Sunday, December 31, 2006

Shout, shout ... let it all out.

Wandering as I was through the local sprawl of shops, I chanced upon a small book "What is your dangerous idea". It piqued my interest, so I bought it. The book is a collection of ideas about the future, it's cute, speculative and generally interesting. As with all good books, it led me on a journey.

The journey in this case, was because of its claim to provide "today's leading thinkers on the unthinkable". How do you define "today's leading thinkers?" One of the lessons that Cambridge taught me was that true genius is very scarce. I was there, and I'm a fully paid up member of the dazzlingly daft society. Along with 90% of the population, I believe I'm above average intelligence which either means I can't count or I'm deluded - I prefer to think I'm deluded. The one thing this does tell me is that I'm not one of the great thinkers, but fortunately I've got a lot of people to keep me company.

The truly great thinkers are often hidden away in the most obscure places and in my experience they never think of themselves in such terms. Now if you are a truly exceptional individual, let's say in the top 0.01%, then in the world today there are over half a million people just as bright as you; enough to make a small city. No matter how smart you think you or your clique are, there is a city of smarter people out there. Now this is the rub - the city couldn't exist anyway. The problem is that unless you exist in a true meritocracy most of these brilliant people are unlikely to be discovered. I believe I've met many outstandingly intelligent and thoughtful people who, because of the cards that life has dealt them, have never come close to realising their potential. A true meritocracy needs to hunt out these individuals.

So what do we live in; isn't the internet a true meritocracy? Well, it seems closer to a "shoutocracy" or, not to mix languages, a Stentorocracy (from the greek hero with the big lungs) than to a true meritocracy. There are those who argue the "wisdom of the crowd" creates a meritocracy. However the crowd is equally wise as daft (see Marquis de Condorcet for a more formal examination of this). You also still have to shout at the crowd and then you have the problem of memes.

So anyway back to the book. It led me to a group called the Edge. It's an interesting mix of self-selecting cultural imperialism, combined with some ardent beliefs and pleasurable intellectual discourse. Now there is nothing wrong with this - it's a talking shop - but the claims it makes are somewhat disturbing. It's not so much the edge, as sailing close or over it.

  • "The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are."

All hail to the priesthood. Hmmm, Hume would be turning in his grave - where has the humility gone?

  • "America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia."
  • "The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas"

All hail to the imperium! I think 6 billion people might disagree with this. This doesn't mean the ideas or people aren't interesting, the claims are just a tad strong though.

  • "Who are the 'digerati' and why are they 'the cyber elite'? They are the doers, thinkers, and writers who have tremendous influence on the emerging communication revolution. They are not on the frontier, they are the frontier."

All hail to the Kings and Queens. They may well be self-anointed, but let the meme spread long enough and soon the crowd in its wisdom will be chanting. Still, it could be worse :-

King Arthur: I am your king.
Serf: Well I didn't vote for you.
King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.
Serf: Well how'd you become king then?
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Serf: Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
Serf: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.
Serf: If I went 'round sayin' I was Emperor, just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away.
(Monty Python, Holy Grail ... if you haven't seen this, you should)

and finally ...

  • "The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator."

Ah, the Stentorocracy in action, the pantomisation of science (oh no it isn't, oh yes it is - I can't hear you!) - this is as dangerous a meme or idea as any in the book. Still, it's an interesting book - worth reading and it won't make you go blind.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Those silly little things ...

Most cars today have some form of radio frequency based remote keyless system for locking / unlocking a car.

Many of these use small internal batteries within the fob, which need to be replaced when they run down.

Why?

The key is connected to the ignition when driving, the car has a walloping electricity generator and a battery to boot. Can't these key batteries be recharged whilst driving?

grumble, grumble...

King Canute ...

Nicholas Carr's Blog has a link to a fine rant on web 2.0, democratisation of news, the net and how this is a disaster for print journalism.

Why does anyone assume things ever remain constant?

The internet is, and continues to be, a major force for commoditisation of any many processes in communication. News (e.g. a process of information transfer) is no exception, the same as music, video, imaging etc.

