The brain-changing art of data visualisation

I’m fascinated by the blossoming field of data art. Seriously smart people take data (of which there is so much these days) and create colourful displays with the intention of helping us visualize what the data is telling us. Or part of it, anyway.

via davidmccandless.com

via davidmccandless.com

What most fascinates me about this is not so much the power that a good visualisation can give a set of data, but how this is changing our brains. I will probably have to go into this in more depth at another time, it’s no doubt too deep for the weekly Sunday post on digital art. But if you poke around in the field, or if you watch this video, you’ll see that at first, most data art is tough to understand. Nice colours, lovely shapes, but what is it telling me? Then it suddenly clicks (usually after listening to or reading a detailed explanation), and you wonder why you didn’t see it before. That’s how it changes your brain.

To see how beautiful and useful data art can be, and to see stories and perspective explained through colour and shape, watch this TED talk by David McCandless, author of Knowledge is Beautiful.

And have a think about what other facts and stories you would like to see turned into colourful shapes and patterns… A different way of combining art and storytelling.

Friday five: edtech innovation, the future of work, and security

Some epic articles this week, and some very cool videos:

What is Code? – via Bloomberg Businessweek

A brilliant article, staggering in its scope. Paul Ford explains in a concise but at the same time extensive way the significance and beauty of code, it’s place in our culture and . Delightfully meandering, he covers themes such as the origins of computing, gender bias, language and egos with humour and humility. At the end you feel not only a whole lot more confident about your grasp of technology, but also not quite so bad about faking your way through all those programming conversations and meetings.

by Boru O'Brien O'Connel for Bloomberg Businessweek

by Boru O’Brien O’Connel for Bloomberg Businessweek

I’m not going to try and summarize it here, that’s beyond my ability. So, really, read it, or parts of it, or whatever. Or even just check it out to marvel at the amazing photographs and the fun and cool animated graphics that give the design a retro but very clever sheen. The article even has underlying programming that notes your scrolling behaviour while reading and chides you if it thinks you’re skimming. Epic.

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Where should innovation in education come from? – via Medium

Medium has launched a fascinating series of letters between education leaders called “Build on This”, with the aim of discussing the current state of education innovation, and where this is going. It was kicked off with a letter by Sandy Speicher of IDEO to Richard Culatta, who leads the technology team at the US Department of Education. The exchange has only just started, but already it has produced a fascinating dissection of the current innovation overload, and the need to choose between rapid adoption and thoughtful evolution… Or can we have both?

“So many questions are discussed around innovation in education — Are things changing too fast? Too slowly? Should the innovations come from the ground, or from the government? If it doesn’t scale quickly is it worth it? Will technology save us? Or is the answer in our teachers? Do we really need to redesign education? Or do we risk losing something we’ve already got figured out?”

Sandy then goes on to provide the most insightful analogy I’ve seen in ages, that helps us realize how much of what is out there is hype:

“I always joke that when people say “we need to redesign education,” they’re saying something like “let’s redesign commerce!” It’s just that big. Our education system isn’t a thing that is designed; it is the outcome of many different designed elements and many different people’s creativity. Clearly there isn’t one simple answer. Because of that, it seems to me that it would help to unpack what the word innovation is really about in education.”

She then goes on to introduce four fundamental debates:

  • incremental change vs radical leap
  • the how vs the what
  • from the ground vs from the government
  • innovations vs innovators

All four debates are important and fascinating, but the last one particularly intrigued me, since it’s not something I’d thought of before. Innovators and innovations are correlated, but not the same thing. One innovator can produce many innovations, especially if he or she is given support and encouragement to do so. The point hints at the opening of the debate on the “commoditisation” of innovation, which is something I’ve been looking at for reasons unrelated to the education sector. Sandy elaborates:

“Is the goal to get great new solutions out there, or get more people to create new solutions? I’m a little biased toward the latter, because the more people that are applying their creativity in education, the more innovations we will see, routinely, over time. And they’ll have the benefit of being locally defined. But clearly, both are needed.”

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The World Wide What? – by FoundersForum

Tim Berners-Lee, Arianna Huffington, Sean Parker, Steve Case, Martha Lane Fox, Reid Hoffman, Martin Warsavsky, Michael Bloomberg, Jimmy Wales and more… And narrated by Stephen Fry… Just how did FoundersForum get all these Internet greats to participate in this humorous, silly short film about what the world would have been like without Internet? Because it’s to support the World Wide Web Foundation, which “fights for the open Web as a public good and a basic right.” Brilliant. And, they are surprisingly good actors. Or does the kudos go to the director?

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A World Without Work – from The Atlantic

This deep and mighty article is a fairly sobering look at the economics of the inefficiencies in the workforce. Will we be replaced by computers? Are jobs becoming obsolete? Does it even matter?

Author Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) argues that yes, it does matter.

“The paradox of work is that many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.”

The current work model is broken, or at least deficient in structure and motivation:

“Six years into the recovery, the share of recent college grads who are “underemployed” (in jobs that historically haven’t required a degree) is still higher than it was in 2007—or, for that matter, 2000. And the supply of these “non-college jobs” is shifting away from high-paying occupations, such as electrician, toward low-wage service jobs, such as waiter. More people are pursuing higher education, but the real wages of recent college graduates have fallen by 7.7 percent since 2000. In the biggest picture, the job market appears to be requiring more and more preparation for a lower and lower starting wage.”

More:

“A 2014 Gallup report of worker satisfaction found that as many as 70 percent of Americans don’t feel engaged by their current job.”

“Paid labor does not always map to social good.”

And widespread unemployment will have significant social consequences…

“Two of the most common side effects of unemployment are loneliness, on the individual level, and the hollowing-out of community pride.”

