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Things Get Weirder The More You Study Them

I’ve been struggling to articulate my problem with science with some friends. Not in the sense of chemtrails or the modern world being inherently bad or something, not the idealized science that exists in peoples minds. The problem with real science as practiced by human beings. I have three lines of problems with any science outside experimental physics where there’s an actual reality to test things against.

My friends, to set up a straw man, believe in diligent, hard-working and often well-paid scientists. They possibly wear white lab coats and run experiments. There’s a selection process which somehow funnels the best scientists to the best problems where they Learn Results. These Results are then disseminated to the populace so we can all live better.

So, my problems with this:

First, it’s a giant circle jerk. Having worked in academic environments I’ve seen firsthand how much BS is produced. Most published papers are now not cited by anyone at all, ever. It’s become a write-only medium. So we can throw away 80-95% of academic output and on one level this is fine, it’s okay to frame academia as a place to experiment with a low chance of success. Almost no science studies are double, triple or quadruple blind which is what it would take to actually prove something tentatively in some small domain.

Second, Kuhn. I’ve seen up close highly paid smart people not see the wood for the trees. We have to wait for people to die for progress to happen.

Third, scientism and the application of science in the wrong places. Scientism is where we make things look science-y because of reasons. The application is much more insidious. Consider type-2 diabetes. We study the heck out of it and have scienced our way to artificial insulin which is great for T1 diabetics. Think of all those highly paid and smart researchers figuring out how to make insulin and getting past the FDA. The years and billions of dollars. But for T2, it just slowly kills you. It has enabled a vast number of people to begin and then keep their diabetes rather than solve the problem which is high insulin. Dr Fung points out the insanity of treating high insulin with more insulin, and the first sentence of his first book is “why are there fat doctors”? After all, doctors are smart, highly motivated, diligent and well paid so you can’t just say it’s bad morals, lack of information or laziness.

Today I caught this study about how much Titanium Dioxide diabetics have in their pancreas. Great work, good for them. But there’s something wrong. Again we have smart, motivated and paid researchers off studying some third or fourth-order effect instead of trying to fix the basic problem of diabetes. That problem happens to be also the biggest problem in retail medicine today – obesity predicts almost everything about your health outcome and we’re all obese or nearly there.

To avoid this human problem, we need to keep asking the five whys.

I love science the same way I love the idealized point, line, square or cube. They can only exist in our heads, just as science can only really exist in our heads. When it meets reality, we study causation the wrong way around, publish nonsense or study some downstream effect. And that’s before we use the scientific method to figure out how to make problems worse, like we did with insulin, along the way congratulating ourselves for our techno-scientific progress. Look at all the science the Russians used to copy the Shuttle or Concorde.

It’s like a drug addict who has a unknowing subconscious desire for a drug. They’ll use a vast amount of higher cognition and action to procure the drug and to logically prove to themselves why they need it. These higher-level faculties – the rational mind – are the servant to, not the master of, our subconscious. In the end though, it’s often-if-not-always a subconscious motivation that needs to be compassionately fixed to heal the problem. Throwing the logical downsides of drug addiction at an addict all day long doesn’t work at all.

Ah, but vaccines! And Boeing 787s! And particle accelerators! Of course – there are useful outputs of science-as-practiced-by-humans. Most of us wouldn’t be alive without them, that’s not the point. It’s that this is a tiny minority of science-as-practiced-by-humans and if anything were probably lucky accidents. After all, the guy who invented washing hands (which we all do 10 times a day now) was thrown in a lunatic asylum and died there for it discovering it and then trying to tell people about it! What a clown!

But that is ancient history, right? We’re better now!

I was walking around San Francisco once with a friend when I expressed a desire not to be caught downtown during an earthquake. He assured me that we were safe from collapsing structures since we probably now had “new concrete” that was probably much more earthquake proof. What a wonderful story! Look how easily we can invent narratives! I want some of this “new concrete” for my house! Plus, some buildings had survived previous earthquakes and were likely to be fine. Or were they weakened by previous earthquakes? Or maybe this “new concrete” if it exists has some fatal flaw. We will simply never know, we have to wait for the next earthquake to find out. And yet, here in the richest country in the world with scientists everywhere we can still build bridges that collapse as soon as you install them.

