Daniel Maxwell


The Mayan Empire

”Molly. You must get up NOW or you’ll be late for school. Again.”

The urgency in my mother’s voice penetrated my brain, and I emerged from a very deep sleep. My mind, my whole being had been so immersed in the dream I had been having, I opened my eyes and…

The Mayan Empire

Maths champion training. “What is a number?”. Seriously?

Maths champion training. “What is a number?”. Seriously?

The UK government’s maths champion scheme: Tosh!

A few weeks ago a story appeared in the mainstream media that the government was encouraging maths skills with a scheme to train maths champions in the workplace.

Great, I thought, and signed up. Today I took the first, and it turned out last, step to becoming one by attending a training session.

The first surprise was that it’s just run by public sector unions and doesn’t extend to the rest of the population, which was a bit of a disappointment.

The second surprise was quite how pointless the whole scheme turns out to be.

The training session was a little like what you would expect of a first primary school lesson introducing the concept of a number . It involved going into groups and:

1. Thinking of ways in which we use maths.
It turns out they are of the opinion that the primary applications for maths are understanding bus numbers, solving sudokus, and making sense of payslips. None of which involve any maths whatsoever beyond simply recognising a written number.

2. Having a competition to see which group could think of the most unusual instances of the number 12.

3. Practising some very simple mental arithmetic.

Having done all that, we were told that the primary purpose is to tell people around us that maths isn’t difficult or boring, and trying to convince them off this by engaging them in extraordinarily boring, albeit easy exercises, none of which are of the slightest use to anybody.

Having seen this, and combined with the government’s idiotic and witless response to the recent news story about English pupils falling behind (“This Government is clearing up Labour’s mess”), I have become convinced that nobody in government understands what maths even is.

With great disappointment, I unsigned myself as a maths champion. I only wish somebody would do the thing properly. Sadly I fear it may be down to us.

British pupils falling behind at maths - it’s even worse than it looks

A few weeks ago a story appeared in the press that British pupils are falling behind their Asian peers in maths skills.

Here are a few of them

And here is the source

There were two different types of test involved - the one taken at ages 9/10 and 13/14 was the TIMSS test, whereas the one taken at age 15/16 was the PISA test.

The TIMSS test is similar to the tests used in British school tests, which would explain the relatively better performance of British pupils in those tests compared with the later PISA tests.

The PISA test is quite different from UK school tests and exams, explaining the relatively poor performance of British pupils.

What is interesting, however, is that the PISA test is a much better-formulated test.

TIMSS has:
Badly formulated questions
Fails to isolate the maths from the complexity of the language in its questions, and therefore tests the language just as much as the maths.
Uses questions where are contrived and far-removed from real life situations
Contains coded information in test-speak, and problem formulations which are unique to tests, meaning pupils can practice and become good at tests without improving their skill in real life situations.

TIMSS is just like the tests used in our schools.

PISA on the other hand, has:
Well formulated questions
Questions which relate in a plausible way to the real world
Questions which test the skill of translating real life situations into mathematics

PISA uses very good tests which are not at all like those used in our schools.

Children who are good at PISA tests will do better at using maths in real life and will performing better studying maths in further education than those who become good at TIMSS tests.

What is worse, is that this difference between the TIMSS tests and the skills needed in real life is accelerating.

TIMSS tests the mechanical skill of mathematics, but the mechanical skill is becoming increasingly irrelevant with the advent of software which lets you find and reuse mathematical solutions. This is similar to the way pocket calculators made some of the technical skill of arithmetic obsolete.

The most useful skill remaining is problem solving: turning real-life problems into mathematical problems so that we can solve them. This is exactly the skill tested by the PISA test.

If the UK wants to catch up and reverse the trend, we need to ditch the focus on badly formulated tests and refocus on the deeper problem-solving skill. 

We should encourage the use of software to shortcut the no-longer-relevant mechanical skill of mathematics and focus on the effective use of software to help us. 

The Presidential Debate and Some Claims About The Chinese Currency

The second US presidential debate has just finished and the subject of China came up.

Obama claimed he had push China hard, and their currency had gone up by 11%. 

This is the change he was talking about (it shows as a drop because it’s showing the price of $1 in Chinese Renminbi rather than the other way around). 

