Sunday, 13 February 2011

Averages: they are dangerous and why you should always question them

People like to measure things around them, and to summarise their findings.  These summarised findings usually appear on our radars as averages:

"average house prices rose by...", "the average middle-ages male has an income of...", "the average family likes to go on holiday xyz times a year..."

What does that mean in reality?  Everything and nothing.  But on average it is half useful (you see what I did there?).  Averages can tell us a bit about the world, but it's vitally important for us to understand how the averages were calculated before we actually believe a number or, worse still, attempt to use it when making a decision which we think is informed by our knowledge of this magical average.

I've written this freestyle note because you'll see in the section entitled why this blog exists a statement that I'll be "sending one piece of mailart a day (on average)".  Well, you'll see that I've fallen extremely behind this average at the moment, but will make it up later.  That's fine, at the end of the year, I'll still have produced 365 pieces of mailart which, spread over 365 days will equal one a day on average.  However, for someone expecting that average to actually reflect the everyday activity of my mailart making would be very misled.

So, don't be shy, question the average next time you read about it in a newspaper, you'll make much better sense of the REAL world.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

#3 When it's rational to be quite irrational

the story of xerox, originally uploaded by L-plate big cheese.
I've often had my ideas put down and been left feeling pretty lousy about myself. We probably all know many instances where this has happened, and most of us will just give up at that stage. It's the natural thing to do, especially if a few people have rubbished the idea in succession. It's as if we're statisticians with the hypothesis "my idea is great" who have gone out, tested it using a number of observations by telling other about it and then concluded that our hypothesis is incorrect. Obviously any rational individual at that stage would throw the idea out of the window.

Well, here's a little story for you.

When the concept of Xerox was first invented by a chap called Chester Carlson in 1938, it took him five whole years to convince someone to put their trust and money behind him in order to even develop the first commercial copier machines. No one would believe the poor guy that there was a market for this sort of thing until a company called Haloid bought a licence to the whole idea and by 1961 was listed in the NY stock exchange. That's pretty serious stuff, and the company was worth $37 million at the time. And I can imagine that during that FIVE years of going around telling people about his idea he must have had a fair few people rubbish it.

So next time someone puts down your ideas, and this applies to everyone there, sit back... reflect... because you never know.

#2 never forget that some things are just too good to be true

My good friend Julia is an urban planner who has been going around studying a whole bunch of built environments in the UK, France and Germany ever since I've known her.

She sent me an email out of the blue after we hadn't spoken for a while and the timing reminded me of the story of asbestos. A story which spans over 4,000 years and has undoubtedly affected a huge number of people.

We now commonly know asbestos as the building material which is made of fibres which can cause serious health problems if inhaled, or even death. I've seen estimates that reckon in the US alone over 100,000 people have died from asbestos exposure in the ship-building industry alone. People first became suspicious about it in the early 20th century when the use of asbestos in the US was pretty significant... and there was an abnormally high number of deaths occurring in asbestos-mining towns compared to other places. But it was only in the 1980s the stuff became a banned substance in the Western world. Before this, it's fair to say we loved it! And who can blame us? Asbestos is flame-retardant, heat-resistant, flexible and it insulates. In fact, Asbestos is a natural substance and there's evidence it’s been used for over 4,500 years (people even made cooking utensils out of it - eek!). 

So there we have it. Perhaps it was just one of those things too good to be true. But it makes you wonder how other such stories out there which span over 4,000 years and end not so nicely... That's why we should questioneverything(365) as the asbestos REMOVAL industry is running at a pretty bug scale (or otherwise your strategy could be to build loads of stuff which you know yourself to be dangerous, commission some research, declare it unsafe and secure yourself a few more years of well-paid work to remove it. But it might take you less than four millennia to break even on that one...)

Monday, 6 December 2010

#1 the belated question

So after a few days of getting into the swing of the mailart365 project, this blog is finally coming alive.

The idea is to use the mailart365 project to think about something which has happened, or is happening in the world which exposes the spectacular mistakes humans sometimes make. I then make a piece of mailart which tells this story and send it to someone. Simple.

Usually the stories are about a decision that someone's made using a whole bunch of information which led them to a particular conclusion... and they acted on it with genuine good intent. Somewhere down the line it emerges that, for whatever reason, the decision did not take into account a vital piece of information and once that's discovered the very idea that someone had this first idea seems ludicrous!

Often too, the stories will feature some ideas which everyone dismissed but sometimes they work. The first story I told in mailart365 goes as follows:

It was a dark winter day when Andy decided he'd turn his back on society and quit the mighty mighty facebook. "Don't go" they said, "you won't have any friends left" they said, "you'll never get a girlfriend" they cried, "who in their right mind is gonna send you postcards to hang above your underpants?" they sniggered.

Yet less than two years on, here he is. Inspiring mailartists all over the world, about to get married and surrounded by more postcards than he could ever imagine. Andy, I've chosen myREALwall as the one to send my first mailart365 postcard to. Very fittingly, my project describes precisely the tale of the REALwall: questioneverything365 is going to tell a short story of things which turned out precisely how we didn't expect them to. This is an opportunity to uncover some serious miscalculations, spectacular gaffs and the unexpected.

So there we are; and off we go on a year long adventure to learn some fun things about human behaviour.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

An introduction

An introduction, originally uploaded by L-plate big cheese.

Hi there, I'm Lplatebigcheese and am about to begin sending one piece of mailart every day for one year starting on 1st December 2010. It's all because of my mate Andy's project

If you're wondering, there is a theme connecting all the art which I'll create and send out, but it's going to be kept secret until the project's under way. Although the title of the blog "questioneverything365" is certainly a major clue...

If you're interested in receiving a piece of mailart from me, just leave a comment and we can sort it our from there.