Lastly, there are real limits on our knowledge. First, Cantor’s diagonal slash puts real limits on what we can prove about anything. Cantor is why we remember Godel and Turing – it’s foundational to the computer you’re using to read this with. Second, we can’t even measure the length of a coastline thanks to fractals – as you measure things using smaller and smaller rulers the total measured length can tend to infinity!

These aren’t toys or silly extremes, they cut to the very heart about what it is possible to know (at least, using the systems of knowledge we have) even if we’re perfect and diligent science robots, let alone human beings. And, that’s only two of the constraints. There are more! In order to avoid these problems we have to limit any knowledge we try to build to small buckets of time, space and energy. Because if you study things too much, it gets very odd just like the transition from Newton to wave-quanta in physics. The more we try to pick apart reality using what we know about the human-scale world, the more odd it gets from our perspective. If you try to include the far past or future in your knowledge it all falls apart (the big bang, the heat death of the universe). If you try to include the very fast or very slow, it all falls apart (do I need to mention relativity?). If you try to include things very small or very large, it all falls apart (quanta or dark matter).

What do we do with all this? I have a clue. I’m writing a book about it, sign up to stay in the loop. You’ll only hear about the book, infrequently.


How Amazon is Winning

This week is re:invent, Amazon’s AWS conference in Las Vegas. They’ve been shipping new products about once every 15-30 minutes it seems this week. Everything from magic AI cameras to container management to new databases.

As the announcements keep coming it’s easy to feel disoriented, which may be exactly the point.

John Boyd

I’ve been re-reading Certain to Win, Chet Richards book about Boyd’s OODA loop applied to business. The essential idea is to create disorientation, confusion and withdrawal in your enemy while promoting harmony, speed and effectiveness in your own organization.

It takes a book or three to more fully understand how to do this, but at a high level:

  • The faster you can execute, the less able an enemy is able to predict your movements and counter them.
  • In order to know what to execute you need to:
    • Observe the situation,
    • Orient yourself to it using your knowledge (and possibly just act based on instinct, skipping the Decide step) and,
    • Decide what to do.

To get there as a large organization you need decentralized command. There’s simply too much going on to keep track of everything and plan. To get decentralization, you need a bunch of trust between people.

It looks like Amazon gets its trust from their principles: A fairly concise set of deciders on how to act. It can be used to some extent to resolve situations without referring to management (and therefore politics, I guess). For example, number one is customer obsession. You can use this to decide on something, a feature say, by asking if it’s good for the customer. You’d be surprised how often product managers might want to do things that work badly for customers.

This acts as the implicit guidance & control that goes from Orient to Act, skipping Decide. Or at least, it makes many decisions speedier and easier.

Speaking of speed, there’s another principle titled “Bias for Action”.

Certain to Win includes an anecdote about Yamaha trying to compete with Honda in the motorcycle market, the “Honda-Yamaha War” as it became known. Yamaha declared they’d build a huge bike factory presumably to reduce per-unit costs. Honda countered by producing about ten new bike designs for sale per month.

This huge iterative speed and innovation (trying things at random very fast) beat out Yamaha’s economic strategy of reducing costs and flooding the market. It’s the difference that Thiel tries to get across in Zero to One; the difference between building something new the first time and then copying it. Yamaha, I posit, was trying to out-copy while Honda was trying to create the new thing. Out-copying doesn’t work.

And thus with AWS and the whole of Amazon.

The bewildering speed of new products doesn’t make sense if you’re a competitor trying to keep up by copying. It’s too difficult to keep up and the environment is changing too rapidly. This is how a fast OODA loop works, by setting the timing of the battlefield. The timing, the cadence, is set here by Amazon at a rapid rate. In war, you want to be in the same place with your assets: Your tanks should be moving around and changing so fast that the speed hinders your enemies very understanding of what is happening. It just doesn’t make sense what is happening.