It allows for further commodisation of IT - hence our focus on Zimki - an industry that has developed from the silicon chip which allowed for commoditisation of data processing.

Each wave of change, causes much nashing of teeth to the vested interests. This was the basis of my talk at Euro Oscon this year and I suspect the basis of the rant.

However, as large as this seems, it is small potatoes to the change threatened by 3D printing and the commoditisation of the manufacturing process (and it's subsequent distribution).

We already have printed structure, printed electronics (Sirringhaus, 2000) and even hybrid systems printing both structure and electronics within a single machine.

The news debate is about the 'democratisation' of news, where everyone can be a consumer and publisher. Just imagine the fuss when everyone can be a consumer and manufacturer.

It will be here sooner than most people realise and no amount of ranting is going to stop that wave.

On commoditisation

Well, the billing system has been released and working in Zimki for over a week now. There are a couple of reporting bugs to be ironed out, but overall it's sweet.

So we now have a javascript application development platform and environment, using a utility method of charging (Javascript Ops, Storage and Bandwidth) with scaleability of service and the initial components of a national computing grid developed.

I discussed the concepts of commoditisation of IT (along with 3D printing - which resulted in the Fotango lego brick chocolate printer) back at Euro Foo 2004, but it has been a hobby horse of mine for almost a decade now.

Finally we are getting there, at least with the commoditised web operating environment (CWOE), one step up from commoditised hardware.

Next steps are to open source, get the grid going and encourage SaaS development on CWOE.

Looks like Nicholas Carr will be shown to be right (well, there are a lot of people trying to make this happen)

Don't trust them, trust us ... we're the news.

Or at least they were.

Apparently according Tom Glocer's Blog post, blogging is changing the media landscape by creating a two way pipe of communication. [on a personal note, a one way pipe isn't communication but dictation].

Benefits include such things as more accountability (or at least getting caught out seems to be more likely as per the Hajj photo example), no-one has a choke hold on information flow (i.e consumers get to chose) and immediacy (everyone is a potential producer!)

The downside? How can you trust the internet and amateurs (hmmm, wasn't there something about accountability in the benefit list?).

The argument goes that professionals bring something extremely important to a story, a professional code, standards and a brand. What is needed is that news providers become the trusted source in this plural media universe!

Hang on, I thought news providers were once the trusted source? Is this a case that now a different source is available (i.e. the internet) the news providers have lost the trust of the public. Now the news providers want us to go back to trusting them?

Horse, Door, Stable, Bolted ....

There would seem to be an obvious need for canonical sources of information and reputation based curators - who those curators are, well the public will decide. That's democracy for you.

Does this mean the crowd will make a wise choice? Well, they'll either make an almost perfectly right or wrong one (Marquis de Condorcet, 1745-1794) depending upon whether they have enough information and the accuracy of the information.

So I suppose the real question is whether the news providers will spend enough marketing dollars to get themselves elected?

I'm guessing they will.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Which average you after then?

The housing market is a difficult beast to pin down. Try finding out the average house price in London?

According to Hometrack, as of Sept '06 - the average house price in London was £285K.

According to the Land Registry report for 3Q06 - the average house price in London was £330K.

According to Right Move for Dec'06 - the average house price in London was £355K (though this is asking price).

Hmmm, which one is right though?

Interestingly the Sept '06 report for the Land registry has a Sales Volume against Price for London in July'06 (page 12).

If you look at the figures three things stand out :-

  • 30% of properties in London sold for less than £200K in Jul'06.
  • 55% of properties in London sold for less than £250K in Jul'06.
  • 67% of properties in London sold for less than £300K in Jul'06.

This the old problem of mean, median and mode. The mean is distorted by the high value properties.

For example the results for Jul'06 (taken from housepricecrash.co.uk) are :-

  • Home track London House price - £280K
  • Land Registry Q2 London House price - £317K
  • RightMove house price index - £324K

Whilst the land registry figures show the median is below £250K. You can be more generous and take the 2nd & 3rd quartile average, this bumps up the figure to £251K.

So the average figure for a house price in London?

