Sunday, January 29, 2012

On Writing

I am reading "The Big Question" by Steven E Landsburg. I will like to share what Landsburg has to say about writing as follows:

"The bane of a college professor's existence is that the student who has been taught a writing course that there is such a thing on good writing, independent of having something to say.


If your writing is murky, it is usually because your thinking is murky, too. The solution for that is not a series of writing exercises, it is to master your subject matter.


In my decades of writing for magazines and newspaper, I have written some pretty strong columns and some pretty weak ones. In nearly every case, the weak ones were weak because I hadn't nailed down the logical structure of my argument. A good column comes, almost always from translating a logical argument into mathematics, filling a pad of paper with calculations to ensure that the argument is solid, burning the mathematics and translating my understanding into prose, is the easy part. Prose flows easily when you understand what you are saying. If you are struggling to "craft" your prose, your are probably confused."

Do ponder on what Landsburg has said. In fact, I have that exact same question way back in the mid-1990s, but to share with you now, will be to rob you of the opportunity to think. And yes, no prize for guessing correctly that Landsburg is a mathematician.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Speech Writing Course

I was packing my bookshelves when I chanced upon the notes on speech writing course which I have attended in 2009. I thought it would be good to share with my toastmaster friends. Here are the tips.

Objectives of a Speech
First, consider the objectives of the speech. Usually, a speech falls into one or more of the four categories - 1) inspire thinking; 2) stir feelings; 3) motivate action; and/or 4) provide information.

So what are the qualities of a good speech?
1. Meet the objectives
2. Well-organised
3. Interesting
4. Passionate
5. Precise and concise
6. Persuasive

It will be good that the speech is also humorous, relevant, easily understood and memorable.

In a nutshell, a good speech is one that is 1) easy to follow and understand; 2) achieve its objectives; and 3) memorable.

When we are drafting a speech, we need to bear in mind tht the attention span of audience is short and getting shorter. There is an audience beyond the one in front of the speaker - such as the media (TV/ newspaper).

That sounds intimidating. Fret not, to navigate the thouroughfare of speech writing, we can follow the following process closely.
1. Determine the message (e.g. staff conference?)
2. Consider the audience
3. Think about the person delivering the speech (if the person is not you)
4. Collect informaton and organise it into about 5 points and rank them.
5. Start from point 1, then 5. Move on to 3, then 4 and finally point 2.
6. Link points with smooth transitions, e.g. meanwhile, 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc
7. Write the conclusion then introduction
8. Work on a sound bite (sound bite refers to the "boxed-up text" in the newspaper, usually it is a quotation, it's short 1 sentence or at most 2 sentences. They are important and expressed in a nice and stylised way.
9. Review conclusion and introduction
10. Have someone deliver it and assess how it flows.

Tips to consider
1. Alliteration (e.g. fast and furious)
2. Anedotes
3. Antithesis (e.g. "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at St. Louis, 1964)
4. Call to action
5. Contrasts
6. Conversation English (read Bill Gates' speeches)
7. Definitions
8. Humor with care
9. Quotations
10. Repetition
11. Rhetorical questions
12. Rounded-off figures
13. Short sentences
14. Set of threes
15. Similies (same in some aspect usually 1 - he eats like a pig, life is like a journey) and metaphors (same in everywhere). E.g. Passion is like fuel in the rocket, it propels the rocket to greater heights.
16. Simple words
17. Sound bites
18. Statistics - to use sparringly
19. Transitions
20. Vivid imagery

- Cliches (expression that is no longer fresh. e.g. at this mount in time, without further ado, last but not least, we work 24/7, on that note. Instead use finally, let me end my speech...) and platitudes (sentences that say something that is true but people have heard it so many times. e.g. Change is the only constant).

