“I was a consultant for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and I worked on a drone concept for the game, a quadcopter called Charlene. Now defense contractors are trying to make Charlene real. So it flips the relationship. Previously, the military would research and develop something and then spin it out to the civilian sector. Now the military is faced with a challenge of how to spin in technology.”—I absolutely love this conversation between political scientist P. W. Singer and journalist Matthew Power we published today on the TED Blog. Too many great, thought-provoking quotes to choose from to feature… Far-ranging and fascinating.
“Just as our ancestors domesticated vicious dogs and dangerous large herbivores, so too will we humans need to safely domesticate narrow AI organisms. Doing so will involve building social structures to resist the power-centralizing effect of such easily multiplied, mindlessly obedient and inscrutable digital constructs. Failure to adjust to the rapid spread of narrow AI throughout society will come with stark consequences.”—Great quote from a great piece by sci-fi author, Daniel Suarez: The Automation Age: Daniel Suarez on why drones + “Narrow AI” make us nervous
When HCI people debug their code, it’s like an art show or a meeting of the United Nations. There are tea breaks and witticisms exchanged in French; wearing a non-functional scarf is optional, but encouraged. When HCI code doesn’t work, the problem can be resolved using grand theories that relate form and perception to your deeply personal feelings about ovals. There will be rich debates about the socioeconomic implications of Helvetica Light, and at some point, you will have to decide whether serifs are daring statements of modernity, or tools of hegemonic oppression that implicitly support feudalism and illiteracy. Is pinching-and-dragging less elegant than circling-and-lightly-caressing? These urgent mysteries will not solve themselves. And yet, after a long day of debugging HCI code, there is always hope, and there is no true anger; even if you fear that your drop-down list should be a radio button, the drop-down list will suffice until tomorrow, when the sun will rise, glorious and vibrant, and inspire you to combine scroll bars and left-clicking in poignant ways that you will commemorate in a sonnet when you return from your local farmer’s market.
“When we speak truth to power we are ignored at best and brutally suppressed at worst. We are confronting a power structure that does not respect its own system of checks and balances, never mind the rights of it’s own citizens or the international community.”—Jeremy Hammond’s sentencing statement to the court, after being tried for hacking activities. He got ten years.
“In late September, a vessel came apart shortly after leaving Indonesia, and dozens of asylum seekers — from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq — drowned. That people are willing to hazard death at sea despite Australia’s vow to send them to places like Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru would seem illogical — or just plain crazy. The Australian government ascribes their persistence partly to misinformation propagated by the smugglers. But every asylum seeker who believes those lies believes them because he chooses to. Their doing so, and continuing to brave the Indian Ocean, and continuing to die, only illustrates their desperation in a new, disturbing kind of light. This is the subtext to the plight of every refugee: Whatever hardship he endures, he endures because it beats the hardship he escaped. Every story of exile implies the sadder story of a homeland.”—
1. Writer Luke Mogelson describes that one way to measure the success of the US-led war in Afghanistan is by the current exodus of citizens from the country, pointing out “the first “boat people” to seek asylum in Australia were Vietnamese, in the mid-1970s, driven to the ocean by the fallout from that American withdrawal.” So there’s another unintended consequence of another war in the name of freedom and liberty. Nice one.
2. The detail of an Iranian father who is hesitant to destroy his son’s passport just about finished me off. "When the scissors came his way, he carefully cut out the photo on the first page and slipped it in his wallet." Damn.
I have a fundamental problem with a man who sits on a golden throne and lectures us about spending less, like a modern-day, white-tie clad sheriff of Nottingham. And all around him, the insidious stain of austerity creeps across the country, manifesting in the bedroom tax, rising tuition fees and the closure of public services that vulnerable people depend on.
Each of us has just one chance at existence, and so many people’s lives are being blighted by these cuts. If this is the cruel and damaging reality of permanent austerity, then we should be telling Mr Cameron we don’t want it.
“Unfortunately we live in a world where all too often, laws are for the little people. Nobody at GCHQ or the NSA will ever stand before a judge and answer for this industrial-scale subversion of the judicial process. In the absence of working law enforcement, we therefore do what internet engineers have always done - build more secure software. The traffic shown in the slides below is now all encrypted and the work the NSA/GCHQ staff did on understanding it, ruined.”—Really love that Google lets its employees speak their mind (or at least doesn’t seem to take issue after the fact). Here, security engineer Mike Hearn issues “a giant FUCK YOU” to NSA, GCHQ and others.
