Old Laptops and Moore’s Law

Photo by Bruce Christianson on Unsplash

The slow down of technology surprised me this week.

I’m writing this on an 11 inch MacBook Air made in late 2010. I dug it out of a pile of computers that sat unused for years. I wanted to blog and email while on this trip without taking my heavier, large-screen laptop and my experiment with an iPad failed because I like a real keyboard.

I thought about upgrading to the latest MacBook Air and realized that the fastest new ones are only about 3 times as fast, twice the RAM and about the same storage. While that is good, it is not the pace of change we are used to. This machine made nine years ago is still perfectly fine for writing a blog, browsing the web and handling email. Plus it is smaller than today’s machines (Apple discontinued the 11 inch model), making it perfect for travel.

Think of it. Laptops used to be obsolete after three years. This one is fine after nine!

What is happening? Technology is slowing down. The chips used in laptops and data centers are hitting limits imposed by physics. Clever engineers are still figuring out ways to pack more and more transistors into microprocessors, but they are resorting to weirder and weirder techniques.

In the era when Moore’s law had a clear path into the future, the strategy to increasing the size and speed of computer chips was reducing the size of transistors. Smaller dimensions allowed a smaller and smaller amount of electrons to do the work of computer logic – switching from one state to another at speeds of billions of times a second.

Now chip makers are stacking chips, rethinking the design of chips, computers, and transistors. These are all very clever ideas and some of them will work. But they represent many different strategies for overcoming the Moore’s law slow down.

Moore’s law of the past was not just a curve and a prediction. It was a common strategy embraced by many portions of the entire semiconductor industry. As a result, the benefits of increasing wafer size, decreasing feature size, increasing of clock speed, and a gazillion of other innovations were synergistic.

One little implication of the end of Moore’s law is that I am still typing away on this old laptop. A big implication I worry about is consolidation and ossification of the tech industry. I hope to dig into these ideas more and will keep using this old computer to do it when I’m on the road.

Road Trips and Brain Science

Last week my son and I did a road trip through the Olympic peninsula of Washington state. It was delightful. He created a road trip music playlist with old and new driving songs. It included songs I know like Sympathy for the Devil and songs by Metric. He also had a number of songs I did’t know.

At one point in the drive, he played a podcast of This American Life about Infowars and Alex Jones. I noticed that I got lost in the world of that story. I was drawn into the suspense. I shared the digust and the surprises as I learned of Alex Jones and his anti-christ bullying antics in high school. Every once in a while I would pull away mentally and notice I was no longer in touch with the scene around us. The cliffs, the mist, the lagoons, and the occasional raptor were lost from my awareness.

Listening to the music playlist was a different experience. It was a like a dose of a day dream drug. It tapped into the same feeling I have when purposefully let my thoughts drift. Somehow music enhanced the experience of watching the road go by. The Pacific coast and the trees all seem more interesting and alive.

All this led me to look into the Default Mode Network (DMN) and how it is influenced by music. The DMN is probably the most important “circuit” in the brain that you’ve never heard of. It are activated when you are engaged in self-reflection and empathy. It is also activated when you are day dreaming.

It turns out that, as I suspected, the DMN is deeply engaged when listening to music. Here is an interest snippet of what I learned from a survey article on the topic:

…it was not the genre of music or whether the music had lyrics, but, more important, whether the person liked it, that changed the patterns of brain functional connectivity. Analysis revealed that when a person listens to music he or she prefers, the brain increases connectivity within the Default Mode Network. This supports what people often report: They find themselves considering unsolicited personal thoughts while listening to music that they like. They are essentially ‘looking in’—ruminating on personally relevant memories and emotions—rather than ‘looking out’—paying attention to external events.“Because it is involved in rumination, where new ideas can be formed, it has been suggested that the DMN might influence aspects related to creativity, abstract thought processing, and cognitive flexibility.

How and Why Does Music Move Us?: Answers from Psychology and Neuroscience

OK, so that seems to point to the DMN and daydreaming as connected and triggered by favorite music. What about narrative story-telling?

Well, that also seems to trigger the DMN, according to some studies. Here is a quote from that article:

The default mode network was originally thought to be a sort of autopilot for the brain when it was at rest and shown only to be active when someone is not engaged in externally directed thinking. Continued studies, including this one, suggest that the default mode network actually is working behind the scenes while the mind is ostensibly at rest to continually find meaning in narrative, serving an autobiographical memory retrieval function that influences our cognition related to the past, the future, ourselves and our relationship to others.

