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.

Kibo: Teaching Robotics to kids?

Kibo Robotic Kit - Kickstarter

I’m going to be punch drunk on the number of initiatives to support teaching programming to young kids, so my priority is to see ScratchJr make it into UK schools – if indeed the teachers think it would be a positive influence to fire up the imagination of their classes of 5-7 year old prospective programmers on their iPads.

That said, another US initiative has gone live on Kickstarter, this time for Kibo – a robot that kids program with a sequence of command bricks. No compute hardware needed with this – it’s all in the box.

The full details (and funding page) can be found here. They’re already halfway to their target. What do you think?

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.

Google Shares: Stick or Twist?

Danger - Will Robinson

A fairly quiet Sunday. Trip down to the gym for the last of my three weekly visits, finding that they were finishing their 24 hour Charity Spinathon, £20 duly donated. En route, listening to the last of a two hour John Gruber Podcast talking at length about Crypto currencies, which was fascinating. Then back home for a walk to the local shops with Jane to pick up some milk, then back to catching up on my various high technology news feeds.

I reflect on Robots getting more and more impressive. Saw a video of a guy in Germany debugging a table tennis playing robot, which is already showing promise (3 minute video here). Then saw that on Tuesday, there is a match planned between Timo Boll, the #1 German Professional Table Tennis Player (currently #8 in the world), playing against a KUKA industrial robot (preview here). Robots are one feature that keeps hitting news headlines concerning Google, who are making many related investments recently.

On a related thought, one thing that has started to bug me a bit is the so far excellent performance of my Self Invested Pension, which over the last 10 months has grown 10.68%. Given 64% of it is in an index tracker, the performance of various stocks i’ve traded (normally on a long term buy and hold basis) has been over 24% to date. The nagging feeling is always asking if i’m carrying too much of too few companies, albeit I tend to focus on ones that I feel have high market shares and future growth potential.

I’ve made good returns trading in then later out on Netflix, Splunk and I got slight losses from the early days in Red Hat, ARM, Baidu and Facebook, so reversed out with minimal damage. I made a returns of over 20% on GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT) and 49% on Liquid Metal (LQMT) in 3 weeks by joining the dots on some future Apple investments from patent filings. Those apart, I wound up investments in Google, Amazon, Apple and (having IPO’d) Tableau. I have more recently taken a position in Facebook (it was in the $20’s when I left it, and bought back in recently at $69).

One personal irritation about the Advertising Industry is its relentless pursuit to derive advertising revenue on mobile phones. This is a practice I hold akin to having a kiddie jumping up and down in front of the telly when you’re trying to watch something; something to be actively discouraged. The one concern I have is that Google are my biggest shareholding (at the time of writing, they represent just under 50% of my (non Index Tracker) stock investments), and derive almost all its revenue today from monetising purchase intentions – read: targeted advertising. Likewise Facebook.

Something that impressed me greatly with Facebook was CEO Mark Zuckerberg buying SMS app “WhatsApp”, which has over 400 million users (70% using the service daily) for a jaw dropping $19 billion. The ethos of WhatsApp is to never let advertising interfere with the user experience, instead relying on a nominal $1/year subscription to use their service. Despite that being the antithesis of Facebook’s current business model, they put the WhatsApp CEO straight onto the Facebook Board. While it may sound a very basic simplification, their willingness to do this sort of “eat our children” move gives me confidence that they are aiming for the long term – and not clamouring to keep hold of a business model that may go stale.

With that, I turn to Google. I put £40,834 in them and have so far seen that go up to £54,508 – an approx return of 35%. Around 98% of their current income is tied to advertising revenues. I have quite a wide view of the various initiatives they are undertaking, which while mind-blowing, don’t translate into a likely future revenue/profit stream for the next two years or so. Maybe Chrome Tablets will arrive. Maybe they’ll cotton on that it may be a good idea to sell their excellent ChromeCast outside the USA. One thing I don’t yet understand well is their fixation – and many investments – in both Deep Thinking technologies and in Robotics.

The fact they may pull a rabbit out of their hat on one of a wide range of initiatives means i’ll leave my shareholding in them where it is. Likewise the shareholdings held by my three grandchildren (Ellie age 12, Charlie age 9 and Ruby age 2 all have shares in Google, Amazon and Tableau alongside their index trackers). Google shares will split in April, so I think a likely increase as their Google shares get more liquid. After that, we’ll see if the value of those shares continue their relentless march northward.

I’m also confident Amazon will bounce back – I reckon up another 20% in the next quarter to recover from their recent downturn. Apple and Facebook will soldier on. Tableau Software will continue to impress (they are my highest returns to date – over 67% at the time of writing). Those apart, i’m keeping my eye out for signs of three potential IPOs that I think will become very valuable – when they’re ready. But that’s a story for another day.