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June 17th, 2009

On Tribes

I recently became a contributor to the 20fourlabs blog, and wrote this article as my introductory piece. You can read the original here.

In 2008, Seth Godin published a book called "Tribes". In it, he describes the way he thinks people will change the world from now on: by creating and leading Tribes. Finding and connecting a group of like-minded people, and showing them a path to where they want to go, will make them want to follow you. By building a Tribe like this, you'll be able to wield enough influence to make change that matters.

At its core, a Tribe is a group of people with a common interest or goal, who connect and form a community around that idea, or who enable each other to move towards that goal. There are uncountably large numbers of such Tribes on the Internet today, of all sizes, and since everybody can produce content (whether it's updating your Facebook status or writing a regular column on the Mail and Guardian website), everybody has the chance to build up a following of people who are interested in the ideas behind that content. Webcomics build up Tribes of people interested in their strips, maybe because these people identify with the banality of office life, or maybe just because they love the quirky, funny tone behind the strip. Cape Town Daily Photo also has a community, drawn together by the love of a city and the pleasure taken in viewing little slices of life from that city every day. Then there's Seth Godin himself, who has a huge Tribe of people who are fascinated by the way he views marketing and business; they are drawn together by a common interest in online communities and the way that ideas spread through these communities. This Tribe is slightly different in that, while they are definitely interested in what Seth has to say, many of them will be interested merely because of who is saying it. This is a Tribe of the Personality.

Most blogs and other mediums of online content distribution build up a following because people are interested in the theme, or the type of content being produced. Occasionally, however, as with Seth, Neil Gaiman, and Shaquille O'Neal, the common theme that ties the Tribe together is interest in the author, the Tribe leader, the person behind the content. This leader can say whatever he wants, and it will be avidly consumed, not because it is inherently interesting, but because it is what he has to say. There is nothing wrong with this sort of Tribe - it may be harder to be famous enough to warrant that sort of interest, but it's just another common interest that binds people together.

I have a personal blog, which I've run in its current form since 2004. The posts on this blog range from links that I've found interesting, to updates on my life, to thoughts I've had, to lyrics I've enjoyed, to things that have amused me. In fact, the only common theme that runs through all the posts is that they were written by me. I've written about ideas, quantum physics and the Large Hadron Collider and Democracy, amongst other things. Now, although there might be some interesting posts, nobody would actually subscribe to my blog because they enjoy the content - the feed as a whole is incredibly varied, and basically consists of whatever currently interests me. The small group of people who might be interested in that are my friends: they would subscribe precisely because they're my friends and not because the content interests them per se. In other words, without a specific content theme around which my readership could build a Tribe, the only sort of community that might arise is a Tribe of the Personality, and since I'm not a Hollywood movie star, it's not going to be very big.

As I hinted at when I mentioned Shaquille O'Neal, twitter streams are another way of building up a Tribe. In fact, twitter makes the process very, very easy: the moment you follow somebody, you're in their Tribe, reading what they have to say, already being influenced. Finding other members of their Tribe is as trivial as viewing their follower list, and user- and tweet-searches make refining the whole process a cinch. However, it may have become a little too easy, to the extent that a lot of people think that twitter is solely about what Tribes you're in. They worry more about the number of followers they have, and who is following whom, than about what people are actually saying. This is "follower ratio" - how many people follow you, in comparison to how many people you are following - and it is deemed to be a metric for how "good" you are at twitter. In a way, of course, it is - if you're very interesting or amusing, you will gain a large following. However, it seems that it has become something of a cargo cult: people mistake the symptom (having a good follower ratio) for the cause (being "good", or interesting). They start using disgusting tricks to spam people and try to win followers, instead of simply being creative, funny, or simply a great character, and letting the followers come because they want to be a part of the Tribe.

The weird thing about this attitude is that people get upset if they follow somebody, and that person does not follow them back, to the extent that they will often actually unfollow them again, even though they previously deemed their stream worth reading. I find this crazy - it's like refusing to read a blog or website if the author doesn't read yours. What these people are effectively doing is demanding that anybody whose Tribe they join, joins their Tribe. However, they don't actually provide any idea, goal or common interest to bind their Tribe together. Most of their tweets are (you will find) re-tweets of other people, idle banter, and reports on what they've had for breakfast. From "Short and Tweet" at the Washington Post:

The masses of people who "blurt-tweet" and unthinkingly brain-dump into their account, [...] will never achieve anything more meaningful than a public diary.
Like the Tribe around my personal blog, the only thing the members of this person's Tribe can have in common is an interest in the person himself; it is a Tribe of the Personality. To demand that another person join your Tribe when you follow them is pure arrogance: if you've never met them, and the only thing you're offering is your personality, then it's absurdly vain to expect them unconditionally to reciprocate your interest.

This is my first post on the new 20fourlabs blog. Being invited to contribute to this blog is basically being given a ready-made Tribe: you're presented to an audience as somebody who has something interesting to say, and entrusted with the task of holding their attention and growing the Tribe. Hopefully, I - and the other bloggers - will live up to these expectations by providing consistently good content, rather than arrogantly expecting people to remain members of the Tribe no matter what. I'm looking forward to seeing how it works out.

November 26th, 2008

Five thoughts from five people

Over the last year, I have encountered five people who have said (or written) things that really stuck in my head, and made me think, or think differently, or simply struck me as an excellent way of seeing things. I've tried to put them together into one narrative, and I presented it at the November GeekDinner.

Innovation

Robynn Burls Robynn Burls was one of the people asked to give an Elevator pitch for her business at a party hosted by Vinny Lingham (my boss, who reappears below). Robynn and her partner, Scott, run Encyclomedia, which provides "targeted and verified media contact lists to companies wanting to gain publicity". In other words, it lets people easily find journalists who actually want to know or hear news about their products, and who can actually write about them, based on the scope of their jobs. In addition, all the details are verified, so they're up-to-date and accurate.

