Fiio X5 vs Cowon J3 Review

For anybody out there who knows anything about science, you’ll know that all good superheroes have a realistic and scientifically-plausible origin story.

Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, Rubber-Man was exposed to radiation and Batman inherited wealth.

And although it’s typically inadvisable to use the term ‘hero’ when describing oneself, to use any other term would be disingenuous.

You see, I once said hi to a homeless man. So in this spirit I’m going to give selflessly for the benefit of others by providing my first impressions of Fiio’s new music player the ‘X5′ with specific reference to how it compares to my previous player, the Cowon J3.

Of course before I do this, I need to make it clear I’m not an audio geek. In fact, it blew my mind when I started listening to music in full stereo for the first time, as my first audio system only had one working speaker.

And this is where my story starts, with what I’d like to say was three months of unadulterated disappointment with my purchase of an ipod Classic, to replace my Zen Vision M, in the Winter of 2010.

It was terrible.

In terms of sound it was like moving from a good wine to a bad cocktail. From the perspective of my music collection, it must have felt something like living under an authoritarian regime, given the overbearing incompetence of iTunes.

Which is where I started my longest-running love affair yet, with Cowon’s J3:

Image Source

So for those of you who don’t know, Cowon is a little known Korean company that makes products in the audio and portable media space. At the time of purchasing the J3, I had no idea who the hell Cowon was, but when I searched for mp3 player reviews the J3 kept being recommended for its sound quality, battery life and its ability to play pretty much any music or video format thrown at it.

It also trumped the iPod for me in four important ways:

  1. It’s small;
  2. Its memory is upgradable (via a Micro-Sd card slot);
  3. The memory is solid-state, which essentially means it lacks moving parts making it ideal for jogging;
  4. It didn’t have anything to do with itunes

For all these reasons and more, buying my J3 was undeniably a success. It sounded great, looked great and allowed me to promptly uninstall itunes from my computer.

Unfortunately, like my success streak of stealing lunches from the break-room fridge, all good things must come to an end. For my J3 this has meant an unceremonious decline, complete with memory loss, random outbursts and it occasionally wetting itself.

Moving on…

Now they say they’re plenty more fish in the sea. Unfortunately, in the case of my old MP3 player I didn’t really believe this was to be true. How was some other player ever going to be able to fill the J3-shaped void in my heart?

And so doing what every desperate loner does, I went online to look for a rebound player. Eventually I came to find my new player’s critically acclaimed predecessor the X3, before forking out a heart-stopping $419 for its sister, the X5:


 

Again I’d like to make it abundantly clear that I’m not an audio geek. I’m just a person who thinks they can tell the difference between a poor sounding audio player and a good one.

For reference, I’ve been listening to the device for about a month using a range of headphones, including the Audio Technica–ATH-M50, Creative Aurvana Air, Bose QC20 and Sennheiser PXCC300. I tend to rip my music using Exact Audio Copy, using Lame’s ‘preset insane’ parameter (320kbps), while wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

Overall Design

When I first saw this player, I couldn’t help but feel like it was a result of an iPod Classic awkwardly attempting to look slick as part of a mid-life crisis. Consequently, you’re not going to hear me rave about the look of the player (I don’t like the design of the iPod Classic either for reference).

 

 

 

 

 

Still, both compared to an iPod Classic and a J3 it’s a well-made device. Being made with a single piece of aluminium, it feels like a quality piece of equipment. At the same time, it’s also rather heavy, being more than double the weight of the J3. Obviously this isn’t going to result in back pain, but unlike the J3 it’s not ideal for the gym/jogging or skydiving. Still, it feels like a much more solid device than the J3.

The device includes a volume rocker, off switch and five tactile buttons surrounding the navigation wheel. In terms of audio outputs, it has three including a headphone jack, 3.5mm audio output (for plugging into external speakers) and a coaxial output.

It also comes with two microsd cards slots, meaning its potential storage capacity will only increase as microsd cards increase in size. The downside is that because the device comes with no internal storage you’ll need to fork out additional cash if you don’t have a microsd card skulking around in the bottom of a drawer.

User Interface

So if you’ve done any research on this device at all you’ll know that the first thing that people have an issue with is the user interface (UI) and truth be told it is pretty terrible.

Personally, I prefer control over my device to being mollycoddled through the process of selecting my music. Unfortunately, I’d also like to make sure I’m spending as little time finding the music as possible, yet the way they’ve structured the UI doesn’t help me do this.

For example, as far as I can tell the only way to move down your list of albums is by turning the scroll wheel or pressing the ‘skip track’ buttons (the two buttons below the scroll wheel that can be seen in the photo above).

What this means is that albums, genres or track names which are in the middle of the alphabet are exceedingly difficult to get to, resulting in me listening to albums at the start or end of the alphabet more than the middle. Ie, there is a skew towards me listening to Abbey Road or Wish You Were Here more than Morrison Hotel.

In fact I timed myself and found that it takes at least 20 seconds of furiously turning of the scroll wheel to get half way through my music collection.

Now, whilst this might not sound like a big deal this means that there is no way to skip right to the letter in the alphabet where your album resides. For me this is a big downer as generally I’ll have a specific track/album/artist I’m interested in listening to then I’ll seek it out. For this to take 20 seconds each time is just a little annoying.

