Sunday Seven: artificial intelligence, 3d printing, railroads and glitter

Some cool stuff from this week, plus a new feature in which I share with you one thing I’ve been enjoying this week (keeping it down to one will be very, very difficult, but in the interest of brevity I will do my best).

— x —

The doomsday invention – from The New Yorker

A riveting portrait of transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom and his views on the future of our species. Transhumanists believe that technology can augment our capabilities and transform the human condition. Bostrom subscribes to that belief, but he’s not like most transhumanists. His studies go further. From his Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, Bostrom studies the potential impact of technology – especially artificial intelligence – on the probability of mankind’s survival.

His work on “The Doomsday Argument” shows that the risk that humankind will go extinct soon has been systematically underestimated. It’s unlikely now that we will be wiped out by a volcano explosion or a comet crashing – since we’ve gone millions of years without that happening, it’s safe to assume that we can go a few more million. But, since we have very little experience of technology not wiping us out, we can’t assume that that won’t happen. So, we need to work extra hard to protect ourselves from that eventuality. Even if the technology that could wipe us out hasn’t been invented yet, we need to prepare for it.

“The view of the future from Bostrom’s office can be divided into three grand panoramas. In one, humanity experiences an evolutionary leap—either assisted by technology or by merging into it and becoming software—to achieve a sublime condition that Bostrom calls “posthumanity.” Death is overcome, mental experience expands beyond recognition, and our descendants colonize the universe. In another panorama, humanity becomes extinct or experiences a disaster so great that it is unable to recover. Between these extremes, Bostrom envisions scenarios that resemble the status quo—people living as they do now, forever mired in the “human era.””

This is pretty scary stuff. But we can’t turn our backs on progress. And the benefits of approaching the Singularity, when artificial intelligence becomes self-improving and no longer needs humans, are incalculable. Bostrom believes that we need to develop artificial intelligence, but we need to be very careful. The headlong rush of industry into this potentially very profitable field could bring on the end of humanity unless we take into account its ethical design. We can’t prevent it, but we do need to control it.

“Even the most grounded version of the debate occupies philosophical terrain where little is clear. But, Bostrom argues, if artificial intelligence can be achieved it would be an event of unparalleled consequence—perhaps even a rupture in the fabric of history. A bit of long-range forethought might be a moral obligation to our own species.”

This article is a bit heavy on the philosophical terms, and I confess that some of the reasoning is a bit over my head, but it does drive home the importance of the questions: Are we capable of inventing something that will bring about our own destruction? How do we handle that possibility?

With brilliant people working on this, I at least will sleep a bit better. Bostrom’s institute recently received $1.5 million from Elon Musk, to craft social policies that take some of the futuristic scenarios into account. It’s not easy, though. As Bostrom himself says:

“What I want to avoid is to think from our parochial 2015 view—from my own limited life experience, my own limited brain—and super-confidentially postulate what is the best form for civilization a billion years from now, when you could have brains the size of planets and billion-year life spans. It seems unlikely that we will figure out some detailed blueprint for utopia.”

— x —

Images from the 2016 Sony World Photography Awards – via The Atlantic

You have got to see these photographs. It’s a beautiful, crazy world we live in.

by Julian Ghahreman-Rad

by Julian Ghahreman-Rad

by Manfred Voss

by Manfred Voss

— x —

3d printers give us a new way to think – via Wired

This is mind-blowing in more ways than one. The story opens with an account of how a brain surgeon preps for complicated surgeries by 3d-printing a model of the brain, tumour and all, which he then holds in his hand, studies from all angles, and develops a “feel” for the problem.

Which opens up the possibility of using 3d-printing not just as a making machine, but also as a thinking machine. A way to help us think about problems and to see them from different perspectives.

This reminds me of how we saw mobile phones when they first came out. I don’t know of anyone who expected them to morph into lifestyle management devices. The point is, that we often can’t see what a technology will be used for, until it’s out in the field and people are actually using it and coming up with new purposes.

“What’s more, we need our intellectual culture to evolve. Right now, we don’t value or teach spatial reasoning enough; “literacy” generally only means writing and reading.”

— x —

3d interactive display – via PSFK

And speaking of minds being blown, take a look at this:

image via

image via

I’ve written about haptics before. This takes the concept to a whole new level. Interactive 3d graphics, without glasses. Really. Virtual, formable displays that feel squishable. Yes, mind-blowing.

— x —

How railroad history shaped internet history – from The Atlantic

Ingrid Burrington gives us a beautiful stroll through networking history and shows us that history matters (not that we doubted that) and that offline sets the tone for online (maybe we doubted that, but we shouldn’t).

“My favorite part of looking for network infrastructure in America is really all the ghosts. Networks tend to follow networks, and telecommunications and transportation networks tend to end up piled on top of each other. The histories of these places isn’t always immediately obvious, but it’s there, forming a kind of infrastructural palimpsest, with new technologies to annihilate space and time inheriting the idealized promise and the political messiness of their predecessors.”

— x —

Bitcoin and neuroscience – from Motherboard

This is a very strange article, about how we can use neuroscience to determine the Bitcoin price movement. The digital currency’s surges and slumps have been the subject of much speculation in the press recently, with doomsayers and evangelists vying for the spotlight. And the relative scarcity of information leaves the market moves more vulnerable to the striatum region of the brain. I did mention it was a strange article, right?

“The key word here is expectation—positive or negative information can have paradoxical effects in the brain, based on the person. If something ostensibly bad happens in Bitcoin—the bottom falls out of the price, for example—then someone’s brain may actually respond as if that were a positive thing. What goes down must come up, and all that. It doesn’t make much sense, but then again, neither neither do people or their brains.”

Personally, I think that Bitcoin’s price movements have to do with the relative number of buyers and sellers. Call me “old school”, if you will.

