Software is special

Boeing airplanes crash killing hundreds. Facebook is exploited to create domestic turmoil. Volkswagen cheats out of emission standards, poisoning millions. We worry about manipulation of voting machines, autonomous vehicles, drones, and any number of devices including our garage door openers. The common thread of these modern anxieties is software.

In the history of human inventions, software is unique. Unlike any other modern invention, software is infinitely malleable. Software is a tool that allows you to make almost anything that can be expressed as rules or logic. That was first done in big calculation machines, then in desktops and smartphones. Now, as processors are deployed into everyday objects, software effects almost every aspect of modern life. Along the way, those software rules went from being really fancy calculators to determine orbits and actuarial tables, to determining the way we communicate, shop, socialize, eat, get electricity, and buy a loaf of bread. Not since the invention of written language have we smart humans come up with such a flexible invention.

It has been said that “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” It is a way of looking at technology that recognizes that it is a two way street. In the case of buildings, we have a lot of flexibility in the design, but then we have to live with the consequences for decades. Compare that with software, especially modern web based systems like Facebook or Google. These sites are literally changing every day, every hour, with many different versions operating at the same time depending on the user, the location, and time of day. These algorithms are designed to make their human users’ lives easier and more convenient.

Compare this to the state of affairs with a nuclear reactor. There isn’t a lot of flexility in the design of a nuclear reaction. Do it the wrong way and you have catastrophe. Do it the right way and you have a powerful way to make energy. In order to make that technology perform for us, we develop extensive social systems. Organizations responsible for planning, operations, oversight, regulation. Nuclear reactors don’t care if the team responsible for its operation and safety get annoyed at the repetition of their tasks. If a politician decides he wants nuclear reactors in every household, the laws of physics will not adapt to his desires.

“So what?” you might say. Why does it really matter?

The default way of thinking of technology is that it is delivered to us and we have to react to its arrival. Westinghouse designs a nuclear reactor and we live with the consequences. But the reality for software, and the vast variety of things it controls, is it encodes the demands and wishes of those who control it. What if that was different?

The idea that that software is malleable is the beginning of realizing that we, as a society, as a democracy, and as a people, have a role in shaping its future. Today we still accept the software of Facebook, Boeing, Diebold, and Volkswagen is merely a product of those companies and our control over it is limited. Once we internalize the plasticity of software, we will demand more of the software that is increasingly controlling our lives.

Gratitude Chain

Can we bring spiritual beauty to the internet?

I have an idea that I’m working on. It is inspired by my daily gratitude practice. Every day I think of three things I’m grateful for. I do it in the morning when I plan my day and most evenings after I get in bed. I often write them down.

I thought, “what if there were a way to preserve gratitude?” I realize that prayer serves this function for many. It is a way to have gratitude and hopes sent out to a supreme power, hopefully to be acted on, but at minimum to be listened to and accepted in an eternal way. What if there was a way to preserve gratitude and hopes with the cooperation of humanity.

New technology, specifically peer-to-peer and blockchain, can do this. With these technologies, we can create immutable records. And those permanent records don’t depend on the whims of Facebook or whether your hard disk is backed up. It really just comes down to whether other people are willing to help keep your data.

Gratitude chain is a new way to practice gratitude that uses the immutability of a blockchain to allow expression of gratitude and hope to last forever.

Gratitude has been shown in many studies to be one of the most effective ways to improve a sense of well being. By making it easy and fulfilling to build a gratitude habit, Gratitude chain aims to improve human well being.

For millennia humans have expressed their gratitude and hopes to deities with the expectation that their feelings will be heard, preserved, and hopefully acted upon. Science teaches that these feelings have the power to improve the experience for the people who practice gratitude, regardless of whether they believe in a supernatural diety.

Today’s blockchain technology allows us to create a human-driven way for our gratitude, hopes, and prayers to be cultivated and preserved.

Gratitude chain is a practice of collaboration with the rest of humanity to perpetuate and preserve gratitude and hopes of the world.

