Maths is a different country

25 11 2010

Usually when commuting by train to either Glasgow and Edinburgh I sit opposite business man and women, people heading to shopping trips in the city or sometimes families on a day trip. Yesterday I say opposite a talk, very lean man with disheveled hair, fashionably distressed leather jacket and designer stubble. Not that remarkable but it was what he was doing that caught my attention.

As soon as he sat down he took out a thin blue notebook and a single mauve sheet covered with mathematical problems. He opened the book and looked at the sheet for a few moments before copying a line of symbols onto a clean page of the notebook. For several minutes he looked at the equations, His expression was one of concentration and puzzlement.

After a short time he started to write and quickly covered the page with a range of numbers and symbols. Throughout this process he didn’t look up. His expression changed little. He was totally absorbed in finding an answer to this problem.

I was a salesman in one of my earliest business incarnations and developed the skill found in all great salespeople – the ability to read upside down – but the sheet of maths was totally incomprehensible to me. I had absolutely no idea what the sequences of numbers and symbols meant. It wasn’t even clear to me whether it was a question or a statement. Was the young man trying to find a solution to a problem or seeking to prove a premise? And was there a right solution or could there have been more than one answer?

I’m a zoologist, by degree, so I am used to scientific terminology, most of which can be explained in words as well as symbols. It is a relatively simply process to convey in words what is mean by E=MC2. Understanding the implications and ramifications of the equation is another matter but it is easy to describe the symbols in a few words.

But a whole sheet of symbols, with no words, no other explanation. The question and answer both being presented in terms completely beyond my ken. Maths is a different language,

I found myself wondering if there are mathmetical equivalents of linguistic nuances. When a question is posed, for example, concerning the role of women in the novels of DH Lawrence there may be some wrong answers but there will certainly be more than one right answer. It’s a matter of observation and interpretation. I wonder if maths at it’s most complex is the same or whether it is always a search for a single, ultimate truth? I rather hope it’s the latter.

Very few things in life are clear cut, most are open to interpretation and discussion. It would be nice to think that at least the young man doing maths on the train can find a single answer to his problem.

Can capitalism save the world?

3 11 2010

Recently  David Cameron spoke to the CBI and urged the private sector to step into the void which will be created by the government’s devastating cuts to public services.  Leaving aside the fact that the private sector, in the form of the global banking system, caused the financial crisis that necessitated a government bail out and caused the huge hole in the public finances, is there any possibility that capitalism can save us all?

Two things this month.  The Chilean miners, when rescued, were wearing Oakley sunglasses – Oakley Radar to be exact.  The sunglasses that were deemed to be essential to protect the eyes of the men who had spent the previous two months in the dark, were provided by a commercial organisation, free of charge.  This is clearly an act of altruism on the part of the company – one which has garnered them millions of pounds of free publicity as the image of weary miners and that of the President who insisted on wearing the sunglasses as an act of solidarity with the men, was beamed around the world’s news networks,  filled the front page of every newspaper and dominated the internet for days.

What should we make of this?

Product placement has been an integral part of film and TV for decades.  Should we really be surprised that the practice is now filtering into our news networks?  And is it actually something to be encouraged, as it did result in the miners getting the protection they required at zero cost to everyone but Oakley – whose donation of sunglasses cost the company less than £10,000.

And if you have had cause to spend any time on any British High Street this past month you cannot have failed to notice the profusion of pink.  October was breast cancer awareness month with every company, or so it seems, producing pink versions of their products in support of the campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer.

On the face of it, this is a good thing, surely?

I am becoming less convinced.  I am finding myself questioning the nature of this campaign.

The profusion of pink and the proliferation of fun ways to raise money trivialises what is a devastating, nasty illness by showing the smiling faces of fundraisers and their sponsors and further belittles women by presenting images of boobs and bras that  continue to titillate.

All of this pink fundraising also risks taking our attention away from the failure of the state to dedicate sufficient funding to research into cancer prevention and to support women and their families in the treatment and recovery process.

Is it reasonable that companies are able to sell more of their iffy merchandise on the basis that a small portion of the product price will be given to a charity?

Is this David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’?  One where commercial companies boost their sales and support areas of the public service that should really be provided by the state?

I haven’t reached a conclusion with which I am happy but I do believe that it is a debate worth having as our public services face cuts and possible collapse.

Do we really want private companies to step into the gap and if we do,  shouldn’t we first establish guidelines lest we drift towards disneyfication of our public services?

Where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?

1 11 2010

My Dad has lots of sayings, picked up from books, plays and tv down the years that have passed into family lore. One of these, recited in an iffy west country accent, is “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?” As with most of my Dads sayings, I didn’t know where this came from. I’d never asked as most of his offerings are conjugated from several phrases and don’t have a single derivation, but I was listening to a radio play, The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley, who found further fame as Corporal Godfrey in the tv seies Dads Army, when I heard the station master say “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?”.

I was delighted to hear this refrain from my childhood. It brought a huge smile to my face. The real significance was the timing. I’d been sitting with a blank piece of paper considering the theme of this months issue of the3rdi magazine, ‘confidence‘, and writing, or failing to write this editorial and then this phrase “if ‘e be a natural thing, where do ‘e come from, where do ‘e go?”

Confidence then. Where does it come from?
We all have it at birth, I think. When my son was about 3 years old we were on a family holiday in Portugal. We were having a meal in a beautiful courtyard and, as with most children, he got fidgety when he’d finished his meal and wanted to head off to play. We were still finishing wine and coffee so he had to stay close. Whay he did was to stand in pathway and smile at people. He didn’t stand in their way, he wasn’t pushy, he just smiled. If they didn’t smile back he smiled more. Everyone smiled. Imagine having the confidence to do that now. Street entertainers do this everyday but most of us feel nervous meeting new people and don’t feel we have the confidence to make an impression.

One of the most interesting stories I heard this week was about the neice of a friend. She had been looking for a job and my friend had suggested that she take a look at her LinkedIn contacts and see if there was anyone there that she might like an introduction to. The young girl looked at LinkedIn and decided that there were indeed great contacts to be made so, without third-party introduction, she contacted key individuals, including the CEO of a major Knightsbridge retailer and asked for an internship. He responded personally and has given her many great contacts and introductions to help her along the way. Would you have had the confidence to make that direct contact or would you have waited to be introduced? Her confidence came from not knowing that you’re not supposed to do that. But who says that you’re not supposed to?

At speaking engagements and through the3rdi magazine I tell people all the time that they can contact me personally and directly to get publicity for their business stories. Few do. While this is not all about lack of confidence, it may be that the time isn’t right to look for help or publicity with the business, but it often is that people don’t feel confident enough to introduce themselves.

So we all start out with confidence so where does it go?
There are many suggestions in the3rdi magazine this month of things that may, over time, erode our confidence. The media driven imperative for young girls to attain the perfect figure is one. The celebrity culture that has led young girls to aspire to be a WAG or a reality TV star, and berate themselves if this does not happen for them, is another. Something as simple, and beyond our control, as being the middle child of three is another example given by one of our contributors for lack of early self-esteem. The point is that the list is endless and infinitely variable. Things that may have happened to me to shake my self-belief may have left another unaffected. Business setbacks that may have fatally undermined someone elses ability to prosper have not dampened my desire to succeed. We are not all the same and the reasons for our confidence being built on shaky foundations varies.

So how can we build firmer foundations.
There are hundreds of suggestions in the3rdi magazine this month. Each offers a solution to particular crisis of confidence. I want to offer my own, broader based solution. AS ever, I’ll explain by way of a story. There are several times in my life that I have felt utterly indestructible, times when nothing was a problem, when nothing could shake my confidence. I can remember each time very clearly and the funny thing is that none of these times is closely linked to a moment of particular success. They seem to have arisen independently of the circumstances in my life at that time.

For example one time, very early in my career I was a salesman and I remember driving north up the M1 listening to Black Man Ray by China Crisis as I drove. I felt indestructible. The feeling didn’t follow a particularly successful call, I hadn’t just earned a huge bonus and I wasn’t driving a brand new car – all causes for euphoria if your in sales! The feeling just was.

If the feeling can arise without obvious cause then we are free to create it within ourselves. If you act like a confident person then people will think that you are a confident person.

And a final point about confidence. We all assume that other people have it! When we walk into a crowded room at a networking event everyone who is already there looks relaxed and confident. Think about this. Two minutes ago they were exactly the same as you are now; feeling a little nervous about entering a room full of strangers. It is not confidence that separates you, just two minutes. Once you are in the room and settled you will be the confident one, so take that ‘two minutes later‘ feeling with you into the room.

Think of a time when you were indestructable and take that feeling of how it feels with you wherever you go.