A poppy

A German friend asked why I was wearing a poppy.

I explained: to remember British soldiers killed in the two world wars… which means, er, to remember how my forefathers were killed by your forefathers.

My friend was taken aback – you really do that in Britain?

I said: well, it depends, er… for me personally it’s all the people who died, never mind which side they were on.

I’m not sure if that was true then. But a few years later, a few years older, it is true now.

The poppies on display at the Tower of London (in November 2014) only commemorate British army casualties – about 8% of the total WWI dead. What about the other 8-9m soldiers who died? I wear my poppy for all of them, British and beyond.

But I think that’s because we’re now several generations removed from those terrible wars. Maybe we’d see things differently if we were closer to, or even part of, the fighting generations.

An Israeli colleague tells me that commemoration of soldiers is much more visceral there. Three of his classmates have been killed in action.

And the billboard at my local train station shows a terrifically sad picture of a modern-day widow and her child – the father killed in Afghanistan two years ago.

Memory is about perspective. I wear my poppy for all soldiers on all sides. But I know that might not be my view if I knew personally some of the soldiers in action today.

I’m sceptical of state-led memorials. But at the British Museum you can see the Ode of Remembrance inscribed on the south-west wall:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

It moves me because if I’d been born 100 years earlier, I would likely have been a soldier in WWI too. And perhaps today I would be a poppy at the Tower of London.

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Photo credit: Sgt Steve Blake RLC. ‘A soldier of the Afghan National Army (ANA) wears a poppy out of respect for Remembrance Day and his own fallen comrades’ (from Wikimedia Commons).

Monster Month, c’est fini

All done! Results:

Ealing Half Marathon – 28 Sept 2014 – 01:41:56 (feeling sick)

Blenheim Palace Half Marathon – 5 Oct 2014 – 01:37:19

Royal Parks Half Marathon – 12 Oct 2014 – 01:33:44 (PB!)

Putney & Fulham Riverside Half Marathon – 19 Oct 2014 – 01:36:58

Tough Mudder London South 2014 – c.02:30

Thanks for all the donations – you raised almost £900 for the mental health charity Mind, for which I am very grateful.

Next? Pipe, slippers, and knee rest.

Cheers all ~ Todd

Not good odds

Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defence, talking about early US bombing missions in WWII:

The U.S. was just beginning to bomb. We were bombing by daylight. The loss rate was very, very high… The loss rate was 4% per sortie, the combat tour was 25 sorties — it didn’t mean that 100% of them were going to be killed but a hell of a lot of them were going to be killed.

4% loss rate per sortie, 25 sorties per tour… so the theoretical chance of dying for those guys was actually 100%.

Not good odds.

EDIT

What were the actual odds of a given serviceman dying on over the course of 25 such sorties?

Thankfully my smart friend Nick Fyson knows the answer: 64%.

1 – chance_of_surviving_every_sortie   =   1  –  ( 1 – 0.04 )^25   =   0.639603283

Still not good odds. Thanks Nick!

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From the Errol Morris documentary The Fog Of War: 11 Lessons From The Life Of Robert McNamara. You can find the full transcript of the film on Errol Morris’s website.

Mad Mentors

Richard Condon wrote the novel The Manchurian Candidate in 1959. It was his second book, and it’s still famous today because it was turned into a couple of big movies.

Condon wasn’t always a novelist.

He served in the US Merchant Marines during the war, then went to Hollywood as a publicist, copywriter and agent. He started writing books in 1957 while working at United Artists. He complained to his boss, Max E. Youngstein, that he would much rather do that keep working in Hollywood.

Youngstein was a mentor. He took it upon himself to help. Without Condon’s knowledge, Youngstein deducted money from his salary and then fired him after a year – giving him the amount of money he had deducted in a Mexican bank account and the key to a house overlooking the Mexican ocean.

Youngstein told him to take the money, take the keys, and go write his book.

The Manchurian Candidate featured a dedication to Youngstein. A truly mad mentor.

I’m meeting one of my mentors tonight. Mexican Ocean sounds good, so long suckers!

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This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on The Media Student Handbook. If you’re a student, and if you’re a Media student in particular, you should check out that site.

Oasis – Cigarettes & Alcohol – 20 years old today

Cigarettes & Alcohol was released on 10 October 1994 – so the best song ever turns 20 years old today.

I’ve tried a few approaches in drafting this post but I can’t take myself seriously as a music critic, so here goes:

THIS SONG FUCKING ROCKS.

I used to actually stop myself from listening to Oasis on the morning of exams when I was at school, because I lost motivation if I had lines like: “Is it worth the aggravation / To find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for” going round my head.

Twenty years later it has a different meaning for me. Now I hear “You gotta make it happen” on repeat after listening to it, and this weekend when it came on my headphones as I got close to a half marathon finish, I got a proper rush and burned up the hill to the line.

To celebrate the song’s birthday in my own little way, I wanted to share a side project with you.

I’ve been working on a directory site for all the Oasis B-sides, because I really believe that some of the stuff that didn’t make the early albums is 10x better than most of the top-charting singles from the same era.

I’ve only added the Definitely Maybe B-sides so far, but here are three absolute tunes to start off with:

Cloudburst – moody rocker, builds like a thunderstorm

D’Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman? – acoustic sing-song with a wistful message

I Will Believe (Live) – simple simple simple demo-style tune, great riff, very early recording

And finally – here’s the link to the prototype site:

oasisbsides.com (URL headshot baby!)

It’s still in alpha, so please do send me your thoughts. And more importantly: discover and enjoy!

