All posts made in Mar. 2015:

Books read March 2015

By date finished...

Some lines that stuck with me from Berger:

The animal scrutinizes him across a narrow abyss of non-comprehension.

an animal's life, never to be confused with a man's, can be seen to run parallel to his. Only in death do the two parallel lines converge and after death, perhaps, cross over to become parallel again

As I say, I'm no scientist, but I have the impression that scientists today, when dealing with phenomena whose time or spatial scale is either immense or very small ... are on the point of breaking through space-time to discover another axis on which events may be strung


Some lines that got me in McPhee, the first about the Colorado river, the second on Lake Powell:

he quoted Edith Warner: "'This is a day when life and the world seem to be standing still -- only time and the river flowing past the mesas.'"

The Utah canyonland had been severed halfway up by a blue geometric plane, creating a waterscape of interrupted shapes, spectacularly unnatural, spectacularly beautiful.


I can't help myself but point my finger at these conjunctions. Narrow Abyss. Discover Another Axis. Interrupted Shapes.

Filtered for rules and otters


Steve Coast on rules.:

And so, with more rules we have solved most of the problems in the world. That just leaves the weird events left like disappearing 777’s, freak storms and ISIS. ... Ultimately, this is why the world is getting weirder, and will continue to do so. Now with global media you get to hear about it all.

And: everything that has ever happened has happened in the last decade or less.


There's a zoo in Japan where you can shake hands with an otter.

More pics.

iCPooch, a video conferencing device and remote treat dispenser for pets.

Project began at Startup Weekend (great mission -- I'm a trustee of the European arm). Inventor was 14 years old.

A dog that texts selfies.

Charles Mingus, jazz legend, literally wrote the book on how to train your cat to use the toilet.


We don't have a written constitution in the UK, but occasionally habit and precedent gets collated and scribbled down. In 2010, the operation of government was set out in the Cabinet Manual. For procedure nerds, it's a fascinating read.

Section 2 is about elections and The principles of government formation -- especially interesting because of the upcoming general election. Also I love the writing: The tone is colloquial, plain, and straightforward. But you can tell every word is chosen with care, every "should," every "expected." With a thousand year history, our system of government needs to balance what works with an openness to exceptionality.

Today we're entering purdah, the period of self-denying ordinance from the civil service.

See also, Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice.


The Hammersmith and City line, including a picture of the 1908 White City exhibition. Gosh.

Filtered for Monday mornings


An LED jacket for sausage dogs. Back Disco Dog on Kickstarter.

If your dog runs too far away and the connection is lost, the vest will show an automatic "LOST DOG" message

Best video.


There are eleven Sikh gurus -- the 11th, Final and last, eternal living guru took leadership in 1708, and is the community itself, the Khalsa:

the temporal leadership of the Sikhs was passed on to the Khalsa with the bestowed title of "Guru Panth" and spiritual leadership was passed on to the Guru Granth Sahib [the central religious text]

Guru Gobind Singh the 10th guru: All the Sikhs are enjoined to accept the Granth as their Guru. Consider the Guru Granth as embodiment of the Gurus. Those who want to meet God, can find Him in its hymns.

I wonder what this kind of metempsychosis feels like from the perspective of the guru -- to awaken as a text; frozen mid-thought, only alive when in communion with other minds.


The brain is electric. Transcranial magnetic stimulation works by stimulating bits of your brain with a whopping great magnet.

Zap your frontal lobe, it can make you savant at drawing cats (New York Times, 2003.)

It's loud too. Magnets eh.

Zap your motor cortex, your arm jumps. Quinn Norton on neuro-engineering (Wired, 2009):

A few inches over my ear is the part of my brain that controls my hand and arm. Schneider holds the coil there and activates it. The muscles in my scalp contract automatically, and it stings. My hand is jumping with each loud snap from the TMS machine.

I remember Quinn telling me about this experience... what stuck with me was her experience with free will. If you zap your muscles, they twitch despite yourself, but you can resist it.