I can’t think of a better analogy for what Amazon is achieving here, whether or not OODA has consciously been deployed internally. If you look, Amazon quietly launches products all the time like this, re:invent isn’t a special case. The only special cases which come to mind are the Kindle and Kindle Phone launches, which if I had to bet, probably act as negative datapoints internally at Amazon anyway. Why do a big launch? My bet is they figured out it wasn’t necessary, they have their homepage and it works just as well.

Amazon will continue to win for as long as their cadence outstrips their rivals. The more rivals try to copy or model it in to simple narratives like having a great website, warehouse robots or other things which are the result of the cadence, they’lll continue to lose. As soon as they start focusing on copying Amazons DNA instead of Amazons products, they’ll win. Much like various cities try to copy having big buildings and airports, just like New York, instead of copying the free market or the US Constitution.

Incidentally, this is why I think Microsoft is doing well right now. The Windows Insider Program is testing out tons of things all the time:

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.


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.

Amazon’s Phone Failure

Ben Thompson wrote an interesting piece on Amazon here explaining the awesomeness of Alexa. I quote:


Amazon made the same mistake as Facebook: convinced it needed its own operating system and the direct access to users that entailed, the company made one of the worst phones in history.

There are two issues here:

  1. The post-hoc narrative about how amazing Amazon is to do Alexa but terrible to do the Fire Phone is just post-hoc narrative. In reality both were just experiments, both worth trying.
  2. It wasn’t a failure.

Amazon isn’t driven by the same kinds of narratives of success and failure that other companies generally are. It’s all about experimentation and while the v1 phone lost a boat load of money, they’ll just be back with another one. Amazon right now is selling discounted phones bundled with the amazon ecosystem of apps on them. This is just a very quick and cheap way of testing to see if the market exists.

Amazon already had the operating system for a phone from the Fire tablets. Making a high end phone with experimental features was worth a try.

The only real mistake here is Amazon taking so long to come back with another phone, because there’s a market for it. The time lag is probably from blowing up whatever group(s) made the phone within Amazon and waiting for new ideas to coalesce.

Apple is doing strange and confusing things at the top of the market with their various hardware decisions. Software-wise, iOS continues to get more complicated. The benefit is that if I buy an iOS device then I know it will mostly work.

This security doesn’t exist with Android for Joe Consumer. Without effort, we have no idea what Android device to buy or whether it will work. Who knows which Samsung or Moto device I need and whatever version of Android they’re shipping this week, with what modifications?

Enter Amazon.

If they want, Amazon can ship a cheap, reliable phone with the brand security of Amazon. You’ll know it will work, because it’s Amazon. It’ll just work, like your kindle JustWorks(TM). Amazon can reduce the complexity of the device by using FireOS, because all that work is already done for the tablets.

They can price it at $99 pretty soon due to the various hardware costs dropping and they’d sell millions of them.

The argument against all this would be another Amazon principle – customer obsession. It may make a lot more sense to put resource on new projects where you can define everything (like Alexa) as opposed to making yet another phone where they have no customers today anyway. Reading the tea leaves, this points to those discount Moto devices being a great way to get data to make a decision with fewer nice anecdotes.

For a very similar set of reasons, Microsoft has opportunity at the top of the market to ship what I speculatively call the Office Phone. People have been calling it the Surface Phone but what Enterprise wants to do is basically run Office cheaply. An office/surface phone that runs real windows, probably with the ARM x86 emulation, that connects to a keyboard and display, will allow enterprise to give staff one device instead of 2 or 3 and the security of MS Office.

Designing & 3D printing a coffee mug


Intex make these above-ground swimming pools for about $80. For some reason, I like the edge curvature of the water pressing on the side of the pool wall. Look at the extreme left and right of the pool, that’s what I’m talking about. There must be some nice mathematics behind describing that curve. I have this fantasy of making a coffee mug out of it.

I made this horrible image by cutting and pasting:


One issue is that all the pictures of these pools are from above them, it’s hard to get one edge-on. But, the horrible picture gets the idea across.

