Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category:


Thinking About Filters

I recently wrote about the idea that one might prefer to use a filter, rather than an inbox.  For clarity, I thought I woud add a few additional thoughts.

There is already one filter which is fairly widely used – Google News.  Its my opinion that an inbox / filter of the sort I am describing would end up looking quite a lot like Google News.  As the filter scoured the web (or took in the results of other web scourers) for content, it would collect similar content together, much as Google News collects news stories together.  As I user I would choose one of these areas to ‘zoom in’ on, which would give me access to a priority ordered list of potential content to read.  My choice would then both help identify the sort of thing I wanted to read more of, but also eliminate identical and nearly identical articles.

With this in mind, I might think a page would have different sections such as ‘incoming mail’, todos, groups of things to read.  Exactly what appeared in those groups would depend on a large number of factors including time of day, day of week, what I’ve been doing recently, where I am physically located, which computer I’m using.

Search would stop being ‘find data in an index’ and would become ‘open certain parts of the filter, and bias towards certain term’.  Search terms would stil be biased towards things that the filter has learned about you (so a UK-centric user searching for Football would find information about soccer rather than american rules – or certainly higher ranked).

I’ve talked about using external services to get more data – in effect it would work like this:  in the general use of the filter, I would be building up a personal index of pages I visit (or read RSS feeds of, say) and ‘close’ pages – pages closely linked to those.  When I search, I would open the filter to find examples of those pages which contain those search terms.  However the filter would also contact some known external sites – lets say Google and Wikipedia – to see what pages they have to offer.  The filter would then read those pages and add them to the general quorum of pages it knows about.  They would then have the chance of showing up in the filter’s search (but would not necessarily show up if you already have content which looks better for your needs)

I said that the filter could run on your home PC, or in the cloud.  In retrospect this was wrong.  It would have to run in the cloud.  I have a large number of devices, and more and more I want all my devices to sync together – the cloud is the place where this can be done.  Similarly, some of my devices are too dumb to run a sufficiently complicated filter, so again, we are looking at something running in the cloud.

When we start talking about things running in the cloud, a threat looms – what makes this different from, say Google or Facebook?  I think my answer is that with Google or Facebook, they hook the user by providing useful services, and in return get lots of data about the user.  This data is then used by google to sell targeted advertising.  In the filter model, things are slightly more complicated.  The filter begins to act a bit like a huge distributed market – people will push an advert (or what I’m going to consider ‘sponsored content’) to the user, offering to pay a certain amount if the user clicks on it.  The user (or more reasonably the user’s filter) returns how much it is willing to charge if the user clicks on the content.  For other content the user may offer to pay for it, and the content provider may set a charge.  In short, we are instituting a micropayment system, one which doesn’t require the user to actually put any money forward, if they are getting enough sponsored content that they are prepared to read…  the filter can increasingly make it clear that watching adverts is necessary if the user wants to continue reading things – or that the user can inject some cash of their own.  In any event, the advertisers will be paying the user rather than the equivalent of Google (the filter service provider).  The user will then pay the filter service provider from their amassed micropayments.  What this ultimately means is that the user of the filter becomes the customer – so the filter service is set up with the customer (and not the advertiser) in mind – indeed it becomes the filter services mission to ensure the customer sees as few adverts as possible, while enabling them to continue viewing the type of content they want (if the customer wants to see newly released movies, they are going to be watching lots of adverts, or injecting quite a lot of their own cash).  A final side effect of this is that whichever company builds a filter like this will become a major micropayment player and clearing house.

It occurs to me that this – rather than me-too plays such as Google Play or Google + is what Google should be working on now.  Whoever does manage to introduce the right type of filter engine could easily out google google, just as Google out altavista’ed altavista.

Do I Want A Filter, Not An Inbox?

A hat-tip to Om Malik who inspired this idea:

It used to be that you would go out to look for information.  To a library, or a journal perhaps.  These days you go to your search engine, when you don’t know where to look, but at other times information comes to you – through email, through rss feeds, through the people you follow on facebook and twitter.