But when you zap your neurons, you don't resist: you change your mind.

Hold your arm down. Zap. [Arm moves.] Why did you move your arm? I wanted to.

So I look at all this augmented reality nonsense and it all looks quite distracting.

And so I figure: What about a transcranial magnetic stimulation helmet, with Google Maps inside? That way your can check your email and Skype your mum, while the Walking-Down-The-Street Hat takes care of the tedious job of moving your legs, and collision-detecting your way around obstacles like buses and humans.

C'mon Google, sort it out.


I made a slo mo video of a bee yesterday -- that ethereal hooting you can hear in the background - turn it up, it's very quiet - is birdsong.

9 Beet Stretch is Ludwig van Beethoven's 9th symphony stretched to 24 hours, with no pitch distortions. It's broadcast online continuously: Listen now.

Recorded by the Huygens probe, the sound of the winds of Titan, largest moon of Saturn.

Coffee morning and the business onion

Hardware-ish coffee morning yesterday was weird... I missed a conversation about knitting. I got a short demo of Made By Many's Hackaball - which has just blown through its Kickstarter goal CONGRATULATIONS - but missed the main discussion. Matt from Speakset was talking about their super simple videophone for old folks, but I got dragged off elsewhere halfway through that chat. Laura was talking about energy, and honestly I could have spend an hour rambling about how Apple could use their big solar farms to make a vertically integrated consumer power offering... but I got distracted about something else. And with Blaine, I think we were about to have a breakthrough moment figuring out how to put micropayments at the protocol level of the web, and what new features we could offer, but by then my head was too full.

I hope everyone else had a good time :) Thank you for coming Alessandra, Matthew H, Matthew L, Tom T, Blaine, Tom A, Abby, Ben, Matt, Anna, James, Josh, Martin, Max, Laura, and Melissa!

So the gestalt for me is route to market.

It's a bugbear of mine that we've ceded the future of the web to advertising. And you know, thinking about what would happen if we started to charge for content on the web... it doesn't feel like it would work. Products on the web spread virally across social networks, producing random clicks that tease you into greater engagement. This is true for apps and articles.

And paying money inhibits virality. So there always has to be a free tier, to get as many of your eyeballs to infect as many more eyeballs as possible. Or it's totally free and there's indirect revenue -- you sell the data, or sell ads.

This, it turns out, is the failure mode with "the product is the marketing" philosophy: Now we don't separate out acquisition marketing into a different effort, we need every single one of our product users to be a shill. The route to market is right through your friends list.

Then I was looking at Hackaball which is a smart and responsive ball that children can program to invent and play games -- and this is great for a bunch of reasons, but primarily (for me) because behind it is the digital agency Made by Many (where Melissa is from), and that's terrific, that they've got the capabilities to design, launch, and then manufacture a Bluetooth-connected product, because that means they can bring those capabilities to all their clients. Gosh.

But educational products always confuse me slightly, because kids use them, but kids don't pay for me, and so the way the product is talked about isn't targeted at them. Like, I remember being seven. On a good day. Mostly I don't even remember being 30. But when I do remember being seven, I remember being into fun and cool and what my friends have... not learning. The route to market is not what makes the product good.

And with Speakset - which, again, is awesome - the customer is not the user. User: old people. Customer: Care providers.

So the way you design the product to best take it to market is not the same process to make it great for its users.

Is this a bad thing? Of course it isn't. Speakset will improve the lives of its users. It can only do that if it reaches lots of users. The best way to reach lots of users is via care providers.

But but but. One of the reasons I like Apple is that the proposition is clear. I give them money for hardware. I am the customer and the user both. They pay - separately - for marketing to tell me about the hardware. There's no misalignment of interests where they want to push the hardware into my hands so that they can make money out of selling usage data, or something.

Now I'm not going to claim that Apple are selfless angels, always acting in my interest. Far from it.