— x —

The most inspirational holiday gift guide ever, really – from Quartz

Have you started your holiday gift shopping yet? I’m still searching for ideas, so I do click on the “gift guide” links and I do skim the lists. And then I marvel at how “unique” my family is, that none of the recommended gifts would be even remotely appropriate for them.

This selection from Quartz, however, is different. It’s inspirational, uplifting, and quite lovely. 40 leaders in art, business, fashion, science and social justice were asked “What is the best gift you have ever received?”. The article summarizes their answers, which flow between the eye-opening, the moving, the surprising and the profound.

“The best gifts are like those roman candles, giving light and wonder to our lives.” – Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy

In the end, the most powerful gifts we can give are education, understanding and some of our time and attention. Check out Astro Teller’s entry, it’ll give you the warm fuzzies. I also loved René Redzepi’s (“Something that changes the course of your life”), and Whitney Wolfe (“It was a total detach kit”).

My biggest take-away from the report is that we are all so different, and it’s so hard to know what will impact and float to the top and stay there. And that’s beautiful.

“I like a gift that helps me to become someone I’d like to be.” – Akhil Sharma, author

Even if you don’t want to read this for the inspiration, the graphics are creative and lift the whole concept to a new artistic level.

— x —

Glitter beards – via Bored Panda

If you’re an avid Instagram user, you’ve probably already seen this trend. Men are covering their beards in glitter for the holiday season. Very festive. Just don’t try and kiss me.

image via Bored Panda

image via Bored Panda

— x —

One thing I’m enjoying this week:

Jennifer Jones, the new series on Netflix. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The opening title set is stunning, the photography mesmerizing, the plot unusual, the characters intriguing. So far every episode has a good dose of “whoa”.

jessica jones

This review on Quartz (spoilers included) is deep, and goes a long way towards explaining the storyline’s pull.

Cinemagraphs: a new media

You’ve probably seen them around but you didn’t know what they were called. Or you did know what they were called, but you didn’t know how they were made. Today I’m going to help you with that.

by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg,

by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg,

They’re called cinemagraphs. If you’re wondering why they’re called that, since they have very little to do with either cinema or with graphs, it has to do with the latin roots “cinema” (= movement) and “graph” (= I write).

They’re not quite movies, and they’re not quite photos. They are much less annoying (or funny, take your pick) than gifs, and much more arresting than still images. Readers love them, brands love them, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see innovative journalists start to use their powerful counterpoint to liven up a story.

by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg,

by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg,

To most of us they’re new, but they’ve actually been around since 2011, when photographer Jamie Beck and and web designer Kevin Burg came up with a way to blend video with still photography, to create an effect that preserves a slight movement and gives it a prominence it wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. Time is suspended, and a glimpse of permanence lends emotion that neither a video nor a still image could achieve. If you think that’s too poetic, take a look at some and tell me that you don’t feel it too.

by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg,

by Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg,

How are they made? Apparently it’s not as complicated as it looks, especially if you know Photoshop. You choose the timeframe of the video that you want the movement from, and with masks, layers and loops, you superimpose the “stillness” of the first frame image.

So, is it a still image? Or is it a moving image? Or is it something else entirely? Like gifs and videos, we have here another example of media that can only be enjoyed on the screen. With their subtle messages and artistic choreography, cinemagraphs will give multimedia content a different feel. What will be interesting to see is to what extent they affect the message rather than just illustrate it.

Sunday seven: selfies, passwords, podcasts and glass solar systems

A selection of articles that impressed me over the past week. It’s always difficult to limit it to only seven (because Sunday Eight or Sunday Thirteen just doesn’t have the same ring to it…), and I often don’t succeed, but who’s counting, right?

Selfie – by Rachel Syme, via Medium

by Alex Thebez and Marisa Gertz for Matter

by Alex Thebez and Marisa Gertz for Matter

A poetic look at the culture of the selfie that highlights our misconception of the social impact of the smartphone.

“She pushes send and it’s done. Her selfie is off to have adventures without her, to meet the gazes of strangers she will never know. She feels excited, maybe a little nervous. She has declared, in just a few clicks, that she deserves, in that moment, to be seen.”

Beautifully written and with dizzying insight, Rachel Syme drags our scepticism out into the glaringly uncomfortable fluorescent light.

“When you tell someone that they have sent too many images of themselves into their feeds, when you shame them with cries of narcissism and self-indulgence, when you tell them that they are taking up too much virtual space (space that is at present, basically limitless, save for the invented boundaries of taste): you need to question your motives. Are you afraid of a person’s ambition to be seen? Where does that come from?”

“Anyone who hates selfies outright is likely in the position of privilege to never have felt invisible. They fail to perceive the value that a new way of seeing can bring to so many lives.”

And she shows us the liberating empowerment of the new mirror that we carry in our pocket, a mirror that we can now share with the world.

“The human longing to be seen and appraised has existed for centuries, but only a few had the technological power (and the distribution channels) to control it. Selfies are just one way of making up lost time, all of that yearning and desire that we never got to see because the powerless didn’t have their own cameras and printing presses. Types of people who never got to be looked at before are getting looked at, and are creating entire communities surrounding that looking, and these communities are getting stronger and stronger every day.”

I confess to feeling slightly vindicated. And humbled. Months ago I wrote a homage to selfies which generated some controversy and got some recognition, but it is not nearly as good as this one, not even close. Yes, the graphics Rachel includes are stunning. Yes, the short-chapter format is original and entertaining. But that’s not it. The prose and the sweep of her analysis blew me away. Scathing towards the mockers, affirming towards the brave, Rachel serves up the psychological and cultural holes that selfies fill, and prods at the weak foundations of the society that labels and dismisses.

