People personal

Apples and Energy. Motivation and the Úll 5K.

Its not often that you can say a conference helped change your life. Especially a technology conference with no mind or body changing gurus in sight. Úll was that conference for me. So when Dermot Daly (the other Dermot) asked me to write a blog post for Úll about running a 5K for at last year’s conference I was only happy to write. He also mentioned the theme of this year’s conference is around the subject of motivation. The piece below is thoughts on motivation, running the 5K and Úll itself. Turns out this wasn’t quite what I started out to write.

After two years of not going to Úll (and regretting it) last year I decided to go. At some point probably early in March I got an email saying that they were going to run a charity 5K at Úll. I was badly out of condition and badly overweight at the time, and hadn’t done any jogging, cycling, or proper exercise in quite a while.

The initial thoughts were a mix of “bugger I’ll look silly if I don’t do it” and “If Dermot and Sasha are doing it sure I’d better give it a try” combined with “well it is for charity”. There were about 5 weeks to Úll when I started training. I downloaded a couple of Couch to 5K apps, picked one of them and started the program a couple of days later. After a couple of weeks, I bought a new pair of runners. By the time I got to Úll last year I was up to about 3K and was about 4 to 5 weeks into my 9 week program. The morning of the run, I turned up in the lobby of the hotel somehow expecting most of the people at the conference, a little over 200 people, to be there. It was probably in the region of 30 people who turned up.

With 30 others I went out to do the circuit on the beautiful grounds of Lyrath House Hotel. I jogged about 3 of the 5K and walked the other 2K. I may have taken at least one wrong turn on the way and I definitely finished last. Despite
that, I was glad I did it. If nothing else I finished it. What happened next is the interesting part. I kept jogging after Úll.

At that stage, I had about 5 weeks of exercise and I was starting to lose weight. In conjunction with the couch to 5K I started modifying my diet. The starting point for that was the very scientific “stop eating so much crap”. Over the course of the next couple of months, between April of 2014 and December 2014 I lost 3 stone,and managed to run 5K on a regular basis. The two images below sum up what happened over those few months.
Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 19.36.52            dermot_600_x_800-copy

I did a Phoenix Park “Run with Ray” and a “Run in the Dark 5K”. And at this point I enjoy it. I’ve thought a lot over the past few days about the question of the motivation. The motivation initially was not wanting to be embarrassed. (At least that’s what I told myself). Recently Stewart Butterfield the founder of the
messaging app Slack said he didn’t know why Slack had taken off while his last two startups had fizzled.“ I have no fucking idea” was the exact quote. Thinking about my motivation I realised that really I hadn’t really thought or understood my own motivation very well.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it. In the end I think it comes down to three things. It’s a combination of curiosity,energy and opportunity. And I believe a lot of motivation works this way. I read a very interesting book on Willpower a year or so ago. There may have been a dubious assumption that hey if I read a book on Willpower maybe it’ll improve my Willpower but some of the messages did seep in. One key message at the center of that book was that Willpower is related to energy.

Make too many decisions during a day and the quality of decisions you make and your ability to make decisions falls. People talk about grit very often, about digging deep in motivating yourself to do anything. I think the vast body of evidence show that this is victorian nonsense. The idea of will and energy are more important. Mentally last year I had the energy and the space to start an exercise program. For too many years I didn’t. Or to be honest I had prioritised
others things to a point where I hadn’t given myself the space or the energy to

When I left my previous role in a startup called Storyful at the end of 2012 I was overweight (see photo above and note the before photo is me after I lost one stone). A decade of young kids capped with 3 years of a startup had left me more than a bit out of shape. A very smart friend of mine told me it’d take 6-12 months to recover after Storyful. I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time. In retrospect it’s energy he’s talking about. You have a finite amount and when you burn the candle at both ends and in the middle for too long you use that energy up. And create a rather large debt that needs to be paid off.

You have the basic energy for most things but the energy required to exercise and lose weight takes a while to come back. Time heals. If we let it. Having the energy isn’t enough though. For me Úll brought the curiosity and the opportunity at a time when I had the energy. “What would it be like to do this?” “Would apps on the phone help?” Curiosity, energy and opportunity intersected together.

I think curiosity is linked to energy too. If you’ve ever been really sick in bed and too ill to read all those books you’ve been stockpiling you’ll understand what I mean. I also think curiosity is the most human traits and I don’t think that we can be motivated without curiosity. (Its why the only good form of motivation is intrinsic and why extrinsic motivation never really works).

