This makes you part of the problem, Itsu

2014-01-10 11.48.56

Pret used to do it. Maybe they still do. They had little stickers on their tills saying it was a “Nightmare!” that they had to add on tax to their hot food sales. Oh yeah, same founder, innit? Remind me what school – sorry, charitable foundation – he went to? He has a bit of form for shouting about the evils of taxation.

Yeah, Julian. “The taxman”. That nasty grey bloke in a suit just trying to piss off your customers so that he can hoard a load of cash in some big safe at the end of Whitehall.

Seriously. In case it’s escaped his attention, that’s the same taxman who funds the maintenance of the pavement his customers cross to get through the door, and who oversees the security of supply of the power and other utilities that keep the business running. Who pays the wages of a good proportion of people who buy things over the counter. Who sorts out all the tedious issues of planning, building design, sewage and rubbish collection, that just can’t be done sensibly by one organisation alone, and without which an Itsu could simply not exist. And much, much more. Yes, that taxman.

So if you see this sort of sticker next time you’re in there, let them know, politely, that you think it’s a load of misinformed old rubbish. Or send their MD some feedback. Or just avoid them entirely.

Friendly advice

I’d be hopeless as a politician. Retreat to rational debate gets you precisely nowhere when you’re up against the gong-clangers and firestarters of the populist mob-stirrers.

So it’s with some mixed feelings that I write about an utterly bizarre story that looks like it might actually work against the interests of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Ah yes. Them. (A reminder about my problem with them.)

In this particular story they’ve done two odd things. Firstly, they’re sounding off about the failure of local authorities to stop doing a thing they’re legally required to do; a thing which helps ease the pressure on, erm, taxpayers. Right. (As I publish this, I see that @tim2040 has written along similar lines, including the point that collecting such a tiny amount of money is something of an unwanted chore for the councils in any case.)

But if you dig into the detail a bit, it becomes a bit more clear that they’re actually hoping that the whole legal requirement bit gets wiped out. Ok, but that’s the second odd thing.

Because the TPA has this peculiar Jekyll & Hyde characteristic. On the one hand, the cowardly, rent-a-gob demagoguery of the “I can’t believe they’re spending money on THIS” faction, hauled out to berate, well, anything delivered by public services – whether or not it’s got much to do with the paying of taxes. And on the other, some rather more worthy aspirations around winding down the role of the state in matters of surveillance and data.

Ok, I am a little suspicious that the weight here might be firmly on the “winding down the role of the state” bit, but the end results are often quite sensible, and bring about useful pressure and scrutiny on some of the heavy-handed nonsense we’ve seen from the current administration and its predecessor.

But usually, these messages are delivered under the banner of the TaxHaters’ close cousin, BigBrotherWatch. And what makes this electoral roll story interesting is that they’ve chosen not to use this sub-brand when opining on something which is natural BBW heartland. My advice would be to look carefully at what impact this might have on their overall strategy.

Is it a mistake? Does it signal an intentional shift in position and brand? It looks very blurred to me. To a rational observer, the sight of the TPA asking a local authority to break the law and spurn a source of income that would make matters easier for taxpayers… I mean, it makes them look a bit silly… which is a good thing, from my perspective…

Oh hang on. I’m doing the rational thing again, aren’t I? As I say, hopeless.

The two lessons I remember most


I was thinking the other day about the things I learned at school that were really worth learning. Not the history dates, nor the chemistry formulae. Not even the mysteries of iron ore mining at Kiruna. (Gratuitous reason to use the photo above – I finally got to visit it this summer.)

No, the useful things that really made a difference to me were conveyed very simply, and stuck.

Step forward Mr Smith, woodwork and metalwork class, 1980. We have to draw up a specification for a table. I do an enthusiastic job of describing the perfect table, giving measurements, appearance, functionality etc. etc. I’ve got some brilliant ideas about tables, me.

Mr Smith likes the thoroughness, but meticulously adds his pencilled notes to each one of my design points. Although he gives a bit of acknowledgement to some of my thoughts on materials and so on, he’s basically tweaked every answer in exactly the same way. “…will be finalised by surveying what users of the table want (or need)”. I’m a bit downcast, as I thought I’d done it perfectly, but what he’s done is to open my mind to user perspective and iterative design. Just like that.