I mean, for example:

“It is bad then for the lust-economy to have people revelling in pictures they take themselves; it is very difficult to control consumers who do not need to look at the media to know what to value, what to buy, who to honor and protect. Selfies are not inherently political acts, but these resonant, addictive, unregulated images are another manifestation of this growing distrust of the mainstream and the swelling desire by many individuals to reclaim their own narratives now that they have the virtual microphone.”


So, I’m tempted to try it. Taking selfies, I mean. I confess that I’ve hated the idea up until now (still not crazy about it, but willing to give it the benefit of doubt), not because I have a problem with my image, but because I have a problem with lack of control. I know I look ok, and I don’t hate posed pictures of myself. But I seriously hate un-posed pictures of myself, as in, I so don’t want to look like that. I’d much rather look like my carefully crafted posed version. But obviously I DO look like that, so maybe it’s time I accepted and embraced the fact that I’m not always looking my best. But then, I shouldn’t need to always look my best. Life isn’t about being posed all the time. I’m guessing that selfie immersion could help with that acceptance. Whether I’ll ever be able to move from taking selfies for personal consumption, to sharing them… that’s a whole different issue.

— x —

To infinity: the Star Wars franchise – Adam Rogers, for Wired

On to more uplifting stuff, this article also is not really “techy”. It’s “geeky”. I’m including it because it’s culturally relevant (you do know that there’s a new Star Wars film coming out, right?), beautifully written, fun, and has an impressive layout. Seriously, check out the mouse/magnifying glass effect on the graphics. Very, very cool.

— x —

Silicon Valley suicides – by Hanna Rosin, for The Atlantic

A really moving, heartbreaking story about fear of failure. It’s not really a tech story, but I’m including it here because in this easy-access, right-now, always-improve culture that innovation has fostered, we tend to replace possibility with obligation. And it’s important for us all to realise that life is the most important thing, that it’s unique and short, and that we need to find a way to enjoy it, whatever constraints circumstance hands us.

— x —

Passwords are useless – by Mat Honan, for Wired

It’s time to rethink online security, people.

“The common weakness in these hacks is the password. It’s an artifact from a time when our computers were not hyper-connected. Today, nothing you do, no precaution you take, no long or random string of characters can stop a truly dedicated and devious individual from cracking your account. The age of the password has come to an end; we just haven’t realized it yet.”

But please, let’s keep it practical.

“Requiring you to remember a 256-character hexadecimal password might keep your data safe, but you’re no more likely to get into your account than anyone else. Better security is easy if you’re willing to greatly inconvenience users, but that’s not a workable compromise.”

This article needs to be read by everyone. As we get more connected, we get more vulnerable, and not educating everyone on good security procedures is… well… irresponsible. True, the information and good advice, like that which this article offers, is out there for anyone to read. But people don’t, because they’re not aware of the risks.

In part, it’s a communication problem, an education problem, a problem of not-my-problemitis. But in part, it’s a user design problem – secure passwords are just too darn difficult to remember. And we have yet to come up with a good alternative.

— x —

Your unhashable fingerprints secure nothing – by Elliot Williams, for Hackaday

So it looks like we’re still a long way from finding the ideal password system. They’re either hard to remember but easily changeable. Or they occupy no brain space but we’re stuck with them. What about using our fingerprints? They’re unique, they can identify us efficiently and painlessly, and we don’t need to worry about remembering them. But no. That solution would leave us even more vulnerable than before. Our fingerprints may be unique and therefore sound like a good password idea, but they’re 1) not really that unique (large margin of error), 2) easily liftable, and 3) can’t be changed. Sigh.

— x —

Hi-tech recruitment – via The Memo

We all know how technology is affecting recruitment, personal branding, and team building. But using spray-painted ads to find talent? That’s so… so… offline!!!!!

image via The Memo

image via The Memo

— x —

Podcasting 2015 vs Blogging 2004 – by Joshua Benton, for Nieman Lab

I seem to spend a surprising amount of time preaching about podcasts these days. Just last week to journalism students, just this week to media entrepreneurs… Podcasts are one of the few media formats to withstand the commoditisation of advertising (as far as I know, we haven’t come up with an adblocker for podcasts), they benefit tremendously from the portability of radio (pleasantly filling hours on the move), they engender substantial, almost tangible, loyalty (with your voice in my ear so often, I feel like we’re friends)…

This fascinating take from Joshua Benton compares the podcasting space to the blogging space 10 years ago, and dares to predict a similar future for the medium:

  • Increased professionalization (which can also imply increased centralisation)
  • More powerful and absorbing platforms (with the resulting pressure on margins and data)
  • Increasing cannibalisation by podcasts of radio, except for those shows that evolve and play with this new medium (like some “traditional” media masts have done to compete with blogging)

A good read, especially if, like me, you love podcasts and are excited to see a new and potentially very successful outlet for journalists (established and new) to make a name (or even more of one) for themselves.

— x —

Glass solar systems, via Colossal

I just have to show you these glass spheres by artist Satoshi Tomizu, they are so breathtaking.

art by Satoshi Tomizu, image via Colossal

art by Satoshi Tomizu, image via Colossal

art by Satoshi Tomizu, image via Colossal

art by Satoshi Tomizu, image via Colossal

art by Satoshi Tomizu, image via Colossal

art by Satoshi Tomizu, image via Colossal

— x —

Here’s to wrapping the weekend up peacefully, and to a productive week next week!

The Vanguard of Technology (or, The Worst Title Ever)

Yesterday I had to speak at a conference entitled The Vanguard of Technology. You can roll your eyes now. Ok, I didn’t “have” to, I chose to, because I have a huge respect for the organizers, I’ve worked with them before. And I would like to point out that they did not choose the title, it was imposed on them by the main sponsor who was very keen to show everyone how they were way ahead of everyone else when it comes to knowing about technology. You’ll notice that I’m not naming names, and that will continue.

