Archive for March, 2012:

More Frighteningly Ambitious

Continuing my discussion of Paul Graham’s frightening ambitious ideas:

The Next Steve Jobs

I don’t see how a company can set out to be the next Apple, or how an individual can set out to be the next Steve Jobs.  This isn’t the way the world works.  Apple didn’t set out to be the Apple of today.  Sure, perhaps, early on, Jobs saw the plausibility of turning computers into household appliances, but I’m guessing he wasn’t thinking of the devices we have today – because back in the early eighties, they weren’t thinkable… and Jobs was a realist – a special type of realist who knew just how far reality could be distorted in his favour at any particular point in time.  And Jobs didn’t set out to be Jobs.  Not the Jobs we knew at the end.  That Jobs was created by the successes and failures of the younger, brasher, less tidied up Jobs.

But more than anything, I dint think Jobs would have set out to be the next anything else – he would have set out to be the first Steve Jobs.

Now – there is absolutely space for people to try to bring better design to the tech industry.  and there is space fot people who want to move on the capabilities of existing technologies.  These are things we need to see.  What Jobs had was a combination of good design, a step forward in capabilities and a strong brand behind him.  The strong brand was important – the strong brand is what gave Jobs the clout to get entertainment industries and telecoms industries moving into step with him.

Getting a strong brand is hard.  But these days its easier.  Facebook might, potentially, have some of the clout we are talking about, and its still young.  But to become a strong brand quickly requires a low cost of entry for the users – and that pretty much precludes being involved in making innovative consumer electronics.

So the future of design is going to start in software.  It’ll be when one of the guys behind some particularly popular and well designed website says “screw this – I don’t want you making my site ugly” to advertisers and finds another way to make money – possibly by extending his brand into the physical world that we’ll see changes happening…

Though the other place I would look to is kickstarter and etsy.  There are more and more iphone cases and ipad covers that exude beauty.  What if one of these designers were to build a wrapper around something cheap and generic (say the Raspberry Pi) and turn it into something better.  I don’t know what that something better might be, but we are at a place where design first development of products is looking plausible.

Bring Back Moore’s Law

To be honest, i’m not hopeful that someone is going to come out and say “Look at my new compiler, it avoids all the problems with parallel processing”.  But my experience is stat you never have to solve all of the problems, just some of them.

That said, I don’t think Moore’s law is the problem that needs to be solved, when it comes to parallelism.  I think scalability is the problem.  You want a program that runs as well on 12 cores as it does on 1 core – thats Moore’s law being brought back [we all know Moore's law hasn't gone anywhere in hardware - I'm talking about getting software to take advantage of it] – but you also want a program that runs on a million cloud based servers as it does on one core.  That is a different problem.  And its a problem we’re not close to solving.  So it really is frighteningly ambitious.

Programming languages, as they have taken off in real world usage have gone from being wrappers around assembly language [C] to being more and more abstract [C++, Java], and usable [Python, Ruby] and less woried about the processors control flow and more worried about the user’s [Javescript].  Operating systems used to just cove over the complexities of the CPU, now they provide more and more abstraction – to the extent we even have hypervisors – operating systems for operating systems.  But operating systems still work like CPUs do.

There is another layer of abstraction to be jumped to.  Abstraction over the cloud.

We have various parts of this.  Hadoop is the sort of engine we need inside such an OS.  The web provides us with a user interface to it.  But we don’t have the full tools.  What should happen is this:  I right a program which handles a users request, prcreeses it andprovides a response.  A simple program.  one that doesn’t worry about what else is happening.  Perhaps I write more programs to handle background activities and the like.  And I set all these programs running on ‘my cloud’ – something which I access through a browser, develop on through a browser and which looks like one big computer to me.  The cloud takes my code, and does all the work.  It figures out what the complexities are, what the things my code requires.  Where my code needs to scale by being broken down into multiple jobs.  And it compiles the code, and runs it appropriately – probably recompiling sections of the code in response to runtim analysis of modules.  The suer doesn’t have to understand how file storage is spread across a billion disks – just like right now I don’t have to understand about my single disk’s sector sizes and rotation speeds.

And yes – if it turned out that my cloud was a single corred mobile phone, then, yeah – why shouldn’t it be able to target that too?

All of this is possible, its just a huge and frightening task.  If someone were to take it on, the world would look a very different place immediately.

Ongoing Diagnosis

The problem with healthcare monitoring is – unlike most of the other ideas – it requires hardare.  And hardware is hard to make, expensive to ship, breaks, and is generally quite big.  So the problem is making light cheap healthcare sensors.  Which is something I’m absolutely not qualified to talk about.

But two things I do know about hardware are – it is cheaper to make hardware which is dumb, and it is cheaper to make hardware which is produced en mass.

Dumb hardware simply needs to communicate with software which can do the real processing – and combine the information from lots of sensors to build a bigger picture.  It may be the market itself is not in making the sensors, but it being the best diagnosis engine combining the inputs from lots of sensors and looking them up against a database.

Getting the first sensors cheap enough is a bigger problem. Were I going into this area, I would be looking at the developing world.  Right now, parts of the word are crying out for a doctor in a box.  It doesn’t need to be small enough to fit into your mobile phone or training shoe – just into the back of a Toyota Hilux.  But if it can be made fairly cheap, the market is out there – and there are Bill and Melida Gates’s who will pay you to make your product – and to make it cheaper and smaller, and more efficient.

While we could revolutionise first world healthcare (and that is probably where the big bucks are), while we are developing this, we might accidentally make the world a far beter place.

I don’t know healthcare.  I don’t know everything that can be done.  But I know that is the sort of accident I would like my startup to have.