Robynn began her elevator pitch by describing how one often encounters things that are being done in the same old way they've been done for decades, with little or no true innovation. Nobody has thought to update the methods, or re-think how things ought to be done, so they just carry on using the same ancient methods - this leaves a huge space for somebody to come in and create a totally new system based on new ideas and new ways of looking at the problems that are being solved.

This is what Robynn and Scott did with Encyclomedia. The "old way" was to subscribe, for a fee, to a provider, who would post you a book containing a list of journalists and media personnel. This list wasn't "targeted" in any way, it was just... media people. There was no way of knowing if anybody on that list was actually interested in your area or product, so you ran the risk of spamming half of the journalist population of your town. Robynn and Scott saw that there was an excellent opportunity to step into this gap, and created an online, searchable database, to which one can subscribe, which allows you to get exactly the information you need, verified and up-to-date.

This idea is not new, but people rarely seem to use it. To hear Robynn state it outright like that made me realise that it is a perspective that we need to have, but rarely do. Henry Ford famously said:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

I'm not using this to imply that true innovation will be divorced from the customers, or that users don't know what they really want, but rather to point out that a really new way of doing things is not just "more of the same" (harder, better, faster, stronger!), but a complete re-think of the problem, a process which begins with re-asking the questions, not just trying to find new answers.

It's interesting to find examples of people that have applied this concept: PushPlay redefined what "renting a DVD" was, for example - you give them a list of what you want to watch, and they post a couple of your top choices to you at home every time you return the old ones.

So, for everything I've said before about ideas, this is how you can get them if you're stuck - if you can identify an area where people are trudging along an old path without realising it, cut them a shortcut through the undergrowth, and they'll come stampeding.


Thinking Globally

Vinny Lingham Vinny Lingham started SynthaSite, now called Yola - the company for which I work - a year and a half ago (or more, depending on how you measure), with the mantra "Free Websites For Everyone". It was a small startup based in Cape Town, with only about three employees at first, but it raised $5million in venture capital funding last year, and has opened offices in San Francisco, and there are now over thirty employees.

In one of his many pep-talks to us as his employees, he talked about his strategy for the company, from the beginning, and one thing that really stuck with me was what he said about "going global". Basically, he said, whatever your product, whatever your idea, don't constrain yourself to a local market. You may start small, and you may only serve a small market at first, but keep your eyes on the horizon - there is a huge global market waiting to be tapped, and with internet access rapidly spreading, it is now possible to reach out to it.

Vinny was not saying that you should try and throw yourself into competition on an international scale, but you should bear in mind that you will get there eventually. It is, in fact, wise to start small(ish) and consolidate on your home ground before moving out, but don't allow yourself to get trapped in a local-only mindset. There are a number of ways that this might manifest: an unwillingness to branch out too far from your safe area, or even some assumptions underlying your project that you don't even realise are symptoms of a local-only mindset.

An example of this latter problem can be found in one of my favourite websites. I used it as an example of a good idea well executed previously, but there is a problem with DoStuffCT: there is nothing Cape Town-specific about the concept or the implementation of the site, but the idea that it is "for Cape Town" is embedded throughout the site. Apart from the obvious "CT" in the domain, the description of the site agrees:

Do Things in Cape Town is all about finding and sharing stuff to do in Cape Town [...] I realised that a site where users can easily contribute to a collection of activities in Cape Town would be perfect. A Wikipedia of things to do in Cape Town.

The site is well implemented, easy to use, and contains a bunch of great content, and there really isn't anything stopping somebody from Joburg (or Bahrain) from adding an activity to the site for their area - the interface is flexible enough to allow this - but there is always this core assumption showing up: "This site is for Cape Town". I spoke to Al, and he realises this, and actually did it intentionally: it suits his purposes, and was never meant to be a global phenomenon. However, it is a good example of how your original aims or premises may affect your implementation in ways which may not be desirable if you're planning to expand or diversify later.


Attracting Users

Seth Godin Seth Godin should not need any introduction - he is something of an icon among marketers, but his novel idea was that you should get permission from people before marketing your product to them. I wish more marketers actually used his idea. Anyway, he has an excellent blog, on which he writes about a post a day, each one making an interesting point, or discussing a different way of looking at things.

In one of these posts, Seth talks about Firefox's knee-jerk reaction to the idea that it might lose traction to Google Chrome: they quickly added new features to improve their users' browsing experience. While making your product better than any other one is a good way to attract and keep users, it's not the best one. Marketers talk about the Golden Grail of "going viral" - that state where your users start spreading your product for you, and usage rises exponentially, because each user brings in five of his friends. This phenomenon is virtually impossible to control, but Seth talks about how you can at least make it more likely to happen.

If you make your product better for a user, he might recommend it to his friends (if they ask). But if you make your product better for a user if lots of other people use it, they will do their damnedest to make sure that lots of other people use it, simply to improve their own experience. Consider Facebook as an obvious example: if none of your friends use it, you can sign up and look at your own pictures, and read your own status updates, but it's frankly useless. Facebook's usefulness increases every time one of your friends starts to use it, and so, naturally, you try and get all your friends to use it, so that you can communicate with them, and send them party invitations (and add apps that throw sheep at them). This is the most obvious form of "going viral": an application that is only useful if you get all your friends to use it.

Since that example only really works in the realm of social networks, consider another example. Google Reader has a "share" button unobtrusively placed at the bottom of each post you read. If you like something, or think it's interesting, you click the button and carry on reading. All of your Google contacts who use Google Reader will see the post you found interesting showing up under your name in the "Shared Items" folder. It's an excellent replacement for the usual "hey have you seen this cool article?" messages one often sends, and I have found it a very useful source of reading material (and a way to discover new feeds to read). Since I want to know about interesting stuff my friends find, I encourage them to use it. This encouragement may not be as strong as "going viral" requires, but it is stronger than it would be if I were suggesting Google Reader simply because it's a good product.