“We are also reminded that Nixon was ahead of his time. Back then, his malevolent and obsessive quest to stem “the leaks, the leaks” at “any cost” was viewed as a sort of psychic illness; today, both the sentiment and the extralegal pursuit of leakers that followed is considered downright presidential.”—Reading Born Again in Jail, by Barrett Brown, the Anonymous-related writer who’s “facing decades in prison” is a hilarious but sobering review of a book from the Nixon era that seems somehow quaint by today’s standards. Brr.
“Instead of robust public education, we have Mr. Zuckerberg’s “rescue” of Newark’s schools. Instead of a vibrant literary culture, we have Oprah’s book club. Instead of investments in public health, we have the Gates Foundation. Celebrities either buy institutions, or “disrupt” them.”—George Packer on "Celebrating Inequality." A sobering read.
“History is changed by people who get pissed off. Only neo-vegetables enjoy using computers the way they are at the moment. If you want to make computers that really work, create a design team composed only of healthy, active women with lots else to do in their lives and give them carte blanche. Do not under any circumstances consult anyone who (a) is fascinated by computer games (b) tends to describe silly things as ‘totally cool’ (c) has nothing better to do except fiddle with these damn things night after night.”—Happy birthday, Brian Eno, you fabulous person, you.
“Ultimately, the left will lose. Big business will pollute the planet, capitalist culture will kill off the arts and humanities, schools will all be privatised, libraries will all close, social mobility will cease, the gulf between rich and poor will grow and everything beautiful will die. The left may note little human rights victories – gay marriage and the odd bit of better pay – but the machine is rolling inexorably forwards to crush it.”—Really incredible piece by British stand-up comedian Stewart Lee on why there are no right wing stand-ups. Read to the last line, which actually made me gasp out loud, and I pride myself on having no shame when it comes to “bad” words.
“We weren’t tackling the hard problem of figuring out how to actually make the ads good enough to integrate with the user experience. With phones, there’s no room for a right-hand column of ads. That forced us to think about what the business looks like on mobile.”—Don’t know if it’s just me but with comments like this, Mark Zuckerberg sounds like all the magazine and newspaper publishers I’ve known over the years. And so the wheel turns.
“Publishers might be a necessary thing,” he said. “but it’s inevitable that they will shift the focus from games being made by people who want to make good games to people who want to make money.”—Thoughtful, fascinating profile of Minecraft creator, Notch. I think we’ll see more (private) companies rising up which are not driven by the capitalistic imperatives of the past. Suddenly wealthy, young founders have different ideas about management, and are designing corporate systems that suit their own philosophies and thinking. In this case, Notch employs twenty or so people at his company Mojang, which has a flat management struture and no set working hours. “When you have the kind of success Minecraft has brought, you can just choose yourself the way you want to do things,” says Persson, which includes not rabidly pursuing the Next Big Thing. “I try to have a studio where people go to make games for the fun of it, not just because some investor has said we have to make money.” This is a small company, of course, but just imagine how this might float up to influence larger corporations, who always need to be able to attract and hire talent.
“We must abandon invisibility as a goal for interfaces; it’s misleading, unhelpful and ultimately dishonest. It unleashes so much potential for unusable, harmful and frustrating interfaces, and systems that gradually erode users and designers agency. Invisibility might seem an attractive concept at first glance, but it ignores the real, thorny, difficult issues of designing and using complex interfaces and systems.”—Beautiful, thoughtful piece by Berg’s Timo Arnall, on the fallacy of “invisible” interfaces. Must-read.
“I think our ego is like the bark of a tree – but there is something else in us, an energy that makes us feel we are not alone.”—Ok, so truthfully, I’m not entirely sure what Mariko Mori is driving at here, but I like the sound of it, don’t you?
So says “The Shooter,” the protagonist of the extraordinary Esquire story, The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden… Is Screwed. This is his typically dry, pithy response to watching the movie, Zero Dark Thirty, and the story is packed full of his wry humor. What’s not funny is the disgraceful way in which veterans are being treated once they return home. As writer Phil Bronstein puts it:
The Shooter will discover soon enough that when he leaves after sixteen years in the Navy, his body filled with scar tissue, arthritis, tendonitis, eye damage, and blown disks, here is what he gets from his employer and a grateful nation: Nothing. No pension, no health care, and no protection for himself or his family.”
Bronstein touches on the idea that the business community would be smart to tap the skills of retired SEALs for less violent settings. He details discussions with (now former) Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Orbitz chairman, Jeff Clarke. “It would be great to get a panel of CEOs together who are ready to help these guys get hired,” says someone associated with the Navy SEAL Foundation. Yes, yes, yes. Make it happen!