Frighteningly Ambitious

Paul Graham has blogged about 7 ‘frighteningly ambitious’ themes for new startups – 7 themes which could lead to some form of world domination.  Interestingly many of these are themes I’ve had ideas about.  Not ideas I’ve done much with, you understand.  I’m lacking the time, energy, inclination, and most probably balls.  But I’ve thought about them.  And so, not wanting to waste good thoughts, here are the points I would start from:

Search Engines

Is the time ripe for a new search engine to overtake Google?  I for one always thought AltaVista could never be beaten, so I’m probably not the best person to ask (even though I became one of Google’s earliest adopters.  I do know what I like when I see it).  I don’t think there will ever be another Google – at least not in the same way that Google was an incremental improvement upon AltaVista and the webcrawlers which preceded it.  But maybe there is scope for another search engine done differently.

Graham suggests ‘bring back old style search’ – and I think there is a place for this.  Its a place Duck Duck Go is probably already in.  But I think its a niche.  Because people, generally, do want to find the things useful to them, not simply the best responses based on whoever has asked the question.  No.  There are two paths a new king of search could follow:

The first is to ask a question “Can we pay for search without using adverts”  or to put it another way “Are anyone but advertisers willing to pay for search?”  My guess is: yes.  But not your old style search.  If you were to provide a service more akin to Siri, there would be people (phone and tablet manufacturers, perhaps) who might be willing to pay to tie in with your back end.  Similarly, if you were to master the art of media search, then TV companies and set top box companies might want to pull you on board.  Finally, I might be prepared to pay a small amount for a really good search system which worried more about what I wanted than what ad revenue they were bringing in.  I’m probably unusual here, but if you were to give me something spectacular, there might be money in it.

The second is ultra-personal search.  The sort of search that feels almost creepy.  I’m talking about the sort of search, which right now is monitoring the web pages you visit, and listening into your conversations so that next week, when you say ‘I vaguely remember hearing something about a new film’ it can tell me that John was suggesting we go to see the new Die Hard movie, Julie was interested in us popping out to see a rom-com if anything new was coming out and  I personally had watched a couple of trailers – but didn’t pay much attention to them.  There are all sorts of ethical issues here.  But I wrote about privacy recently, and maybe the next generation, growing up privacy free, won’t really care.  Or maybe we have to sell it as being less like an evil corporation grabbing all your data, and more like having a personal butler who offers gentle suggestions.

Maybe if the two ideas were tied together (so you had to pay for the service, but you could be sure the information wasn’t being used by anyone but you) this would be more palatable.

Replace Email

I’ve talked about this before.  One Inbox is a perfectly good plan for a startup.  It absolutely is the same idea as Paul Graham’s suggestion we need something closer to todo list management than communication management.  My only comment on his suggestion is that we don’t specifically, need a protocol.  Everything can be done by simply having links to particular web pages, along with little applets to scrape data from said webpages and turn it into a brief summary you can see as you pass on by.  Ultimately there will always be a variety of ways people want to get things into your inbox, the art will be figuring out the best way to manage and respond to them.

Replace Universities

I have lots to say about the subject of replacing universities – well, about fixing education in general.  In fact, I’ve more to say than is fair to try to squeeze into a subsection of an article.  I probably have a whole series of articles.  So instead of writing everything here, I will just explain the main thoughts I have in this area, and then point to why the place I would start is very different from the place Paul gram thinks we should begin.  Here are my thoughts about education.

Right now school systems are more or less, one size fits all.  But children are very different, and have different styles of learning.  Catering for all learning styles -or for the most common – mean most children are not being educated in the way that suits them the best much of the time.

Also, currently schools systems have to cope with teaching a wide range of abilities.  My personal experience suggests this has a tendency to involve putting a lot of effort in getting the least able children to keep up with the crowd, and leaving the brightest to educate themselves.

But we are in a world where it is now possible for more people to be educated in the way that suits them best.  The same subject can be taught by watching videos, reading, discussing via video conference with a group, or one on one with a specialist teacher or lecturer.

We have enough experience of A/B testing and recommendation engines, that we can figure out what is the most effective way of getting particular information conveyed to the right students.

Online testing (aided by actual teachers paid – or not – to read essays) can be used to determine what you know, and can be used to figure out what the best thing for you to learn next is.

Right now, the online materials are there that anybody who wants a good university level education – self taught – can probably manage it: the Kahn University materials and online courseware for places like Cambridge, MIT and the Open University are superb. Kahn University is even playing with ideas of taking you though a self paced curriculum in maths using the sort of techniques I’ve described above

So I wouldn’t – as Paul Graham suggests – decide to start with university level – or even necessarily with high school materials.  I would focus on home schoolers.

Home schooling has characteristics of parents, who are often desperately interested in their children’s education, but who may not be capable of teaching every subject on a curriculum.  These people may well have better disposable income than many sectors of the education market, and all they would want is to have some influence over the particular curriculum, and to monitor what is happening.

So I would develop tools for home schoolers.  Tools which might allow home schooled children to access educational material online that they would not be able to get at home.  teaching which could learn to suit the individual child in exactly the way I’m describing above.  The barriers would be low, because it would be monitored and controlled by the parents – in exactly the way home schooling currently is.

Developing such tools would simply require the work of a team of teachers, programmers and designers.  And would be hugely desirable to home schooling parents.  But I suspect, they would also quickly fall into the hands of schools which wished to let some children experiment with self directed learning, and parents who wished to offer their children the ability to catch up with, or exceed their peers.

Internet Drama

I’ve talked about apps being the new channel before.  Lets not go there again.  Exactly which app store you buy from, I don’t yet know.  My bet was on amazon, but anyone could take the crown.  I wouldn’t suggest you try to go for the crown yourself – there are too many players, and they are all better funded than you.  Maybe you could make the program guide – but that’s more like being a search engine.

So lets look at something different.  Where else might content come from?  There is an idea I’ve had for years which doesn’t seem to have happened, and I’m not quite sure why.

It seems that online there are people who like writing.  People who like acting.  People who like filming, directing, animating, editing.  All of these things.  Why isn’t there a place which brings them together?  I’m thinking of a place where people are not sniffy about owning their work, and work together to produce open source creative content – content which may not reach the quality of the big studios, but which is good enough, and which might bring you to the eyes of a bigger name – or at the very least give you a portfolio.