In fact, while I’m at it, what ever happened to having a ‘play random album’ or ‘play random track’ option? How can we put a man on the moon, and not continue to include this function on new devices?

But anyway, scrolling through albums by their album art is also not possible with the X5, something I really liked about Cowon’s J3. Again this is disappointing as sometimes it’s a nicer way of browsing through albums.

The UI also has a number of weird limitations when compared to the J3. For instance, when browsing by genre it will bring up a list of all tracks, not giving you the option to view albums in the genre. The ‘play by category’ option is also limited to Album, Artist and Genre, meaning there is no option to browse according to a track’s year of release, bitrate or whether it’s tagged as a podcast.

In fact, even when you do manage to find the song (or droid) you’re looking for, you’ll be presented with a list of tracks by filename rather than the name of the song in the id3 tag. Although this might seem like a minor annoyance, it’s almost as if the Fiio team were like ‘nah, it’s cool, no one will notice’.

There are also still kinks to be worked out, even with the latest version of the firmware I’ve had issues with it slowing down and sometimes skipping the first couple of seconds of an album.

But before you start thinking that I’ve got a lot of hate for the Fiio X5′s UI, let me say that generally it does a lot of things okay. For instance, although I don’t tend to use the equalizer if I did I can’t see myself complaining. Its home screen is also intuitive enough to make navigating through the options okay.

Still, how they managed to come up with a UI so mediocre, given it’s (in their words) “forged from years of experience and feedback” is a mystery to me. Surely the designers have used other products before? Or even operated an Mp3 player?

But I digress. It’s adequate. Wait to go Fiio.

Sound

So I made it clear earlier that I’m not an audiophile. I just know the difference between crap and gold. Fortunately the X5 is, as you’d hope is gold.

You see, X5 is a high-resolution player which essentially means it can play audio files which are 24bit, a full 8 bits higher than a typical CD:

“The easiest way to envision this is as a series of levels, that audio energy can be sliced at any given moment in time.  With 16 bit audio, there are 65,536 possible levels.  With every bit of greater resolution, the number of levels doubles.  By the time we get to 24 bit, we actually have 16,777,216 levels.”

~ Tested.com

Whether this can actually be perceived by the average user (like myself) is another matter, and of course unless you’re ripping Mp3s from a high-definition source you won’t be hearing those extra 8 bits. Still, with the not-so-imminent release of Neil Young’s Pono it’s nice to know I won’t be left behind with superfluous features.

It’s also supposably got a top of the line audio chip and can function as an external DAC allowing you to output sound from your computer via the X5. Now although this is cool, personally it isn’t likely to be very useful for my Mash marathons. Still, I can see this being appreciated by others.

The X5 supports a full array of audio formats beyond the boring Mp3, including APE, FLAC, ALAC, WMA, WAV and DSD.

But anyway back to the important stuff: the player sounds amazing, and I mean out-of-body experience amazing.

In fact I have a text message describing the listening experience as like being “in a bubble of awesome” which is perhaps as technical as I’m going to get with describing the sound, except when I compare it to the J3, it sounds to me like the separation between the instruments is better.

Practically this means that as good as the J3 sounds, I still feel as if I’m hearing some of my music in a new light. This doesn’t mean that the player is objectively better quality of course, but it does suggest that I prefer the way it translates my mp3s to sound.

Now, I am happy to admit how unscientific this review is, after all I have a clear psychological incentive not to admit that I spent all this money for nothing. But still, I love the way the X5 sounds.

Now to another point that needs to be mentioned as part of this review, unlike the J3, audio is all the X5 does. No video and no funny pictures of cats.

Obviously this is going to result in some hate being directed my way as people talk about how they’d prefer one device that does one thing well, than one that does everything mediocre. But if I had to be honest it’d be that the J3 did a lot of things well, both in the realm of audio and video.

Unfortunately, the X5 just does audio, which I find a bit disappointing. Of course, I knew this before I bought the X5, but it’s a feature of the J3 I’m going to miss and it does feel like I’m getting fewer bangs for my buck.

Battery

Both the X5 and J3 have “non-serviceable” internal batteries, the J3 being charged using a proprietary USB cable and the X5 using a standard micro-usb port.

Firstly, as somebody who hates encouraging the proliferation of unnecessary landfill, I give Fiio props for using a non-proprietary cable as it means I can recycle an old charging cable.

In terms of battery life, I tend to get around 1 to 1.5 days of listening from the X5, compared to 3-4 days of listening out of the J3. So as much as I love Fiio ditching the proprietary cable, the X5 can’t compete with the J3′s battery life.

Overall

Fiio’s X5 is a high-end digital music player/DAC squarely targeting people willing to pay a premium amount for a premium device.

Unfortunately, for me personally, it’s not a J3 killer, given its clunky UI, mediocre battery life, lack of ability to play video and high price:

  • Overall Design (X5=J3)
  • User Interface (J3>X5)
  • Sound (X5>J3)
  • Battery (J3>X5)
  • Price (J3>X5)

But it has to be said that the Fiio X5 is not trying to be a J3 killer, making this an unreasonable comparison. It’s also worth noting that many of my complaints with the device have to do with the user interface, meaning there is a real possibility that my whining will become obsolete as the firmware is improved. In fact, this is in a real way a motivation for me writing this review.

