Monday, 22 September 2008

Vegetable Patch 2008

I have a small, standard back garden in a standard house in suburbia in the UK. It is mainly a lawn with a flower border around the edges. About 2 years ago I decided to make one section of the border that was a bit more out of the way into a vegetable patch to experiment with, just to see what growing vegetables was like and what I could achieve. The main vegetable patch is about 2 metres by 1 m, with another smaller one of 1m by 1m, and various pots (probably about 8 in total, one way or another).

This year was a mixed year, as I wanted to grow more than before, both in terms of quantity and variety. Some things worked, but some did not at all, which was a disappointment. So here is the summary for the year.

Good
  • Potato. I grew 2 varieties - Pentland Javelin (a second early) and Desiree (a main crop), and both did well. I grew them in pots (actually bags) and earthed them up as they sprouted. Apart from the earthing up and some watering, I left them to it, and got good crops from both. Of the two Desiree gave a larger crop of larger potatoes, and really impressed me. However we have had to wait until August before we could crop them. While the Pentland Javelin cropped much earlier - June / July.
  • Sweetcorn. A new one for me, but it worked well as an experiment. Used Swift and sowed in starter trays before planting out. Only one corn per plant - about 4 in total - but really, really tasty. It is true what they say about sweetcorn being so much better when freshly picked. Next year I will sow this earlier, and do a lot more of them. They like to be planted in a block or grid, and not a row.
  • Strawberries. I managed to carry over some plants from last year of Cambridge Favourite, and they produced again this year. Again, as for sweetcorn, the taste of it straight from the plant is incredible. I planted some in a hanging basket, and that worked well. I have taken some runners off these, and so have more for next year. I could probably do with another variety too to get some earlier or later crops during the year.
  • Tomato. Another new one for me. I bought a small plant from the garden centre labeled as a tumbler suitable for hanging baskets. It grew well and set lots of fruit, which ripened over time. Really tasty, not bitter at all, but relatively small - more like cherry tomatoes. I will try this again, and I have a packet of Gardeners Delight seed which I will try a few of too next year in the garden itself.

Okay
  • Peas. Got some going and they grew and set pods. But I probably should have done a lot more of these, and kept sowing as the year went on. I think I will try a lot more together next year, for greater density and higher crops. Generally everyone eats these straight from the pod, and they never see a dinner plate.
  • Leeks. I've grown these before, and they germinate well from seed and start off nice and straight upright. But for some reason mine never bulk out into the large leeks I see elsewhere. So I still have them in the ground, but they are probably only about finger thickness or so, rather than larger. With autumn now here I do not expect much further growth from them. I think I need to get them into a seed bed earlier in the year, so they get more growth while in the garden. Up to now I transplant them out in July, but I think that is too late for them.

Bad
  • Broccoli. This was a disaster in two ways. The seeds germinated well and grew really strongly, putting on lots of leaves. But the heads were quite small, and then most of them bolted and produced heads of yellow flowers. The ones I cut pack to put out side shoots then suffered from caterpillar attack later one, and some had all their leaves eaten. And those I saved from that, bolted and produced heads of yellow flowers too. So while I had plants I never got to harvest any broccoli. Given the space these things occupy with their large leaves, I don't think they are worth it for a small crop.
  • Carrots. Last year I got some medium sized carrots, one way or another. This year, almost all small ones. Too small to do anything with, so they went straight onto the compost heap. I probably got about 10 large ones, which were worth the effort of peeling, cutting and cooking. I had lots of carrots in the ground, with lots of top growth, but very little underneath to show for it. I think I used the wrong varieties, and used the early, quick ones too late in the year. I think next year I will mainly be doing Autumn King everywhere, as this is the one that gave the largest ones I am sure.
  • Lettuce. While this seems to sprout easily, it never gets to a size for me to pick and have a full plate of salad leaves. I generally sow mixtures for loose leaves, rather than the single headed lettuce. This year I got various combinations of no germination from some sowings, initial growth but nothing large, slug attack, and not sowing enough often enough. I think next year I will go for some named varieties, rather than the mixtures, as I will have more control over what I grow and when, and can see individually which ones grow better in my garden.
That's the report on the veg patch this year. We still have lots of potatoes - some in the cupboard, and one more set of Desiree to be dug up in the next couple of weeks (the leaves are still green on it) - but everything else has gone. Either eaten as soon as it could be - strawberries, peas and sweetcorn - or not much of a crop to speak of anyway - carrots, lettuce and broccoli. But I've tried some new things this year, learnt a few more things, and have a few more ideas to try next year. Personally I am looking forward to some more sweetcorn, and tomatoes.

Friday, 5 September 2008

My Job Manifesto

I need to change my job from my current employer to another one for a variety of reasons, mainly around the lack of viability of the company itself, its senior management and their strategic direction. On the one hand this means that I need to find another job somewhere else as quickly as I can, but on the other hand I have been through enough jobs and employers by now to know that many of them are the same and very few better than the others. So this time I really want to get it right, even if it ends up taking longer, because I don't want to have to change job again in the future. I'm not saying I won't end up changing job again, because nothing is ever guaranteed or fixed forever in this world. But I want a really significant chance that this next job could last a long time, and that the company is a 'good' one and a strong one. And that means being clear on my part what I want from an 'ideal' job and employer. Hence my job manifesto, that I am listing here.


No large corporations

Large companies suffer from all kinds of inherent problems, as far as I am concerned. The main ones being that they only exist to funnel money up into the pockets of the senior management and the president and vice-president, while the real workers only ever receive fixed, standard wages, and they become very inflexible with many highly organised levels of management (really just an overhead imposed on the workers) with associated rules and processes and procedures and job titles and grading systems.


Preferably a small focussed company

Following on from what I have said about company size and what it does, I think a company of about 100 or less people is the ideal size. There is a rule of thumb that you can know, work and directly communicate with about 100 people. Beyond that magic size the company will fragment into separate departments, which only communicate directly within themselves. It is then left up to management to communicate across the groups. People end up with a smaller view of the company rather than a complete view. I am not saying that all companies should be this small. But there can be advantages to being a small focussed company in terms of internal efficiencies.


Short, small and knowledgeable management chains

Good companies keep the management chains short and the hierarchy flat. And the management should know and understand what the company does, its products and what each employee does. The worst situation is when the managers spend most of their time managing each other in group meetings, and reporting up to their managers and following company procedures.


A manager who understands what I do or no manager at all

Okay, maybe I cannot avoid having a manager at all, as that is just the way companies run themselves. But if the manager does not truly understand what it is that I do, then I cannot ever have a meaningful discussion with them, and they cannot make sensible decisions. Generic career managers add little or no value to the employee as far as I am concerned. How can they review situations and priorities and make valid decisions when they lack knowledge about exactly what their employees are doing each day? I have been in this situation and I literally ended up with nothing to say to my line manager, as he could never understand the points I raised about the work I was doing. I ended up trying to ignore and avoid him as much as I could, as he just could not add any value for me in any way.


Measure me by results not by effort (time)

I'm sick and tired of companies measuring me by time in the office, as if it correlates to the results achieved in any way. Tell me what you want done, then let me get on with it. To put this another way – if you measure me by time in the office then my productivity will drop like a stone because you have made it clear that productivity is not relevant and you don't measure it, and as a result everything I do will take as long as possible because it makes no difference to me either way. I'll be spending the same amount of time in the office and be paid the same either way.


Not 9 to 5, but achievements

And on the same basis, why constrain me to 9 to 5? If you want good results let me come in early and leave early – say 8 to 4. Or do 8 to 6 for 4 days and take each Friday off. If the results I achieve are the same, why does it matter that they were done between 9am and 5pm from Monday to Friday? If anything, the freedom to manage the work myself, and go home early if I finish the work early will actually serve to motivate me. Forcing me to only work between 9 and 5 provides no motivation whatsoever to produce either better quality work, or be more productive and finish sooner. Either way I will still go home at 5pm and be back in the office tomorrow at 9am.


Be able to work from home and not always the office

I am not against offices – if they are done properly they should foster a place and environment where people can work together productively and be able to achieve things that they could not achieve elsewhere. But if the specific work I need to do tomorrow can all be done from home, whether that involves a computer or not, why do I need to drag myself into the office in the morning and then travel back home again at the end of the day? If the net result achieved is the same either way, why should I be wasting my time travelling into the office on an unnecessary journey?


I don't want to work from home every day, but I do want the flexibility to be able to do it, if it was the right thing to be doing for the next piece of work that had to be done. Why are so few companies interested in doing this, and so improving employee morale and productivity as a result?