So where does that leave us? In the murkiness of science in the process of discovery.

The DMN is plainly a complex thing and we are beginning to decipher what it means for how we think, and how it influences the experience of being a human.

AI’s China Problem

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

AI is increasingly looking like the demented HAL 9000 rather than the Star Trek computer. We can thank China for that.

China has seized on AI as a tool of control. The latest reporting by the New York Times indicates officials have deployed facial recognition specifically designed to profile, track, and control Muslim minorities.

This is different, but related to the threat that China might split the internet. That too is a battle with geopolitical implications, but this one is a greater threat to democracies including our own. China’s embrace of authoritarian technology means we might face those same technologies on our shores. Once a technology is created, it becomes easier to deploy it anywhere. While the first to copy China’s example will be other wealthy autocracies like Russia, Saudi Arabia, those products will become available to any buyer.

What happens when a Sheriff Arpaio type can buy these technologies?

The New Code War

In some ways, this is the inverse of the soft power the US and Europe have enjoyed by creating microcomputers, software, and the internet. Those technologies had ideologies baked into their creation by their libertarian skewing creators. Commenting on a recent Chinese technology trade show, a reporter noted, “If Silicon Valley is marked by a libertarian streak, China’s vision offers something of an antithesis, one where tech is meant to reinforce and be guided by the steady hand of the state.”

We have nothing less than a new war of ideology being fought over the future of technology. Instead of communism v. democracy, this new battle seems to be just a straight up authoritarianism v. liberalism. And the battlefield is code.

The Cold War was a geo-political contest of two countries with different ideologies under threat of a hot nuclear war. This war is about the future of code. We face the threat that our own system of capitalism will undermine our liberal democracies.

Perhaps this is the “new Code War” rather than the “Cold War.” I sense this battle will define our lives for the next many decades.

The New Code War frames a choice. We can seek to build AI and software that is like the computer from Star Trek, a smart assistant to humans that fulfills the vision of liberal democracies. Or we can allow the spread of a demented technology like HAL 9000 that is determined to follow the will of its master, no matter the dissent from mere humans.

Team or Idea?

When I evaluate a potential investment, which is more important?

Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash

The answer, of course, is “it depends.”

Generally, I lean towards team. A great team with a good idea can figure out how to get to a great idea or business. But a mediocre or bad team with a great idea will end up screwing it up. Of course, a great team with a bad idea is also not great.

This is not every investor’s philosophy. Especially as companies get larger and are measured on more traditional metrics of growth, revenue, margins, etc, most investors weigh the team as less important. And this is not irrational. By the time a company has gotten to a Series C or later they have probably figured out a viable venture model or not. At that point, the team is still critical, but it is far, far easier to hire new executives, including the CEO.

There are some VCs who just want to see the traction. Their attitude is, “massive traction is rare, but teams are replaceable.” These tend to be later stage investors.

For early stage investment, the team is crucial. Early ideas are literally embodiments of the teams that create them. I love ideas and I love getting to know people and their inspirations. So I guess it is natural that I tend to early stage investment.

My advice to entrepreneurs is surround yourself with the best people you can find that are also great collaborators. Collaboration EQ is generally more important than individual IQ. Research studies seem to show high functioning teams with diverse view points find better solutions than teams with a sole brilliant person or lots of conflict. Of course, sometimes you just want to build a team around a single genius person. But those are rare exceptions.

As an entrepreneur, you want to be in a category ripe for innovation with a team that can innovate, test, and recognize the signals of success.

The Hierarchy of Capital

Best Sources of Capital to Grow a Business

Only a tiny percentage of companies raise venture capital or should. Because it is one of the most exciting categories it gets more attention than other approaches. For most small businesses, other forms of capital make more sense.

I give this advice to entrepreneurs often:

Think of capital to grow your business as a hierarchy, starting with the cheapest to the most expensive.

The first source of capital to grow a business is money from your customers. Nobody will ever care about a product more than a customer or potential customer. Are you selling power bars? Make a few dozen and find some people to buy them. After that, find a few hundred, then a few thousand. Are you selling complicated technology that takes millions to build, like an electric car? If customers want it badly enough and the solution is good enough, perhaps a few will pay advances or put down deposits. Kickstarter and similar services have made this sort of capital easier to raise than ever. For more mature companies there are ways to get capital up front for purchase orders and receivables.