I do want to take the opportunity to talk about how the choice of this title indicates (alright, “in my opinion”) a complete lack of understanding of how profound societal change takes place. Not that I know much more, you understand, but I am aware that using words like “vanguard” is a step in the opposite direction.

by Mikkel Schmidt for Unsplash

by Mikkel Schmidt for Unsplash

“Vanguard” means, according to Google definitions, “a group of people leading the way in new developments or ideas”, or “a position at the forefront of new developments or ideas”. Which is fine, you go ahead and blaze the trail and hack through the undergrowth and forge a new path (and any other metaphor you care to add), and let me know when it’s safe to follow. You’re smarter and braver than I am. In case it’s not obvious, I find that word condescending and elitist, when applied to technology. And especially to conferences.

Why? Three main reasons: 1) it creates an “us” vs “them” mentality. I’m vanguard, you’re not, and you’re lucky to have me to test the way. If that doesn’t sound slightly arrogant, what does? What are you trying to achieve? Were those that imposed this title trying to get more people to join the vanguard? But then it stops being the vanguard. You can’t have a heavily populated vanguard. Vanguard, by its very definition, is elitist and excluding – “leading the way”, “forefront”, etc. It’s more likely that what they were trying to achieve is to show everyone how some people are more aware, smarter and ahead on the innovation curve than everyone else. While that may be true (although I am certain it’s totally relative), it does entrench the digital divide: those that are inventing and implenting, vs. those that are not. Those that are aware of the potential impact, vs. those that are not. The divide exists, I’m not pretending that it doesn’t. But isn’t it our obligation to show people how the new technologies can improve their efficiencies and overall quality of life? Isn’t it our obligation to engage everyone in dialogue, to identify risks, use cases and emotional barriers to adoption? How are we going to do that if we are already labelling our knowledge and research as “vanguard”?

2), it simplifies and reduces the definition of “technology”. There was no mention in the conference of medical technology (except an interesting discussion of the potential damage connected medical devices could wreak), engineering technology, and quantum physics exploration. “Technology” has been reduced to the Internet. That is what technology is, according to the new use of the word. All recent progress that has to do with the new communication and the new connectivity is “technology”. We’re losing sight of the fact that a book is the result of technology, a pencil is the result of technology, the key that opens your front door is the result of technology. I’ve been to so many conferences to hear inspiring talk about the technology that delivers oranges directly from the tree to your front door, to give one example, but by “technology” they don’t mean the van that actually does the delivering, or the lift that helps the delivery person get it from the entrance to the door of your apartment. The agricultural innovations that reduce the use of toxic pesticide and help to improve the picking conditions aren’t even mentioned. No, the “technology” that they’re talking about is the web page on which you can place your order or sign up for a subscription or whatever. It possibly also refers to the handheld devices that receive the order and set it up for processing. But the systems, processes and hardware that make the product and the delivery possible are usually beyond (or beneath?) the scope of conferences like this. Possibly because it’s not “vanguard” enough?

And 3), it overlooks the fact that we don’t need to spread the word about “vanguard”. In fact, we shouldn’t. Because then it stops becoming vanguard. And it misses the point. We need to talk about how this can improve your life, and the risks involved. We need to talk about how you can subtly or radically change some processes, at whatever pace suits your budget or your requirements, and enjoy the increased efficiency and connectivity. We need to talk about whether a certain technology offers more than it takes away. We need to talk about you and how this change can affect you.

Ok, true, there is a certain research and entrepreneurial elite that is at what we could call the vanguard. Oodles of respect, hats off, applause and accolades, because society needs innovators, inventors, blue-sky thinkers and those that do crazy things and often open the door to new inventions and innovations. And because of their creativity and intelligence, they will probably always be ahead of the adoption curve. But they do what they do to make the world better for us. I am sure that they would love to see their ideas adopted by the masses, because that would be a validating technological leap forward. I’m sure that they dream of profound positive societal change thanks to their work. But I’m also sure that they know, as do you, that profound positive societal change requires the participation of not the vanguard, but of everyone else.

So, a more inclusive and interesting conference would be called “The potential of tomorrow”, “New technologies and new horizons”, or “What’s next in technology?”. Those are fairly banal titles, true, but they cover the same broad swathe of concepts as the Vanguard option and they sound more inclusive, more interesting and less condescending. Even better, in my opinion, would be more a specific focus, such as “The impact of new technologies on our relationships”, “Will technology steal your job?”, or “Why new technologies scare you”. Sector-specific implementations would also have huge potential in terms of interest and significance: “Smart cities and you”, “The Internet of Things and the world of finance”, or “The impact of new technology on media”.

I have the deepest respect for the technological vanguard of our society. Brilliant people, to whom our generation and those that follow have a huge debt. But we can’t sell “vanguard” as a concept, not with a straight face, and certainly not in conferences aimed at a wide audience. Not if we want people to accept the idea of change, to be willing to try new processes and ways of doing things, and at the same time to keep a cynical and critical eye on where we’re going, why and how.

Sunday Seven: podcasting, security, and the evils of email

Plus the conflicted relationship between media and technology, an uplifiting comic, wild biking and a new way to air travel.

It’s way too easy to hack the hospital – via Bloomberg Businessweek

Another brilliant, deep article from Bloomberg Business, with far-out gifs that deserve a prize of their own. This will make you think twice before going for any hospital tests, though, but if I had to recommend one article from the week, it would be this one. The more we realize how seriously we should take security vulnerabilities, the sooner we can start to enjoy the efficiencies that inter-connected systems can deliver.