It’s actually an increase of 8.8% in the Chinese Renminbi since the Obama came to power, but who’s counting.

The more interesting measure is the trade deficit. 

Obama claimed that exports to China have gone up since he came to power. They have, they’ve gone up by $32bn. The problem is that imports have gone up by too - by $62bn. 

Even that’s not enough to assume it’s good or bad news though, because exports to China are increasing from a very low base. In 2008 when Obama came to power, exports to China were only just over a fifth of its imports. This means that whilst this $32bn translates to a 45% increase in exports, the $62bn is only an 18% increase in imports. Even though the deficit increased, this counts as at least moving towards closing the gap in my book.

Those 3 year growth rates, equivalent to 13.18% annual growth in exports and 5.67% annual growth in imports, would mean that the numbers eventually meet (in about 20 years, to be precise):

But it’s interesting that there’s so much focus on China.

The overall US international trade deficit in 2011 was £560bn - and China made up just 5.2% of that. So perhaps they should have focussed more on the rest of the world in their debate. Four years ago it was $698bn, so on this measure the US is doing well - the deficit dropped overall.

But this is where we encounter a particular problem with the narrow focus on China. If China is a manufacturing powerhouse for the US, then you could argue that the US has had a pretty good deal out of its import of cheap goods from China and export of expensive branded products to the rest of the world: the goods arrive from China, get put in a box and shipped off with a large mark-up. Pushing for an increase in China’s currency is a bit like phoning your electricity supplier and demanding to pay more.

If China’s currency strengthens, it will be more expensive for American companies to out-source production, the prices of imports will go up, the prices of exports might go up as a result, and US global exports may even fall because of it. The US exported $1.5tn in goods last year - more than 50 times the size of the comparatively modest $29bn Chinese trade deficit, and that $1.5tn may be in part thanks to cheap Chinese imports to the US. We certainly can’t assume that US hard-balling of China over its exchange rate will have a positive impact on overall US trade or the numbers of American jobs.


So I’ve been doing this “startup thing” for a year now. There is incredible energy, passion, talent and commaradery around. There are also some great results. At the very least, in London, the startup community is making business a sexy topic (the Yanks take top prize for loving/obsessing about…

A mission to save cucumbers and plastic bags

This always happens:

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

How about this:

Then this:

And then plastic bags with cucumbers will look more like this:

Come on supermarkets, we know you can save the cucumbers and plastic bags.

The ineffectiveness of prizes

I have been reading Tim Harford’s book, Adapt, and I could hardly disagree more with his assessment of prizes as a way of incentivising innovation.

The costs and rewards for a little guy with a big invention are spectacular, with or without the involvement of money. He could waste a huge section of his career and have nothing to show for it. Or he could collect wealth and glory. That is the case whether he gets a prize and whether he gets paid for his work in the meantime, or not.

Many people are prepared to take that risk, many aren’t. Many take that risk even with the near-certainty that they will never be listened to.

He spends a whole chapter explaining this before then suggesting prizes as the solution. Prizes further accentuate an already enormous risk and reward. Instead of a lone inventor who works on a solution, they encourage multiple people to work towards it where only one can claim the prize.

If prizes work, the reason has nothing to do with the inventor, it has to do with the institution. A prize can’t be set up without an institution also setting up a mechanism through which they can listen to the suggestions of the little people. By setting up a prize, an organisation has stated publicly that it will listen and must follow through with its promise.

As an inventor, prizes put me off. I don’t want to be driven by someone else’s dumb ideas about what problems need to be solved. The money gets in the way of my mind thinking about the problem and makes me think about the money instead. Instead of trying to come up with something genuinely useful, I am trying to come up with what I think they want. That is not the way real innovation works. The only time I would enter would would be if I already had the idea and the prize came along to match.

Prizes are not needed. What is needed is for organisations to genuinely listen to little people, to state publicly that they plan to do so, and to treat
them fairly when they do come forward.

A prize accentuates the already massive risks and rewards for inventing. Instead, government bodies could work to ensure fair treatment (so that people aren’t afraid to come forward) and to help mitigate (or insure) the risks. Just like insurance, the rewards are far more certain on a large scale and the risks can be absorbed. As Tim Harford seems, rightly, to have spent the whole chapter explaining, paying people - spending public money on paying people without imminent demands for results, enables people to create amazing things.

He seems to make a fly-by of the truth, and then veers wildly away in his
conclusion. It’s an important subject. How close he comes to being bang-on, and how wrong he turns out to be.

The Real Pivot

In startup land we are always hearing about pivots.

More often than not when someone says they have pivoted, what they have really done is decided everything they were doing was bollocks and switched to something different. There’s no shame in killing off a bad idea but calling it a pivot gives pivots a bad name and sounds disingenuous.

One company I have come across recently (who are in ‘stealth mode’ and hence declined to be named) have just executed one of the best pivots I have come across.

The CEO is a start-up veteran, having previously started a fairly successful consultancy, so he understands the importance of getting money in the door. And the pivot reflects that.

They started the company with a bit of technology and a new idea and went out to try to sell it. A few months later they had lined up two customers but spoken to dozens more and five in a row had made a beeline for one small part of their offering and told them they needed to ditch the rest.

This is a phenomenon I have come across too - potential customers see through your crap and ask you for what they realise you can offer but you hadn’t yet realised. These people know what they want and you need to listen to them.

And that’s what happened to this guy. Five in a row asked him for one part, told him to ditch the rest, and he took their advice. Suddenly, instead of going out to businesses trying to flog a confusing and complicated product of dubious value, they are offering a neat, simple idea with magical appeal. They have pivoted. Overnight the company has gone from yet another hip-sounding start-up into a real business with real potential.

And that’s what a real pivot should be. Listening to your customers. Listening hard, learning, and acting on what you learn.

Congratulations to A and B on a fantastic pivot. It is going to make you rich.

Open Legals Followup

My Open Legals post a few days ago prompted a few comments -  thanks everyone who responded.

I want to clarify the problem. There are two parts.

Problem Part 1

Generating legal documents is expensive.

Most of the related services we found address this part, including simply-docs, Firelex, and those in William Carleton’s blog entry.

Problem Part 2

Reading, negotiating and redrafting is expensive and time consuming.

Standardisation would solve this problem, but perhaps because of the difficulty of establishing trusted and widely used standards, this problem is very poorly addressed in general.

Why Standardisation Matters

Lawyers sometimes object to the suggestion that documents could be standardised, so I want to spell this out with an analogy:

You have an electricity supply in your house and need a plug for a lamp. You hire an engineer, who sits you down and asks: Do you need an earth wire? How many prongs do you need? Do you want the wall side to be male or female? How big do you need your prongs to be? Would you like them in a row or in some kind of arrangement? Is square ok, or would you like round ones, or some combination?

Your answer to most questions is: “No idea, what do other people do?”.

But eventually you answer. Everybody answers differently so the engineer thinks everyone has different needs and plugs can’t be standardised.

Clearly, he’s wrong. People just want plugs that work.

We standardise and everything becomes easy. When you want a plug for a lamp you go and buy one for £1.50 from the nearest hardware shop. It might not be perfect but for £1.50 that’s ok.

Legal documents are just the same.

The response from lawyers is sometimes: “But every client has different needs”. The answer is: No they don’t. If you ask, you get different answers. Different answers doesn’t mean different needs. Nobody values their answers more than they resent being made to design their own documents.

A real example: Illustration agents sign deals with book publishers all the time. Some publishers use almost identical contracts. Not only that, the contract specifies that they will explicitly notify the agent if they ever use a different contract.

This is fantastic for agents because it means that when they want a contract with one of those publishers they can sign and return within a few minutes, without reading the document, instead of days. That’s good for publishers too.

There are other examples. You don’t have to negotiate terms when you go shopping because your terms are covered by consumer regulations - a standardised contract of sale which means you only have to look at the price and the rest is understood.

There is huge value in standardisation, regardless of the contents.

If we agree that standardisation is a good thing, the question that remains is how. Should governments enforce it? Maybe. They will take a long time about it though, and I don’t have the patience to wait.

If we want it fast, we’ll need to do it ourselves. Docracy is making a worthy effort and I hope they succeed. It’s going to take something special to establish firm standards and maybe being open-sourcing is the key.

I, for one, am hoping it happens soon.