“Did you know that vital parts of the US law are secret, and you’re only allowed to read them if you pay a standards body thousands of dollars for the right to find out what the law of the land is?”—Read Liberating America’s secret, for-pay laws by Carl Malamud. It’s chilling and inspiring in about equal measure. Ok, fine. More chilling.
“Strategy is a singular thing; there is one strategy for a given business — not a set of strategies. It is one integrated set of choices: what is our winning aspiration; where will we play; how will we win; what capabilities need to be in place; and what management systems must be instituted?”—Fine, so Roger Martin is a friend of mine, someone I’ve edited over the years and who’s also essentially published me (by means of the magazine at the business school of which he’s dean, Rotman School of Management, part of the University of Toronto). Nonetheless, conflicts aside, for anyone involved in innovation, design, planning, budgeting, or really the world of business, his piece, Don’t Let Strategy Become Planning, is a smart read. I’ve also just started reading Roger’s latest book, coauthored with former P&G CEO, A.G. Lafley. More on that later.
“Downloadable music is just a fad and people will always want the atmosphere and experience of a music store rather than online shopping.”—
As HMV calls in the administrators, it’s worth taking a look back a Why Companies Fail—The Rise and Fall of HMV, published last August. In the piece, former HMV consultant Philip Beeching gives an inside scoop on working with the iconic music retailer. The quote above comes courtesy of then-managing director Steve Knott, commenting right after HMV went public in 2002.
Beeching describes his reaction to this response with a thoughtful reminder: “the dotcom bubble had just burst and many people were mistaking this stockmarket meltdown for an internet meltdown.” In other words, hindsight is always 20:20 and it’s easy to scoff at those who turn out to have got something wrong. Nonetheless, the inability to imagine a different way often proves to be catastrophic.
As such, this is a useful take on a sorry and sadly somewhat typical story. Just remember: any time anyone writes something off as a “fad,” hear the alarm bells ringing. It may indeed turn out to be a gimmick of the highest order, but it’s certainly worth taking the time to take another look.
“Simply having the idea is not enough. Crafting a beautiful solution is not enough. Doing a dramatic presentation is not enough. Convincing all your peers is not enough. Even if you’ve done all that, you still have to go through the hard work of selling it to the client. And like any business situation of any complexity whatsoever, that process may be smothered in politics, handicapped with exigencies, and beset with factors with have nothing to do with design excellence. You know, real life. Creating a beautiful design turns out to be just the first step in a long and perilous process with no guarantee of success.”—Michael Bierut is a partner at Pentagram and a simply wonderful writer. In Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport, he takes on the thorny topic of untrained amateurs daring to voice an opinion on graphic design. Thankfully, he doesn’t come to the traditional designerly conclusion that such interlopers clearly don’t get it, but instead offers a nuanced argument and a call to action for design professionals to step up and do a part of the job they too often don’t consider or relish. As he writes, “perhaps the question in these logo discussions could be more than: could I do better? Perhaps we could also ask: what was the purpose? What was the process? Whose ends were being served? How should we judge success? But we seldom look any deeper than first impressions, wallowing instead in a churning maelstrom of snap judgments. Should we be surprised when the general public jumps right in after us?” Important questions, all.
“There is a tendency to view the site, the poster, the logo or the product as the purpose of design when it is not. We will only make design a force in creating the future if we see it not as an end in itself, but as a tool, a medium, a lever in a process of ongoing transformation—and if we take full responsibility for the transformation we engender. “What will we accomplish with this?” is the question we must never forget ask, and to honestly answer. That will be the work of the designer of the future.”—I have had many conversations with the inestimable Cheryl Heller about the meaning and purpose of “design thinking.” She’s a smart thinker and writer — not to mention the founder of the new Design for Social Innovation program at SVA. Where Design is Going, and How to be There is her manifesto for future designers, and it’s well worth a read.
“We thought that one way to communicate respect would be to always be on time to meetings with entrepreneurs. Rather than make them wait in our lobby for 30 minutes while we attended to more important business like so many venture capitalists that we visited, we wanted our people to be on time, prepared and focused. Unfortunately, anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows that this is easier said than done. In order to shock the company into the right behavior, we instituted a ruthlessly enforced $10/minute fine for being late to a meeting with an entrepreneur. So, you are on a really important call and will be 10 minutes late? No problem, just bring $100 to the meeting and pay your fine.”—Another great piece by Andreesen Horowitz founder, Ben Horowitz: Programming Your Culture is a smart take on an important topic, filled with common sense. I also loved this line: “The world is full of bankrupt companies with world-class cultures. Culture does not make a company.”
“Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.”—Simply lovely. In Be Wrong as Fast as You Can, New York Times magazine editor Hugo Lindgren lays it all out on the line, in a first-person confessional with a moral for us all. Now, please excuse me but I must stop procrastinating and reading Everything On The Web and get back to it.