“Last fall analysts with TrapX Security, a firm based in San Mateo, Calif., began installing software in more than 60 hospitals to trace medical device hacks. … After six months, TrapX concluded that all of the hospitals contained medical devices that had been infected by malware.”


(gif from Bloomberg Businessweek)

— x —

The biggest cybersecurity risk is not identity theft – by Jeff Kosseff for TechCrunch

Sticking with the cybersecurity theme (I’m not getting obsessed here, it’s just all pretty relevant), one on the potential impact on media, and through that, society…

— x —

Tech is eating media – via Medium

Cybersecurity concerns are even more relevant when you realize how technology controls today’s media. Which sounds like a very obvious thing to say, and at the same time debatable (what do you mean, “controls”?), but the main point is that a company’s category should have a lot to do with the company’s objective, right? Transport companies make or provide transport. Healthcare companies provide healthcare services. Tech companies make technology. Media companies display content. So when media companies become tech companies and vice versa, what does that say about their objectives?

“online media companies — and in particular news operations — are, in some cases intentionally but in most cases not, losing a degree of ownership over their audiences. On one hand, the number of people they reach is potentially greater than ever; on the other, they’re reaching these people, as well as much of their old audience, through much larger third parties.”

Media uses technology – increasingly in the form of social media platforms – to reach larger audiences. The priority becomes less the quality of the read than the ease of access. Tech – especially when it comes to media – tends to be about ease, not about quality. How will this affect consumption? And understanding?

Author John Herrman believes that we are seeing an incestuous and provocative merging of the two sectors:

“the same media that has told, or assisted in telling, the story of the internet over the last two decades, and the epochal companies that are rising through it, is being absorbed by its subject, which needs it less and less. In some ways, this change has been surprisingly seamless: an industry supported by one set of advertising models is simply finding support from another. But the ways in which this has altered the relationship between the news media and its subject — the remaking of industry, the resultant rise of a new class of industrialists, and the innumerable social, cultural and political consequences of this change — are becoming less subtle.”

I don’t think that tech is absorbing the media. Tech is not all the media focusses on, as the millions of selfies and food pics cluttering Instagram attest. Media uses tech to reach us, but it always has – the printing press was the original disruptive technology. I think that new platforms and possibilities are changing the way we access media – but media is above this. Media is about the content, not the delivery.

So the current tension between the technology sector and the content sector is nothing more than a bruise on a violently shifting landscape. We eagerly consume media about the evils of technology, while we happily use technology to do so. Yet we also feed media that talks about the hope and promise of a tech future. Conflicted? Not at all. It’s just show business.

— x —

3 radical ideas to totally disrupt air travel – via Fast Company

Yes. Even the no hand-luggage rule, and I always travel with hand-luggage. Yes.

(image via Fast Company)

(image via Fast Company)

— x —

Is email evil? – via The Atlantic

We all hate email, yet we still use it so much more than we need to. Why has technology not solved this problem yet?

“… a psychological disconnect between the writing of an email and the receiving of one, a paradox that Johnson told me he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about since: Reading email is correlated with stress, actually typing and sending email is not.”

Actually, it’s working on it. I use Slack now for what was a very email-intensive project. MUCH less email. Most of the team seem to agree that it’s better, but “letting go” of the e-mail habit was (and still is for some) hard.

And, the young email so much less than we do. True, they probably have less need to, until they get involved in team coordination, sales processes and other work-related email-intensive life situations. But, their lives revolve more around messaging services and apps than around typing, sending, receiving, answering.

Plus, there’s the whole etiquette dilemma. Is it ok to not sign off with “yours,” or whatever on each email? Would that not convert more into a type of messaging service? Is that a bad thing?

— x —

It’s going to be OK – via The Oatmeal

This is… mesmerizing is the closest I can come up with. But it doesn’t do it justice. Charming should be in there somewhere. So should sobering, uplifting and inspiring. Take a look.

from The Oatmeal, by Matthew Inman

from The Oatmeal, by Matthew Inman

— x —

Podcasting: past and future – via Nieman Lab

“I remember that time well. I remember the excitement I felt that finally, finally, more people were beginning to ask the right questions, inching closer toward something that I had believed for awhile: That this medium with a stupid-sounding name, this historical aberration of a content distribution funnel, podcasts — that there was something here, that a unique little listening culture had been slowly fomenting for years, that a new frontier of experience had curdled quietly, unobserved, into existence.”

A beautiful meander down podcast memory lane, summarizing the recent history of what has now become a booming media format.

“…the shift to digital audio is inevitable; with the coming full connectivity of cars, the continuing shift toward mobile devices, and the increasing presence of the Internet in daily life, it simply boggles the mind to imagine a future where traditional radio infrastructures and power structures remain dominant.”

Nick Quah writes the wonderful newsletter Hot Pod, all about – you guessed it – podcasts. What’s new, what’s old, what’s up, what’s down, and where it’s going. Good writing, a great subject and a stubborn passion for his subject.

“For as long as I’ve been writing this newsletter, I’ve been struck by a tension within the format: On the one side, you have podcasts-as-the-future-of-radio, and on the other side, you have podcasts-as-an-extension-of-blogging.”

I love podcasts, I’ve been a fan for years, now, which gives me a sort of I-was-there-at-the-beginning smugness. But, actually, I wasn’t, podcasting had been showing exuberant signs of life for a couple of years before I came on the scene. It just feels like it was the beginning, because of the stunning growth since then. Podcasts are springing up all over the place: most newspapers and magazines have one, even stodgy businesses (no disrespect meant!) like Goldman Sachs have one. And now Spotify and Google are getting into the act. Oh, and let’s not forget the growing sub-genre of podcasts about podcasts.