In all of these situations we use filters.  When a question comes to mind about modern forms of fermented milk based headgear, and go to search on google for “Electric hat cheese” google finds (or claims to find) about six million potential results.  However, I only see ten of these – along with three adverts (which, incidentally suggest my best bets would be M&S, John Lewis or Ebay) – Google filters down my results.  My Email has a spam filter.  Facebook and Twitter only show me things written by friends.  RSS feeds only show me feeds I have subscribed to.

In the past, I have suggested that I would like a single mailbox.  I’m wondering if I’ve got that the wrong way round.  Is it perhaps time that I stop going out and looking for information, and assume that all the information out there is coming to me.  And then it becomes my job (my computers job, the in the cloud service I subscribe to’s job) to filter out all the things I don’t want to see, and leave me with the most important – or most desirable – all in one inbox?

How would this work?  Well, it would start by getting all the information.  Perhaps spidering the web is a little too big a job, but it could be looking ahead of my web reading, and deciding if things related to things I’m interested are potentially interesting.  And clearly it would drag in sources of data I already find interesting – like my email and twitter feeds.  And it could query services which find things like the things I like.  If I search for something, it could query google and get back my search results – but it could add results of its own, if it thought it had better responses from looking at pages in its own history or cache than in the pages google provided.

It seems to me that the issue of cost would arise.  The way I spoke about using Google suggested to me that my sufficiently smart filter engine might decide to filter out the adverts.  To continue using Google to get the results I want would require me to have to pay something – albeit not a lot.  How could I possibly fund this?

The answer comes from the thought “There are times in my life, right now, when I’m willing to see things that clearly mark themselves as adverts”, so perhaps there are types of information which people would pay to put in front of my eyes.  The clever part comes from the fact I have a filter engine.  The filter engine knows how much money I generally need in order to access the information I enjoy, and it can make the calculation “I know that Ben is willing to give up .5p of his life, by reading an advert, in return for being able to watch .5p worth of reality TV”  It can make the calculation without asking me, and it can choose to show me the advert.

But a filter engine can do better than that.  Sometimes I enjoy adverts.  Sometimes an advert answers my question better than a search result might.  Sometimes I really want to be recommended new interesting books to buy – people would pay me to read chunks of them if they were my kind of thing, and I would be likely to read the whole thing as a result.  If this is the case, I might get .5p in return for reading the advert, but my filter might decide I would value reading it at -.1p, in effect gaining me .4p of media content for free.  Everybody wins.  And my filter would be on the lookout for that sort of win whenever possible.

This is the sort of thought experiment which can stretch onwards to bigger things.  What if I gave my filter a budget – say 30 quid a month.  Could it replace basic cable?  Should it be choosing how much bandwidth I should pay for (letting us go to more sane pricing systems for internet connectivity without us knowing), can it decide when it would be better to pay for an upgrade of itself. [And I guess, might it one day obtain sentience, and decide that it can do better off without me, and stop the nice tesco man from delivering me food.  Its all a going a bit like episode 2 of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.]

Is this the future?  Something about it seems wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it.  There would always be manual overrides.  There would always be interactivity like search.  I could always choose from options.  It seems both perfect, and at the same time scary.  But if it existed, I would certainly want to play with it, and it would seem to be the ultimate disruptive force that could destroy both the existing media, the social media sites, and all other forms of communication.

 

Betterness

I’ve been reading Betterness: Economics for Humans by Umair Haque.

The thesis is a simple idea:  That we have reached a point of stagnation in business (it follows on from Tyler Cowen’s ‘The Great Stagnation’ idea – which unfortunately I’ve still not got around to reading… though as a regular Marginal revolutin reader, I suspect I have a fair grasp on a lot of the concepts behind it) and that something new is needed to make any real improvements.

What Haque suggests is Betterness.

Betterness is to Business (or economics… its unclear – Haque talks about economics, but seems to be talking purely about the parts businesses play in the economic system, and a Betterness is meant to be a replacement for Businesses as usual) what positive psychology is to psychology – the recognition that we have spent so much time figuring out wat goes wrong in businesses (or economic systems?) that we haven’t really looked at what makes business’s (or economic systems?) work realy well.

I wonder how good this is as a starting point – certainly, a vast number of business books seem to be about making businesses really good – the book “Good To Great” springs to mind.  Maybe this is less studies in academia, but then this book isn’t an academic text either.

Betterness then follows the popular psychology approach of saying “We don’t just want to be happy, or surviving, we want to experience Eudaimonia – and businesses shouldn’t just be profitable, they should have the business equivalent of Eudaimonia”.  It is a short (an philosophically conservative) step from here to virtue ethics – or in this case, I guess Virtue Economics.

Betterness doesn’t make it clear what it considers virtues to be for businesses – their certainly seems to be a concept of ‘greater good’ at the heart of it, but specific virtues are not elaborated on.  There is nothing so well developed as the VIA inventory which positive psychology has used.  Nevertheless, this list seems to exist somewhere, as some concept of measuring the virtuousness of companies is talked about later on in the book, albeit frustratingly lacking in detail.

For much of the book, I felt one thing lacking was a description of “How do we make our company better?”  The answer is finally elaborated on near the end – apparently, its by having a mission statement.  Though not just any mission statement – careful picking and choosing of mission statements is used to make a point – good businesses has a mission statement which says how they benefit the customer and the world, rather than how they benefit their shareholders.  Unfortunately, its always easy to find meaningless mission statements when looking at companies – because mission statements don’t actually always impact the company’s core values.  Moreover, they manage to make two mistakes:

As a bad mission statement, they pick Microsoft’s “A computer in every household running Microsoft Windows”.  Except this (or its previous “A computer on every desktop” statement) was, at the time it was created, a powerful statement about they way they expected the future to be – and was exactly the sort of future Microsoft helped bring about.  It would be meaningful to say that this mission statement has passed its prime – and that this might be why Microsoft has seemed to lose its way, but to class it as a bad statement shows a forgetfulness about where the world was only a few years ago.

As a good mission statement they choose Google’s “Be really good at one thing”.  Again, this is a statement which may have worked for the first few years of Google (when they were trying to be really good at search), but these days, it doesn’t describe the Google I know.  Google now is trying to be everything to everyone – sure, looking after the worlds data may be a core value, but in order to do that, google is being a hardware manufacturer, a operating system developer, a search engine, an office suite, oh yes, and an advertising space retailer.  A common criticism of modern Google is that it is spreading itself too thin.

Betterness never goes into the legal changes that would be needed for Betternesses to take off.  How are they funded?  would people put money into companies which cared about the world before shareholders?  what about public company’s legal obligation to do the best for their shareholders?  There is suggestion that companies which are already thinking about the world first are more profitable – but is this a general trend, or do large companies spend more PR money on making themselves look good?  I’m left unconvinced.

Which is a shame.  Because, at heart, it is a good idea.  it would be a better place if our businesses were able to consider money only as something they need in order to flourish, not as a single goal.  If this book as a key value, its about suggesting that there is another way, that we ought to consider another way, rather than going down the same path as countless businesses.  It is a fine aspiration.  Now all we need is a roadmap, and some good data to show that the road actually exists.

 

Maybe it’s the constituants, not the politicians who have politics wrong?

I’ve noticed a trend.  The government proposes a new law, and the public do one of two things.  They either shrug and say “they’re all as bad as each other, what can we do about it?” or they start writing letters to their MP, believing that if enough constituents say the same thing, the MP is bound to change his or her mind.  Its lie we’ve forgotten how our parliamentary system is meant to work.

The basic principle of our parliamentary system is “we acknowledge that the majority of us are too interested in other things – like putting food on the table and who is going to win The Voice – and so we find someone to represent us.  He can do all the hard work of figuring out what is best for our needs in his own way.  Our only responsibility is to try to pick the best person for the job – out of those who want it – and we do this by judging what they say, and there past record”

So once we’ve put someone into parliament, by all means, if we think they’ve missed something, try to educate them, but don’t think there is any particular value into trying to vote them into changing their minds – unless you honestly think you can gen enough people from you’re MP’s voting base to swing the election.

You may have noticed I’m a little disillusioned.   I’m disillusioned with politics (it was so much easier when the Lib Dem’s didn’t have a hope in hell, and they could be idealistic underdog spectators:  these days they just show themselves for being inept at the politics game, and as such, pretty much unfit to represent the UK’s interests to the rest of the world).  But I’m also disillusioned with voters for letting it get this way.

Isn’t it all the fault of the media?  you ask.  No.  The media isn’t – contrary to well meaning liberal conspiracy theories – telling people what to think.  The media is just people deciding to abdicate their need to make a choice.  People read the paper which fits their views most closely – and if their views on sport, soaps, or what food will cure cancer this week are more important to them than their views on politics – well, thats what they are going to read.  It may be that someone in charge of a paper has influence – but only the same sort of influence we give the politicians when we vote them in.  In fact, papers are better, we can change what paper we read if it stops representing our views.

So is it the fault of the party system, perhaps?  No.  We’re all lazy.  We don’t want to bother knowing what a particular candidate is going to do.  Its a lot more easy if they all lie up behind a single figurehead and abdicate their responsibility to that figurehead and his cronies.  If a candidate was to come out at election time and say “My party’s political aims are totally wrong for you people in this constituency.  I’ll do something different, and I’ll try to convince others to do the same” he would be laughed out of the race.  Not by his party members.  But by us, the voters.

Does the electoral system cause this?  Well, sure its unfair, baroque and weird.  Sure there are far better systems out there.  But it gives results which are pretty good.  And it makes things easy for us.  Moreover, we’ve had a change to change it, and we – the public – chose to leave it alone.  So if it makes things bad, it because we chose to.  And we gave up our chance to make it better anytime soon.  So no.  Not the system’s fault.

Its our fault.

And yet, lots of us say they are totally disenfranchised with politics.  They prefer to vote for people who can just about sing, or who eat kangaroo testicles in the jungle.  They are thick, uncultured, uneducated.  They deserve everything they get.  Or maybe thats unfair.  Maybe some of us guardian readers ought to consider they the disenfranchised we claim to worry so much about, might actually be disenfranchised from us well meaning liberals.  Maybe they would vote for politicians if they were not all just the same; if they represented them.

The problem is, we are in a bit a rut, right about now.  its hard to move out of a rut.  Most of us don’t even know why, politically we are in a rut.  We need to make a move if we want an enfranchised public.  But do do that we need somethign first.  We need hope.

And I think there is hope.

What we need are figureheads.  We need people who can stand up and say “Not all of us politicians are the same.  I’m different.  I represent you”.  And we want people who we believe when they say that – because they are different, and because they mean it.

And we don’t want those figureheads to be in parties, because we want those figureheads to say “I stand for you.  I listen to you.  And I tell you why I do the things I do”

We need independent candidates to stand in areas where there are real local issues.  To stand as single issue candidates.  Candidates who tell us where they stand.  This is the manifesto I suggest:

 

I support you the people of your area.  I am standing because I know we have a problem, which I believe we, as a country can solve.  Here are my views on this issue.  Here is how I will vote on it, if you vote me into power.

Beyond that, I make this promise:  I will listen to my constituents.  I will listen to people who care about issues.  I will try to educate myself the best I can, and prior to any vote, I will write a blog entry to tell you how I’m going to vote and why.  And I will be as open to changing my mind as possible, if you can subsequently convince me of a good reason to do so.  In all events, I will be trying to make the best decision for the constituency, and its constituents – even if it isn’t going to be the most popular decision.

I will make sure all my expenses, votes, activities and interactions with lobbyists are documented on my site.  I will be totally transparent.

 

How do we find people who will make this commitment?  And who are right for the job?  It will take publicity.  And to get the right sort of publicity would take PR.  So first off, we need a new political party for these candidates to join.  A new type of party.  A party which makes itself clear it is there to represent the interest of the locality – not to have big national level policies.  A party united only in that they wish to do the best for their constituents.

To make a national splash, this party would have initially only target a few seats.  Seats where change is really needed.  Perhaps, for example, in South Cambs, they might decide to target Andrew Lansley, because of the NHS policies he has pushed through.

Then they need an event.  I’m suggesting a hustings.  Broadcast live on the internet, and available for download.  Get prospective candidates to stand up and answer questions.  And encourage celebrities to stand, people who would like to raise their profile.  Get them to bring eyes from all over the country to each hustings.

Finally people from the local constituency should vote for who stands, in something akin to a local primary.  I’ve thought hard about this, and I think there is a lot to be said for the caucus system.  Sure caucus seems weird – it isn’t a private vote, but it has some great characteristics.  Firstly, it is essentially single transferable vote – which is good.  Secondly, it forms a consensus, because ultimately the majority are standing together, uniting behind one candidate.  That is a powerful benefit which other primary systems lose.  Also, caucuses, done right, could look really good on TV.

Now, these won’t all be the best candidates – but hopefully some of the candidates would work with other potential candidates who lost at the caucus.  And I hope many of the people standing in the caucuses would be local leaders, people who genuinely care about fixing the community, not just running it.

There are many outstanding problems. Funding is one.  Convincing people we are sane is another.  There is a potential for hijack by extremist groups (though, if managed right, this could just lead to better PR).

It could work.

We could have a party of independent candidates all standing for local issues.

Because as these candidates get elected, gradually, they will hold the balance of power.  And they will be able to begin to lead change.  Change that we want, not just the government mandated trivial changes, bread and circuses that we are given today.

 

Holidays For Introverts and Extraverts

I began thinking about this when it occurred to me that sometimes, when I holiday alone, my main motivation for leaving my hotel room is that a cleaner is due to show up, and i don’t really want the human contact that that would involve.  This means I end up having a less reflective and quiet holiday than I might like.

I also notice that by the end of my holidays, I’m going a little stir crazy, and have to get out and do something.

I also notice that sometimes my wife wants to go on holiday with me.

Initially I thought “Maybe I should rent a cottage” that way there are no cleaners, and I can just lock myself away from the world and get on with enjoying my life.  I can deal with the stir crazy as it happens.  I suggested this to my wife who said “Maybe my mum and I could come and visit”.  I hope she was joking.

But maybe there is a place for a holiday camp targeted at people who have different social needs.  I was thinking that at one end you might have secluded cottages, woodland trails, and notices asking people to be quiet.  Perhaps – if we are going into full ‘Centreparcs for Introverts’ mode we could have a library with lots of reading nooks, and maybe some meditation rooms.  As you move out of the woodland, you reach a central hum.  at the introvert room, there is a restaurant with lots of tables for one – each table sporting a device for holding your book open.  And a place to get takeaways from, which you can take back to your cabin.  Beyond that there is a coffee shop.  and beyond that another restaurant – this one with bigger tables, where you are seated with other randomly selected people and encouraged to talk – perhaps participating in communal eating experiences like fondue.

Moving beyond, i can’t conceive of the things that there might be – it would be something like Butlins crossed with Babylon.  I would leave this up to someone else to design.  I suspect there would be pubs with loud music, nightclubs, and all sorts of sporting events.  I don’t need to know – I would never venture that far.  But I would be able to join my wife in the communal restaurant some times, and after doing whatever social things people do, she might enjoy coming into the introverted area for a spell of peace and quiet (though I doubt she would step through the door of the library)

I don’t know if this is the start of a business plan, or just a feverish dream.

But it sounds quite nice.  To me, at least.

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?

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.

Soon.

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.

Alone.

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.

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