And then, in 1986, Mr Atherton did something extraordinary in A level Economics class. We’re doing interest rates, exchange rates, balance of payments and all that macro stuff. He poses a small question – what if X changes? And then leads me, absolutely brilliantly, through a massive series of “and then what will happen..?” questions. Eventually, as I find I’ve managed to loop together pretty every construct of an economic model in a logical sequence that actually makes sense, I’m unable ever again to think of a Big Change Thing without digging through all the “so what else changes as a result?” consequences.

So, Mr Smith & Mr Atherton. User-centricity and the fundamental interconnectedness of all the big things. In two quick lessons. Thanks. Profound, life-long, world-view-altering thanks. (I’d love to find a way for them to read this.)

If you had moments like this, what were they? And what would a curriculum that distilled all these and delivered them in concentrated form be able to achieve?

The offer

He came to me at dawn, from the fog.

Stood beside me. Said: “This can I offer…”

“Time: four hours more a day, yours for free.

Take your lost mornings back. Many evenings too.

And more…relief from sickness, headache, insomnia, dread.

More energy, clarity, firmness of purpose,

maybe a little slimness, possibly a little fitness.

You’ll smell better, taste better, have better teeth

and perhaps be a little harder when required.

More certainty of what you like and don’t;

of who’s worth spending time with and who isn’t.

Perspective – seeing who you really are,

where you are, where you’re going and where you want to go.

Wonderful new relationships and maybe some healing of the old.”

I marvelled, head reeling. I said, “I understand.

This I want, but at what cost?”

He replied:

“In money, nothing. I’ll even give you a thousand a year.

But there are other, heavier prices to consider:

What if you’re not who or where you thought you were?

You’ll change – maybe more, maybe less

but accept it’s an unknown.

You’ll be a stranger at times

to those you love, work and play with.

You may have to leave them, even where you live,

or change your profession entirely.

In many groups, you’ll be an outsider,

a threat, an object of pity and ridicule.

You will see the sharp edges of things you’d hidden before.

And maybe for good reasons.

You may lose home, partner, even children.

You may walk alone for years.

At parties you’ll be awkward; in the pub, shunned;

branded the loner, the loser, the killjoy.

You may withdraw, or seek new diversions

but new directions will emerge,

and with them, a new you.”

I marvelled.

“Yes,” I said. “I want this.

How long do I sign up for?

A lifetime is unthinkable.”

“Of course it is,” he said.

“These changes may take minutes or years,

but you only have to commit to today.”

I nodded, and gave him the bottle.

Roll up, roll up…

Bus crash photo, by Paul Clarke

…for all the fun of the fair

There’s a good chance you’ll see something today, if you haven’t already, about a pseudonymous online character for whom life seems to have taken a very recent and very awkward turn.

This character specialises in winding people up in extreme ways, in generating and thriving on outrage, in what we call (safely, for once) “trolling”.

“Hello people with some particular cause to be sensitive, hello public servant, hello anyone who may disagree with me – you’re a c**t, this is why, and I’m actually really on your side for saying it. Oh, and one day you’ll thank me that I stood up for those rights.” “Listen to me, notice me, tell all your friends how outraged you are and hope they join in…yada yada yada.”

I’m not linking to or referencing the specific details here, as I avoid doling out troll food – but he seems to have bitten off a big one this time. Repeated taunting and goading of a community who not only have some pretty good reasons behind their pride and sensitivity, but also a track record (first successful petition to be debated in Parliament, anyone?) of organising and supporting each other.

And support blends seamlessly into the formation of a mob, and from there, the path to actual, real-world, nastiness can spiral upwards rather quickly.

Thing is, our Defender of Freedom didn’t really do the tightest job of hiding his real identity. Pieces to camera in his natural voice behind a mask; social media accounts under his pseudonym showing real people with real names, in identifiable locations. Almost like he wanted to be outed eventually. Hmm.

And now that doxxing has happened. Personal information is out there. Whether it’s accurate or not is anybody’s guess. Whether the entire episode is some extraordinary situationist stunt to promote a brand of soap is still a possibility. (Ok, it’s not.)

