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Scrolling social media, I’m reminded of this scene in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: She’s engaged. Make everything about that. What kind of dress is she gonna wear? – floggings. What’s the cake gonna look like? – executions. Whose gonna be there? – fear. Blanket coverage. Shove it in their faces.” It’s startlingly accurate. As…

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How to Ride a Bike

Twenty-five years ago I was riding bikes down flights of stairs, and I still do this today. If you ever want to do anything interesting on a bike, you probably want your weight at the back of the bike. Consider the alternative, which is to ride your bike like you ride on a flat surface. This is what happens:

Notice how the weight is all on the seat of the bike. When the bike does something you don’t want it to do, like stop, you still continue going forward. If your weight is on the seat then you have two problems. First, you have no leeway since your weight can only go up to the handlebars before you come off. Second, your arms are at a super high angle to horizontal so they can’t stop you from flying forward while the bike stops.

Now, look at this:

Notice that the weight is pretty far back and the arms are almost parallel to the surface of the ground (which is downhill). This is how you want to ride a bike, if you’re ever drunk and think you want to do something interesting.

Notice here – weight in the wrong place, arms in the wrong place:

Similarly, more stairs with weight and arms all wrong:

So – remember. If you’re drunk and want to do something interesting on a bike, put your weight at the back. Your arms will naturally have to go to the right place (horizontal with the ground).

Eclipse Poster Kickstarter

I just wrapped up the last kickstarter (details here) when the fine people at NASA put out this super accurate map of the eclipse in August. I put together a small kickstarter to print as many as possible (they’re done at cost!), learn more about it out here.

The map is incredibly accurate, right down to using a topographic model of the moon… will be interesting to see if it succeeds!

 

Kickstarter almost funded

It’s very humbling to look at this graph of funding over the last few days for the OpenStreetMap Stats Kickstarter:

I had expected the whole thing to fail, now it looks like it’ll succeed. I was asked once in a job interview about how much failure I’ve recently had. The idea was that if you’re not failing you’re not really trying – if everything is a success then you can’t be pushing the envelope.

I figured asking for $1k for a statistics site that’s relevant to a minority of a minority in the world was going to be too much to ask for. In the grand scheme of things it’s not a whole lot of cash, but still. And yet, here we are.

Speaking of failure, “failure” itself is the wrong way to model how these things work. Scott Adams has called it “having a system” instead of “goals”. Other people have called it “failing forward”. Either way – the basic idea is that whatever happens you want to win. Adams wrote a whole book about this:

In this case, if the Kickstarter fails then I can shut the project down. This for me is a clear win. I get more time and one less distraction. I don’t have to pay for the hosting any more. I also learn that tiny kickstarters aren’t going to work and not to bother trying them again in a similar context.

On the other hand, if it succeeds that’s great too. I can dedicate the time to fix the site, the hosting is paid for and it proves that there are people out there who care about it.

Setting up situations like this can be enormously beneficial – where you win either way. But, it’s still hard since my lizard brain wants to avoid anything that looks like failure and being judged by those who see it in that way.

There are plenty of smart, educated people out there who think Amazon’s lack of profit is a “failure” for example. I think it’s beautiful. For a start, the definition of “profit” is “we have no idea what to do with the money so we’ll give it to you”. Amazon isn’t running out of ideas worth funding. Second, if they spend all the notional profit then they don’t have to pay tax on it and get some percentage advantage via that. Reinvesting in this way for a few decades leads to some spectacular growth.

This all leads to an idea that’s almost too tantalizing to verbalize: Maybe it’s possible to live by doing Kickstarter after Kickstarter? The idea is insanely fun and the implications profound. If it’s possible to raise $1k in a week then that would lead to a $52k/year revenue, supposing you had 52 great ideas. Perhaps more likely are $10k kickstarters every 2-4 weeks, or $100k kickstarters every month or two. With some number of them failing, plus costs, it should still be possible to live using this method.

OpenStreetMap Stats Kickstarter

I’m attempting to raise $1k in a week via Kickstarter to fix the OpenStreetMap Stats site.

The site lets you explore OSM data by country, time and data type:

Sadly it’s suffered bit rot and some countries are broken and not updating. The $1k goes toward fixing, open sourcing and hosting it for a year or two. Else, it gets canned.

So far it’s raised $163 with 6 days to go.

How to Outsource

I shipped a short book on kindle and paperback about outsourcing – how to find people, work with them, divide things up, communicate and so on. This is based on spending years with UpWork, oDesk, elance and other tools. Quite a few people asked me to summarize the best way to use these tools and so I wrote it all up. From the amazon page:

People like you would like to outsource work to those around the globe who can do it faster, better or cheaper than you can.