As a next step I hired a wonderful architect and designer to help turn the thing in to a 3D model:


From there, some photo-realistic renderings:


This was evolved a little in to something printable. Shapeways lets you print in some beautiful porcelain materials. Here’s a screenshot of the thing on shapeways:


The shape ways materials are nearly sublime. Here’s a sample of ceramic in Cobalt Blue, which is what I’ve ordered the mug in:

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-50-31-am This, I stress, is only version one of the mug. There are a number of things to work through; the size, the wall thickness, the handle, the curve shape and so on. By 3D printing it, I can play with an actual copy.

And so can you, if you want. By clicking a few buttons, you can buy one on shapeways:

It is kind of expensive to print in 3D relative to buying a mass-produced mug at a store, but way cheaper than it used to be to prototype things. Really, it would be near-impossible for me to go do this without shapeways.

My copy of the mug should arrive in a couple of weeks, and I’ll post an update then on what the version 2 iteration will look like.

The Herpes Theory of Government

A new virus tends to kill everything it touches. Think Ebola. Big news, hazmat suits, death everywhere.

If a new virus doesn’t kill everything then it probably isn’t a new virus, and it certainly isn’t news. Therefore for you to know about it, it has to kill everything, otherwise you’d never hear about it. The same way you don’t hear about the nuclear war that didn’t happen yesterday.

It’s a problem if a virus kills everything. I mean of course, for the virus.

For a virus to survive it has to hop around and reproduce by finding new victims. If it doesn’t, then it dies along with it’s host. So it can’t be too deadly because then it’ll never spread.

A virus has to find a sweet spot where it can come along for the ride and kill you but not before you help it find someone else to infect. Ideally, it should be so benign as to never kill you. That way it can infect everyone you meet. Yay!

So the virus starts off by being very deadly. Through mutation and evolutionary selection new strains will appear. Some will be even more deadly! And some won’t.

The ones that aren’t as deadly will spread more since they have more time to spread before killing you. Over time they get less and less deadly.

And thus we arrive at Herpes. We’ve lived with variations of Herpes for millions of years. Over a billion people have the nice version (cold sores). Two thirds of the world has had some kind of Herpes.

It starts off killing everyone and being very unpleasant. Imagine how much fun the not-nice version of Herpes would be for you, living in 1690 or whatever. Then over time it evolved in to something basically benign – cold sores.

Cold sores (Herpes Simplex) have no cure and no vaccine. You’re stuck with it. It’s kind of annoying, but it doesn’t kill you or render you permanently unattractive to the opposite sex.

And thus to government.

Governments used to basically kill everyone. Think kings and queens and Napoleon. Big wars, random reasons for those wars, lots of death. Let’s all build a bunch of ships and kill people.

Over time, government has figured out that if you keep killing everyone then it gets hard to have anyone left over to tax. This is just like a virus evolving to be benign.

Government evolved from arbitrary rulers and rules in to modern democracy. Government no longer kills everyone all the time, but just taxes people instead in a far more stable symbiotic relationship.

There are still random flare ups, just like Ebola: Occasionally governments (especially far away stupid governments) will randomly kill everyone like Venezuela or Syria in their own ways are doing today. But on average, they’ve evolved to exist with their citizens in benign partnership.

I’m not sure how much farther the analogy can be pushed, but it’s an entertaining thought experiment.

Highlights on Sully & that A320 on the Hudson

A320 on the Hudson

A320 on the Hudson

The Sully movie (based on the book) is out in just over a week which prompted me to read the NTSB air accident report (warning, nearly 200 pages long). In university I used to read these things all the time for some reason.

There are some interesting things in there. Here’s the map of passenger evacuations:

Passenger evacuations of US1549

Passenger evacuations of US1549

I’ve modified it from the vertical image in the NTSB report. Nobody goes out the back as it was flooding. Most people go for the nearest exit apart from at the back. First, there was that water coming in the back and secondly crowding at the over-wing exits blocked them. Crew told people to skip to the front, by climbing over seats.

Interestingly, and by chance it seems, the aircraft was equipped for flight over water. Most people didn’t grab seat cushions, and a lot of them couldn’t get the life vest on. Nine people fell in the water.