That has implications for schools and work and product development as well as running the 5K. I attempted to lose weight any number of times over the last decade. All attempts unsuccessful. And I tried all sorts of things to motivate myself. When I look at it now some of the elements were missing at any point in the past. Now I’m aware of what I need to exercise and to lose weight. And its not apps. Apps help. Spotify playlists and multiple running apps accompany me on my runs.

And the idea that what we need to get fit and healthy are apps is a naive idea. It’s a Silicon Valley solution to a different problem (there are a lot of those where we use technology to solve symptoms rather than root causes). At this point I’m reasonably comfortably doing 5 or 6K a few times a week. It’s now gotten to the point where I will change my routine to fit in getting in a 5K.

During the summer, the long evenings, running at 6, 7, even 8:00 in the evening was fine. It’s harder in winter. Days when there is too much going on are harder to run than days when work is at an even tempo. I’ve learned to manage my energy better. A poor nights sleep the night before and it not so much there is no motivation to run (there isn’t) but that there’s no energy to run. Sometimes all you need to do is grind out the run. Flat and all as it might be sometimes the goal is like the 5K in Úll, just finishing the damn thing.

Finding the space to run creates more energy and headspace to do other things better. Now I knew that but somehow forgot it along the way. I still have weight to lose, but I’ve made a good start and I feel an awful lot better for it in very very many ways.

A brief p.s. There’s lots more here that I want to explore but by those curious and lovely co-incidences the Internet often throws up over the last two days I came across two posts that tie to these themes.  Steve Wheelers on Curiosity making us who we are is very good on education. And Chris Bailey summary of a Year of Productivity experiments makes a very similar point on Energy.

Header image is Apples by  José Pestana on Flickr. Shared via a Creative Commons License.

Data education politics

Dept of Education and Primary Online Database

What is the Department of Education up to with the Primary Online Database.

Simon McGarr has a hypothesis

News and Events strategy Uncategorized

The Emperor’s New Facts

“It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble, it’s the things we do know that just ain’t so.”  Artemus Ward

We’re focussed on helping people improve their businesses in Near Future.  And we think a lot about how we might do that. A part of that involves improved thinking, and asking awkward questions.  I’ve found over time that most ideas are logically constructed and the best way to challenge ideas are to challenge the assumptions, the basis on which they’re built.  If the assumptions are wrong everything else falls apart.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert L Sutton wrote a wonderful book on evidence based management a few years ago called “Hard Fact, Dangerous Half Truths & Total Nonsense” which poked holes in many of the modern Shibboleths of management.

One of the myths that Sutton and Pfeffer explored in their books was on the nature of Financial Incentives. The evidence shows that incentives sometimes demotivate, sometimes motivate the wrong behaviour and often attract the wrong sort of talent. Even in the best of circumstance are damn hard to get right. Even a company as clever as Microsoft has managed to design disastrous incentive systems that it has now abandoned.

We are planning a breakfast event in a few weeks in. It will be on the theme of what we know that isn’t true.  It is designed to break open a few management myths, the Emperors New Facts. The event will be invite only and we have a few open slots, email dermot if you’d like to be included in this or future events that we might run.

In the meantime, we’d love to hear your ideas of things that are generally assumed but are wrong.



Data Security Technology

A Short Video on what happens when the data is all connected.

The ACLU produced a video a number of years ago about ordering pizza in the future. Warning or prediction. Sometimes its hard to tell the difference. About the only part that doesn’t make sense is the voice explaining what all the problems are. Algorithms don’t explain.

Data Technology

How do you categorise your children?

The Primary Online Database is one of the worst ideas I’ve come across.  Dave Molloy wrote a good piece about how easy abuse of the system could be.

I want to pick at one of the little threads. The ethnic or cultural background categorisation

Its useful when looking at a system to take apart the assumptions underlying it . There is a much longer piece to be written about categorisation and we’ll take one element here.  This is a list of drop down choices for one of the pieces of information for the Primary Online Database.

Ethnic or cultural background (drop-down list)

White Irish
Irish Traveller
Any other White Background
Black African
Any other Black Background
Any other Asian background
Other (inc. mixed background)
No consent

The comment I used on Twitter when I first saw this list  “The word you’d use to describe the list of ethnic/cultural choices in the Dept of Eduction planned Primary Schools Database is WRONG.”

Categories are artificial ways of slicing up the world.  Dave Snowden wrote an interesting post on Categories recently. In it he quoted a passage from Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ which is worth quoting again here.

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides they wear black, which is such a beastly color. I’m so glad I’m a Beta.

I was going to describe that the categories above as “not even wrong” a better description is probably “wronger than wrong.” They are wrong in that they are very poor and very distorting classification.  As Dave said in his piece

The problem with categories is that things are made to fit within the boundaries

What I’d wonder about is what is the mindset of someone who comes up with these particular categories.