And whilst part of me would love to see the device play videos in the future, with the widespread proliferation of smartphones and tablets this isn’t necessary, as honestly if I want to watch an episode of my favourite show I will probably do so on my phone.

So do I think it’s a worthy upgrade to the J3?

No. I don’t.

But the X5 shouldn’t be seen as an upgrade to the J3.

In my mind the J3 is a device which included a lot of features when it was released which are now available to the average user through their smart phones and tablets.

The X5, on the other hand, tries to one thing and largely succeeds. If it wasn’t for the user interface being almost as awkward as my teenage years, the X5 would be a clear winner.

 


Posted in Technology | 2 Comments

Toastmaster’s Speech 10 ‘Inspire Your Audience’

Here for everyone’s amusement is my final speech as part of the initial Toastmaster’s competency:

This was my speech for the ‘Inspire Your Audience’ project (Project 10) as part of the Toastmaster’s communication manual. It was delivered at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management.

For those of you who are interested in getting better at public speaking, I highly recommend Toastmasters as a means to do this.

I have much more to learn, but am so glad I decided to give it a go.

Postscript:

I’ve noticed this page has got a lot of traffic from people looking for information on Speech 10. For those of you about to give this speech I’d make a couple of points about my speech which will (hopefully) help you do yours.

Firstly, a good inspirational speech should use ‘we’ more than ‘I’. In this speech I was attempting to use myself as an example in a self-deprecating way, (hence the graphs, the ego comment, economist joke etc). However, I don’t think I did this effectively as I could have and it likely alienated some of the audience. I’d therefore suggest that using yourself as an example needs to be done carefully (in fact, I generally avoid it now).

Secondly, the main point of the speech was to demonstrate why using the theory of opportunity cost was appropriate when judging our impact in the world, which could have been emphasized more.

In fact this speech was originally titled ‘the science of making a difference’ until I changed it to ‘Doing well and doing good’ to try and appeal to the students in the audience (as this phrase is used to market the MBA many in the audience were doing).

Finally, I didn’t end with a call to arms. That is, even if I succeeded in inspiring somebody in the audience I didn’t tell them what they should do. In retrospect I could have used the conclusion to do this, maybe by reiterating the core argument of the speech that ‘opportunity cost’ is the right framework for judging our impact.

Posted in Economics, Opinion, Ramblings, Speeches | Leave a comment

DevQuest.org – Insider advice from development newstarters

Hey all,

A group of friends and I have started a new website to help people looking to transition into an  international development career.

It’s predominantly targeted at Interns, graduates and Young Professionals in recognition that there is limited information out there which focuses on this and getting your foot in the door is often the hardest part.

For those of you who are interested, you can follow the link below:

http://www.DevQuest.org

Posted in Ramblings | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cambodia

So I have to admit, if you had asked me which country was next on my hit list, I probably wouldn’t have said Cambodia.

You see, as an Australian I have the wonderful privilege of being located next to a huge number of countries which I’d describe as being very ‘Me’ in that they’re warm, diverse and easy to visit. But I also happen to work in an industry where my business is looking at all things international, so the choice of Cambodia was not my own.

Spiders and Dolphins

Of course as is true of all good expeditions it’s probably best that I start somewhere near the beginning, which is with Tarantulas. See, although I knew bits and pieces about Cambodia, I had next to no knowledge about Kratie, the province where I was to be staying. But with the help of Google I discovered:

So armed with this extensive knowledge, I proceeded to focus on the most important point: Would I be willing to eat a tarantula?

Phnom Penh

Of course I was soon to find out how little my research had prepared me for the reality of Phnom Penh. You see far from being full of spiders, it was actually inhabited almost entirely by people.

 Perplexed by this I hit the books (and travel guides) again and here’s what I found out:

  • Phnom Penh is the largest city in Cambodia,
  • It has a population of around 2 million, which is around 10 per cent of Cambodia’s total population
  • As a consequence of its French colonial roots and wartime history, it is as an eclectic mix of French architecture and Buddhism
  • I prefer starting my day with Phnom Penh noodle soup than Weet Bix
  • There is a lot of dust

In fact, with all the dust and activity I couldn’t help but feel that I was located in the centre of a Cowboy Bebop esque cacophony of culture, dust and disorder.

Then there’s the pagodas, which is a term (technically) used to describe the ‘tiered’ style of architecture typical in East Asia, but colloquially used for the Buddhist temples scattering the countryside. And when I say scattering, I mean scattered like ducks on a pond.

You see, way before hipsters spent their time coming up with ‘Facebook’ for the ‘Facebook generation’ on Kickstarter, Cambodian communities were crowdsourcing with the best of them. In fact, many of the Pagodas in Cambodia are not financed by the church, but from Cambodian expatriates.

What this meant was that even when I had travelled to areas of Cambodia which were scarcely occupied (or occupiable given it was the dry season) a monumental pagoda wouldn’t be far off (pun intended).

Phnom Penh’s Silver Pagoda

Woah right? Well, woah is right.

Unfortunately, thanks to my unapologetically crappy Olympus camera there are other pictures, but few which capture the magnificence of these buildings. But fortunately for you, Google has succeeded where my camera failed by providing you with an abundance of stock photos to choose from. Add this to Wikipedia providing me with all the information I need to fake my travel story and you’ve got a winning combination.

