Unintended consequences

Awful to read that Bitcoin Mining Now Consuming More Electricity Than 159 Countries Including Ireland & Most Countries In Africa. This is tragedy of the commons writ large.

I could be overly-sensitive after having just read The Internet Is Not The Answer, but this just reinforces the point raised in the book that the Internet has led to many terrible unintended consequences. We are literally paying to burn fossil fuel and hasten our own destruction through climate change in the real world in order to gamble on being lucky enough to obtain a slice of currency in the digital one.

I love technology where it brings enjoyment or helps us to be better at what we do. But whenever I read something like this, as I have mentioned here before, Bill Joy’s words are never far from my mind:

Now, as then, we are creators of new technologies and stars of the imagined future, driven – this time by great financial rewards and global competition – despite the clear dangers, hardly evaluating what it may be like to try to live in a world that is the realistic outcome of what we are creating and imagining.

I’m starting to think his article is the most important thing I’ve ever read. It’s certainly something that has shaped my worldview and continues to pop back into my mind again and again.

About to head into a busy period of school governing with committee meetings, a full governing board meeting, the Hertfordshire annual conference, our Improvement Partner Standards Visit and Headteacher annual appraisal all in the space of a couple of weeks. These are exciting times as we have a lot of new governors joining us as well. It’s incredibly full-on but I do love it.

Something is wrong on the internet

This article by James Bridle is being shared everywhere and for good reason. I’ve seen first hand one of my children wandering to a seemingly innocent YouTube video called something like ‘Try not to laugh’ which interspersed cartoon sequences with video of real bus crashes and a death metal soundtrack. The deliberate shock material the most upsetting thing to me, although the weird farms of auto-generated CGI videos that are then being watched by robots in order to generate income from the advertisements is pretty disturbing. I assume that Google doesn’t mind too much as they take their cut of the advertising revenue. Just think of the external impact of the energy resource usage that is going into this.

My mind is blown by how quickly there is a grotesque race to the bottom as soon as a new technology platform is introduced. YouTube’s launch in 2005 feels like yesterday and here we are already.

F1: Truly astonishing

Started reading Total Competition by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr. Early on in the book he gives an explanation of why Formula One cars are so incredible; it’s not just outright speed, it’s also how quickly they accelerate, brake and the extreme downforce and drag the aerodynamics generate. Fascinating.

The overall performance of a modern Formula One car is truly astonishing. The acceleration time from zero to 60 mph is a ‘modest’ 2.4 seconds, but this is because the car cannot put enough power down through the tyres. In reality the car’s acceleration accelerates: the next 60 mph to 120 mph requires only an extra two seconds. And the braking is astonishing: from 200 mph to a standstill in 3.5 seconds. The forces experienced by the drivers are also impressive, 5g in braking and 4g in cornering. By comparison, a high-performance road car might achieve 1g braking and cornering. The excessive g-forces explain why the drivers have to be superb athletes, comparable with any Olympian.

The cars can generate downforce equivalent to their mass, ¾ of a tonne at 110 mph, which means theoretically that, at that speed, they could drive along upside down and stick to the ceiling. At top speed, the cars generate 2.5 tonnes of downforce. The drag is so high that just lifting off the throttle at maximum speed will give over 1g of deceleration –the same level as a performance road car braking hard. In other words, an F1 driver who lifts his foot off the throttle will decelerate as quickly as a Porsche 911 driver doing an emergency brake.

The Punch Escrow

I picked up this book after attending Map Camp at the start of the month. The author, Tal M. Klein, was the final speaker at the conference and gave the day a lovely lighthearted ending with his application of Wardley Mapping to the technology in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. From what I can gather, the author had used Wardley Mapping in his day job as VP of Strategy at Lakeside Software and then applied the same thinking to writing his novel. He used the technique to reason about technology advances that could be achieved in the not-too-distant future — by the year 2147, to be precise — and built a science-fiction adventure novel around them. Simon was handing out copies of the book to the speakers at Map Camp and after enjoying the author’s talk I was very intrigued.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. At the start I was worried about the amount of footnotes which seemed to come thick and fast, explaining technologies and concepts. I don’t find these distracting in a non-fiction work, nor in a good translation of a foreign-language novel where there is an explanation of a nuance to the text that has been lost when turned into English, but they did grate here. Thankfully they are less frequent as the novel progresses and the key concepts are established. They feel too awkward, being in the first person of the main character/narrator sometime in the mid-22nd century, addressed to a future reader, but actually (and somewhat self-consciously) to a real reader in our time. For example:

In case you’ve devolved back to barter or evolved to something else, chits were the elastic global block-chain cryptocurrencies that underpinned our global economy. They were secure and unforgeable by design and made most financial crime obsolete…

Some of this is also in the main text:

I jumped up from the couch, sweeping aside several gaming windows on my comms with a wave of my hand. In case you guys in the future all speak telepathically or something, comms were neural stem implants that pretty much everyone got on their second birthday.

I didn’t feel any empathy with the characters. In the best novels I have read I find myself gripped by their plight; I am literally willing them to either step forward into or back from the course of action they are taking. This didn’t happen for me here. Partially I think this was because of the main character’s flippant style and tone:

As I tucked and buttoned, I silently cursed myself for not setting an alarm. True, my marriage had been trending downward for the past year, but the last thing I wanted was to initiate the Big Talk. And to be fair, we were both to blame for our relationship bottoming out.

…and partially from the way in which his relationship with his wife doesn’t seem believable. They don’t seem to have a strong enough bond, at least not one that is built up in the book. Without spoiling the story, I didn’t feel anything for them when their relationship — and their lives — are in peril. Not enough time is given to their backstory.

The technology side of the book is really thoughtful and interesting and there are some fascinating ideas here. I particularly liked how the author seemed to join self-driving cars, Google AdSense-type auctions and Uber surge pricing together into a simple believable concept:

Hurry meant that the cart would actively pay the occupants of other vehicles on the road to prioritize [his] route above theirs. It worked like an auction system, in which everyone could bid on getting to their destination as soon as they wanted. It could become incredibly expensive…

Despite everything I’ve said here, reviews for this book are not bad so you may well enjoy it. It is even being made into a film (warning: don’t click that link unless you want to read a one-line spoiler). For me, it was a worthwhile read, but isn’t life-changing and won’t be a book that I come back to.

Found on Cheapside. If you do not want to “participet”, by the time you read this it is already too late.

Photo taken at: Cheapside

Recruiting school governors

The problem

A couple of years ago our Primary School Governing Board came to the realisation that the vast majority of our members were parents of children at the school. While this wasn’t a problem per se — none of us were there to represent the interests of any particular group, nor did we have any issues with governors not ‘being able to take their parent hat off’ — we knew that it was desirable to have a much more diverse group around the table supporting and challenging the school.

Finding governors is not an easy task, typically for one or more of the following reasons:

  • People do not know that a vacancy exists
  • People don’t understand what the job is
  • If they do understand the role they can see that it is a lot of work and they are reluctant to volunteer

Typically it has been easier to get parents involved; we can easily communicate with them to explain the role and they naturally want the school to be as successful as possible. Finding people outside of the parent body to join us is much more of a challenge.

Things we tried that didn’t work very well

Working with local businesses

Being a school governor effectively gives you board-level experience at an SME, making strategic decisions and asking questions of the Headteacher (CEO) whilst not getting involved in the operational day-to-day running of the ‘business’. My thinking was that the role would offer great experience for someone at a large firm who is on a ‘management fast-track’ scheme as they would be able to bring their skills back into the workplace. One Saturday, I wandered into two of the large supermarkets in our town and asked to speak to the respective managers. One the two was very keen on the idea; he had been a school governor himself, understood the role and had been looking for how his firm could get more involved in the community as part of the group’s outreach work. It seemed like a perfect fit.

A few months passed and we found ourselves with a new school governor, ready to start and keen to get stuck in. Unfortunately our time together was short-lived. Although he had been given time off from work to attend our meetings and other governor functions, he already had a very busy life and soon found that he could not devote the time to the role that it required. We understood — he was not the first person to feel this way after starting — but we were back to square one.