~ Todd

How to get a bargain on a new iPhone (and a free cost calculator)

Which of these costs more?

  1. iPhone 5C, 8GB
  2. iPhone 6, 16GB

Trick question: they cost the same amount (£1107 over 2 years) if you choose the right purchase option.

That’s one of the surprises I discovered when I compared the costs of all models, storage sizes, and purchase types (direct / 12m contract / 24m contract).

No shady stuff, no gimmicks or trade-ins – below I set out what I found just by building a little tool to compare all the usual options.

My trusty 4S borked last night after 2.5 years’ service, so I’m wondering (1) whether to stick with an iPhone and (2) if so, which to buy.

Assuming that I want to get another iPhone, there are three main variables:

  1. Model (5C, 5S, 6, 6+)
  2. Storage (8GB, 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, 128GB)
  3. Purchase option (direct purchase, 12-month contract, 24-month contract)

I built a basic cost calculator to help me decide which to buy. You can use it too – link below.

Remarkably, there are some relative bargains available.

Example bargains:

  • iPhone 6, 16GB for the same price as 5C, 8GB (the example given at the top)
  • iPhone 5S, 16GB cheaper than 5C, 8GB
  • iPhone 6, 64GB cheaper than iPhone 5S with 16/32GB
  • iPhone 6 Plus, 128GB cheaper than iPhone 5S, 64GB

Also – in all cases, buying direct from Apple is cheaper than spreading the cost across a contract – so if you have the cash, buy direct.

Here’s the key part of the spreadsheet, and here’s the link to download the calculator (.xlsx file): iPhone comparison calculator – 04-10-14

I haven’t made my mind up yet – but this will stop me overpaying if I do decide on an iPhone.

Enjoy!

~ Todd

History students, unite!

I’m sketching out a new project that helps History students.

I’m curious about how History departments decide whom to admit, how History students can study most effectively, and where History students go once they’ve graduated. I would love to have had that information 15 years ago when I was studying.

I’ll post more here if the project starts to develop. But if you know something about such things, please do drop me a line.

Monster Month

Starts on Sunday. Not quite perfect preparation: been off work sick the last two days…

Please donate to Mind, the mental health charity, if you can: https://www.justgiving.com/Todds-Monster-Month

Thanks! ~ Todd

Going up?

Short video in a lift in Madrid, 2012. Recently found it and tidied it up. I loved the change that hit you halfway up to the top floor and wanted to capture it.

What is B? What The Data Can Never Tell You

The 2010 Flash Crash was a United States stock market crash on Thursday May 6, 2010 in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged about 1000 points (about 9%) only to recover those losses within minutes. It was the second largest point swing, 1,010.14 points, and the biggest one-day point decline, 998.5 points, on an intraday basis in Dow Jones Industrial Average history.

The Flash Crash was caused by human error.

The [official] report said that this was an unusually large position and that the computer algorithm the trader used to trade the position was set to “target an execution rate set to 9% of the trading volume calculated over the previous minute, but without regard to price or time”.

And that original error was magnified by a sequence of automated knock-on effects:

The New York Times [wrote]: “Automatic computerized traders on the stock market shut down as they detected the sharp rise in buying and selling.” As computerized high-frequency traders exited the stock market, the resulting lack of liquidity “…caused shares of some prominent companies like Procter & Gamble and Accenture to trade down as low as a penny or as high as $100,000.”

Remarkably, the problem self-corrected after a few minutes. But it was not an isolated incident:

The growth of computerized and high-frequency trading in commodities and currencies has coincided with a series of ‘flash crashes’ in those markets. The role of human market makers, who can match buyers and sellers and provide liquidity to the market, is now more and more played by computer programs. If those program traders pull back from the market, then big “buy” or “sell” orders can lead to sudden, big swings. It increases the probability of surprise distortions… In February 2011, the sugar market took a dive of 6% in just one second. On March 1, Cocoa-futures prices dropped 13% in less than a minute on the IntercontinentalExchange. Cocoa plunged $450 to a low of $3,217 a metric ton before rebounding quickly. The U.S. dollar tumbled against the yen on March 16, falling 5% in minutes, one of its biggest moves ever. According to a former cocoa trader: “The electronic platform is too fast; it doesn’t slow things down” like humans would.

We have so much data, and so many smart tools for managing and manipulating it. These are tools so smart that they work automatically, without human direction or intervention. It’s like when your hand touches the cooker: you pull it away before the pain message even reaches your brain, because your nerves respond automatically, much faster than your thoughts.

But with all this data, and all these smart tools – are we cutting ourselves out of the loop too fast?

An analogy from games: dozens of companies are running thousands of A/B tests on millions of data points to try to figure out how to optimise their products.

But even though examining the data might tell you what you’re doing wrong, it cannot tell you how to put it right.

An A/B test divides players into two groups: A is the control, the normal version. B is the test, the new version. For example – you could run an A/B test which changes the way a new type of archer in Age Of Empires is introduced to the player in a tutorial (is that game still going? classic!). The games guys run versions A and B alongside each other and compare the results – checking which group used the new archer type more, were more likely to return to the game the following day, or were more likely to do more of whatever else they were looking to improve.

But if A is what you have now – the current version – then what is B?

B must be defined, built, designed by humans.

It can’t be automated. So you have to invent it yourself.

Using big data and smart tools is an art as well as a science.

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P.S.s…

Age of Empires is still going! Info on the series can be found here.

All the quotes above are from the Wikipedia article on the 2010 Flash Crash. The best stories are the true ones.

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