“Certainly, I’d love to see more diversity in terms of demographics — race, nationality, gender — which will most definitely stretch the limited range of sensibilities wide open to accommodate a grander universe of stories, but also, I’d love to see more diversity in terms of creative tradition. I hope to see more writers, creators, and auteurs begin to view podcasts, or spoken audio more generally, as a legitimate choice among the many mediums they can pursue, aside from television and film and blogs and magazines and the stage.”

It’s a great medium. And it looks like it’s going to get even better.

— x —

You ain’t seen biking like this… Via My Modern Met

Totally wild. Definitely don’t try this at home.

Goodbye, market. Hello, people.

The financing outlook for private businesses around the world is changing. And in the process, creating a new culture of work.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, at the end of October a new law was approved in the US that allows private companies to sell shares in their business via crowdfunding platforms. Technically it’s not a new law, but part of a phased series of measures aimed at stimulating the private company sector – called the JOBS Act (for Jumpstart Our Business Startups rather than for jobs, but I’m sure the acronym was not an accident). The most recent section to be passed is Title III, which opens up equity crowdfunding to everyone. Up until now access to this investment opportunity has been limited to “accredited investors”, which are institutions or rich individuals. Now even not-so-rich investors can participate, with limits on the amount invested. The regulations for companies wishing to raise finance this way are also relaxed – for those raising less than $500,000, a full audit (very expensive) is no longer necessary.


A brief explanation of what has been called the “democratization” of company funding: businesses sign up on a crowdfunding platform, upload their presentation, and publish how much financing they need and what percentage of the company they are offering in exchange. Interested investors pledge a certain amount, and if the company manages to raise the minimum amount needed to get the business or project off the ground, the money is collected and the shares are allocated. No drawn-out negotiations, no onerous conditions, no complicated cap tables. P2P lending, in which individuals and/or institutions lend money to businesses, is also making a big difference in the ease with which businesses can raise finance, but the impact there is limited to the balance-sheet, not culture of equity structure.

Equity crowdfunding has been a big thing in Europe for some time, raising a large chunk of the global $1.1bn total for businesses both new and not-so-new. Recent regulation in some countries tightened access for both companies and investors, but at the same time made investors, regulators and the media more comfortable with the concept of the “public” buying illiquid stakes in unproven ventures. The spread of equity crowdfunding platforms should more than double total volume in 2015, and by 2016 the overall crowdfunding industry (including reward and royalty programs) is set to overtake VC funding.

As it spreads on the other side of the Atlantic (and south of the equator, but that’s a different – and interesting – story), the changes will end up being deeper than we expect. The growth of equity crowdfunding will accelerate a shift towards a new type of business structure, based on different priorities, philosophies and management styles.

IPOs – Initial Public Offerings, or listings on a stock exchange – attract a lot of attention and generally a lot of money, too. Traditionally an IPO means that you’ve made it, you’re ready to play in the Big Leagues. When you list, you’re expected to be big and to get bigger. In a listed company, you don’t know who your shareholders are, and they don’t really care who you are, they’re just there for the share price. Your focus as a public company tends to be divided, often unevenly, between managing the share price and managing the long-term growth and sustainability of the business.

Venture capital funding also expects you to get bigger, but from a relatively small base. You care very much who your venture capital investors are, since they usually end up with a say in how your business is run, sometimes even claiming a place on your Board of Directors. There’s obviously no pressure on the share price, but a lot of pressure on growth. And a relatively speedy and profitable exit (sale, or IPO), in which the investors can recover several times what they put in, is expected.

Crowdfunding investors also expect growth. But, their investment tends to be more emotional. They like your business, they want it to succeed. They’re not there for the share price, and while a profitable exit would be nice, they recognize that the management goal is usually not share price, or rapid growth, it’s a good product. Success is measured by production, not accounting standards. Crowdfunding investors are not professionals, and although they hopefully have a diversified investment portfolio, their investment tends to be more based on gut feeling than business metrics. The due diligence on the figures is lower, and the sales record is at times non-existent. The investment is less based on statistics and ratios, than on instinct and hope.

Which is just as well, or crowdfunding private companies would probably never happen. While publicly quoted companies can and do fail, the failure rate among startups should be enough to dissuade even the most risk-friendly investors. 8 out of 10 startups fail. But the successes are spectacular, and all startups begin with expectations of riches and glory. When you invest in a startup, you’re investing in someone’s dreams, not in management goals. You’re up there, dreaming along with the founders.

And today it is much easier to feel like you know the team. Crowdfunding campaigns need to keep their funders engaged, through regular communications, updates, private emails, chats… With this constant need to communicate at all levels, company structures shift. Hierarchies relax. Open-plan offices and co-working spaces flatten chains of command, and a common purpose – to build, produce and ship a great product, and to keep clients happy – turns out to be much more motivational than the fear of losing your job.

With crowdfunding, success is not so much about maximizing value, as about strong relationships, with your clients, with your team and with your investors. More long-term, it’s usually the case that with good product, value will come. But only if relationships are cultivated and maintained.

And that is the most profound shift coming out of the new financing scene. The focus on people.


As this “new” type of business financing spreads, it could well create a new type of business. A business more connected to its financiers and investors, a business more interested in the relationship between growth and commitment, and a business more invested in people. The definition of business value could shift from accounting standards to perceived worth, with goals based on quality rather than bottom line.

“Markets” are generally talked about as being different from “people”, and whatever your views on crowd theory, in the end it’s people who make decisions and live their lives accordingly. As equity crowdfunding takes off, it will be people, not markets or institutions, that do the investing. People will have more of a voice. By participating more in the business world, they will feel more connected to founders, teams and ideas. They will feel more connected to the future, because they own part of it. And as cultures, economies and governments adapt, we could find ourselves living in a better society: more people-centric, and more value-oriented.