I've only used websites (and web software) in my examples, but the principle holds firm in other areas. You can see a vestigial attempt at this sort of thing when a service offers you a discount if you refer five other people to them, but I think that misunderstands the spirit of the concept. There is a lot more to be said about this Network Effect, but I think I've made my point:

The amount of money people spend on marketing and public-relations seems like such a waste when you realise that with a few slight tweaks, you can actually get your user-base to start marketing for you - just make it nicer for them if there is widespread adoption.


Testing your assumptions

Phil Barrett Phil Barrett is a director of Flow Interactive - a user-experience consultancy based in the UK, and he presented a talk at a 27Dinner last year that I thought was quite insightful. He was talking about the order in which people generally perform the steps involved in creating a new product. After having the idea for their product, they design and implement the features they need, then they fix any bugs they can find, and then they do some testing to see how the product fares in the wild. Phil's primary interest is, of course, user experience, so he was specifically referring to user experience testing: giving the product to a bunch of people and seeing how they interact with it, and where the weak points are.

The problem with this, he said, was that one often finds that the users can't handle a certain part of the interface, or that there are big problems with the way people are forced to interact with the product. What are you going to do when this happens? The product release is scheduled soon, and you need to fix this problem as quick as you can, so you patch over it and hack some sort of solution into the interface, which is just not ideal. Phil's point was that you need to move user testing back in the product cycle: start as soon as you can, and test constantly so that you will see when users start to struggle straight away, and you can work on the problem properly, during your development cycle.

To illustrate this, imagine an app that allows users to find entries in a directory of some sort. It's a brilliant idea, captures a niche, and the directory is populated with lots of good information, so the product should be a hit. The developers create a very detailed search interface that lets users specify pretty much exactly what they are looking for, with all sorts of details and choices available, which means that the results will always be relevant to the users, and the product will be useful.

So, this app gets designed, implemented, bug-tested, and everything, and then they give it to some users. And it turns out that users don't have the faintest idea how to handle this amazing search interface: there's just too much. It scares them, and they don't know what to do. So the developers quickly hack on a simple text-box which people can type a phrase into (a la Google), so that at least they can use the product. But now, of course, the search results are less relevant - you're coming up with nineteen results, only two of which are vaguely what you were looking for, because the app is trying to work out what you wanted from a few words in a textbox, instead of a nice fine-tuned search interface. The app is going to flop.

Phil obviously talks from a user-interface point of view: the search form should have been presented for user testing in the early stages, so that something could have been done about it. But the essential principle applies to any assumption you make when developing an app, designing a service, or even starting a company. In this case, the developers assumed that their users would be able to work out how to use the search form, but people make all sorts of other assumptions which often turn out to be false. An obvious one would be the assumption that people want your product (not everybody is as obsessed about Japanese Bear Cartoons as you - maybe there isn't a market?), or that your database schema is going to scale when your product goes mainstream.

It's such a simple idea, but one that I think people should constantly remind themselves about - take a good look at what you're about to do, work out what unquestioned assumptions you are making, and question them. It's difficult to do, because they are, by definition, the things you thought were obviously true, but it may turn out to be what saves your product.


Finding your niche

Chris Anderson Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine, and is probably most well-known for popularizing the idea of the Long Tail. I have been familiar with the idea for a long time, but it is only this year that I began to see how the idea can be used effectively to inform how one chooses a userbase to target.

The idea of the Long Tail, as summarised in Tim O'Reilly's seminal article "What is Web 2.0?", is as follows:

Small sites make up the bulk of the internet's content; narrow niches make up the bulk of internet's the possible applications. *Therefore: Leverage customer-self service and algorithmic data management to reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the center, to the long tail and not just the head.

The example I often use of how important the Long Tail is, number-wise, is that of facebook apps: you have a few excellent apps that everybody uses (photos, or maybe ScrabulousLexulous, because who doesn't like a good game of Scrabble?), and then you have an enormous amount of ridiculous apps ("You have been bitten by a werewolf/vampire/rabid sheep", "Your friend has thrown an apple at you") which get three or four saps to add them, and that's it. However, if 5000 people use Lexulous, and four people each use the 2000 other apps, that's still an exposure of 3000 more people for the small ones. This is not the best example to use as a business model, but it does give a good indication of how "niche markets" (in this case, small groups of people turned on by utterly inane apps) collectively outweigh the "mainstream market".

Amazon are the seminal example of a company who used the Long Tail to push themselves forward - they sell very small quantities of a very large number of things, thus easily making up large sales totals by appealing to diverse tastes. In the Olden Days, it was difficult to distribute your product, or to find the esoteric tastes on the edge of the market, so you had to make a product which would appeal immediately to the tastes of the easily-accessible masses, and sell lots to them. With the Internet, it is no longer hard to find a bunch of people who are interested in your unicorn-Star Trek-crossover-fiction, and this market is a lot easier to appeal to (you know what they want).

The Long Tail has a lot more to it, of course, but this core idea is important when you are a business or product that uses the internet to reach its consumers. I wrote about this before, in the context of Android apps appealing to a long tail of users that the centralised Apple appstore couldn't reach, and I think that anybody who is trying to sell anything, or appeal to a set of people, should investigate this and apply the principles.


Conclusion

None of these five ideas are that new, and I know that (for example) Vinny was not the first person to say "think global". As Stefano said, this is stuff that everybody should know. It is just surprising that a lot of people don't, and often waste their effort or money as a result. Having internalised these ideas has made me look at a lot of projects and services differently, and I think it's a useful exercise to rehash them every so often.

November 19th

Job Satisfaction (and openings at SynthaSite)

Last year, I was talking to a friend of mine who was in his first job after university, and was really not enjoying it. His company managed him badly, making him spend time on pointless activities and downplaying his real skills, and he felt like going to work was having no real effect on anything. He sent me a link to this video - a clip of an aquarium trainer and a walrus dancing together to Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal - and he said: I want to enjoy my job like she enjoys hers. That in itself is fine, but what he said after that was not. He asked me if I thought it was possible that he would ever have a job that he enjoyed like that. He wasn't even sure that that sort of job existed. Do other people have fun at other companies?

