Monday, February 21, 2011

CEO as Editor (Jack Dorsey)

I often listen to Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast, but there's a particularly good one this month with Jack Dorsey.  Best known as the co-founder of Twitter, he’s a wonderful speaker: short, clear, to-the-point, with great takeaways like:
“Make every detail perfect, and limit the number of details.”
“Expect the unexpected; and wherever possible, be the unexpected.”
He wraps this in the idea of “CEO as editor”, how leaders should be responsible for the story of their organization: hiring (the cast), internal and external communication, and attracting customers and investors. Apple, he reminds us, is one of the truly great story-telling organizations: their business cycle revolves around events and unveilings.
His talk is about 30 minutes: perfect for a commute.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"If you loved it, you'd be doing it"

Great one-hour video/podcast by Ken Robinson, public education expert.

I liked this part (about 43 minutes in) when he relates a conversation he once had with a musician:

Ken: "I'd love to do what you do."

Musician: "No you wouldn't."

Ken: "What do you mean?  Of course I would."

Musician: "I practice six hours a day and play five times a week. I've been doing this since I was a small boy. I do it because I love it. You like the idea of doing it.

If you loved it, you'd be doing it."

Ken Robinson

Many more great ideas in there about why today's entire education system is misguided and needs to be transformed, not simply reformed.  It's a video, but no slides or anything, so go ahead and listen to it on your commute like I did.

Note: you have to buy a $5/month subscription to Fora.TV to download from the site, but you can get the MP4 file for free if you subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The coming wave of sensors

I want my mobile device to have a ton more sensors. The iPhone’s GPS, compass, gyroscope, and accelerometer are just the beginning. How about some additional built-ins like:

  • Temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, humidity(obvious)
  • Near-field communications (already rumored)
  • Particulates (to measure air pollution)
  • Electromagnetic software radio (to detect and decode short-wave, TV, and anything else in the broadcast spectrum)
Better yet, give me a standardized interface so I can add my own sensors. A big part of the cost of specialized sensing devices is the electronics necessary to make them useful: a CPU/GPU, display, power supply. But my iPhone has all of that already.  Let me plug whatever I want with an easy-to-use, USB-like plug that enables options like:
  • Medical: Blood pressure, glucose, fever
  • Sleep device (like the Zeo)
  • Spectrometer
  • Geiger counter (radioactivity)
  • Weather (wind speed)
  • Radar/sonar/ultrasound
  • Light and optics, for microscopes, telescopes, infrared sensors, etc.
For each of these, the core electronics are cheap and easy-to-manufacture. Of course, more sophisticated and higher-quality industrial grade sensors are also possible at the high end, but think of what happens when millions of people are using them, and there’s a market for great apps to help analyze and aggregate the results.

That’s when things get especially interesting: combine with the rest of what’s on the device.  Now the sensing can happen in the background, as you’re going about your day. With the right privacy protections in place, we can build a map of everyone’s sensing information, updated automatically in real-time.

Remember that the iPhone and Twitter didn’t even exist five years ago, so something like the above revolutions are easy to imagine within the next five years. I can't wait!

Herbert George Ponting and telephoto apparatus, Antarctica, January 1912

Unexpected future history

Most -- maybe all -- of the interesting changes that happen in history are completely unexpected. Well, maybe not completely, and there will always be people after the fact who will claim they knew such-and-such was coming, but history is only interesting to the degree that it marks events you didn't expect.

Twenty-five years is not such a long time.  The mid-1980s is about 25 years ago, yet think of some stunning ways the world is now different:

  • The Soviet Union, Cold War, and all its consequences, not to mention a newly reformed China that was barely alive.
  • Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Microsoft were around but who really knew or cared?
  • Technology: Internet, mobile phones, personal computers, cordless phones, VCRs, digital cameras, home theatre
  • Venture capital, hedge funds, and other forms of finance that now seem routine were much more specialized and rare.
If anything, we'll look back on the early 2010s with just as much amazement over the huge changes.  Here are some examples of things that are nearly certain to happen in the next 25 years:
  • End of the Cuban Embargo (and surge in development and tourism).  Same with North Korea.
  • A major earthquake significantly incapacitates Tokyo.
  • Nuclear terrorism
  • A Chinese recession (3+ quarters of negative growth) and resulting political shakeup
  • Major disease epidemic kills millions of people worldwide
But even without specific events like the above, imagine a world 25 years from now where the following are true:
  • Post-petroleum world that makes the Middle East (and other oil-exporting countries) economically irrelevant
  • Developing countries no longer suffer major casualties from common infectious diseases like malaria and AIDS.
  • Major news organizations like The New York Times or CNN are no longer significant information sources, either because they're out of business or because they're entirely eclipsed by something new.
  • Enrollment in "traditional" colleges and universities plummets as the process of higher education is replaced by something else.
  • The United States no longer has military bases in Japan, Korea, Europe, or the Middle East.
  • A new type of finance (microloans? e-bartering?) is mainstream and common.
I'm deliberately trying to offer examples that are entirely plausible and would seem inevitable in hindsight.  Can you think of others?
future cities