Sunday seven: education, neighbourhoods and holes in the sky

Seven things I read this week that either taught me something, or confirmed my thinking and at the same time broadened it.

— x —

The digital revolution in higher education has already happened – by Clay Shirky, via Medium

This is a brilliant article poking gaping big holes in the “online education isn’t having much of an impact” wall, which itself is a victim of a narrow vision.

According to Mr. Shirky, 4 million undergraduates, out of a total pool of 16 million, took at least online course in the fall semester of 2012.

“…more students now take a class online than attend a college with varsity football. More than twice as many now take a class online as live on campus. There are more undergraduates enrolled in an online class than there are graduate students enrolled in all Masters and Ph.D. programs combined.”

That’s a lot. But, the figures he cites are from the autumn of 2012, the “most recent semester with complete data in the US” – how can that be the most recent data available? Whatever happened to the data economy? And we’re talking about online data, it’s not like they had to count pieces of paper! Doesn’t it make you wonder why this data hasn’t been collected?

But I digress. Although it is an important point. Three years later, at the growth levels then experienced, the figure could well be double that. Or triple that. Or maybe the same. It seems pointless to speculate on data that’s three years old.

“…One common observation about online education is that it will mean ‘bricks for the rich and clicks for the poor.’ Something like this has indeed happened, though ‘…clicks for the poorly served’ would be more accurate. Students taking online classes aren’t looking for bargains; the majority don’t take classes from the lowest-cost provider available. They are looking for flexibility, because they can’t quit their job or stop caring for their children or their parents just to attend college, but the world is telling them they need a degree to go from $7 an hour bagging groceries to $13 an hour drawing blood.”

So why is the digital revolution in education so misunderstood? Because of data segmentation, hyped expectations and simple elitism.

 “…for us to imagine something is good, it has to be good for us. Meanwhile, back in America, online education isn’t succeeding because it is better than Oberlin, it’s succeeding because it’s better than nothing, and nothing is what’s on currently offer for millions of people.”

Those of us who had comfortable four-year stints at good undergraduate universities need to realize that we are not the revolution. The potential reach of online courses and the flexibility that they offer for relatively low cost means that more people can get better educated, from anywhere. That’s the revolution.

“We already know what the college of the future will look like, because the non-traditional students are creating it now. It’s a hybrid of online and in-person classes, centered on the student and not the institution, with credits accruing from multiple schools, and adding up to a degree in alternating periods of attendance and absence.”

If college education is necessary to move beyond minimum wage, and it seems like that’s the case these days, then it needs to be more flexible, and less administration-heavy. The rate of undergraduates dropping out of college in the US is the highest in the developed world, and is growing. This will lead to a skills gap, and will put a cap on economic growth, unless we can help students to get that degree.

And not just in the US. Students the world over can improve skills and get a degree, which will boost their entire community.

“Given the lousy fit between institutional assumptions and the actual lives of most students, we should applaud their inventiveness in using digital options to make college work for them. But we should also recognize our complicity in creating a system that works so badly in the first place. Online classes are no longer surprising, or experimental, or rare. By adopting them, students are telling us what they need our institutions to become.”

Right on, Mr. Shirky.

— x —

A hole in the sky – via My Modern Met

This is really freaky. Apparently it’s a genuine cloud formation called the Bergeron Process, in which air condensation freezes without becoming solid while the water around it evaporates. I don’t pretend to understand it. But it’s really freaky.

image via My Modern Met

image via My Modern Met

— x —

Reconsider – by DHH, on Medium

If you’ve ever thought, or are thinking, about setting up a startup, read this. Even if you haven’t, read this. A blissfully cold jug of water thrown on the growth-above-all funding hype.

“…maybe, just maybe, you too have a nagging, gagging sense that the current atmosphere of disrupt-o-maniaisn’t the only air a startup can breathe. That perhaps this zeal for disruption is not only crowding out other motives for doing a startup, but also can be downright poisonous for everyone here and the rest of the world.”

— x —

The future of food delivery? – via The Atlantic

This is not your typical eat-what-you-want-when-you-want efficiency homage. This is not your typical On-Demand economy tribute. This article is a refreshing and even charming look at what the awfully-named “sharing economy” could be. Is convenience really the ultimate goal? Or does experience and human warmth get a look in?

“We are alive at a time when huge systems—industrial, infrastructural—are being remade, and I think it’s our responsibility as we make choices both commercial and civic—it’s just a light responsibility, don’t stress—to extrapolate forward, and ask ourselves: Is this a system I want to live inside? Is this a system fit for humans?”

— x —

Brighten up a rainy day – via Bored Panda

When it rains, Pantone’s hydrochromatic paint – which is transparent when dry, but turns opaque and colourful when in contact with water – transforms dull, wet streets into vibrant and artistic scenes. A whole new form of street art? Art + weather = impact on emotions.

image via Bored Panda

image via Bored Panda

— x —

The Uberization of Finance – via The Wall Street Journal

Ugh, if I hear another “the Uber of…” I just might shriek. And I would have expected a bit more journalistic rigor from such an illustrious institution as The Wall Street Journal. But putting Uber in your headline must work, I guess, because I clicked on the link to read it. Inwardly shrieking, of course, but still…

The article goes on to describe briefly how platforms are changing the way we think about finance, from lending to buying shares. The part describing a possible future for private share offerings was particularly interesting:

“But what if the next wave of stock ownership isn’t just trading your own account, but stocks as a form of affiliation with brands? What if that Starbucks card came not just with a free latte after 10 purchases but a share of Starbucks after 100? And what if the maker of that cool new device, the GoPro of tomorrow, could offer its shares directly to its avid users instead of having to rely on investment banks to dole out the shares? “

Although instead of “Uberization”, why not just say “decentralization”?

