Let’s Talk About Tom

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With which one would you rather identify?

Just about everything that can be said about Tom Daley’s announcement that he is dating a guy has been said — my only defence is that not everyone has said it.

For someone whose experiences in closet evacuation were infinitely less interesting but not entirely voluntary I found the way he did it, and the subsequent reaction, hugely uplifting.

Why so? Because confused teenagers now have someone with whom they can identify  who isn’t a camp old poof; because he has chosen to do come out at the start — and not the end — of his career, and because he seems completely fine with it.

When I was born, homosexuality was illegal.  When I grew up as a schoolboy even to be accused of being a “poof” was to be an outcast.  Anything could trigger an accusation. Wearing your school tie the wrong way, being too tidily dressed, liking the wrong bands. You watched what you said.

Homosexuals (a word usually spat out) were people like Mr Humphries on the TV comedy Are You Being Served?  They were, in the language of the time, “mincing poofters”. What teenager could admit to themselves that they were like that? Who would put themselves in the camp camp?

We had a teacher who used to call you up the front of the class to read to him. You learned not to stand too close because if you did he would put his hands in your pockets. In that bizarre logic of schoolboys, if you let him do that it meant you were a poof — not him, you — because obviously you liked it.

Even the government decreed you were not to be talked of. Section 28 [of the Local Government Act 1988] restricted what teachers could say about homosexuality. What message did that send to anyone struggling with their sexuality?

So as a confused teenager, what did you do? You lied. You lied to your friends, your family, your parents, but mostly you lied to yourself. And you got so good at lying and so convincing that you achieved the ultimate deception, you believed your own lie.

When people ask “why do gays feel it necessary to make such a thing of being gay?”, the answer is the overwhelming majority don’t. But when someone with as high a profile as Tom Daley says what he did that is a huge boost to those, especially teenagers, wracked with self-doubt about their sexuality. He showed you can be out without being an outsider.

So yes, let’s talk about Tom; he doesn’t get a free pass. It is right that some praised him while others attacked him. Confused teens following the story will have got a  good idea of what society thinks of them for better or for worse. And perhaps they can stop lying.

UK Education ignores the transformation in information accessibility

Anyone watching the debate over the UK’s revisions to its curriculum and examination system for 16 year olds could only be utterly perplexed by its banality.

Secretary of State Michael Gove, a former Times journalist, has been involved in a wholesale reform. That isn’t to say the system wasn’t in need of reform — it has been in serious decline for some time — and many of his reforms have great potential, but some of his curriculum and above all examination reforms are an ideological, rather than pedagogical, revision and are a serious and profound step backwards.

The curriculum and the exam system serve different, though related functions. One is about imparting an education, the other is about certifying that process.

The reforms to the atrocious ICT curriculum look fantastic. That children as young as five are going to learn aspects of coding is to be completely welcomed. The changes to mathematics are a missed opportunity (see Conrad Wolfram’s excellent TED lecture on what Mr Gove could have done).

But some of the other reforms look a lot more suspect, none more so than the much talked-about History curriculum. The Department for Education has made a virtue out of the insistence of the learning of facts at the expense of understanding concepts, a spokesman saying the new history curriculum will have “far less focus on the teaching of abstract concepts and processes in history”. Instead it will focus on a chronological view of history — history as linear progression.

It is arguable that in the 1950s (a period to which these reforms seem to wish to revert) before the availability of mass information, the ability to memorize large amounts of information was an important skill. This was a document-centered world. Information came on paper; it was whole, discrete and unconnected. Creating those documents was slow and expensive, retrieving the information from them was difficult and time-consuming. In such an information age, the ability to memorize vast chunks of information was a desirable skill.

But we no longer live in that world. We live in a world of information streams. In such a world information does not come in discrete packets, but rather it is assembled from different sources.

In a world of vast, and free, data, knowing how to find data sources, the ability to assess their veracity and the skill to link those datasets up in new and unseen ways is surely a far more important skill than the ability to commit to memory screeds of text.

We need to teach children to think abstractly, we need to teach them to think in non-linear ways. Linear thinking leads to linear results. It sounds a lot like the skills we need are “abstract concepts and processes.”