A while back, I wrote a long post about implementing ideas, but there was one thing I said in there that I think is worth repeating. If your job is your only source of income, you will start to consider it essential to your survival, and you will be less and less inclined to consider leaving it. You become tied to your job, no matter how unpleasant it becomes, and you start accepting more downsides because you feel that nothing would be as bad as being left out in the cold.

In this post, I want to say two things. Firstly, if your job sucks, leave it. You will find another one. If you don't find one immediately, you won't die - something will turn up in the end. And who knows, it may actually turn out that being truly adrift might make you realise what you actually want to be doing with yourself. But I promise you, nothing that happens to you will be worse than the soul-destroying grind that is going in to an unrewarding job where you feel you are making no difference, where you just take the corporate shafting without complaint, because you're worried about not getting a paycheque.

The second thing I want to say is to my friend from the first paragraph. Yes, there are jobs that are genuinely enjoyable.

  • It is possible to have a job which you look forward to going to in the morning, and which leaves you satisfied that you are getting real stuff done, and making a real difference.
  • There are companies that listen to their employees, where everybody can actually make a difference and be heard if they have an opinion, or want to be part of the process.
  • There are bosses that guide you to work more productively on tasks that are suited to your abilities, instead of "managing" you as a "resource" that can be applied to some situation in the hopes that it will go away.
  • There are companies whose management realise that the small cost of keeping you happy, and making your work environment a pleasant place to spend time, is more than made up for by the enthusiasm you have for the products and work which you do, and that you will be more productive and a better employee as a result.

On a completely unrelated note, there are some openings available at SynthaSite, where I work. The one which I want to talk about is the Systems and Service Engineer position. This is actually the position I currently fill at SynthaSite - they liked me so much that they're hiring two more just like me. The job-spec linked above actually describes the position quite well, and Neil also describes it pretty well, so I won't try to outdo either of them. Suffice it to say that I have never enjoyed my job more, the work is exciting, and the problems are always changing and interesting. Finally, I think one of the most attractive things about working for SynthaSite for me is that it truly fits into the "world wide" part of the web. This is not a small company that is only relevant to one part of the world. We have a global userbase, and even our offices stretch 16000km across borders. Not a month ago I got back from visiting our San Francisco offices - something that we, as employees, will have the opportunity to do once a year. This new, global perspective on things is really exciting to me in a way I find it hard to convey.

To conclude, if you're interested and fit our requirements, please: send your CV to careers@synthasite.com (with a cover-letter telling us why you think you're good for the job). We'd love to hear from you.

November 14th

Dynamically generating files for periodic secure copying

Here is the situation:

Machine A needs to periodically fetch MySQL dumps from machine B, process them, and produce some report. A fairly trivial problem, and I could think of a number of ways do this, but they were all slightly inelegant:

  • Periodically create the dump on machine B, and have A fetch it periodically and process it. I didn't like this because the fetch is not triggered by the dump, so there's no sequentiality - you're not guaranteed that A will fetch it immediately when, and only when, B has finished creating the dump.
  • Periodicially create the dump on machine B and push it to machine A, which then periodically processes it. This has the same problem - the processing is not triggered when the data arrives on A. I really needed the dump, the transfer and the processing to happen sequentially, triggered by each other.

The obvious thing to do is:

  • Have machine A ssh to machine B and run a script that creates the dump, and then scp the dump back and process it.

However, since I'm automating this to run periodically, I need to set up a passphrase-less key for machine A to ssh to machine B, and I don't like having those lying around unrestricted. Fortunately, ssh has a mechanism to restrict a key: you can add the 'command=""' option to a key, which means that when using that keypair to ssh to a machine, you will only be able run that specific command. So, having written a script to perform the database dump on machine B, I restricted machine A's key so that it can only run that script when it connects to B.

But now we have a further problem: since machine A can only run the dump script when ssh'ing to B, it can no longer scp the dump back to itself (since 'scp' runs over ssh, it won't be able to do its thing, because it is restricted to running the dump script only). We could of course, set up another keypair with a different restriction, although it's not trivial to work out what "command" to allow in order to accept scp - the normal way would be to create a new account, and give it the 'scponly' shell, but now we have a whole new account, and... Do you see where this is going? It just gets more and more complicated and basically inelegant. It's easily doable, but it's just messy.

I was discussing this with Michael Gorven, and realised that even though the command restriction means that machine A will always run the dump script when it connects to machine B, that doesn't mean I can't put stuff in the dump script that lets machine A also do the scp. When a machine tries to run a different command using a restricted key, the original command is just run anyway, but the attempted command is passed in, via the SSH_ORIGINAL_COMMAND variable. So, I thought, I could examine that, see if it was an scp command, and manually run it if it was. This was going to cause security problems, though, because I would have to check exactly what the command was, and might miss some devious ways of getting around my checks and running some other command.

Finally, Michael suggested that I not bother making the distinction between ssh'ing in to do the dump, and connecting in to retrieve it via scp. Just put both steps in one, assume machine A is trying to scp the file, and create and pass back the dump over scp. The way to serve a file over scp is "scp -f $filename" - normal users never see this because it is handled behind the scenes by scp. So here is the final script (with certain details left out):

#!/bin/bash

FNAM=/tmp/dump.$$.sql
mysqldump DB1 Table1 > $FNAM
mysqldump DB2 Table2 >> $FNAM
bzip2 $FNAM
scp -f $FNAM.bz2
rm $FNAM.bz2

Now, no matter how machine A connects to machine B, this script will be run, and unless machine A is running its side of the scp protocol, the dialog will fail. An amusing extra is that no matter what file machine A is trying to retrieve, my database dump will be generated on the fly and sent to it:

$ scp -i mykey_dsa machineB:something.txt
dump.2835.sql.bz2       100%     6909KB  1.2MB/s  00:03

I thought that was cute, and I wanted to share it.

November 6th

Yes. We did.

You've all heard by now. I hope you watched (or at least read the transcripts of) Obama's victory speech, and McCain's concession speech - they are both very moving, and McCain's especially highlights his dignity and grace in defeat - attributes that not a few commenters have pointed out might have gained him more votes than the silly political shenanigans he thought he was forced to play during the campaign.

I don't have much to add to the "Yay Obama won" posts that are already clogging up the blagospherimoboweb, but I do have one or two thoughts.

Firstly, although America did well to vote the big guy in, that choice was an obvious one - it was almost impossible to screw that up. There were some other decisions that needed making, perhaps not as obvious to them, or maybe just not as publicly discussed. Running a quick eye down the ballot measures should make it clear that America may have chosen the rock star to lead them, but they still need to do some hard thinking about what freedom really means. (Also, way to take a firm grasp of the issues that matter, Maryland.) I think Antoine van Gelder's usual succinctness puts it best about the presidential elections and proposition 8.

Secondly, in watching the coverage of the election results, there was a rather disturbing amount of bile and vitriol forthcoming from McCain supporters, who didn't heed their candidate's plea to unite behind their new President-Elect. They lost no time in putting this little gem up, for instance. And for the first time, the bigots hate more than just their president(-elect)'s policies, which makes me worried that they might take more drastic action this time round (instead of just sinking back into apathy as they've always done before). And things likes this don't assuage those fears. Well, roll on January 20th - we'll see where we go.

Now, let's turn our eyes inwards.

November 3rd

Thoughts From America 3: National Identity

This is the third post in a series, discussing ideas and thoughts that arose from my recent trip to California. The first two are here and here.

National Identity

Over three years ago, I wrote this entry, which contained a piece by Martin Amis about America, and how she was going insane, and yesterday I wrote about how the American Dream has led to a culture that celebrates mediocrity. However, I don't think that America is a nation that has gone mad, or bad. I think that she is a deeply conflicted nation that no longer knows where she is, and what she is supposed to be doing in the world.

One look at the electoral map makes it perfectly clear that America fights a constant internal battle between two distinct personalities, but recently, she seems to have become even more confused and unsure where the line that separates them lies.

If you'll pardon a quick switch in the gender of the anthropomorphized nation, these Sinfest comics excellently illustrate the problems the nation (Uncle Sam, with his sweetheart Lady Liberty) is having:

Remember When

Uncle Sam Not Depressed

Drunk Uncle Sam

Identity Crisis

This internal conflict is manifesting itself in the strangest of ways. We have Rednecks for Obama, Gays for McCain, and Feminists for Obama, and even white supremacists supporting Obama. The electorate just doesn't seem to know how to identify itself or which side to fall on. The campaigns are behaving even more strangely. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke the political mould by using the brave "he has scrawny arms" attack on Obama. There's been recent news claiming that Obama has been using hypnosis and mind-control to get people to vote for him. Senator Elizabeth Dole brands her opponent as godless (what is "godless money"?).

Watching how the actual candidates handle this is interesting - specifically John McCain. Watching him mock himself on Saturday Night Live really reminds you that he is a decent man - one who has had a very noble career, and has repeatedly taken stands against the Republican Party when he believes in something (immigration reform, free trade, and climate change are all things he has taken unpopular positions on). But this campaign has forced him to do and say things that I think he really dislikes, and sometimes you can actually see a look on his face that just says "what have we become?". I think the most notable instance of this was in Denver, when he was booed by his own supporters, when he took a stand against the racist bile that they were shouting about Obama. He had to quieten them and say "he is a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that is what this campaign is about". The look on his face when he takes the microphone away from a woman who has just called Obama an "arab" is almost piteous as he corrects her.

While that incident does show that McCain is fundamentally a decent person, it also highlights the schizophrenia of the American people, who find themselves booing John McCain, because he is defending Barack Obama, whom they hate (hate!?) because he is running against... John McCain.

Tonight is the eve of the elections in America (which is, of course, why I am writing this entry). As I've said above, I think John McCain is a great man who would not make a bad president all in all. However, and this will come as no surprise to anybody who has spoken to me recently, I think that Barack Obama is an amazing man, with excellent policies, and a firm moral grounding that will, if all goes well, drive him through to an excellent term in office. For two really excellent comparisons of the two candidates, and the way they diverge from each other, I recommend this newsweek article, and The Economist's endorsement of Barack Obama.

Update: I forgot to add that the world seems to agree with me, according to this page, and the Economists global electoral college.

One unbelievably sad piece of news that has just come in is that Obama's grandmother has passed away, on the eve of what could be the greatest victory of her grandson's life. I present that without comment, but with great regret.

So, as her citizens go to the polls tomorrow, I'm holding thumbs that America will let her rational, sensible, unbigoted personality shine through. They have a lot of hope for themselves, and I've said before that I have a lot of hope for them. I'll leave you with some quotes from a few of them:

A really moving tweet by the delightful nictate (who was just as moved when I thanked her for saying it):

We owe it to the world to vote Obama. It's a gift, an apology and a promise in one gesture.

The always amusing J. Adam Moore tweeted a confirmation of the internal battle America is fighting:

Is it just me, or does this election feel like a pass/fail national IQ test?

And finally, something that has been doing the rounds quite a bit:

"Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama is running so our children can fly"

Watch the results and the commentary!

November 2nd

Thoughts From America 2: The American Dream

This is the second post in a series of musings I had during, or on my return from, my recent trip to America. The first one is here and the third one is here.

The American Dream

The American Dream has always been held up as a kind of generic golden ideal of hope for the common man: "Whatever your mind can conceive and believe it will achieve". However, what the American Dream actually is seems to be somewhat ambiguous, and has changed somewhat over the history of the nation. The original concept comes from the actual Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

In other words, where you were born, what race you are, and what your immediate circumstances are, should not affect the opportunities you have to strive for greater things. Everybody should have the same freedoms to pursue their goals without prejudice or bigotry. This is a noble ideal, and one that I think any rational human should agree with.

Devolution of the dream

However, the American Dream seems to have evolved somewhat, recently. The form it now takes in a large part of the national consciousness seems to be more along the lines of "there is the possibility for anybody to become rich and powerful, regardless of their circumstances", with a definite emphasis on material wealth. This, again, is not a bad thing, if you retain the implication (taken from the declaration of independence) that your success should rely on your innate abilities, hard work and determination, instead of on your class, race or gender. However, I think that this implication is increasingly disappearing from the Dream that pervades the subconscious of the American people. Now, there is a simple belief that anybody can become rich and powerful, if... What? They deserve it? They believe it hard enough? They try hard enough? I don't think that there is even a condition attached any more.

Celebration of Mediocrity

This has become especially apparent in the recent presidential campaigns: Obama has been accused of "elitism", and Sarah Palin has been joyfully accepted by "Joe Sixpack" as "one of us". In many of the adverts I saw on TV while I was there, there was a constant undertone that whatever product was being sold was one that suited the common man, the everyday person on the street, the masses. It seems that being intelligent or qualified or educated is starting to become socially frowned upon, because it is "elitist" and "snobbish".

It is my opinion that the reason for this celebration of mediocrity is this latest evolution of the American Dream. Or rather, the reason being excellent is unfashionable is because it goes against this latest evolution of the American Dream. Being intelligent, or otherwise well qualified for something, is not something that just anybody can achieve, no matter how much they want to, or believe they can: seeing somebody who is actually really great is an uncomfortable reminder that you can't be good at some things, no matter how much you want to be. I don't think that this is an explicit thought in people's heads, but the reason they prefer a pathetically mediocre candidate like Sarah Palin, because they "can relate to her", and "are comfortable with her", is that she doesn't scare them or break the comfortable notion that they can achieve anything.

As this newsweek article puts it:

Do we want leaders who are everyday folks, or do we want leaders who understand everyday folks?

Individualism

Another aspect of this is a phrase that has also always been associated with America: "rugged individualism":

The USA is usually thought of as being at the individualistic (its detractors would say "atomistic") end of the spectrum (the term "Rugged Individualism" is a cultural imprint of being the essence of Americanism), whereas European societies are more inclined to believe in "public-spiritedness"

This "I got mine" attitude also dominates the American sub-conscious. "I worked to get where I am, and I deserve it, and I will fight you if you try to take it away from me". Obama has been vilified as a "socialist" because his tax program will slightly increase taxes on the richest 5% of America, so that he can give tax cuts to the other 95%. In his now famous talk with Joe the Plumber, he used the unfortunate phrase "spread the wealth around" - meaning that everybody would be a bit more prosperous if we just slightly penalised the richest 5% of America. That phrase, to your American Rugged Individualist, means that he is going to take what you worked hard for, and give it to somebody else who clearly didn't work nearly as hard, because they are not as rich as you.

Get what is yours

The whole time I was in California, there were adverts offering people a way to get hold of the money that was "locked up in pension plans". "This money is yours, you have the right to do whatever you want with it!" they crowed - as if saving it for your old age wasn't fulfilling one's potential. Then there were the lawsuits: "Have you been in an accident recently? You deserve to be compensated! Phone us and we will sue for you!" One advert I saw actually spoke about personal income in terms of "pension plans, trust funds, or lawsuit payments" - as if being litigious was a valid career option.

The whole atmosphere was one of "it's yours by rights, and nobody else's, and you must have it now". I was frankly flabbergasted that I was seeing adverts offering pension cash-ins and easy loans in a country that had recently been crippled by an economic crises brought about by bad lending, but it fits with the idea that an Individual can do What He Wants, and if he tries hard enough, he will achieve Great Things.

A bad dream

Like I said at the beginning, the American Dream is a noble ideal when applied right, but to remove the rationale behind it (that one should not be unfairly prejudiced by irrelevant things like race and gender), and add to it an individualistic attitude that makes you fight for what is yours, even if it's to the detriment of others, seems to me to have had a very bad effect on American society.

South-Africans, Awake

What about us, here in South Africa?

We have our own version of this problem, you know:

Thabo vs Zuma

If you haven't read Thabo's excellent letter to Jacob Zuma, do so now. In it, he warns strongly about people developing a cult of the personality, based around just this "common-man appeal". I've always liked Thabo Mbeki, the pipe-smoking, Yeats-reading, eloquent intellectual, who failed to survive against the sharks of politics, but who went out with a quiet dignity that I really admire. Yet the same accusations of "elitism" have started to be thrown about on the South African political scene. Suddenly, being intelligent and speaking in a certain way, reading certain books, using certain words, and so on, qualifies you to be labelled "elitist".

When it gets hard to tell whether this article is satire or not, the warning bells should start ringing. South Africa has a high enough education rate that we should be able to see past populist rhetoric and party lines and start choosing based on the actual issues. Democracy is meaningless if the vote that we all so proudly have gets given to the guy who can toyitoyi the fastest.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you should always pick the intellectual. Don't forget that in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is the intellectual with seven university degrees and fourteen honorary degrees, and Morgan Tsvangirai is the populist union leader who struggles with public speaking. Being biased against somebody because they never had the chance to get an education is almost as bad as being biased against somebody because they did.

I think there's a good chance for this country, as a relatively young democracy which is still very much finding its feet and struggling with working out how it should be doing things, to define its own national consciousness and make its own South African Dream, rewarding those who deserve it, but not punishing those who didn't manage to achieve their goals.

Remember, we have our own founding fathers, and they also had a vision. I leave you with the words of Nelson Mandela:

We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

Update: Bizarrely, Ze Frank posted a blog entry about the American Dream at almost the exact same time as I did.