A very impressive mural on the surrounding walls near the Silver Pagoda

So here’s the deal, probably the most well-known Pagoda is the ‘Silver Pagoda’, a name which couldn’t be more appropriate given its floor is made of five tonnes or five thousand solid-silver tiles. It is also the home of some of the countries most treasured artifacts including a life-sized gold Buddha and a building donated by Napoleon (which is now occupied by monkeys).

Monument honouring the late King Norodom Sihanouk.

But of course for me to claim this as the end of my day looking at curios, artefacts and monuments would be widely inaccurate because after having toured the palace I spent the best part of my first day in Phnom Penh randomly wandering around the city.

Independence Monument

And this random wandering was how I found the monuments above and a myriad of other statues scattered nearby my hotel. You see, Cambodia has quite a history, being a colony of France from 1863 to 1958, having experienced around a decade of growth (squarely centered in the capital itself) and having barely emerged from a regime that wiped out or around 25% of Cambodia’s population.

So when it comes to effective strategies for tourism you’ll likely find getting lost a surprisingly successful strategy (provided you leave a trail of breadcrumbs).


The elusive museum rooster.

Getting Serious

Of course as inspiring as visiting the National Museum, Royal Palace and Wat Phnom were, I did have to set aside a day to desperately try to understand how it was possible for something as brutal as the Cambodian genocide to occur.

Now although admittedly there aren’t many tourist destinations you want to leave with tears in your eyes, Cambodia’s most well-known memorial to the genocide, the Choeung Ek Killing Field is undeniably powerful and a site which is a macabre must for all visitors to Cambodia.

Given the seriousness of the destination I’d suggest the following:

  • Think twice about taking your children – this is an extremely confronting experience which might not be appropriate for some kids. I certainly wouldn’t have had the maturity to provide it with the respect it deserves when I was a kid. But then I was a hoodlum.
  • If you plan to visit the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, be aware that it is also confronting, so you might want to rest in between so you can appreciate it. It is also not as well-funded, so I would suggest reading up on it before you arrive to get the most out of your visit.
  • I’d try and set aside around 2 hours at the fields themselves – working your way through the audio tour and museum takes time, and is undeniably worthwhile.
  • Don’t plan anything much for afterwards as you might need time to recover.
  • If you fire an AK47, don’t do it on the day you visit the fields.

Finally, before you leave Cambodia I recommend you read ‘First they Killed My Father‘ by Loung Ung. If you do what I did and read this on the plane, bring enough tissues to have people around you think you’re going to craft your own pillow. You’ll need them.

Kratie

Of course, I wasn’t being sent to Cambodia for the purposes of testing out firearms or taking photos of the roosters loitering around museums. I was there to work, which is where the province of Kratie comes in. So to give you an essential flavour of the area, Kratie (pronounced ‘Krashee’) is a province north-east of Phnom Penh:

Kratie is not actually red.

Source

But beyond the fascinating story of Kratie’s position relative to Phnom Penh is the fact that the Kratie province is essentially the bread in a Mekong sandwich, providing an excellent source of water for irrigation or Huckleberry Finn style adventures. Now as a result of this, people are furiously using the Mekong in every way they can as it slithers its way through Cambodia.

What this means is that not only are villages scattered across its shores, but so are rice paddies and the (very) occasional Irrawaddy dolphin. Also when I say ‘shores’ I mean it, you see in Australia we have the tendency to call any trickle of water a river, even when it’s just a result of somebody accidentally leaving their hose on. But the Mekong River, unlike the leaky tap in your backyard, is of epic proportions.

The view of the Mekong across from my guesthouse.


The view of the pagoda on the other side of my guesthouse.

But of course the purpose of my trip was not just to make relative comparisons of flowing water (as undoubtedly useful as this is), but to assist with the monitoring and evaluation of a number of local development projects. So each of my days went something like this:

Potentially the most attractive road I’ve ever seen.

And as simple as this daily routine might sound, it was actually nothing short of exhausting. Particularly given that travelling to and from a site took anywhere from 2 to 4 hours. In any case, at the end of the day the bamboo mat I slept on was nothing short of luxury. It was also another great opportunity to see first-hand both how participatory development projects can function on the ground and just how entrepreneurial NGOs can be.

Siem Reap

But like all things, my time in Kratie was only temporary and with limited time to myself I did what any sane person in Cambodia would do and headed for the temples.

Food white people like to take photos of.

Of course whilst I will openly admit to being much less adventurous in Siem Reap than the rest of Cambodia, I can reveal to you at this point that I did in fact have what it took to eat a tarantula. Although it was more to the amusement of the expatrates than the locals, the closest thing I can compare it to is hairy cheese.


Dr Fish.

I also got to experience the wonders of being (slowly) eaten alive by fish. Now, although I had first tried a ‘fish massage’ when I was in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap brought something a little different to the table.

You see, the fish in Siem Reap probably as a result of subsisting on a diet of overweight westerners, are themselves ahhh… big. So instead of being lightly nibbled, you are mercilessly devoured. In fact when you put your feet in the tank they hand you a pointy stick for defence and a beer for anaesthetic.

Ankor What?

Look, I am fully aware that joke has been used countless times before. But there is a reason some jokes rise to the ranks of ‘dad jokes‘ and others don’t.

Some are timelessly awesome.

In any case, like everyone else, I was in in Siem Reap to see temples in the butt-load (the standard measure of temple quantities).