But when I've been sketching out business models for startups recently (which I have, a bunch), and those business models have been complicated with lots of actors having lots of different interests, I've been trying to draw them as a business onion. Where the core is a perfect knot of aligned interests of customer, user, and marketing, everyone acting in a way that supports revenue break-even, growth, and great product. Maybe not any profit yet. That's the next layer of the onion: More aligned interests, but this is where the profit is. And then maybe another layer, with a more complicated ecosystem play.

Never making a tradeoff between layers. Never saying: Well, we'll make a loss on product sales here because we'll make it up by selling the data over the customer lifetime. Ugh. Misaligned interests. Dirty onion.

I'm rambling. Business onion.

Next coffee morning

Let's do another coffee morning in 3 weeks... Thursday April 9th, same bat-place, same bat-channel.

I'll send a reminder to the announce list nearer the time -- you can subscribe here.

Filtered for capital


An Investor's Guide to Hardware Startups. Super good, and long... one bit I'll pick out:

Production cycles take time, usually 8-12 weeks. And if a company runs out of stock in between two batches, it can’t ship, so it can’t sell. The only way around it is to increase batch size. So instead of 3,000 units, the company needs to produce 15,000 of them at one time. And that takes working capital, which you, as an investor, need to provide in the initial phases.

Working capital, working capital, working capital. Working capital is a terrible use of equity financing.

The best model to take care of working capital is that investors invest into the first batch and immediately help the company get a working capital credit line from a bank. It makes little sense to finance additional batches with equity.

It's important to get a credit line because growing organically isn't possible -- even if half your sell-in price is margin, you can only afford to grow your batch size at 50% per cycle... and whether it's credit or re-investing the margin, all that growth incurs risk, because the items aren't pre-sold.

There are double binds all over the place here. For the first batch, Kickstarter makes sense... but Kickstarter is infinitely more valuable as a buying community, so you cut margins to the bone. Which means there's no possibility of re-investing for growing future batches. And in any case, growing batches incurs risk, which means your company has internally misaligned interests.

The only way I can see cutting this knot is to have a supply chain which is inside the distribution window: Where it's possible to receive a cash order and supply it, all before the consumer gets bored and walks away.

The two other problems where physical units are required should be figured out and costed separately: The additional cost and risk to meet the need for immediate gratification; the marketing benefits of seeing and touching items on a shop shelf.


Cory Doctorow explains Ronald Coase.

Ever since I encountered Coase I've been seeing everything through a Coase lens.


Organizing is a kind of tax on human activity. For every minute you spend doing stuff, you have to spend a few seconds making sure that you’re not getting ahead or behind or to one side of the other people you’re doing stuff with. The seconds you tithe to an organization is the CoaseCost, the tax on your work that you pay for the fact that we’re human beings and not ants or bees or some other species that manages to all march in unison by sheer instinct.



Labyrinth by Mark Wallinger. Art across the capital.

Wallinger has created 270 individual artworks, one for each station on the network, each one bearing its own unique circular labyrinth, but with a graphic language common to all. Rendered in bold black, white and red graphics, the artworks are produced in vitreous enamel, a material used for signs throughout London Underground, including the Tube’s roundel logo, whose circular nature the labyrinth design also echoes.

The labyrinths are sometimes in ticket halls, sometimes on a platform, sometimes (Euston Square) tucked in the little room by the lift.

I've been collecting em on Instagram as I spot them -- here they are.

Yesterday I got to 50! 220 to go.


10 extinct jobs.

Lamp lighter.

Lector Who Entertained Factory Workers.

Switchboard Operator.

I have to say, I do feel slightly indignant that I have to dial phone numbers myself. I also feel indignant that I have to sort my recycling. Surely this is the thing that systems should do?

And by systems, I mean organisations that might include people, where the people are paid properly.

The cost shouldn't be pushed onto me - and you - and everyone else.