In hindsight, although I think that the idea was sound, people need to come to the role of their own accord and not because they are asked or compelled to by their employer. I don’t have an insight into what was discussed within his firm prior to our governor applying but I suspect that it was floated as an idea and he felt as though he should help out. It’s a bit like where a company has a formal HR-led mentoring scheme where you put your hand up and they pair you up with someone — inevitably this often doesn’t work because the two parties have not come together ‘naturally’ for their own reasons with a clear view of what they both want to get out of it.

Online recruitment portals

One other avenue we explored was using the governor recruitment portals, School Governors One-Stop Shop (known as SGOSS) and Inspiring Governance. I spent some time looking through the latter, reviewing profiles of people that live within a few miles of our town. For some reason we didn’t push this very hard; perhaps after the experience with recruiting someone locally I was concerned that having to travel to our town to attend the meetings would be just one more barrier to success.

What finally worked for us

One night, on a governor training course, I got chatting to a couple of governors from another school about our recruitment challenge. They had been through the same problem and had successfully tackled it by dropping a letter from the Headteacher and Chair of Governors through the letterboxes in the local area. This sounded like a simple but genius idea. There must be lots of people who want to get involved with the community but don’t know that the opportunity exists and this would be a great way of engaging them. I floated the plan with my own Governing Board and we agreed to give it a go.

When a parent vacancy arises and we ask for nominations we normally send out quite a detailed letter with background information, details of the responsibilities and the commitment required. It makes no sense to not be up-front about it. We want to avoid having parents nominating themselves, getting elected (through what inevitably ends up being something of a popularity contest), being trained up and then finding that they can’t or don’t want to do the job. My initial stab at the letter for our door drop was based on this, spread over a couple of pages. Luckily one of our governors helped to chop it right down to something that was short, punchy and would fit on a single side of A4; the strategy was to try and reduce the barrier to someone emailing us or picking up the phone in response. We could slowly reveal more about the role to them later once we had made initial contact, including the amount of work the job entails. A shorter letter is easier to read, much less daunting and saves significantly on the printing cost.

Our letter drop has proved to be a stunning success. In summer 2016 we posted 500 letters which resulted in four or five inquiries and eventually three superb new governors joining us. They have a lot of professional experience — one is a Finance Director at an international hotel chain, another is an Executive Headteacher for a group of schools in a neighbouring county — and they each said that the letter landed just at the right time, when they were already toying with the idea of trying to ‘give something back’ and be more involved in the community. This past summer we printed 1,000 letters which resulted in five people coming forward, four of whom will be joining us initially as associate governors as part of our succession planning. Again, they bring a fantastic diverse range of skills from their professional lives including teaching (one is a professor emeritus at a world-famous university), Human Resources, public speaking and marketing.

After an initial enquiry I met each candidate for an hour or so at a coffee shop in town to get to know them and to find out what they could bring to our board as well as answer general questions about the role, the school, its ethos and our challenges. If this went well we then arranged a meeting with the Headteacher who gave them a tour of the school. If the Headteacher and I were both happy we scheduled a formal interview with our Vice Chair of Governors, followed by reference checks and finally a vote by the Governing Board as to whether they can join us.

1,500 letters sounds like a lot but it doesn’t stretch very far. The map below shows the area that we managed to cover across the two summers, give or take a couple of hundred houses.

If you are part of a school governing board and are also struggling to find people to be involved, I strongly recommend reaching out to the community this way. The text of our letter is below or you can download it in Word or plain text formats. Before you start, remember to read The Right People Around The Table which gives you excellent up-to-date guidance on the recruitment process that should be followed from start to finish. Good luck!

The letter

Dear Sir/Madam,

Have you ever considered becoming a school governor?

The Governing Board of [school name] in [town] needs additional governors and would love to attract the skills and experience of people from our community.

School governors are volunteers who work together with the Headteacher to deliver the best education for the pupils at their school. Generally, school governors are not specialists in education. Instead, much of the role is about exercising common sense – and of course working together in the best interests of the children. The governors at [school name] work with the Headteacher on a diverse range of matters – from deciding what kind of school we want [school name] to be and thinking about how we want it to get there, to setting school policies and ensuring money is spent on the right things.

