WTF – Tim O’Reilly – Lightbulbs On!

What's the Future - Tim O'Reilly

Best Read of the Year, not just for high technology, but for a reasoned meaning behind political events over the last two years, both in the UK and the USA. I can relate it straight back to some of the prescient statements made by Jeff Bezos about Amazon “Day 1” disciplines: the best defence against an organisations path to oblivion being:

  1. customer obsession
  2. a skeptical view of proxies
  3. the eager adoption of external trends, and
  4. high-velocity decision making

Things go off course when interests divide in a zero-sum way between different customer groups that you serve, and where proxies indicating “success” diverge from a clearly defined “desired outcome”.

The normal path is to start with your “customer” and give an analogue of what indicates “success” for them in what you do; a clear understanding of the desired outcome. Then the measures to track progress toward that goal, the path you follow to get there (adjusting as you go), and a frequent review that steps still serve the intended objective. 

Fake News on Social Media, Finance Industry Meltdowns, unfettered slavery to “the market” and to “shareholder value” have all been central to recent political events in both the UK and the USA. Politicians of all colours were complicit in letting proxies for “success” dissociate fair balance of both wealth and future prospects from a vast majority of the customers they were elected to serve. In the face of that, the electorate in the UK bit back – as they did for Trump in the US too.

Part 3 of the book, entitled “A World Ruled by Algorithms” – pages 153-252 – is brilliant writing on our current state and injustices. Part 4 (pages 255-350) entitled “It’s up to us” maps a path to brighter times for us and our descendants.

Tim says:

The barriers to fresh thinking are even higher in politics than in business. The Overton Window, a term introduced by Joseph P. Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,  says that an ideas political viability falls within a window framing a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion. There are ideas that a politician simply cannot recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.

In the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump didn’t just  push the Overton Window far too to right, he shattered it, making statement after statement that would have been disqualifying for any previous candidate. Fortunately, once the window has come unstuck, it is possible to move it radically new directions.

He then says that when such things happen, as they did at the time of the Great Depression, the scene is set to do radical things to change course for the ultimate greater good. So, things may well get better the other side of Trumps outrageous pandering to the excesses of the right, and indeed after we see the result of our electorates division over BRexit played out in the next 18 months.

One final thing that struck me was how one political “hot potato” issue involving Uber in Taiwan got very divided and extreme opinions split 50/50 – but nevertheless got reconciled to everyone’s satisfaction in the end. This using a technique called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) and a piece of software called “Pol.is”. This allows folks to publish assertions, vote and see how the filter bubbles evolve through many iterations over a 4 week period. “I think Passenger Liability Insurance should be mandatory for riders on UberX private vehicles” (heavy split votes, 33% both ends of the spectrum) evolved to 95% agreeing with “The Government should leverage this opportunity to challenge the taxi industry to improve their management and quality control system, so that drivers and riders would enjoy the same quality service as Uber”. The licensing authority in Taipei duly followed up for the citizens and all sides of that industry. 

I wonder what the BRexit “demand on parliament” would have looked like if we’d followed that process, and if indeed any of our politicians could have encapsulated the benefits to us all on either side of that question. I suspect we’d have a much clearer picture than we do right now.

In summary, a superb book. Highly recommended.

Coding for Young Kids: two weeks, only £10,000 to go

ScratchJr Screenshot

ScratchJr Logo

I’m one backer on Kickstarter of a project to bring the programming language Scratch to 5-7 year olds. Called ScratchJr, it’s already showing great promise on iPads in schools in Massachussetts. The project has already surpassed it’s original $25,000 goal to finish it’s development for the iPad, and last week made it over the $55,000 stretch goal to release an Android version too. With two weeks to go, we are some $15,000 short of the last remaining stretch target ($80,000) needed to fund associated curriculum and teaching notes.

The one danger of tablets is that they tend to be used in “lean back” applications, primarily as a media consumer delivery devices. Hence a fear amongst some teachers that we’re facing a “Disneyfication” of use, almost like teaching people to read, but not to write. ScratchJr will give young students their first exposure to the joy of programming; not only useful for a future in IT, but also providing logic and design skills useful for many other fields that may stimulate their interest. I thought the 7-year old kids in this video were brilliant and authoritative on what they’d achieved to date:

I opted to pledge $45 to contribute and to buy a branded project t-shirt for my 2 year old granddaughter; there are a range of other funding options:

  • $5 for an email from the ScratchJr Cat
  • $10 for your name in the credits
  • $20 for a ScratchJr Colouring Book
  • $35 for some ScratchJr Stickers
  • $40 (+$5 for outside USA delivery) ScratchJr T-Shirt (Kid or Adult sizes)
  • $50 for an invite to a post launch webinar
  • $100 for a pre-launch webinar with the 2 project leaders
  • $300 to receive a beta version ahead of the public launch
  • $500 for a post-launch workshop in the Boston, Mass area
  • $1000+ for a pre-launch workshop in the Boston, Mass area
  • $2000+ to be named as a Platinum Sponsor in the Credits
  • $5000+ for lunch for up to 4 people with the 2 Project Leaders

I once had a project earlier in my career where we managed to get branded teaching materials (about “The Internet”) professionally produced and used in over 95% of UK secondary schools for an investment of £50,000 – plus a further £10,000 to pay for individual and school prizes. In that context, the price of this program is an absolute steal, and I feel well worth every penny. Being able to use this across the full spectrum of Primary Schools in the UK would be fantastic if teachers here could take full advantage of this great work.

So, why not join the backers? Deadline for pledges is 30th April, so please be quick! If you’d like to do so, contributions can be pledged here on Kickstarter.

ScratchJr Logo

Footnote: a TED video that covers Project Leaders Mitch Resnick’s earlier work on Scratch (taught to slightly older kids) lasts 15 minutes and can be found here. Scratch is also available for the Raspberry Pi; for a 10 minute course on how to code in it, i’d recommend this from Miles Berry of Roehampton University.

Collaborating with Chinese Copycats – the Open Source Way

3D Robotics Iris Drone Copter

Last year, I bought the book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. Previously the Editor-in-Chief of “Wired” magazine, he set up his own company making model flying drones, each containing a mobile phone “system on a chip” and most often these days including a camera. I think it was very instructive what happened when he found out someone in China was cloning his designs and translating his user manual in Chinese.

Some of the community members were shocked at this “blatant piracy” and asked Chris what he was going to do about it. His answer: Nothing. Instead of pointing legal guns at the person doing this, Chris engaged him instead – human being to human being.

A member called “Hazy” said he’d been working with some Chinese hardware cloning folks, and was the person doing the translation of the documentation into Chinese. Chris complemented him on the speed it had been done, and asked if he’d consider bringing the translation into their official manual. He agreed, so Chris gave him edit access to the project Wiki (a shared, public document editing space), and set things up so that people could switch over from English to the parallel Chinese translation if preferred.

Hazy proceeded to integrate the Chinese version of the manual seamlessly. Then he started correcting errors in the English version too. Chris could see all the commits flowing by and approved them all: they were smart, correct and written in perfect English. Then it got interesting.

Hazy started fixing bugs in the drones software code. At first, Chris thought he’d published documentation changes in the wrong folder; he checked it out, and it was code and his fix was not only correct, but properly documented. Chris thanked him for the fix, and thought little more about it.

But then the code commits kept coming. Hazy was working his way through the issues list, picking off bugs one after another that the Development team had been too busy to handle themselves. Today, Chris considers him to be one of their best Dev team members.

He turned out to be a PhD student in Peking University, who as a kid was fascinated by radio control models, and always wanted his own RC plane. When he could afford one, he and his friends learnt about Chris’s work, but found it inconvenient as it was all documented in English . So, he translated it so Chinese fans could also build on the work. He signs off saying “Thank you for the great work of DIY Drones (Chris Andersons company), and I hope it will help more people make their dreams come true”.

The DIY Drones industry has come on leaps and bounds since. I notice many of the units you can buy ready-assembled (like this Parrot one) can be operated via WiFi using an iPad, which can show the view from the onboard camera as it flies. More advanced models can, if they lose communication with the user – or are running low on fuel or charge – return automatically to the location they originally took off from.

That said, the strategy that Chris followed was “Open Source” done properly. Open things up, and let everyone learn from, then stand on the shoulders, of giants.