Saturday, February 05, 2011

You're fired

In 1841, the Chinese negotiator Qishan was ordered dismissed and executed for agreeing to a treaty that ended hostilities with the British in exchange for Hong Kong and $6 million in indemnities. Ironically, his counterpart, Charles Elliot -- the guy who out-negotiated Qishan -- received the following letter from his boss, the director at the foreign service, Lord Palmerston [Spence, p.156]

“You have disobeyed and neglected your instructions; you have deliberately abstained from employing, as you might have done, the force placed at your disposal; and you have without any sufficient necessity accepted terms which fall far short of those which you were instructed to obtain.”

I find this oddly inspiring, both because of the way two powerful men were humbled by forces beyond their control, and how we in the future look back and calmly smile at what must have been traumatic at the time.

You're fired!


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Banned in China

I’m not sure most of my non-China friends (whether “real” or “Facebook”) understand what those of us in China must do when we get on the internet. Here is a short list of some things we can’t access from China:

  • Facebook, Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Nearly any blog written by a private individual and hosted on a site like Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, SixApart, etc.
  • Photos (but not the text) on FlickR
  • Photos (but usually not the text) on Wikipedia

If you try to access any of the above, you don’t get a message saying “Sorry, this site is blocked”. Instead, you get something much more sinister: nothing. The first few times you see this you’ll probably just think it’s your computer, or your internet connection. Most other sites appear to work fine –,, Expedia, TripAdvisor—so you might suspect that something’s wrong with just that site. “Is Wikipedia experiencing technical difficulties?”

It’s possible to get around this Chinese interference with the internet, but the solutions are annoying. The most common way is to purchase a subscription to a “virtual private network” or VPN. Essentially, this is a way to connect your computer to another computer someplace else, usually in the US, where internet access is unrestricted. A VPN turns internet access into a two-step process: the web page loads onto an offshore computer, which then feeds it to your computer inside china.

This works, and it’s reliable, but besides the cost (a few dollars a month) and hassle of setting it up, there are a few problems. First, it can be slow, because all the data has to go back and forth across the ocean an extra time (the technical term is “latency”). But worse, it’s not always convenient to install the extra software necessary to get your computer to talk on the VPN. It’s hard to get it to work from an internet cafĂ©, for example, or on a mobile phone or iPad. It can be done – people like me do it all the time – but it’s a pain and requires some technical expertise.

Some people worry that China may close off VPN access, but I think this is unlikely. It would require somebody in the government to manually track every single VPN provider in the world and turn off the IP addresses. That’s doable – the easiest way would be to allow Chinese internet users to only access “approved” sites – but it would be a serious drag on all businesses, which need VPNs to securely conduct electronic payments, for example. But the bigger reason I think the government won’t bother is because there’s little point. Very, very few people in China care that they can’t access these (mostly) English-language foreign sites. Those who do care can afford the modest access fees and endure the technical difficulties. Like most other inconveniences in China, you just get used to it.

From 2010-07-21 001

Re-reading James Fallows and China

I re-read parts of James Fallows’ short book of China essays Postcards from Tomorrow Square because I was trying to remember his conclusions. I respect Fallows because I liked his thesis from the 1980s, when he concluded that America doesn’t need to copy Japan, but rather should be More Like Us.  But since Postcards was among the first of many books about China that I've blitzkrieged my way through since arriving here two years ago, I like reading it again now with more seasoned eyes.

I would summarize his conclusion like this: China is simply too busy holding itself together as it escapes poverty, too busy for America to worry about as a serious rival. Rather than worry, we (Americans) should view China with confidence, helping them avoid some of the natural problems they’ll face on their long road to modernity.

I agree, though I'm probably more uncomfortable than he is with some of the self-destructive behavior of the American government over the past few years, with its emphasis on tougher homeland security, centralization of decision-making, and even Internet regulation -- all of which makes me think the United States is trying harder to become more like China than the other way around.