Well somewhere between £250K - £350K, depending upon who you ask and which average you are after.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Render unto Caesar ... Part II

I watched a rather disturbing program this evening which attempted to show through metaphor why science was a religious subject by focusing on atheist beliefs and then associating those with science.

Hmmm.

This was tabloid TV at its worst, with a lack of any form of neutrality and a blatant agenda.

God is not a provable concept - it is outside the realm of physical reality. It is a matter of faith whether you believe in God or not, and if you do believe which version of religion you accept.

The one common fact is that all these faith systems are absolute in the belief of that faith. Atheism is also a faith based system, it is the absolute belief that God does not exist.

So what has this got to do with science? Nothing at all.

Science is a reason based system using principles of falsification, testability, the realm of reality (that which is physically observable), empirical observations, non-absolutes, usefulness and predictions.

There is no conflict between Science and Religion - they do not touch on the same things. There is of course conflict between Pro God and Non God (atheist) beliefs.

Now to Darwinism. Evolutionary theory is currently the best scientific model for explaining the origin of species.

ID (intelligent design) however is a faith based system which is not testable, falsifiable or limited to the realm of reality (it invokes an intelligent creator). It is simply put not science.

This doesn't mean that ID is wrong, or that God does not exist - it simply means that those are questions for religion not science.

So,

Does god exist? Well that's outside the scope of science.

Is science a religion? No.

Is atheism a religion? Yes.

Is science atheist? No, it's agnostic to the matter.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Cheaper waste ...

I read this article on outsourcing and the huge number of comments on Digg.

There are many good and bad reasons for outsourcing and it varies with industrial segment - so I'm going to talk primarily about IT.

The exists little correlation between IT spending and value generation however the main reasons for this would seem to be that not all IT work is the same.

You can categorise most of this work into three distinct sections.

CODB (Cost of Doing Business): Those systems which are needed to compete in the marketplace. Such systems are common across all competitors and hence bring no inherent value to a company as there exists no differentiation (the exception to this is in cost and the success of implementation). The lack of such systems puts the company at a distinct disadvantage. They are strategic systems, as per the "IT arms race" argument, in that they are a necessity.

How do you recognise a CODB? Well if there is a term for the system, standard product offerings and you are aware that all your competitors either have one or are building one - it's a good bet that it's CODB. For example - ERP, Accounts Ledger, HR system etc.

The approach to CODB should be "cheap as chips" and certainly "cheaper than my competitors", and the cheapest way to do this is in general to use a standard product (ideally a utility service) and not to customise it.

CA (Competitive Advantage) : These systems are novel, new and with a real potential return in a short period of time. As they are novel and new, they are inherently risky.

How do you recognise a CA? Much more tricky, but if it is something that no-one else has done, has a core team of experts who believe and are passionate in it (think more Marquis de Condorcet rather than wisdom of crowds), has some concept of where value can be generated - then it is more likely to be CA.

Such systems are more ideally suited to "worth based development" - i.e. a VC like approach to funding (either internally or externally). Such projects create real value but they are the minority (a few percentage points).

The final category is transitional, which is the movement from CA to CODB as any advantage gained is quickly adopted by the market.

Now if you don't divide systems into such categories, then you have a mixed bag of CA, CODB and transitional projects. Any real value is being made by a small minority and the costs are being made by all. To compound this if you treat all as the same, then you are more than likely to be overspending on CODB (unecessary cost) and underspending on CA (increasing likelihood of failure).

The cost / value link is broken internally.

Now let's make things worse by treating CODB (which can be described as static or known problems) and CA (which being new can be considered dynamic problems - more akin to R&D) as the same class and applying the same methodologies to solve them, combined with a focus on customisation.

You'll then have little or no link between cost and value combined with the wrong methodologies and a correspondingly higher failure rate.

High failure rate? High cost? Uncertain value? Sounds familiar?

Well if you are going to do something badly, then at least do it cheaply! So the natural response is to outsource to the cheapest possible provider.

This doesn't mean you won't get an equivalent result from that provider - high failure rate & uncertain value , you've just reduced the cost of it. There are however much better ways of solving this problem - IT doesn't have to be done badly.