Second, consider government. There are often many sources of capital or loan guarantees to help small business. The Small Business Administration is a potential resource. For technology companies doing deep technology, government agencies like NSF, DARPA, NIST, DOD, and government labs are often great ways to prove out a basic technology. Yes, it can take a long time to get through the process, but it is a really cheap source of capital.

Third, think about debt. Obviously an early stage company will not get a loan from a traditional bank without a personal guarantee from the entrepreneur. I do NOT advise entrepeneurs to go into personal debt to start companies. While debt can be really hard to secure, think about customers, suppliers, and others who have a stake in your success. They might be willing to take the risk when traditional sources would never do it.

Finally, consider venture capital if, and only if, you have a company that meets all these criteria:

  • Addressing a big problem that translates to a large market opportunity (at least a billion dollars a year in revenue within 10-20 years)
  • Has the opportunity to build a strong differentiation from competitors immediately
  • The differentiation can grow over time, creating barriers to entry
  • You and your co-founders are willing to accept dilution and are willing to give up some control of your company. Also, you need to be prepared to potentially give up full control over decisions like sale of the company, future money raising, and who is the CEO.

This is the sort of company that can make money for venture investors. We are looking for a future when the company is growing rapidly (revenue growth of 50-300% a year) and has large margins (more than 30%, ideally more than 50%). And future investors or acquirers of the company expect that growth to continue.

If, instead, you forsee a company with very predictable profits and steady but slower growth, there are other sources of non-venture equity that might be better. These are the conditions that companies like restaurants and commercial real estate experience. They have different funding structures and different types of investors.

Each of these steps can build credibility for the next. A company that has already sold some product at a profit, has a loan from a supplier or customer, and has won a competitive government grant or contract is way more attractive than a raw startup of some people and an idea. This is especially important for ideas that are either the bleeding edge or categories that might be out of favor. Why? Because all those points are validation that you are solving something important.

If you are having trouble raising venture capital, try re-thinking how you could raise from a category higher in the hierarchy. That might all you need. Or it might set you up for venture capital in the future.

What is Making San Francisco Drivers into Jerks?

Have you noticed people are honking and driving more aggressively in San Francisco the last year or so?

We did not used to be jerks on the roads. When I moved here 22 years ago one of the noticeable differences from Washington DC was the way people drive. People here dovetailed at the merge. We waved to say thanks when people let you in. And we did NOT honk, at least not because you are pissed off. I even noticed that I used the bird way less often.

I have often wondered why. Learning to drive in the Washington-NYC-Boston corridor, it was a dog-eat-dog world. Other drivers wouldn’t let you merge and I saw and flew the bird a lot more often. I took it for a metaphor for a more cooperative spirit of the west.

Yesterday, I was letting a pedestrian cross in San Francsico and the guy behind me in a bright new, red pickup honked at me. After months of hearing this kind of behavior, I honked my horned, yelled at him, flipped the bird, and then did it all over again, this time ranting “M*****F***er!!!”

Now I was part of the problem. Sure, he was in the wrong. You don’t honk at someone who has stopped to let a pedestrian cross. But still. Perhaps he hadn’t see the pedestrian? I didn’t think about that. I was clear in my outrage. I know how I feel on the receiving end of my behavior. Let’s say it does not result in cooperation.

What is happening to us? I recent editorial called us all out for feeling good in our outrage. We revel in our stew of strong convictions that Trump is a crook, or not; that climate change requires action now, or not; and the the other side “just doesn’t get it.”

Perhaps that is it.

My wife speculated that rideshare drivers are especially pissed off at the societal injustice of their situation. That our street level outrage and honking is embodiment of the battle of haves and have nots. The street and a horn. Now that is level playing field.

Whatever the cause, I really hope the streets of San Francisco is not turning into the angry streets of the east coast.

The Need for Boredom

Photo by Arun Sharma on Unsplash

It is almost impossible to be bored today, yet I sense we need it more than ever.

It was only 12 years ago when the iPhone was launched, I was reminded recently, and the killer app was … making a phone call. But we all know what happened after the app store opened a year later. The forces of innovation and capitalism were unleashed and small companies given a way around the bigger companies like Apple, Verizon, & Google got out of the way — we have had a flood of apps that vie for our attention.

That innovation was mostly a good thing. But we now have, like no other time in history, the ability to fill our time with diversions 24×7.