Did he want to be unmasked? Was the online attention not enough any more? Did some sort of martyrdom – however you want to interpret that – represent a fitting culmination to a sustained period of effort?

OK, so what’s my point here?

It’s one of those cases that features a regular theme on this site: the gap between nice, clearly-marked, “how-the-world-should-be” and its messy reality.

My opinion is that you can’t slip a fag paper through the logical thought process that says one should have the freedom to cause the potential for offence. Any attempt to lock out that freedom will fail to work, and even if it did, would take more away from us than it gave us back. Potential is of course an important word here: the online media he uses are seen “by choice”, not forced into people’s homes…yeah, right. It doesn’t work like that, of course. Rubbernecking always trumps rationality.

Yes, we’ve built rules like banning public incitement to hatred, but they don’t adapt easily to media where my choice to subscribe (or my friends’) drive what I see. That word “public” again… but this is getting into more detail than I intend to in this post.

Back to the point: which is that this case made me think about how reactions, and change, really work. You know, in the normal world.

Where I grew up, when things were changing fast, like going through school, being a teenager, finding your feet in a new area – there was a contrast between the official boundaries intended to guide behaviour, and the “corrections” that would be applied by the environment. Bluntly: if you really pissed somebody off, you’d get thumped. And the rules? Irrelevant. At some point, with enough sustained “correcting” going on, there might be a shift in the official rules to keep us all sane, and we’d all lumber onwards.

The first bit of that process might be brutal, and horrible, of course. But it’s what happens. You can say what you like – be as offensive as you like – but it doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. They might not be legal. Or a Good Thing. But you can’t just vanish them away. Do I condemn any violent action that might result from a case like this? Yes. Do I see that it might also be an inevitable component of something more wide-ranging? Yes to that too.

We need corrections. They’re part of making change: whether that’s to a price, a set of laws or to the behaviour of a society.

There are no smooth dials on society – or levers that leaders can pull to make big things happen as planned. (From Gove to Pickles to Duncan Smith the reality of this is now hitting hard, but that’s definitely another post.)

In today’s example I can’t help feeling there’s a certain irony in a professed free-market libertarian being prepared to test the market – and its possible application of a correction – in quite such an extreme and personal way.

I am very interested to see how this plays out. And we should take an interest, perhaps from a distance – without lobbing in a ton of troll food – on how it does play out. It matters. The seismic societal change here is one where everyone can create content and reach an audience (or be reached by it). Despite a lot of fury on the internetz, there’ve been remarkably few examples of that boiling over into actual, tangible, harm.

We’ve had outrages about Daily Mail articles, we’ve had anger about privilege and so much else, but something about this one feels very different. Hard people are involved here. For whom the jokey “I’ll do time…” phrase beloved of Private Eye’s spoof comments thread may well have a different resonance.

“It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye” as they say.

We’ll see, won’t we.

About me, but not of me?

Silhouette of boy in sea

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Bear with me here.

Lots of agitation at the moment about the prospect of our health records being flogged to the highest bidder and scattered to the four winds in the interests of progress and profit.

So here’s a thought to chew on: how are we so sure they are actually our records?

What are these records, anyway? A gathering of facts – of some very personal facts for sure – my weight, my addictions, my phobias, my illnesses. But it’s also a record of my transactions, medical interventions, successes and failures.

And that latter aspect takes us, in this contorted line of reasoning, to a more complex place than merely a collection of details about me.

For transactions have two sides. Givers and receivers. Ministers and ministered. To choke off the supply of feedback on interventions is to poke a stick in the eye of rationality and science, surely?

There’s a ready assumption that it’s “my record this” and “my record that” – but what if we were to reframe this? What if we were to accept (after a huge public thrashing-out that has shown no sign of taking place so far) that by receiving we also have to give? That the quid pro quo of that new medication is the giving up of that transaction, of its success or failure, so that others may learn, and that we all may benefit? Thus science would march onwards with its boots reinforced by the tough leather of real-world evidence.

Of course those two constructs I mentioned above: facts about us, and about our transactions, can’t be neatly separated like that. To make sense of my intervention you have to know about my underlying condition. Evidence of interaction may not have much meaning without a historical context. So while it may be more palatable to argue for the sharing of intervention experiences for the greater good, pieces of the “us” stuff will inevitably be attached.