So I feel tempted to operate a kind of vanguardism -- a refusal to cooperate, and an insistence on acting in a way that forces the system to improve. So: simultaneously insist on recycling being done, but deliberately putting it into the bins mixed so the problem is pushed back onto the system.

Let's do coffee morning 7

My dearest droogs,

Last hardware-ish coffee morning was a ton of fun, let's have another!

Thursday 19th March, 9.30am for a couple of hours, at the Book Club (100 Leonard St).

Do come! Usual game... no structure, just hanging out and chatting, vague "making things" skew. Here's what coffee morning 6 was like.

See if you can bunk off work, it might be fun. Or it might just be three of us checking our phones and full of painfully awkward silences. THAT'S THE RISK YOU TAKE WHEN WE HANG OUT.

Also -- do feel free to pass this along to friends: Especially women. One of the first coffee mornings was me with a bunch of dudes. And I was sitting there, seven dudes all drinking coffee together of a Thursday morning, and it was pretty darn weird tbh. So last time was much closer to a normal mix, and I'd much prefer it if that continues.

It would be lovely to see you :)

Sincerely yours,


ps. for reminders, join the coffee morning announce list.

A Richter scale for outages

I tweeted this morning:

Increasing reliance on invisible centralised software. Recent Apple outage, recent HSBC/contactless/tube outage. How long before a big one?

And I guess what I mean is that we're all using these same software systems. And they interact in ways that are totally emergent. So they go down in unpredictable ways. I feel like these systems are not resilient... for example, the credit card system is less resilient than a distributed payment system like cash.

It got brought to my attention because for, about a day, I couldn't use my HSBC contactless card on London tubes or buses -- who knows why. I had to top up my separate Oyster card, and it ended up costing me a couple quid more that day. Then, yesterday, several of Apple's systems were down for about 12 hours: Main effect for me, I couldn't listen to any music in iTunes. Nothing major.

But as software eats the world,and as the Internet of Things brings more of the physical world into that same domain, I think it would be helpful to have a language to talk about this.

So I made some notes on the bus.

A Richter scale for system outage

Like the Richter magnitude scale, each magnitude is incrementally ten times bigger. So 4.0 is 100x bigger than 2.0. But like apparent magnitude it's subjective: The scale of the human effect is taken into account.

Here's what I reckon the scale might look like.

  • Less than 2.0. Not distinguishable from normal network noise, like a call dropping, webpage not loading, or a computer crash.

  • 2.0. Facebook down, Gmail down, Apple App Store down, HSBC contactless cards not working on London transport. Duration of shorter than a day. Underlying problem is probably a single component and lack of resilience (e.g. power outage at a single cloud hosting location). Fixable.

  • 4.0. Minor network freeze but can be recovered with a reboot; broad human inconvenience without threat. e.g. regional ATM network down for a day, cellular network down for a day for single operator.

  • 6.0. Collapse of minor network requiring rebuild. e.g. recent Sony hack that meant no computers, printers, or existing network infrastructure could be re-used without manual check of each item.

  • 8.0. Major network freeze, can be recovered with time or reboot; major human impact. Examples include the 2008 credit crunch where bank lending gridlock precipitated the global financial crisis; power network outage major enough to require black start; the Icelandic volcano that grounded European flights for 6.5 days.

  • 10.0. Major network collapse, global and unrepairable. e.g. Cascading, emergent fault that wipes Internet routers and shuts down power grids, traffic and logistics, internet and non-cash payment. Can only be fixed by re-programming and re-architecting all separate components.

So the questions this makes me asks...

Is there a more objective way to measure system outage magnitude? Can we also measure resilience, with a language that cuts across different systems? Is there an equivalent scale for non-software system outages, like would Gulf Stream switch-off be a 8.0? Are we really going to see more software-related black swans over the coming decades?

How long before the big one?

Filtered for change


Who will babysit my sourdough starter?

Does yeast count as domesticated? Or is it more like un-manmade nanotech?