…that aren’t all going to be negative.

“To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages.”

“It would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.”

“The despondency and helplessness of unemployment were discovered, to the bafflement and dismay of cultural critics, only after factory work became dominant and cities swelled.”

“Would office space yield seamlessly to apartments, allowing more people to live more affordably in city centers and leaving the cities themselves just as lively? Or would we see vacant shells and spreading blight?..”

“As the 40-hour workweek faded, the idea of a lengthy twice-daily commute would almost certainly strike future generations as an antiquated and baffling waste of time…”

“As full-time work declined, rearing children could become less overwhelming…”

“The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers…”

Derek’s conclusion – that no work is bad but less work could end up being good – is uplifting. His article does include several policy suggestions to absorb the economic and societal change. And his underlying message of inevitable change and necessary adaptability is a refreshing call to take a look at the society we live in now. How can we improve it, for the good of all?

“Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth…”

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The Future of Productivity by Microsoft – via Where Cool Things Happen

This futuristic view of productivity from Microsoft is an impressive video, with some mouth-watering gadgets.

Yes, I worry about data obscuring the view, and focussing more on the information than the experience… But the effects are cool, the ideas interesting, and it doesn’t hurt to fantasise…

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Software Is Vulnerable Because of You, from MIT Technology Review

Yes, just as guns kill because of us. We have a responsibility to use tools correctly, but we also are, let’s face it, going to make mistakes. And in so doing, we improve the tools with our input, solutions and choice swear words.

“We usually expect that we can walk across a bridge or into a building without the structure collapsing. We don’t have that kind of confidence with software programs.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Buildings and bridges are safer now because of the collapses.

“The problem with modern software is that we’ve been building our “skyscrapers” with the same materials and techniques used to build huts. Software began as a collection of bricks: simple procedures, sequences of commands for calculations, games, and curiosities. Decades later, we have millions of procedures interacting with each other on interconnected machines with access to all kinds of secret information. Yet we’re still using similar languages and tools.”

Actually, we’re really not. Software is a continually evolving process, and the hardware we use today is very, very different to the clunky computers of yore. Go on, just pull your main device out of your pocket and try and point out the similarities. I bet you can’t go past the 10 fingers.

Base computing is the same, yes. But base computing is not the problem, it’s just inert and quite dumb bits of yes-or-no information.

“Another way would be to make software easier to analyze.”

Software is getting more user-friendly all the time. And coders, even very, very basic level ones like me, know how to read code. We get what it’s trying to do, and often we can figure out why it isn’t doing it. Debugging software is getting more sophisticated all the time.

Your general user should not be expected to understand code. Technology and the programming that makes it useful should be for everyone, code-literate or not.

Security is weak, and yes, it’s our fault. We should use hardware and software in a more intelligent and careful way. But we’re not taught to do so. I gave a talk at a school the other day, to a group of 15-year-olds. One of them asked me what cookies were. It turns out that no-one in the class had any idea. Yet they all use smartphones, tablets and computers every day. Is it their fault that they don’t know? They didn’t even know that they should know that stuff.

I’m not excusing it, I’m saying that we need to do more to make everyone aware of Internet security and safety. We need to make security easier, because as humans we are generally lazy and only are really careful after something bad has happened to us. Why do you think wearing seatbelts is law in many countries? Because we wouldn’t wear them otherwise.

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Blossoming of 3d printing, via Co.Design

Stunning 3d printed jewellery. I’m not into jewellery, but the results are startling, and watching the process is quite lovely…

3047715-slide-s-3-these-gorgeous-necklaces-grow-like-flowers

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The 5 main challenges facing ed-tech startups, no, make that 7…

I love “list” articles. So easy to skim. This one – by Zach Cutler for Entrepreneur.com – is no exception, and has the added virtue of raising some interesting points, in an excellent format. The list in question is of challenges facing edtech (education + technology) startups… with possible solutions. I’ve seen so many articles about obstacles and barriers, but very few propose solutions. It makes me think that Zach is possibly an entrepreneur at heart.

The article is short on words and somewhat simple, but that’s actually ideal for this type of article and its intention: to make the obstacles easy to understand, and to get people thinking about ways around them. And to hopefully encourage entrepreneurs to really think about the risks in their business model.

by Jason Ortego for Unsplash

by Jason Ortego for Unsplash

In summary, the five obstacles mentioned, and their solutions, are:

1) The edtech industry has exploded.

Solution: since there’s so much competition, come up with something innovative.

Comment: Yes! I recently took a MOOC called “Powerful Tools for Teaching and Learning” from the University of Houston which looked at different categories of education technology and the problems they can solve. Very interesting. My main takeaway was that the range of tools is overwhelming, and it’s a full-time job just keeping up. The range of choice is actually a barrier in itself, because we are reluctant to invest a significant amount of time in learning how to use a new platform or tool, if we are not sure that it will survive in this over-crowded space. So we focus our efforts on the leaders, which makes it even harder for innovative upstarts to gain market share.

2) Funding for edtech startups is not extraordinarly high.

Solution: Focus on cash flow from the very beginning. Don’t depend on big-ticket external financing.

Comment: This jibes nicely with my conviction that the VC sector is losing its focus and scrambling for unicorns, rather than trying to really change the way education (or any other sector) works. There are exceptions, of course (I love the idea of the NewSchools Venture Fund – a not-for-profit investor in education technology companies). And the VC firms are businesses with a right/obligation to make profits. But Silicon Valley used to stand for revolutionary change and new ways of looking at society and motivation. As I said, there are exceptions, and maybe my hindsight is rose-tinted. But so much talk of exits and bubbles is turning the excitement of possibility into uninteresting hype. Sorry, getting slightly off track here. My point is that there are startups that should be run as research projects (with profit not being the main objective), and there are startups that should be run as businesses, focussed on cash flow rather than number of users. Most edtech startups fall into the latter category.