Knowing things or knowing about things

Richard Feynman on knowing things v’s knowing the names of things

A distinction with a difference

People Social Media Technology

Our dopamine driven present

Hans de Zwart has written a piece on how Al Wei Wei the Chinese artist is living in all our futures. The whole thing is well worth a read. There is a lot to unpack in it. The paragraph that points to the New Intermediaries (Google, Facebook, Netflix) that sit between us and everything else is worth a book on its own. As is Disney normalising surveillance and quantified self technology through MagicBands.

I was once asked to help someone start a business that put trackers on kids.  I found it deeply creepy and still do. Though as a parent of kids a little piece at the back of your mind is going. “Well it’d be nice to be sure”. Which is why these things will probably sell despite them being creepy. The end of the piece points out another problem with constant monitoring

We need failure to be able to learn, we need inefficiency to be able to recover from mistakes, we have to take risks to make progress and so it is imperative to find a way to celebrate imperfection.

The bit that really resonated with me was on Casinos and Natasha Dow Schüll and her book  ‘Addiction by Design’.

In it, she clearly shows how the slot machine industry has designed the complete process (the casinos, the machines themselves, the odds, etc.) to get people as quickly as possible into ‘the zone’. The player is seen as an ‘asset’ for which the ‘time on device’ has to be as long as possible, so that the ‘player productivity’ is as high as possible.

The comments on the use of defibrillators in Casinos is especially disturbing. The logical jump made is that

Facebook is very much like a virtual casino abusing the same cognitive weaknesses as the real casinos.

And as Hugh MacLeod pointed out

Of course the pointless babble and the social grooming may be the very point of social media (the clue is in the name).

Steffen Banhardt on Flickr. Licensed  via Creative Commons

education Technology

Packaging up your children’s data (no date on a sale)

The Department of Education are requesting that data on all primary school children be captured into a Primary Online Database. The list of data they are asking for is comprehensive. It includes PPSN numbers.

This is what we know

A new database of primary school students will gather personal information, including PPS numbers, information on ethnic and cultural background and religion. Some details will be kept for up to 30 years (Irish Times)

List of data  includes:

• First and second names

• PPS number

• Mother’s maiden name

• Date of Birth and gender

• Full address

• Mother tongue

• Ethnicity

• Religion

• Irish language exemptions

• Enrolment date, teacher / class details

• Previous school / pre-primary education

• Learning support details

There is also a free text box for “Notes about a pupil”. The Departments reference manual on the Database states

Notes about a pupil may be entered into the ‘Notes’ tab. At present, notes entered here can be seen by Department of Education staff but this is to be changed so that only the school user may see the notes.

The Department is also claiming that

it is compulsory for parents to register their children. In the event a PPS number is not available for a student, the Department will use the mother’s maiden name to look up Department of Social Protection records.
The Department also reports that only information on ethnic and religious background requires the consent of a parent of guardian.

The data to be captured on the system may be captured on or an excel spreadsheet or on a schools  own system.

It is not clear that the data is safe or secure or how it is being protected by the Department of Education or the Schools.

Simon McGarr has pointed out “The Department of Education data protection notice explicitly refers to kids’ PPS Numbers as non sensitive data.”

Dept Screenshot

The Department of Education PPSN use case statement hasn’t been notified or approved by the Department of Welfare (via Simon McGarr)

The Department of Education claims support of the INTO and the National Parents Council. Speaking to one principal of a school it appears to be  very controversial, not least of all because of the huge administration workload it puts on the schools including the school being asked to retain the data for 30 years.

One member of board of  the National Parents Council (Primary) wasn’t even aware of the existence of the Primary Online Database.

I’m going to copy Simon McGarr’s tweets on this

A single database of everyone under 30, including religion, ethnicity is a major change in relationship between state & citizen. This isn’t he census- where strong legislative protections are given to the privacy of individuals. This will be a honeypot for datamining. The data is being used for a purpose other than that for which it was obtained. Storing all details of a primary school pupil until they’re 30 is excessive data retention.

The Department of Education is acting ultra vires (beyond their powers) in demanding the information.

As a parent you can write to the school and the Board of Management and inform them that

The Department is acting beyond its power. The Department of Welfare hasn’t been informed or consented to the use of PPSN.  They are breaching data protection legislation by using data for a purpose other than which it was obtained and by planning to retain that information for an excessive period of time.

Schools and boards should be aware they are personally responsible as data controllers to ensure that the data they hold is not used for a purpose other than that for which is was obtained and they are personally on risk if the department has acted ultra vires in demanding this data.

