Monday, 28 September 2009

Kasparov, Karpov and Simutowe

After 25 years Kasparov and Karpov, the chess Grandmasters are back to their old ways, battling it out for supremacy.

I am filled with awe when I think about the brain power that must be being set to work when these two meet. Intelligence is an interest of mine and I enjoy being amongst exceptionally smart people.

Not that I lay any claim to be exceptionally smart myself, although I did once score 104% in a maths exam. But when you meet people who are really, really clever then if, like me, you fall into the category of "definitely not stupid" you have enough smarts to appreciate what they are capable of.

Speaking of chess, I am not bad at the game myself. I wouldn't say I was a keen player, but I can put up a decent fight. However at my old software company, we had some really smart developers who were excellent chess players. Not that I ever played against them but it just wouldn't have been worth it to them. They would have beaten me as if I wasn't there.

Then we hired a testing analyst. As well as being a jolly decent software tester, he turned out to be an English Grandmaster . On one of our team awaydays, we set up about 20 chessboards for all of us, in a horse-shoe and he played against all of us simultaneously, moving swiftly from board to board. He beat us all as if we were children. Only one of our software engineers put up any sort of resistance, which I think he foundquite entertaining. For his own amusement, when all of us had succumbed, our grandmaster reset the engineer's board and then replayed the whole game from memory talking us through the moves as he went. Amazing.

However, he would admit himself that there were other international grandmasters who would beat him as if he was a babe in arms, and those grandmasters would bow their heads if they ever came up against a "super-grandmaster" such as a Kasparov or Karpov.

So, where does that leave me on the intelligence ladder? Slightly above a cabbage I think. Fortunately I have never felt bad about not being "the smartest guy in the room" because I grew up with two exceptionally smart brothers, so there was no point trying to compete on that score. In fact I find myself drawn to genius, I enjoy observing it, just being in its presence.

Sometimes I get mistaken for being smart and this is unfortunate, as happened when I was doing my physics degree in Nigeria. There was a mathematician who shared a couple of courses with me. He was super-smart and somehow got it into his head that I was too. So, when other lads were heading off to the bar for a bottle of beer or two, he would beg me to stay behind for an hour or so to "solve vectors" with him. Oh, the happy hours we would spend, him with the chalk at the blackboard scribbling away, turning occasionally to say "what do you think, Tom, is it correct, Tom?" Me lying on the desks, legs crossed, smoking away, pondering for a few minutes and then pronouncing, to his great relief "by jove, I think you've cracked it". I never had the heart to say "I have absolutely no idea what those funny little squiggles you put on the board actually mean, but can I go now please? Beer doesn't drink itself you know!".

Over the summer I have been reading extensively on the nature of intelligence, how to identify those with a real gift in certain areas and how to unleash their full potential. I am fascinated by gifteness and intelligence and I am also puzzled as to why the African continent has not managed to unleash its fair share of genii and what happened to my vector-analyzing friend who was easily as smart as the smartest people I have met since from London to Silicon Valley. Did he fulfill his full potential or did the rigours of African life mean that his awesome brainpower was put to the task of making a half decent living day to day? If so, what a waste!

For example, in a continent of nearly a billion people, why is there only one chess Grandmaster, Amon Simutowe from sub-saharan Africa? Is there a different distribution of intelligence across the African population? I don't believe there is. But if there isn't then that means that, just taking the young people, of which there are about 400 million across Africa, there must be something like 8 million (2%) who would be eligible to join Mensa!

I imagine what the continent could be like if we could find and unleash some of this brain power and so I am creating a charitable foundation to take on that challenge. In Britian, USA, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and all over the world countries are investing millions into gifted and talented programs for their young people and I want to make sure that the same thing happens across Africa. I have been working on this for a couple of years now and the bits of the jigsaw are coming together. It's an impossible challenge and it's going to be a long and fascinating journey that will start in earnest next year when we run our first major gifted Academy program. The outcomes are unpredictable and that makes it even more exciting.

And if in ten years time all I suceed in achieving is finding and unleashing 10,000 young people who all beat me at chess as if I was a babe in arms, then I will be very, very happy.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Mingling with the Party Boys

Today I attended the launch of a policy document by the Conservative Party shadow Justice Minister Dominic Grieve QC. The topic was the surveillance society and government databases and as it looks a fair bet that we might see a change of Government in 2010 I thought I had better accept the invitiation and hear what the thinking is from opposition quarters.

The content of the paper and discussion is covered elsewhere (here and here for example) so I won't bother repeating it. Suffice to say that despite not being of a Conservative persuasion myself, I was a bit surprised to find that I agreed with pretty much everything in the paper and I was impressed with the way Dominic Grieve handled himself during the lengthy Q&A session.

But having never been to a real live "launch" of a political policy document before I was keen to find out what it was like. So I put on what I thought looked like a Tory sort of suit and set off to the invitation only event held at a Microsoft office in London.

The event was smaller than I thought it would be. There were about 40 people present and I suspect at least 10 of them were party faithful. Judging by the number of badges on the reception table when I arrived, I think the majority of guests were present (perhaps 10 or so missing) so it seems that these launch events are not designed to be the big "show and tell" affairs that I had assumed.

Speaking of party faithful, I do like watching young politicians on the make. They tend to be caricatures of whatever party they belong to. I slipped in and sat on the back row just as the event was getting going and a young lad in his twenties spotted me, glided across the carpet and pressed a copy of the report into my hand. I say young lad and I think he was a young lad but he somehow managed to look as if he was comfortably into his fifties. He looked as if he had been born in his fifties. This may be the look you go for if you are an aspiring Conservative. I must find out what the Labour lads try to look like these days. I know what your typical libdem aspires to.

After a brief introduction by someone important but instantly forgettable, Dominic Grieve stood up and made a few remarks about his document. Then we got down to the meat of the event - the Q&A. Dominic sat between two other folk, a mate of mine and all-round good egg called Jerry Fishenden and Eleanor Laing MP, Shadow Minister of Justice. I must say, I was slightly taken aback to see Jerry up there, not because he shouldn't have been but I just hand't expected it and it's always a surprise when you see someone you know unexpectely out of context, being all grown up and speaking in deep, well modulated, authoritative tones. Jerry was, I believe, the techno-totty (on account of knowing what he is talking about when it comes to technology) and Eleanor's role was to agree with Dominic and repeat what he said but in a soft reassuring Scottish brogue.

Despite it being a small and largely friendly group (why would you invite your critics to your own launch party, after all?) the questioning went on for a good hour and was very persistant. This was the bit where I was reminded why I will not make a good politician. Most of the questions were pretty good as the audience knew its stuff, but some were self-serving drivel and it would have been quicker if the questioner had just stood up, waved their arms in the air and said "Yoo Hoo Look at me. I'm here!". That's when I would have said "yes, yes, yes, we've all seen you, you ARE big and you ARE clever, now sit down", Dominic however looked thoughtful and came up with half-decent answers that gave the impression that he gave a damn about the questioner. Impressive.

Probably the most impressive was a question that the chap next to me asked about ISO standards verse kite marks. I assumed that Dominic would immediately pass the question over to Jerry, who might have stood a chance of knowing what the question was about. Indeed, I thought I caught Jerrry shifting uneasily in his chair. But to my surprise Dominic responded to the question himself and actually answered it pretty well.

As I didn't understand the protocol for asking questions (such as did your question need to make sense or not) and because my personality type makes it illegal for me to speak unless spoken to in strange public settings, I didn't get around to asking a question. But almost everyone else did and the session had to be cut short and brought to an end.

Job done, the group prepared to retire for drinks, nibbles and networking in Microsoft's plush offices (Microsoft have been very smart boys, getting so close to the opposition, no other tech companies in sight at this stage). Networking is something the young party boys really know how to do and I could see them stretching and limbering up for a good session of trusting about, grasping hands insincerely and looking just past your left shoulder as they speak to you just in case someone slightly more important hoves into view. I should really have stayed and sprayed business cards around, but there is only so much I can take. I made my excuses (to myself, under my breadth) and fled.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Son's new school sets me homework!

My son looked resplendent in his new dark green school blazer and tie for his first day of secondary school yesterday. Suddenly he looks all grown up. Time has passed so quickly.

I still remember my first day at secondary school. Me and the boys going by ourselves on the train to Teddington in our brand new school uniforms, messing about on the train. We threw paper at each other, climbed on the seats and made loads of noise. What fun!

I also remember my second day at school. The second morning, at Assembly in front of the whole school, the Headteacher slapped his cane on the table and shouted "Four new boys were seen in the school uniform, THE SCHOOL UNIFORM, messing about on trains. If you were one of those boys STAND. UP. NOW." All 1,000 boys sat in complete expectant silence. Then one by one Tom, Stephen, Steve and Ross (not necessarily in that order) stood up, quivering like jelly and as the whole school looked on sniggering, we made our way to the Head's office to be disciplined!

These days caning is out and health and safety is in. No more horrible Mr "VZ" taking a run up and whacking boys with his trainer. It's forms, forms, forms now. There are so many forms to fill in when your child is going to a new school. Clubs to join, health and safety to worry about and the trickiest of all - the Ethnic Origin form.

This school has a long and complex list of options available for me to tick to identify my lad's ethnic origin. It was easy to dismiss most of the options - Irish traveller, Polish etc. But then we were left with these "black" choices:

Black European
Black and any other ethnic group
Other black
Other black African
White and black African
White and black

Well this is not as easy as we thought. Let us consider the situation.

My son was born and has lived his whole life in England. He is a south London, rugby playing, Fulham football club supporting geezer. One of his parents was also born and grew up in London of Caribbean parents. The other parent was born in London with a white English (plus a quarter Irish) mother and a Nigerian father.

So what variety of "black" is my boy? I puzzled and puzzled. I could of course have opted out and just not ticked one of the boxes but I think its no bad thing for the school to be aware of the diversity (0r not) of its student population. Finally after much thought and voices saying "oh for goodness sake, just tick something" I came up with an answer.

I'll tell you what I did later, but what would you have ticked?