I think it is a beautiful idea. The question is whether we can both make it real and make it genuinely useful.

Quickest Path to Prototype

I recently had the opportunity to do a workshop lead by Tom Chi, a co-founder of Google X. He described the techniques he helped hone there to rapidly innovate on moonshot ideas. His stories are astounding:

 — Project Loon, an audacious effort to bring cell service to remote parts of earth, was able to prototype and have 4 test sites up and operational within four months, using just five people and $70,000 in material costs

 — The first prototype for Google Glass, the heads up computer display, was developed within hours after the brainstorming session where it began.

 — The 1st meeting for Google X resulted in Google Glass, the diabetic sensing contact lens, and a new AI that is semi-supervised machine learning.

While there is much more to his method, it boils down to getting to something that can be put in front of stakeholders quickly and getting feedback. I call it “quickest path to prototype” or “QPP.” What distinguishes a QPP is speed and reliance on materials and tools at hand in order to getting ideas in front of customers, investors, or other people who have a stake in the outcome. It is also a way of getting decisions out of the conference room and in front of customers and other stakeholders.

The idea of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a good one. It is part of the ideas of lean startup developed by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. The MVP method says build the smallest portion of a product to get it out in to the hands of real users. 

But let’s face it. Even an MVP takes considerable time, attention and money.

A QPP, meanwhile, can be created in a day. And once you have an initial QPP, the idea is to iterate and create another and another and another. Then, once you have something that is really resonating, only then do you commit resources to get to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). 

If you follow lean startup and pivot or persist every 3 months, you can only try 3–4 ideas before your run out of money. With this approach, you can try 3–4 ideas in a day. The key is to maximize the rate of learning and dramatically minimize the time to try things.

A prototype need not be a physical thing. Tom has a story of Schneider Electric, a large global company with a problem with executive turnover. They had several ideas to address the problem. At a retreat of the country CEOs (there are many), he asked for their best idea, which had taken two years to develop. He had them prototype it right away. The “prototype” was a role play of a typical situation that resulted in executive turnover — a meeting where a COO is told he will not get the CEO slot. The COO was played by one of the other CEOs, many of whom had been COOs in the past. Once they actually put themselves in the role through “prototyping” they found their favorite idea was a loser. He had them continue to brainstorm and prototype and eventually they found a solution that was sucessful.

Don’t Guess. Learn. 

Don’t Fail. Learn. 

-Tom Chi

Tom also has a structure for brainstorming that I like:

Ideally with 3–5 people

60 seconds — explain problem in detail

120 seconds — silently generate ideas on paper, then

60 seconds — share the craziest and most boring

30 seconds — select one to prototype

8 minutes — make a prototype … The time limit requires that the team divide and conquer; think with your hands; make the prototype situational like a movie set; the more detail the better, but quickly

There! In less than 15 minutes you have a prototype that can be put in front of people.

Evaluating a prototype also has some simple rules:

Find a person who is not part of the prototyping group

The prototyping team just sets the scene as if it is a movie set — Who is the evaluator playing, Where are they, What is their motivation

Do not direct action or defend what happens — after the scene starts, just observe 

Someone should take written notes

Another should be ready to record with video or audio

Instructions for the evaluator:

  1. Behave as if it is taking place RIGHT NOW
  2. TALK OUT LOUD as you experience it

Worthwhile to run the prototype with a variety of people

  • consumer
  • investor
  • content creator
  • partner

The importance of intensity.

Tom points out that the worst reaction to a prototype is not “I hate it” but “Meh.” The brilliant insight is that a negative reaction is almost as good as a positive one. It is like the idea hate being closer to love than indifference. At least you care. He uses the language of the “bright spots” and finding them is the key, even if the idea / prototype is a failure.

At the end, video the 30–60 sec summary just of the bright spots (positive or negative)

Here is a video of Tom explaining the process for Google Glass and his vision of expanding the possibilities for humans to learn:

Why are you only reading this headline?