3) The education industry is slow to move.

Solution: Convince with data.

Comment: The proposed solution is simple and brilliant, and not hard to do these days with so much quantification. But I don’t think that it’s enough to get schools to change policies or procedures, precisely because the education industry is slow to move. Its pace is frustrating. But since we’re experimenting with our kids’ futures here, maybe it’s a good thing that it’s slow. We’ve seen so many cases of schools adopting technologies without understanding them, or without having taken the time to figure out integration. Here, take an iPad. Sure, let’s invest in an interactive whiteboard. Maybe schools should wait and see, and think deep thoughts about incorporation and new perspectives.

Alright, I don’t believe that, either. I think that it’s better to try technologies out, even if we’re not sure what the uses can be. That way we contribute to their development. We can come up with other uses, we can provide early feedback, we can become part of the process. And, we can teach the younger generation to participate in innovation by trying things out, by taking reasonable risks, and by not always waiting to be told what to do.

That would be the ideal, but unfortunately I doubt it’s going to happen any time soon, because the education industry is slow to move. But we can start pushing, with data. Data is not enough, though, we also need to convince with idealistic moonshot arguments.

4) Most schools don’t have excess money in their budgets.

Solution: Come up with innovative monetization plans.

Comment: This is why the SAAS model in edtech is what will most likely work. SAAS models (“Software as a Service”) depend on recurring revenue. You don’t buy the software, you rent it. It remains cloud-based, which frees up server space and makes it accessible from anywhere. Updates and fixes are no hassle, they’re done directly on the site. And generally, it’s scalable. You start off with a simple plan, and as your needs grow and you add on capacity and/or additional services, your expenditure increases accordingly. From the start-up’s point of view, a recurring revenue business model is more predictable, more stable, and on the whole much more attractive than a sales-based option. Customer criticism is a good thing, as it helps to refine the product, and the whole network benefits. Your clients judge you on the service.

With a sales-based model, customer criticism is a nightmare. Replacing, refunding and accepting returns drains resources. Updates and fixes are a hassle to administer, for company and clients alike. And your clients judge you on the product, which is more difficult to control, and which can be a business killer.

The “free to users” model which gets income through partnerships that the article suggests is dicey. Income through partnerships sounds like advertising, or targeted access for marketing purposes for other businesses. And with schools, especially if we’re talking about underage kids, that could lead to a host of what-have-you-done-with-my-data problems. Also, we are becoming more familiar with the notion that there is no such thing as a free lunch. With free services, you are paying with your data. And with education and kids, we just don’t want to go there. I wrote a while ago about how an edtech platform that would have generated significant efficiencies for teachers and school administrators didn’t work out because of data concerns. If the schools aren’t overly sensitive with their data, the parents sure are. And when it comes to schools, it’s often the parents that collectively block or slow adoption.

5) Academia is more about theory and less about action.

Solution: Work on the communication above all, and create mixed teams.

Comment: Academics and entrepreneurs rarely speak the same language. And they tend to have different attitudes to life. Entrepreneurs tackle problems with a solutions. Academics write papers. (I know, I’m generalizing, and there are notable exceptions, of course.) Because of these differences, they both have so much that they can learn from each other, which is why they can make a great team. Depth on the one hand, brevity on the other. Complexity on the one hand, clarity on the other. Details on the one hand, synthesis on the other. Landscape on the one hand, strategy on the other. Facts on the one hand, solutions on the other. I could go on, but I’ll do you a favour and stop.

Understanding the academics’ point of view is fundamental in selling software or efficiency tools. Not being able to speak their language is most likely a deal-breaker. But, not all edtech clients are academics. School administrators, for instance, are often businesspeople first. However, they then have to convince academics, teachers and parents. So, bottom line, edtech entrepreneurs need to understand that not everyone sees things in the same problem/solution light as they do.

I would add:

6) Teachers are busy

…and don’t generally have the time to follow mandates from on high, generally from people who don’t understand how busy they are. Nor, often, do they have the inclination, unless they are convinced that this solution will either save them time. If it can produce better results, so much the better. Most teachers, I am convinced, really want the kids to advance and to learn. That’s why they became teachers. But with budget cuts and increased public scrutiny, they are under more pressure than ever to comply/perform/report. So, get them involved, in all senses of the word, and you have a huge advocacy base.

7) Not all kids have the same resources

If a kid is taught how to use an iPad in class, but has no technology at home, he or she will be at an educational disadvantage compared to peers who do have a home environment supportive of innovation and investment. Those of us who grew up in that environment often don’t realise the privilege that we had. Technology in the classroom isn’t worth much if there’s no access to technology at home. It’s better than no access at all, but there needs to be an effort to get parents involved and “on board”.

Obstacles in education technology adoption and implementation, as in life, are plenty. And I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing. Education is so important, it has such an impact on the mentality of our future creatives, workers and innovators, that it’s not something that we should trifle with frivolously. Edtech initiatives need to go through a rigorous testing process, in the lab and in the field, pushing against barriers both expected and unexpected. And as General Douglas MacArthur allegedly said, “No battle plan survives contact with reality.” Agility, willingness to pivot and a conviction that the learners are what matters, are what will distinguish the winners from those that were a good idea but couldn’t quite make it.

We need to incorporate technology in our education, as in our life. But technology is no more than a tool, a medium through which we can reach wider audiences, faster, and in a more entertaining way. The edtech successes of the future will need to win over a wide range of interested parties, from investors to school boards to teachers to parents to the kids themselves. And that is a very difficult task. Will the end result be worth it? Making learning more efficient and fun, making teachers lives easier and more productive, saving money for school boards, and earning a good economic return for investors… And in the process, re-kindling interest in forgotten subjects, inspiring goals in directionless interest, cultivating curiosity and the desire to solve problems? Yes, I’d say it’s worth it.