Here is how it might work.

I have an idea for a script.  Just that, an idea.  I post it on this website.  Over time, I add detail to this idea, fleshing it out into a longer, more detailed treatment, and then over time into a scene by scene breakdown, and then a script.  Others could watch you doing this online – it would all be public – and they may begin to comment, making suggestions.  Or we could even go to a github type of an arrangement where they can fork your work – its all creative commons, see, as long as you are attributed, they can do what they like.

Now, from there, there are many paths it could take.  Voice actors could record audio recordings of particular character’s parts – which a talented sound mixer could put together.  Directors and artists could put together story boards (we could write an app to display them in time with the audio recordings), and there would even be the potential for people to get together to make live action recordings, or animations.

Everything would be free, but you – as a media consumer – would get to know the artists you like, and start following their output.

Eventually, teams of creatives might get together and begin to sell new works – or nicely packaged copies of their work with extra features.

In fact, if the site that got these teams together could find a way to fund these (kickstarter like, perhaps), or offer help in production or promotion, who knows, it could turn from an online community into the next big studio.


I’ll approach the remaining three big ideas in a later article

How privacy is nothing but a modern menace

Is it possible that our current view on privacy is actually quite new?

Lots of people are trading their privacy for being allowed to use websites – or for cheap downloads.  Increasingly we have no privacy.  The new age of the net is taking our privacy from us.

But is the view that we have a right to privacy a new one? Not long ago, many more people lived in villages, proper communities, places where everyone knew everyone else. Back then, if you wanted a job, your prospective employer would know all about you or would know someone who did. I’m guessing this all changed with growing urbanization- or possibly with the growth of personal transport, and perhaps the suburbs.

Right now, the privacy we value may only be 60 or so years old.

What the net has done is made the world smaller.  Your Facebook profile is your gossipy friend. Google is the old lady twitching the curtains -the one who always knows what everyone is doing. Twitter is where your conversations down the pub can be overheard. Its a cliché, but it really is a global village. And for all the benefits that brings, the village gossip is the price we pay.

And we benefit by being in this community, because everyone else has lost their privacy too, the moment they joined.

Is it possible that privacy only really existed because we could travel faster than our social networks?

What rules are you playing by

Recently I wrote an article here about the fact corporate procedures are a lot like the rules of games – and that by acknowledging this, we could bring game design techniques more clearly into the workplace.  Perhaps make working – or at least corporate procedure – more fun.

It wasn’t, in my opinion, a great article.  It had one idea, and went on, it rambled a lot.  I suspect what I wrote above sums up what I wanted to say more clearly.  Yet I posted the article anyway.  Why?  Because its the rules.  Because I realized the rules I live by are also game mechanics.

I never like the quality of anything I write.

When I look back at things I have written, from a distance, I often like them more.

If I went with my first instinct, I would never publish anything.  I would never share my ideas

If I went with my second instinct, I might share my ideas, but they would never be fresh, I would never be part of the conversation.  In many ways this is what being an introvert feels like in every day communication – it shouldn’t be like that online.

So I came up with a rule.  I publish everything, no matter how much I’m unhappy with it.

Will this make me look a fool in public?  Probably.  But you can respect someone for doing something risky, dangerous and possibly foolish.  You cant respect someone who hides away.

This is by no means the only rule in my life.  When I realized I was being insufficiently careful with money, I made a rule to ensure I saved something.  When I realized that I wasn’t spending enough time with my wife doing things she wanted to do, I made rules about accepting a certain number os social engagements – engagements that I would otherwise avoid like the plague.  I make lots of rules for myself.

But its the rules we don’t realize we’ve made which can be the most devious, and the most destructive.

I’ve accepted my part in the mortgage and pension game.  This has lots of good aspects, but it means I have sacrificed certain freedoms.  I worry about financial security, and, until I see my bank account has enough money to support me and my wife, in the level of comfort to which we’re accustomed, for the rest of our lives, the risks I’m going to take will naturally be limited.  This is a rule I’ve accepted without realizing it.  And its a hard rule to ever consider giving up (indeed giving it up seems to be the epitome of foolishness).  But its a limitation, and it means freedom remains further out of my grasp than without it.

However, its a rule that I’ve identified.  and by identifying this rule, I have the potential to bend it – or break it – or make new rules to compensate.

What rules do you live by that you simply accept as being good common sense and never consider challenging?  What freedoms do you give up by following these rules?  Are the freedoms you gain sufficiently good that following the rules will always make sense?

Is it time to change the game you’re playing?

The rules of the game

The other day, it hit me.  I was preparing for a meeting, carefully plotting out some information to fit – not the best form that it could take, but a form which was required.  A form which laid everything out in a particular way.  I was following rules.  Not strict rules… there was a lot of scope for me to bend the rules to fit the data I was trying to convey.  But the rules were there.  And they were making my life easier, as I knew that everyone would be able to handle the information in this form, and everyone would be able to take the information and use it in their own work, far away from where I was generating it.

But this wasn’t what hit me.  What hit me was:  I had done all of this somewhere before.  There was something strangely familiar about the corporate procedure I was forcing myself through.  It was fun.  It was just like… a roleplaying game.

Lets talk about roleplaying.  When we were kids, we all did it.  Cowboys and Indians.  Nurses and Doctors.  Cops and Robbers.  That sort of thing.  We played the games, we told each other stories.  We had fights.  Most sane adults give it up as they get older.  I carried on – playing Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Marvel Super Heroes and as time went on many others.  The difference between these games, and the games we had as kids were that these games had rules.  Now, the usual story we tell is that these rules are there to stop the arguments we had as kids.  But this isn’t quite true.  The rules are there to direct how we play the game.  The mechanics don’t simply resolve disputes and add randomness:  When they are well designed the rules encourage us – with a nudge rather than a railroad – to play the game in the way the designers want.  It makes our characters in Call of Cthulhu scared – not just of losing their lives, but also of losing their minds.  It makes Feng Shui games climax with big, off the wall stunts.  And, it means Ars Magica characters really do care, not just about themselves, but about their place in the mythic world.