We pour yeast on something, and it acts as a mutagen on sugars to CO2, carefully killing itself off afterwards. It is impenetrable: no user-servicable parts inside. It is a component, like a resistor from a factory. But it can be bred: the system that produces it can be induced to change the produced population. With yeast we would use selection; with resistors we would use market forces. And then it operates, below human scale, to affect at human scales. Sounds like nanotech to me, though it has been captured and not created. More like finding an alien technology from a crashed flying saucer. Roswell, but 6,000 years ago.

A switchable light-input, light-output system modelled and constructed in yeast.


The UK has become a four-party country... between Labour, the Conservative, the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party, the General Election in May throws up all kinds of interesting configurations for the House of Commons.

Electoral Calculus has a coalition scenario map. Lovely, complicated fracturing. Neat graphical representation.

There's a 50% chance of a hung parliament; negotiations should be fascinating.


Look up at the Moon... hold out your arm, the Moon is about one finger across. From the Moon, the Earth is bigger: about four fingers across.

And it looks pretty strange.

If you were standing on the Moon, looking up, you'd see the Earth, hanging in the sky forever

The Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, the near side always faces us.

It would go through phases, like the Moon, moving from total darkness, though quarter illumination, Full Earth, and back again. But the features on the Earth would be changing. The face of the Earth would be illuminated, and you'd see the entire planet turning throughout the day


Feudal transformations and the spread of the three field system.

over the eighth to tenth centuries the system of using three fields in rotation, one for sowing a winter crop to be harvested in spring, one for a summer crop to be harvested in the autumn and one lying fallow to get the next winter crop, became fairly widely established, whereas it had been largely missing before that.

But why? This series on feudal transformations looks like a fascinating exploration in what causation is, and how to see it.

How to swap Amazon gift cards for cash?

So for one reason or another, I have several hundred dollars of gift cards. Accumulated over the past few years. The thing is, I don't buy anything from because I live in the UK, and the gift cards aren't transferrable between stores.

But now I'd like to get the cash equivalent. Somehow. There's something I'd like to buy from a US shop which has about the same value; it's not on Amazon.

I've never redeemed the gift codes, so it's easy to send them to someone who can use them. They're all still valid. Online gift card exchange sites are US-only, and expensive. Maybe I can find a person could buy from the other shop for me? But that's a big exercise in trust, so I guess I could take a dollar-sterling transaction forex hit. But even then, how will I even find someone who buys that much from Amazon.

Dunno. Any ideas? Any friends able to help?

Filtered for automatic crows


Crow Machine.

The goal of this project is to create a device that will autonomously train crows.

Once we've got system down for teaching coin collection we'll move to seeing how flexibly they can learn other tasks, like collecting garbage, sorting through discarded electronics, or maybe even search and rescue.

The thing that gets me about this is that it's automatic.


Bruce Sterling on the Convergence of Humans and Machines.

Or not.

You never see a computer that is so young it cannot speak.


Various translations of the first sentence of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed into a horrible vermin.

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into an monstrous cockroach in his bed.

Poor Gregor.


Justin Long has automated Tinder using facial recognition.

using the facial recognition algorithm Eigenfaces I built a bot that learns when to swipe right (like a person) AND swipe left (dislike a person) AND start your conversations.

Starting the conversation:

Tinderbox's pre-programmed chats include the opening:

"{name} are you a fan of avocados?"

And, following a positive reply:

"So if I asked you to have a guacamole party with me you'd do it?"

Only after all this does Tinderbox notify its human taskmaster that there's a match ready to chat.

Turns out Tinderbots are quite a thing. Here's something not real.

At 09:07 in the morning an Uber is automatically called for the female and 3 days later she will receive a heartfelt e-card / receipt. The algorithm will also wish her happy birthday on Facebook and like the top 20% of her Instagram photos as they are posted and start getting a lot of other likes. This continues until her Facebook relationship status switches away from single.

I wonder if you could automate a crow to Tinder for you.