Adding direct value, and not just a revenue stream

I want to be recognised and needed by my employer for the work I do and the technical expertise I bring and use for them. I do not want to be employed simply because I am an income stream for them, either charged out on a daily basis or having things like sales targets to achieve. Once you cross this line you suddenly find that the amount of the revenue you bring in to the company is more important than your technical knowledge, expertise or quality of work. And the company will always want more, money that is, from its customers, and not better work or knowledge from you.


No travel other than getting to the office

Why would I want to spend a significant amount of time each day travelling to different places, possibly even staying away from home for several nights? Some people might want to do this, but I don't. I have a life outside of work, and want to be able to get on with it at every opportunity I can. I work because I have to in order to get money, because that is the only legal way I can, and not because I want to. So I will always seek to minimise the travel I have to do each day. If a job involves travel then I will be losing more than I am gaining as far as I am concerned.


Not in a large city centre

I live about 30 miles from London, and there are many, many jobs to be had in London. I could commute there each day, but the thought fills me with dread. Not the travel itself, but either doing it on congested roads or on packed public transport (buses, trains and underground railways) every day as hundreds of thousands of other people do the same journey. The train is the easiest and best option for London in many respects, but this still involves a number of changes between bus, train and underground to complete the journey, each of which will be packed full with many other people all shoulder to shoulder with each other. Travelling like sardines like this every day would be soul destroying to me. So no jobs in the middle of city centres please.


Good Holiday

When I want it. Almost no job is so critical that they cannot do without you for a while. I do not work in a factory or a production line or something similar. What would they do if I left, and what about before I joined them? Answer – they got by. So they can get by without me for a few days. I'm not asking to be paid more for doing less – just let me have unpaid holiday when I want it.


Not Consultancy or Sales

I have two main reasons for not wanting to work in these areas, even though jobs of these types exist like spades in the IT industry. One is because I am not particularly good at them. I can do them, but I would be much better at another type of role. So it seems silly to do a job that relies on my weakest attributes rather than my strongest ones, regardless of how much someone else says the job is 'good' and I should consider it. The other reason is that I do not want a job where I am measured by the quantity of money brought into the company and not by the quality of the work I do. And both of these jobs exist solely to bring money into the company – they are both about getting a customer to pay the company for something. Sure, some companies will need these kind of roles. But I am not interested in doing either of them.


Clarity of Purpose

Whoever the next employer is for me, it must be clear to everyone what it is they do. So that both the customers and I are clear on this. If I or any customer need to spend any time asking exactly what the company does, then it probably does not have a clear enough focus. And from knowing what the company does, it should also be clear where I fit in, what I do, and how I add value to the company. No woolliness or vagueness here please.


Not too diverse

On the one hand diversifying can help a company grow, and help it through turbulent times, such as when one product goes through a transition and its sales drop. On the other hand a company can diversify too far, and the product set become too varied. I have seen several companies fragment as a result of this, with stove piped departments that never shared anything with each other and always did their own thing. The worst thing was when customers would ask for information about the product set, and the company had to arrange a full day of different presenters to explain it all. Even the company itself could not come up with a single, coherent description of all the things it did.


No Microsoft systems or applications

This could be a book in its own right about all the many problems with the software Microsoft design, make and sell. But the bottom line is that Microsoft is not the way for me, and never will be. Their software is very poor, at best, for a number of reasons including its design, security, scalability, non-standard, heavily proprietary and closed (as opposed to open). My background is UNIX and Oracle, and they are far superior at what they do. So I've no interest in 'converting' and learning all the Microsoft development tools whatsoever. I'll leave the Microsoft software to other people to deal with, if they want to, and I'll stick to what I know.


No Human Resources

A personal thing, but I loathe and detest Human Resources and struggle to find any reason to have them in a company. What is it HR do that the line managers should not or could not be doing by themselves? I do not want HR sticking their nose into what I do for the company. If there is an issue I expect my manager to be able to deal with it, or their manager above them and so on. There should be no need to go sideways to another department. I have never seen any situation or company get better after the HR department got involved. In fact I have seen the morale in a company go steadily down as the result of the actions of HR and the new policies and procedures they have introduced.


Not driven by profit growth or share price

All companies need to make a profit, without exception. After costs have been deducted from the incoming revenue there must be something left over, otherwise the company is making a loss and it will simply go bust eventually. But once you are making a profit, does the amount of the profit really matter? I mean, yes, it needs to be a 'reasonable amount', whatever that is. But does a company need to be so focussed on year on year revenue and profit growth as so many are? Nothing can continue to grow forever, ad-infinitum! Surely it would be better to grow to a certain size, and then be a stable sized company continuing to make a healthy profit each year? The drive to make ever larger profits seems detrimental somehow to me. At some point this single mindedness tends to backfire, one way or another, with the company over stretching itself.


I don't really expect any of this, but I can dream, can't I?


Monday, 16 June 2008

Crash

[Updated - added consultants, advertising and coffee shops]

I do believe that there will be a crash - it is unavoidable one way or another, and the signs are now appearing everywhere. Here is my perception of how I think it will play out. I know I'm late and that lots of others have done this already, and that I won't be adding anything different or radical. Nevertheless I wanted to put down my own particular view on this, and how I think it will play out in loose, general terms. Just to see if it does turn out as I assumed. I'll keep it as high level as possible, so as not to get bogged down in lots of details.

The first point is that some form of crash is inevitable and bound to happen:
  • All previous large civilisations have crashed for one reason or another.
  • Continued growth of anything (population, food production, economies, profit, wealth) is impossible forever. You cannot grow infinitely in a very finite world.
  • Many finite resources are reaching or have reached their limits, and their usage will plateau or have to decrease e.g. oil
  • The pressures from all the many world economies trying to become full blown first world global economies will give rise to massive resource pressures and accelerate the drain of natural resources.
  • A fabricated market economy founded simply on the movement of money within the system rather than on real physical items.
So how will it all start? Slowly at first, obviously. As a result of various small but significant changes the price of some things will rise. Just some things, not everything, but they will become more expensive at a much quicker rate than other things rise in price.

This has already happened for oil, and is happening for various food items.

Initially people will ignore it. (Peak oil is not a new issue - only its effects are newly visible to everyone). But then people will realise that these increases in price are inevitable.

The price rises will spread to other things - from oil to food - both due to the increase in the price of oil itself, and its reduced availability due to the greater global demand from the fast growing new third world economies.

In the first world people will end up with less disposable income, as all their major costs rise - transport fuel, heating, electricity, food, long distance travel, holidays. Many are essential, while others are not.

Once the impact is felt by the ordinary people in the western world, they will simply tighten their belts to begin with, look at what they spend their money on and spend less by making cutbacks.

In turn this will end up having a major impact on the economy. It's unavoidable one way or another, and so the economy will have to shrink. This will cause major problems for those companies affected, as they can no longer report either growth or large profits year after year.

I believe that the first areas to be impacted will be all forms of entertainment, including leisure and services. People don't actually need to go to the cinema every week or buy a new DVD / CD / video game every week or month. People will simply stop spending money on this kind of stuff. This will have a major impact on the entertainment industry, which simply believes that it can make any old kind of stuff and people somewhere will buy it. When people stop going to the cinema all the time, Hollywood will make major loses initially. Then it will stop making so many films, and paying the actors such vast sums. That will be somewhere to look for major losses and various shutdowns.

Likewise restaurants will be hit as people eat out less. Possibly less than entertainment, but people will realise that they can cook their own meals at home and not have to pay the overheads for chefs, waiters and buildings. So, many restaurants will also go under and close.

Takeaway food shops of all forms will also be hit as people eat out less. On the basis of last in first out, it will be all the coffee shops that will go first, as people decide they do not need to spend money on a freshly made latte when they can make do with a kettle and some instant coffee.

After one last splurge by people, the travel industry will be reduced to a fraction of what it once was. I think there will be one last boost to the travel industry as many people take the one holiday they always wanted to, just before it becomes too expensive to travel anywhere in the world. So long distance travel and holidays to exotic places will hold the travel industry up for a year or too. And then it will just disappear, because everyone stops traveling long distance. At which point most of the airlines simply go bust. Some of this has started already, with many US airlines filing for chapter 11 because they are either bankrupt or insolvent, and trying to put together some rescue deal. These will become more common, and unstoppable.

With people spending less the whole economy suffers. Initially it will be leisure and entertainment as I have indicated, and also high ticket price items. You don't need to change the car / television / music system every year. So retail companies suffer too. And many, many companies suffer much lower revenues and profits turn into losses.

Also hit will be various 'soft' services that never existed before the very end of the twentieth century. There never were personal fitness trainers or life coaches 50 years ago, or even 25. They are all a result of people having too little time and too much money. When the money goes away so will the demand for all of these things that no one really needs in the first place.

Initially you will see retailers shutting down as they do not have enough business or turnover to make a profit, so there is no point staying open. More shops will close in the main shopping centres, and stay closed. This will then spread up stream to the various distributors and suppliers who provide the stock that the retailer sells. And in turn it could spread all the way back to the manufacturers.

When it reaches this more advanced stage, you will then see a great many companies simply shutdown, lay everyone off, and disappear overnight. Why? Lets not forget that companies exists for one and only one reason - to make profit and put it back into the pockets of the senior directors and presidents and shareholders. They do not exist to take care of employees or the community or anything else. Those are all myths. Be realistic. Once companies can no longer make enough profit to keep their presidents in the lifestyle they have become accustomed to, they will simply shut up everything and walk away from it all. Why work hard trying to save a company of any size, when you can simply take a big pay off and close it all down?

This gives rise to an increase in unemployment. And with so many companies shutting down there is no other work to be found. Unemployment will rise to never before seen levels.

We could also see issues with many companies reducing the wages of the employees using a reverse logic that their revenues have decreased too, and so they don't have as much money to pay people with. This further pushes more people over the threshold and they cannot make all their payments and go bankrupt. Note that directors and presidents wages will not drop their salaries correspondingly, because they are making the tough decisions that will save the company. And for that they will also receive large bonus payments each year.

Companies will also stop using so many consultancies to 'help' them with various parts of their business. No amount of reviewing by outside people is going to magic up a growth in revenue or profit when sales are falling. So the consultants will be kicked out, and in turn most of the large consultancies will lay off most of their people and then close down.

With people spending less, and less revenue coming in, many companies will stop advertising too, as it stops being a useful tool to try and trick people into buying what they don't need. In turn advertising and media companies will be affected too and close down, as their revenue streams dry up. All the television channels will disappear one by one, as the advertisers stop placing advertisements on them. Remember, television does not deliver good programme content to viewers - it really delivers a quantity of viewers to advertisers. That is where their revenue income stream comes from. From the advertiser, not from the viewer.

With all these companies shrinking in size, going bust, or simply closing up, the stock markets will crash all the way around the world. With no basis on which to value a share in a company, the price of shares will plummet. Not unexpected given that their share prices do not actually reflect any true measure of the value of a company anyway.

And when the stock markets crash, so will many pension funds that had peoples' life savings invested in the market. Which means that many people who thought they had some money set aside to retire with, now find that they have next to nothing. Which brings home the reality of having to work and earn money until you die, because you will never be able to afford to live off your savings. Retirement will no longer be an option for most people - only the super rich.

Housing will be affected too. Initially we will see that with less money to spend on mortgages and loans, people are not willing to pay the same for houses. And so their prices drop. I'll admit that I did not see the credit crunch issue coming which has already affected the west, and started to drive down house prices. So this has already started, but for different reasons - people borrowed more than they could afford, banks lent it to them anyway, and eventually they missed payments and the banks repossessed.

I originally assumed that people becoming bankrupt would happen in the second phase of the crash, after the rise in prices and the layoffs and closures of many companies. Instead it is happening much sooner, due to the credit crunch because many people were lent more than they could afford several years ago when interest rates were lower. There is also the factor of landlords borrowing money to buy property to then rent out. Again more money has been lent than should have been, and rental income has not achieved what people assumed. When a landlord defaults on one property they own due to not getting enough rent for it, the lender will often move to repossess all the property the landlord owns, thereby making the landlord bankrupt too.

When all these homes are repossessed and put up for re-sale they will not fetch what they did originally - continuing the drive down in house prices, and accelerating it to greater levels. As already mentioned, this has actually already started, due to the credit crunch. Something that was quite avoidable by all parties if the banks had not lent too much money to people who could not really avoid to pay it back.

In turn all of the major governments of the world will struggle with significantly reduced income from tax revenue, as more and more people become unemployed. I don't know anything about the inner workings of governments, but the simplest things I can see is that they will simply be forced to reduce their expenditures. Less in equals less out. Which areas get the biggest cuts will be the interesting thing. Governments will never cut the money they pay themselves, or other large government departments such as defense and the army. So it is likely that the ordinary man or woman on the street will be hit the hardest with the cutbacks.

The other option is to raise taxes, but the governments will struggle to do this. The poorest people will have no money to pay taxes with, so raising the level of the lowest tax thresholds will not increase tax revenue that much and will simply drive more people to bankruptcy if they cannot pay their bills any more. Raising the tax levels for the richest people does make sense - they clearly have money to spare. But most of the major governments in the western world are right wing one way or another, and so the rich man is their friend. They will avoid taxing the rich for as long as possible.

I wonder if a government can go bankrupt? And if it does, does that mean that people can stop paying all the different taxes imposed on them?

At this point the crash will be pretty much fully underway:
  • The economy has shrunk to a fraction of what it was before, because people are simply spending less on unnecessary items and are forced to spend more proportionally on the essentials of food and fuel for heat.
  • Many companies of one form or another have shut down and laid off all their employees. These are both big and small companies. Some companies avoid this by merging with other companies, to try and create almost a monopoly in certain markets. But this still results in massive layoffs from the merger, and eventually the final company is only slightly larger than one of the original ones.
  • The transportation industry has big problems, all in the long haul area. No one travels long distances any more, except the super rich. Even businesses cut down on travel.
  • Unemployment rises to massive levels.
  • House prices drop, to the point where there is little difference between the cost of the raw materials and the finished house itself. This is due to both the reduced spending power that people have, and the availability of houses from repossession due to the failure of the owners to make the mortgage payments.
  • The revenue of each major government decreases sharply. They make adjustments by simply cutting their spending in the short term, which again impacts the ordinary people the most. In later phases of the crash governments may try and tax the super rich, but this proves difficult as the super rich simply relocate themselves and all of their assets to some remote, isolated, safe haven.
At this point things are a big mess. Unemployment is at record levels, and many people have nowhere to live because their property has been repossessed. There will be major issues over where these 'unhoused' people live. It is possible that large tent cities come into existence. Or that people move onto unused land and set up any form of dwelling.

Land ownership becomes a big issue. Both in terms of who legally owns each piece of land, and in terms of enforcing that ownership.

One big growth area will be in security forces - almost private police forces - employed by rich people and companies to enforce the law regarding their own property and assets.

Probably some people will move away from the cities and into the country. But this is difficult to tell, as it becomes a very personal decision.

Those left with jobs will find more and more of their wages going on only the basics of life - food, heat and shelter.

Black markets spring up, and barter replaces monetary transactions. Many people simply trade what they have for what they need. Whether an item or a service - mending broken things for instance. Money has little use or no relevance to them, especially when they are unemployed with no home of their own.

And so it will get messier and messier. In some respects this is the tip of the iceberg, and it could get a lot worse in so many ways.

Generally I do not see the crash as a 'bad' thing because I think it is inevitable and so unavoidable, and because in the long term it might be better for everyone and for the planet. Some good things do come out during the crash, as well as the many bad things.

Production of many things moves back to being local. Initially this is a result of the cost of oil rising, and increasing the cost of food produced abroad, many thousands of miles away. With the move to local production, the range of choices increases as there is no longer a single one size fits all answer.

Manufacturing rises up again in each country. It is no longer cheaper to have it manufactured in the Far East somewhere and then transported over. Small manufacturers will come back into existence, and continue to grow in size over time. The effects of the rising costs of transportation due to oil will have less of an impact on these local companies in the long term.

The cost ratios change in many other industries too. Take basic transportation such as rail or bus or the airlines. Oil has been so cheap that the major cost component of the travel industry is actually the people cost (I have no evidence of this, but it seems a valid assumption to me). Look at the rise of the low cost airlines within Europe and elsewhere. How do they do it so cheap? By having almost no staff, paying very little to those they have, and offering the minimal possible level of service. Once oil has risen high enough, and become the largest cost component, then people costs become less significant. Old fashioned service starts to rise again as a differentiator.

Many industries will replace technology (now expensive) with people (now cheap). Instead of a manufacturing line of machines on 24 hours a day consuming energy, we might have a line of people doing the same tasks. The people cost may end up being far less than the machine cost. And people are retrainable and can learn new skills, while machines can only be replaced at the cost of a brand new one.

Alternative house construction techniques become more widely used. Anything to cut the cost of making and maintaining a house. Less raw materials, cheaper and more local raw materials, less processed materials, better insulation, and even smaller houses.

And many other things happen too.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Effects of starting school on young children

I always assumed that the teenage years were the worst at school - forced to study dull, uninteresting topics day after day, taught by the same teachers year in year out; forced to sit exams and be graded and measured for your ability to remember and recite things back; very little choice in what those subjects are; and the monotony of it all, day after day at the same school buildings, just to get a piece of paper with a grade on it at the end.

But the other day it struck me that there is a much larger impact on a child when they first start school and full time education at around 5 years old. And that this probably has a more immediate impact on them overall than what happens later on. Later on the child / teenager has become adjusted one way or another to the education system. But when they first start school it is a total change in emphasis from the nurturing environment of their home (assuming good parents).

The key thing that struck me is that this initial impact of sending your child to full time education - a legal requirement in the UK - is probably the complete opposite of and undoes the effects of the previous 5 years development and growth by the parents of trying to raise an independently minded, able child. This is a full 180 degree u-turn in the emphasis of the child's development.

In the first 5 years of a child's life the emphasis is on development in many forms - physical, mental, language, social. Generally parents encourage their developing children to do and achieve more all the time. This is not a forced development, but a natural one. And it takes many forms:
  • Physical movement, hand eye co-ordination, dexterity
  • Language - sounds, words, sentences
  • Crawling, walking, running, riding a bike
  • Reading and writing
  • Personal social interaction
  • Memory
You could characterise this kind of development with descriptive words like 'growth', 'explore', 'interact' and 'independence'. The focus of the parents is normally on getting the child to the point where they can do most things themselves - dress, speak, toilet, feed. When young children ask for things we often say "You can do it yourself. You don't need me to do it for you.". And if the child says that they cannot we often say "Try it. You can do it.".

We want the child to become an independently able and independently minded person.

Then at age 5 we send them off to school and the education system, and all of this independence is systematically suppressed and quashed by it. From day one - like turning off a tap. Now the children can only do what the teacher says, when the teacher says they can do it. No other activity is allowed at that moment. Suddenly each day is not full of new things, but full of the same things with the same people. The same classroom, the same other pupils, the same teacher, the same few topics (repetition seems to be the key to successful teaching). Day after day, week after week, year after year. Yet more conditioning to be a mindless employee sitting in an office in a cubicle somewhere.

Instead of 30 independently minded and capable children, the education system ensures they become 30 identical, dependent, mindless children, all sitting quietly and all doing the same thing when told. Any individuality or deviation from the norm is quashed.

The goal - the child stops thinking and doing for themselves and waits to be told what to do. Perfect future employees. No original unique thoughts themselves, always waiting to be told what to do next.

When they are young we encourage them to be independent and proactive and to try new things and push their boundaries and experiences - "Go on, try it.", "What do you want to do now?".

But the education system changes the child from being proactive to being reactive. Passively waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do. Not bothering to think for themselves. Everything provided for them. In real terms the education system encourages them to switch off rather than be actively engaged.

Once I realised this of course, it then struck me how tragic this whole thing is. These are children who have only lived on this earth for 5 years and we are shipping them off wholesale to an education system that drains them of any individuality and originality they had.

Of course all of this is hidden by the system, and we are presented with school as somewhere to send your young child to gain all the basic knowledge they need - reading, writing and arithmetic as they say. School is presented as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. And not sending your child might mean that they do not learn as fast as the other children, and so fall behind. We blindly assume that sending them to primary school with all the other children is the best thing we can do for them.

But the reality is probably the opposite of what we imagined. We have expended all this effort to help our babies grow up into independent, capable, self minded young children, ready to face up to and explore all of the world and its wonders. But when they get to school most of this is undone. Right from the very beginning of the school system. Five years of personal attention by the parents is nothing compared to the next eleven or more years from the education system. And it all starts immediately, right from day one.

I truly believe the impact of this schooling system must be incredible on these young minds. All originality is suppressed, until they all become mindless zombies, just sitting in class, waiting and following orders. Up to 5 years old the message from the parents is one of "everything is possible", but after that the message from the education system is "don't do that, sit down, you can't do that, be quiet".

Scary. And all the more so because I just never realised that was the reality of it all. I just assumed that at least primary education was good, because it got the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic across, which are universal things to know. Just proves how wrong you can be about anything in this system we call civilisation.