I like these rules a lot.  I like the design which tweaks how people behave.

There are board games which do the same.  I’m sure the success of settlers of Catan is due to the fact each time you play you think to yourself “I realize what I could have done better.  I’ll win next time”.  A wonderful game called “Family Business” works because, at some point you all stop playing the game to win, and simply fall into petty bickering over what other players have done.

And now, with corporate procedure, I’ve found a third thing which attempts to do the same.

Companies implement procedures in order to manage things – very often risk.  To make sure data flows correctly.  They are dry, and boring, and have a tendency not to work particularly well.  Frequently you fall into situations which the rules don’t cover.  Lust like in roleplaying games.  And – in a sensible company -  what you do next is exactly what you might do in a roleplaying game – you come up with a house rule to let you carry on playing.   A good house rule fits in with what everybody is trying to achieve.  A bad house rule unbalances the game, and leads to people playing differently – either to protect themselves, or to take advantage.

So the art is to come up with the right rule.  The rule which makes people do the thing that needs to be done.

Its all just game design.

If we want to ship a product by a particular date, then that date has to be at the core of the rules.  Perhaps we need all of our rules to fall around getting to that date.

If on the other hand, perfection is the number one goal – then we can let dates slip, but quality has to move upwards

Lots of games are like this – there are lots of things you want – low risk, high quality, all the features.  Now everyone in the process probably has a different goal.  The engineer in me wants to make my work perfect, bug free, unbreakable.  But the product manager wants to hit the ship date that the customers are expecting.  This is where the rules are important.  We trade off hitting a date for getting quality right not by putting more men onto bugfixing, but my changing the rules about exactly what has to happen for a release to occur.  “Pass 90% of automated tests” is the solid gold goal.  Product management then find their job becomes harder – they have to meet customer expectations and the bugfixing is going on too long.  So they play with their rules – what if we were to drop the buggy feature.  Or what if we were to determine that some of the failing tests just aren’t important.

Its all a game.

But in the ideal world, we wouldn’t have these situations.  We would have a game designer.

Her would probably call himself a process engineer.

But at heart he would be a game designer.  He would look at what people want (the introverted engineers just want to get on with their coding – and don’t give a damn if anyone actually uses it, the extroverted salesmen want to harrang the engineers publicly in meetings) and he would design a new system.  A system where people worked together, moving towards a goal.  He would settle disputes, and come up with new rules, rules which fix the patchwork of house rules.  Where processes are too complicated to follow, the game designer would simply.  Where they take up too much time, he would replace them with different rules – or with better payoffs.

He would release 2nd edition processes – and get everyone to move over

This would not be a guarantee of corporate success.  For that, we have to require the game designer knows exactly what the customer really wants – and knows how to do his job perfectly.

But by recognizing the system isn’t a set of procedures, but rather a game we are all playing in – and all playing in to win – we level the playing field, and we open up the discussion.  And we let people like me, who love game systems above corporate politics – have fun in the process.

Why I Write This Blog

When I was writing the article about Susan Cain, I ventured into the territory of discussing the value, to me, of blogging:  The fact that knowing I have done something with an idea – that I have shared it, even if no one reads what I’ve shared, is cathartic – its relaxing, and lets me get on with other things.

In the previous article about TEDXGranta I opined that it was a shame that ideas, when expressed were not always presented as well as they could be – and that that got in the way of the message.

So clearly this blog is perfect.  And I’m proud of everything I’ve written, right?

Yeah.  Whatever.

You see, I would dearly love this blog to be perfect.  But I’m lazy.  Too lazy to strive for perfection.  Which is, I admit, a flaw.  But even worse, I have great trouble with letting people perceive me as being imperfect.  Which means I don’t want to show them anything I’ve done.  Nothing I do will ever be perfect enough – so to myself, I will always seem to be too lazy.

However, I have ideas, and until I started this blog, they were just buzzing around in my head, waiting for me to do something with them.  Something I would never do, because to actually realize my ideas would show up imperfections – both in the idea, and in my attempt to do something with them.  I’m keeping myself locked up in a gaol of my own creation.  And if so, then this blog is a halfway house back to society.

You see, I didn’t tell anyone about this blog.  I just wrote to it.

And, when I wrote to it, I never cared that much about checking what I wrote.  There was no deep planning, just thinking thinking thinking until I was fit to burst, then writing until the muse left, or I reached a sentence which sounded like a conclusion.  After that the copy editing was negligible and I published without caring what the world thought.  Because, it was only under this set of rules that I could get anything written at all.  Only under these rules that I could do anything with my ideas.

And this is the way I’m going to continue.  At first, when I wrote to this blog, I thought I would write mainly about things I had special knowledge of – I have quite deep knowledge of the Windows driver ecosystem, and have attended enough of Microsoft’s conferences to let me think I have some insight into their corporate mind.  But as its moved on, I’ve used it as a place to dump other ideas.  Mainly technical ideas.  Applications I’ll never write.  Business strategies I’ll never convince the person who has power to take seriously.  But more and more, I want to talk about other things – the things which sit on the top of my mind from hour to hour.  The last two articles were examples of this – I’ve written about Introversion – which is both a major curse and a god given boon to me, and I’ve talked about ideas – which is the landscape I live in – away from the minor irritations of day to day life.

But there are other paths where I still fear to tread.  Spirituality.  My own half assed philosophies.  Stuff which could be described as the trashiest of self help, where the only scientific proof is an n=me sample.  Maybe I’ll find a way of broaching some of that here.  Because even if ideas only work for a few of us, its worth it if the idea is out there.