Bach and neon lights – it’s not what you think.

Technically this is not digital art, but I have to show it to you anyway. Even if you don’t like Bach (whaaat?), the display is amazing. The video by Alan Warburton shows a strange but stunning representation of Bach’s fugues, using neon lights. Quite extraordinary, and a totally captivating demonstration of the power of the visual combined with the aural. The care that went into the set-up, programming and filming is awe-inspiring.

(Via Colossal)

Friday Five: choices, mushrooms and podcasts

The Friday collection of cool stuff from the web that I came across this week:

The paradox of having too many chances, via Quartz

You’ve heard about too many choices creating stress and indecision, right? Well, now there’s a cure.

The next big breakthrough in design and technology will be the creation of products, services, and experiences that eliminate the needless choices from our lives and make ones on our behalf, freeing us up for the ones we really care about.

“Up to now, the tendency of designers has been to provide customers with as many options as possible—various colors for vacuum cleaners, feature options for calling plans, and a spectrum of detergents for any kind of stain or proclivity.

Anticipatory design eliminates all that and presents a singular option. “Flow not friction,” “convenience not choice,” and “efficiency not freedom” are the mantras of anticipatory design.”

It sounds great. I would love to not have to make so many choices during the day. The Jobs/Zuckerberg theme of having a casual T-shirt-and-jeans uniform sounds ideal, only I’d like mine to be a bit more colourful.

However, here’s the catch:

“But for anticipatory design to work, an interconnected network of systems and records need to work seamlessly. This means relinquishing personal information—passwords, credit card numbers, activity tracking data, browsing histories, calendars—so the system can make and execute informed decisions on your behalf.”

I would love a more streamlined life. But I don’t want to relinquish that much control. And I would also like some complications from time to time. For texture, interest and to remind myself that life isn’t perfect.

This is a fascinating article, ripe with efficient possibilities that sound like science fiction but that are possible today. But to what extent do we want more efficiency? Like the smothering mother who won’t let you do anything for yourself, when does that pass from helping to controlling? And, when does the pursuit of such efficiency become more trivial than evolutionary?

The aim of anticipatory design is, in the end, to solve the ultimate of first-world problems: too much choice.

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3d printing nature, via Dezeen

How’s this for an appetizer? You plant mushrooms and herbs inside a little 3d-printed bread basket, let them grow, and then eat the whole thing together. Talk about wild.

Edible-Growth-by-Chloe-Rutzerveld_dezeen_05_644

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Podcasting in the limelight – via The New York Times

Of all the innovations in media distribution that the Internet has facilitated, I would put podcasts at the top of the list. Ok, along with music discovery and new documentary formats. But podcasts have taught me more than any other innovation, way more, and no other development has helped fill previously unproductive times quite like podcasts. Trekking to the grocery store? a16z. Going to the gym? Tech Weekly. Walking the dog? 99% Invisible. Running? Freakonomics. Airports? The Web Psychologist. So, to say that I am a podcast fan, doesn’t quite cover it.

This article in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo brings up some of the obstacles podcasts as a business face – the lack of industry standards in advertising, the lack of actionable data – and highlights some success stories. The author knows the sector, he himself has a tech podcast (now on my list of things to listen to). But I don’t agree with his title: Podcasting Blossoms, but in Slow Motion. Podcasting startup Gimlet Media’s first show took 30 days to reach 100,000 listeners. Its second show took four days to reach that. That’s pretty fast growth. And the torrent of new entrants into the scene doesn’t sound like slow motion to me.

But, putting aside quibbling about the pace, the fact that podcasting is featuring so prominently in mainstream media, given its almost retro non-tech feel, is exciting and encouraging. I worry about the time I’m going to need to set aside just to keep up with my favourites, let alone my new discoveries.

“Several advertisers told me that podcast ads had proved to be tremendously effective. They can’t be easily skipped, and because they are often read by hosts, audiences are often convinced of their authenticity. “We feel it creates a deep personal connection to our brand,” said Ryan Stansky, the marketing manager who runs podcast advertising at Squarespace, which currently sponsors hundreds of podcasts.

Even though rates are high, selling ads is still a laborious process and top-tier shows limit the number of ads that appear in each show. The more ads that appear, the less each advertiser will pay, a dynamic that may limit the upside of the business. There are also technical problems to be solved. Podcasters can count their downloads, but it’s difficult to tell if downloads translate to listeners, and it’s nearly impossible to tell who is listening, and to figure out what sort of ads listeners may like.”

My favourite podcasts this month (the list changes frequently, especially as I’m continually discovering new ones):

a16z (Andreesen Horowitz)

Entrepreneurial Thought Leadership (Stanford University)

Freakonomics

Tech Weekly (The Guardian)

The Web Psychologist

The Tim Ferris Show

99% Invisible

GPS with Fareed Zakaria

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7 future web design trends that are already here, from Medium

Jowita Ziobro on Medium gives us an excellent synthesis of changes in web design: scrolling with gestures, simple is better, animation is back and email trumps social. Fascinating and well presented.

“Right now you see the best of mobile app design appearing in web design. With enough time, the difference between an app and a website might almost entirely disappear.”

image via "7 Future Web Design Trends" on Medium, by Jowita Ziobro

image via “7 Future Web Design Trends” on Medium, by Jowita Ziobro

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A Sad Counting – The Guardian’s Counted project, from Nieman Labs

This is an interesting exercise in participation, with interesting lessons in Getting the Message Out There. At the beginning of the month, The Guardian newspaper of the UK launched The Counted, a tally of those killed by police in the US. It’s a sad and fascinating project, with a sobering presentation, an absorbing design and a clear layout. The problem is that the impact is only as good as the quality of the data behind it. So, The Guardian turned to crowdsourcing, asking the public to participate, to verify and amplify the information publicly available. But how to get people to participate? This insightful article explains the process and the result.

