Really good New Yorker story from James Surowiecki on the “performance revolution” and how it’s gone from sports to the rest of the world. I particularly liked the way he connected sports to business:
A key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same time. Look at what happened in American manufacturing, a transformation that also has its origins in the nineteen-seventies. At the time, big American companies were in woeful shape. In the decades after the Second World War, they had faced almost no foreign competition, and typically had only a few domestic rivals. That made them enormously profitable but complacent about quality and productivity. The result was that, by the early nineteen-seventies, American productivity growth was stalling, while American products were often defect-ridden and unreliable. One study, in 1969, found that a third of the people who bought a new American car judged it to be in unsatisfactory condition when it was delivered.
Reminded me a bit of a great piece I read a few weeks ago on the “responsive enterprise” and how software changes this conversation around performance and improvement. A little snippet from that:
Software promotes agility by dramatically speeding up the feedback loop between output and input. In the past, companies could measure their performance every quarter, making it difficult to adjust quickly to changes in the environment. In contrast, Facebook ships new versions of its product multiple times a day, with enhancements and fixes determined by realtime feedback from actual use of the Web site. Companies such as Amazon and Booking.com continuously perform A/B testing or multi-armed bandit experiments on users to optimize purchase rates on their Web sites.
I’ve been reading quite a bit of Brian Arthur’s writing lately. He’s a “complexity economist” from the Santa Fe institute and a pretty interesting all around thinker. Need to put together a bigger writeup of his ideas, but wanted to share his steps on how technology forms the economy around itself from his book Complexity and the Economy:
The steps involved yield the following algorithm for the formation of the economy.
1. A novel technology appears. It is created from particular existing ones, and enters the active collection as a novel element.
2. The novel element becomes available to replace existing technologies and components in existing technologies.
3. The novel element sets up further “needs” or opportunity niches for supporting technologies and organizational arrangements.
4. If old displaced technologies fade from the collective, their ancillary needs are dropped. The opportunity niches they provide disappear with them, and the elements that in turn fill these may become inactive.
5. The novel element becomes available as a potential component in further technologies—further elements.
6. The economy—the pattern of goods and services produced and consumed—readjusts to these steps. Costs and prices (and therefore incentives for novel technologies) change accordingly.
It’s been a long while since I wrote anything here, going to see if I can get back on the horse.
Nate Silver on the parts of a chess match computers and humans excel at:
Both computer and human players need to break a chess game down into intermediate goals: for instance, capturing an opponent’s pawn or putting their king into check. In the middle of the match, once the pieces are locked in combat and threaten one another, there are many such strategic objectives available. It is a matter of devising tactics to accomplish them, and forecasting which might have the most beneficial effects on the remainder of the game. The goals of the opening moves, however, are more abstract. Computers struggle with abstract and open-ended problems, whereas humans understand heuristics like “control the center of the board” and “keep your pawns organized” and can devise any number of creative ways to achieve them.
I was reading this speech from Andy Grove, Intel chairman, from 1998 and while the whole thing is a bit hard to read, this bit about strategic inflection points and competition was quite interesting:
Some key warning signs that hint that the change you are dealing with make a Strategic Inflection Point is when it is clear to you that all of a sudden the company or the entity that you worry about has shifted. You have dealt with one particular company or establishment as a competitor all your life and all of a sudden you don’t care about them, you care about what somebody else thinks. I have this mental silver bullet test. If you had one bullet, who would you shoot with it? If you change the direction of the gun, that is one of the signals that you may be dealing with something more than an ordinary shift in the competitive landscape.
Last week I wrote a piece on AdAge revisiting Stock and Flow. If you’re interested you should read the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:
To answer that question, let’s start with what’s changed. The core social platforms, Facebook and Twitter, have continued to explode. Mobile has enabled a host of new social platforms such as Pinterest and Snapchat to grow at breakneck speed. LinkedIn has added informational content like LinkedIn Today, LinkedIn Influencer and sponsored updates. Google has built a massive social system with the deepest mobile integration of any platform we’ve ever seen (thanks to Google’s Android mobile operating system). “Native” advertising has come to the fore. And search and social have crashed together: According to SearchMetrics, seven of the top eight signals in social now come from search.
While I don’t agree with Paul Krugman’s Bitcoin is Evil post from the weekend, his next post on Bitcoin did include this nugget I had never considered:
It occurs to me that part of the disconnect is that Bitcoin solved a major technical problem, one that people had been thinking about for about 20 years, and we nerds just can’t believe that it doesn’t also solve an economic problem. The technical problem is double spending–if I have some digital money, it’s easy enough to verify cryptographically that it’s real, but if I give it to you, how can you tell that I haven’t also given it to someone else? Until Bitcoin, the answer was to have a bank that knew which coins were valid, so you’d present my coin to the bank, which would check its database and if it’s valid, cancel it and give you a new one. Bitcoin has its decentralized blockchain which is a very clever recasting of the problem so that the state of the “bank” is whatever the majority of bitcoin miners agree that it is. Getting enough of the miners to agree is known as the Byzantine Generals problem, and has a technical history of its own.
As simple as it seems, splitting out the technical achievement from the economic one is a really interesting way to think about it. I haven’t really spent enough time thinking about Bitcoin to have a strong opinion about it specifically, but I do think the idea of a crypto-currency not attached to a specific nation is something bound to happen. In a way, I feel like Bitcoin and Google Glass have a lot in common: Early experiments in form and style that signal what’s to come.
I really love this quote which came from an article Umberto Eco wrote about Wikileaks by way of this very excellent recap of a talk by the head of technology at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum:
I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. backwards. A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on (telephone) wires. (Analog) video cassettes enabled film buffs to peruse a movie frame by frame, by fast-forwarding and rewinding to lay bare all the secrets of the editing process, but (digital) CDs now only allow us quantum leaps from one chapter to another. High-speed trains take us from Rome to Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldn’t be extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to the horse-drawn carriage.
Lifehacker has an answer for why you need to turn your router off for 10 seconds:
A lot of modern technology contains capacitors! These are like energy buckets, little batteries that fill up when you put a current through them, and discharge otherwise. 10 seconds is the time it takes most capacitors to discharge enough for the electronics they’re powering to stop working. That’s why when you turn your PC off at the wall, things like an LED on your motherboard take a few seconds to disappear. You probably could wait a different time, but 10 seconds is the shortest time you can be sure everything’s discharged.
I’ve always wondered about that …
This is three years old, but I just ran across it and it’s just as relevant today as it was then. Apparently in response to Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, Steven Pinker wrote a great op-ed about how technology isn’t really ruining all that stuff that technology is constantly claimed to be ruining. A snippet:
The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.
There’s something magical about the first few moments of a new medium, as people experiment and try to figure out what it’s all about. It’s a period of uncertainty as a small group of people fumble with new technology and it’s fun to watch. Go back and read early Tweets or look at early Instagram photos and you get the equivalent of tapping the mic to see if it’s on.
I say this because I stumbled onto Vinepeek this morning, which shows a continuous stream of new Vines from Twitter. (For the uninitiated Vine is a new product Twitter announced that lets people make 6-second looping videos.) Watching Vinepeek, I got to thinking that there was something really fascinating with combining a new technology people are getting acquainted to with an API that people can make experimental outputs of. It’s like letting people play with the input and the output at the same time, and in the case of Vinepeek you get a very odd thing that feels like a little TV network that peeks into people’s lives.
I’m sure it won’t be interesting in a few days, but there’s a real magic to combining experimentation on creation and distribution at the exact same time.
Quick and sort of crazy story of a guy in Las Vegas whose house seems to be some sort of default GPS coordinate for some lost Sprint phones:
Dobson was told that cellphone GPS systems don’t provide exact locations – they give a general location of where to start your search. And for some reason his house is that location for his area.
People keep turning up at his house and demanding he give them their phones back.
Often the stories of unintended consequences of technology are much more interesting than the intended ones.
Interesting take on technology and automation in the form of a blind coffee taste test of hand-made espresso versus Nespresso machine:
Does this herald the death of artisan coffee, except in those exclusive enclaves where the very best, most obsessive practitioners ply their trade? And is the writing on the wall for other areas of human excellence where we cling to the idea that artisanal is best? A lifeline might seem to be provided by the detailed reviews of the coffees we tasted. The key descriptors for Nespresso were ‘smooth’ and ‘easy to drink’. And from the point of view of restaurateurs who use it, the key word is ‘consistency’. It was far from bland, but it was not challenging or distinctive either. It’s a coffee everyone can really like but few will love: the highest common denominator, if you like. The second-place coffee had more bite, and was the favourite of myself and the 10-cup-a-day connoisseur, but scored a pathetic two points from one person on the panel who took against it.
First off, that makes me a little sad because I really like making espresso and it makes me feel a bit like a sucker who is drinking inferior coffee. What’s interesting to me, and the article sort of gets at, is that I enjoy a cup of coffee I make as much for the process as the taste. Their is something really nice about going through the grind, tamp, pour, clean, drink cycle (at least when you’re making it on your own). Second, the points in here remind me of something I read in a New Yorker article about Dogfish Head beer a few years ago
. The article pointed out that even the crankiest craft brewer respects Budweiser for their ability to create a consistent product.
I’ve been trying to get through my Instapaper backlog lately. It’s a kind of New Years resolution thing, but mostly a reaction to reading books for awhile. That’s not all that important except to explain why I’ll probably be posting some old stuff over the coming weeks.
Anyway, I was struck reading this post from 2009 by Kevin Kelly on technology and how he explained the clock in a very McLuhan’esque way:
Seemingly simple inventions like the clock had profound social consequences. The clock divvied up an unbroken stream of time into measurable units, and once it had a face, time became a tyrant, ordering our lives. Danny Hillis, computer scientist, believes the gears of the clock spun out science, and all it’s many cultural descendents. He says, “The mechanism of the clock gave us a metaphor for self-governed operation of natural law. (The computer, with its mechanistic playing out of predetermined rules, is the direct descendant of the clock.) Once we were able to imagine the solar system as a clockwork automaton, the generalization to other aspects of nature was almost inevitable, and the process of Science began.”
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately, and one of them is New Yorker’s Out Loud. The last episode featured a great interview with Daniel Mendelsohn, a literary critic. In the podcast he mostly talks about the books that inspired him to become a writer, but then, towards the end, he talks a bit about the job of a cultural critic and I thought what he had to say was interesting enough to transcribe and share:
We now have these technologies that simulate reality or create different realities in very sophisticated and interesting ways. Having these technologies available to us allows us to walk, say, through midtown Manhattan but actually to be inhabiting our private reality as we do so: We’re on the phone or we’re looking at our smartphone, gazing lovingly into our iPhones. And this is the way the world is going, there’s no point complaining about it. But where my classics come in is I am amused by the fact our word idiot comes from the Greek word idiotes, which means a private person. It’s from the word idios, which means private as opposed to public. So the Athenians, or the Greeks in general who had such a highly developed sense of the readical distinction between what went on in public and what went on in private, thought that a person that brought his private life into public spaces, who confused public and private was an idiote, was an idiot. Of course, now everybody does this. We are in a culture of idiots in the Greek sense. To go back to your original question, what does this look like in the long run? Is it terrible or is it bad? It’s just the way things are. And one of the advantages about being a person who looks at long stretches of the past is you try not to get hysterical, to just see these evolving new ways of being from an imaginary vantage point in the future. Is it the end of the world? No, it’s just the end of a world. It’s the end of the world I grew up in when I was thinking of how you behaved in public. I think your job as a cultural critic is to take a long view.
I obviously thought the idiot stuff was fascinating, but also was interested in his last line about the job of a cultural critic, which, to me, really reflected something that struck me about McLuhan in the most recent biography of his by Douglas Coupland:
Marshall was also encountering a response that would tail him the rest of his life: the incorrect belief that he liked the new world he was describing. In fact, he didn’t ascribe any moral or value dimensions to it at all–he simply kept on pointing out the effects of new media on the individual. And what makes him fresh and relevant now is the fact that (unlike so much other new thinking of the time) he always did focus on the individual in society, rather than on the mass of society as an entity unto itself.
Kevin Kelly has a good article at Wired.com about our robotic future. He writes about our ability to invent new things to do as our old activities are replaced by machines:
Before we invented automobiles, air-conditioning, flatscreen video displays, and animated cartoons, no one living in ancient Rome wished they could watch cartoons while riding to Athens in climate-controlled comfort. Two hundred years ago not a single citizen of Shanghai would have told you that they would buy a tiny slab that allowed them to talk to faraway friends before they would buy indoor plumbing. Crafty AIs embedded in first-person-shooter games have given millions of teenage boys the urge, the need, to become professional game designers—a dream that no boy in Victorian times ever had. In a very real way our inventions assign us our jobs. Each successful bit of automation generates new occupations—occupations we would not have fantasized about without the prompting of the automation.
Douglas Rushkoff asks some interesting questions about the lengths we’re going in the patent battle between Apple and the rest of the industry:
But when it comes to gestures, such as the now ubiquitous “pinch and zoom” technology through which users stretch or shrink pictures and text, well, that no longer feels quite the same. They are gestures that may have begun on the device, but which have become internalized, human movements. When my daughter was three I used to watch her attempt to enact those same swipes and stretches on the television screen – a phenomenon so prevalent that many television dealers now keep a supply of Windex handy to clean their giant flat screens of children’s fingerprints on a regular basis.
I’ve been telling people a lot lately that I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in my first year of having a startup is have a co-founder you can argue productively with and now it’s in print. I gave an interview with Fast Company in anticipation of the Innovation Uncensored event I’m speaking at and has this to answer to the question “If you could share only one thing about starting a company, what would it be?”
Other than “It’s really hard,” I would say, choose your cofounder wisely. Lots of people say that, but I don’t think many people give specific criteria. In the year of Percolate’s existence I think the single most important thing has been the ability of James and myself to have constructive arguments. We can go at it about the product or company and come out on the other end with a solution we both completely believe in. I don’t think the company would still be around if we weren’t able to do that or if one of us left the conversation in a tizzy and didn’t speak for the next week. You can’t take these things personally, we are both arguing from a place of passion and deep desire for the company to succeed. We have the same purpose and vision, and like any two people we disagree on occasion about the specific details of execution. That’s healthy and normal and actually very positive. If you don’t think you can argue with your cofounder you shouldn’t start a company together.
I’ve learned a lot more, but I think this lesson doesn’t get mentioned often enough.
The folks at Made by Many are some of my favorite agency folks around. They’re smart and testing different ways of doing things. Anyway, at SXSW they made a little app called Picle. It did pretty well and now they’re going to keep making it. Something about the way they’ve presented the thinking around the paths the app can take feel really simple and right:
So now that we have that initial spike of users there will be an inevitable dip, downloads have dropped off a little since we arrived back, but we have broken the 45,000 download mark. According to Stuart’s graph the app can go 2 ways.
1. We can trundle along steadily making changes in the app improving the user experience and making the whole thing a lot more polished. However, this route is doomed to fail, while the experience may get better the inability to attract new users and expose the app to a new audience will result in Picle fading away into the digital ether. This scenario is represented in the rather upsetting looking line A.
2. We stabilise the app and greatly improve the sharing features so that Picle is introduced to new audiences and users. Represented by line B.
A thought-provoking piece on just how unequal technology distribution is across gender lines. A snippet:
This may sound like bitching, and of course in some sense it is. But it began to occur to me that the tech I was using was incredibly gendered. In the “male” sphere, of professional operations, offices, corporations, pop culture, businesses, the available technology was extremely high-level, better than anywhere I’d yet lived. In the “female” sphere, the home, domestic duties, daily chores, cleaning, heating, anything inside the walls of a house, it was on a level my grandmother would find familiar.
One of the things I’ve been saying lately about what we’re doing at Percolate is that from a design perspective our competition isn’t other enterprise software tools, it’s Twitter, Tumblr, and the like. Because so many community managers (the most common user from the brand side) are heavy users of social media personally, they have come to expect consumer interfaces across all their tools. Or, as Sarah Lacy put it, “millennial entitlement”:
Millenials are coming into the workforce and the generation has an amazing capacity to demand the world revolve around their desires, whether that’s reasonable or not. Millenials will just start demanding better software from the companies they work for, and if they don’t get it, they’ll start installing their own skunkworks implementations.
Sure, I guess I feel entitled to well-designed software even in a business environment …
Well, this quote from a research engineer at Facebook is a relief:
The tools use our own technologies (talk about dog food) so they work, look, and integrate beautifully. Best part, if someone doesn’t like something, well, they can just fix it. (To wit, our email and calendar software is off-the-shelf and is the most unpleasant tool to deal with. Get this – we have a few people “specialized” in sending large meeting invites out, because there are bugs that require peculiar expertise to work around. Not to mention that such invites come with “Do not accept from an iPhone lest you corrupt the invite for everyone!”)
Nice to know big tech companies can’t fix calendaring either. Also, while we’re here, I liked this comment about Facebook’s use of PHP:
Facebook’s outlook of PHP is largely passionless; yes, engineers understand it is far from perfect, and people occasionally rant or show some WTF code sample. At the same time, at Facebook we love doing cool things, and PHP is simply a means to an end. With our extensive framework and libraries, it’s also often the simplest means to an end.
It’s hard to get a clear picture of how startups are doing because so much of success depends on perception and founders do anything they can to keep that perception up. For all the talk about failing and it’s value (something I don’t necessarily agree with), it’s rare to hear real stories from real entrepreneurs whose companies didn’t turn out exactly as they might have expected. 37 Signals has a nice wrap up of quotes from folks who had to shut down a product, service or company. Here’s a good one from the creator of Wesabe (a competitor to Mint):
Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could; we completely sucked at all of that…I was focused on trying to make the usability of editing data as easy and functional as it could be; Mint was focused on making it so you never had to do that at all. Their approach completely kicked our approach’s ass.
I promise I’ll get back to blogging more non-Percolate things, but here’s one more item. Over at the Percolate blog I wrote up a quick description of how our product development process has changed since we moved to running everything off an API:
Running a product team has been a really interesting shift in career for me. Some of the stuff I learned working at agencies has been a huge benefit (working in teams, managing creative people) and some other stuff has been totally new (continually improving something instead of launching and jumping to the next thing). It’s fun to work on improving the process and flow and when you land in a real rhythm it’s pretty amazing (not that different than being in the excitement and madness of a great pitch).
I need to write up a longer thing about my overall experience, but this was a start. I’ve got a goal to write more process posts over at the Percolate blog because people seem to like them, so hopefully there’s more coming soon.
I think my favorite thing from this article about the crazy floating startup village is the nonchalance about about lasers and undersea internet cables: “A laser could be good, but is susceptible to fog, which is bad in the Bay Area. We’re considering running an undersea cable from ship to shore, but it may be be cost prohibitive. [Blueseed has received estimates of over a million dollars for just the installation, but is still researching permits.]”
Reminds me of my favorite Simpson’s joke ever. Homer and Bart are on a boat in international waters and in the distance is a boat with a big satellite dish. Homer turns to Bart and says, “See that ship over there? They’re re-broadcasting Major League Baseball with implied oral consent, not express written consent—or so the legend goes.”
Jim Romenesko (guess he’s back to blogging) does a nice look back at the hype that was Segway (aka IT aka Ginger) ten years ago. He goes back and talks to some of the journalists that covered it and asks them to try and see now what they missed then.
Nice little BusinessWeek piece on how Apple wields it’s operational expertise. The whole article is good as it walks through the supply chain, but I’m especially fond of this little nugget about how they made the little light that turns on when you’re camera is on: “Ive called in a team of manufacturing and materials experts to figure out how to make the impossible possible, according to a former employee familiar with the development who requested anonymity to avoid irking Apple. The team discovered it could use a customized laser to poke holes in the aluminum small enough to be nearly invisible to the human eye but big enough to let light through.” As an aside, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of these stories as Apple PR tries to cement Tim Cook as a strategic asset, not just the guy after Jobs.
Card Case from Square sounds interesting. Esentially it lets you set up a “tab” with any store that uses it and they’ll just “put it on your tab” when you go up to pay. More interesting to me, though, is the iPhone technology they’re using to do it (which I didn’t know about): “Square has taken advantage of a new Apple technology called ‘geofencing,’ which notifies an app when a phone has entered a specified geographical area. The key thing about this approach is that it happens in the background; the app doesn’t have to be on for it to work.” As am aside, I’ve heard rumors that Facebook looks at who else opens the FB app in your vicinity and uses that to recommend new friends.
Muji gloves with a conductive finger for touchscreen technology. Who’s in charge around here again? We now need to buy new clothing with additional pockets for devices, holes for headphones and materials to allow for interaction. We design tools and then the tools design us. As an aside, I was doing some research recently and in the ten years between 2006 and 2016 the smartphone market is estimated to shift from being 7 percent touchscreen to 97 percent touchscreen respectively. Not sure if that’s impressive or just a sad statement about the industry’s inability to think beyond what’s happening right now.