I’m not sure if that includes the first person out the L1 door (the one you get on the plane through typically). That person jumped straight in to the water and that slide took ~20 seconds or so to begin inflating.

The water was just above freezing and the survivability for that is measured in single-digit minutes for your average human.

The slides are designed to hold 55 people absolute max. The aft slides were out of action so that leaves 110 spots for 155 people on board. They could use the over-wing evacuation slides for flotation right? You’d think so, but not quite. They’re attached to the airframe and would have sunk with it. One of the recommendations of the report is to fix that.

Everyone was off within ~20 minutes of the forced water landing. Injuries? Only a few.

Brace, brace, brace

Brace, brace, brace

The recommended brace position put peoples arms up on the seat in front of them. On landing everyone is thrown forward and a couple of peoples arms suddenly had to take the load of them at impact deceleration plus, presumably, some load from passengers behind them. Their arm went up in to their shoulder and broke it. Apparently two passengers had very similar fractures as a result.

As an aside, if you look around there’s not a whole lot of good information on what to do for brace position. Other than not be in a crash, of course.

One flight attendant had a nasty gash on the leg when a beam apparently broke through the floor but didn’t notice it until off the aircraft.

Apparently the NTSB sensor transcripts:

I’m gonna just call this guy directly cause I don’t think this OPS guy knows what the # he’s doin.

This is mentioned on the ground way before anything bad happens. It happens again later as you might expect. As ever in these things, everything is remarkably normal until it suddenly isn’t.

You can read the book and here’s that movie trailer:

Why I like what3words

When I first came across w3w I had the same reaction many people do – I just didn’t get it.

The idea is pretty simple. Give every 9ft square on the planet three words. So right now I’m at spite.nearly.maps which is a hotel next to SFO. Or hills.boost.oldest is somewhere in England.

There are people out there for whom location is a daily problem. Firefighters trying to find a hydrant. Police trying to find one another. Delivery drivers trying to find the right door. The billions of people who don’t have an address system. For people like that, having some kind of location system makes obvious sense. It’s not hard to help them understand the value of w3w since they spend half their life looking for “the green door half way down on the left.” At 3am. In an emergency.

For most other people we only have this problem occasionally. First you live somewhere where there are addresses. Second you have a phone. But you still have situations where your friend can’t find you in a crowd. Or you go to the doctor and their address is on A Street but the entrance is on 1st Avenue. It doesn’t happen that often so you don’t think of it as a big deal.

But it actually is. If you multiply out all that wasted energy it’s going to end up as billions of dollars of wasted time and gasoline. Just think of every time the secretary has to explain to the new patient that the entrance is on a different street, every day for years. In just one doctors office.

Then in the mapping world, and the computer world, we think this is easy. It’s just latitude and longitude. Or at worst, it’s just a geohash. This is true whenever you have two computers talking about location. If we both have phones, then they can just swap location data off the GPS. Yay.

But here’s the thing. First – where humans are involved you want something simpler. And second geohashes are terrible for actual location when a human needs it.

Geohashes and lat/longs have a bunch of downsides for humans. They’re difficult to remember, bordering impossible. They’re ambiguous – if you get a number wrong then there’s no way to check. And of course everyone has their own hash system.

If you want to design a system that anyone can use and remember, three words is actually a pretty good solution.

  • You can remember three words
    • Shorter words are used near population centers to help this
    • Homonyms are removed (sail, sale)
    • Negative words are removed
  • There’s built in error correction
    • Similar sets of words (e.g. spite.nearly.maps and spit.nearly.maps) are in very different places, so it’s clear there is a problem
  • You can say it over a phone or radio
    • No “b like banana” to spell some strange code out
  • It doesn’t take a lot of cognitive function
    • It’s just three words, not some complicated looking thing that I might mistake a 1 for a 7 or something

If you look at the hashes that have existed in the past they tend to be some code for location like ‘dy32gE@3’. The technologist solution to this problem is “make an algorithm, make it open, we’re done!”