The main takeaways:

  • Lose the brand. People care about causes, not brands. The Guardian’s US team set up Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that did not flaunt The Guardian’s brand, but were centred on the cause.
  • Moderate, moderate, moderate. Debate is good, but abuse is not. This part is difficult.
  • Cherish the community. Cultivate the super-users. They’ll become ambassadors and moderators, spreading the word and caring for the project as if it were their own.
  • Bring together small communities, by respecting their focus and their space, and by giving them a way to reach other small communities. Help them to share their stories and information.
  • Share the data. The more open the project is, the more usable it is and the more it will be shared and commented on. Let people have access to the data for free, and they’ll contribute more data, input and insight.

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Words take on a life of their own

The Visuwords website is fascinating. Not very useful maybe, unless you’re into language trivia. But it is hypnotic, and worth playing around with.

visuwords

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The lack of European unicorns – from the New York Times

Yet another article comparing the US entrepreneurial scene with the European. This one (by the knowledgeable and prolific James Stewart) is more insightful and frustrating than most, for the clarity of its cultural comparisons. It’s not a Europe-bashing article which would inspire me to come to Europe’s defence. It is more a European-politics-bashing article which I have no problem with. I see so many headlines about entrepreneur initiatives and Silicon Valley wannabes that pretend that it’s even possible to replicate the scale of success. And it’s frustrating, as Europe is such a wonderful place to live (politics aside), with so much creativity and stimulation. We would like the talented individuals with lofty entrepreneurial ambitions to stay, and I’m sure that they would like to as well. It would be so great if articles like this help European legislators to wake up and realize the depth of change that mercantile law needs to compete for that talent.

“Here’s a stark comparison: In the United States, three of the top 10 companies by market capitalization are technology companies founded in the last half-century: Apple, Microsoft and Google. In Europe, there are none among the top 10…

There are institutional and structural barriers to innovation in Europe, like smaller pools of venture capital and rigid employment laws that restrict growth. But both Mr. Kirkegaard and Professor Moser, while noting that there are always individual exceptions to sweeping generalities about Europeans and Americans, said that the major barriers were cultural…

None of this will be easy to change, even assuming Europeans want change. “In Europe, stability is prized,” Professor Moser said. “Inequality is much less tolerated. There’s a culture of sharing. People aren’t so cutthroat. Money isn’t the only thing that matters. These may be good things.” But Europeans can’t have it both ways. She said that successful innovators quickly discover it’s hard to break through these cultural norms.”

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I have to share this with you. It’s one of the craziest things I’ve seen in ages. Really. Crazy.

— x —

On that note, have a crazy (but cannibal-free) weekend.

How deep is the stream? Music discovery and the Internet.

My 12-year-old daughter’s favourite music groups, as of yesterday: Fall Out Boy, The Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel. I say “as of yesterday”, because as you know, the tastes of pre-teens fluctuate more than the stockmarket. But actually, those three have been up there for a couple of weeks now, and before Fall Out Boy came on the scene, her most-listened to was John the Determinist by Jeremy Messersmith.

An eclectic mix for a 12-year-old, you might say. But, although my daughter is obviously an original (obviously), many of her friends are mixing genres even more than they mix nail polish. So, what’s happening? Where are these musical influences coming from?

Partly from the home, yes. We play music a lot, from a wide range of genres. So I suppose that I can take credit for some of the influence. But only some. Jeremy Messersmith was entirely her discovery. And where did she find it? On Spotify.

Music discovery has always been a big thing for the music industry. How do new bands get known? How can we spread the word about this new group that we’ve just signed? How can we get more listeners? Traditionally, it’s been your friends, and radio stations. You would hear a song on the radio, like it, and then buy the entire album. Or, your friends would tell you about their new discoveries, you’d listen to them sprawled on cushions on the floor over at their house, and then you’d buy the album to socially keep up.

Then came the Internet. Soon there were music blogs accessible, for free, to anyone with a connection. And Internet radio. And iTunes. And YouTube.

And now, while all of the aforementioned discovery routes still hold, streaming is muscling in big time on the amount of time we spend listening to music, based on its strength in discovery. Music streaming, together with interactive Internet radio, is taking over as a main discovery engine, and in the process, is blurring the edges of genres.

Let’s talk about genres

What are genres, anyway? They’re really just labels that help us locate music we might like. If you like southern hip hop, you’ll probably like Young Jeezy. If you enjoy new country music, try Blake Shelton. If trance is your thing, you need some Chicane in your life. But, most of us don’t just listen to one music style. We don’t “belong” to one label. And even if we did, there are so many sub-genres that just because you like rock, that doesn’t mean that you like all types of rock. Hardly any of us are loyal to just one type of music (except heavy metal fans, apparently).

So, how is streaming changing music discovery? It’s the ease of access, combined with a practically unlimited access to a vast range of songs.

First, a bit of background. The music scene has come a long way since the iTunes revolution, which for the first time let us carry our entire music collection around in their pocket, and let us buy individual songs on a whim. At $0.99 a song, we could experiment, download a range of artists, get recommendations based on previous purchases. As an avid iTunes user (and self-proclaimed queen of playlists), the thought of having complete control over what I listen to and when was beyond exciting. However, we were limited to music we owned. And unless we planned to spend a chunk of money every month adding new songs to our collection (which, I speak from experience, took up a fair amount of free time), we found ourselves getting tired of listening to the same tracks.

