Dealing with Trivia

Portugal, 1812 - The 1st Duke of Wellington writes to the National Office in London.


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London

or, perchance,

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


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Thoughts on Exam Questions

Exam HallI was on the team that analysed UK GCSE Science questions from Summer 2008. It was a depressing experience - and our findings made for sorry stories in the media. In practice, the outcome should have surprised no-one; the Royal Society of Chemistry have been making warning noises for some time.

One of my colleagues on that team was Ken Zetie who is Head of Physics at St Paul's Boys School in London. He set one of the GCSE papers to his son, aged 8, with the inevitable discovery that, yes, even a child could do these exams.

He also reflected on the experience here.

One particular discovery we made was that a number of questions were accessible to candidates who had not even studied the subject. Other questions required little understanding - simply the ability to plug numbers into a formula.

Now consider that in some subjects, languages for example, candidates are allowed reference materials such as dictionaries.

Add a little bit of technology to that mix and I present you with a hierarchy of exam questions:

1. Can the question be done without the candidate having been to lessons at all ?

2. Can the question be done by simply rearranging information available from the exam paper itself (eg: plugging numbers into a given formula) ?

3. Can the question be done (in the time available) if the candidate has access to Wikipedia ?

4. Can the question be done (in the time available) if the candidate has access to WolframAlpha ? (If you haven't yet tried WolframAlpha then you really, really need to click on that link. Or this one).

5. Could you only do the question if you had a genuine understanding of the subject being examined ?

Wikipedia LogoWell, presumably ALL exam questions should be written to meet level 5 ?

Unfortunately, even a year on from our depressing experience, it seems the UK exam boards have yet to rise to the challenge. The latest "re-writes" are still regarded as too easy.

So there is still plenty to be done. And schools like my own will continue to use the International GCSEs in preference to the UK exams - an option that is finally being opened up to the UK state sector

But, looking to the future, what does this mean for the future of education in the face of Moore's Law and ever-improving "Knowledge Engines".

Time to think again.

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Ashclouds, Airplanes, Engines and Risk

74sq.jpegOnce upon a time, in a previous career, I was an Engineering Officer in the Royal Air Force.

Fun times. At a young age I was asked to sign for 15 x F4-J Phantom Aircraft which were, technically, the property of Her Majesty - but I was led to understand that she was busy looking after three Corgis and so it fell to me to take responsibility for these aircraft. They were worth roughly GBP50 million each in today's money. And, yes, I had to sign for them. Nearly a Billion Dollars worth of hardware. Because, well, someone has to sign for these things - the rules are very clear.

My job was to keep these aircraft flying. I had 150 of the RAF's finest technicians to help me, all of whom knew a great deal more about the hardware than I did. But they were all specialists: engine specialists; armament specialists; radar specialists. And I, blessed as I was with an Oxford degree, was - of course - a specialist in absolutely nothing. Which meant that what I actually did was to ask questions. Lots of questions. Lots of very stupid questions. The sort of questions that only a graduate, with no useful knowledge whatsoever, could possibly ask...

So it was that I learned about the subtle art of "gentle persuasion".

I was looking at the exhaust of a General Electric J-79 engine. The F4-J Phantom is driven through the air by two of these beasts. They are huge. They consume a ridiculous amount of aviation fuel. And they can accelerate an aircraft from 0 - 600 mph in about the time it will take you to finish reading this sentence. These engines are the va-va-voom of the fast jet world...

Unfortunately, this particular engine wasn't about to voom anywhere. Not even if... well, you get the general idea.

ze362.jpegThe pilot who had returned this particular engine had decided to fly the aircraft upside down whilst slamming the throttle from "idle" to "reheat" - and back again - whilst simultaneously taking the Phantom through the sound-barrier. I kid you not, dear reader. The engine, in turn, had decided to expire.

"How", I asked, "are we going to fix it ?"

"Oh, don't worry Sir. A little gentle persuasion will soon have this fixed." replied Sgt Paul Leslie - a man who knew everything there was to know about engines - and a bit more besides.

"Ah yes" asks I, "but what are we actually going to do ?"

"Well, just a bit of gentle persuasion Sir. Have it fixed in no time. Back flying by this afternoon."

"Ah yes" says I, "but what EXACTLY are we going to DO ?"

"Well Sir" said Sgt Leslie "we're going to hit it with a bloody hammer." Although he didn't actually use the word "bloody". Because this is the military and you have to swear a lot more aggressively than that.

The aircraft got fixed. I got educated. And the world moved on.

The point of the story is that engines break. Aircraft break: bits fall off; birds fly into the windscreen; tyres burst. These things happen - and they get fixed. With a bit of luck we all live to fight another day.

But it isn't luck, is it ? It's risk management. It's professionals making rational decisions based on good evidence and a clear understanding of risk.

Which brings me to the ash cloud. We all know what an ash cloud can do to an aircraft - because we've all read about British Airways Speedbird 9 which flew through volcanic ash, lost all four engines and flew on silently for fourteen long minutes before Captain Eric Moody and his crew finally managed to relight one engine.

IcelandVolcano.jpgBut I still like asking questions and so I have a few questions about the current volcanic ash saga. Specifically:

1. What is the chance of any one aircraft encountering ash whilst flying between England and Continental Europe ? - I'm guessing "relatively low".

2. What is the likely damage that would be sustained by a modern aircraft if it did encounter such conditions ? - I'm guessing "tolerable"; these are modern aircraft with fault tolerant engines.

3. If the worst did come to the worst, and all the engines stopped working, then how difficult is it to land a modern commercial aircraft - deadstick - no thrust - given that the starting point is 20,000 feet above mainland Europe ? - Bear in mind that every Shuttle landing is a deadstick landing - and the Shuttle flies like a brick. Bear in mind that we can land aircraft in the Hudson River. Bear in mind that technology is getting better. Bear in mind that there are airfields all over the place.

Well, I just don't know. I'd like to see it done in the simulator a few times. I'd want to talk to a few Captains.

But I'm guessing, and this is just a guess, "easier than it was in 1960".

And that, it seems to me, is an important yardstick. If the level of risk - properly and professionally assessed - is no greater than the risks that passengers routinely assumed in the 1960s - then it's a risk we might all reasonably assume in 2010.

This isn't politics. This isn't PR. But it may be a rational assessment.

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Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink. Make the World a Better Place.

Two thoughts:

1. nudge: A book that offers advice on how to improve decisions about health, wealth and happiness.

2. A site dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.

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How much ? NHS spends money like water on ICT

According to the Guardian "BT Group will next month become the third major contractor in as many years to take a multimillion pound writedown on its work with the government's crisis-stricken GDP12.7bn overhaul of the NHS computer system."

This is the most astonishing amount of money.

The NHS is pretty much the biggest employer in Europe. There are something like 1,330,000 employed by the wider NHS - of whom some 133,000 are Doctors.

Yet despite that vast workforce we could (takes deep breath) give every-single-one of those employees TWO top-of-the range laptops (one for work and one for home) AND an iPhone each - and still have some change left over from GDP2.7bn.

Leaving some GDP10bn to spend on connecting them all up...

Let's look at that one more time. Two laptops and iPhone for every single NHS employee, and still have GDP10 Billion left over.

For pity's sake, who runs these contracts?

Because we sure know who's paying for it all.

Update - June 2011 - "NHS Chief Information Officer - Christine Connelly - in dramatic resignation. Terminal crisis for £11.4bn National Programme for IT?" ComputerWorldUK
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Barack Obama

It's 02:45 in the UK - and I'm about to head for bed, confident that Barack Obama will be a junior Senator for only a few hours more.

The world could yet become a much better place.

Wikipedia: "Barack Obama is the junior United States Senator from Illinois and presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the 2008 United States presidential election."

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Independent Schools Conference

316534237_0af30c7be1_m.jpgI'm chairing a session tomorrow at the Independent Schools Annual Conference. We're looking at the threats and opportunities presented by Social Networks within a schools' context - so primarily YouTube, MySpace, Bebo and Facebook.

It should be a good session: we have Dr Zoe Hilton and Emily Knee, both from the NSPCC - who are experts in child-protection issues.

And then we have Antony Mayfield from iCrossing, who is a specialist in the interactions of People and Brands through the medium of Social Networks.

I'm guessing we'll be faced by a bunch of Heads who think that Social Networks are just a threat, pure and simple - but I'm hoping that I'll be wrong...

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