“We must figure out a way to un-invent this food system.”—
Mark Bittman is always worth reading on the topic of food, and I loved this op ed, Fixing the Food Problem, in the New York Times in which he makes the case for both a systematic re-imagining of the way in which the food we consume is produced and distributed and our need to be patient while we do so. Reminiscent of Bill Buxton’s Long Nose of Innovation theory, it also reminded me of a conversation with an executive working on trying to innovate healthcare: laying the foundation is important and unflashy, she told me, when I was trying to figure out a story angle to impress both my editors and readers. As she explained, she wouldn’t be able to give me the all-important results or payoff on which I could hang my story of the progress of her work, because she wouldn’t know them herself for a decade or so. So that stopped me.
We’re all too impatient to see the fruits of our labor. This piece reminds us that every step we take is important, not just the ones when we triumphantly cross the line at the end of the journey. (And, of course, the end is never the end, anyway.)
“You can’t buy your way into being innovative.”—In Believe Yahoo’s tech makeover? Can I interest you in the Brooklyn Bridge? Om Malik explains why he remains unconvinced that, even with the arrival of Marissa Mayer and, yesterday, Max Levchin, Yahoo has a long, hard battle ahead as it tries to regain its mojo. “Ask any 25-year-old young programmer who he or she wants to work for,” he writes. “Yahoo isn’t the name you hear.” Ouch.
“Do you really want to use all your concrete and steel to build parking lots? It seems pretty stupid.”—
Google’s Larry Page steps into the one-on-one CEO exclusive interview ring, in the wake of Tim Cook’s bout with Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Tyrangiel. Miguel Helft’s interview is far-reaching, and while it’s impossible to imagine that the chief of a public company will say anything controversial on the record, there are some interesting insights into the company’s culture and management, including Page’s comment above, related to their focus on developing driverless cars, which reflects a breadth of curiosity and interest one might not attach to an advertising company. The whole interview is well worth a read; here are some of the quotes that stuck out for me:
On internal culture/talent: “We want to do things that will motivate the most amazing people in the world to want to work on them.” Google’s focus on internal talent is pretty legendary. The question that this comment sparked for me, however, is “not on those who actually want to use the products?”
On interoperability and playing nicely with others (especially pertinent in the wake of the Twitter/Instagram bust-up): “I think it would be nice if everybody would get along better and the users didn’t suffer as a result of other people’s activities.”
Echoing my colleagues’ theory of the Innovation Ambition Matrix, Page outlines Google’s commitment of 70% of efforts to incremental innovation, 20% to adjacent projects, and 10% to new-to-the-world ideas. It’s a simple enough theory that is nonetheless super hard to pull off. As he puts it, “it’s actually hard to get people to work on stuff that’s really ambitious. It’s easier to get people working on incremental things.”
On the importance and value of iteration: “If you look at a product, and you say the day it launched, “It’s not doing what I think it should do.” We say, “Well, yeah. It just launched today.”
On the fact that he and his team aren’t even close to done yet: “I have a deep feeling that we are not even close to where we should be.” Well then.
"There are no shortcuts," says London gallery owner Michael Hoppen in this interview with The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan. Finders Keepers is an exhibition of his personal collection, put together over many years of obsessive trawling through the most unlikely places. This commitment, he says, is of paramount importance to building a worthwhile collection (though he also maintains that he collects photographs he likes, not merely those that are likely to rocket in price.)
"If you think you can go to a fair once a year and find a bargain, forget it. I spend so much time going to places where I don’t find anything of worth. That’s the downside, but, like most collectors, I perversely enjoy that as well."
Unknown Photographer, Tornado, USA, 1950s. Courtesy of Michael Hoppen Gallery
I chose three from the 130-image show here. Let me know if you have a chance to visit the exhibition. (Another instance of my slightly wishing I still lived in London.)
“That most existing iPad magazine apps are slow, badly-designed, can’t search, etc. does not mean iPad magazine apps cannot be fast, well-designed, and searchable.”—
The post mortems and “I told you so”s are in full swing for the late Murdoch iPad publication, The Daily, with commenters split on the reasons for its fail. John Gruber (above) has a good piece which does not fall for Felix Salmon’s take that it wasn’t The Daily’s fault it was bulky, slow, and difficult to navigate. Gruber writes: “He’s 180 degrees wrong. All of these problems were entirely The Daily’s fault.” And, he concludes, this is really one more example of the fragmentation of big business as we used to know it: after all, a lean publishing team should be able to thrive on a budget of $5 million a year (though how many of those outfits, employing how many people, would be able to make a living from this, is another question altogether.)
