African kids shouldn’t study quantum physics

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Image from tcdailyplanet.net | Flickr Creative Commons

Or things like that.

I had a particularly upsetting day for me during my stint in England in 2010. I was rounding up my studies in Industrial Systems and Management and had been invited for a cocktail by my sponsors. My thesis then was in the fairly esoteric field of ant colony optimisation algorithms and I was quite pleased with the initial results of my work. I think my supervisors and industrial sponsors were too! We were looking at novel schemes for algorithms that may one day be part of the backbone of so called self serving assets e.g. aircraft that are aware of their state and autonomously select and procure maintenance services for themselves as they fly all over the world. So pretty next gen stuff.

So I was in that place where I was flirting with the idea of research for the next couple of years. You know? A PhD from a prestigious university and everything. I was mulling the idea everyday, weighing the odds, exploring potential supervisors etc. In the middle of that period was this lunch/cocktail thing that came along and we were all just standing there that afternoon, chatting about everything and nothing in particular when this man asked me what my next plans were.

I spoke freely, told him about my current research and my thoughts of a potential PhD along those lines. He looked at me incredulously and said something like “but how is that relevant to Africa?” Hmm. The man has a point, doesn’t he? We can’t even figure out how to generate electricity for the continent and this one is talking about aircrafts that call the service centre to check themselves in. I can’t remember how I responded to that seemingly innocous question, but I was upset. Upset because the tone of his voice suggested that being from Africa automatically drew bounds around what I was allowed to explore – development, sustainability, you know the usual suspects.

He looked at me incredulously and said something like “but how is that relevant to Africa?” Hmm. The man has a point, doesn’t he? We can’t even figure out how to generate electricity for the continent and this one is talking about aircrafts that call the service centre to check themselves in.

That’s unfortunate. Completely against the spirit of the place we met and I daresay, against the spirit of education itself. I understand the spirit of the scholarships that we frequently get handed out in exchange for showing promise. The idea is to use the opportunity to develop skills, return home and make our countries better. I get that. But does that circumscribe the limits of our intellectual exploration or contribution to knowledge? My personal view of education, especially tertiary education is that the subject matter itself is not what counts (except in some particular cases) but the process of learning – I promise a post on that shortly. So I didn’t think he had a point. In fact he probably won’t have asked the same question of a self sponsored student. But oh well.

I didn’t do a PhD in the end. For a bunch of reasons that had nothing to do with the suggestion that it was out of scope for an African kid. But I wonder how many of those interactions go on daily. How many people who could probably make phenomenal contributions to different aspects of human endeavour get nudged away, because of where they come from, because of how they look, because of their sex, or their orientations? Folks, don’t let anyone; even those who have been tremendously beneficial, limit you. Do what you will, follow your curiosity. Live. Be.

Don’t stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing – Albert Einstein

Some 30 odd years…

30 is an odd one…

Not because it is the first even number to start with an odd number (that occurred to me yesterday), but because I can’t quite decide what to do with it.

You see, when I reached the magical age of 10, that was easy to place. I was transitioning from single digits to double digits. I had now done a decade, I was not “just a kid” anymore. I’d soon become a teenager, and all that…

And what about 20? Easy. Gone are the teen days. Bye teenage years, hello young adulthood and the likes.

So what does 30 mean?

I’m still figuring it out. I’ve got a couple of days to go, so maybe I’ll have an epiphany. Or maybe I won’t. This 30 is an odd one.

Somethings are clear though, like increased responsibility and the fact that I now have co-travelers in my boat. Hello @eclectictope. Hello #tantan.

Also clear is the fact that by most standards I’m now fully an adult. Hence the beard! I can also look back at the 30 odd years and clearly see two pivotal things that shaped who I am today. Fellowship, and education. Continue reading

Lessons from the tarmac

LagosAirport

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in a plane for 4 hours on the tarmac of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos waiting for a flight to take off. As were taxiing away, the captain noticed an anomaly with one of the engines and stopped to investigate with the ground crew. So we had to wait, and wait, and wait.

Now this wasn’t an Arik Air flight, neither did the situation degenerate into the kind of melee that happened earlier in the year (Banky W wrote about that here). I found it interesting that in the 4+ hours that we were trapped on the tarmac I didn’t hear one single word of complaint from anyone. That got me thinking about what the lessons were… I came up with a short list.

1. Communicate: I can’t emphasize this enough. Both the captain and the lead host continually explained what was going on, what they were trying, and what the forward plans may be. It’s important to note that in situations like this, the customers really do want you to succeed. You’re in it together. So carry them along. This is something I feel we aren’t particularly great at doing yet in (this part of) Africa. I’m not sure what the origins of our pathological dislike for sharing is – we seemingly believe in shrouding even the most mundane of things with an air of secrecy that do us no favors. I’ve seen this in Nigeria, I’ve seen it in Ghana. I still don’t get it.

2. Empathize: Understandably, you’re under pressure. But guess what? So it the customer – partners to meet, connections to catch, fear of the unknown, etc. It is important to feel some of what the customer is feeling – to put yourself in their proverbial shoes, and then it’s easier to deal with their fears and communicate in a calming, soothing way. As a worker in a service industry I make sure to point out to newer employees to pause and do a little role reversal and think about what they would care about if they were the client and then shape their communications based on that, its worked well for me so far.

3. Don’t compromise: this applies to airplanes, or cars, or whatever. If you need to go up the chain of command multiple times to get a limp acquiescence then it probably was a bad decision to start with. The reality is that machines do break and may need fixing or to put it more frankly sh*t happens. But more often than not the costs of compromise will far outweigh any short term inconvenience. It’s like Russian roulette with a revolver of many chambers, the asymmetry of the outcomes is so large that is definitely a foolish undertaking – unfortunately this is a trap that many guilelessly walk into. Daily. (For more on this, see  Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb)

4. Protect your reputation: this follows directly from the point above. I was on a British Airways and they generally aren’t known for putting dodgy planes in the sky. That definitely was a big part of why no one went into a frenzied panic even though the captain indicated there was a problem with an engine. It was clear from the ongoing communication that if there wasn’t absolute confidence that the problem is resolved, the flight will have to be cancelled. For people (including cynics like me) to accept that without much ado is almost entirely due to a strong reputation. This is key. A good name, they say, is better than silver or gold.

5. Put on the bloody air-conditioner! If we were sitting for 4 hours in sweltering heat, cooking slowly in our own juices, I doubt the outcome would have been the same regardless of the four points I mentioned previously. It is important to understand the context in which you function and manage accordingly. Show consideration and it will be reciprocated.

No Good Old Days…

We are the generation with no “good old days.” And that’s a good thing. First, some disambiguation. When I say we, I mean young Nigerians. Those who grew up in the shadow of military coups, and disrupted school sessions. I mean those Nigerians who never experienced 24hrs of electricity or running water. Those who understand what it means to spend days on a queue for petrol even while the country posts record crude exports. Now that we know who we are, then we understand when I say there are no good old days… You see nostalgia is a strange thing. Regardless of how vivid a memory may be, in the end it’s just the version you saved. Some details will be accentuated, some obscured, much like photoshopped images. They are not false, but they are no longer raw. They are how you want to see them now. Over a couple of days I was reminiscing, and I think my childhood was happy, at least the part that had to do with me directly. I remember our fake spaceship that my brother and I flew round the galaxy taking potshots at passersby who were aliens to exterminate. I remember birthday parties and dancing to Adewale Ayuba. Crushes and heartbreaks; drawing lines down the middle of shared desks with stern warnings to the girl the teacher moved next to you not to dare cross. But I also remember the fear that was palpable in the streets at the height of the military rule, whispers of people disappearing because they said the wrong thing in the bus. I remember the TELL Magazine conspiracies, the failed coup attempts, the talks of breaking up. I remember my dad starting to jog in the mornings, to get his fitness back in case conscriptions start happening. I remember the shock and elation the first time by brother and I saw water flowing in the taps, filling the bathtub and splashing around. I remember a 3 week blackout and reading under the moonlight cos it was too warm inside and I really wanted to finish that story. We are here now, and what a mixed bag it is. Progress on some indices, major decline on some others. I remind myself there is so much more to do, so much more to change, so much more to accomplish. I think it’s imperative that we make sure that every tomorrow is better than yesterday because of what we did today. It’s our country to build or destroy. To develop or plunder. The outcomes are in the choices we will make everyday. When someday we are thrust into the limelight and power changes hands, I hope we do a better job than those who handed down this mess to us. And that will only happen if we start doing a better job today, at whatever it is that we do now. So don’t wait around, be the change you want to see.

Blitz series: the case for expedited services…

NOTHING in Nigeria goes for the right price.

Huh?

Ok. Let me rephrase.Most things in Nigeria, especially public services, don’t go for the right price. That’s a double-edged statement in the sense that I’m saying they are not properly priced to start with, and we don’t even get to enjoy or utilize them at the stated price. So when you go in to get that International Passport, or Driver’s licence, or whatever.. you end up paying multiples of the stated price either to get the standard service or a slightly quicker turnaround time. Which leads me to the question?

“Why not price the bloody things appropriately in the first place? Or if we need to maintain the affordable sensibilities, why not define standard and premium services so that we don’t keep lining pockets in NIS or FRSC as they have already created these classifications?

Here are a couple of cases where I think everyone will benefit if standard expedited services exist:

  • Passports, IDs and Licenses: some people don’t mind waiting some weeks to get these. Others want it yesterday.Let’s have different prices for both categories and let people choose the level of service they want. We’ve already demonstrated these things can be ready a lot faster than the advertised timings. Formalize it
  • Airport check-ins: there is already a line for premium customers that stays empty 90% of the time. Especially on local flights. Sell it and earn extra revenue. If you wanna skip the queue, part with some extra cash. Some people already do it, but they give the money to the “guys on the ground” who make it happen. Close the leakage and trap the extra revenue.

I’m sure there are many more cases where this will work. Let me know some of the other ones that cross your mind.

Note, the idea here is not to excuse the generally poor service we get when consuming public services, that’s a separate issue. The point I’m drawing attention to here is that there is clearly a desire by a subset of customers to get things faster. Let give them what they want and bring in the (bribe) money to the official purse.

Chale, tell me the truth! – Pt 2

Welcome to the second part of this post. This one is a little lengthier but please stay with me ;).

If you do a search on this topic you very quickly realize how hot the debate is. And it’s not a contemporary topic either, this has been raging on and on for ages. Nothing surprising there as we all want the truth (or is it love we want? I get confused). A lot of the conflict is semantic – due to the interchangeable use of truths, facts, knowledge, etc. In that sense then it is necessary for me to clarify what the chap and I were yapping on and on about. Continue reading

Chale, tell me the truth! – Pt 1

So this guy looks across the table at me and says “Bayo, what is the truth? What is your definition of ‘the truth?’” My default reaction to such questions is usually some wise-ass remark, but his earnest expression suggested that wasn’t the most profitable course of action. The dude was serious. So I quaff the rising flippancy and instead responded with a calm “nothing.Continue reading

So I (finally) decided to do this blogging thing!

“It’s been a long time coming. I’ve always written every now and then – usually when I have a bunch of thoughts, or a concept, swirling round in my head. After a few days, sometimes weeks, of this agitation I usually grab a keyboard and type away, giving expression to my thoughts and finally exorcising the demons (I use the term lightly, y’all shoud chill). I find the process of writing akin to some kind of release. The very fact that I’ve put the thoughts down in writing forces me to structure them, to present them in a form others can access, obtaining some kind of closure along the way. It also sometimes opens up a discourse, something I’m hoping this blog will generate… eventually. Continue reading