Writing the introduction
- You have 15 seconds to capture the attention of audience (most important)
- You never get second chance to make a good first impression
- Write the intro towards the end
- Possible introductions include - a provocative quotation, a vivid anecdote, a thought provoding question or a startling statistics

Writing the conclusion
- Repeat your main point more emphatically (you want them to retain that one point. e.g. Let me end my speech by emphasizing/ repeating this very important point/ by leaving you with the thoughts of...)
- If appropriate, call for action
- Possible conclusions include a rhetorical question, or an appropriate quotation e.g. is that the kind of world you want to live in?

Remember there are two aspects - 1. what to say (contents) and 2. how to say (method)

Monday, January 23, 2012

How Long is a Piece of String

This blogpost is more on the book "How long is a piece of string?" by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham.

About the book

The book is about the hidden mathematics of everyday life. This title is for anyone wanting to remind themselves - or discover for the first time - that maths is relevant to almost everything we do. Get-rich-quick scams, blind dates, taxi meters and many others have links with intriguing mathematical problems that are explained in this book.

How Long is a Piece of String

With my interest piqued by the title of book, I did some internet searches to find out the meaning of the phrase. "How long is a piece of string" is an idiom. The website provided the most straightforward answer as follows:

If someone has no idea of the answer to a question, they can ask 'How long is a piece of string?' as a way of indicating their ignorance.

However, it did not capture adequately the mathematical aspects of the phrase, which appears to have done well as follows:

Intrinsically a piece of string has length but that length is unknown hence the
: the phrase 'how long is a piece of string' means that the quantitative answer is not known and there is an implicate understanding that the answer will be difficult to find given the information available.

How Do Conmen Get Rich

Let's move on to the articles in the book. Today, I will like to share more about the second article, how do conmen get rich, which reminds me of the phrase "when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is".

In particular, the football con detailed the experience of George Tindle, a football fan who was being sent many free tips on which football team will win in the coming match. As it turned out, the scam was deceptively simple.

To start with 8,000 emails were sent out to people known to have some sort of interest in football. All possible outcomes were being sent to different recipents. For example in the first match between Team A and B, there would be 4,000 emails "predicting" Team A as the winner and the remaining 4,000 emails betting Team B. Of course, 4,000 would be "right", while the other half would delete the email and think no more about it. This is repeated for the next match. Due to the sheer size of emails in the start point, there would still be a few hundreds around 5 rounds. 250 to be exact (you could work out the math but that is not the point) and they would be immensely impressed so much so that some would be willing to hand over money to the organiser in exchange for a "good tip".

This concept reminded me of what Malcolm Gladwell shared in his article "Blowing Up". The relevant excerpt is reproduced as follows:

For Taleb, then, the question why someone was a success in the financial marketplace was vexing. Taleb could do the arithmetic in his head. Suppose that there were ten thousand investment managers out there, which is not an outlandish number, and that every year half of them, entirely by chance, made money and half of them, entirely by chance, lost money. And suppose that every year the losers were tossed out, and the game replayed with those who remained. At the end of five years, there would be three hundred and thirteen people who had made money in every one of those years, and after ten years there would be nine people who had made money every single year in a row, all out of pure luck. Niederhoffer, like Buffett and Soros, was a brilliant man. He had a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago. He had pioneered the idea that through close mathematical analysis of patterns in the market an investor could identify profitable anomalies. But who was to say that he wasn't one of those lucky nine? And who was to say that in the eleventh year Niederhoffer would be one of the unlucky ones, who suddenly lost it all, who suddenly, as they say on Wall Street, "blew up"?

I hope I have convinced you that mathematics is everywhere and we can apply it in our day-to-day life as long as we make an effort to do so. Do it, it's FUN!

Sunday, January 15, 2012


The dictionary definition of serendipity is "pure luck in discovering things you were not looking for". Scientifically, it is explained as the very short period of time whereby our brain neurons "go out of sync", most of the time however, our brain neurons are in the lock-in phase.

You may have times whereby you are stuck in a rut when you are trying very hard to solve a problem. Then you take a break, maybe have leisure walk in the park or in my case, hit out at the gym. Eureka moment strikes. That is serendipity! Hold it, is there such good luck in life?

Being a mathematician, I think one needs to be very, very lucky to have that and I will seek out the truth behind before agreeing to such statements. I found my answer yesterday while reading the book by Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come from".

What happens is the collision of existing ideas in our brain and making new connections that enable us to have the ah-ha moments. So if you have to increase the "hit-rate" of such ah-ha moments, you will have to absorb new ideas from the outside world.

As Johnson shared, reading remains as an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspective. We can block out time to read around the edges of our work schedule, listen to audio books during the morning commute hours. One problem with assimilating new ideas at the fringes of daily routine is that the potential combinations are limited by the reach of our memory. For example, if you take 2 weeks to finish a book, you may have forgotten much of it when you get to read the next book. Furthermore, if you immense in a single author's perspective, it is harder to create serendipity collision between ideas of multiple authors.

One suggestion is to read many books by different authors at the same time. I read that Bill Gates will carve out dedicated periods - in the form of annual reading vacation - where he would read a large and varied collections of books and essay, much of which are unrelated to the day-to-day operation of Microsoft.

For ordinary people like you and me, we could not afford such luxury, so my suggestion is to read many books/ magazines at one go. At the same time, train our memory. Yes, you can good memory! If you are interested to know how, you can read the following article on "Do you have good memory" by Nishant Kasibhatla. Thanks to my asociation with the Toastmasters' Club, I have the great fortune to meet and see Nishant in action. He is a Grand Master of Memory at The World Memory Championships and the CEO of Memory Vision - The Memory Training Company.

Do You have Good Memory, Nishant Kasibhatla

Can you remember any information fast? Can you recall information whenever you want?
If your answer for the above questions is "No" or "sometimes", then you need to know about the 3 stumbling blocks of memory improvement. Just the awareness of these blocks would also help you in a great way. So what are thee blocks?
1. Disbelief
Most people have an "amazing level" of disbelief on their memory capacity that they don't even try to memorise new information.
If I write a 50-digit number and ask anyone to memorize, I usually get some great answers like:
"You mean the whole 50 digit number? "I think I will never be able to do it" "Come again. Memorize what?" "It will take an year for me" etc
Well, I do not find fault with any of the above responses. But what is interesting to note is that no one wants even to try it. What causes such disbelief in people in their memory power? The simple answer is "lack of awareness".
Your brain is the most amazing machine on the planet. If you train your brain, nothing is impossible. Make sure you give your memory it's true value.
Many people brag about their memory, but don't do anything to make it good. You just can't wish to improve your memory. You need to act. You have to give your memory a good workout.
The next time you want to memorise anything, just make a committed effort to memorize it. Believe that you can do it. You will be surprised with the result.
2. Disinterest
You know that interest plays a vital role in the process of memory. If you have to memorise any information, YOU HAVE TO BE INTERESTED IN IT!
If you don't, then it will be difficult to memorize it. Trying to memorize information, without getting interested in it, is a great way to waste your precious time.
Try to find out ways and means of making the information fun to learn. Try to find an expert on that information and discuss the topic with him. The expert can explain the same information in a way you could never think of. Well, that's why he is an expert!
Remember this: If the information is not interesting enough, it's your duty to make sure it is interesting.
3. Disuse
The fastest way to forget information is to not use it in your day-to-day life. Research indicates that people forget about 80% of the new information they learn in as less as 24 hours. Unbelievable, isn't it? To stop this loss of information, you have use the information you learn as much as possible.
Some ideas are:
1. Teach the information to someone else.
2. Discuss the points with your peers.
3. Write a summary in your own words.
4. Write an article about it!
5. Think how can you teach it to any 5 years old kid.
Memory improvement is not possible unless you kick the three stumbling blocks out of your way. Eliminating these blocks early on in the process of memorizing can save you a mighty amount of time and mental energy.
Coming out of the traps of disbelief, disinterest and disuse is you first step to memory improvement. It's easy. If only you take action.Nishant Kasibhatla is a Grand Master of Memory at The World Memory Championships. He is the CEO of Memory Vision - The Memory Training Company.