— x —

Liverpool has opened fast-walking lanes – via CityLab

It’s just a marketing stunt for now, unfortunately, but hopefully cites all over the world – or at least their pressed-for-time, impatient, A-type residents – will sit up and take notice.

— x —

Have a great weekend, all! Beautiful autumnal weather here… I think I’ll go out for a walk and kick some leaves. :)

Some changes!

I noticed that you seemed to prefer the “Sunday Seven” over the “Friday Five” (not that the numbers were ever strictly adhered to, but never mind), so I’ll switch to that format. Bring on Sundays.

And you may have noticed (or maybe you didn’t!) that my longform articles are no longer weekly. I so wish that I had time to make them weekly, and I hope to return to that blissful state once November and December have passed, but other work interferes and I would rather not publish incomplete drivel just for the sake of getting something up.

You may remember that I used to publish something related to technology and art on Sundays. That fell due to time constraints, but I’m going to bring it back, just not on a regular schedule. There’s some amazing stuff out there that I’d love to show you. To keep things simple, I’ll probably include fewer words. You can thank me later.

As an aside, I do love writing here. It helps me to consolidate what I don’t know into a concrete project, and I am almost always surprised by where the article takes me. Usually I’m not even aware of what I think about something until I start writing about it. And I’m excited about all that I have yet to learn. It is a privilege to have the excuse to wallow in the shifting sands of cultural change. (Oh, wow, did I just say that? Cripes. I need to go for a walk.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. Thanks for reading.


Sunday Seven: bitcoin, college and art

Been travelling! A lovely few days in Copenhagen with my daughter, with oodles of walking, talking, walking, talking and eating the most divine open-faced sandwiches I’ve had in my life. Oh, and Christmas ale. I could go on for a while about Christmas ale, but I’ll spare you.

So, instead of the Friday Five, we have today the Sunday Seven.

And I’m opening with an article that wasn’t from the past week, but that I have just come across and has one of the best quotes about the fintech sector that I’ve seen:

Bitcoin Bucket Shop Kicks Bucket – by Matt Levine, for Bloomberg

“Tech is an industry of moving fast and breaking things. Finance is an industry of moving fast, breaking things, being mired in years of litigation, paying 10-digit fines, and ruefully promising to move slower and break fewer things in the future.”

A really amusing and sharp article about the craziness of innovation and the importance of Doing Things Right.

— x —

Running a Business without a Bank – via The Atlantic

The Atlantic features a World Bank-sponsored photo competition launched to highlight the struggles of businesses in emerging economies that have to manage without secure banking. The stories are moving and the photos are stunning. Take a look.

by Lê Minh Quốc via The Atlantic

by Lê Minh Quốc via The Atlantic

by Loc Mai via The Atlantic

by Loc Mai via The Atlantic

by Tran Van Tuy via The Atlantic

by Tran Van Tuy via The Atlantic

— x —

Liquid Bitcoin – by Jon Evans, for TechCrunch

A great summary of the main issues buffeting the Bitcoin world right now (about which I write at Jon Evans describes the block size debate, sidechains and smart contracts in his usual straightforward, easy-to-understand and witty prose.

— x —

Equal vs. Equivalency – by Brett Berry, via Medium

This is beyond geeky, but blew my mathematical mind. 5 x 3 is not the same as 5 + 5 + 5. No. And equivalent does not mean equal. I didn’t know any of this, and I studied maths at a good university (perhaps I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have…). Part of me is screaming “So???”. But then I remember that the heightened requirement for attention to detail is one of the many things I love about programming, and I realise that maybe kids should be taught this exaggerated level of specificity.

— x —

Rethinking college: Innovative reform, not disruption, is needed – by Stuart Butler for The Brookings Institute

I’ve read a lot of “let’s innovate college education” articles over the past few months, so many that even ever-so-patient I have started worrying about the ratio of words to action. Which may be why I found this article from the Brookings Institution hopeful, albeit short. It suggests reforms (not perhaps the radical innovation the headline suggests, but close) that sound do-able without too much legislative hand-wringing and status-quo defending.

1) Some college level courses taught during high school…

2) More use of online material…

3) Degrees based on performance rather than “seat time.” Certifying progress on successfully completing course work and examinations, rather than in-class credit hours, means students can take courses in non-college settings…

4) New ventures assembling customized, low-cost course packages…

Surely it’s time to stop writing about how little relevance college degrees have in tomorrow’s workforce, and how hard it is to recover the cost/pay down the student debt with the ever-lower wages college degrees now bring? Or rather, time to spend less time writing and more time talking to universities, local governments, businesses that do the hiring, etc.? Not to mention the time we should spend talking to students, the ones who will use and benefit from the reforms and technological changes?

— x —

The Story of One Girl – by Sophia Bush, via Medium

A lovely article about a cause that matters, even more than the article hints at. Get more women access to education, and you are a huge step forward on the path to eradicating poverty.

— x —

Technology fears – from The Brookings Institute

This is anecdotal but interesting, and appropriate for this Halloween weekend: our biggest technology-related fears, from The Brookings Institute.

via The Brookings Institute

via The Brookings Institute

— x —

Gaming platform Twitch gets Creative

The live-streaming gaming platform Twitch has launched its Creative channel, where you can now watch paint dry. Actually, you watch artists paint, glass blowers blow, designers design… And, it’s fascinating, in a totally hypnotic sort of way. Don’t try it unless you have some serious time to kill, but if you are feeling low on inspiration, it’ll definitely get your juices and ambition flowing again. Some artists even have more followers on Twitch than certain games. Inexplicably appealing.

landscape artist Bob Ross on Twitch

landscape artist Bob Ross on Twitch

— x —

My favourite hangover cure, if you celebrated Halloween last night: sushi for breakfast. Just sayin’.