I find a need to enforce boredom through pomodoro breaks and with media fasts. When I do, my days are better.

Most important, I credit my structured boredom for helping revive my sense of wonder and imagination. Often I set a timer for five minutes and look out at the trees, the clouds, and birds. I find myself wondering about nature, thinking about my place in the world, and how lucky I am to be alive and well in this bright and amazing world. I wonder about the humming bird and it’s aerial display. I am amazed by clouds. It results in deep thoughts about technology and my potential futures.

Of course, It is not always beautiful and deep like that. Sometimes, I drift off on a mini nap, or find myself fretting about some small thing. It also results in small thoughts like, “will that bird eat some of the mosquitos please?” But most of the time it is an unexpected delight of my day.

We all need more positive, structured boredom in our lives to push back against the relentlessness of productivity and anxiety of get-it-done-ism.

Software is special

Boeing airplanes crash killing hundreds. Facebook is exploited to create domestic turmoil. Volkswagen cheats out of emission standards, poisoning millions. We worry about manipulation of voting machines, autonomous vehicles, drones, and any number of devices including our garage door openers. The common thread of these modern anxieties is software.

In the history of human inventions, software is unique. Unlike any other modern invention, software is infinitely malleable. Software is a tool that allows you to make almost anything that can be expressed as rules or logic. That was first done in big calculation machines, then in desktops and smartphones. Now, as processors are deployed into everyday objects, software effects almost every aspect of modern life. Along the way, those software rules went from being really fancy calculators to determine orbits and actuarial tables, to determining the way we communicate, shop, socialize, eat, get electricity, and buy a loaf of bread. Not since the invention of written language have we smart humans come up with such a flexible invention.

It has been said that “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” It is a way of looking at technology that recognizes that it is a two way street. In the case of buildings, we have a lot of flexibility in the design, but then we have to live with the consequences for decades. Compare that with software, especially modern web based systems like Facebook or Google. These sites are literally changing every day, every hour, with many different versions operating at the same time depending on the user, the location, and time of day. These algorithms are designed to make their human users’ lives easier and more convenient.

Compare this to the state of affairs with a nuclear reactor. There isn’t a lot of flexility in the design of a nuclear reaction. Do it the wrong way and you have catastrophe. Do it the right way and you have a powerful way to make energy. In order to make that technology perform for us, we develop extensive social systems. Organizations responsible for planning, operations, oversight, regulation. Nuclear reactors don’t care if the team responsible for its operation and safety get annoyed at the repetition of their tasks. If a politician decides he wants nuclear reactors in every household, the laws of physics will not adapt to his desires.

“So what?” you might say. Why does it really matter?

The default way of thinking of technology is that it is delivered to us and we have to react to its arrival. Westinghouse designs a nuclear reactor and we live with the consequences. But the reality for software, and the vast variety of things it controls, is it encodes the demands and wishes of those who control it. What if that was different?

The idea that that software is malleable is the beginning of realizing that we, as a society, as a democracy, and as a people, have a role in shaping its future. Today we still accept the software of Facebook, Boeing, Diebold, and Volkswagen is merely a product of those companies and our control over it is limited. Once we internalize the plasticity of software, we will demand more of the software that is increasingly controlling our lives.

Gratitude Chain

Can we bring spiritual beauty to the internet?

I have an idea that I’m working on. It is inspired by my daily gratitude practice. Every day I think of three things I’m grateful for. I do it in the morning when I plan my day and most evenings after I get in bed. I often write them down.

I thought, “what if there were a way to preserve gratitude?” I realize that prayer serves this function for many. It is a way to have gratitude and hopes sent out to a supreme power, hopefully to be acted on, but at minimum to be listened to and accepted in an eternal way. What if there was a way to preserve gratitude and hopes with the cooperation of humanity.

New technology, specifically peer-to-peer and blockchain, can do this. With these technologies, we can create immutable records. And those permanent records don’t depend on the whims of Facebook or whether your hard disk is backed up. It really just comes down to whether other people are willing to help keep your data.

Gratitude chain is a new way to practice gratitude that uses the immutability of a blockchain to allow expression of gratitude and hope to last forever.

Gratitude has been shown in many studies to be one of the most effective ways to improve a sense of well being. By making it easy and fulfilling to build a gratitude habit, Gratitude chain aims to improve human well being.