Angkor Wat

Silly tree, get out of here!


Phnom Bakheng

Statues watching their back at Bayon Temple

Now, for anyone who has been to Siem Reap you’ll know that the streets are littered with tour guide operators offering standard temple packages, making it pretty easy to plan your trip once you arrive. Unfortunately this can make it rather difficult to determine the standard of your tour guide before booking.

Luckily for me I went with my gut and decided to avoid the first tour guide I spoke to, mainly as a result of them having an electrified booth. No really, I stood there watching as the poor guy manning the booth tried not to touch anything as his friend (while laughing heartily) ran to turn off the power at its source.

Needless to say, I didn’t go with this guy, but for those of you looking to do a tour I would highly recommend taking the luck out of it and researching and booking your tour ahead of time so you don’t miss out on snagging one of the legendary tour guide operators.

I said the motorcycle tour was manly right?

I would also suggest mixing up how you do your tours, as I have to say after the first day I was keen to go somewhere where I might have a bit more solitude. So here’s my second suggestion, consider taking a quad-bike or motorbike tour of the area outside of Siem Reap. I personally found this to be the most satisfying part of my time there as not only does it allow you to escape the crowds, but provides a great opportunity to get a more authentic view of some of the countryside.

Think of all the manly things I can keep in that basket.

Photo credit to Nelson

Unfortunately, the motorbike tour was also the last thing I did before leaving, resulting in me being left with an undeniable sense of sadness on my last day. Despite this, I have to say Cambodia rates very highly on the my list of places I’ve visited.

So much so, I am intending on returning and unlike Indiana Jones, when I do it will be awesome.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Knitters wanted for penguin pullovers

I’ve never been so motivated to learn to knit in my life:

Knitters wanted for penguin pullovers

The Penguin Foundation has a global callout for knitters to make pullovers for penguins in rehab.

Penguins caught in oil spills need the little jumpers to keep warm and to stop them from trying to clean the toxic oil off with their beaks…

Read the full article here. 

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New Journal Article: Estimating the Global Costs of Violence

For those interested, I have just had another one of my pieces of research published.

Those with access to ingentaconnect can access it by clicking here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Problem Solving through ‘Bright Spots’

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a leadership conference about applying a ‘Bright Spots’ approach to tackling problems and have received a number of requests for further information around the idea.

At the outset, I should make it clear to everyone that I unfortunately did not come up with this idea. Rather, the approach was popularized by Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Switch’.

Solving Pumpkin-Related Problems

In the book, Dan and Chip Heath describe a seemingly counterintuitive way of looking at problems which is centred on replicating success, rather than solving problems.

Take my hobby of growing pumpkins.

There I am, trying my best to grow a prize pumpkin so as to decimate my neighbour Jim in the annual harvest festival.

But lo and behold after 3 months, six out of the ten pumpkins have barely grown at all and another two appear to have ceased to live.

But I’m determined. After all Jim couldn’t be more deserving of a trouncing at the pumpkin festival.

So I begin to try and figure out the problem, checking the acidity of the soil, ensuring my automated watering system is working, my gate is locked to keep Jim out and ensuring there is sufficient horse manure to keep my infant pumpkins thriving past their awkward teenage years.

But here’s the problem, as I’m spending time chastising my dog for the teeth marks on the watering system, which Jim assured were not his, I’m diverting all my attention into solving pumpkin-related problems, rather than trying to replicate pumpkin-related success.

Put simply, I’m ignoring those two pumpkins which appear to be thriving.

And in a nutshell this is the idea behind the ‘Bright Spots’ approach: don’t solve problems, copy success.

Bright Spots and Fighting Child Malnutrition

It is also a helpful reminder in the world of international development where we can become obsessed with the process of solving problems, when the solutions might have already presented themselves through past success.

In fact, this was one of the very examples cited in their book. Specifically, in 1990, Jerry Sternin arrived in Vietnam with the ‘Save the Children Fund’ with a brief to ‘fix child malnutrition in 6 months’.

Now Jerry, knowing very little about Vietnam, knew a lot about the causes of malnutrition; poor sanitation, poverty and a lack of clean water.

But how does a person make a dent on these problems in 6 months?

Taking the context as given, he started looking for ‘Bright Spots’.

He did this by touring village after village and looking for children who were less malnourished than their peers, despite facing the same context of poverty and poor sanitation.

From this he then started to build a picture of what the mothers of these children were doing differently.

What he found was striking. You see, the accepted wisdom was in order for children to avoid malnutrition their parents should feed them soft foods with clean rice two times a day.

Yet the mothers of the ‘Bright Spot’ children were doing something quite different.

Firstly, instead of feeding their children two times a day, they were feeding the same amount of food over four smaller meals, allowing more nutritional value to be taken from the same amount of food.

Secondly, they were supplementing the meals with locally available food (such as crabs and shrimp which lived in the rice paddies), which provided an additional source of protein and nutrients.

Armed with this knowledge, he started to implement cooking classes run by the ‘Bright Spot’ mothers to cement the knowledge.

The results?

Six months after Sternin had come to the Vietnamese village, 65% of the kids were better nourished and stayed that way.

Later researchers who gathered independent data found that even children who hadn’t been born when Sternin left were as healthy as the kids he’d reached directly.

The program was expanded and today has reaches 2.2 million Vietnamese people in 265 villages (Source).