But pause for a moment – consider what the debate about personal data would look like were we to acknowledge that just because something is about me, it isn’t necessarily of me.

Insistence on opt-outs from data collection would start to look like an act of selfish resistance, a dogmatic adherence to an ideology of paranoia, a one-way street in terms of the flow of benefits. Yeah, give me the treatments, but don’t expect to be able to learn anything based on the outcomes.

Deanonymisation (the jigsaw rebuilding of supposedly laundered data to reidentify personal records) would start to look less like an absolute evil, and more an equivocal risk to be weighed against benefits. See those benefits of sharing as benefits to us all, and the harsh black and white of much of the debate around rights and records melds to a rather more nuanced sea of greys.

This is hardly a popular line of thought. But I think it merits a bit more of an airing. Where else would you expect to preserve such transactional asymmetry? What is so sacrosanct about our physical existence that makes it right to fight against information sharing when this may act against the rational interests of our collective societal body?

Having set your stall out against data sharing or anonymisation, or in favour of informed consent to share, are you still so sure of the moral rock on which you’ve built it?

High speeeed data

2012-12-08 13.17.00

A few quick notes after my first month-and-a-bit as a field-triallist* for EE of their 4G mobile data service.

After Andrew Grill had a rough experience trying to be a 4G early adopter, he worked with EE to try and make something constructive from the experience. His original blog post about it had got a lot of attention, so he proposed giving five ‘advocates‘ the chance to use the service, and write honestly about it. I am one of those users, and my mobile data needs are pretty demanding.

As a photographer, I’m uploading content every day. Lots of it. I also need to look at a fair few images, but it’s the upward speed that would make a real difference to me. When I can’t get hold of decent, fast, reliable wifi – so that includes most events – I turn to my Three all-you-can-eat data plan.

That’s pretty good, and I’ve had speeds around 11/3 (up/down in Mbps) with a general expectation of about 6/2 and a regular 8/1.5 at home. (Yes, at home. Broadband here delivers a measly 2/0.4, and often bogs down completely.)

So how has EE been working? Well, sadly I live just outside the 4G coverage, near the M25, but the H+ service is still a bit faster than Three’s (at 10/1.6). Though it does seem to drop out for no apparent reason about once an hour, requiring a handset restart and relinking to its wifi to pick back up again. So I’ve found myself tending to use Three instead, as that remains uninterrupted for as long as needed.

In 4G territory though, it’s devastatingly fast. The best I’ve seen (in Shoreditch) was 26/12, but I’d say in London generally 18/5 is more representative. Still incredibly fast, though. Twice I’ve seen uploads at 20Mbps when testing.

But it’s not about the numbers, really. Has this made me more effective in my work? The picture is still a little mixed so far. The first reason for this is that at speeds that fast, the 8GB package that we’re on (that’s the maximum being offered to the market at the moment by EE although I’ve had two arguments with people now who swear they know someone who’s on a bigger limit) gets eaten up very quickly. After four days of usage (and not that heavy, I think) I saw I’d churned through 5.6GB, so had to back off a lot for the rest of the month. Not that I was worried about getting hit with a surcharge, I think they’ll let me off that, but because I really wanted to see what happened in trying to living within the confines of the tariff.

As a result, I didn’t hit the sweet spot of combined a) poor wifi, b) a fat 4G signal, c) a pressing need and d) confidence that I had the headroom left in my allowance for another month. Which is an interesting first finding, I think.

The second cause for pause is that a couple of times I’ve had tests showing me a 6-10Mbps upstream connection, but Dropbox synchronisation has remained stubbornly slow. Flickr and Dropbox are my two big uploading destinations. Yet when I switch to Three, I get a much faster upload. I will test this further, controlling as far as possible for different factors, and report.

But yesterday, at an event in Westminster, it all came together. I got Flickr uploads with amazing speed and consistency, the purple bar racing across the screen as fast as I’ve ever seen it (with the one notable exception of Google’s Victoria office, where it actually warmed the screen a little as it moved.) So it really will work. More testing required.