Article Source:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Can I trust what I read in papers?

I am almost done with the book "How long is a piece of string" by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham. However, the final chapter is so appealing that I zoomed head in to immerse myself in the magical word of mathematics.
Though sharing of the key points put forth by the authors, I hope to have also rubbed off some zest for maths on you. So much so that you would also pick up this wonderful book and read.
Maths is Magic
The final chapter is about magic. This is the magic of the spin doctor, and his props are numbers.
Spin doctors help all sorts of people to manipulate the truth, but most often they are associated with politicians. Recall what Mark Twain has once said "There are lies, damned lies and statistics."
The aim of such spin is usually to make information sound better than it actually is. Numbers play a crucial role in this, taking advantage of the public's general discomfort with maths and their consequent reluctance to challenge the figures. It turns out, too, that numbers can be surprisingly helpful as a flexible tool in helping you to say what you want to say.
Below are some of the tricks:
1) Making something out of nothing - E.g. last year's sales was $500K and this year's sale was $515K. Public relations department could easily declare an increase in revenue by 3%, which ignores inflation. As it turns out, ignoring inflation is probably one of the most common sleights of hand used by spin doctors, and passed on to the public without challenge.
2) Double-counting, or turning one into two - The book quoted the example of so-called double-counting escapade of the Labour government where the Education Secretary, then David Blunkett, announced a whopping $19 billion increase in spening on schools. Given that the total amount spent per year at the time was $38 billion, it was an impressive increase by 50%.
However, there was more than met the eye. As it turned out, it was the way the politician interpreted the figures over 3 years from 1998 to 2001. The total amount spent in 1998 was $38 billion and was to increase to $41 billion in 1999, $44.5 billion in 2000 and $47.5 billion in 2001. So the increase in 1999 was $3 billion (or $41 billion - $38 billion). As for the increase in 2000, it was with reference to Year 1998 i.e. $6.8 billion. Likewise for 2001 which worked out to be $9.5 billion. The total increase was obtained by adding up the increases each year - a whopping $19 billion. 
Sounds gibberish? You bet it is. 
3) Making something smaller and bigger at the same time. Here is another very useful prop for performing the spin doctor's magic - percentages.
First spin doctor - Last year, the price of coffee went up by only 2%. This year it has gone up by 3% - that's an increase of only 1%, which is quite reasonable given the poor crop this year.
Second spin doctor - Not at all. If it went up by 2% last year, and 3% this year, that means it has gone up by 50%.
4) Use averages to make everyone feel better - or worse. One can also pull off a lot of tricks with averages. The whole concept of what "average" means is a slippery one, bandied about by politicians with little respect for its subtleties. Just remember, average masks differences.
5) Missing the big picture.  Another ploy of a good conjuror is to make you concentrate on a small part of what is going on so that you completely miss something else. This is about graph plotting by magnifying small differences through selective presentation of figures.
6) Blind them with science. Finally, there is the mesmersing bit of chicanery that leaves the audience saying, "Wow, I have no idea how they do that!" One way to keep out prying eyes is to send out the message, "We are so clever, it's not even worth trying to understand what we do".
A standard way of doing this is to make simple things complicated, with the implication that complicated = sophisticated. The truth is, of course, that complicated often means no more than muddled thinking.
In Conclusion
A lot of maths is extremely difficult. That's what we do in the varsity. But most of the maths needed for everyday life is not. In fact, an understanding of maths can have all sorts of benefits: it can stimulate curiosity, it can answer those questions that bug us all the time, it can improve decision-making, and it can help to settle arguments.
I think this final chapter tells us that the most important role of maths in everyday life is it can help to prevent us from being conned, defrauded, misled and otherwise ripped off. There is nothing that spin doctors would like more than a generally innumerate society, so that can be fed exactly the numbers they want to feed us.
With maths, it is possible to fight back.