October 30th

Thoughts From America 1: Necessity and Invention

Apart from a broken rib and an iPod touch, I brought a few other things back from my visit to California. This is the first post in a series of thoughts and ideas I had during my trip to San Francisco.

Update: (The second one is here, the third is here.)

Old Ma Necessity

We've all heard the old chestnut about necessity being the mother of invention. It really hit home when I got to San Francisco, and one of the first emails I received from the office manager included Google Maps directions to the office. I know, we've all seen these before, and academically, I knew they worked, but it was still a surprise to see Google give real life directions that were actually useful to me. In South Africa, we become accustomed to things not even being meant to work for us - they're for the posh people in the first world, you know? (Although, now I think about it, most of the times I've ever encountered these maps it was because people were going "LOL GOOGLE SAYS DRIVE INTO THE SEA" and so on, so even then I didn't have much of a good impression of them.) The Google Maps for Cape Town barely have the highways fully drawn in.

Having underlined our necessity, where's our invention? Look again at the above-linked Google map of Cape Town, and then compare it with the OpenStreetMap equivalent.

Now, I know a lot of the drive behind OpenStreetMap is a desire to have open/free maps, rather than the necessity to fill the gap left by the inadequate Google Maps, but the two do go hand in hand. When you're in America, and everything works, you don't even realise that there's a niche in which to innovate. If you'd like another example, consider bandwidth. I won't lie to you, American bandwidth is FAST. I watched the presidential debates streaming live off the internet, in fairly high definition. When you've got that bandwidth, you don't even try to save it. But here in South Africa, the need to save bandwidth has led to some very clever solutions.

I attended BarCamp Africa at Google HQ in Mountain View, and one of the overriding themes was that Things Are Different In Africa, and that there is some amazing innovation happening here, simply because there's no other way the problems we encounter in our unique situation will ever be solved. One of the discussions underlined this for me: we were discussing Android and the iPhone, and I realised that there will be an enormous market for phone applications that are so specific that they're useful for only like thirty people in a tiny village in Kenya. Like I've said, things are different in Africa. There are places in Africa that desperately need a solution for a problem that no other place can even understand. There is a lot of necessity. And as a result, there is a lot of potential for a lot of invention. Of course, to return to phones (although phone apps obviously, aren't exactly the solution to many of Africa's problems, they suffice as an example), Apple just doesn't have the resources to create (or approve) apps to touch a fraction of this necessity, and that's where Android can swoop in and fill the void. An African entrepreneur can take advantage of the Long Tail to produce a large number of apps that are only used by a few people, but whose total uptake is enormous.

A final example before I leave the subject, just to illustrate how different Africa is. In Ghana, apparently, you just don't get street addresses. If you want to know where somebody lives, you'll get told "Akua lives two compounds behind Kwabena". Addresses are relative, and that's the way it's always worked. If you read this article, you'll see somebody trying to pull Ghana into a western ("modern" !?) way of thinking, but what they should really be doing is coming up with a Ghanaian solution to this Ghanaian problem.

The western world's maps (and things) already work, and so they don't even realise that we face these problems in Africa. This is where we can step in and start providing African solutions to our uniquely African problems.

October 3rd

California

This is what my music history on last.fm currently looks like:

Music History

Once again, I am off to California. My company is flying over the eight employees in the Cape Town office who are not already there, so that we can have the whole company together in one place for some training, meetings, and a "year-end" party, before it gets any bigger.

I'll be leaving tomorrow, the 3rd4th of October, and coming back on the 22nd. My birthday is on the 12th, which is Columbus Day (the day Christopher first sighted America), a public holiday in the US, so I'll get a nice long weekend while I'm there. I had a look for some events that are going on while I'm there, although I didn't find many that appealed to me. Neil and I will be visiting some local geeks at the Python User Group and the Linux User Group, for a start. I also noticed that the Kings of Leon are playing while I'm there, as well as... believe it or not... Well, have a look.

If you have any other suggestions for things to do while we're there, let me know. I'm keen to head out of down, do some wine tasting, and maybe even head to Yosemite.

California, here we come!

September 29th

Ideas

Brain Crack

About a month ago, the excellent Avery Edison linked to an episode of the show by Ze Frank, which had quite a large impact on me:

I have transcribed the relevant bit below for your reading pleasure:

I run out of ideas every day. Each day I live in mortal fear that I've used up the last idea that'll ever come to me. If you don't want to run out of ideas, the best thing to do is not to execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do 'em right. Then they stay around in your head like brain crack. No matter how bad things get, at least you have those good ideas - that you'll get to later. Some people get addicted to that brain crack, and the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed, and they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals, and everyone's clapping - for them! But the bummer is, most ideas kinda suck when you do 'em, and no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time, and you're almost guaranteed the first time you do something, it'll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person, who's still dreaming of all the applause. When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible, because I certainly don't want to be addicted to brain crack.

Dividing people up

The thing is, there are two factors involved - knowing how to do stuff, and doing stuff - and there are four combinations of these two factors. We can all agree that people that neither know how to do anything, nor actually do anything, are not especially useful. Additionally, we can agree that people that have both the knowledge/skill to do stuff, and actually go out and do it, are especially useful. However, the contention comes in when you look at the other two categories of people: people who have the knowledge/skill but don't use it, and people who aren't especially talented or clued up, but still try and do things (badly or not as the case may be).

I think that most people, whether they realise it or not, would consider the talented/intelligent individuals to be "better" (or "more useful"?) than the people that try (possibly unsuccessfully) to do things without having the actual talent to back it up - even though the talented ones don't actually really use their talent for anything "extra", other than getting a job and that sort of thing. I'm finding it difficult to explain this without sounding insulting or condescending, but it's fairly common to hear some very snide remarks about a website that somebody has tried to put together amateurishly, or an implementation of some service which just doesn't work too well. There seems to be a natural bias towards the talented, without regard to what is actually getting done.

Well, I disagree.

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but I don't think people have internalised the full implications: doing something, whether you're good at it, or successful at it, or not, is better than knowing how to do it and never bothering.

Using ideas

Perhaps geeks tend not to implement their ideas because once they work out how to solve a problem, it's not interesting any more. This is understandable, if regrettable. Whether or not this is the case, though, I think that a much more common reason for never implementing an idea is that you think it won't work, or won't work properly, or isn't worth trying. This sort of thing has been said so often that it's almost a cliche, but people still don't seem to believe it: just do something, and it may work.

A lovely example of a good idea that you'd never believe would work is the zipper machine:

zipper machine

As the article says:

I have to imagine the person that first proposed creating this device was thought to be crazy. I suppose they had to fight their way through nay-sayers in their company until someone believed them. However, now that the machine exists it just seems like a natural thing to do.
Every time I see this machine I think it makes a great analogy for IT projects. The more audacious an IT project is, the more crazy it looks. After it is complete and people are benefitting from it everyone thinks it is obvious.

What about closer to home? As Alastair Pott says in the about page of DoStuffCT:

While hiking on Table Mountain I found myself wishing that I knew more of the many available hikes. I realised that a site where users can easily contribute to a collection of activities in Cape Town would be perfect. A Wikipedia of things to do in Cape Town.
I hacked together a quick prototype and the whole idea has developed into something of a hobby for me. I knew that I was onto something useful when I found myself using the site from my mobile phone to get restaurant details. It is my hope that others will discover the site, and that together we can create a useful and complete resource for those looking to enjoy our wonderful city.

This is exactly what I am talking about. Al thought "hmm, that could be cool", and he did it, and now it's one of my favourite sites. A slightly less successful example is Jonathan Endersby's new site, HalfPriceTuesdays. It died in its first incarnation, but he revived it, and it's in private alpha now, so hopefully we'll see it taking off like DoStuffCT.

The ideas behind these two sites are not unique. There are tons of ideas out there, and I bet that you had one just the other day. Just in the course of discussing what I'm saying in this post with some friends, two new ideas got brought up simply as examples to back up the discussion:

  • Find-A-Maid.com - you're in Vredehoek, you need a maid who can work on Friday mornings and is good with children. It's a known problem, and it can be solved. The implementation may need tweaking to be a viable solution (problem: maids don't have broadband, madams do), but it's there.
  • HoldMeAccountable.com - When I say I'm going to do something (implement an idea, write a blog post, fix my car), you can put it on this site, I'll confirm it, and if I don't do it by the deadline, I'm named and shamed. I'd use this.

They may not be great ideas, they may not work, but they are ideas.

And here's the nub:

The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.
--Linus Pauling

Ratios of success

My boss, Vinny Lingham is involved in the venture capital landscape, and he recently gave a talk on investing in startups (which are essentially "people implementing ideas"). As confirmed by the maths here, Vinny said that in order to be successful, a venture capitalist needs about a third of his ventures to succeed, and a third to break even (i.e. make their money back). That's not impossible, but it's a risk that a VC has to take.

However, I am not talking about VCs. I'm talking about you. You don't have that one-third burden on your ideas. Because, no matter how many ideas you implement, you only need one to succeed. If you try six things, and one becomes a success, you've won. If you try twenty things, and only one becomes a success, you've still won. And, of course, the more things you try, the more likely it is that some, or any, of them will succeed. There's, like, no excuse not to!

While you were sleeping

Another thing Vinny went over in his talk was his big idea of "making money while you sleep". This brings us back to the distinction I made earlier between the knowers and the doers. If you're very knowledgeable or skillful, you can make a lot of money by selling your knowledge or skill. You can freelance, or contract yourself out, or even get a permanent position, and the harder you work, the more money you'll get, because you've got the skill and the knowledge to make it happen. But to be really successful, you've got to work really hard. There's a direct correlation between the time you spend and the amount you get back. And that's all well and good, but there's only so much time you have. It's much more efficient (and pleasant) to make money while you sleep. If you implement an idea, and it works, and becomes successful, then you can sit back and let it work for you, and bring in the money for you. Or, better, you can start on another idea, and hope that that one works, too. If, instead of just "being good", you actually produce something that is out there and tangible, separate from yourself, the correlation between your time/energy and the amount you get back no longer exists.

My friend Dom makes an important point about this: if you are only making money from your job, you start to rely on your job. You get tied down, and start accepting more downsides and problems, because you worry that if you don't, you'll lose your job, and have no income. You need to be earning things on the side in order to be free enough to put your foot down when your job becomes intolerable. You may be lucky enough or skilled enough to walk straight into another job, but... you know... you may not.

And now, to my final point.

Cape Town

The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor's research findings over the past five years show that the percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 64 in Cape Town who pursue new business are 190% above the national average.
In Johannesburg, it is only 60% above the national average.
But only 5% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town and only 6% in Johannesburg make use of the latest technology in their businesses.
Only 15% of new entrepreneurs in Cape Town expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time.

We are in the most entrepreneurial city in the country. It has been referred to as the next Silicon Valley. Not only that, but we, as geeks, are also capable of making use of "the latest technology". We're perfectly positioned to take our ideas and make them work (if we have the confidence to "expect to have more than ten employees in five years' time"). I know that a lot of the people reading this have already been nagged by me: this post has been burning a hole in my brain for a month (I'm only publishing it now because I'm presenting this exact material at the GeekDinner tonight). But even if I have already said it to you, it's time to actually do something about it.

Conclusion

So, from now on, some rules:

  • Don't say "I will [ later ]"
  • Don't say you don't have enough time: you're lying
  • Don't expect it to be perfect (or even to work) at first
  • Don't over design

I know I'm the worst of the lot, and let this blog post hold me accountable if I haven't started doing things in six months.

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