Meanwhile, Twitter’s Michael Sippey flagged a post he wrote after one issue of The Daily, which turns out to have been awfully prescient. “The product doesn’t deliver on two fundamental features of today’s web — community and real-time,” he wrote, which if you ask me neatly nails the issues on the head. I follow the news pretty carefully, and can’t remember a time in which anyone flagged a story from The Daily. However painstakingly written, carefully edited, lovingly designed and beautifully produced, The Daily stories lived in a bubble. And that bubble just burst. iPad publishing will continue, of course, and hopefully those at the head of large organizations with an alleged appetite for innovation will be able to avoid the obvious mistakes next time around.
“There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”—
Fine, I’m a writer, so obviously I’d be taken with Jeff Bezos’s management technique, described in the Fortune cover story, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: The Ultimate Disrupter. Still, there’s something terribly compelling about his habit of forcing the company’s leadership team to sit in silence and read six-page “narratives” before any discussion. As he points out in the quote above, there’s no room for sloppy thinking in a six-page memo. Not one that you want your boss and all your managers to read, at least. The whole of this story is worth a read and all.
Howard Schultz on the "drift towards mediocrity" in the United States
Starbucks’ CEO was a star turn at last night’s event in celebration of Harvard Business Review's 90th anniversary. Schultz has been outspoken about the management of the United States over the past eighteen months, and he didn't hold back in conversation with HBS professor, Nancy Koehn. Acknowledging that it is “somewhat unorthodox and unprecedented” for the CEO of a public company to speak out about government, he was nonetheless unapologetic, training his sights on the current state of the United States and, in particular, the looming fiscal cliff. How is it possible to have got within 34 days of this impending catastrophe? he asked. In whose interest are the politicians working? And, he warned, while not dealing with the fiscal cliff would be catastrophic, the Bandaid-based solution that politicians will likely paper over the crisis is “equally as irresponsible.”
For us to face $16 trillion in debt, with 14 million unemployed, the budget deficit, municipalities declaring bankruptcy… We’re all dressed up here in New York City, we’re getting ready for the holiday season. But America is not the America our parents fought for and promised us. The issue as business leaders, as citizens, is to understand we cannot embrace the status quo.
"I didn’t come here to depress anybody," Schultz added, to rueful laughs from an audience which, it should be said, comprised a classic HBR crowd of senior corporate leaders and management thinkers. "I came to speak the truth." And the truth as Schultz sees it is that national leaders have lost the trust of the people. "Leadership are not putting their feet in the shoes of the American people. They’re putting their feet in the shoes of their own party and extremists. That’s a disaster."
Given the goings-on that Americans (and those who live here) have recently endured in the endless run-up to the Presidential election, it’s hard to disagree. And it turns out it was the election itself that spurred Schultz into voicing his concerns, when he discovered the many billions of dollars set to be spent on campaigning by the candidates and their parties.
I was stunned by that. And once you’re exposed to something so inconsistent with what you believe, the question is, ‘are you a bystander? Do you walk away?’
For Schultz, walking away was not an option, and in 2011 he issued a Starbucks-wide email, Leading Through Uncertain Times, and called on his C-suite friends to boycott campaign donations “till people play nice and move the country forward for benefit of people, not party.” Back at the HBR event, he added:
Everyone in this room, Republican, Democrat, Independent, will agree with this statement: we all know that something is wrong. We absolutely know it. Yet we’re sitting here as if everything is going around like a merry-go-round, like everything’s fine.
"Do you feel alone in this?" asked Koehn of Schultz’s stand against the establishment. Delightfully, Starbucks’s founder was blunt in reply. "Everyone I talked to had a sense of understanding and sensitivity about the issue but they were afraid," he said, as the audience shifted uncomfortably in their seats. "It’s not that I’m alone. I think people do not have the courage to step out right now."
Schultz wasn’t all doom and gloom. Asked to nominate a leader who motivates him, he recommended two speeches by RFK: the "Ripple of Hope" speech given in South Africa in 1966, and the impromptu announcement of the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 (embedded below.) Why these particularly?
Those two speeches define leadership, courage, conviction, what it means to believe in something, what we’re lacking as society around the world… We need to find heroes once again. I don’t think we fully realize how high the stakes are, how we are allowing the greatest nation in the history of the world to drift towards mediocrity. I don’t understand why we are here. We have such greatness, possibilities, and optimism and we’re allowing this to take place.
It was a sobering conclusion, but inspiring to see a leader take a stand on what we all know. President Obama, you should call Mr Schultz into your meetings with business leaders.