With streaming and with Internet radio, we don’t completely control what we listen to.  We can control the type of music, we can skip songs if we don’t like them, but on the whole, not much more than that. We choose our channel, our playlist, our filters, and we sit back and enjoy. On some services we can select artists to listen to, we can even download favourite songs and create our own playlists. But the music isn’t ours, and we can’t decide the playback order. We have sacrificed control for greater access.

Love those parameters

Which leaves us wide open to discovery. With streaming and Internet radio, we haven’t chosen the music. We have chosen the parameters, and within those limits, there will be surprises. There will be new songs and new artists that we like, and with a simple tap or click, we can save that song for future re-listening, we can explore more work by that artist, we can (on some platforms) even create a new playlist for those discoveries. And with a playful tinkering of the parameters, we can have a lot of fun. The list of genres available on Pandora include such gems as Viking Metal, Indie Classical, Hawaiian Reggae or Hipster Cocktail Party. That’s just for starters. And if you’re listening on your computer, Pandora shows you the artist playing, and displays a list of similar artists. Ideal for music discovery.

Creating original and interesting playlists via algorithms is fairly standard now in the online music world. Aggregating songs by artist or genre is easy, with tags and filters. A relatively new development, even better for music discovery, is mood-based listening. All of the playlists I listen to on Spotify are mood-based. There’s my Seize the Day, my Your Morning Coffee and my Southern Gothic (don’t judge). This is slightly harder to automate – how do you tell what is ideal for a rainy day, or for an angry heartbreak? And it is in mood-based lists that we especially see genres start to blur. For melancholy, try a bit of Sia followed by Pink Floyd. For summer smiling, Manu Chao goes very well with Ziggy Marley. We don’t care if they don’t belong to the same group. They fit how we’re feeling. And this is how we can not only come across new artists, but we can discover entirely new genres. I had no idea what trip hop was until I came across Glory Box by Portishead on a mood playlist. I then went and downloaded a bunch of Portishead songs on iTunes, which helpfully suggested that I might also like Massive Attack. They were right.

Most of the streaming services are betting on a wider palate. And the more new music they can recommend, and the more trustworthy those recommendations become, the more loyal users they can accumulate. And the more loyal users they can accumulate, the more trustworthy their recommendations become (because of the additional data), so the virtuous cycle continues. And it doesn’t seem that anybody loses out – we get more music and have more fun making new discoveries, and the revenue gets spread amongst a wider pool of artists.

Two of my web-based discovery sites are TheSixtyOne, which through a fun interface tells you about the artist you’re listening to, lets you support them, and interact with others that also supported them; and Songza’s daily selection of playlists based on horoscope signs, obscure instruments, choice of headwear

thesixtyone

The exciting part is not just the vast world of music that has opened up to us. It’s not even just the pleasure we feel when we hear something new that moves us. It’s knowing that this broader access is fostering musical talent, stretching creativity and supporting the sector as a whole. True, music revenues are down, due to the sharp decline in album sales. But music streaming revenues are up, and are expected to keep on growing. While most of that currently goes to the labels, the industry is undergoing a major power shift. More artists are taking over their own management, and receiving more of the royalties due to them from the streaming services. Alternative and low-cost forms of getting your music out there are making this viable. And streaming music and Internet radio make it ever more likely that new music will get discovered.

And that the young, on discovering it on their own rather than through their embarrassing parents, will appreciate music from times gone by. That will make their lives richer, perpetuate legends and provide some lively dinner table conversation. Those of you over 40 will hopefully appreciate this: my 17-year-old son emerged from his room the other day and asked: “Mom, have you heard of Johnny Cash?”

Interactive fireworks

Ok, technically these aren’t fireworks, but they do come with exploding light and massive effects. And, they’re interactive. Artist Seb Lee-Delisle came up with this idea for the FutureCity event in Manchester, UK: to project firework graphics on a huge screen or a big building, and invite the public to play.

image via Wired

image via Wired

Watch the video:

Friday five: Cool Lego sets, life advice and a look at knowledge

A lot of thought-provoking stuff this week:

Our changing perception of time, by Nicholas Carr in his blog RoughType

Computers are getting faster and faster, yet our increasing expectations make us more and more impatient. What will be “fast enough”?

“As we experience faster flows of information online, we become, in other words, less patient people. But impatience is not just a network effect. The phenomenon is amplified by the constant buzz of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, texting, and social networking in general. Society’s “activity rhythm” has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.”

Carr worries about where this is leading:

“… it also has implications for how all of us think, socialize, and in general live… We’ll be less likely to experience anything that requires us to wait, that doesn’t provide us with instant gratification. That has cultural as well as personal consequences. The greatest of works — in art, science, politics, whatever — tend to take time and patience both to create and to appreciate. The deepest experiences can’t be measured in fractions of seconds.”

As usual, Carr extrapolates to the general what he sees in the specific. And he assumes that our expectations and habits are so simple as to be the same for all situations. Of course we expect the same from our computers as from a relaxing massage, or a beautiful sunset, or a moving piece of music. It’s true that we are getting more impatient in front of computers. Just this morning I found myself thinking “we need a new computer” when the desktop was taking a few seconds to think about printing a document. But that is more a case of experience breeding expectation about one particular tool: the computer.

On the whole, we are complicated creatures. And our expectations are not uniform, nor inflexible, nor static. Even in front of the computer our levels of patience can very over the course of a day, even an hour. Are we stressed? Are we in a hurry? Are we enjoying what we’re doing? Those answers affect how long a wait of seconds can seem.