But the value is much less in just making any old algorithm and declaring the problem solved. The actual value here is first, to build a great algorithm for people, not just for PhDs in Mathematics. Second, to market it.

Because that’s where everyone kind of just gave up. There’s this fantasy that if I make something open and put it on the internet that somehow, via magic, people will use and build upon it. But people don’t. Mostly they don’t know it exists, don’t know it’s a problem and will never use your random geo hash thing.

The thing that’s useful and interesting here with w3w is that a lot of thought and time is going in to marketing and PR so people know about the problem and the solution. And if you go look, that is getting a lot of traction all over the place. Because it turns out that everyone from camping magazines to Glastonbury festival staff to people delivering mail in slums needs a location service. And they’re using w3w.

Even Ireland could do with something better than spending 27 million Euro on a code system.

To drill it home; it’s not the technology. The technology is great, and a lot of work goes in to that. Actual real linguists work on building new language versions. Other hashing algorithms I’m sure were great in their way too. But who cares if nobody uses them?

And that’s why w3w is interesting. They have truly great – some of the best I’ve seen – people who’re pushing this solution all over the place to people for whom it’s an actual problem. If you live in a western country with addresses, a functional cell phone network and you work on open mapping… that probably just isn’t you.

The other thing is, it’s a company born of a problem which means there’s a focus. It isn’t about just burning more money and figuring out what business model fad to follow this week. It’s a real problem, experienced and solved by the same people. Chris, one of the co-founders, actually had this problem coordinating deliveries of music equipment and performers to perform live events. He couldn’t get multiple trucks to show up in the same place. Even when talking to them on the phone. This is in England – a relatively developed country with a paved road network, where citizens speak a common language and road signs blanket the country. Where people are highly paid and educated.

And for some reason we consider it normal in such a modern time and place, that two people can’t locate each other occasionally. That’s actually nuts when you think about it. It’s 2016 – really this should not be a problem. And it costs us a lot of time, energy and money.

By contrast imagine you were born in a world where w3w just existed and everyone used it. You’d think your grandparents were pretty dumb to not be able to find each other at a concert. Or not be able to tell an emergency responder where you were in a field or on a big road. Or that delivery drivers actually wandered around trying to find the right door. And yet were able to somehow land rockets on the moon.

Because that’s the world we live in. And maybe by building a common language of location, for humans, we can make it a problem our grandchildren can just laugh at.

Surface Phone

Six months ago or so I had a job that required a large amount of parallel processing in Windows. The economics and technical constraints of it were such that doing it in the cloud wasn’t going to work easily. So I took to craigslist and bought 8 laptops for about $50-100 each and put Windows 10 preview on them.

These were crappy, old, low spec laptops with keyboards that mostly functioned. And here’s the thing: Win10 ran great on them. Surprisingly great. I hooked them all up to wifi and a remote disk, ran a command and they were off and computing stuff for me. Then I sold them all again, for basically what I paid for them.

Microsoft is rumored to be working on a flagship phone device, dubbed the Surface Phone.


Begin pure speculation:

I think the Surface Phone is just going to run full Windows 10 and it’ll be an x86/64 Intel device. Here’s why:

