Whispers & Screams
And Other Things

The Joy Of Driving

As anyone who has driven on the UK's congested motorways will attest to, when the roads get beyond a critical threshold of overload, the sheer unpredictability of the drivers around you becomes the most important factor in your cognition. All it takes is for one driver to touch the brake pedal, lighting up the brake lights and a chain reaction of terror ensues in their wake. If an accident is luckily avoided then its almost a certainty that one of those frustratingly inexplicable causeless traffic jams will ensue. 

I have always believed in the power of computer network traffic engineering techniques to come to our aid in situations like this. Just like on a crowded pavement, the unpredictability of the individual has made such a solution frustratingly out of reach.

But it seems that automation and machine learning have brought this notion a step closer. By abdicating control to our machines, network traffic theory can be put into practice ensuring that optimal flow continues.

We have always lacked a way for vehicles to work together until recently and it is this collaborative effort overseen and perhaps controlled by a meta intelligence that can bring about the seismic change that has eluded us.

For my own part I detest most driving. Its basically dead time where my brain has to be used for this one mind numbing task despite the fact that I'd much rather be reading a book, getting some work done or even just sleeping. The day when I can tell my car where I want it to go and then switch off until Im there will be a red letter day for me. I was therefore recently pleased to hear the results of some recent research confirming that in tests, a fleet of driverless cars collaborating with each other can improve overall traffic flow by at least 35%.

Michael He, one of the researchers was quoted thus, "Autonomous cars could fix a lot of different problems associated with driving into, within and between cities but there has to be a way for them to work together."

The key will lie in the adoption of standards and, just like during the development of the standards which now dominate the internet, we are in a period of competition where the standard which wins out may not be the best. (Think ATM vs Ethernet for transporting video and VHS vs Betamax for watching it.)

Much of the current testing and development is done using scale models and SBC such as Raspberry Pi or Orange Pi. This enables researchers to avoid the prohibitive costs associated with developing full scale test environments. Using such swarm systems where the component nodes within the network are each able to communicate at least with their neighbours, it became possible for the overarching 'intelligence' to manage the meta priority for optimal traffic flow in such a way as to achieve something approaching harmony in a ballet of competing priorities and near misses that would send most human drivers to the hard shoulder. Cars can now be packed more closely and yet continue to enjoy progress towards the destination in environments which were previously untenable if populated by unpredictable humans.

Interestingly these tests involved simulating a mix of human and automata with the overall network collaboration level set to either egocentric or cooperative. Improvements of 35% were observed during cooperative traffic but during egocentric driving the improvement was as much as 45%.

Machine learning and swarm software modelling is bringing this field of imagined utopia into reality with staggering speed and for this driver, the day when I can tell my car where I'm going and then put my feet up can't come a moment too soon.

 
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Curved Text In Gimp

Photoshop is a pretty well-known piece of software. Indeed its become so well known in the field of manipulating images its transitioned into the catch-all verb to describe the act of artificially changing a photograph. Not so well known, but to all intents and purposes just as powerful as Photoshop is GIMP. GIMP stands for (The) Gnu Image Manipulation Program and one of the best features that place it streaks ahead of Photoshop is the price. It's free.

The power packed into this freely downloadable piece of software is phenomenal. You name it, GIMP can do it. Ok so introductions over, one of the things I get asked about regularly is whether GIMP can create curved text. The answer, you've guessed it is of course yes. Let's take a look at how it's achieved.

 Let's say you have a logo which looks something like this image here on the left. Your friend, who happens to be a Dentist is looking for some help with his website branding and, let's face it, toothy the tooth does look a little isolated over there. So your friend asks if you could help him place some text around the logo to give it some punch. 

The brief is that the words "Toothsome Teeth" need to curve around the top with "Dental Services" on the bottom.

So where do you even begin? Ill explain in the rest of the post.

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Willow

The lone wolf is weak, the wolf pack is strong. This thought seemed odd. Weakness was not something to be celebrated, it was ultimately something that needed to be dealt with - to be corrected. Instinct tells every creature on this planet that in order to survive one has to fight, to be brave and strong but the implication was dreadful. The world is constantly on the attack, it wants to steal your power, your resources even your life. 

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Hamlets Soliloquy

To be, or not to be--that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--

No more--and by a sleep to say we end

The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--

To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause. There's the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely

The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprise of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of action. -- Soft you now,

The fair Ophelia! -- Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remembered.

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The Army Poses 7 Questions - Can Business Try It?

One of the major fundamentals of the doctrinal training of commanders in the British Army is what is known as The Combat Estimate. The Combat Estimate, when applied to a situation, provides a systematic mechanism with which to shake out a plan as a response to a situation framed within a given set of requirements. The application of the 7 questions as a planning tool ensures that all of the influencing factors which are pertinent to any situation are built into a plan which seeks to secure a given aim. That aim can be the storming of a well defended bunker, the destruction of an enemy fuel depot or indeed the organisation of a trip to the Alps to teach a group to ski. As is often the case with military doctrine, it is as applicable to a military situation as it is to a civilian one. Its value lies in its ability to systematically break down a complex environment in such a way as to methodically define the important influencing elements which are relevant to a particular aim. One may imagine that such martial thoroughness would be well placed in the business boardroom and one would be correct.