I’ve heard it said that ideas alone have no value.  When I first heard it, I agreed wholeheartedly.  Because I had ideas, and no one was paying me for them.  But this was just an excuse.  My ideas may have been priceless.  But all the gold in the world doesn’t do anything if you keep it locked away and don’t let anybody know you want to sell it.  No ideas do have value.  I buy books because I want to expose myself to good ideas.  Sure, the clarity of the writing helps.  The references to back up the ideas are nice.  Anything which stops my thoughts getting in the way of me paying attention to the idea is good.  But if there was no idea, no matter how nice the writing, I would consider the book to be almost valueless.

This all means I can put a price on ideas.  The sort of ideas I read about (which often are not that huge or world changing) I might expect to get one or two of in a paperback.  So to me, a good idea is worth, perhaps, a fiver.  The good thing about ideas, is that you can sell them over and over again to different people.  The bad thing about ideas is that, no matter how much you want to, you can’t own them.  And if someone can express that idea better than you – more clearly, more easily to get hold of, in video when you’re still on a cuniform tablet, then they’ll take the money.  And you can’t complain – because the idea isn’t yours.  But you also can’t complain, because the idea is being spread.  And because one idea being taken doesn’t mean you are out of ideas, it means you have more space to create more ideas.  And it means you know your ideas are valuable.

I’ve noticed many authors say they keep getting asked the question “Where do you get your ideas?”.  And I’ve noticed them having glib answers.  Answers which don’t answer the question.  Because the authors don’t know.  They might know what inspired a particular idea.  But they don’t know where the ideas come from (though Elizabeth Gilbert has some good thoughts on this.  See her TED speech.  Also, she doesn’t let her fear of being judged get in the way of writing about the spiritual side of her life.).  he fact is, authors have lots of ideas – they don’t get their ideas from anywhere – in fact their biggest job is to know which ideas not to use (or not to use just yet). I rather suspect authors, on their death beds, are more upset about the infinity of stories they haven’t been able to tell yet then of the few finely crafted stories they got out into the world.  People who say they never have ideas – or don’t know where ideas come from are wrong.

Its a lot like people who say “I never remember my dreams” or “I never dream”.  Everybody dreams.  We have pretty decent scientific proof that everybody dreams.  People who don’t remember their dreams, are people who don’t think paying attention to their dreams is important.  If you want to remember your dreams, all you have to do is the following

1. When you wake up, don’t move.  Moving seems to be the thing that eats dreams

2. Ask yourself:  was I dreaming just then.

3.  If you were, write down everything that you remember.  And perhaps meditate on bits to see if they help you remember other parts of your dream.

4.  Also, if, during the day, you recollect a dream fragment – you realize that a memory you recall couldn’t possibly have happened, write it down.

Do that, and often you’ll be remembering multiple dreams a night.  Don’t do that, and you could go on thinking you don’t ever dream.

Ideas are very similar.  We all have ideas.  We all think, from time to time “This sucks”.  That’s an idea.  When something sucks, there’s an idea telling you that something could be better.  Give it a couple of seconds pondering, and you might have a notion of how something could be improved.  It might be a fanciful thought.  You might immediately realize why it wouldn’t work.  But its an idea.  Seriously we have ideas all the time.  We just don’t recognize them.

For the record – its unlikely that you’ll have original ideas.  Because original ideas are mind bending weirdness, things that take a leap of consciousness to obtain.  Original ideas are for the prophets, philosophers, scientists and artists. (and only the very few of them, the rest are hacks, just like you and me).  What most of our ideas are is about combining things we already know in new ways.  Ideas are usually about 1 + 1.  God ideas are about the result being 3.  Bad ideas are about the result being .5.  Very rarely will we have to invent a whole new numbering system.

When we do recognize ideas, they have a habit of buzzing around and annoying us.  They want to be applied to everything.  Or they want us to apply them instead of washing the dishes and turning up for work.

When I talked about dreams, I talked about thinking about them, and about writing them down.  By honouring dreams, we mark them as something important to us.  Something we should pay attention to.  Ideas are the same… we need to honour them – to recognize them as important.  And we honour ideas by doing something with them, something more than just thinking about them.  When you honour dreams, you don’t keep getting the same dream – you net new dreams. The same is true of ideas.  Ideas don’t dry up.  The more ideas you’ve had, the more you are able to have, so long as you keep recognizing them as important.


This blog is about honouring ideas.  Its a place where I write about them.  A place where I share them.  A place where anyone can take them.  These ideas may not be worth a fiver.  And I certainly don’t expect anyone to pay me for them (though any donations you might like to offer won’t be rejected out of hand).  This blog is about putting them out there in case anybody finds them valuable – or anybody who isn’t a perfectionist might actually want to realize them.  Its a gift to myself, and (in a way) my gift to anyone who cares.

As of yet, I haven’t told anybody about this blog, even though I’ve been writing it for 6 months.  Google knows about it.  My wife knows about it.  Occasionally people stumble across it, and probably wonder where they are.  But the people who know me, don’t know about it.  I’m not sharing the ideas widely enough yet.  This may have to change.


But not quite now.

Because I’m scared they’ll find out I’m imperfect (like they don’t already know)

But ideas want to be free.  They want to be shared.

So someday.  Soon.  I promise.

On Susan Cain and Introverts

Susan Cain seems to be the most recent person to discover that there is nothing wrong with being an introvert.  Her TED speech was impressive, because Susan Cain is a wonderful, energetic, empathic speaker.  And there is a segment of the population – introverts – who are going to react strongly to it, because its a message we all like to hear : “All those things you’ve been told time and time again are wrong with you?  Well there is nothing wrong with you.  You’re a beautiful little flower – in fact you’re probably more beautiful than some of those big brash gaudy flowers.  And the world – well the world better shape up and start making your life easier, or, well, there’s gonna be some indeterminate form of trouble”

For the record, I’m an introvert.  A big, avoid parties, enjoy solitude and reading, and keeping my thoughts to myself, introvert.  I often say (as a joke… although all jokes have an element of truth in them deep down) that I hate people.  And I’m not a self loathing introvert.  I also agree that its an extravert’s world out there. I learned long ago to accept what being an introvert means to me:

Other people are tiring.

