming aerobatic paraglider sequences followed by a helicopter – not something you see every day. They were apparently for a future Mission Impossible. We didn’t see Tom Cruise, although there was no way of knowing if he was flying one of the paragliders.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

QUOTE: “Every decision that impacts our lives will be made by…”

Every decision that impacts our lives will be made by the person who has the power to make that decision – not the ‘right’ person, or the ‘smartest’ person, or the ‘best’ person. Make peace with this fact.

Marshall Goldsmith

Header Image: A local cornfield on a gorgeous even after a swim in the river.

Graham’s WFH Tip #2 – Wear Work Clothes

What do you wear when you are working from home? Do you have work clothes? I do, and I find it extremely helpful.

Perhaps you are the person who embodies one of those overused WFH caricature and works in your pyjamas? Or, perhaps you are someone who wears a shirt and tie above and Hawaiian shorts below? Maybe you just wear what you wear and don’t really give it any thought?

There are several advantages to having work clothes, a uniform.

Tip #2: Pick a uniform for work, wear it for work, change out of it when you are not at work.

You’ll feel better for it.

I feel I need to apologise a bit here, I am writing from a male perspective. I know that the pressures are different for women, but I don’t feel at all qualified to talk into that context – not being a woman.

Anyway, back to those advantages?

Uniformity requires limited thinking

When I talk about work clothes I’m talking about a uniform that you put on each day. I’m not talking about sitting in the home office with a shirt and tie on, although, if that’s what works for you, why not? I’m talking more about have a defined set of clothes that you only use for work, and likewise, you only work when you are wearing those clothes. The variation in these clothes should be kept quite narrow, they should, in essence, be uniform. It helps if they all match with each other.

Uniformity takes away a whole stack of cognitive load – also mentioned in Tip #1. Having a defined set of work clothes removes the morning effort of choosing, effort which, in most of our WFH situations adds no value.

Changing partitions the day

I have work clothes, I also have non-work clothes and I try to keep the two separate. At the end of each day I go to the effort of changing out of my work clothes into my non-work clothes. Whilst this is a physical activity, it is also a mental activity, by changing my clothes I am finishing my working day and moving into my non-working time.

I’m trying to enact a feeling, telling myself that work has finished for the day. This change of clothes partitions my day, I am stopping doing one thing and starting to do something else.

Wearing work cloths means that I am at work

Whilst changing moves me from one mode to another, wearing the WFH uniform reinforces my sense of being at work. Distraction is a challenge when you work from home, the work clothes reinforce my concentration during work time. Again, I’m trying to enact a feeling, the feeling of being at work.

Give a workwear uniform a try, you might actually like it 😊

Addendum: I also have a different aftershave for the weekend and holidays. It provides another mental signal that differentiates work time and non-work time.

Header Image: Looking towards Nicky Nook – a wonderfully names local hill. It’s beautiful around here and the lush greens at this time of the year are stunning

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #1 – Routine is your friend

When I worked in an office I was unaware of the routines that were being subconsciously marked into my psyche, even before I’d left my home I’d entered into a daily rhythm unawares. When you work in an office the routine starts soon after you awake and continues until after you are home.

One of the joys of working from home is having the flexibility to slot things into your day, you no longer need to follow those structures, this is also one of the greatest dangers of working from home. Let me explain a little more.

Tip #1: Routine is good for us and you should seek to establish a daily routine.

While flexibility is sometimes good for us, the reality is that it is comes with a cognitive burden. Routine tasks do not require us to think, that is one of their characteristics. Have you even noticed how it can be difficult to get ready for the day when you are staying in a hotel. That’s not a difficulty you have at home. You know the morning routine where you live. Most people don’t have to think about the location of their toothbrush, they just brush their teeth. In a hotel, however, it’s something that you have to give thought to, you also have to think about what you do with your toothbrush once you’ve finished brushing. The pathways for you morning ablutions is built into your brain as a stored sequence of tasks that are simply followed.

You only have so much cognitive energy to give in a day, you want to use it wisely, and preferably doing things that add value to the role that you are undertaking. Having a set of routines, that don’t require us to think, frees up our brains for those activities where it’s really needed.

While we don’t have to follow the office routines when we work from home, I suggest that you do.

I’ve got tips for some of the specific routines, which I’ll cover later, but for now, some routines for you to consider:

  • Going to work
  • Leaving work
  • Lunchtime
  • Clothes and getting dressed
  • Start of the day
  • End of the day
  • Focus time
  • Refreshments
  • Breaks
  • Day plan
  • Research and learning
  • Administration
  • Social conversations

You may, or may not, be in control of each of these routines, but I can guarantee that you are in control of some of them. Now imagine that you have to think through each one of these activities as a unique activity each day – exhausting. Routine takes that need to think away from us, and let’s be honest, most of the time, there is no value in each of these activities being different every day.