I recently re-published a blog entry on Linkedin with a provocative headline, “Restore Climate by bringing back Mammoths?” It got a lot of views, but judging from the comments on Linkedin, not many bothered to read the article.

That seems wrong and kind of offends me as the author.

I will, however, admit my own guilt. I am human. I knew the title would provoke people and I did it anyway. And as a reader and retweeter, I am also guilty.

And what about you? Let those who have not retweeted titles cast the first flame.

Apparently, 59% of retweeted and shared articles are not read, according to one study. I say “apparently” because I found the link in another article and only read the abstract (hey, at least I read the abstract and found it claims to be a reproducible study, hence at a higher bar than 80% of social science studies — that last stat, btw, is something I’ve heard and repeated many times; perhaps its true).

If you want to get offended at this behavior, and I have, there are plenty of examples of how terrible the behavior has become, including the joke that NPR played on their readers.

I think there is a deep connection between the supposed 100,000 words a day we read daily, and the tendency to react to just headlines. Really, who has the time to read yet more content if there is some much more reading, viewing, and listening to do?

It is a reason I’m trying to write more and consuming less. The creative process requires reflection and synthesis. Consumption is literally in and out of our brains. We forget most of the content we consume within 24 hours. If the act of reading and watching is like eating and drinking, then writing and creating is like building cells and reviving the body. I like the analogy because we do need some food and some media consumption. Without creation, we are only poop producers.

Media Fasting

I recently did a media fast for a day.

The idea: 24 hours without social media, TV, reading books, newspapers, or listening to podcasts or the radio.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

Here is what I learned:

It was harder than I thought. Now, mind you, I once did a seven day media fast. That was excruciating, but I survived. I figured, “hey a week was hard so, 24 hours? I got this.” But a year of re-habituation to media consumption and I had an automatic urge to turn on NPR in the car, to play a podcast, to watch some TV in the evening. These were ingrained habits. Nothing like losing something to remind you it exists in the first place.

It caused me to make some permanent changes. I tried to set up my phone to avoid temptation. I removed the easy access to media. Last year I rid most icons from my home screen. Now, I removed the news, stock, and social media from my widgets. Swiping right to see updates was my go-to boredom escape. Now it is just weather and my calendar. You can only look at that so many times a day!

I was bored. It was hard at first, but I found I grew fond of it. It was as if I’d discovered a lost land of the mental landscape. It was a land I once knew, like the path of my childhood creek, and only vaguely remember. Being bored allowed me to explore, think, talk, & act with more carefree abondon that I know when I’m consuming media. Now I am trying to incorporate more pomodoros into my day because I realize how valuable those moments of boredom can be.

I spent more time talking to my wife. One of my worries with social media is that it substitutes real social interaction with the virtual. But the biggest impact on my relationships that day was not watching TV at night. “You know, we never talk like this unless we go out to dinner,” my wife said.

It made me realize the problem is media consumption. Everyone is so fixated on the impact of social media on our social relationships. I have a different theory. The thing to guard against is consumption, not social media, and not media in general.

Taking a page from the intermittent food fasting world (I do 5:2 Time Restricted Feeding). I’m going to experiment with intermittent consumption media fasting. What that means is I can still use my computer and phone for creation and direct interaction with people but not consume media including old school media like books and TV. To make it sustainable, I’m going to try doing it for more limited time periods. I’ll post on how it goes.

Restore the Climate by bringing back Mammoths?

When I first heard the proposition, I snorted. Bringing mammoths back from extinction could help slow climate change? It seemed like technological rationalization gone wild. Like trying to justify an extra bottle of wine because it is good for you. If you are going to revive a species, I can imagine many good reasons — you hardly need to rationalize it with a solution to global warming.

I recently spoke to Nikita Zimov, the scientist behind Pleistocene Park, an effort to restore an ecosystem that disappeared with the end of the last ice age. Now I am not so jaded. It still sounds crazy when I say it out loud but it deserves a serious hearing.