  • Windows 10 Mobile on high end devices now feature Continuum. You plug in a display and keyboard and mouse (or bluetooth) and it becomes a pseudo-desktop computer. I say pseudo because the apps are still the pretend Office, pretend Outlook and so on. A real Win10 phone will just be a real Win10 computer. Plug in the display, and it’s a real machine, able to run the universe of windows apps.
  • Old hardware runs Win10 great, as I discovered. Phones are really just old hardware.
  • The high end Lumias can apparently accept micro-SD cards up to 2Tb. I put a 1 or 2Tb SD card in my Surface Phone and it’s a real machine.
  • It fits with the Surface being a tablet-laptop. The Surface Phone can be a phone-desktop.
  • It’ll cut the budgets for enterprise. Microsoft can go to United Airlines, or whatever, and sell them a million phones which are also desktops, cutting the device budget in half. And their IT staff will be happy, since it’s all just still Win10 machines out there.
  • It explains Win10 Mobiles lack of push, and nothing much happening in the phone space for Microsoft. I have it on a Lumia 535, which is a super low end device. It actually works pretty well but it doesn’t feel like Microsoft is super serious about it. The releases are slow and it doesn’t have a ton of polish. Maybe it’s just like WinPhone7 (based on CE) and it’s another stopgap until phones just run the full Win10.
  • It also leverages all the apps. The mobile Outlook and so on can all still run on a x64 Surface Phone.
  • It leverages all of Microsofts strengths. The other 80,000 (or whatever) people at Microsoft can all help the phone be a success if it’s running full Windows. A lot harder if it’s some bastard child requiring special care and attention.
  • Intel is rumored to be working on the Surface Phone too.
  • Because it’s a desktop machine, it’ll be plugged in most of the day. So you can sidestep a lot of power constraints of running a x64 machine all day long on battery.
  • Microsoft has bridge projects so you can port your android or iOS app to Windows. Having a phone just run full Win10 will help immeasurably in simplifying that whole idea. No porting to strange OS or processor. It’s just Windows.
  • What the hell else will they do? Win10 Mobile is going to be tough to push otherwise.
  • It fits the history and it’s just logical. DOS and Win3.1 combined to Win95. 95+NT to become Windows… Pulling in the train of WinPhone OS in to Windows makes sense.
  • Look at the Win10 tablet devices. Stick a SIM card in one and make it slightly smaller and it’s a phone.
  • It has to happen eventually, why not now?

So in short, what you’re seeing in high end Win10 Mobile devices, things like Continuum and porting Android apps over is just  dress rehearsal for phones running full Windows.

In addition to the prediction that it would be a real Win10 machine;

  • I think it’ll be a phablet. It’s the preferred form factor these days and it allows you to fit a bunch of hardware in too. Call it $699 or so and you need to add the SD card. Probably too hard to get the cost down to $499 but you never know.
  • There might be a retail SKU which includes the phone, a dock, keyboard and mouse for $999. Probably just USB for cost reasons.
  • You still want to make the phone able to make phone calls while it’s a desktop computer. This is tough because it means you can’t really use a drop-in dock. You can use a long cable but it’s messy. A dock for power, but the display, keyboard and mouse being wireless would make the most sense but may be too expensive to be viable.
    • Having a SKU for a display with the hub hardware built in would make sense. You pair your phone to the display, which has the keyboard and mouse attached. Rather than having a standard display and separate docking hardware.
  • It might make sense to make some kind of laptop-like dock for the phone, maybe completely wireless again.
  • It might make sense to short desktop hardware makers if all this happens.

Or, maybe I’m completely wrong.

Google Cardboard

Google Cardboard is a device for turning your phone in to a VR headset. When combined with headphones it’s pretty immersive.

If you haven’t yet, buy a Google Cardboard unit at amazon or eBay. eBay units can be had cheaper, around $2 but can take forever to ship from Hong Kong. Mine was $1.80 and took 3 weeks to arrive.

Or, get one free from Lowes:


Lowes have a vending machine next to some iPads. You can use the iPads to design your perfect kitchen and then get a free cardboard unit dispensed. Download the app, login and you can view that kitchen in 3D as if you’re there. Luckily my local Lowes is one of the few with these units – maybe they’re hoping that nobody will notice in rural Colorado.

You’re going to see more people give these things away for free like the NYT did recently.

The experiences available via the VRSE app and others are pretty mind-blowing. Most are short 3-6 minute video productions using bubble cameras that put you in the middle of the action. You can look all around and pretty quickly lose connection with reality – great for flights.

The cost of VR hardware is now zero but the content is going to be a while in coming. There’s some great tasty treats out there and we’ll get to the point of paying money at some point for longer works I’m sure, including games and education.

I’ve used an Oculus DK2 and honestly, it’s not worth it compared to the cardboard unit. The DK2 may have slightly better specs but frankly who cares when the tradeoff is adoption. A DK2 costs real money and needs to be hooked up to a PC, cardboard means anyone can get started with a device that practically everyone owns – your phone.

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