And losing patience is not necessarily a bad thing. If we abandon a shopping cart because the page loads slowly, it’s probably fairly safe to assume that we didn’t need that thing anyway? I’m not advocating a policy of no frivolous shopping. But not buying something shouldn’t be cause for alarm. Not watching that video is not really going to affect anyone’s quality of life. And if indeed our “move along now” instinct takes over our psyche to the extent that we cannot even enjoy a relaxing glass of wine, I expect that the strain on our bodies will eventually force us to slow down. Middle-age burnout will send us off to a Mediterranean island or similar, to gaze at a leaf and meander the coves. We are, usually, self-correcting mechanisms.

However, again as usual, Carr brilliantly convinces us to step back and ask ourselves “Who’s in charge here?” And in so doing, he helps us to recover control of our reactions. I know that next time I find myself reaching for the mouse when a page takes too long to load, I will check myself. And then I will probably close the page anyway, because I do have better things to do than to spend valuable seconds staring at a revolving circle. And I do want to get a new computer.

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I am definitely not too old… Good news from Lego, via Neatorama

THIS news has made my day… Lego have announced the August release of a Big Bang set. Really, Lego + Big Bang = YES PLEASE!

big-bang-theory-lego-4

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The Middle of Things: Advice to Young Writers, by Andrew Solomon in the New Yorker

A moving homage to humility and the art of not knowing everything…

“To know more is simply a matter of industry; to accept what you will never know is trickier. The belief that questions are precious whether or not they have answers is the hallmark of a mature writer, not the naïve blessing of a beginner.”

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What is knowledge for? – Danny Crichton via TechCrunch

Danny Crichton has a similar take on ignorance. It’s inevitable, and it’s increasing (since the extent of what we know that we don’t know is in our face all the time). We can pack in more data into our already saturated brains, but we won’t necessarily be smarter. We’ll know more, sure, but what good does that really do?

“We will never stop being the deer in the headlights of knowledge. We shouldn’t celebrate ignorance, but neither can we cure it. Instead, students – hopefully aided someday by a new generation of education startups – need to learn how to navigate in a world where the frontier of knowledge is rapidly expanding and dynamic. We need to inculcate purpose-driven learning and move away from a model of slurping up all the data in the world. “

“Data is not knowledge however, and knowledge is not wisdom… We can consume all the facts in the world and still not comprehend what is really going on.The rise of explanatory journalism – pushed aggressively by Vox and several other internet publications – is a partial antidote to this problem. However, we are only moving from data to knowledge, and we still haven’t found wisdom.”

Danny proposes that we ask ourselves why rather than how. “Why do I need this information?”, rather than “How can I get it?”.

“People can be incredibly smart, even brilliant sometimes, and yet still be bad at deep learning. The internet has given us this omniscience that we have never had before, and we suddenly have this ability to see all of the details that we don’t know about. We need to inculcate the skills to navigate that world, handle ambiguity and ignorance, and become more purpose-driven learners.”

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Underground life, via FastCoDesign

This is hypnotically cool, a 3d interactive map of the London Underground:

3047185-inline-i-3-http-how-to-build-a-3-d-map-of-the-london-underground

Check out the article to see it rotate and flip…

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3d printing using your arm as a template, via Dezeen

I include this article in the list because the idea and the tech are jaw-dropping.  You can design jewellery to be 3d-printed using your arm as a template. So what if I hardly ever wear jewellery, and so what if it’s not going to fix pressing world problems, I think that the idea is ingenious, and who knows where it could lead? At the very least to efficient arm casts. And if I did wear bracelets, I wouldn’t mind wearing one of these.

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Apple’s implicit support for ad blockers, from Wired

Apple’s implicit support for ad-blocking devices is a blow to media companies that depend on the advertisement revenue model. However, Apple is not the only one delivering that blow, each and every user who installs ad blockers has already done their little bit. The blows add up, and eventually really start to hurt. So, what are the media companies going to do about it? A very good question, indeed. Fight back? Not working. Change revenue stream? Easier said than done. It’s a tough battle, and one that affects us all. Ad blockers are a part of online life. Yet all of us want the media that we enjoy to continue to publish. So if we don’t pay for it by seeing the ads, who will?

The underlying assumptions are flawed, however. Does my seeing a banner ad really benefit the advertiser, so much so that they will happily pay the media company? Through intelligent ad targeting, perhaps. But most of the ads I see are not that targeted, and clutter up my reading experience, so much so that I have on occasion abandoned a media source in favour of a cleaner one. Personally, I would rather pay for a subscription, in order to not have to put up with ads.

While the headline gets your attention, the article touches on Apple’s longer-term strategy here, which is to channel users to the Apple apps. A bit convoluted and very far-reaching, it could well be a glimpse of the future of the Internet.

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So, is the light half full or half empty? via Ignant

Original and intriguing lamps, by Kazakhstan-based designer Nissa Kinjalina. I have no idea where I’d put it, but I want one.

Nissa Kinjalina Living Light— x —

Have a great weekend!

Niche P2P funding

What niche? The booming market of P2P lending is on track to reach $77 billion this year. That’s a staggering 1500% growth, in part powered by the entry of the traditional finance houses – banks and investment funds – attracted by the higher-yielding loans. The market is still relatively small compared to the overall commercial loan market of $3 trillion, but at these rates it is fast becoming… dare I say mainstream? And while all of us probably know more people and businesses with bank financing than with P2P financing, that imbalance is likely to correct and even move the other way over the next few years. The fact that some of the big players already quote on the stock market (Lending Club and OnDeck in the US, LendInvest soon in the UK) gives the sector a veneer of respectability and acceptance that is almost institutional. And check out this Google Trends graph of online search queries for “p2p lending”:

google trends p2p lending

Now, the success and extension is still quite local, as in, specific to the UK and the US. In Spain, where I live, we have some interesting entrants into the sector as well a scant few consolidated players, and I’ll talk more about this in a different post. P2P lending is now a “thing” worldwide. But outside of the US and the UK, lenders are still having trouble finding enough solvent borrowers willing to air their financial needs in public. Outside of the US and the UK, there are considerable cultural as well as regulatory hurdles to overcome.