What changed my mind is listening to Nikita’s rationale and approach. He is not focused on mammoths, actually, despite featuring them prominently in his logo. When you listen carefully to his strategy, having mammoths might be important, but his real goal is restoring an ecosystem that existed before humans showed up. In practice that means getting to a density of large mammals — including bison, elk, moose, musk ox, yak, wolves, and tigers — that don’t exist anywhere else other than the African savana. If a woolly mammoth is in the mix, so much the better. They already have a large number and variety of animals in their Pleistocene Park in Siberia.

Nikita’s logic is that the tundra is under threat due to global warming and capable of sequestering more carbon dioxide. The key is is restoring the ecosystem from 20,0000 years ago. The key difference between now and then is not climate in his analysis, but a lot of large mammals. His hypothesis is that they were the key in an ecosystem that had more grassland, less moss, less shrubs and less trees. If he is successful and can scale the solution, it would have three positive impacts on climate.

Grasslands reflect more energy into space year around. This is especially important when there is snow on the ground, which is most of the year in Siberia. Notably, when Siberian forests burn down, the albedo effect increases, resulting in a cooling effect (of course the released carbon dioxide increases warming).

Second, large mammals trample down the depth of snow, reducing its insulation effect, making the underlying land slightly colder by around 2 degrees (C). That could be important as temperatures rise in the Arctic regions, potentially thawing permafrost and resulting in much more greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, by growing more biomass, a return to this ancient ecosystem would sequester carbon into the soils at a rate higher than the currently. In addition, Nikita claims a grassland would suck up more water from the land, reducing standing water. That could be a way to reduce another potent greenhouse gas source — methane emissions from the bogs, ponds, and lakes of the area.

Of course, most this is Nikita’s hypothesis, for which he and his team are measuring results, and publishing papers. What distinguishes his effort is his willingness to take on his hypothesis with a massive, large scale test and the determination to keep at it for decades. It reminds me of the Marin Carbon Project, a more recent effort to modify agricultural techniques to sequester carbon in California and other range lands. They too found that adding a high density of large mammals (cows in their case), combined with other techniques like composting, increased the carbon in soils.

Are woolly mammoths required? Nikita thinks they might do a more effective job at tearing down the forest than north american prairie bison, which they hope to introduce soon. Of course, it depends on progress with creating a cold-weather elephant. Cloning an actual mammoth is taking longer than expected. Frank Church is taking a different approach, using CRISPR to modify the genome of an asian elephant to have better blood supply, hair, and thicker fat. Those efforts are epic milestones in science and humanity and I hope they succeed. But they are worthy regardless of their impact on the climate. I promise not to snort with laughter next time I hear the idea.

…Why Write?

I admire what Fred Wilson has been doing for what must be 20 years or so. He blogs nearly every day. I like to check in on his posts because they are sometimes insightful about investing or startups, and sometimes just a peek into his humanity. But mostly, it is spontaneous and relevant to what is going on with him and the world.

I don’t know if I can keep up that kind of pace, but I aspire to it.

Writing is also a way to think. I like to think about things. It makes me feel more relevant to the this massive existence of earth and humanity. Yeah, that is weighty. But writing is also a way to dig into myself. It’s yet a different way from talking with friends, meditation, therapy, yoga, reflection, and all the other ways we have a conversation with ourselves. So yeah, it is also a way to feel and a way to connect with who I am as a person. And while I like to think, I have more trouble with the intimate feeling conversations. So I hope I can expose the emotional side of myself too.

I write because I remember wondering when I as a kid, “All this history is cool, but what about all those things that happened that did not get recorded? What civilizations rose and fell with only their stones and metals left behind for us to try to understand them?” No writing. No history (to speak of). Writing is magic. It allows me to more-or-less inject ideas into your head. It allows you to more-or-less read my mind. It can do that in a way that is more powerful than video and virtual reality. So writing is a way of saying, “I was here. I existed. I thought. I felt. I loved. I hated.”

What do I want to write about here? What is my world of thoughts and feelings that I want to inject into your head?