[The image at the top of the post is very unfair. But it made me smile. In a remote Derbyshire village it was amusing to see a signal so low it barely registered.]


UPDATE2 8pm, 24 Jan

Might be helpful to show the 4G service performing through the laptop:

4g test

vs the in-house offering:

qeii test

But more importantly, mine actually performed consistently faster for actual uploading, and was stable. And mine. Etc. (How that changes as the 4G network comes under greater load, time will tell.)


UPDATE1 4pm, 22 Jan
As luck would have it, a few hours after I wrote this EE announced a big increase in the maximum allowance available and price cuts.

*Best shorthand I can think of, really. I’m not a formal tester, or reviewer, and certainly not a company stooge for EE. This small group is using the service to see how it performs in reality, and writing about it occasionally. The service has been provided for free for a year but no other fee comes with it.

#uksnow – one of a kind?

I still get a buzz out of seeing this:

Snow Map

The seed of the idea appeared in the same room that I’m writing this post in today, almost four years ago. I wrote about it conceptually at the time, before any mapping had been done. And yet, after all this time, is there anything that’s come close to sharing its characteristics of simplicity, popularity and usefulness?

Why did it work? Because it was, and is:

accessible: Anyone could contribute if they could send a tweet. Even if they had no snow (I’ve seen lots of 0/10s).

fast: Instant gratification, really. Nobody had to moderate or process anything. Even before Ben Marsh created his map (and others had a go, too) the hashtag let you see what was going on immediately (spammers notwithstanding).

minimal: Two tiny character sequences are all you need. Part of a postcode, and your opinion on snowiness. Other services look after all the rest, pulling information together and mapping it. No fancy abbreviations or protocols to adhere to. Clever Ben also made it very flexible, so that placenames could be interpreted and the order of information within the tweet didn’t matter.

safe: An information standard that only revealed the first part of your postcode would probably not see you inundated with stalkers.

sporadic: We get this a handful of times a year. If we had the opportunity to do this every day, I think we’d quickly tire of it. I can’t see it catching on in Canada.

disruptive: Lots of us do different things when it snows. We might have extra time on disrupted journeys, or be unable to get to work at all. And we want that to be a shared experience.

inherently fascinating: Brits love weather. End of.

useful: Is the snow coming towards me? How bad is it where I’m planning to go? Who needs a metereologist’s projection when you can just gaze down as if from your own satellite, at what’s happening right now?

not owned: Nobody’s “in charge”. Nobody claims it’s “their system” – although there was one notable attempt. It is genuinely owned by the people, for the people. Ben has made a cheap IOS app for those who want that experience, and good luck to him. But you can see it on the website he’s built for nothing.

traditional: After three years in a row, any quirky British behaviour qualifies as a tradition. Nobody has to blow a whistle to indicate “ok, we’re starting some snow-mapping now,” or go on a training course to learn how to do it. It just happens.

What else could work like this? I hate to say it, but I fear the answer might be: not much. This is a unique combination of characteristics, when you think about it.

For whom the bell trolls

We’re almost twenty years on from the publication of one of the internet’s defining artworks. Turning from the screen of his desktop PC, one dog faces another, with the immortal line: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

The Internet may have had a capital letter back then, but that underlying message hasn’t changed.

Remember Leo Traynor? The Irish blogger, political consultant and writer who was all over your screens in late September with his amazing story of tribulation and forgiveness.

You missed it? In brief: Leo started getting a whole bunch of online abuse – progressing to real-world threats, parcels of hate delivered to his house, and lots of really nasty stuff. The police weren’t interested, so he enlisted a friendly IT whizz to use vague (but legal) means to track down his assailant. Turned out to be the teenage son of someone he knew, so Leo sets up this Agatha Christie-style face-to-face dénouement, only to deliver a lovingly-crafted message of absolution to the weeping youth.

For this act, he was almost canonised by Giles Fraser, and the Guardian was not the only publication to amplify his message with scarcely a glance towards the issues of its authenticity.

Thing is, there were a few odd features to that original story. Three big ones, to my mind.

Firstly, Leo had a penchant for enabling his persecutor’s chosen channel of abuse – the Twitter Direct Message – by continuing to follow new, anonymous accounts that approached him. Wouldn’t you know it, he’d do that, they’d unleash a tide of venom, he’d block, and then he’d do it all over again. “Sometimes two or three times a day,” Leo writes.