Explaining the Outliers

But the significance of this approach extends far beyond pumpkins and shrimp.

In fact in the world of economics this idea couldn’t be more relevant, as we are often looking for general relationships. Take the relationship between how happy somebody says they are and wealth provided in the figure below:

Life satisfaction tends to increase with GDP per capita

Source

Now for the many of you who have made it your life’s work to avoid the painful process of interpreting graphs, the key idea to get out of this is that as a general rule individuals in more wealthy countries have greater levels of life satisfaction.

Genius right?

But we can clearly see that this isn’t true for all countries. For instance, Argentina’s average income is as high as New Zealand’s, but they’re not very satisfied.

On the other hand, China is much poorer than France, but has higher levels of satisfaction.

In the world of statistics we might call China and New Zealand ‘outliers’, as they’re countries which seem to be bucking the trend.

Now although this is not very surprising, given that we all know that money doesn’t buy happiness (although it helps), it does provide a great example of how we might look to use the approach, even in the (sometimes) boring world of economics.

Instead of trying to get more happiness through raising incomes, why not examine what makes people in New Zealand and China more satisfied to see if we can replicate it?

Want to develop professionally?

Perhaps build on your strengths, rather than focusing on the identified weaknesses.

 

Making a new year’s resolution?

Focus on those you’ve managed to keep and nurture success.

 

Growing pumpkins?

Steal your neighbours pumpkin seeds, rather than sabotaging their watering system.

 

“Don’t solve problems, replicate success.”

If you would like to read more about this idea, you can pick their book up here.

Posted in Economics, Opinion, Speeches | 2 Comments

Swatting at Magpies

At the outset, I’d like to wish everybody subscribed to my blog a happy new year. I personally am not overly superstitious, but it appears to me that ending a year with ’13′ in it can only be a good thing.

So to celebrate, I am going to post a slightly edited version of the first speech I gave to Toastmasters.Obviously I’ve used a bit of poetic license when giving this one, but they’re both based on true events.

 

Good evening.

Tonight I’d like to make my introductions to the audience. You see in addition to this being my entry into the humorous speech contest, it is also my first as a member of toastmasters.

My name, is Giles.

Giles Dickenson-Jones to be precise.

And with a name like ‘Giles’ you might think that I know which piece of cutlery to use first during my dinners with the highest echelons of society.You may imagine that I spend my nights smoking a cigar in a leather arm chair, in a brandy-fuelled daze.

You might even imagine that my weekends are packed to the brim with polo, murder mysteries and wine tastings.

However, tonight I’d like to start my time at Toastmasters by making my introduction in a way which illustrates exactly who this new face called ‘Giles’ is.

You see, Giles is the guy who brings cider and wedges to a formal meeting of toastmasters.

What I mean by this is that no matter how hard I might try to be the Giles that you expect.

The awkwardness of the Giles that I am will always prevail.

 

Now, although as an economist you might assume that I can skate past this claim without a shred of evidence, let me introduce you to exhibit A:

October 1990

Stuarts Point Public School, New South Wales.

Me, a small, not particularly popular child with hair bleached white from the sun.

It’s recess, and although young, I was wise for my age, having already discovered the unmistakable sting of the bull ant, speed of the goanna and roar of the koala.

But until that fateful recess in October, I had not known the peck of the magpie.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, being more than an hour from Sydney means that I can claim an affinity with Animals, not unlike crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin.

However, even I had not been prepared for the aerial terror of the native Australian magpie.

Nor was I able to hide my fear after my first encounter.

Week after week.

Day after day

Recess after recess

The Magpie sought out my bright white hair, like the target that it was.

So I hatched a plan.

But this wasn’t any plan, it was the playground equivalent of the great escape.

And It required, guts, determination and access to the sport shed.

 

In the words of Sun Tsu:

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.

Whether he was talking about magpies is still subject to debate and may never be fully known.

But as a child seeking to become a man, I knew this was the key to victory.

For myself I knew my greatest weakness was my hair.

In fact it was my Achilles heel.

But what was the magpies?

Well, under cover of darkness with access to a library I found out….

 

Anything solid you could swing above your head.

 

And so there I was, in the middle of the playground, wearing a comically oversized hockey mask, wildly swinging a metal baseball bat over my head, while the bemused teachers and students looked on.

I can assure you since that day, magpies and I have had an unspoken understanding.

They don’t bother me and I don’t swing inanimate objects at them.

 

Exhibit B:

I’ve never been the sporty type.

I know what you’re thinking, ‘oh come on Giles, nobody is that good looking by accident’.

But hear me out.

 

God may have had a plan for my exceptional good looks, but it’s no fault of my own.

You see, throughout my school life, my least popular pastime was always sport.

Although I’m not sure where exactly this came from, it may very well have been from one of my first swimming carnivals.

 

Now let me set the scene.

There I was, a suitably awkward child of 10, dressed in my standard issue speedo.

As was typical at the Macksville public pool during that time of year, the sun was blaring almost as intensely as the hundreds of children crowding the grandstand.

 

Fortunately for me, underneath the grandstand there was respite.

So there I was.

Hiding under the stand with my friend, strategically avoiding as much physical activity as possible.

 

That is, unless it involved trying to escape outside from teachers by squeezing ourselves under the back wall.

Unfortunately, apparently I had a head which was sufficiently larger than my friends.

Large enough, to thwart my escape.

 

So there I was, ten years old with my head stuck between a slab of cement and a corrugated iron wall.

Hundreds of kids screaming, just loud enough to swamp my whimpers as I attempted to absolve myself of the corrugated iron and concrete prison through force.

But, it was to no avail.

 

The only choice that remained was to do the unthinkable and bring our Narnia to an end.

So my friend fetched the teacher.

 

Unfortunately, the adult world’s solution was no more sophisticated than the human equivalent of WD40.

What I mean by this, is that to add insult to injury, the teacher proceeded to pour inexpensive moisturizer on my head in an attempt to ‘slide’ me from the concrete’s clutches.

 

So there I was, lying in the hot sun, with hundreds of my schoolmates watching me.

My face covered in moisturizer and my eyes filled with tears.

 

But at this point, I would like to make something clear to you.

This story real…

In fact it’s so real, that all the time this was happening somebody was filming it.

 

That’s right.

In a time when portable cameras were far from common.

Somebody had the foresight to bring one.

And thank God for that. Otherwise they would have missed what was next:

 

A fire-crew and the Jaws of Life.

So there I was, lying on my side, dressed in my speedos, head covered in moisturizer with tears in my eyes, a jaws of life, a fire crew, hundreds of my friends watching and somebody was recording it.

 

This, my friends was the thing of nightmares and perhaps why sports has never been my thing.

But this is very much the guy who brings wedges to a toastmasters meeting.

And this is who I am.

Try as I might to be the Giles you might expect, the real Giles is still swatting at magpies in the playground.

Thank you.

Posted in Ramblings, Speeches | 1 Comment

The Right Side of History

Once again, I’ve been slack on the blog posts. But, I’ve got a new speech below which I delivered at the final Toastmasters meeting for 2013.

Good evening,

Tonight I’d like to challenge us all to change the way we view the world by asking which side of history we will find ourselves on.

You see, as Nelson Mandela passed away and the world was inundated with condolences for the once terrorist and now freedom fighter, I felt troubled by the life he led and what it might say about the times we live in.

You see, one of the things which I have enjoyed learning about is how little our fears, joys and hopes have changed after 12,000 years of scientific and technological progress.

And this is what worries me so much, you see as a species we have changed very little, and are prone to making mistakes.

And although mistakes are forgivable, it is when we start to make them consistently without recognizing them we should begin to worry.

To make this point, I’d like to you all to think of a story of greed, speculation and economic devastation.

I am of course talking of 1593.

When tulips were introduced from Turkey to the Netherlands they became so popular that demand for them outstripped supply.

With prices for tulip bulbs continually rising, many people in the Netherlands sought to profit by buying low and selling high.

This frenzy continued until one bulb was worth more than an average lifetime income.

As people realized the tulips were overpriced, the market crashed, destroying the livelihoods of a nation.

Yet this is just one instance of the irrational exuberance of crowds, with there being many others including the South Sea Bubble, the Mississippi company scheme, black Tuesday and the global financial crisis.

So not only do we as a society make mistakes, but we make them consistently and in such a fashion that they appear retrospectively ridiculous.

But this is not a speech about market stability.

It’s about the fact that the you and I of yesterday, often did not recognize that we were on the wrong side of history.

In fact in South Africa, as recently as 1948, the then elected Nationalist Party declared:

“Our motto is to maintain white supremacy for all time to come…by force if necessary.”

For Nelson Mandela, the common complacency of people not unlike us, but caught in a different time, meant that until 1994 blacks in South Africa couldn’t vote.

Of course, you are all unlikely to be surprised by this, being students of history yourself.

But what to me is surprising, is for how long what we would now consider a blatant injustice, persisted.

You see, I believe humanity to be inherently good, suggesting that many of those complicit in these injustices either did not know, or didn’t care.

Which means that today it is entirely plausible that I am complicit in some modern moral equivalent of apartheid, without even being aware.

You see as a species we are not only able to change our physical environment, but our intellectual environment by changing the way we interpret our world.

So much so, that we can create a reality which justifies injustices.

The crusades were justified by Christianity, colonialism through ‘civilizing the uncivilized’ and the plight of the worlds poor by corruption.

But we all know that the true reasons and underlying machinations are more complex.

Yet unless we are careful these superficial justifications can become enough to allow us to live with these tragedies in full view.

And it is this fact I would like you to consider.

Because as much as we might think we are somehow different from our parents and theirs, I believe to consider ourselves as being morally superior to our ancestors is a dangerous hubris which risks complacency.

You see, it is not our intentions which have changed but our definitions of virtue.

But what we define to be good is also inherently fragile, and strongly defined by when we live.

So for us to be on the right side of history we must look beyond the now.

As was noted by the Economist in their eulogy of Nelson Mandela, what made him such a giant was not his influence or  his passion, but his willingness to listen and change his mind.

And it is this which I would like you to consider when you make your new years resolution for 2014.

Because as simple as this might sound, being able to objectively recognize and escape our prejudices, is what might stop us from making the same mistakes our ancestors made.

You see my friends, history may very well be written by the winners.

But the everyday is written by us.

Thank you.

Posted in Opinion, Ramblings, Speeches | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco

I’ve often been asked by friends ‘Giles, how can you have a phobia of hipsters but be so fond of San Francisco’?

Well that’s a good question. Such a good question as a matter of fact, that I’m going deal with it in the only responsible way: by all together ignoring it. You see, hipsters are people too and the only bartenders who don’t look at me funny when I ask for a cocktail involving pickle brine.

As a result, they’re okay by me. Kind of like bears, they’re probably as afraid of me as I am of them.

Now although I’m not one to claim myself as a scholar of American history, I do know that San Francisco holds a special place in its books, being a metropolitan hub during the California Gold Rush, a stage for large scale immigration, a nexus of the gay rights movement and a focal point for an unfolding wave of liberalism.

But before I discourage my readers by packing paragraphs with more parables than puns, let me assure you, like all my blog posts, this will be targeted towards a readership with a low attention span (just like its author). So much so, that I fully intend to include a whole array of random photos in completely inappropriate places. Like here:

Rectangle frames are too mainstream for San Francisco.

Fortunately, that photo serves as more than just eye candy, it provides a (not so) clever segway to my opening point: San Francisco is cool. So cool in fact, that no matter where I went, I always felt like something was going on that I wasn’t invited to.

Unfortunately for San Francisco, unlike at my neighbour’s parties, there was no fence to keep me out.

Any place which is willing to risk its financial viability for the sake of humour is okay by me.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Now, as my well-travelled and no doubt learned readers know, San Francisco is home of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is kind of like San Francisco’s equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, as it was the first sight for immigrants entering the United States through the bay.

Wikipedia is a better photographer than me…

China Town

Unsurprisingly, San Francisco’s history of immigration played an important role in shaping the area. In fact, as of 2010 San Francisco had the highest share of Chinese-born immigrants in the US, which is perhaps why it is also home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.

Now for anyone who has seen my previous travel blogs you’ll realize that I have a thing for immersing myself in markets and whatever other obscure attractions I can find. As a result, I spent a lot of time in Chinatown.


In fact, after spending around 4 hrs walking around in this one, I can assure you it’s impressively large. In fact, in the world of eating random street food and buying solar power waving cats, I’m king.

But SF’s CT almost had me beat, with a seemingly endless supply of toys, balms and disconcertingly food, which I find fascinating. You see generally for there to be a product, there has to be a buyer and understanding who they are and what they might be buying it for interests the hell out of me.

Of course, I already know who purchases fish ice cream, because it’s me. But who is purchasing solar powered plants?

And then there is the random assortment of graffiti:

Wait to ruin a perfectly awesome dragon Banksy!

Of course, I’m not going to be so bold as to claim it to be a major attraction of SF’s CT, but there are some pretty cool pieces of street art around the place. And although typically I’m vehemently against the defacing of dragons, for Banksy I’ll gladly make an exception.

It’s also hard to be mad when faced with the world’s largest LOL Cat.

Also home to the world’s biggest LOL cat.

 


Stanford

As you probably also know, I’m a geek.

Typically I’d rather sit in a library writing, than at a pub drinking. In fact even better is being at the library drinking. And while I was lucky enough to be taken on a number of whirlwind tours of bars in the area, they’re not included in this blog because touring Stanford trumped them.

Although it’s hard for me to objectively reflect on why I liked Stanford so much, I dare say it was mostly to do with how magnificent the campus is. You see, although I think it’s pretty cool to be walking around a campus full of nerd, a high nerd density is not sufficient for me to be impressed.

The reason I can attest to this, is that I have also toured Harvard…. although that might have something to do with me being escorted off campus after making too many references to Animal House. 

The Gates Computer Science building.

In any case, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Stanford, partially I suspect as a result of what the buildings at my university typically looked like.

Okay, my university looked nothing like that. We didn’t have walls. But check out this next photo:

It’s a car park.

That’s right, not content with just any old building to park their cars, somebody has constructed what is a Sydney Opera House for cars.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t spend ample amounts of time fawning over this thing, but it does make my point pretty directly that the Stanford campus is nothing short of epic, even when they’re just dealing with the temporary storage of cars.

Of course the explanation for this rather extravagant storage of cars is quite simple. You see Stanford is an amazing campus, with smart students and generous benefactors, and in such a place you can’t have your cars slumming it in a ‘car hold‘.

This is particularly because the university is built on such noble origins. Of which, I was lucky enough to be regaled with after ascending the illustrious Hoover Tower:

Hoover Tower.

You see, the founders of Stanford university did so in the memory of their 15 year old son, who died of typhoid in 1884. But as part of the endowment they stipulated that all Stanford roofs must be red, their son’s favorite color, so he could see them from heaven.

The view from Hoover Tower.

Now, maybe it was the fact that I’m a sucker, but I have to admit when I was told this story I shed a tear, which is in my defense is pretty easy when you’re staring down the barrel end of a view like the one above.

But let me assure you it was a manly tear. In fact it was so manly, that it impregnated the ground.

Unfortunately, like many origin stories, outside of Marvel, this one and by extension my whole Stanford experience, was a lie. The roofs are just red because that’s the style, and there is no heaven.

Okay, a tad melodramatic, but it really didn’t make a difference as I didn’t tip the tour guide. Take that, thoughtful stranger!

Overall though, I have to say San Francisco stands out as one of my favorite places outside of Asia.

Which is why in an attempt to get closer to living there I’m already devising a plan to become a billionaire.

Posted in Ramblings, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments