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 “”. 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.

Intellectual Property: the best lessons avoid public subsidies

Nixon Follow the Money

One thing I find particularly sad is one of the items my MP sent out on his latest weekly newsletter, in a section entitled “Intellectual Property”. It reads:

Mike Weatherley, Intellectual Property Adviser to the PM, has called on the Prime Minister to establish permanent funding for the newly-formed Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU), which tackles IP crime across the country and is based within the City of London Police. More here, Twitter: @mike_weatherley. In his letter Mike said, “I appreciate that funding for this new unit is not permanent. However, I would like to put on record my support for committing future funding to fighting IP crime and boosting the current level of financial support that is available for PIPCU. As I am sure that you are aware, the creative industries add over £70 billion to our economy each year and so it really is in our national interest to protect that revenue.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin to unpick this, but for me, the immediate red flag is the familiar use of common fallacies to support an argument. A full collection can be found here. The “It’s big so must be protected” doesn’t even start to hold water on further analysis, albeit he’s done everyone a slight favour by not dragging in allegations that to do otherwise is to support terrorism – a line i’ve heard in the past from a spokesman for the “Federation against Copyright Theft” (aka FACT). Effectively, i’d suggest the “creative industries” are choosing a business model built on scarcity, and then asking the general public to subsidise the associated cost of that choice. A civil offence morphed into a criminal one in the vain hope to play King Canute.

I wouldn’t knowing mind the source of that £70 Billion figure, and the geography over which that is spread. These sort of numbers are routinely banded around, but often found to be wanting when traced back to their original source.

A few years back, one commentator noted that you could get five years imprisonment for stealing a Michael Jackson track, while Conrad Murray got four years for killing him. A British guy queued for extradition to the USA for having a web site publishing links to torrent sites, and a Dutch National queued for extradition from Australia to the USA, both of whom have committed no crime in the legal jurisdiction in which they reside. Finishing that same week with SOPA and PIPA legislation shelved for the time being, with the MPAA explicitly reminding US politicians whose pocket they were supposed to be in.

The central allegation coming back is an old chestnut on piracy costing the Entertainment Industry money and/or jobs. Does that really hold up to any scrutiny? Is it not more related to the pace at which material is released into other territories and lining up the economics to put a quality product in the hands of customers willing to buy where there is demand? And to do so at a price point where there is little incentive to invest time and effort to subvert the process??

I think that’s a lesson that Apple helped solve in the early days of iTunes. It’s easy for consumers to do the right thing. Right now, if my wife sees that the latest series of Dallas is airing in the USA, where can she send money to see it now? Answer: nowhere. Would someone like to take her money please? No??

I recall some excellent work done by Claire Enders in the days of Napster. Claire at one point earlier in her career worked on strategy for EMI Music, was adept at turning 500+ pages of BMRB research tables into pithy summaries of Music/Internet/Telco market directions, and was outrageously unPC when numbers she uncovered contradicted public statements by senior media company execs. A joy to listen to. Claire now runs Enders Analysis, and is often on Sky and Bloomberg exercising her “take no prisoners” views. But I digress.

The thing she found was that the only people who suffered any loss from Napster and similar music sharing services were the top 10 artists at each of the 5 or so big record labels. Everyone else benefited, by way of exposure of their music to a wider audience, and related secondary businesses like concerts and merchandise. So, at face value, the RIAA strings were being operated on behalf of 50 or so economic entities in total, some of whom are well known for their adept tax avoidance and deployment of their wealth in offshore tax havens.

That got me thinking. Whose interests are being compromised by the recipients of the aggressive pursuits across the world? Who are these people who are besmirching the reputation of lawmakers in foreign lands by their heavy handed approach to playing King Canute on individuals who will have little impact on the cause they are PR’ing? Why are the amounts being sought so out of proportion to the actual monetary amounts involved??

Clue is to follow the money. In the USA (and which then spills over here), the folks funding the effort are giving major money to politicians. The funds are massive. Chief beneficiary of the politicians spend is the TV Networks. Aren’t the TV networks mainly owned by the few big, vertically integrated media companies? So the money appears to go full circle.

Lest we forget, even Copyright and Patents were put in place as servants of the Public Good. To do the right thing to prevent hoarding of good works that benefit society as a whole. Unfortunately, the public the laws were passed to serve are rarely represented in the reviews that affect their implementation – and their misuse by bodies with agendas that subvert the public good for which they were designed. I think our MPs would do us all greater favours by demanding – at bare minimum – proposals to be more explicit in the aspects or areas of Intellectual Property that they feel need criminal law protection by this Police Unit – and that any which are contingent on a poor choice of business model should be passed back instead to be funded by the party choosing the demonstrably defective business model alone.

Wouldn’t the resources be better spent improving the access, timeliness and expense of content across the world? I suspect (and research bears this out) that most consumers want to do the right thing, and piracy would be a meaningless economic niche. With that, a useful saving to be made in times of austerity, and police could spend their resources doing what the public who fund them to want them to do alone.

Having someone more forward-thinking in government circles – and to push back appropriately – would make the world a better place.