The sector is nowhere near mature yet. But it is showing signs of consolidating. While new entrants come on the scene, others are being bought, or are themselves doing the buying. Some end up closing down as they run out of working capital.

So where’s the innovation going to come from next? Niche markets. If the original niche market is heading towards mainstream, it makes sense that it will develop its own niche markets. If you want to break into a sector, how do you compete with the big boys? Through technical innovation, or by specializing. In this case, the big boys are already at the forefront of technical innovation. So, specialization it is.

Here are some interesting examples:

  • Abundance Generation lets you lend to energy projects in the UK, as does the Trillion Fund.
  • BTCJam and Bitbond are global peer-to-peer lenders powered by Bitcoin.
  • Landbay is a peer-to-peer lender focussed on mortgages for the buy-to-let market in the UK.
  • Capital Stackers in the UK focusses on property development.
  • Apple Pie Capital offers marketplace loans for franchise businesses in the US.
  • Fruitful in the UK offers savers the chance to lend to business mortgages.
  • The German company Friendsurance operates a peer-to-peer model for insurance.
  • Buy2LetCars funds lease vehicles in the UK.
  • Studentfunder in the UK channels loans for masters and professional courses.
  • Lendlayer in the US lends to people who want to learn a programming language.
  • Common Bond helps students in the US refinance loans, and channels funds to graduate student tuition.

These niche players are still all relatively small. And in P2P lending, the scale of adoption matters in profitability, given the relatively low margins. But, the niche players have the strong advantage of the network effect: being a big fish in a small pond, if you will, becoming known within their specialized sector. This reduces customer acquisition costs, and the chances that borrowers and lenders move to another platform – customer loyalty in this sector is notoriously low.

screenshot from lovefruitful.com

screenshot from lovefruitful.com

But what does the future hold for these P2P “verticals”? Many will probably end up getting bought by the bigger platforms that want to consolidate their sector leadership and broaden their user base. Others will merge with peers, and some will end up closing, defeated by high customer acquisition costs and cultural barriers.

What about sector diversification? Will the “verticals” get as creative as the crowdfunding niche players did?

No, that’s unlikely. While both crowdfunding and crowdlending are based on the same principle – funding without banks – their priorities and focus are very different, and that affects the motivations of both the platforms and the participants. With crowdfunding, you develop a community of like-minded people, generally creative types and early adopters, who enjoy helping worthwhile or even just fun projects get off the ground, especially if they get to participate in the profits and/or enjoy the product. This has led to a growing ecosystem of music funding platforms, book publishers, fashion designers and innovative businesses that facilitates communication and connection. This, in turn, engenders a sense of belonging, loyalty and meaning.

With P2P lending, the priority is much more on percentages, on profitability, on statistics. The focus is on the return on the investment. Leaving your money in a bank is safe, but offers a very low return. Higher returns tend to be riskier. P2P lending offers a comfortable middle option: a relatively low risk, with a higher-than-bank return. It’s unlikely that a P2P lending platform to fund music albums would take off, for instance, because lenders would want to know the default rate. Will this album make enough money to repay the loan? Will this book generate enough sales? With creative projects, there is a lot more uncertainty.

The increasing securitization of the P2P sector is a firm indication, if one was needed, that it is much more “impersonal” than crowdfunding. With securitization, loans are bundled and sold in a group as a financial instrument. Investors, usually institutional, buy the bundle for its rate of return. They really don’t care about the underlying loans.

Which means that the niche players are not actually competing against others within their niche. They’re competing against all P2P players. If you don’t really care who your loan is going to, if what you look at are the statistics, then a P2P platform focussed on student loans is not that different from one based on commercial mortgages or one that funds working capital. The return on the funds matters, not their destination.

zidisha

screenshot from Zidisha.com

Unless… I do believe that among the great advantages and even motors of alternative finance are the chance to get involved, the empowerment of both borrowers and lenders, and the increase in easily accessible investment opportunities. And, given the chance, even return-focussed investors would choose a worthwhile project that makes the world a better place, given the opportunity, at least as part of their portfolio.

Some examples:

  • Kiva has been matching lenders with low-income borrowers since 2005. Originally aimed at financing entrepreneurs in developing economies, it now also channels loans to local small businesses.
  • Vittana facilitates crowdfunded loans to students in emerging markets.
  • Zidisha allows lenders to connect with low-incoe entrepreneurs in developing economies.
  • Energy in Common is a US platform that channels marketplace microloans to individuals and businesses in Africa, who want to install renewable energy generators or clean energy solutions (such as new ovens) in their homes and businesses.

These niche P2P players and other platforms like them will hopefully play an increasing role in economic development in regions that need it most. The repayment rate is high. So is the feel-good factor. And when you can combine finance with a relatively high return AND a feel-good factor, you are looking at an original funding system with a lot of potential.

Is it a reflection? Or is it an image?

928 pompoms react to a motion sensor to create a reflection of what is in front of them. Move your arm, and the pompoms flip to reflect that movement. The contrasting silhouette simplifies our image, reducing it to a binary black or white. But adaptable, and responsive. The beauty is that the fuzziness around the edges is not just in your head. This could be the ideal mirror for a Bad Hair Day.

via The Next Web

The pompom mirror was built by the artist Daniel Rozin, who doesn’t see mirrors like the rest of us do. You can see other reflective works of his here.