While I’m here I suppose I ought to talk a bit about how to establish new routines. The simple answer, for me, is to repeatedly do the same thing and eventually it will become the habit. Remember, there is no set number of times you need to do something for it to become a habit, we are all different in that respect. Sometimes we’ll just slot into a habit, at other times we’ll need to work through phases of discomfort before it fits. The point of a routine is to reduce your cognitive load, not to increase it, so there’s no point in stressing over a habit we find difficult, that’s just defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Until next time 😊

Header Image: Local evening light. This is a field close to where I live, somewhere I regularly visit on my routine morning walks.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tips – Some Advice for a Changed World

I’ve worked in a hybrid way for many years. Some days I would be in the office, at others I would do work from home or another location.

My work is now, almost exclusively, done from an upstairs room at the back of my house. I work from home, I don’t “work from home (with a knowing nod and a wink)”, work is the place where I do work.

There are certain things that I do to maintain my productivity and retain my sanity. I figured that it was about time I shared some of that advice, and thus a new series of posts was born.

There’s a huge debate going on at present about the value of working from home, most of this is mired in ignorance and mistrust, although some of it is raising genuine concerns. I’m not aiming to get into all of that because my hope if that it will work out, in time, as people find ways of working that are right for them and their organisation. I’m writing these posts from the perspective that people are going to be working from home, that change has already happened, it’s not a new thing. What they want is to be the best at working from home that they can be. If I can give some tips that help some people along that journey then I will count that as a success.

All of these tips, I’m sure, will have been covered by someone else in a far more erudite way somewhere, I’m not claiming any ownership of them. I will try and link to other more detailed material, but I can’t guarantee that I know where the advice came from.

It might help you to know what kind of work I do, from home, and the type of challenges that I face. Some of the tips are particularly relevant to my context, so may not be as relevant to yours.

I’m an IT Architect which means that I take business needs and translate them into designs that other people build. My current, extended, team is international with members in every continent apart from Antarctica, we are resident in over ten different time zones. I’m regularly in conversation with people at +12 hours and -8 hours from my UK location. Adjusting for daylight saving time, summer time, can be interesting as some people go one way and others go in the opposite direction, on different dates. All of the people in my management chain are in a different time zone to myself. There are many things that I can do without meetings, but I spend a significant amount of my week in meetings.

That’s probably enough for now, I’m sure more will come out as we work our way through the tips.

As we start off on this journey I’m reminded of a quote:

Advice is like snow – the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

As I put this advice out there, I leave its landing to you.

Header Image: This is Crummock Water, it’s a swimming favourite. It’s not quite local, but is local enough that we can go as part of a day trip.

Office Speak: “Next Slide, Please”

Near to the start of my full-time employment I joined a department that was responsible for IT Training and also to look after certain technologies. This was an engineering organisation and the engineering departments had their own IT functions, we were the people who did everything else. This was at the end of the age of 8″ floppy disks and the beginning of the 5″ floppy disks short reign, in those days training included a half day course on how to use a mouse. We measured everything in kilobytes.

This was a time before video projectors were commonplace. One room did have a video projector in it, but it was very expensive, low quality and about the size of a washing machine. Most of the training rooms, however, made use of a technology that had then been around for over 100 years – the over-head-projector (OHP).

Each training course came with its own set of slides for the OHP. For those of you who have no comprehension of what I am talking about, slides for an OHP can best be imagined as A4 sized pieces of thick cellophane with a cardboard boarder. The cardboard border had a cut-out in one corner, this was essential to the safe operation of the slides. Slides could be put on to the OHP in eight different orientations, but only worked in one. Knowing which orientation was a skill and required organisation and preparation. The administration of the slides was a tightly controlled activity and anyone who didn’t put the slides back in the right order, in the right orientation, would be castigated. Animation was a physical activity with extra pieces of the cellophane taped onto a slide adding content as they were flipped into place.

There were other rooms where a slide projector was used. If you don’t know what a slide projector is, then I’m sorry for this lacking in your education, you’ve missed out. Most families, in those days, had an uncle, rarely and aunt, who would insist on treating their family to a Saturday night picture show of their latest exotic holiday adventure. Skegness projected onto a woodchip wall is a sight to behold. Anyway, I digress.

There were times when I would sit in on someone delivering training, on these occasions I may well be asked to operate the slides. I became skilled in the operation of both an OHP and a slide projector. The trainer would stand at the front and deliver the material, stopping occasionally to instruct me – “next slide, please.” It was an obvious thing to ask in a day when that was the nearest we got to remote control.

Technology changes were standing just outside the door though and we were about to make a significant change.

Up until this point the slides that went on top of the OHP had been created in one of two ways – they were hand drawn, or they were produced by a professional printer. My job was to start printing transparencies on a desktop LaserJet printer via an application on a PC, something I embraced with relish. This wasn’t a cheap option in those days, but it was the forefront of technology. Desktop LaserJet printers were a few thousand pounds, the PC and software gobbling up a few more thousand, even the specialist transparencies that would work in the LaserJet printer came at a premium and were closely guarded by my manager.

More change was on the way, it was only a small step to replace the LaserJet printer with another new technology – the video projector. Even then, though, I would sit at the computer in the training room and accept the instructions for “next slide, please.” Even then, only certain rooms would have such lavish equipment fitted.

We now regard access to a screen as standard for every meeting room. It would be very unusual indeed for us to walk into a room and for there to be no audio-video set-up. Latterly, the projector has been replaced by television screens in all but the largest room. Some of these being delivered as part of a video conferencing set-up including cameras and microphones.

In recent years, though, the desire to show slides has increasingly moved online, with screen sharing being part of millions of remote meetings every day. But what about those slides? We don’t seem to be able to live without them, even though very few of them will ever see an actual physical slide.

The other day I was sat in an online meeting, one of those all-hands type affairs. There were several people presenting and again came the refrain “next slide, please.” It seems that the material we were looking at was being operated by one person and that person had the role of human remote control for everyone else.

All this took me back to an age when creating slides was a job and “next slide, please” required significantly more skill than pressing a page-down key.

Header Image: This is one from a little trundle up Crinkle Crags in the Lake District.

I’m reading… “Utopia for Realists: and How We Can Get There” by Rutger Bregman

Do you live in “utopia”? Looking back on the last two years of pandemic I can’t imagine that there are many of us leaping to a positive answer to that one.

Now imagine you are living 200 years ago and picture a time in the future when:

“billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, healthy and occasionally even beautiful. Where 84% of the world’s population still lived in poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%.”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

Is this “utopia”?

Numbers, despite the meaning behind them, rarely communicate the full story. Bregman describes where we are now not as “utopia” but as the “Land of Plenty”:

“According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gaze on the farthest horizon and rehost the sails. “Progress is the realization of Utopias,” he wrote. But the farthest horizon remains blank. The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing in the rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead. There’s no dream to replace it because we can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got.”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

In Utopia for Realists Bregman seeks to paint that “better world than the one we’ve got” to sail to – not as some kind of mythical unachievable state, but by outlining a set of ideas that are just there on that far horizon.

What are these grand ideas? That would be giving too much away, but they are very interesting.

The ideas that are there on that far horizon have all been widely tested, some have even been implemented in some countries, and yet all of them would be regarded as counterintuitive, even counter-logical by most people. (I’m continuing my run of books that tell me I’m wrong.)

In the UK, where I live, welfare is a constant political battleground. Just this week the deficiencies in the existing system have been brought into stark relief by stories of an elderly woman riding the bus to stay warm at a time of escalating living costs. Yet others argue that we can’t afford to do any more. Bregman has a big idea for that. Bregman’s approach to this problem is certainly radical.

We live in a time when work is going through a massive upheaval. Many people have spent the last two years working from home and now the bosses are seeking a return to “normal” office life. Vast numbers of people are dreading the idea of returning to a place which sapped them of energy and required them to sit in long queues on motorways for no apparent reason. Personally, I’m getting a bit tired of seeing people saying “working from home”, while putting the “working” in air-quotes, as if somehow the many hours that people have been putting in aren’t real work. Bregman has a radical, yet tested, idea for that, and no it’s not better hybrid working.

(hybrid working is another term I dislike, it maintains the suggestion that working in an office is somehow better than working from home when for many roles the office is the least productive place for people.)

You might recognise the “Land of Plenty” but there are hundreds of millions of people who wouldn’t. They are still living on less than a dollar a day. The global community has spent billions of dollars trying to overcome this problem, Bregman puts the figure at $11.2 billion a month, or $5 trillion over the last 50 years. Yet poverty is still a massive problem and, according to Bregman, no-one really knows whether this development money has made a difference. Again, Bregman has an idea for this problem, and it’s probably not what you were expecting it to be. Another idea that is very timely and massively counter-cultural to many global governments, to the current British government certainly.

This book is titled “Utopia for Realists: and how we can get there”, having the ideas is only a small part of the challenge. Implementing the ideas is the greater part.

In the epilogue to the book Bregman writes:

“For the last time, then: how do we make utopia real? How do we take these ideas and implement them?

The path from the ideal to the real is one that never ceases to fascinate me”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

He concludes with some advice to the realists and an encouragement that “more people are hungry for change”. I hope so.

This book is, in many ways, a prequal to I’m reading…”Human kind” by Rutger Bregman which uses many of the same ideas but focussed more on the personal aspects of change. We need both personal and political change if we are going to move towards that “far horizon”.

Header Image: This is Loughrigg Tarn, it’s within driving distance of my home and is a fabulous place for a swim. In the background are the Langdale fells.

QUOTE: “Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society, and doing nothing is…

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented society, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Header Image: The receding tide on Lindisfarne, Holy Island. In the background is the castle.

Quote: “Leave the door open to the unknown, that’s where…

Leave the door open for the unknown, that’s where the important things come from… for, to acknowledge the unknown is part of knowledge.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Header Image: This is some of the local Blackthorn blossom. It explodes into this wonderful white for a few days and then is gone. It’s leaving is often hastened by a spring storm, but not this year, so it has been glorious.

Fighting with numbers – from maths to memes.

Today has started like many of my days with an email from someone declaring a truth on the back of some numbers that they have assessed. I use the word “assess” here to indicate that they took a number at face value and did nothing to understand it beyond basic a/b=c maths

In this case they have undertaken a basic analysis of counting the volume of different <somethings>. They’ve put each of these <somethings> into a different category, then by the joy of Excel they’ve calculated the percentage of those <somethings> that meet the criteria they are wanting to assess.

I’m talking about <somethings> because I don’t want to call out the particular numbers – for the rest of the post I’ll use foodstuffs to illustrate my challenges.

Creating a percentage is all well and good, isn’t it? It’s straightforward maths after all, what could be clearer? Except, what they have inadvertently done is create a meme that contains a mistruth that will take many cycles to rectify. As the old saying goes “a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.”

These mistruths take many different forms, their perniciousness coming from their ability to hide undetected within the details of the calculations. They lie there hidden in plain sight making fools of everyone willing to accept them.

In many cases the numbers are obviously wrong if people knew where to look. Looking requires a certain level of scepticism, but it will pay off in the long run. Here are a few of the where my own scepticism leads me when people present me with numbers.

Classification Misinformation

Using apples as an example, perhaps the simplest way of classifying them is as either red or green. The challenge with this classification system is that there are apples which are neither wholly green or wholly red, how are they classified?

There are several ways that you could go, and this is where the purpose of the classification is important to understanding the validity of the information being portrayed.

If your aim was to show that red apples were more popular than green ones, you could classify all apples with a colour as red. This wouldn’t be untrue, it would just be stretching the definition of red.

Another way would be to create a classification for the ones in the middle, let’s call it pigmented. Even then you run into the same problem, how pigmented does something need to be to fall into this classification?

Our motives for the classifications that we choose are complex, sometimes known and often unknown.

Volume Misinformation

Within the UK, based on a European regulation, many adverts that make a statistical claim need to justify that claim. As such it’s common to see at the bottom of a screen for goods like cosmetics something like “XX of YY customers agreed that blah

What’s interesting about these claims is how often the YY in this claim is tiny. Huge brands that sell to millions make claims on the basis of a few hundred participants at most. There are many times when the sample is less than a hundred.

As the volume of participants reduces the influence of each one increases massively.

Often the volume of participants is a strange number which makes me suspicious that they’ve only surveyed the volume of people required to justify the claim they are making.

(The claim is often completely subjective. It’s not that big an influence on me to know that 87% of people said that their skin was more luminous.)

We do the same in business. We try to base decisions with long-term consequences on the tiniest samples. “We’ve succeeded in doing this for one customer so it will be brilliant for all of our other customers.” It’s a stretch for anti-aging cream, our latest product is no different.

Exclusion Misinformation

Most samples of data require some level of cleansing. The world is full of data, most of it is littered with inconsistencies. It’s, therefore, necessary to clean the data up, and the easiest way of doing that is to exclude the bits that are outliers. The alternative approach is to only count the things that fit our criteria.

People don’t like to see other as a classification, it’s messy and raises questions, far better to just exclude them.

The problem with excluding some of the data is that it makes the other numbers appear larger when our old friend the percentage is used.

Let’s take types of nuts as an example. If we have a bag of mixed nuts and we separate them out into the various types we may come up with a sample a bit like this:

NutsVolume
Walnuts12
Hazelnuts9
Pecan11
Almonds7
Peanuts10
A fictional bag of mixed nuts – no I didn’t count an actual bag.

If we include all of the types above in the scoring then the following is true:

NutsVolumePercentage of Total
Walnuts1224%
Hazelnuts918%
Pecan1122%
Almonds714%
Peanuts1020%
A fictional bag of mixed nuts – but what is the peanut doing there

As we all know – a peanut is not actually a nut, it’s a legume. It may be present in the bag of mixed nuts, but in our data, we can justifiably decide that it’s erroneous. That exclusion has a significant impact on the other numbers:

NutsVolumePercentage of Nuts
Walnuts1231%
Hazelnuts923%
Pecan1128%
Almonds718%
A fictional count of actual nuts – I still wouldn’t buy this bag, it’s got too many walnuts in it

I can now claim that a third of the nuts in the bag of mixed nuts were Walnuts, can’t I? But I cannot claim that Walnuts were a third of the bag of mixed-nuts.

THe description we give can be very important.

Quality Misinformation

We need to be constantly alert to the quality of the data that we use. Some data is better than others.

Personally I find people’s attitude to certain sources of data a mystery.

There are millions, perhaps billions of pounds spent each year on creating new and better ways of counting things. Many of these systems will count things that are already being counted. The justification for these new systems is regularly a lack of trust in the old system. What fascinates me is a preference to start at the beginning of counting rather than to regain the trust in the old system. Often the lack of trust is based on the flimsiest of reasoning and an under estimation of the complexities of counting things.

I work in IT and one of the things we do is to count the number of systems, servers and the like, that people have. We do this counting across thousands of customers and hundreds of thousands of systems. This environment is not static, every day hundreds of people are adding or removing systems. What’s more a system doesn’t simply go from being there to being not there, it has various states in its lifecycle at the beginning it needs to be commissioned, at the end it needs to be tracked through various stages.

Some of the systems are counted automatically, they tell us they are there on a regular basis. Other systems are manually counted, they don’t have the ability to tell us of their presence, the person working on them is supposed to tell us that they have been added or taken away. Every time you add a human into the process the level of accuracy reduces, but some data is better than no data, isn’t it?

The best that we can hope for in this dataset is that it is broadly correct and most of the time broadly correct is all we need. That’s enough quality for us to make the decisions that we need to make.

Broadly correct is fine for us because we understand the fuzzy parts, we know the bits to trust and the parts to have less trust in. Where it gets tricky is when people start making claims about these numbers in a way that doesn’t reflect that fuzziness. We tend to round things up, or down to the nearest tens of thousands because that’s where we are confident. That’s the level of leeway that we give ourselves. Others declare exact numbers and in so doing give a misleading perspective on the data.

Extrapolation Misinformation

Most of the time we collect data to help us to make decisions. One of the ways in which we guide our decisions is by drawing straight lines.

One of the core skills of humans is to pattern match. We look at items on a graph and cannot help but see a trend. Most of the time the trend that we see is a straight line, sometimes are see a curve. In this age of Covid many of us have looked at charts and wished to see those early signs of a wave slowing down and the curve to head downwards once more.

The problem we have is that our need to see lines is so strong that we really struggle when things aren’t a line, we really dislike charts that are just a scattering of dots. The reality is, though, that many of the things that we look at are random, they are that scattering of dots without a clear concise line.

Beware of seeing lines where they don’t exist.

It’s all about context

Number don’t stand on their own, they exist within a framework of time and place. They are influenced by the way that we create them. We like to make numbers neat and tidy, even when they aren’t. Every number is an interpretation of the person who created it. The things that we exclude say as much about the data as the things that we include.

Without understanding the context in which a set of numbers have been created we can’t derive any true meaning.

The problem that I see, so often, is that the context is hidden and opaque.

It falls upon those of us who produce numbers to make sure that we explain their meaning illuminated by the context in which they were created.

The problem with memes is that they often hide that context, that’s one of the reasons why they are difficult to stop.

Anyway, I’m off to delve deep into an Excel spreadsheet to work out whether we should include the peanuts, or not.

Header Image: This is Small Water which is tucked between Harter Fell and Mardale Ill Bell on a glorious day in the hills. Alongside it runs the Nan Bield Pass which links together the remote communities of Mardale and Kentdale which would, otherwise, be a very long walk around. I have no idea why it’s called Nan Bield Pass, or whether Nan Bield was a person or is describing a feature.

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