Few people would argue that universities should just be teaching colleges, whilst all the research is done with the cheapest possible labour in the cheapest possible county. This scenario could happen if we acted as though research and teaching are the same thing, failed to distinguish between the activities and believed you could gantt chart yourself to a new discovery in the same way you can schedule a series of lectures - one is static, one is dynamic.

A more pragmatic view is to recognise the differences and treat them appropriately. The same is true with IT.

Use a "cheap as chips" approach in CODB / Transition (which means standard products, utility services - very little customisation) and use alternative funding mechanisms for that which is CA based upon highly skilled experts.

There is an enormous amount of unnecessary waste in IT but the solution is not to make it someone else's problem, you'll just end up with a cheaper way of producing unnecessary waste rather than an effective use of resources.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

ID cards and state funding of parties

Two petitions which I believe are worth signing

Against ID Cards which is a concept that is an affront to civil liberties.

Against State Funding of Political Parties which is a concept that is a affront to the ideals of democracy.

This and that ...

I met up with an old friend recently, we chewed the fat for a bit. By the end of the evening we had covered a reasonable range of subjects.

There are a bunch of concepts which I've talked about and debated on for the last decade, they came up in the conversation - so I thought I'd put a note here.
  • Problems exist on a fuzzy scale between static and dynamic. There is no single methodology to managing such, but rather opposing methodologies.

  • Knowledge evolves through the same fuzzy scale.

  • Commoditisation of IT is not only inevitable but desirable.

  • Leadership is a highly malleable concept that changes with precedent, environment and culture.

  • Politics in the western world is increasingly exhausted, trivialised and without vision.

  • There is an image of conspiracies controlled by men in smoked filled rooms. However some of these would appear to be controlled by emergent behaviours of the crowd.

    Q. Is someone plotting against us?
    A. Yes
    Q. Who?
    A. You are.
    Q. Are we?
    A. Yes, you're just not aware of it.

  • Open source is more than a licensing model.

  • The environment should not be treated as a tradeable and exclusive good.

  • 3D printing (in terms of printed structure and printed electronics) is a disruptive technology which will commoditise the manufacturing process allowing for distributed manufacturing. AKA, the next industrial revolution.

  • Content will increasingly be valued through self organising processes rather than managed ones.

  • As information flow accelerates within society then patents will increasingly become a disabler rather than an enabler of innovation.

  • Market economics is a tool not a purpose.

  • Different funding mechanisms are required for IT, taking into consideration the different stages of technology in terms of CODB, Transitional and CA. This is principally what I call the "cheap as cheaps" vs "worth based development" methods.

  • There exists no known absolutes.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hack days

Recently we've been running hack days at Fotango. Every two weeks on a Friday, the entire company "hacks" on new idea or concepts that people are interested in.

The rules are basically :-

  • everyone can be involved who wants to be involved
  • you must have something to show at the end of the day
  • organise yourself how you wish to

The results have been fabulous from new applications (20 questions, mind mapper and others) built in Zimki to gravity games and a guitar hero version of nagios. I'll blog about those on the Fotango and Zimki blog.

Why do this? Well Brendan Dawes gave an excellent talk at Flash on the Beach (FOTB) which incidentally covered the same sort of themes that led us to our conclusion and also one of the reasons behind Zimki.

In order to create you need to take risks with ideas and and you need to experiment. You can only effectively do this within a environment which encourages such experimentation and risk.

We've always encouraged experimentation at Fotango as well as being major supporters of the teams efforts in the open source community.

  • For over four years our systems have used web services at the heart of everything (this started from experimentation)
  • For four years we've been using XP like project methodologies changing them according to our need (this started from experimentation)
  • For around three years our entire intranet has been a wiki (this started from experimentation)

Looking back our use of worth based development, utility charging, virtualised everything, our borg cluster, our build systems and our new product, an entire javascript web application development platform, just to name a few all come from experimentation.

Despite this, until now we have never formalised it as a "core" part of the company - we've understood how essential it is but have always treated this as a peripheral concept.

Not any more.

Innovation comes from experimentation - without it, real innovation doesn't happen.