Secondly, the inaction of the police in response to reports of serious anti-Semitism and death threats. Given that these were backed up with physical things he’d been sent in the post, this gets creakier as a storyline the more you think about it.

And thirdly, the unmasking – from online traces to the perpetrator’s precise house – was very strange. Yes, one can construct tenuously coherent theories involving the cross-referencing of IP addresses with social network information, Wi-Fi logs and other geolocation, perhaps aided by the geography of sparsely-populated areas. But it read strangely; as if the details had been massaged or redacted in some way.

None of these three things are by themselves impossible, or unexplainable. There’s a line of defence for Leo that says any subsequent weird behaviour on his part can be put down to a wish to protect the anonymity of the child of a friend.

But the conjunction of all these points in the same story – a story pressing all the classic emotional buttons of conflict, tragedy, mystery and resolution – certainly got my alarm bells ringing. And you know what? The story’s out there now. Massively so. And that brings with it other pressures for authenticity and verification that compete directly with that wish to protect anonymity, however laudably founded.

We’ve had the Syrian lesbian blogger. We’ve just had Dave on Wheels. That people with fantastic stories on the internet may turn out to be, quite literally, fantastic themselves should be no surprise to anyone.

A few skeptical voices were raised in Leo’s direction. From systematic interrogation, to more gentle questioning. And then there was this strange business of an eerily similar unmasking only a few weeks earlier, bringing with it a big-P political angle. (If you search, you’ll find another site which has much to say on Mr Traynor, but I am not linking to it for reasons which will be obvious if you explore the site more widely.)

Leo himself went quiet, protected his Twitter account, and blocked me and a few others. A little strange, given I’m pretty sure I’d not tweeted to him directly at any point. But some rallied round. Of course Leo exists! Everyone knows Leo! I’ve met him myself (a while back mind you), said others, in some instances with the simmering anger that naturally accompanies challenge.

Harder questions started being asked: Can the Gardaí confirm he actually reported the abuse to them? Can he be found in the Rathmines phone book? (Or any other directory, phone or otherwise, for that matter.) Given he claims to have a D.Phil, where’s his thesis? Why has no one come forward to offer any independently verifiable biographical detail which might categorically identify Leo as a real person?

Is this what identity really means then? The external verification of biographical details? Well, largely it does, as I’ve dwelled on previously.

But all we see are blanks. At every turn.

So, does Leo even exist?

There seems to be no available evidence. Not for someone going by that name, anyway.

Because for a man who’d apparently been so influential, there are no published articles, no records of speaking appearances, no “political consultancy” reports or client references. Nothing. Just a mostly-wiped blogging history, some social network profiles and contributions to comment threads here and there. Social vapour, really. But tangible footprint? Not so much.

But what does all that actually mean? Is an existence that’s only defined in social media terms any different from, well, from any other definition of a “real person”?

These are questions for the epistemologists and existentialists, of course. I’ve no axe to grind, nor a wish to somehow polarise the world into Leo-apologists and Leo-deniers. (Leo-pards vs Leo-tards?)

So why do I care? This could just be someone who does a bit of blogging under an assumed name. Possibly someone who has perhaps met a few people in real life for a coffee while in the guise of their online persona. For whom the definition of “political consultant” might be “someone who tweets at politicians”, and “writer” equating to “person who sits on the internet all day commenting on blogs”. The name could even be real, but that would suggest certain other embellishments had been made. (Still want to know about that D.Phil, Leo. And maybe more about that extensive education and all that travel. It’s extraordinary that one can get around so much but leave no traces online, isn’t it?)

That’s no big deal. Hardly unique. He wasn’t after money or malice, it would seem. A few minutes of fame as a storyteller that suddenly got wildly and magnificently out of hand, is my reading of it.

Well, it didn’t matter while it was just one man and his blog. But when the tale becomes part of the canon of internet legends, all the while omitting a tiny little detail like the author’s pseudonymity, then its other oddities are cast in a harsher, less forgiving light. If even the existence of the author can’t be verified, what else about the story can be?

Leo’s fable, with its quirks and flaws, has consequences: that people are going to believe misleading things about their privacy or findability. That they might be discouraged from reporting serious crime to an apparently indifferent police force. And that they’re being set an example of behaviour that may prolong their exposure to harm.

Real-world, real-impact consequences. That’s why I’m writing this.

A serious point: probing questioning towards those who write about abuse more often than not turns out to be a Very Bad Thing. Many of the commenters on that Skepchick post point this out. And they are right. But how many strange facets does a story have to have before it does become fair game for deeper investigation? True skeptics should be very careful to avoid placing certain topics beyond question, whatever the surrounding evidence.

Whatever the answer, I think this one has enough to cross that line.

Be a dog all you like. Be whoever you want to be online. But risk harming others through misleading them and you can expect to be called out on it. And if that’s “trolling”, I’m a Dutchman.

Well, I might be. You never know. Proost!

The root of the problem

Spent a hugely enjoyable day today in Cardiff in the company of Learning Pool and their customers. I’ve got a lot of time for the way this bunch have built their business, and – for once a word neither hijacked nor misplaced – their community.

As with the event I went to in London a fortnight ago, any suggestion of post-lunch torpor was shattered by the charismatic Donald Clark, something of an Antichrist of E-Learning. (I trust he’d enjoy that description. He’ll no doubt let me know if not).

Donald likes to shake it up a bit, and did some pretty efficient demolition of many of the cargo cult behaviours of learning and development. He’s not an easy listen for some of the professionals in this field, which is probably why he makes such an excellent choice as a speaker.

But then… he turned his beady eye to content.

“How many of you,” he boomed, “…can remember the formula for solving a quadratic equation?”

Silence. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.)

I couldn’t hold back, and did a sort of ten-year-old’s squeak and arm-raise from the very back of the room.

“One. Right.” Point proven, clearly. “There’s no value in all these things we ‘learn’. You’re never going to need that formula. You don’t remember it.”

And so, dear blog-clicker, I was prompted to write these few words in defence of this humble equation.

Along with Pythagoras on triangles, Newton on force, and a couple of (slightly rusty if I’m honest) ones about speed and velocity, it’s pretty much the only tone poem featuring a, b, x, y and their friends that I can still effortlessly recall.

(Once upon a time I could reel off the Kutta-Joukowski equation and other fancy rhythms. Sadly most of those are now long, long gone.)

And here it is:

Do I actually use it? Well, yes, I have done. Quite recently, in fact. I wanted to remind myself of the precise derivation of the golden ratio, in some thinking I was doing around graphic composition. Constructing the equation is ridiculously easy, but solving it is a little less obvious.

To be able to achieve this solution of an equation of a higher order (where one of the terms is multiplied by itself), using this very simple bit of maths, was in itself very pleasing.

And more than just giving me the solution, it also satisfied me to know that more basic algebra wasn’t going to do the job – that it had to be this particular formula in order to unlock the secret.

The quadratic equation also did something else for me when I first met it; something that persists today. It broadened my mind to the idea that a problem could have more than one solution. And beyond this, to the corollary that mathematical processes might be asymmetric. Or even irreversible. That really helped when I later came across public key cryptography.

Thank you for all that too, little equation.

I suppose, to generalise even further, that even if I had never used it again, it had done a job in my mind. Planted a seed. Given a concrete foundation to the idea that problems can be solved with tools. Find the right tool, and great power can be yours.

So, all in all, I was quite fond of it.

And yet, in this room of prosperous professionals, not one other person was prepared to admit they remembered it.

Actually, two other people did subsequently come out to me in the corridor, saying they did know, but they didn’t really want to say so in front of everyone.

And that, dear reader, is a problem for me.

To begin, as our speaker did, by rubbishing “traditional things that are taught” sets us on a precarious slope. It’s the same slope that excludes the nerd, that silences the swot, that rewards mediocrity, the low-brow and the trivial.

Do too much of that and you’ll engender a fear of the complex and an avoidance of more far-reaching lessons of abstraction, extrapolation and generalisation. You really don’t want to do that.

I’m not going to go all Gove about this, but, well, if you’ve read this far, you know what I mean.

So go to bed tonight chanting softly, x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared…