Interconnected

All posts made in Dec. 2014:

Garam masala recipe

I spent 30 minutes yesterday making up a fresh batch of garam masala. It's a curry staple so I use it a bunch -- but usually I buy it pre-blended. That's a problem because the flavour is not consistent between brands... everyone has their favourite blend and personally I don't like my garam masala too peppery.

So here's a recipe I like, from Curry (DK Publishing).

Ingredients

  • 50g coriander seeds
  • 50g cumin seeds
  • 20 green cardamom pods
  • 10 cinnamon sticks each 2.5cm/1 inch long
  • 2 tbsp cloves
  • 10 blades mace
  • 10 black cardamom pods
  • Half a nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 4 cinnamon leaves or bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp dried rose petals
  • 1 tbsp fennel seeds

Method

From the book...

Heat a dry frying pan and add all the spices. Stir them and shake the pan as they start to crackle. When they smell roasted and aromatic, remove the pan from the heat and tip the spices on to a plate. Allow to cool.

To grind the spices, use a mortar and pestle or a spice mill (or a clean coffee grinder).

I used ground black pepper instead of peppercorns, and bay leaves rather than cinnamon leaves. I doubled up on all the quantities, and broke up the pods, sticks, and leaves before toasting: it looked pretty colourful.

We have an electric coffee grinder that's only used for spices.

It smells and tastes fantastic.

Other recipes

This tandoori chicken recipe is the best I've found, and it includes a recipe for a blend called tandoori masala which I now keep in a jar on the shelf. It also requires yet another blend, a tangy one called chaat masala which has dried powdered mango in it. I found that in a store on Drummond St near Euston.

Still on the lookout for a better recipe though. Tandoori chicken and naan is one of those Platonic solids of food, apparently dead simple but actually an ur-food where it's worth sweating the details because when it's perfect it's perfect.

Cheese on toast is like that too.

And here's my chicken pilau which includes a recipe for whole garam masala. You soak the spices to bring the flavours out, rather than toasting, and add at the beginning rather than the end. All these methods!

Happy new year. I hope you have a great 2015 lined up.

City Link, co-determination, and destiny

The courier firm City Link went into administration on Christmas Eve. We were waiting for some gifts to be delivered, so we went to the Swindon depot a few days later to pick up the packages.

Pretty bleak as you can imagine. Workers milling around, finding out whether they're being officially laid off or not. Staff will get redundancy, but the deliveries were mostly subcontracted and those folks are at the bottom of the heap. One guy we met found out about City Link going under just after he finished his turkey on Christmas Day - when the unions broke the news - watching the BBC. He's owed £25k or so, he said he might-as-well have put all that money he paid for fuel into a big heap and burned it. We heard about another guy inside, owed £125k for the deliveries he's done in the 2 or 3 weeks over December, unlikely to see any of it.

It was the RMT union who went public with the City Link news -- they had been informed and asked to keep it quiet. But they also have members in the various subcontracted companies and they felt it was wrong for those people not to know.

My first reaction was that the UK should adopt the German system of co-determination, worker representatives hold seats on the boards of all companies employing over 500 people.

But although I like Mitbestimmung, thinking a bit more, I'm not so sure it does what I think we need.

Early signs of the Coasian flip

See, City Link actively encouraged a community of Owner Drivers.

Do you have enthusiasm, determination and ambition? If you would like the flexibility of being self employed, with the support of a large established company, choosing to become a Service Delivery Partner with City Link offers the perfect partnership.

The subcontracting companies weren't delivery companies that happened to work for City Link, amongst others --

they were individuals encouraged to start companies with City Link as primary client... the City Link website says how much they will earn, that they get training, a uniform... they sound like employees, right?

But then, as an Owner Driver, you lease your van - in City Link livery - under your own credit; you insure it, you provide safety equipment.

How could you work for anyone else, with a van painted like this?

It makes me see that City Link was run by externalising their risk onto others -- primarily with credit (they receive money for deliveries up-front, Owner Drivers pay for fuel up-front, but City Link pay later under the terms of the invoice), and capital expenditure (Owner Drivers lease their own vans and equipment).

Lots of companies run like this:

  • Uber's drivers are independent contractors -- but feel more like staff paying for the privilege, given the leasing schemes of Uber and their partners
  • Lyft drivers were encouraged to buy a particular SUV... but then the marketing scheme changed, They pulled the plug, leaving us high and dry. Lyft gave drivers a payout to cover the difference, which is good for some and not for othrs.
  • TaskRabbit has pivoted from eBay-for-jobs to a kind of temping agency... in a way that radically changes working conditions: Anyone left working for TR is an indentured servant. Now a company changing its business model is fine and good and necessary, and some of the community of "Taskers" will no longer fit in. But the cost of - effectively - laying these people off has been handed to the workers, instead of being a cost borne by the company as part of their pivot
  • Airbnb turns apartments into hotel rooms, an external cost for other residents: There are the regular incivilities like the cigarette ends and the constant parties. But more than that, it is destroying the sense we used to have of the building being a shared space where we all knew and respected each other.
  • When Instagram sold to Facebook for $1BN, the community of users had done all the value-creating work of posting photos and recruiting more users, but they saw none of the reward.

Although I'm picking out the downsides, I do not believe that running companies like this is bad or wrong.

On the contrary, I like that City Link, Uber, Airbnb and the rest are networks of companies big and small, sharing risk across the whole network.

It breaks down the producer/consumer divide -- it's a kind of Mitbestimmung or co-determination in its own way. It allows small, agile companies to push back against the incumbents who use their position to treat us badly. It puts people closer to their own destiny, it's a de-alienating force.

This funny mix of heavily meshed companies is what I was getting at the other day in that ramble about Ronald Coase and the future of the firm. As the internet cuts transaction costs, firms will get smaller, and we'll see a lot more of this:

So as markets and pricing get easier still, firms can get much smaller -- ad hoc value chains assembled out of code and culture, barely anyone working at the company at all.

...

The second implication is that the firm, no matter how small, can have a kind of hinterland of value providers - a community of users who post pictures, drivers who transport passengers - who, although technically not inside the firm, are as part of it as a spider's web is part of the spider, or a beaver's artificial lake is part of the colony.

However.

As software eats the world, and companies get smaller and we enter a networked economy - as the Coasean flip takes place - there's a sharp end:

TaskRabbit workers paying the cost of the company pivot. Neighbours of Airbnb hosts soaking the externality of strangers in their space without choosing to accept it. Drivers who used to be employees being encouraged to be independent Owner Drivers - still in City Link livery - bearing the risk of the company's capital expenditure and future success... without seeing any of the potential upside.

And then that risk being cashed in, on Christmas Day after the turkey, invoices unpaid.

So what can be done?

A new class of worker

The commonality here is there is a new class of worker.

They're not inside the company - not benefiting from job security or healthcare - but their livelihoods in large part are dependent on it, the transaction cost of moving to a competitor deliberately kept high.

Or the worker is, without seeing any of the upside of success, taking on the risk or bearing the cost of the company's expansion and operation.

These aren't just subcontractors or employees-by-another-name, they feel like something new.

So I'm looking for a mechanism to govern the relationship between the company and its worker-community. Something that fulfils these goals:

  • Reduces friction for people to work with well run, well cash-flowing companies, and vice versa
  • Keeps workers and the company on the same side of the table with interests aligned, not making them adversarial
  • Protects the worker

The premise is that it's fine to share the risk, otherwise small companies could never do weird ambitious things -- but it needs to be equitable.

reddit's scheme to give company equity to the community is good. So something like that? It's interesting, maybe similar to what the Guardian are reaching for with mutualisation...

but maybe a bit hard to implement, until the right toolkit exists? I don't like regulation. Regulation increases friction. I don't want to inhibit something that - on the whole - feels like it's going in the right direction: I'm pro the Coasean flip to a networked working world. I'd prefer to reduce friction along the vector of Doing The Right Thing.

What about, simply, inventing a proper word for this "worker community" and making a code of conduct that companies can sign up for, to make it clear that this genuinely is a community of Worker Owners who share in the risk and upside both, not virtual residents of a virtual company town, buying goods from the company store with company scrip.

The code of conduct could start small: Payments could be made using escrow, instead of 30 day invoicing terms like regular suppliers. Stock options could be traded one-for-one between the company and the Worker Owner's company. Working for competitors could be explicitly allowed.

I don't know.

But it would be a fascinating thought experiment, to draft a code of conduct that would be equally applicable to Uber, City Link, and Airbnb. The test would be whether their worker communities would grow faster because of it, without unduly slowing the company's expansion.

A metric for financial destiny

Measure first.

If you don't have some kind of measurement - some kind of metric or indicator - you can't see what effect you're having. So there's no feedback and you can't improve what you're doing.

The right kind of metric will provoke interesting forward conversations, and reveal interesting experiments. Even if, to begin with, the metric is inadequate.

For every person, I'd love a measure of how many other people's financial destiny they control.

So... let's say a company pays 100 people, and none of those people have any other income. The company has four equal shareholders, so each shareholder has 25% each. The shareholders have no other shares in other companies, and receive no other income.

In this case, each shareholder controls 25 peoples-worth financial destiny.

Let's say I pay three freelancers. For each of them, I am responsible for a tenth of their annual income. This year, I control 0.3 peoples-worth financial destiny.

That's how it would work. You would work it out using invoices, income or revenue, payroll, and shares.

What would it mean, to have this balance sheet for financial destiny?

What if we said it should be capped at 1,000? Nobody should be allowed to have that much control other other humans. That means, for a 10,000 person company, no single shareholder should have more than 10% of the shares.

What if it was capped at 100?

What if we based taxes on it... what would a progressive destiny tax look like?

What does too-big-to-fail look like, for destiny? Does the measure need to be moderated where there are barriers to switching jobs? If we made visible such a destiny network, could we test trickle-down? Could we identify geographic economies and see if local currencies work?

Regulation and governance are not about stopping things happening or slowing things down. Governance is also the system of eyes and senses that we build, as a society, so we can see ourselves as in a mirror -- and work to accelerate what we endorse.

We're entering a new, networked world where the old categories of companies and consumers no longer apply. We need to find new frames of reference or we're flying blind.

Filtered for four easy pieces

1.

The different euro banknotes are illustrated with bridges. To avoid favouring any particular member state, the bridges are fictional.

Except that a new housing development in the Netherlands has gone and built them all. Classic.

2.

From before Google, questions received by the New York Public Library.

Is it possible to keep an octopus in a private home?

What does it mean when you dream of being chased by an elephant?

How do you put up wallpaper?

In the early 1900s, physics was regarded as a solved problem. It was all figured all, all just a matter of cranking the handle, bar one or two loose threads. One loose thread - the ultraviolet catastrophe - is solved by quantum theory, which unpacks into the story of physics over the 20th century.

Gotta pull those threads.

Can mice throw up?

3.

Written in 1983, and released last year under the 30-year rule, the Queen's speech in the event of a nuclear war.

4.

Legendary physicist Richard Feynman on magnets (video) -- and the power of asking why something happens.

But I really can't do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you're more familiar with, because I don't understand it in terms of anything else that you're more familiar with.

Transcript.

Filtered for elephants and apocalypse

1.

This elephant can speak Korean. It puts its trunk in its mouth to make the sounds.

Vocabulary:

  • hello
  • no
  • sit down
  • good
  • apparently one or two other words but these are not disclosed by the article

The elephant's name is Koshik.

See also: Cat barking like a dog and getting caught.

See also: Fictional speculation that the English word "hawk" is from crow-language.

See also: The Author of the Acacia Seeds.

2.

How Frozen took over the world, in the New Yorker.

(Yes, I just cancelled my subscriptions to the London Review of Books and the Economist, and started one to the New Yorker.)

What an awesome movie. I saw it for the first time last night.

The first act is perfection. Zero narrative slack. Wall-E is the only other animated picture that does that so well.

Then the lack of villains... the sisters... I totally understand why this movie is so popular.

Plus, girls. Aren't most of Pixar's movies most appealing for boys-and-dads?

3.

Here's one of my favourite stories.

An aquarium in Fushun, China, has dolphins. In 2006, two dolphins swallowed some plastic and the vets couldn't get it out.

But they realised that China being China - a billion plus humans - they also had the world's tallest man. And the world's tallest man has the world's longest arms. And the world's longest arms could reach down the dolphins' throats and pull the plastic out.

So they called him up - Bao Xishun, Mongolian herdsman, world's tallest man - and he came along and saved the dolphins.

One of his arms is 1.06m long.

4.

Engineer Joshua Pearce explains how to feed 7 billion people after a global catastrophe.

All the trees would be dead, for lack of light. And so we would need to significantly ramp up our rate of cutting trees down. Plus, temperatures would drop. We looked at a 10-degree and a 20-degree scenario. In the 20-degree scenario, you start having things like say, all of the wood in Canada freezes. That type of problem. Even if we want to do things like chop the wood down and get fields of mushrooms and that kind of thing, frozen wood is much more difficult to deal with. ... We're probably the first to ever calculate how many chain saws there are in the world and what their duty cycles were and how fast we can manufacture them in order to make sure that we had enough cutting power.

Didn't see any of that in Frozen.

Books

I just finished reading The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu). Intriguing because there's an explicit parallel to the Cultural Revolution that runs through the whole book, and it's a challenging idea (this is the first of a trilogy which is currently bonkers popular in China). Also there are some hard sci-fi ideas in the back third of the book that I've never seen anywhere else. No spoilers, but:

an important mark of a civilization's technological advancement is its ability to control and make use of micro dimensions. Making use of fundamental particles without taking advantage of the micro dimensions is something that our naked, hairy ancestors already began when they lit bonfires within caves. ... From the perspective of a more advanced civilization in the universe, bonfires and computers and nanomaterials are not fundamental different.

There are some narrative quirks that I'm not sure I like or not... odd shifts in point of view, and flourishes that remind of mid-century American sci-fi. Unimportant in the scheme of things. Solid read, give it a go.

Merry Christmas if that's a thing you celebrate! I do, it's going to be a cracker.

Filtered for the future of the firm

1.

There are these cars around London that seem a bit like Zipcar - the car sharing service - but you can leave them anywhere. Or at least, in most parking bays. So they kind of float around. The app tells you where the nearest car is.

Which is like Uber with no drivers?

How far could this go?

No parking bays. I know Zipcar give you credit for getting the car cleaned. Or at least they used to. Could that be included... and gradually raise the credit you get until somebody is motivated to do the cleaning?

And to get them repaired? What if you get credit for car maintenance?

This is why I'm into the idea that companies are resource allocation markets.

What if the company doesn't even supply any cars, just the marketplace. You get credit if you supply cars. Or rather, you get car-marketplace-currency, which is itself a fraction of the ownership of the marketplace, and the value of your share goes up as the entire system is utilised.

What else could this be applied to?

I'm playing with a startup idea at the moment that involves inventory and many concession stands, each of which need to be staffed. So I treated this as a toy... what if Bitcoin was used for resource allocation, what then? If someone supplied a concession stand, they would get paid in credit. If some staffed a stand, they would receive a wage in credit. If someone repairs a stand: credit.

Credit is backed by a certain number of shares in the company, so they're worth something. When somebody purchases some of the inventory, that's profit for the company; when that dividend is paid out, it is paid in proportion to the shares, and so the credit can be exchanged for dollars.

This would be simple, using Bitcoin.

Then I asked myself: What would be the benefits of running the business like this?

Twofold:

Currently, a business like this would track its assets, liabilities, etc, using double-entry book-keeping. The prepared accounts are used to manage the business and allow it to invest in more assets and achieve more income. But the accounts are a model. They're a map of the territory, not the territory itself. They're hard to maintain, and they don't integrate well with the business.

But use Bitcoin? There is no book-keeping because your activities in running the business are the same as recording it.

More importantly for a startup business: The job of finding the right prices can be thought of like game balancing... like finding the right cost of wheat in the economy of Farmville. We know how to do that.

The accounts - and the business model itself - become something that can be iterated in code to achieve financial growth, just like A/B testing the code of a website to get user growth.

Okay, this is a long way off. The costs of setting up this system would be prohibitive. But when someone makes the tools...

2.

So here's a classic long read for the holidays: A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100.

(...which was last in my head when I used to write weeknotes at Berg, back in week 315.)

The piece ends by speculating what happens after the traditional corporation is a spent force...

And when that shift happens, the Schumpeterian corporation, the oil rig of human attention, will start to decline at an accelerating rate. Lifestyle businesses and other oddball contraptions — the solar panels and wind farms of attention economics — will start to take over.

And:

Without realizing it, the hundreds of entrepreneurs, startup-studios and incubators, 4-hour-work-weekers and lifestyle designers around the world, experimenting with novel business structures and the attention mining technologies of social media, are collectively triggering the age of Coasean growth.

Coasean growth? Coasean growth is fundamentally not measured in aggregate terms at all. It is measured in individual terms. An individual's income and productivity may both actually decline, with net growth in a Coasean sense.

I don't know what this means. But it makes me wonder.

The author names "Coasean growth" after the Nobel prize-winning economist Ronald Coase: He is best known for his work on transaction costs, social costs and the nature of the firm.

3.

Why do companies exist? In The Nature of the Firm (1937), Ronald Coase put it down to transaction costs. In short, companies exist because it's cheaper to have an organisation that does the necessary activity internally than to use the free market outside it. Why? Because using the market - the price mechanism - itself has costs.

Here's a summary of Coase's paper:

There are costs to using the price mechanism for coordinating economic activity. 'transaction costs' or 'marketing costs'

For example, if you want someone to carry your goods from the warehouse to your shop, first you have to find someone. That's tough. It's easier when lots of people who need carriage and lots of people who provide carriage come together -- on a website or in the Yellow Pages. That's a marketplace. But at a certain threshold, it's easier still to just employ those people.

Firms exist to economize on the cost of coordinating economic activity.

Firms are characterized by the absence of the price mechanism.

This insight is old, but it makes my head spin.

Because it has two implications.

First is that the internet has made much easier both forming marketplaces and negotiating prices. Amazon is a marketplace where buyers and sellers are brought together, and prices change fluidly. Uber has a bottled marketplace: It doesn't employ its drivers, but they transact via Uber. And pricing is dealt with half by algorithm (increase the price till there are enough drivers) and branding (passengers never negotiate).

So as markets and pricing get easier still, firms can get much smaller -- ad hoc value chains assembled out of code and culture, barely anyone working at the company at all.

(Though we have to ask: If online marketplaces are so efficient, how can Amazon afford to buy the third party book sellers on their platform? There must be some efficiencies to being inside the firewall of the firm.)

The second implication is that the firm, no matter how small, can have a kind of hinterland of value providers - a community of users who post pictures, drivers who transport passengers - who, although technically not inside the firm, are as part of it as a spider's web is part of the spider, or a beaver's artificial lake is part of the colony.

If the firm is thought of as contouring transaction costs, and these costs are radically lowered...

And if...

Not only are we realising that functions that used to be part of a firm are now outside it,

but also that functions that have always been outside of the firm should actually be thought of as being part of it - for instance, realising that the community of a website should be rewarded like workers or owners, such as when reddit is giving partial ownership of its company to its users - then we need a new understanding of what a firm is.

4.

There's some kind of fight online about some kind of technology something something. Dunno.

But in a smart piece asking people maybe to just chillax, Quinn said something that caught my eye:

This age has put a group of maladjusted geeks, of which I would happily count myself one, into an historical role of giving input into what human agency will mean long after we’re all dead.

Yup.

We should take that seriously.

So, y'know, the idea that a corporation - an organisation for orchestrating human endeavour to deliberate ends - an entity invented in the 1600s, and entity which BY ITS INESCAPABLE LOGIC forces us into mass production, mass consumption, mass media, alienation and the loss of individuality, and all kinds of ugly inhuman shit... the idea that we can re-invent the corporation, and create new forms of it: That's interesting.

The idea that we might create a type of organisation which is empowering, has local value which doesn't mean everything gets coerced into the value of giant companies, is smaller, can be interrogated and critiqued because it's just code, that avoids the priesthoods of capital and law.

That a company might be a fuzzy-edged thing, where consumers are owners too...

Back in the 1960s, the US Department of Defense funded the development of ARPANET which became the internet, a made-out-of-whole-cloth dropped-into-history collection of protocols, practices, computers and networks, which I reckon probably had to be created all at once, because it couldn't evolve, incubated just like that.

And if DARPA came along now and said, Hey Matt, What Next?

I'd say: Make a little bottle-city company that embodies all of this. Consumer-owners, internal currencies for resource allocation, corporate governance as executable code, doing an actual interesting tractable not-too-ambitious thing. Half co-op, half lifestyle business, half startup. Show what happens when we use capital, instead of capital using us. Do it simply and elegantly. Make a little nest of these companies.

Then sit back and see what happens.

Rambling nonsense about Bitcoin, more

reddit closed $50MM funding last September (175 million monthly active users. Massively multiplayer topic-based pub banter.) They promised to give 10% of the shares to the community, and they've just said how:

Announcing reddit notes. To celebrate all of you and your contributions, we plan to give away reddit notes in a random lottery. As of this point, it looks like we're going to have approximately 950,000 reddit notes to divide among active user accounts.

reddit notes will be a digital currency, used for tipping good comments and other in-community transactions, backed by approx. $5MM in shares. You'll be able to buy and sell them for dollars. As reddit-the-company gets more valuable and approaches IPO, reddit notes will grow in value because - hopefully, one day - the shares will be worth actual money on the primary market.

See also Storj which is cloud storage - like Dropbox - except that in addition to paying for online storage, you can rent out spare space on your hard drives for other people to use, and get paid for that. Behind the scenes it's based on Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency and distributed secure ledger.

What's significant about reddit notes is that they're tied to the success of the company. If you have notes, you share in the upside as the value grows. If you contribute to the success of the company by being popular in the community, you'll accumulate more notes via tips from others.

Bitcoin will be the underlying technology for reddit notes too.

Remember when Instagram sold? The value of the company is the value of the community. I finished that post by writing More interesting to me is the question of what happens when the workers organise, and demand a wage that is transferrable between the island economies of the internet. I've absolutely no idea what that would even look like, a transferrable store of labour but one in which the act and value of labour is contextually variable according to its position in a social network. But I can't imagine money itself looked entirely obvious before it was invented either.

So what if every company had its own currency used for shares in the company, for resource allocation by the company and community (e.g. balance of online storage used and provided, or - say, with Uber - to replace surge pricing and balance the number of drivers and customers), and to reward the community? And if that currency could be exchanged for dollars?

Disclosure: I'm current an Entrepreneur in Residence at Techstars London. One of the companies in the cohort is Swarm and this is what they call crypto-equity.

Bitcoin

I'm interested in Bitcoin because it can be used as the underlying technology for applications like reddit notes and crypto-equity.

Bitcoin is technical and has lots of new concepts all at once, but it's not that complicated. How the Bitcoin protocol actually works.

The article that really nails it: Bitcoin isn't Money -- it's the Internet of Money.

The internet: Core Internet protocols, such as TCP, part of the 'transport layer,' shuffle packets of data around, but they don’t define how the exchange of packets is then used to create meaningful communication. Internet applications, such as email and the World Wide Web, are defined in protocols implemented on devices at the edges of the network, like servers and home computers, not in the guts of the network: routers, switches, hubs, and exchange points.

Which means: The Internet model improves upon the traditional telephone model by making possible what Vint Cerf calls 'permissionless innovation.' Tim Berners-Lee was able to launch the World Wide Web without waiting for Internet service providers to support it.

Permissionless innovation is the key. Plus the distributed nature of the internet... lots of applications can work together without the people who make them needing to be in the same team. And also the layers! The bits and bytes of the internet keep moving around, even while a particular webpage might render badly.

As the internet is for data, Bitcoin is for money.

Look at the banks... they're horribly inefficient when it comes to technology. Vertically integrated stacks of slow moving, expensive code. There's no incentive to upgrade this technology because it's a protective moat against smaller, more agile competitors who can't afford to enter. So the banks end up being these giant bundles of all the services they provide... foreign exchange, letters of credit for international trade, investment, mortgages and overdrafts, merchant accounts, online balance checking. Why should the same organisation provide all of these things?

Well, if you did try to make interoperating technology for all these services, it probably wouldn't work. It would be insecure and error-prone. Translating between data and currency the whole time would make things inefficient. Hackable. But base it all on Bitcoin? Treat Bitcoin and the blockchain as the architecture for interop between all the different bits of a bank's technology?

Maybe, in the future, these monolithic banks will provide infrastructural and corporate applications only, all the other services fulfilled by an ecosystem of small and medium businesses.

Maybe there will be a business that just does overdrafts. A business that just does real-time credit risk. A business that just sweeps your spare change into investments.

Unbundle the banks!

Deep value chain sectors

There are these industry sectors that are dominated by huge, monolithic, vertically integrated companies.

For example, the toy industry has history been able to prevent competitors entering using a combination of: difficulty accessing distributors and retailers; the economics of mass production demanding mass consumption and therefore mass media. This is being undermined by direct sales (e-commerce) and marketing via social media.

Or newspapers and magazines. Being unbundled under the pressure of the internet.

These get broken up in a death of a thousand cuts.

And then there are new technologies which are coming in that demand a whole ecosystem of new businesses to really take advantage of them, and force existing businesses to restructure to avoid being left behind.

For example, as I said the other day, to take advantage of the Internet of Things, existing manufacturers will need new teams and new departments to figure out how to speak directly with consumers.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a proper deep value chain sector. I can't think of a single business that could do everything from the product manufacturing, the wireless chip design and fabrication, the back-end web services, the community management, and the design, marketing and customer service. There are a dozen decent size businesses at every step of that.

When I think of IoT, I think of that bit in The Graduate, I wanna say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.

Plastics? Like, pacemakers or wind turbines? Putting it out the ground or selling it in shops?

And one of the things that preoccupies me (working with startups, and having been immersed in the Internet of Things for a decade) is: what do you do, as a business early into these deep value chain sectors? You have to throw a line across the canyon to ship any product at all, but you'll get out-competed by people who wait for the ecosystem to appear.

Two other areas I'm keeping my eye on:

  • Artificial intelligence. Algorithms, robots, computer vision, futures markets as information processing, neural networks for toys. The applications of these technologies are a long way from their first implementations. Bringing A.I. to market will be a long process.
  • Let's call it 3D printing. But really what I mean is the telescoping collapse of the supply chain. We manufacture right now in Shenzhen and other clusters because of economies of scale, and because of the network effects between factories. But alienation from the supply chain is beginning to bother us (finding horse meat in our lasagne as one example), and new technologies are beginning to undermine the pressures that lead to mass production. What will happen when a local factory can keep a catalogue of everything they want to provide, and re-stock the shops overnight? The thing is, these new technologies of manufacture bring with them their own aesthetic. So part of productising 3D printing is to make it desirable. But when this really takes off? When e-commerce and pick-up points are properly built out, when commerce and awareness can travel along the vertices of the social graph, when manufacturing is small scale and local? What then?

Also-watching-but-less-informed-about: Space.

Enough already

I'm rambling I know. And I haven't edited these notes so they're a blimmin mess stream of consciousness.

But the meta I'm trying to figure out is: when you spot that one of these deep value chains is at the beginning of a big reconfiguration, what do you do? How do you enter it as a small business? How, as a national economy, do you help it along and make sure the transition happens healthily?

Update: Good grief, I wrote a lot more.

Filtered for washing machines

1.

The Kindly Brontosaurus, The amazing, prehistoric posture that will get you whatever you want, whenever you want it.

It works like this:

You must stand quietly and lean forward slightly, hands loosely clasped in a faintly prayerful arrangement. You will be in the gate agent's peripheral vision-close enough that he can't escape your presence, not so close that you're crowding him - but you must keep your eyes fixed placidly on the agent's face at all times. Assemble your features in an understanding, even beatific expression. Do not speak unless asked a question. Whenever the gate agent says anything, whether to you or other would-be passengers, you must nod empathically.

I vaguely remember reading an article about holding eye contact for one beat longer - four rather than three seconds - and how persuasive that is. But I can't find the article now, Google just returns a ton of blog posts about flirting.

2.

Content, Forever starts with whatever Wikipedia page you want, then gives you an auto-generated article (for however many minutes read you want), rambling through paragraphs of interconnected articles.

Related: Nieman Lab predictions for the future, generated with a Markov chain generator.

Computational social scientists are already working on wearable technology, however, they are tackling interesting problems, and I personally look forward to reading the email lists where she asks her question about how to be able to quickly iterate and push ideas to market, all while empowering culture changes along the way for customers who advertise with media companies with giant databases of information that makes up articles.

Fewer and fewer shut-off valves.

3.

The Studio D End of Year Report led me to their custom-design zero branding duffle bag: D3 Traveller.

Which I now want to own, of course. Ultragibson.

4.

Shirts wash part 1, on YouTube. Via @philgyford who said Brilliant (if shaky) mundanity: ... A boy's multi-part commentaries of washing machine cycles.

It's like we're see this boy before he's been infected with society's idea of what constitutes news. The sacred and the profane. Don't take the piss, this is good.

Malden level crossing.

Something brilliant about seeing through somebody else's eyes, the ambient sound and everything.

Connected products trip up the incumbents

Coffee morning three! Six of us this time: Josh, Gavin, Alex, Raph, and Daniel. Thanks for coming!

I kept some notes...

Something about commissioning a sit-com pilot about open data?

Sexy turducken. Don't ask.

Fridgeezoo fridge pets. Which are SO CUTE.

And a long, rambling conversation that had no conclusion but - to my mind - is the most interesting consequence of web-connected products and the new hardware startups.

Which is that manufacturers never spoke to consumers before. They spoke with distributors and retailers. But now products are connected to the internet, manufacturers suddenly have a relationship with the consumer. And they literally don't know what to do. Should marketing look after this? Or product development? Or customer service? Or should it be outsourced to an agency, like advertising?

For instance... the "Tips" application on the iPhone. Who looks after that? Who makes sure the content is good? Apple is an exceptional company, and they care about customer experience at every level. But could Bosch do this? Or Magimix?

If companies don't get this right, their products won't be any good. But to get it right, they need to restructure. I saw this challenge multiple times while we were consulting on new connected products.

But the incumbents will find it hard to adapt. Which leaves the door open for new hardware companies who behave more like companies that run websites: In touch with their community, selling direct, a product group that cares about the product in-use not only until the moment it leaves the factory.

Also.

Also we had crackers and festive hats. Proof.

Next coffee morning

I'm loving this different mix of people each time thing. I was fully expecting to sit on my own doing email, and ended up having a brilliant and funny bunch of conversations. A proper little street corner!

Next coffee morning: Thursday 15 January, 9.30am till whenever, the Book Club again.

Pop it in your calendar, it'd be lovely to see you.

Filtered for nematodes and Uniqlo

1.

The nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) is tiny and only has 302 neurons. These have been completely mapped and the OpenWorm project is working to build a complete simulation of the worm in software. A neuron map is called a connectome.

(In May, OpenWorm achieved a successful Kickstarter to run the worm's brain in a web browser.)

One of the OpenWorm founders has hooked up the software connectome to sensors and wheels in a Lego robot body: A Worm's Mind In A Lego Body.

It's a funny threshold to cross without much fanfare, the first brain upload.

Is this Artificial Intelligence? What's A. about this A.I.?

Related: The four-colour theorem which was the first to rely on Proof By Computer. Instead of being solved mathematically, every single of the vast number of cases was checked by a computer program. Does this count as a proof? Controversial at the time, more common now.

Related: Slime mold robot. Related: Cyborg cockroaches.

Caenorhabditis elegans. C. elegans.

Is the uploaded nematode a new species? If so, what do we call it?

2.

Books are back in the UK. E-book sales have peaked at 30%; Waterstones (major but recently troubled chain bookshop) is beginning to open new branches.

Old books undergo acid hydrolosis -- lignin, which binds the fibres, oxidises into acids which break down the cellulose. The organic compounds released smell of vanilla and almonds.

3.

I mentioned the Cereal Killer cafe the other day... here's another perspective:

Cereal Killer Cafe, the London Review of Breakfasts.

A wave of nausea suddenly hits me. I'm staring at my notes and the room feels like it's breathing. Then the rest just pours out. 'Is your cafe ironic? Do you really like ADHD kids food? Or just jokingly like it? Is there really anything to celebrate here beyond a profound efficiency in the delivery of deadly consumption habit forming food to minors? Or is that the point?'

Must read.

4.

I get a few specific items from particular brands. For the basics, I love Uniqlo. Great clothes.

...maybe a little bit because I'm in love with their slogans, which every employee must memorise, as related in this GQ article on Uniqlo.

Uniqlo is clothes that suit your values.

Uniqlo is how the future dresses.

CHANGE OR DIE

Fast Company on Uniqlo: We are not a fashion company, ... We are a technology company.

At the factory, a technician hands me a packet of small white pellets that look like albino peppercorns. These are the seeds of HeatTech.

Uniqlo is beauty in hyperpracticality.

Uniqlo is clothing in the absolute.

In Snacks for a Fat Planet (New Yorker, 2011), it turns out that PepsiCo have invented a new kind of salt. So we wondered, was there a different kind of salt crystal that would produce the same taste curve but with less salt?

Yes: 'We don’t know the molecular structure of the salt receptors, and we don't really understand the mechanism by which salt works,' Khan went on. Nevertheless, collaborating with crystal technologists in Munich, PepsiCo was able to develop '15 micron salt,' a new kind of salt that produces the same taste curve as the salt the company has been using - a pyramid-shaped crystal known as Alberger salt - but contains twenty-five to forty per cent less sodium. PepsiCo first used the new salt on its Walker brand of chips, which it sells in the U.K. By the end of 2012, 15 micron salt will be flavoring many of the Lay's plain chips made in the U.S.

Ice-nine.

A.I. elegans.

THEY INVENTED A NEW MOLECULE JUST FOR CRISPS.

Red, yellow, green, bice, plunket, plaid

Opening lines of Wikipedia articles on various colours:

  • Red. Red is the color at the end of the visible spectrum next to orange and at the opposite end from violet. The wavelength of red light is approximately 620–740 nm on the electromagnetic spectrum. Red is the color of blood ...
  • Yellow. Yellow /[phonetic]/ is the color of gold, butter, and ripe lemons. In the spectrum of visible light, and in the traditional color wheel used by painters, yellow is found between green and orange. It is a primary color in subtractive color. Yellow is commonly associated with gold ...
  • Green. Green is a color on the spectrum of visible light, located between blue and yellow. It is evoked by light with a predominant wavelength of roughly 495-570 nm. In the subtractive color system, used in painting and color printing, it is created by a combination of yellow and blue, or yellow and cyan ...
  • Blue. Blue is the colour of the clear sky and the deep sea. It is located between violet and green on the optical spectrum. Surveys in the U.S. and Europe show that blue is the colour most commonly associated with harmony, faithfulness, confidence, distance, infinity, the imagination, cold, and sometimes with sadness.

Do nanometers help?

p215-218: Table 33, Color words in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755).

(I found a file on my computer with the above title. Pages 215-218 of what? The notes are probably from when I was researching Making Senses back in 2006... but the actual source? Possibly Folk Taxonomies in Early English (Anderson). Dunno. Anyway, here are my favourites.)

Black

  • bistre "A colour made of chimney soot boiled, and then diluted with water, used by painters in washing their designs."
  • lutarious "Of the colour of mud."

White

  • grisly Defined as "Dreadful; horrible; hideous; frightful; terrible," but several citations make it clear that grisly is a color word.
  • hoar "1. White. 2. Grey with age. 3. White with frost."

Red

  • lake "A middle colour, betwixt ultramarine and vermilion, yet it is rather sweet than harsh. It is made of cochineal"
  • roan Citation: "Roan horse is a horse of a bay, sorrel, or black colour, with grey or white spots interspersed very thick."
  • rubican "Rubican colour of a horse is one that is bay, sorrel, or black, with a light, gray, or white upon the flanks, but so that this grey or white is not predominant there."

Green

  • bice "The name of a colour using in painting. It is either green or blue."

Blue

  • ceruleous, cerulean "Blue, sky coloured."
  • plunket "A kind of blue colour."
  • welkin "sky-coloured"

Also

Also, hyper-red.

Synaesthesia is when you, for example, "see" the printed number 5 as green, and 2 as green. Or hear C-sharp as blue. I swear I remember reading about an experiment where - when a synaesthesiac sees the number 5 as red - the number 5 is also printed in red. And the resulting colour: HYPER-RED.

But I've been combing The Phenomenology of Synaesthesia (Ramachandran and Hubbard) which is the go-to paper on such questions (for example, Does it matter whether the letters are upper or lower case? Yes it does)... and I can't find anything. Am I mis-remembering?

Finally: A list of fictional colours. Plaid is one of the colors outside of the natural human spectrum visible to large intelligent arachnids in Vernor Vinge's novel A Deepness in the Sky. Cracking book that.

Coffee morning three

Pop the date in your calendar! Coffee morning three is this week. Sort-of-hardware-ish.

Thursday 18 December, 9.30am till whenever, the Book Club in Old St.

Coffee morning two was fun. This will be the same... Zero structure, many conversations all about nonsense maybe with a slight hardware bent, a half dozen or so people, open to anyone!

I've been thinking about why I'm organising this coffee mornings, beyond the whole "there isn't enough time in the day to meet all the interesting people I'd like to, so meet everyone on Thursday mornings" thing, and because I really enjoy introducing people to other people and having that work. I think it's because there's a mode of thinking which I miss now I'm no longer working in a studio, and that's informality. It's the tea-in-the-kitchen chats that make me laugh and spark new thoughts. And that sort of informal serendipity comes from a weird mix of rhythm and randomness. Which means I like having a regular time but not regular attendees. It's just whoever fancies coming that day... I don't want to build a community! But maybe a street corner. I think I'll carry on these coffee mornings into 2015, every couple of weeks probably.

So, next coffee morning is this Thursday, hopefully see you there, and let's chat! If you see someone you don't know, say hello, and if you think two people should talk then make that happen! Recreational catalysis.

There may be crackers containing festive hats. It depends on how organised I am.

Come along!

Filtered for storytelling

1.

Cracking profile of Billy Joel in the New Yorker from October, Thirty-three hit wonder.

Long. Full of good word nuggets.

The saxophone is the radiocarbon.

I seem to be reading a lot of New Yorker articles recently. My current magazine subscriptions are The Economist and the London Review of Books which is max capacity. Maybe time to change it up.

2.

There's a new place in Shoreditch that only sells breakfast cereal. It's called Cereal Killer Cafe. There's a portrait of Hannibal Lector made out of Cheerios on the wall.

Rob Manuel visited, expecting to hate it, and didn't. Lovely story, good luck to them.

3.

I've been totally immersed this weekend in the iPhone game A Dark Room -- minimalist, just text and tapping, and what a picture it paints.

Don't read any reviews, just play it with no preconceptions. Absolutely top fucking notch, best game I've played all year.

Once you have played, here's the development blog.

Also on my iPhone:

  • Workflow which lets you link together actions ("take a photo", "make a GIF", "tweet it") and create custom, automated workflows that you can run from the home screen or wherever there's a Share button. Official site. The app has tons of examples.
  • Pocket Storm plays a thunderstorm from crickets to deluge to fading out again, you choose how long it lasts from 5 minutes to an hour. Different each time.

4.

Very excited -- Adam Curtis has a new film out in January: Bitter Lake.

Politicians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events. But now there are no big stories and politicians react randomly to every new crisis - leaving us bewildered and disorientated. And journalism - that used to tell a grand, unfurling narrative - now also just relays disjointed and often wildly contradictory fragments of information.

Here's the trailer. (Down at the bottom of the blog post.) So good.

Curtis' style is distinctive -- a collage of archive footage and music with CAPS stamped over it, and the essay in his own voice. This new film is about the stories that politicians tell - and Afghanistan and all the usual politics - but also looks like it'll be about journalism and his own technique:

It tells a big story about why the stories we are told today have stopped making sense. But it is also an experiment in a new way of reporting the world. To do this I’ve used techniques that you wouldn’t normally associate with TV journalism. My aim is to make something more emotional and involving - so it reconnects and feels more real.

Looking forward to this enormously.

Curtis' The Century of the Self (2002) is on Vimeo -- part 1 here.

Books

I recently finished The Art of Captaincy by Mike Brearley. Brearley was England cricket captain in the late 1970s, and one of the most successful in recent decades. Then later, President of the British Psychoanalytical Society. The book is exactly as excellent as you can imagine -- and has a tendency to illustrate points with detailed anecdotes about moisture on the wicket and fielding positions.

And also The Cyberiad by Stanislav Lem, funny short stories about robots who invent weird things in a galactic civilisation of robots. Here's how it opens: One day Trurl the constructor put together a machine that could create anything starting with n. -- read How the World Was Saved.

We Didn't Start the Fire Pedia

Here's a list of all the things in We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel, ordered by Wikipedia article popularity (page visits in the month of November 2014).

Most popular at the top. Page visits in parentheses.

List of pages mostly taken from the Wikipedia entry for We Didn't Start the Fire, and page view count from the Wikipedia article traffic statistics service.

Filtered for making and alienation

1.

Gifpop! Turn animated GIFs into actual physical prints using the magic of lenticular printing.

Lenticular stuff is brilliant. It reminds me of when I went to my 10 year school reunion and I was meeting all these people that I knew then but hadn't seen since, and I would see them as how I saw them then - with all of those old preconceptions and outdated understanding - then suddenly see them instead with total unfamiliarity as a completely new and unique person, and then it would flip back and forth. And the reverb when that happens as you see two people at once, overlaid, displaced in time but both there in the present, flipping between the two, it builds like a loud buzz in your ears and fills your head. I haven't used Gifpop! yet; maybe I should try to make that. Also they partner with artists and make limited edition gifpops. Super cool!

2.

Knyttan make on-demand, customised pullovers and scarfs. If you're in London, you can go see your pullover being made on their knitting machines in Somerset House (they have a pop-up there).

The designs are gorgeous... they've teamed up with a bunch of designers to make generative art designs, you use the website to build on the patterning - herding the houndstooth flock around a scarf, or overlaying interference patterns - then select colours and size to suit you.

They have some pretty special animated GIFs.

I'm currently based out of Techstars London and Knyttan is one of the startups in the programme, so I've got to spend a bit of time with them. (Incidentally, my mentoring experience at Techstars has totally convinced me about the value of accelerators for startups.)

What excites me most in this area of "on-demand manufacture" is the potential for collapsing the supply chain. You design, you see your item being made. You don't transport the item across the world. When - for cost reasons - you manufacture massive runs, it brings its own pressures: massive shipping containers, long lead times; the logic of marketing, credit, capital and mass consumption. "On-demand" (3D printing, computerised knitting machines) releases the chokehold of mass production.

Shorter supply chains means being closer to the means of production and to the people who work in the factories -- a kind of de-alienation. It means geographically distributed manufacture, less pressure on having to make and then advertise and sell huge production runs. A different kind of world.

So that's what I see. Plus beautiful knitwear, which is after all what really matters.

3.

Pi-Top is a laptop built around the ubiquitous Raspberry Pi single board computer. If you want, you can 3D print your own chassis. There's a lovely transparent window so you can see the electronics inside.

Which - you know what - cars should do too. I'd love a little window in my car (not that I have a car) so I can see it working. There's something about electronics (which cars seem to be now) as opposed to mechanics (which they used to be) which makes it inhuman. Electronics are teeny weeny. You can't see it. So I'm alienated from how my car works. Not, as I said, that I have a car. But I do have a microwave, and I'm alienated from how that works... whereas my grill, I can figure that out.

If I hadn't had a spiritual experience involving transistors when I was 19, I'd be alienated from computers too. (That's a story for another day.)

So when it comes to banks, or government, or policing, it's very easy for me to be alienated from those things too - patted on my head and told not to worry myself about it - because I'm alienated from the stuff in my everyday life already, and I've become acclimated to that feeling. And that's sad. And dangerous.

More Windows In Things.

4.

Do artifacts have ethics?

When we ask whether technology is "moral" or not, is the only relevant question what can be done with it?

A hammer may indeed be used to either build a house or bash someones head in. On this view, technology is morally neutral and the only morally relevant question is this: What will I do with this tool?

Maybe there are more questions:

... might I not also ask how having the hammer in hand encourages me to perceive the world around me? Or, what feelings having a hammer in hand arouses?

And there follows a list of 41 questions that you might ask of a thing - a product, an object - as a start, to understand better what kind of role it has in our moral world.

Here are some favourites of mine:

  • Does the use of this technology arouse anxiety?
  • How does this technology empower me? At whose expense?
  • What feelings does the use of this technology generate in me toward others?
  • Can I imagine living without this technology? Why, or why not?

And,

  • Does my use of this technology make it easier to live as if I had no responsibilities toward my neighbor?

I love this list.

Blimey I'm banging on today aren't I. Time to wrap up.

Filtered for art and other intangibles

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Filtered for top-notch long reads

1.

This well-illustrated piece on Chinese Mobile UI trends is full of great nuggets.

My favourite is that companies have adopted automated "chat" as their official public face. Each brand is a bot that runs inside one of the several apps that users in China have instead of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. How it works:

You can send any kind of message (text, image, voice, etc), and [the bot will] reply, either in an automated fashion or by routing it to a human somewhere. The interface is exactly the same as for chatting with your friends, save for one difference: it has menus at the bottom with shortcuts to the main features of the account.

A couple more features:

Other than that, every feature you can use in a normal chat is available here. WeChat even auto-transcribes the voice messages (mentioned before) into text before passing them to the third-party server running the account. Official accounts can also push news updates to their subscribers. Every media outlet operates one ...

I'm into this, I'm into this. Our western way for interacting with companies (assuming the shitty voice menu things are wildly out-dated) is websites, which we browse. But instead of browsing, a conversation?

So... cultural difference between China and the west, or just one of those forks in the road? Or a glimpse of the future?

2.

Hooked on Labs (thanks Iain) draws a line between the practice of Robert Hooke in the 1660s and the modern trend for companies to have "labs."

Labs are places where people conduct experiments to test out theories. The new labs proliferating outside the hard sciences are a symptom of the spread of experimentalism as an ideology for how we should shape the future. Curiosity is at the core of experimentalist culture: it holds that knowledge should develop by being testable and therefore provisional ...

I like that the answer to "how should we invent?" can be not a process but a location. Other answers might be "a studio," and "the field," both of which suggest a variety of processes and practices without being pinned down.

I guess my recent preoccupation with coffee mornings is about the same thing. Can the "coffee morning" as a place, with all its informality (which I am desperate to preserve), be a way to dowse the scenius, to allow invention to occur without process?

Also coffee.

And this bit:

One vital source of this conversational approach to science was Copenhagen and the culture that Niels Bohr created around his institute for theoretical physics and his nearby home.

...which reminds me of this terrific story about the development of the theory of electron spin and how it came together as Bohr travelled across Europe by train.

At the beginning of the trip:

Bohr's train to Leiden made a stop in Hamburg, where he was met by Pauli and Stern who had come to the station to ask him what he thought about spin. Bohr must have said that it was very very interesting (his favorite way of expressing that something was wrong), but he could not see how an electron moving in the electric field of the nucleus could experience the magnetic field necessary for producing fine structure.

And as Bohr travels from town to town, he meets scientists, hears arguments, develops his view, and carries information. Great story.

I think of the interactions between scientists as the hidden particles that don't show up in the traces of a cloud chamber. They're there, busy - multiple - far denser and richer and messier than the clean interactions of the citations in scientific papers or at conferences - the invisible trillions of forks that are left out of Feynman diagrams. Those interactions are what really matter, and their stories are the most interesting of all.

3.

I mentioned a radio show on the American West the other day... that show mentioned a paper given in 1893 by one Frederick J Turner: The Significance of the Frontier in American History (chapter 1 only in the linked book).

Three years earlier, the western frontier had been officially declared closed. In his paper, Turner argued that as "European germs" moved west from the Atlantic coast, America was created:

Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history.

It's both a wonderful history and a great point of view.

But this chapter is worth reading purely for the language and the metaphors. The variation of sentence length. The rhythms.

colonial settlement is for economic science what the mountain is for geology, bringing to light primitive stratifications.

Every river valley and Indian trail became a fissure in Indian society, and so that society became honeycombed.

Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family.

For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant.

And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.

Boom!

This is a paper written to be read aloud.

What happened at coffee morning two

Coffee morning two was this morning -- great to see Bethany, Mark, Matt, Pierre, David, and Tom. Thanks for coming!

Again... Too Many Dudes. I totally need to work on this.

What was it like? It turns out that both Bethany and I showed up early to do some email, so tap tap tap. Then Mark joined (Mark has just made an organically opening lamp shade at the Science Museum) so we shut our laptops and started chatting. Pierre I didn't know, so I'm really pleased he showed up, and Matt was told about the coffee morning by Mark so I'm also pleased he came.

Matt is from Bare Conductive which makes conductive ink and electronics that integrates with it. He told us this morning that in our studio, the light switches are painted on. You touch the wall and the light turns on.

Also their electronics board tells you how it works. Like, with a voice. The first time you turn it on, you plug in some headphones, touch a button, and it speaks to you -- instructions, setup, etc. This anecdote came up while we were discussing creativity and R&D in a product company: What's the right balance between exploring new ideas, and refining the product?

David from Winnow gave another example... their internet-connected scales help commercial kitchens avoid food waste. The beta version of their software uses realtime weather forecasts to tell chefs if it's going to be raining at lunchtime (if they know it's going to be raining, they'll prepare less food). Wonderful feature, totally in line with the mission. How do you make time to discover these new ideas, when you're also working on scaling the product?

Also discussed was the news that it looks like the flagship Maker Faire in London, planned for 2015, is no longer happening. Sad news if they can't find a new venue and the right support.

Thoughts

I liked today, and I think what I like is that there can be many conversations all at once; a coffee morning is resolutely informal.

There's also, for me, a hint that these coffee mornings could be a place where paths cross - not a "community" or group - gossip rather than knowledge, a street rather than a salon. That feels like the kind of thing I'd like to foster right now.

So I'll keep doing it I think.

Next coffee morning

Pencil in Thursday December 18th, 9.30 till whenever, at the Book Club again. I'll confirm nearer the time, but that's 90% certain as of today. Hopefully see you there.

Filtered for spaaaace

1.

Planet Labs! They've already got 28 satellites in orbit and they're making available Earth imagery for... anything. Developers will be able to get access to the pictures and do stuff with it. Do crops about to become ready change in the infra-red? Probably. Valuable.

They have a gallery of recent pics. Something a bit incredible about the images being so fresh. "2 days ago."

They've raised $65MM so far. A fleet of satellites in orbit for only that. Space eh.

Thanks @ukglo for the pointer over brunch.

2.

Spacelog! Original transcripts of early space exploration, online.

Houston, Tranquility Base here.

Later:

And the--the surface is fine and powdery. I can--

3.

As part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE there are four private companies going to the Moon in 2015. To get the prize they have to land a robot and make it go 500m.

SpaceX isn't going to the Moon, but they are a private company doing launches and whatnot, gearing up for taking crew too. They're hiring a farmer.

This is probably because they incidentally own a farm.

But I prefer to imagine it's because the future is farmers in space, like in The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss, in which Quakers travel in a world-ship called the Dusty Miller to a planet called Reiradi on a journey thats last several generations. The book is mainly about farming and the nature of silence in which the voice of God may be heard. It's beautiful.

In my notes, I have a list of names of generation ships in science fiction I've read. Here is the list:

  • Discovery
  • Dusty Miller
  • Magellan
  • New York
  • Peerless
  • America
  • Leonora Christine

4.

In Transformers: The Movie (1986) - which I understand was the final movie role for Orson Welles - there's a Universal Greeting which expresses Hello even when you don't share a language.

This is it:

Ba weep gra na weep ninny bong.

Here's a video. Try it out, let me know how it goes.

Filtered for tampons and structurelessness

1.

The first post I read was from James Darling about buying milk. His story: People at his work were being proprietorial about their milk in the fridge, so he bought a big bottle and put up a sign that said Everything with DSD5 written on is free to anyone. Contributions welcome. And now all the milk is for public consumption and people contribute.

It turned out James had been inspired by Alice Bartlett doing something similar with tampons. This is what she said:

After sitting around for six months trying to work out how to get my secret stash of tampons into the toilet in a way that would stop them from being tidied away by the cleaning staff, I realised the solution. Put tampons and sanitary towels in the toilet for everyone. Put them in a posh container so it would be obvious that they were supposed to be there. Ask women to contribute if they found it useful.

And now that's become Tampon Club which btw has the best logo, and they say how to set one up, for example what kind of container to use, and how to get it started, and what kind of message works well. Who is behind this? A shadowy cabal of menstruating women, natch.

I could say there are lessons here about culture hacking, or that I'm super pleased that people I know are actively building new commons. Or that this is a good and right way of Being In The World, and I hope that I can contribute stuff like this too.

But the main thing is that I hope everyone hears about this and helps Tampon Club happen more. So tell your friends! Here's Tampon Club at IBM Hursley.

2.

Apropos my post on Sunday about Star Wars being the new Western (or not), @gnat pointed me at this In Our Time episode about the American West. 45 minutes, worth a listen. A race through a history of the west and the frontier, with some great anecdotes and some astute observations about American politics and how various presidents have enrolled the frontier mythology... one point that sticks in mind: Lincoln grew up in a log cabin; Roosevelt went to Harvard and wrote a history of the frontier; Reagan acted in westerns; W Bush referenced the shows about the west he saw on TV growing up.

That's not saying anything bad about Reagan or Bush. Just that the western frontier was so defining for the United States... but so recent, so every generation we get further away from it is a huge difference in what it means.

3.

I'm into this Japanese notebook hack which introduces a third dimension into your un-indexed notes. Tag each page with a keyword, and list that keyword on the last page of the book. To match up with that tag, make a mark on the edge of each corresponding page. Then you can get a view over what's where. Neat.

4.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness (1970) came up in conversation the other day and I feel like it's worth a re-read.

All groups have structure, even if they try not to. Hidden structure means hidden power which is impossible to critique. There are two negative consequences...

The first is that the informal structure of decision-making will be like a sorority: one in which people listen to others because they like them, not because they say significant things.

And,

The second is that informal structures have no obligation to be responsible to the group at large. Their power was not given to them; it cannot be taken away. Their influence is not based on what they do for the group; therefore they cannot be directly influenced by the group.

But there's hope. Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of 'structurelessness', it will be free to develop those forms of organisation best suited to its healthy functioning.

...and that organisation should keep in mind a number of principles which are then listed and explained: Delegation of authority; Responsibility of individuals to the group; Distribution of authority; Rotation of tasks; Allocation of tasks along rational criterial; Diffusion of information; Equal access to resources.

Worth a read for new organisations of all kinds.

Lastly.

Do people read this blog? If you do, feel free to comment on Twitter like @gnat did when he pointed out that In Our Time episode, or just say Hi which is always appreciated. You can find me at @genmon and, if you want to get automatic notifications about new posts, follow @intrcnnctd.