The UK exam system at 16 does not reward originality; it does not test collaborative skills (indeed it punishes them); it doesn’t test creativity. Yet what are the skills that employers in a knowledge-based economy seek? originality, collaboration and creativity.

These new exams reward just one skill: memory, and uses that as a proxy for intelligence. Students who are able to commit vast swathes of information to memory will do well — those who can’t, won’t. Is a retentive memory really the single most important skill we seek in a future workforce? No employer has ever listed is as such.

In what world is reverting to a 1950s examination regime a suitable filter for the children who will enter the workforce in 2020?

Examinations will now contain no course work, no continual assessment and limited ability to retake the exam. You get just one chance at success.

One of the major cultural obstacles that the UK, and many other western European countries, faces is its attitude to failure. Yet this is an exam system that brutally punishes failure. You get one chance at it. Screw it up and you are out — at 16.

The UK government has something of a love-affair with the startup community, it admires its can-do approach, its entrepreneurial zeal. It has repeatedly sought to bathe in its reflected glory. Perhaps it should learn a few lessons from it to: iteration, non-linear thinking, creativity and above all an acceptance of failure as a path to success.

 

The people behind the people in power

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Rohan Silva (left) and Mike Bracken

I am on a break so rather out of the loop, but just heard the news about Rohan Silva leaving No.10.

Rohan was (or rather is until June) David Cameron’s special advisor and is one of the architects of the Coalition’s tech-friendly policies. As a behind-the-scenes operator his is not a name widely known outside of tech circles, but he deserves a huge credit for what he has achieved.

He is the third of what one might call “the big three” such advisors. First to go, when his boss got kicked out of office, was Nicolas Princen, who was Sarkozy’s man. That Sarkozy finally woke up to the importance of the internet at the very end of his tenure is, in no small part, due to Nicolas.

For most of Sarkozy’s presidency France was a byword for being a reactionary force as far as the net is concerned; this is the home of the Hadopi law after all. But there was a distinct change in the Elysee culminating in the absurd, but nonetheless significant, eG8. Significant because, ridiculous as it was, it was the first time the G8 had bee, albeit tenuously, associated with innovation.

And it got Sarkozy a nice pic of him shaking hands with Zuck for his Facebook page, which after all was the real aim.

As far as I know, Hollande has not replaced him.

Then more recently the stepping down of Alec Ross as the special advisor for innovation at the US State Department. He is the primes inter pares of the three.

His role in spreading technology around the world as a force for democracy is largely unknown but I am sure in time he will be given the credit he is due. To have someone with his understanding, and his sheer intellect, in that role was hugely significant.

Alec is well known on the conference circuit even here in Europe, he spoke at DLD and LeWeb amongst others.

All three are, I understand, going into the private sector to pursue entrepreneurial ambitions. And perhaps that is a good thing. What the public sector needs is the loan of talent and firepower on a short term, especially in such influential slots. But such talent is seldom going to find a permanent home in the public sector; it is too slow, too bureaucratic. Don’t expect many of these people to be drawing their civil service pensions.

Lean In

A few years back I watched Sheryl Sandberg give a lecture at the LSE for 45 minutes and afterwards took 45 minutes of questions. She was brilliant. She was lucid, self-effacing, funny, warm and utterly charming. She also spent 90 minutes not saying a single thing. It was, as I wrote at the time, impossible not to ever so slightly fall in love with her.

I met her for an informal chat at DLD a few months later. She is in person as she appears on stage. But what was utterly striking about her was how she works a room, or to be more precise, how a room works her. It was fascinating to watch how people are drawn to her. What was most interesting was how many people, male or female, touched her. They would shake hands and they would touch her forearm or her shoulder.

That is a very strong signal. It is a way of imprinting, NLP practitioners use touch to “anchor” or to form a strong association. But it is a strong taboo, especially for a male to touch a female, even in a completely non-sexual way. That men felt they wanted to do that was a very strong response to her presence.

When I saw the response that she engendered in others it was clear to me that, coupled with her ability to utterly charm an audience while giving nothing away shows she is a natural for politics.

Add to that her book, Lean In, about women’s position in business and don’t be too surprised if her name appears on a ballot paper somewhere sometime in the not too distant future.

Correlation, not causation

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San Francisco, New York, London, Berlin, Tel Aviv.

What connects these cities? Well all are great tech hubs, arguably five of the most important in the world.

What else?

All five are gay-friendly cities. The first four have hugely popular Pride marches, the fifth, Tel Aviv, was voted gay capital of 2012.

Are these two observations related in any way? I think they are. It is not that tech startups are run by a disproportionate number of gay people, but rather the cities that are likely to attract gay people are also likely to attract the people who are run startups. It is not a huge leap to suggest that there is a shared mindset, a shared attachment to liberal (small “l”) values.

Does this work by negation? Alas not. One of the least friendly gay cities, Moscow (it banned pride marches for a century — that is long-term planning), was actually rated above Berlin as a tech hub (although I wonder about the methodology of that report).

So that rather pricks any grand unified theory and it remains merely an observation.

Is an exit always a success?

Martin Bryant, over at The Next Web picked up on this story that first ran on TechCrunch a US startup buying a UK-based rival. What worries me about this is that we are hailing an exit, any exit, as a success. But is it? Is selling out to your rival something that we should praise?

  1. This was Martin’s piece, and his tweet.
  2. Cupple’s acquisition by its US rival is a shining example of how UK startups can succeed outside London tnw.to/h0bPO
  3. Steve O’Hear at TC, not the journalist behind the original piece, picked up Martin’s tweet:
  4. @MartinSFP Really? An exit to a competitor for an undisclosed sum.
  5. And I just butted in …
  6. @sohear @MartinSFP I am with you Steve. Should we count being bought by a rival as a good? Wouldn’t the other way round be better?
  7. @benjrooney @sohear Of course that would be *more* of a success, but people need to see acquisition deals are possible in their city.
  8. @sohear @benjrooney Just as happiness is relative, success it relative. It’s an inspiring story for the Newcastle community.
  9. In Martin’s piece he wrote:
    “In Silicon Valley, an early exit to a similarly-sized competitor wouldn’t necessarily be seen as a success, but in the north of England, stories like this can be really encouraging to the wider community. They show that you can have an exit you’re happy with while being based somewhere like Newcastle. The Cupple story will no doubt go on to be a case study for startups in the north of England.”
    This troubled me. Why should an exit in Newcastle be held to a different standard? Are we not, literally, selling ourselves short? 
  10. @MartinSFP @sohear Good enough for Newcastle? Shouldn’t we be aiming much higher?
  11. @benjrooney @sohear An exit like this is part of a mix of activity that makes for a healthy community. As I say in the piece, it’s not ‘big’

I don’t want to look like I am attacking a fellow journalist for a piece he wrote and I didn’t. I also don’t begrudge the entrepreneurs for selling — well done them for exiting, and let’s hope their next company smashes it.

But what troubles me about this whole story is the idea that we should praise a startup for exiting, no matter what the nature of the exit is.

It reminds me of that great line, whoever said it, “Congratulating an entrepreneur for raising money is like congratulating a chef for buying the ingredients.”

Martin is right that an exit will inspire others, but will it just inspire others to early money? Wouldn’t it be better to inspire others not to take the money? Wouldn’t that be more inspirational and better for the whole ecosystem?

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Thank you

I have been remiss in not acknowledging, with great thanks, the award of Tech Journalist of the Year at the recent Europas in Berlin.

There is a line between bragging about, and false modesty and churlishness in not acknowledging, success. I fear I have erred too much towards the latter. I hope that in posting this I have not now swung too far in the other direction.

It was both a huge honour and very humbling to be given the award especially as it was — in some way — voted for by one’s peers. I am not entirely certain what the process was, it wasn’t completely transparent, but it did involve polling members of the corps of Euro Tech hacks.

It was the more humbling in that self-nominations were allowed, but it is our policy not to take part in judging competitions (there is an obvious conflict of interest in journalists taking part as judges in competitions on which they later report), so I was not able to nominate myself.

So thank you.

After a significantly crappy end to last year, (although the comments, tweets, emails and comments in person were overwhelmingly kind) this year has started pretty well.