This book gets you started quickly and teaches you how to think about the work, how to find the right people and how to hire them using tools like UpWork, 99Designs, CrowdSpring and Mechanical Turk.

Along the way you’ll learn best practices and tips so you don’t waste time and money outsourcing the wrong things to the wrong people.

OpenGeoIP

OpenGeoIP is a little project to crowd source IP address locations and I just made a few updates and bug fixes to it. Most IP to geo systems rely on self-reporting in various IP address metadata which can be pretty inaccurate. What we’re doing here is using actual location data from the browser (usually) which means (usually) wifi-inferred or GPS location.

There are two primary routes the project is building data:

  1. There’s a JS API which allows you to fall back to the database. Normally when you ask the browser for location the user can click ‘no’ and you get nothing at all. In this case, you can automagically fall back to crowdsourced data. If the user clicks ‘yes’ then we can use that to update the fail-over data for everyone else. In theory this feedback loop makes the data better for everyone.
  2. Second, there’s a lot of people out there just searching for location data on an IP. There’s a front end which will share out info if you first share yours. Again, this feedback loop should make the data better for everyone.

 

Airbus anti-collision lights part 2

Back in December I wrote about making a portable anti-collision light systems for, say, cyclists using the Airbus scheme.

That first version used a generic full-size Arduino unit. I’ve been miniaturizing it and changing hardware platforms over the last month or so as parts arrive from China. Here’s version 2 below. It adds the tail light, switches to a LiPo battery and uses a trinket instead of an Arduino:

Version 3 moves to an ATTiny85 programmer board:

Version 4 uses just the the ATTiny84 IC and switches to rechargeable AAA batteries. By rearranging components I removed 8 wires and added an on/off switch:

The next step is to put the thing on some strip board and/or design a PCB and case for it. There are a bunch of mixed considerations as the case and PCB layout interact with each other, and I’d like it to be waterproof for helmet mounting for cyclists. The battery type introduces a lot of complexity – a rechargeable lithium cell is probably best but that means integrating the charging cicuitry and having a USB socket on the thing. I have more parts ordered from China to test all of this.

Explore OpenStreetMap Statistics

OSM Stats for Namibia

Ever wanted to explore OSM statistics over time and in depth? OSM Stats is for you. Notice the site asks for your location – this is just to show you your country automagically by default.

The site lets you explore by country, over time, major types of OSM data. The left-hand graph shows you the aggregate count over time, the right-hand graph shows the difference (delta) over the same time period. You can click different data types on the left, change country at the top, and change the time range just above the graphs.

You can find some interesting things. Here’s the default view for the United Kingdom:

What it shows is data growing over time. We like graphs that go up-and-to-the-right. The right-hand graph shows, as expected, the amount of data being added declining over time. This is because there’s less and less to map in the UK as I started the project there.

Compare that to Haiti:

Can you guess what the spikes in data addition are?

Now look at residential roads only in the United States:

Things are declining over time! Where are all those residential roads going? Well a small part of the answer (notice the vertical axis is 2 orders of magnitude less than above) is the growth of living streets in the US:

That’s a small taste of the things you can learn – have fun exploring the site and email me any comments.

The Disappearing Operating System

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace

Over time, intellectual property gets commoditized and competed away to become part of the background noise. It becomes the air we breathe and we forget all about it.

We’re reaching this right now with operating systems and the whole OS platform paradigm is going away. This is very weird for someone who grew up with Windows in the 90’s, Linux in the oo’s and MacOS in the 10’s. The OS used to be important. Defining. It was how you worked and what you did. It defined the box you lived in and how you thought about things.

I’m not talking about “everything is just a website now instead of an app”. I’m talking about how when you use an iPad that the computer itself “goes away”. There are no knobs and levers (keyboard & mouse) on an iPad. The distance between you and your work or content just falls away. The medium is the message.

I now have Windows 10, Mac and Linux machines I use all the time. Using them all for various productive things, there’s almost no difference between them. They all run the same software (everything from Bash to Dropbox to Spotify). They all have minor annoyances. And they’re all free. All three are even converging to look the same.

Now they’re all basically the same, and free, we can stop talking about them. It’s just no longer particularly important.

We don’t particularly talk about how much better my Honda is than your Toyota. Though both companies would have us believe they’re completely different vehicles that are key to our lives, they’re really wheeled metal boxes with essentially identical user interfaces.

And so it is, now, with operating systems. It’s all gone, all that investment and paradigmatic dogma. The OS is completely irrelevant to most people.

This wasn’t true only 12 or 18 months ago, but the gently declining quality of macOS and the ascent of Win10 along with its Linux subsystem has erased essentially all the differences. A Mac has the window buttons on the left, Windows has them on the right. That’s it. That’s the difference.

Picking an OS is no longer a meaningful thing to think about for most of us. If the OS is irrelevant and everything will work, give or take, then the hardware takes the place of software as the decision point. We’re now buying a blue computer or a red computer much as we buy a Honda or Toyota. A Dell and a Mac now have essentially identical hardware, it really comes down to which logo you prefer on the front. Or maybe you prefer the Dell carbon fiber box to the Apple aluminum box.

This is interesting since the choice will become (even more) about marketing than anything else. Your friends have a Mac so you buy one, or the shiny Dell is cheaper and you used a Dell last year. That’s the level of logic going forward.

The fly in the ointment

There is no MS Office for Linux. If there were, the picture would be complete. It’s the one thing missing that would remove the barrier to using Linux.

There is no doubt that Microsoft Office remains far better than its competitors, and is the way the majority of the world works. Individual pieces have some competition, for example Keynote is competitive with PowerPoint and in many ways better. But the suite together, and Excel in particular, remains head and shoulders above anything else available.

This is important since if the OS is irrelevant and we don’t care much about a Dell or an Apple logo on the box, MS Office is the only thing that keeps people away from, say, Ubuntu. I predict Office will come to Linux eventually.

Remember, when you buy a drill you’re really buying holes. Corporate America wants to buy “office machines” or “outlook machines”. The logo on the box isn’t very important. No more important than if your drill is built by DeWalt or Ryobi.

Phones

Desktop operating systems themselves aren’t super important in the context of phones. People spend more time on their phone and they change them faster. But the OS differences remain fairly stark and the switching costs high.

Despite Apple making iOS as confusing as they can with every release, it still remains roughly half as confusing as Android. This isn’t the case between Ubuntu, Windows 10 and macOS. Those three are about equally confusing.

If Android can get less bizarre and/or iOS continues to lose focus the meaningful difference will vanish like it has on the desktop. It took desktops roughly 20 years to erase all their meaningful differences. Phones are there in roughly a decade (iPhone shipped 10 years ago). Maybe watches or whatever comes next will take 5.

In Sum

Don’t think about operating systems ever again. It’s like travel agents – they didn’t just go away, we entirely change how we travelled and thought about travel.

The desk/laptop computer is changing and it isn’t just because of websites or the cloud. It’s a deeper shift toward computers becoming appliances and the battle moving on to new frontiers. It’s not about what fridge you buy but what you put in it.

The OS has been competed away. The next battle to compete away is for any existing key platforms on top. Things like office and search. Of course the real battle is for conversational interfaces like Alexa and other interesting new things. But here, I’m talking about existing key things on top of the OS. The OS is like your window on to the things you’re really doing, those are the things that are up for the chopping block.

Imagine the OS being an iceberg that’s almost melted and there are a bunch of penguins that are on top. The penguins have to start swimming soon.

What are the next monopolies that will get competed away? To repeat, it’s going to be office, search and the other key things like that  which we use every day.

For some reason I don’t understand, office remains without good competition. Open/LibreOffice is a real mess. Apple’s suite is okay for home users. Google Docs is useful for toddlers. I predict this will change and people will start to become serious about making an office suite that doesn’t suck. Because that’s what people are going to be buying a computer for. There are large material differences between these productivity suites, and as for Outlook, you have to squint very hard to find anything close.

As for search, it’s completely different. The delta between google and bing is about 95% marketing. But then we can say the same thing about Coca-Cola and Pepsi. The fragility is very different, Google is super dependent on a single revenue stream and that is less true of Microsoft every new day.

Pithy Predictions

  1. Windows will become “OfficeOS” in spirit if not name.
  2. Office365 will bundle Windows 10 Pro as part of your subscription.
  3. Office will come to Linux (without the Win10 pro stuff) like it came to Mac (basically 99% works but broken edges unless you use the ‘REAL’ office on windows).
  4. Google will be forced to build a real office suite.
  5. Search market share will remain roughly the same indefinitely.
  6. Apple will give up on macOS in spirit if not name since they have no real unique advantage over windows or ubuntu (this is what you’re seeing today).
  7. iOS will continue to get more confusing and Android will get less confusing, maybe crossing in 2019 or 2020 kind of timeframe.
  8. To defend the realm, and because they’ll be out of options, Apple will buy Android and/or Google from Alphabet – there won’t be a lot of options for them by that point. They may frame it as a strategic alliance, or something else that’s a merger in everything but name. As part of this process, the DoJ will force Apple to spin something out after complaints from Amazon and Microsoft.

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