I find it hard to think, when I’m also trying to manage all those other, tiring people.

I’m bloody well not going to tell you what I’m thinking about, until I’ve formed the thought in my head, and got it fairly right.

Because inside my head is where things matter.  Its where I live.  The outside of my head is just a place where new things come from – its job is to funnel them into my mind.

I have no evidence (and I can’t read her book, until the end of March, so I may have to write a follow up then) but I suspect Susan Cain agrees with me on these points.

But we disagree – I think – on one major issue.  Susan Cain comes close to suggesting that introverts and extraverts are at war.  Whereas I think between us we have more potential if we work together.  And for introverts – as a niche, its up to us to find our way into the inefficient cracks of extravert society.  If its a war, we are not an opposing army.  We are a resistance, who extraverts might one day wake up and notice are running everything, secretly, behind the scenes.  If we’ve done it right, the extraverts won’t even care.

So – let me get this straight – I do think the world needs to be told that there is nothing wrong with being an introvert.  I do think its right that extraverts should be told there are people whose minds work in a slightly different way from yours (incidentally, if you’re an extravert… imagine you’ve spent all day in meetings.  Then gone out with a crowd of people after work.  Then, on arriving home, you’re in-laws have turned up for dinner.  Just as you are seeing them out the front door, after a lovely meal, a friend calls, and suggests you pop down the pub for last orders.  You say “I think I’m going to have an early night” tired from all the socialising.  Well, that’s how an introvert feels after an hour of meetings.  Or after one long phone call.  Once you can understand that, we can move onto the deeper implications).  I also think its right that introverts need to be told that there is nothing wrong with them, that its just a characteristic they have, like their height, eye colour or sexuality.  But I don’t think we need to get extraverts to compromise as much as Susan Cain seems to think we do

Lets take her discussion of education.  Susan Cain says

1.  Introverts do better at school than extraverts

2. The school system is increasingly biased towards extraverts in how children are taught to learn

3. There are more extraverts than introverts (actually, I think Susan Cain overestimates the number of introverts – everything I’ve read suggest we are 25% of the population)

Now – for right or wrong – our school system is set towards getting everyone to the same level.  It doesn’t do a wonderful job of helping those who are capable of excelling excel, because it spends its time picking up the pieces of those who are falling behind.  Now, looking at the statements above we see that, despite the extravert education system, the introverts are doing well.  On average, they don’t need more help.  Its the extraverts – the majority – who need help.  So doesn’t it make sense to have an education system which teaches extraverts in the way they find the best to learn?  Its at the expense of the introverts doing even better – but hey, its not the extraverts who are going to pop down the library and carry on with self study on their own, is it?

I’m tempted to think that the workplace is the same.  Now, I’m going to make assumptions here – some are probably unjustified, and many are based on talking to my wife, who is the sort of extravert who makes extraverts go “wow – she talks a lot”.  Really, its all a lot of guess work.  But its been through my mind, and feels sufficiently right for me to want to put down on paper – which is better than you’ll get from the average extravert’s blurtings.  A workplace is full of extraverts and introverts.  Probably still in similar ratios.  Introverts, when they see problems, or opportunities to change things, will look them over, come up with a few ideas, and then (if they still like them) will tell someone.  Extraverts are different.  Extraverts don’t really believe in the reality of an idea until they’ve told someone else about it – until the idea has left their head and entered the world.  So extraverts hold meetings.  And they brainstorm.  And generally tire out the introverts (who would much rather just read the minutes, then come back with their own thoughts on the matter).

Without the meetings.  Without the ability to shout over cubical walls, the poor extraverts won’t be able to get anything done.  Productivity drops by 75%.  Now, if you rule out the introverts, productivity will only fall by 25%.  And it won’t even fall by that amount because introverts have a couple of tools in their arsenal which they learn to exploit.

The first is to be friends with an extravert.  Or, you know, marry one (a risky decision, but its working out for me).  You can manage your time with the extravert, and use that time to explain your ideas to him.  All you have to do is win over the extravert, then he’ll do the job of winning over everyone else.  Of course, you’ve got to pick you extravert… you want one of the really popular, really convincing ones.  But if you provide the ideas (and yes, act as his sounding board… it would be better if you didn’t have do, but at least its only one person, and you can control the situation more), then they’ll spread.  You might not get the credit, but that means you won’t have to deal with the other people that taking the credit entails.  Your pet extravert will, however, consider you his secret sauce – and won’t want to leave you behind.

The second is to learn public speaking.  “But introverts can’t speak publicly!” I hear you cry.  Um, we can.  Because when you speak publicly, its a very managed situation – moreover,  you’ve thought of what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it beforehand.  Its a learned skill, that anyone with a few evenings to spend at a Toastmasters group can pick up.  Moreover, I’ve noticed public speaking unlocks a slightly different personality – the crown pleasing, crowd controlling, dare I say it, charismatic me.  Now, I can’t keep this version of me turned on for too long, it drains me.  But when I’m in a meeting, and I have to take control, remembering to switch to ‘Presentation Ben’ is a big advantage.  Still think you can’t do it?  Trust me, you do it all the time.  If, like me, you live in your head, then everything you do is a presentation, an act to portray yourself to the world.  Many of our best known comedians and actors are good public speakers.  Hell, so is Susan Cain.  She knows she can do this – I know that almost anyone can.

The final trick is to know your energy.  And to honour your energy.  If you’re feeling tired, you need to recuperate.  Right now, I’m sitting in a hotel room in London, taking a break from the world.  Because work does drain me (moreso since I’ve got myself involved in the world of product management meetings).  And, bless her, my lovely wife can drain me too – and certainly joining her in activities she loves (which involve lots and lots of other people.  Did I mention that I hate people?) drain me.  So I’ve taken a few days to escape.  And be on my own.

So it doesn’t need to be a war.  You just have to accept that the extraverts need to do things there way, and we need to make a life in that world…

Or we did.

Because half my life ago now, the my little, introverted, world changed.  And it was all due to introverts.

Specifically, it was due to the group of introverts who built and brought to me the internet.

As an introvert, the net is wonderful.  Right now, I’m sharing ideas with you – and it isn’t tiring, its the opposite, its a release, because these ideas are finally leaving my skull and going outside where they can bother other people.  I don’t have to talk to you.  I don’t have to race to keep up with both thinking and talking (hmm, that could be a good slogan “Introverts think without talking.  Extraverts talk without thinking”).  Meanwhile, my shopping is delivered to the door (and the sooner they have robot deliverymen the better), my books arrive straight on my kindle.   I still get to meet new people, but I meet them at my rate – at the rate of thinking, not at the rate of talking – or the more common rate of smalltalking.  And, when all the meetings get too much, I can work from home, and actually get stuff done.

In peace and quiet.


And the research suggests that the stuff I get done this way, is going to be better than the stuff extraverts bash out between themselves at meetings.

So who am I to complain?

I never wanted to be president.  To much shaking hands and dealing with people.

No, the vizier behind the throne.  That’s power.  After all, presidents only last for 8 years.

Ideas… they last quite a bit longer.


I spent yesterday at TedXGranta.  Presumably, you’re familiar with the TED conference – TEDXs are smaller, local conferences which follow the same format of short presentations and conversation, under license from TED, but organised and run locally.  There were a wide range of talks, some of which I found myself more interested in than others (as you might expect), but right now, rather than listing them all I’m more interested in drawing out the themes which ran across the talks, as these felt like the ‘bigger’ ideas hidden within the more specific, smaller, ideas of the speakers.

The first two presentations were by Tim Morley – talking about teaching Esperanto in Schools, and Eben Upton – talking about using the Raspberry Pi to bring back proper computer teaching to schools.  They shared a common concept – it was about giving children a simplified device – or language – for the purposes of piquing their interest and making their own discoveries.  It was likened to giving people a recorder to get them started in music.  A friend commented to me that he tried learning Esperanto as a child and never got anywhere.  I responded that he also had a microcomputer in those days (which is what the Pi seeks to be a modern day version of) and took to it like a duck to water.  It isn’t about making everyone a linguistic master, its about democratising opportunities to find out what you love.

A second big idea was the benefits that come from empowering minorities.  David Constantine’s NPO Motivation provide wheelchairs for the developing world – but his motivation went far beyond simply offering mobility – he wanted to offer self respect and participation in society.  He’s doing a truly fantastic job.  Closer to home, Flack – a Cambridge listings magazine is offering the same benefits to the City’s homeless.  Rather than focussing on the problems of homeless people, Flack encourages them to use their talents, skills and creativity.  Again, its all about empowerment.  We also saw a video presentation of Susan Cain’s speech about introversion (which is making a bit of a buzz right now).  While I have some issues with the contents of her speech (thats another blog post… and probably a second post once ‘ve read her book and seen exactly what her ideas are in depth), she points out the modern society is marginalising introverts – potentially a secret oppressed minority in front of our eyes (or, in may case, behind my eyes.  Introverts will get that joke… extraverts, maybe less so).  She also says that empowering introverts will bring new and better ideas which can change the world.

The final big idea was that we should bring the things to the people.  Raspberry Pi and Esperanto are examples of this – the low cost (of the Pi device, or of learning Esperanto well enough to teach it to others) puts them into the hands ofchildren who can benefit.  Shelly Katz displayed his new instrument / performance device: the Symphonova.  its a device which will allow him to bring the sounds – and live reactivity – of an orchestra onto a far smaller stage.  And also a device which will allow people with my personal levels of musicality to sit amongst and play within an orchestra.  Tim Hayward (once a writer for the Guardian, and now the Guardian of the sticky buns) talked bringing the foodie revolution which has happened in the high end restaurants of London, into the smaller indie venues on the high street.  He’s starting by saving Fitzbillies – something I have to approve of, even if gluten intolerance means I’ll never again taste the benefits (That said, my wife, who is frequently sniffy about British cakes seems to have become a convert to his Chelsea Buns, so I assume he is doing a good job).  Finally Tim Minshall taled about the problems of bringing engineering to the people – because people didn’t know what engineering is (just as an aside, while I’m sure children don’t know what Engineers do – do they also not know what inventors do?  Or games programmers?  Or chemists?  Could all the problems in his speech be that he is being more abstract than he needs to be?)

I haven’t mentioned everyone here – the talks were eclectic, and I’m only picking on the things that kept coming up time and time again.  I could have easilty considered a few more (engineering + design changes the world.  Art + Technology = wow.  engineering + art + emotion = wallace and grommit).  But time is short.  And there is one more thing I want to address:

Presentations are what has made TED famous.  TED presentations are flawless.  And yet the quality of the presentation skills at TEDXGranta was variable.  To be fair, no one was awful – when you’ve been to as many tech conferences as me, you’re prepared for far worse speaking, but time and time again I was raging to myself “If only I could have spent a little time tweaking this guy’s words.  If only I could have had an hour with these guys showing them how to use the stage more, or how to put down their notes and speak from the heart.  If I could teach how to keep track of the clock, and make it their friend.  If I could redo their slides – or convince them to throw them away”.  Presentations are important to me.  Every presentation at TEDXGranta had really valuable content – and I feel picky by complaining about one aspect.  But its communication.  Without both action and communication, ideas are nothing.  And a less than stella presentation (and this is a learnable skill folks, not something you have to be born with) distracts from the communication.  It makes the idea a little less valuable.  And a little less likely to change the world.  And the ideas I heard yesterday are already changing the world.  And need to be heard more.

Susan Cain said it ” There is no correlation between the best thinkers and the best speakers”.  This isn’t an excuse folks.  If you have good ideas, you have to learn to find a way share them.  Thats why I write this blog.  Thats why I love TED in all its forms.  It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert.  If an idea is valuable, it’s up to you to ensure you show it in all its beauty.


A potential game changer for Microsoft

We know ARM tablets won’t run old Windows applications, right?

What if they did?

Not by actually running them.  They won’t be up to doing that – at least not well.

But MS keeps talking about its cloud play.  About SkyDrive and about Azure.  About all the new features of Remote Desktop.  About the VDI things they could do.

So what if your ARM tablet came with the ability to subscribe (cheaply – and probably with a free trial) to an online service which gave you a virtual windows PC?  A Virtual PC you could install all your old software on, and run the software on.  Imagine they linked this to a ‘Desktop’ icon.  For most people, most of the time, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.  All the documents could be synced by skydrive.  And you would get perfectly reasonable performance.

Could MS do this?  Why not?

Wouldn’t it create quite a stir when they announced it – especially if they managed to keep it secret right until the tablets were unveiled?  Your ARM tablet can run all your legacy software… but you won’t want to, because you’ll prefer to work with Metro.  And you’ll be able to run this software from any Windows computer… or Windows 8 Phone.

I’ve not heard any suggestion MS are thinking of doing this – but if they did, it would be the thing that would give them the greatest chance of winning the tablet wars.  A war in which, right now, they are not even considered a particularly important contender.

Feeling more Metro-politan : 10 things the Windows 8 Consumer Preview has made clear to me

Having played with the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 for a few days, I’m beginning to pick up a feel for it:  indeed, more than that, for the first time in years I’m beginning to feel like I want to own a windows desktop PC, because for the first time I’m realising I really want to develop software for Windows.  Its all down to the Metro interface – and how much smoother it has become to use since the developer preview.  I thought I would list 10 things I have come to understand about how Metro works – and how you work with it:

1) You live your life in Metro.  The desktop is a distraction.  You avoid it when you can.  Metro is where you prefer to spend your time – at least when you’re working with touch.

2) But the desktop now works with touch.  Unlike the developer preview, where I had to keep reaching for a stylus to do anything desktoppy, I can now control desktop applications with my fingers.  Touch works on the desktop – you’ll probably use it instead of a mouse most of the time, if you have a touch enabled monitor which is comfortably positioned.

3) You’ll probably wind up treating the desktop a bit like Metro.  When you pin the desktop to the side of your screen, you get each application listed separately.  Now, to be fair, you’ve had this with alt-tab for a while, but now you just touch to get to where you want.  It feel natural to treat each desktop app like a full screen application.

4) Linking online accounts works wonderfully, but feels a bit creepy.  I installed W8 on a VM, and logged in with my live id.  My face grinned back at me – a photo I had taken months ago with the developer preview.  I didn’t expect it to be at work.  Similarly, various apps started sucking information from google, facebook, linked in.  I had given them permission, but it all integrated too well – better than I had come to expect from my phone.  It crossed that line into feeling like I had less of a computer than I did a stalker.

5) But, that said, the ‘People’ App shows exactly how integration can be effective – and how Metro is meant to work.  I look at a live feed of my twitter and facebook statuses, seamlessly integrated.  Sometimes I click on a link someone has posted, and I’m taken to the web browser.  I may surf onwards, doubling back by scrolling to the left, and then when I want to get back to the People app, I drag it on from the left hand side – which is exactly where I expect to find it.

6) Metro is made for dashboards.  Right now, the only dashboards we are given are people (a social media dashboard), weather and finance.  Weather and finance are very similar, and probably shows what an awful lot of Metro apps will look like.  You scroll left and right to see the data you want, use semantic zoom to get to a table of contents, data is updated live from the net, you can flick between certain displays of data by touching onscreen buttons, and a summary of the most important facts are shown on the live tile when you return to the start screen.

7) There is no good way of taking notes – yet.  Evernote for metro is available, but doesn’t work in portrait mode (which is the most comfortable way to hold the tablet and type).  You can use your favourite desktop application, but for me, that’s gvim, and the touch keyboard doesn’t have an escape key, which kills its usefulness.  The skydrive version of Word doesn’t work properly (it won’t bring up a keyboard when you want to write), so right now, I’m left with either notepad, or Google docs.  Neither are a great choice.

8 ) In fact, there is still quite a lack of useful apps all around.  Hopefully this will be fixed soon.  Things I’m missing are:  A notepad.  A hypercard style thing for creating my own metro dashboards (as described above) and books.  A decent version of Amazon Kindle which takes advantage of Metro… right now I find the windows app running in the desktop to make particularly poor use of the tablet’s screen.  A metro calculator (in fact, I would quite like python and Idle for metro.  That’s probably a wish too far – especially as the lack of special keys on the metro keyboard is quite limiting).  A metro version of explorer.  A metro version of powershell.  And finally a metro iPlayer.

9) Lots of things are quite tricky to find – especially power features.  I tired to change set the APN so that I could use a data sim .  I managed it, but it took a lot of looking – and the old windows way of doing it no longer worked. (incidentally, for folks in the UK with a Build developer preview tablet, if you want to use mobile data, a giffgaff pay as you go sim works well in mine now I’ve figured it out)  Unpinning and uninstalling metro apps is easy once you know how [touch and hold a tile, drag it down slightly so it gets an orange border, then use the bottom of screen menu] – but I had to search the web to find out how to do it.  The menu bars remain quite unintuitive… they’ll probably get better as I get more used to it, but I can’t help feeling the design reflects how the Metro framework works internally more than what a user might want to do with it.

10) Ultimately, it feels good to use.  The developer preview didn’t.  Some of this is due to stability.  Some due to performance.  Some due to the ‘right click’ touch gesture is now far easier to do.  I’m not sure how convinced people will be when Windows 8 replaces their desktop, but for people coming in to Metro as a touch first interface, I expect it to be widely considered a good thing.