Most important of all, the governors are there to question and challenge the school’s leaders on the standards of educational performance. Ultimately, they work with the school to ensure that pupils receive the best opportunities to learn in an environment in which they feel happy and secure.

The full governing board meets every half term, with separate committees (made up of smaller groups of governors) which meet four or five times a year. Meetings last around two hours and are lively and interactive. Most of our current governors work full time and manage to fit in their role around their other commitments. Their motivation is invariably to make a positive contribution to something of fundamental importance – educating our children.

This is a hugely exciting time to be a governor at [school name]. The school is currently rated [rating] by Ofsted. We recently introduced mindfulness practice throughout the school with very positive feedback from pupils, staff and parents. Later this year will be pleased to welcome a school dog to part of everyday life at the school. [School name] is not standing still and we continue to make many innovative changes.

Governors are unpaid, doing what they do simply to try to make [school name] the best school it can be. In return they gain skills which they may not otherwise acquire, as well as getting a wider perspective on a key part of their community. Most importantly, governors get the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to make a difference in the education of the children who attend [school name].

If you would like to know who the current governors are please have a look at the staff photo board in the main reception area or on the school website at [website address] where you will find their details.  If you would be interested in having an informal chat about the role to find out more about how you can contribute to governance at our school, please email the school with your details at [email address] and we will arrange for our Chair of Governors, [name], to contact you and arrange a time for a conversation.

Thank you,

[Headteacher’s name]

[Chair of Governors’ name]
Chair of Governors

Great podcast episode that goes deep into just how outstanding Lewis Hamilton is at qualifying. I was a massive fan of Hamilton when he turned up in 2007 and was literally jumping in the air when he won his incredible first championship in 2008. I must admit to rooting for Nico Rosberg in recent years as I felt that the German driver carried himself with much more professionalism and good grace as they battled throughout a season, but Lewis’ incredible achievements now speak for themselves, cementing him as one of the all-time great drivers and probably the best qualifier that we have ever seen.

Not Quite Paradise

I picked up the audio version of this book after returning from our recent holiday in Sri Lanka. I had so many lingering thoughts about the country and I wanted to get another perspective before it all faded out of my memory.

This is very different to Elephant Complex, a book that I started before we departed and had accompanied me on my journey. Not Quite Paradise takes a much more personal approach. The book is narrated by the author who moved from Arizona, USA to Sri Lanka with her 15-year old son soon after 9/11. The first part of the book serves as a pretty straightforward travel diary. I had seen a review on Goodreads which said that the book was “a so-so travelogue by another author whose observations are rather standard” but for me it was lovely to indulge a little bit in hearing someone talk first hand about places that we ourselves had recently visited and and to understand what it had felt like for her. However, as another reviewer notes, she “never explains what initially attracted her to Sri Lanka” and this remains a mystery. It must have been a great upheaval for her teenage son; they eventually decide that he will return home while she stays on for a little longer. Nothing very dramatic happens throughout this part of the book, but the pleasure is in the small details of life and interactions that she has with the people, her house and the landscape.

The second half is quite different. It starts during Christmas 2004 where she hears the awful news of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which brought devastation and death to the island. She is almost immediately compelled to return there to…I’m not quite sure what. See it first-hand? Report on the damage? Complete the book? She doesn’t give too much away about why she wanted to make the journey, but make it she did, and her writing covers a much broader scope of the island and its recent history as she travels around in this part of the book. Some of the accounts of the tsunami are devastating, even more so as they are weaved together with details and evidence of the long Sri Lankan Civil War. The book was a useful compliment to the topics covered in Elephant Complex and I was grateful to it filling in quite a few gaps in my knowledge and clearing up my misunderstandings from the other, denser, book. The timeline covered stops short of the brutal end of the civil war and felt slightly unfinished because of it.

I don’t think this will ever be held up as one of the greatest travelogues of all time but I did find it a very pleasant read — just what I was looking for after my own Sri Lankan journey.