The Combat Estimate (7 Questions) is one of 3 methods that the British Army uses to parse complex sets of circumstances for the purpose of systematic analysis. The other two methods are called The Operational Estimate and The Tactical Estimate. Of the three, the Combat Estimate really comes into its own in situations where quick planning which seeks to exploit and maintain a high tempo adversarial advantage is required. It is therefore best applied at the tactical and operational level. Lets look at the questions in turn;

  1. What is the adversary doing and why and/or what situation do I face and why, and what effect do they have on me? This is a bit of a mouthful but it effectively requires examination of the broad constraints which will serve to hamper ones ability to complete an objective. The key takeaway from this question is "assess and prioritise" What is happening and how does it fit into my priorities?
  2. What have I been told to do and why? It's essential to have a detailed understanding of the rationale behind what makes this task something that needs to be done. Furthermore, an ability to put oneself into the shoes of those in positions of authority whether that is your supervisor and their supervisor or indeed the broader needs of the organisation or company on who's behalf you are acting is beneficial. Are your actions to be part of a larger master plan? It's essential to build up this broader picture not only to understand how your task fits into other efforts but also to understand its priority, its dependants or antecedents, and more interestingly, what support you may be able to expect as you define interested parties more broadly. This information is one of the key components in the toolbox of the manager and their ability to motivate those involved in accomplishing the task.
  3. What effects do I need to have on the adversary or situation and what direction must I give to develop the plan? It is essential that you clearly understand your task and the intermediate key staging points which lead to its achievement. This is not only for your own clarity of purpose but also and perhaps more importantly as a basis of your ability to direct others in the execution of your plan. Having a clear and well structured definition of your aim ensures that you maintain your own focus not to mention are well able to articulate this to others within your purview which results, one hopes, in their taking of ownership of the task.
  4. Where and how can I best accomplish each action or effect? It is important to understand the situation thoroughly through the application of the previous questions and their outputs. At this stage one seeks to identify key resources, their priority and how to maintain control of them. It also begins to be possible to identify some lower level courses of action which will serve to consolidate into the broader strategy. A thorough examination of this question should produce a prioritisation of component parts of the overall strategy as well as an outline of the steps necessary to achieve each of them.
  5. What resources are needed to accomplish each action or effect? At this stage a planner, armed with the structured output of question 4 can begin to examine the resource requirements of each strand of the broader plan. Their earlier prioritisation assists in the allocation of resource where contention exists ensuring that resource whether manpower or equipment is distributed most efficiently. At this stage it also becomes clear whether it is necessary to request further resources as a prerequisite for the plans success. This question reaches both up and down your own command chain in order to ensure that the correct organisational capability is allocated. It is also the ideal time to revisit the output of question 2 and ensure that efforts and requirements are properly matched.
  6. When and where do the actions take place in relation to each other? It is important at this stage to begin to develop ones understanding of the temporal dimension of the plan. In a military environment this ensures that where potential exists for there to be conflict in the achievement of each effect, it is dealt with. In the boardroom, it enables individual strands of a broader planning structure to avoid duplication of effort or indeed the need to revisit certain actions. A useful tool to use at this stage is a timeline/sync matrix which provides a visual representation of the dependencies and outputs of each component part. A simple chart in the style of a Gantt chart is useful at this stage.
  7. What control measures to I need to impose? This question helps to define the boundaries of the plan as well as delineate the roles and responsibilities at a more granular level within the broader effort. By carefully examining this area we ensure that each of the component parts of our plan is equipped with the correct definition but also has sufficient scope of manoeuvre to flexibly respond to emergent conditions whilst keeping an eye on the end goal. By allocating an appropriate amount of responsibility one ensures that members of a team are able to utilise their own abilities to maximum effect in achieving the goal without stifling their latitude through unnecessary micro-management. In a business environment it is important to maintain awareness of budgetary limitations or perhaps cut-off dates.

The seven questions described above represent the systematic mechanism by which the military ensures that no facet of the overall planning landscape is overlooked. In military situations, such thoroughness is rewarded with minimising loss of life. Clearly it is therefore warranted however it is clear that business can benefit from such a structured approach to ensure the success of individual objectives up and down the chain of command. Throughout history civilian activity has embraced elements of military doctrine and procedure and will no doubt continue to do so. It is to be welcomed that the penalties in the business world very rarely extend to loss of life however where one seeks to do the best job possible with the resources available and in turn to minimise the chances of failure and their knock on effects, such thorough frameworks can clearly bring a great deal of value. Their application however piecemeal would seem to be a natural boon in the development of successful business practice in any field of operation.

Thanks for reading this post. It has been my pleasure to write it and I'd most certainly appreciate your feedback either by commenting on it in the comments section of my blog below or in the comments section on the platform you used to find it. I hope you also find some of my other posts on my blog of interest and am always happy to engage in discussion either online or offline in the development of these ideas. Happy planning.

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