You can tell them explicitly that you don’t consent to giving them this data or to them transferring the data outside the school.

As Gavin Sheridan pointed out 

the only other database I can think of that is similar is PRIS. For the prison system

Credit for most of the points here go to Simon McGarr. Image credit to Søren Mørk Petersen Human Barcode on Flickr shared under Creative Commons.




New Year’s Resolutions and a single thought

Sometimes its better to slide up on things sideways. Somewhere along the way I got more exercise and improved my weight this year, slightly by coming to them sideways. There’s a longer thank you post to come on some of these things. I’m wary of over general advice because context is everything. So rather than making and sharing a New Year’s resolution (or many) here’s a single thought.

An Uncle of mine died during the year. I used to be at a loss of what to say to people at funerals. “I’m sorry for your loss” just never sat right for some reason. It just felt wrong. When talking to one of my cousins I said “be kind yourself. Grief comes in waveSome are strong and deep and some are fast. Let them wash over you and don’t beat yourself up over things. Give yourself time.”

I think the thought “Be kind to yourself” is good advice. I’m not the only one. It’s something a friend pointed out to me. If I’d being paying attention I might have figured it out sooner myself. Being a bit kinder to myself in 2013 led to some of the better things in 2014. Shit will happen. Be kind to yourself when it does.

And be kind to others too.

Image by Marjan Lazarevski on Flickr shared via a Creative Commons Licence.

People politics strategy Technology

#RebootingIreland 2000AD, Metaphors and Messy problems

Lucinda Creighton has launched a new political party.  Or launched a #hashtag. I’m not quite sure which.

As I tweeted yesterday

“First thought on When rebooting a computer you don’t get a different operating system”

There was a lot of comment on Twitter. Dave Winer said recently Twitter can have a tendency towards “high fructose emotional rage medicine.” Mostly the comment was cynical rather than hate filled.

My first thought was of a comic. There is a panel somewhere in my mothers attic from an episode of 2000AD. It’s from the story Strontium Dog. The storyline is set at the end of a war. A military police force is being disbanded and being replaced. Panel one has the old police force. And panel two has the new police force. Same group. Different uniforms. Same system. Plus ca change.

I was reminded of that panel when thinking about #RebootIreland. When we exchanged Fianna Fail for Fine Gael and Labour a few years ago that was the transition. Mostly because the state was governed by the Troika and administered by the politicians we elected. I’m not sure that what’s intended here will be any different.

I took a look at the #RebootIreland website. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. As Tommy Collison commented

I have equal questions of what some of the other statements mean

Fostering a spirit of entrepreneurism in our public sector that will reward those who work the hardest and deliver the best results for our public services.

I’m not sure that lack of entrepreneurism is the problem with the public sector (Too few entrepreneurial teachers and nurses?). And performance management mechanisms lead to dysfunctional behaviour.  There are no doubt reforms that need to be made. It would be an idea to start with an understanding of the problem than a statement of the solution. (If your solution is a hammer, the problem will inevitably be defined in terms of nails).

So what is #RebootIreland ? Is it a statement of intent? Is it an idea? It it a marketing slogan?  Right now I’m not sure. I don’t know what its stands for or what it wants to achieve beyond some a choices of metaphor. Metaphors and symbols matter.  What does #RebootIreland mean?

The metaphor suggests a quick clean out of the system and things can continue as they do before. One other comment on twitter was “sometimes rebooting the computer clears out the rubbish that’s stopping it going forward”.  Perhaps and I don’t think so. Computer analogies and metaphors are too reductive. It continues a trend in human thinking and it doesn’t really get us anywhere.  Reductive models lead us to nonsense like the Singularity.  And one of the tweets that went around last night was the “computer says no” from Little Britain. (Which shows that you can create a hashtag but you can’t control it).   I wonder if the party without a name or policy or candidates is attempting to do some sort of Lean Political Startup? In a comment on inappropriate language and contextless shifting of ideas Dave Snowden recently noted 

Shifting partial understanding of success from one context to a completely different one as a populist recipe is of course no new thing. Neither is wrapping it up in partially understood and inappropriate language.

It would be easy to mock and its important to ask questions.  Maybe #RebootIreland is taking Francis Bacon’s view

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties

I’m reading a history of the American Revolution at the moment.  The revolution itself and many of the leading revolutionaries were quite conservative. The human frailty, stupidity, venality and conniving on every side is the most illuminating and insightful part of a great narrative.  It was very messy. Any change in Irish politics is likely to be messy.  Can we have messy around issues of substance though?  That’d make a nice change in Irish politics.


* image is Johnny Alpha wall paper from the 2000AD website