Family life. I’m a father and that occupies most of my time and attention. My kids are twins and teenagers. I made a conscious choice to be able to spend these final years at home before they go off to college. I was just married at the age of 52 for the second time. I would like to write more about the deeper life of emotion and it starts with my most important relationships.

The habits of the good life. I’m curious about the nature of the good life, something ancient philosophers and religious leaders have learned a lot about. I’m not an expert and certainly not a philosopher or religious leader, but I kind of feel like I’m trying to unlock those mysteries.

Startup life. I’ve started or seeded or been on the board of dozens of startups (I wonder if I can say “hundreds” yet?). I’ve learned somethings and have feelings about the way it should work.

New ideas. I love ideas. I love innovation. There are several categories of new ideas that drive my curiosity and, in some cases, my investments. Here are some:

  • New Mobility – including the “three revolutions” and new ideas like scooters, hyperloop, space transport, and flight.
  • “Happy Tech” – my term for the application of technology to enhance human well being. This ranges from apps that make you feel better to hardware to read and write directly to your brain.
  • Consciousness, intelligence, and social interaction – related to the Happytech category but these are the idea categories that inform the technology solutions
  • Climate solutions – Bold technology solutions and policy ideas are needed to avert the worst of climate change.
  • Social coordination, governance – We have new technology that could change these things, including blockchain. Blockchain technologies are powerful new ways to coordinate human and could end up being a bigger deal than the internet itself.
  • Democracy, Capitalism and the fate of our Republic – the 2008 collapse set in motion a questioning of our world unlike any since World War II. That is both exciting and scary as hell.
  • Technology and design and society – I’ve been fascinated by the interplay since I observed how powerfully Congress influenced the design of Space Station in the late 20th century. I continue to pay attention and want to dig into this topic. I wonder if I have a theory of technology that is coherent and I’d like to try to explore my ideas.

Oh, and my hobbies. I like to climb and read. I like space and nature and so expect to see things like that too.

I love the Pomodoro Technique

The pomodoro method is startlingly simple 

About 18 months ago when I started working on my own, I learned about the pomodoro method.

Its is startling in simplicity. You can say it in a sentence:

Set a timer for 25 minutes to do a task or set of related tasks, then set a time for 5 minutes to take a break. 

Like so many things that sound simple, it quickly gets nuanced. Golf? Just hit the  ball into a hole. Profit? Just sell for more than it costs. Bitcoin? It is just an encrypted distributed ledger that solves the double spend problem of digital currency. Ok, ok, so some things just start out complex.

For the pomodoro method, some of the nuance is how you spend the breaks. I find the best days are when I basically stop working when the timer goes off. I struggle with how to incorporate the technique when I have lots of meetings, travel time, or many tasks scheduled. The classical approach calls for 15 minute breaks every three pomodoros, but I rarely do that. I’d like to incorporate it on days when I have continuous deep work.

Why I love this technique:

  1. It forces some accountability about the time I spend on things. Those 25 minutes are pretty small but long enough to be productive in deeper work, and it is amazing how quickly my internet-enhanced-ADHD monkey mind jumps off task. The ticking timer is the reminder: Oh yeah, I set out to do something.
  2. I get better at estimating time for tasks. Email in 1 hour? Sure. Easy. Then I measure the pomodoros. Yikes! Four pomodoros! Some days it takes six when I think it will take one. At least I know where my time goes.
  3. I love the breaks. The idea for breaks is: do anything but work. Walk, exercise, daydream, stare out the window like a spring-struck teenager… anything to allow the mind to be free of the intensity of the deep work. Before, I would castigate myself for taking too many breaks. Gotta be maximally productive! But I find days with pomodoros are more productive in doing the things that matter. And I feel better and more accomplished at the end of the day. I’m pretty sure the breaks are the reason why. They allow me to refresh and reset deeper intentions.

Pomodoros are a great foundation for productivity. They are also a great habit to improve the satisfaction of your day and week. I’m happy I found them and incorporated them into my daily life.