For millennia humans have expressed their gratitude and hopes to deities with the expectation that their feelings will be heard, preserved, and hopefully acted upon. Science teaches that these feelings have the power to improve the experience for the people who practice gratitude, regardless of whether they believe in a supernatural diety.

Today’s blockchain technology allows us to create a human-driven way for our gratitude, hopes, and prayers to be cultivated and preserved.

Gratitude chain is a practice of collaboration with the rest of humanity to perpetuate and preserve gratitude and hopes of the world.

I think it is a beautiful idea. The question is whether we can both make it real and make it genuinely useful.

Quickest Path to Prototype

I recently had the opportunity to do a workshop lead by Tom Chi, a co-founder of Google X. He described the techniques he helped hone there to rapidly innovate on moonshot ideas. His stories are astounding:

 — Project Loon, an audacious effort to bring cell service to remote parts of earth, was able to prototype and have 4 test sites up and operational within four months, using just five people and $70,000 in material costs

 — The first prototype for Google Glass, the heads up computer display, was developed within hours after the brainstorming session where it began.

 — The 1st meeting for Google X resulted in Google Glass, the diabetic sensing contact lens, and a new AI that is semi-supervised machine learning.

While there is much more to his method, it boils down to getting to something that can be put in front of stakeholders quickly and getting feedback. I call it “quickest path to prototype” or “QPP.” What distinguishes a QPP is speed and reliance on materials and tools at hand in order to getting ideas in front of customers, investors, or other people who have a stake in the outcome. It is also a way of getting decisions out of the conference room and in front of customers and other stakeholders.

The idea of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a good one. It is part of the ideas of lean startup developed by Steve Blank and Eric Ries. The MVP method says build the smallest portion of a product to get it out in to the hands of real users. 

But let’s face it. Even an MVP takes considerable time, attention and money.

A QPP, meanwhile, can be created in a day. And once you have an initial QPP, the idea is to iterate and create another and another and another. Then, once you have something that is really resonating, only then do you commit resources to get to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). 

If you follow lean startup and pivot or persist every 3 months, you can only try 3–4 ideas before your run out of money. With this approach, you can try 3–4 ideas in a day. The key is to maximize the rate of learning and dramatically minimize the time to try things.

A prototype need not be a physical thing. Tom has a story of Schneider Electric, a large global company with a problem with executive turnover. They had several ideas to address the problem. At a retreat of the country CEOs (there are many), he asked for their best idea, which had taken two years to develop. He had them prototype it right away. The “prototype” was a role play of a typical situation that resulted in executive turnover — a meeting where a COO is told he will not get the CEO slot. The COO was played by one of the other CEOs, many of whom had been COOs in the past. Once they actually put themselves in the role through “prototyping” they found their favorite idea was a loser. He had them continue to brainstorm and prototype and eventually they found a solution that was sucessful.

Don’t Guess. Learn. 

Don’t Fail. Learn. 

-Tom Chi

Tom also has a structure for brainstorming that I like:

Ideally with 3–5 people

60 seconds — explain problem in detail

120 seconds — silently generate ideas on paper, then

60 seconds — share the craziest and most boring

30 seconds — select one to prototype

8 minutes — make a prototype … The time limit requires that the team divide and conquer; think with your hands; make the prototype situational like a movie set; the more detail the better, but quickly

There! In less than 15 minutes you have a prototype that can be put in front of people.

Evaluating a prototype also has some simple rules:

Find a person who is not part of the prototyping group

The prototyping team just sets the scene as if it is a movie set — Who is the evaluator playing, Where are they, What is their motivation

Do not direct action or defend what happens — after the scene starts, just observe 

Someone should take written notes

Another should be ready to record with video or audio

Instructions for the evaluator:

  1. Behave as if it is taking place RIGHT NOW
  2. TALK OUT LOUD as you experience it

Worthwhile to run the prototype with a variety of people

  • consumer
  • investor
  • content creator
  • partner

The importance of intensity.

Tom points out that the worst reaction to a prototype is not “I hate it” but “Meh.” The brilliant insight is that a negative reaction is almost as good as a positive one. It is like the idea hate being closer to love than indifference. At least you care. He uses the language of the “bright spots” and finding them is the key, even if the idea / prototype is a failure.

At the end, video the 30–60 sec summary just of the bright spots (positive or negative)

Here is a video of Tom explaining the process for Google Glass and his vision of expanding the possibilities for humans to learn: