Saturday, December 1, 2012

The alligator is a fraud

Brazilian AdventureBrazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming

As a young literary journalist in London in the 1930s, Peter Fleming (older brother of the James Bond creator, Ian) is an unlikely moving force at the centre of an expedition into the Brazilian jungle. He signed up, in search of something more thrilling than commissioning book reviews, after spotting an ad for volunteers in the Times.

In beautifully fluent prose he conveys what happened over the following months. It's a tale of real adventure, enlivened by well-aimed verbal potshots at foreigners, his sometimes dastardly fellow travellers and the jungle itself. Best of all, he creates some hilarious set pieces, mostly from awkward encounters between Englishmen and Brazilians.

The expedition was trying to find out what had happened to another English explorer, a Colonel Fawcett who had disappeared without trace in the region seven years earlier. Had he been killed by hostile tribes, died of disease, or gone native and decided to stay? That was the question Fleming was trying to answer. But he is happy to admit that it was unlikely to be answered. Fawcett was little more than an excuse for an adventure.

Fleming is at his best undermining the literary and cultural traditions of travel writing. So his encounters with alligators allow him to demonstrate that previous writers have hoodwinked their readers - or that alligators hoodwinked them:

"The alligator - at any rate the alligator of Central Brazil - is a fraud. For two months we saw him every day; we slept within reach of him, we swam in his waters. He was content to look malignant and live on his reputation." But the alligator's passivity didn't stop Fleming's party from shooting "well over one hundred in a month".

He delineates with great precision the differences between the various classes of Brazilian and ethnic groups, and captures the flavour of life at a time when backwaters really were backwaters:

"There is nothng at all to do in Goyaz. All day long the women sit at their windows and stare, in an ardent and provocative manner, at the empty street. All day long the men, with the air of philosophers in training, sit on little chairs outside their front doors, wearing straw hats and heavily frogged pyjama jackets ...Occasionally one of them gets up and goes indoors, to lie down. Nothing else happens."

It seems that Fleming and one friend, defying the expedition's unenterprising leader, put themselves in real danger. Despite the author's insistence on underplaying any hardship, his reader is left in no doubt that it could very easily have gone horribly wrong.

In that sense, we are given what we expect from this kind of book - a tale of peril and huge discomfort, to be enjoyed from one's armchair - whilst at the same time being able to enjoy Fleming's ability to deflate the usual hyperbole of the genre ("Sao Paulo is like Reading, only much further away") and the very notion of adventure tales as literature

I look forward to reading about his journey from Moscow to Beijing in One's Company (1936).

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Monday, November 26, 2012

What RebelMouse can do now

This is an embed from RebelMouse, based on my Twitter account, @chblm (the unembedded version is here). RebelMouse seems to be doing rather well, and certainly has a nice way of making tweets more visual by picking pictures that are part of links referred to in them (btw - keep scrolling down within the blog borders ...the stories go on and on):

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How Netscape changed the world

Netscape Time: The Making of the Billion-Dollar Start-Up That Took on MicrosoftNetscape Time: The Making of the Billion-Dollar Start-Up That Took on Microsoft by Jim Clark

The stock market flotation of Netscape in the summer of 1995 made all the front pages and network news shows, alerting anyone who hadn’t been paying attention, to the dot com boom. As a promising startup, Netscape Communications had it all: based in Silicon Valley, a few months old, its assets the work of a bunch of geeks straight from college, expanding fast, not making a profit and giving away its product to ordinary consumers. And its product was a browser – whatever that was.

In 1995, if you thought all that didn’t add up to a good investment prospect, it just showed you didn’t ‘get it’: those in the know would explain that the internet worked under different rules and if you were too concerned about a company’s balance sheet, you were going to lose out. On its first day on the stock market, Netscape shares doubled in price, valuing the company at $2.2 billion.

Microsoft was distracted by the launch of its new operating system, Windows 95, and had to play catch up in the browser market. But Bill Gates was soon ready to take on Netscape with Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer browser. The tactics used to do so led to a protracted case against the company brought by the Department of Justice – the one in which Bill Gates’ sulky videotaped deposition cast him and Microsoft in a new and less glamorous light. Along with Gates' brilliance and unimaginable wealth, there was anger and stubbornness too.

Jim Clark invented Netscape Communications. He had already founded the successful Silicon Graphics company (SGI). He had fallen out with its CEO and been left, bitterly, on the sidelines, disagreeing about the direction the business should take.

Netscape was his revenge on fate: this time he would fund the company himself so nobody could second guess him. He would hitch his wagon to the emerging internet and would sign up Marc Andreessen and a bunch of his student friends, and have them reproduce the Mosiac browser they had just written at the University of Illinois.

Netscape Time is Clark’s own account of all this. If you have read Michael Lewis’ The New, New Thing, about his encounter with Clark a few years later, you may be disappointed. The narrator of Netscape Time isn’t quite the colourful, extravagant character painted by Lewis. Here, Clark appears reasonable to the point of dullness. And he is disappointingly discreet about those around him. Andreesen, in Clark’s account, is a techy genius and full of good sense. Some of his fellow programmers have eccentric haircuts and a love of pizza and remote controlled cars, but somehow they don’t exactly come to life, except in an utterly stereotypical way.

And there isn’t much detail about what Netscape Communications was trying to do, or why, ultimately, it failed – except to say that Microsoft’s sharp practices made fair competition almost impossible.

I read the book after enjoying Charles Ferguson’s account of dealing with Netscape for his software business Vermeer Technologies (in his High Stakes, No Prisoners, which I wrote about here.)

Ferguson gives a convincing account of why he believes Netscape blew its early advantage over Microsoft through a series of technical mistakes and failures in software architecture. He had the impression that Andreesen and his fellow programmers weren’t properly managed by the more experienced people Clark had brought from Silicon Graphics. And he thought that Netscape’s CEO, Jim Barksdale, had no real interest in the details of technology, only in business.

But Clark’s book doesn’t throw much light on any of this. The only technical detail Clark shares with his readers - repeatedly - is that the browser Andreessen made for Netscape was “ten times faster” than the original Mosaic browser. As to how it would integrate with other software or how Netscape was making money from it, we’re left to guess (although he does describe the financial side of his negotiations with some big telecoms companies). It’s hard to say whether Clark or his publisher decided that anything vaguely technical would put readers off, or whether that really wasn’t Clark’s interest either.

The most vivid episode, because it’s described with enough detail to draw you into the story, is Clark’s battle with the University of Illinois and Spyglass, the company to which the university had licenced Mosaic. Through some fancy legal footwork, involving the closure of offices at different times in different time zones, Clark orchestrated his way out of being sued by Spyglass for unauthorised use of the intellectual property behind Mosaic (even though he had carefully made Andreessen and his colleagues rewrite the code from scratch at Netscape).

The battle with Microsoft, ultimately more important for the fate of Netscape, is less well covered, partly because the Department of Justice case was still being heard at the time of writing. As in Ferguson’s book, the figure of Gates is a huge force, slightly off stage in both accounts, but still influencing events, even if only because others were wondering what he’d do next. As Clark puts it, “Microsoft’s huge advantage changes the shape of the industry itself, in the way the gravitational pull of some huge celestial bodies actually warp space and time.”

Clark makes a good intellectual case for the breakup of Microsoft, which was being seriously discussed as part of the DoJ case. It never happened, but what did – just as the book was being finished, I’d guess – was the sale of Netscape to America Online in November 1998. Clark optimistically describes Netscape as now being a “portal company”, through its Netcenter. But unfortunately, no other software from Netscape ever matched the firework, both financially and technically, that its browser had been.

In the New York Times report of Netscape’s IPO, one can see just how much we now take for granted was still new: in August 1995, the Times still feels it necessary to refer to “the global computing web known as the Internet.” There was much important stuff that Clark was prescient about: he put the internet and business together to form a vision of a “revolutionary communication medium to grease the skids of consumerism and commerce”. He saw potential that others hadn’t yet recognised and acted upon it, with his own money.

Both Clark and Ferguson’s stories end on a downbeat note: they are both richer – much richer in the case of Clark – but their creations, software companies both, have failed to grow up as independent businesses (Ferguson’s was sold to Microsoft). But although we now know that Microsoft wasn’t broken up, the pessimism Clark and Ferguson feel about its inescapable dominance doesn’t hold any more. Apple, pretty much written off in both books, is resurgent, with a larger market cap than Microsoft (try telling that to anyone in 1998). And other internet businesses, notably Google, have shown that Microsoft can no longer exert the kind of “gravitational pull” that Clark describes.

Netscape did something big, pointing the way to our future, thanks to Clark. It was a firework worth building - however quickly it burnt - and worth remembering.

Here is a good, independent Netscape timeline.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The undermining of IBM

Computer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global TechnologyComputer Wars: The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology by Charles Ferguson

With hindsight, tech change looks like a story of serial revolutions. But at any one time, things seem pretty stable and it’s surprisingly hard to spot those revolutions until they’re part of history.

Today, for instance, Apple is pre-eminent, Google appears untouchable, Facebook is looking for a way to turn massive popularity into massive earning power, and Microsoft is still raking it in but needs rather badly to have its Windows Mobile deal with Nokia come good.

Meanwhile, smartphones and tablets are tilting usage away from desktops and laptops. And, as ever, computing power and speed keep on improving. On the face of it, it’s hardly a world in chaos.

But rewind to 1993, less than 20 years ago, and you can see how far we’ve come: the landscape would be all but unrecognisable to someone who was only familiar with today’s players.

There was one massive company around which the whole industry revolved: IBM. By 1993, it was in crisis, making huge losses, but it was still almost impossible to imagine a computer business not dominated by IBM. Its strength had come from its mainframe and minicomputer divisions, although it had launched its phenomenally successful PC more than a decade earlier.

One of Bill Gates more profound observations is that "we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten." Charles Ferguson and Charles Morris’ Computer Wars (1993) is a test of that – as they look forwards from their point in time. The book’s subheading is “The Fall of IBM and the Future of Global Technology" - and indeed the book is both history and futurology.

Its most entertaining sections are undoubtedly those that look back, dealing with IBM’s problems. The authors are forensic and merciless in their analysis of how Big Blue fell off its perch, or rather, how Bill Gates helped tip it off. Gates’ reputation, still two years ahead of the triumphant launch of Windows 95, was already well established. The authors describe him as “the most respected and feared man in the computer industry – and the most hated.” But they give his ideas a good write-up, which stands the test of time:

“Software is the democratizing trumpet that is blowing down the walls of mainframe computer centres. It is the nexus between people and machines; humanize the software, Gates argues to anyone who will listen, and the industry’s potential is limitless – and who controls the software controls the industry.”

That was the strategy that was building Microsoft. IBM was Gates’ most important customer, but he was ruthless in pursuing his contractual advantages to allow him to sell his software to the so-called clone PC manufacturers. That meant that as Microsoft kept improving its software, the PC industry increasingly revolved around it rather than IBM. But IBM was so riven by internal feuds and management failures that it didn’t even realize what Gates was doing to it.

Microsoft sat between the chip manufacturers, principally Intel, and the computer makers. Over the years, its irreplaceability to the parties on either side allowed it to grow its profits while the rest of the industry was forced to compete to the death and operate on wafer thin percentages.

The authors’ look into the future is no less interesting than their account of recent history, albeit, understandably, less accurate. The flotation of Netscape was only two years ahead, and the Worldwide Web had been invented two years earlier. But there is no mention of the internet in the book. Instead, there’s talk of “interactive, multimedia computers” and “home multimedia stations”, which would receive content over the air, through fibre optic cables or tapes and CDs. The assumption was that this would be driven by the entertainment industry. But there’s also a vision of a more familiar world: “home catalog shopping and price comparisons would become the norm.”

And there’s a rather remarkable prediction of tablet computing: “most people cannot envision replacing their morning paper, or a good book, with a session at a video terminal. But once a home display station was the size and weight of a magazine, with magazine-picture sharpness and complete, cordless portability, the objections should disappear.”

While the book’s industry analysis correctly predicts the future dominance of what it calls ‘the Silicon Valley model’ (in which it includes Microsoft and Intel), as opposed to the big industrial businesses like IBM and the Japanese computer manufacturers, there is no hint of businesses such as Yahoo! or eBay – companies offering services online, rather than selling products through retail channels or subscription. But hardly anyone else saw that coming either.

After completing the book, Charles Ferguson showed he understood the business far better than most consultants and commentators – by starting a business to develop software (Frontpage), and selling his business to Microsoft. It’s the tale he tells entertainingly in his High Stakes, No Prisoners - so entertainingly that I went to find this earlier work, which is written with the just same intelligence and pace.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

How to build a startup, sell it to Microsoft and JUST keep your sanity.

High Stakes, No Prisoners : A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet WarsHigh Stakes, No Prisoners : A Winner's Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars by Charles H. Ferguson

The story of the author’s East coast startup, Vermeer Technologies, which was bought by Microsoft in a deal concluded in January 1996, has been hailed as classic of tech autobiography. It’s a rare insight into the unique blend of intelligence, good timing, cunning and an almost magical ability to squeak through the narrowest of gaps, that characterises successful tech entrepreneurship.

Ferguson’s account has the added attraction of being gob-smackingly rude about some of his colleagues and business partners. More of that later.

What I hadn’t expected is the other strand, the chapters of industry analysis that draw on Ferguson’s previous career as a consultant to big tech companies, an occupation that he disarmingly tells us he was very good at.

You can see why. The talent to skewer a deceitful colleague with a brilliantly apposite phrase is the same one that lets Ferguson sum up complex industry trends and deliver judicious, forward-looking assessments that nobody in their right mind could disagree with. I can well imagine how lazy or not too bright CEOs felt good about paying Ferguson do their strategic thinking.

More than ten years on, much of Ferguson’s analysis looks prescient. He highlights privacy and piracy; he enthuses about the online distribution of all forms of artistic and entertainment content but worries about the business model: “one thing that recording companies, publishers and movie studios do well is make sure that they get paid.” And he recognises a world in which there will be “an increasing premium on people with high levels of education” and a widening gap between rich and poor “both within and between nations”.

He argues for the breakup of Microsoft into an operating system business and an applications business (which was being discussed at the time as part of the Department of Justice’s case against the company). But he praises Bill Gates for his relentless focus and professionalism and for the setting of uniform standards in the emerging computer industry that benefitted consumers. He blames Netscape for a disastrous and unforced throwing away of an initial lead over Microsoft in the ‘browser wars’.

All this is interesting and written with pace and passion. But it’s the other part of the book that gives it its reputation. When Ferguson takes us into the daily traumas of setting up and eventually selling Vermeer, we feel we’re at the table with him, struggling to handle the pressures of his manipulative VCs, of rival companies springing up with what looks like the same idea, and worst of all, the greedy CEO he hired in what he later sees as a moment of tragic misjudgment.

His name was John Mandile. I can’t imagine how the book ever got past the lawyers or, since it did, how Mandile ever recovered from what Ferguson had to say about him. But apparently he did, since according to Bloomberg Businessweek, he’s now managing director of Sigma Partners, one of the VC companies that backed Vermeer.

He accuses Mandile of a litany of elaborate self-interested moves starting with deliberately delaying the signing of his contract as CEO in order to put Vermeer into a more desperate position, thereby improving his bargaining power.

Together with Ferguson’s mortgage problems, his relationship with his girlfriend, and the need to hit trade show deadlines with impressive demos, the life of a tech entrepreneur is evidently mind-bogglingly complicated.

Whilst I loved the book for its raw, slapstick material – the clash of big ambitions, big egos and big money – for that kind of thing I still marginally prefer Michael Wolff’s Burn Rate (published in 1998, a year before Ferguson’s book, but covering the same era). But High Stakes, No Prisoners is right up there with it, and provides a richer insight into the mainstream of tech history, with its graphic presentation of the impossible choice Ferguson faced between falling into the arms (or jaws) of Netscape and those of Microsoft.

I won’t spoil things by telling you it all turns out well. Ferguson cashes his $14 million cheque, buys himself a first class ticket to California, feeling “numb yet free”, and settles down to recover – by writing the book,

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Your laptop is the culmination of billions of years of evolution

What Technology WantsWhat Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kelly is a distinguished tech journalist (former executive editor of Wired magazine) and knows everyone who’s ever been anyone in Silicon Valley. Like all the best techies of a certain age, his roots are in hippydom, as a leading light of the Whole Earth Catalogue in the 1970s. He still rates technology in terms of its contribution to life as a whole.

Amish communities fascinate him because of their conscious, selective attitude to technology, echoing his own restrictive rules for himself (no laptop or smartphone).

But for all the thoughtful reservations about its subject, What Technology Wants is hugely positive. Kelly’s years of research for the book, and decades of knowledge and experience before that, are used to brilliant effect, to construct an ambitious intellectual framework through which to view the patterns and forces that shape technological change, together with the bigger scientific picture into which, Kelly argues, technology fits.

To make his case, he goes back to biological evolution to demonstrate, controversially, that it is going somewhere: it’s not just the slave to the cumulative advantages created by random variations in an unpredictable environment. No, since the Big Bang the universe has been diversifying into smaller and more specialised units – whether atoms, molecules, organisms, social structures, or now, structures created by technology.

It’s not the view of most evolutionists but it’s a beguiling, unifying theory that seems to answer every question. Now we can see how chemical molecules came from individual atoms, why life evolved from the simplest structures and why human life is getting more and more complicated. Moore’s Law, which triumphantly describes and predicts the exponential growth in microchip processing power, is here applied to a much wider canvas.

And to give us a handle on his particular interests, Kelly has come up with a word to describe the inter-relationship of all human and animal creations: he calls it "the technium" (a reluctantly minted neologism, because “I dislike inventing words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope.”)

The technium isn’t just gadgets: it includes things like literature, laws, money, bird’s nests - anything that extends biological life into new dimensions and gives it power over its environment by other means.

Kelly’s point is that the diversification and specialisation we see in technology, such as how cameras have developed from one idea – to create a record what the eye can see - into multiple shapes, sizes and functions, is an exact parallel with how biological evolution creates increasingly specialised varieties from a single point of origin. Indeed, he argues that technological development is just a continuation of that process.

Although it’s a broadly optimistic view, Kelly claims only that the positives slightly outweigh the negatives, both in biological and technical evolution. But with the huge numbers involved that’s all that’s needed to keep things getting better.

God doesn’t get a mention, but I was reminded of the theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and geologist who was quoted with approval at my Catholic school. Indeed, a quick flick through some Teilhard websites confirms my suspicion of the echoes with Kelly – the common ground being ideas of universal progress to a better state (morally, in Teilhard's view) and a certain hippy sensibility. “We only have to look around us,” wrote Teilhard, “to see how complexity and psychic temperature are still rising: and rising no longer on the scale of the individual but now on that of the planet.”

I don’t suppose Kelly would want to be lumped in with Teilhard, and for all his scientific credentials, Teilhard’s thinking was probably more informed by the writings of his spiritual masters than scientific papers. Kelly, on the other hand, bases his argument on a series of upward trending graphs and detailed accounts of what he calls technology’s unstoppable "trajectories" – things like efficiency, complexity, diversity, ubiquity, mutualism and sentience.

Everything seems to fit. But can we allow ourselves the comfort – and I think it is that – of a theory which puts humanity and all its works at the forefront of universal progress as the culmination of billions of years of physical and biological evolution?

Is this today’s equivalent of believing the earth to be at the centre of the universe? By definition, our limited perspective makes that an impossible question to answer.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Airport expansion: how the Greens could convince me

The question of airport capacity around London is complicated because it's about so much more than just transport. It's about hopes and fears for the future - as well as noise over people's houses. And nothing seems right.

Consider the most radical plan: a brand new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow.

It sounds crazily grandiose. But to reject it on the grounds that 'enough is enough', that Heathrow, however unpleasant its impact on London, will be the capitol's main airport for ever, is a kind of giving up. It's like an elderly person deciding never to buy another car because they've done most of their driving, and that the old one will probably do, and will certainly save some money and bother.

Shouldn't we, instead, be confident about the future and press on boldly, even if we're not sure how we'll pay for this massive project - just because to do otherwise is a blatant vote of no confidence in the lives of our children and grandchildren. After all, planes are already quieter and more fuel-efficient than they were, and no doubt scientists will come up with ways to deal with the other environmental problems in time.

Of course an estuary airport will be even more expensive than anyone thinks now. But if it gets built, nobody will really mind: it'll create work for thousands, support British companies, and be a symbol of a new, dynamic Britain, one fully intending to be the life and soul of the global community for the rest of this century, as it was in the last. The Channel Tunnel hasn't been a resounding financial success, but nobody now says it would have been better to have saved the money and forfeited its advantages.

As for a third runway at Heathrow, well, I'm in at least two minds about that. Living just south of the flightpath to Heathrow's existing southern runway, I don't appreciate the landings in the early hours. Nor do I like having to raise my voice to talk to friends in the garden on a summer afternoon.

But if a third runway was built, it would be north of the current northern runway, pretty much outside earshot to me. Perhaps it would spread the aircraft noise more thinly over a wider area. So from a purely selfish point of view, it might actually have advantages in my neighbourhood (a fact that never features in the campaigning of our local Lib Dems.) Of course, the idea is for more flights to use the airport, so things might not change much.

And it's quite handy to be able to drive to Heathrow in around 30 minutes (on a good day). And it probably brings prosperity to West London and the Thames Valley.

But all that's parochial stuff. We need to make the decision on the big picture - one beyond 'my backyard', beyond party politics, and even beyond the borders of our country.

I think I just might be persuaded by a more imaginative, more positive line by the Greens. They'd need someone with real character and conviction. If I were their speechwriter, this would be my suggestion:

"We all know that economic growth and commercial expansion cannot go on for ever: we live on a planet of limited size and resources. The mystery is why that isn't yet acknowledged by politicians. 

It might make sense to spend £50 billion on a new airport, transferring Heathrow's business to the East of London if you believed that air transport will inevitably expand, and that if we don't do it, the Netherlands or France will jump in and become a more important international hub, and that that would be terrible for London and Britain as a whole.

But air travel can't expand for ever. Its relative cheapness today is the consequence of some peculiarities of taxation (where no country wants to deter airlines by taxing them more than its competitors). The costs we pay certainly don't reflect the real price in terms of noise, pollution and global warming.

But we don't need to be negative about this. As politicians, we should be brave enough to say that in the future, our ambitions should be not just for more things, but for different things. That in this country we are lucky that most people already have homes to live in, food to eat, healthcare, education, and even holidays. That justice is administered without much corruption and that elections are for the most part fair. That politicians leave office without an argument if they are voted out.

But that all these achievements, which many other countries are still striving for, give us a responsibility to set a new course that others may also follow if they choose. And that course takes us off the road of consumerism and materialism onto one in which other values are our priorities, values which are independent of economic growth and which take for granted - because we have actually reached that point - a degree of satisfaction with our material situation, and move us gently forward to thinking about the quality of life. 

If we stopped buying, or made more expensive, a lot of the stuff we don't need - from mineral water to disposable furniture and outsized conservatories - and didn't waste so much - on food, energy and packaging - and didn't go to so many places in such a hurry that we haven't got time to think about the experience for longer than it takes to get back from the airport, what could we do with the time and money we'd liberate? We could learn more, exercise, celebrate, communicate, create, grow things. We could teach, help those who need helping, spend time on things we are too rushed to do properly and on doing not much at all - like our hunter gatherer ancestors did before the work ethic made doing nothing look like sponging off other people.

And we wouldn't need to fly so often. But it wouldn't be a negative decision: it would be part of a much bigger, positive one. 

Vote Green."

I just might if that leader appeared.

Friday, August 24, 2012

An injection of entrepreneurial energy

The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your CareerThe Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman

As a genre, self-help can mean large type, lots of space between paragraphs and annoying ‘to do’ lists. But The Start-up of You is different. Its co-author is Reid Hoffman, a legend of Silicon Valley, founder of LinkedIn, co-founder of PayPal, and a big-time investor through the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Unlike most self-help authors, Hoffman has demonstrably helped himself - to almost $2bn according to Forbes - and earned the respect of some of the world’s smartest businesspeople.

The book’s premise is simple enough: the culture of Silicon Valley start-ups is the model for how everyone should think about their working life.

So you must always be ready to try something new when circumstances change (‘pivot’ in the jargon); make use of your network of contacts, both intimate and distant; and be decisive in taking risks: “‘Keeping your options open’ is frequently more of a risk than committing to a plan of action.”

The writers insist that this approach applies not just to bright young things starting tech businesses but to all of us, because employment is less stable today and the skills we need are changing faster than ever.

It certainly feels like the pace of change is accelerating - but is it? Yes, say Hoffman and his co-author Ben Casnocha: big companies simply don’t last as long as they used to. In the 1920s and 1930s, top American businesses stayed in the S&P 500 index for an average of 65 years; by the 1990s the average time in the index was down to 10 years.

Making the case for businesses needing to stay in start-up mode, they paint a vivid picture of Detroit in the 1950s. It was home of the auto industry and the pride of the country, with the highest median income of any US city - the Silicon Valley of its day. But in the following decades the car-makers stopped listening to their customers and were overtaken by Japanese competitors who responded to the demand for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Today, Detroit has amongst the highest unemployment in the country and “about a third of the city - an area the size of San Francisco - is deserted”.

Could that happen to Silicon Valley? The authors believe the Valley will escape the same fate because start-up culture keeps tech companies on their toes. Easy to say now, of course.

Applying the lessons of industries to individuals, the book sheds light on the careers of Hoffman and the elite circle of tech leaders he moves in.

Take Sheryl Sandberg: today she’s Facebook’s chief operating officer and on the boards of Disney and Starbucks. But we learn that her childhood holidays were spent in developing countries where her father, a doctor, provided free surgery for the poor. As a result, her first job, for the World Bank, was working in India on public health projects.

Sandberg’s path from there to Facebook is presented as a case study in using your contacts and finding the right market for your skills. Most of us aren’t in a position to call Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, to seek advice on our next career move. And if we did get through we’d be unlikely to be offered, as Sandberg was, the job of vice president of global sales and operations at Google.

But maybe the principles are applicable to all. One, interestingly, is that successful people aren’t necessarily ‘following their dream’. Sandberg admits she didn’t have a plan for her career “because if I have a plan I’m limited to today’s options”.

Hoffman himself began in academia, and it was only after a few false starts that he came to the conclusion that his special skill was to “think simultaneously about individual psychology and social dynamics on a massive scale”. If it sounds an unlikely formula, Hoffman’s point is that you can only discover this kind of thing by trying different jobs, just as a start-up must switch resources in a new direction based on what it learns from earlier efforts - especially if they haven’t gone well.

When it comes to networking, as you might imagine, LinkedIn is part of the suggested formula. Hoffman says he gets 50 unsolicited pitches to invest in start-ups every day, but has never done so with anyone who didn’t come via a contact.

As with all self-help books, the value is not so much in the reading as what you do when you’ve read it. Most people will probably finish this one feeling a little braver about their future. You might be encouraged to make a call to a long-neglected contact, enquire about future openings or pursue a new interest that might one day turn into a saleable asset.

You can’t really bottle and sell the spirit of Silicon Valley, but this is a credible attempt. And the authors are practicing what they preach: you’ve always got try new things, right?

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Charting a course through the digital world

How to Thrive in the Digital AgeHow to Thrive in the Digital Age by Tom Chatfield

How should we adapt our personal and professional lives to the new tools of digital communication? Answers tend to polarise between hopes that the digital revolution is the answer to all our problems and fears that it’s the end of civilisation as we know it.

How to Thrive in the Digital Age is an attempt to answer the question by Tom Chatfield, in a slim volume from a series edited by Alain de Botton and published by The School of Life. (You might prefer How to Worry Less about Money or, de Botton's own contribution, How to Think More about Sex.)

As an online games enthusiast and consultant to the likes of Google, Chatfield might be expected to be a digital cheerleader, but his view is more nuanced. He advocates time away from all digital devices in order to reassert our individuality. He tells us he prefers to draft his writing using - shock, horror - a pen and paper. And he sympathises with the worries of Jaron Lanier whose You Are Not a Gadget is another essay by someone from the techy world with serious reservations about how the revolution is playing out.

The strength of Chatfield’s thesis is its range, taking in classical thinkers, the history of computing and his own anecdotal experience. He urges us to think about the psychology of how we navigate the digital world:

“Veiled behind ever greater complexities, we perpetually risk distancing ourselves from fully committed relationships with each other, and from fully introspective relationships with ourselves.”

He may be right - and someone needs to start the conversation. It’s hard to shrug off some of the evidence: can it really not matter that surveys of US teenagers in 1999 and 2009 found that their average daily use of media had risen from six hours and 20 minutes to seven hours and 40 minutes?

Chatfield points out that the default position now is for media to be available. ‘Quiet carriages’, for instance, designate media-free zones, but their very existence highlights what we think of as normal. It is only by cutting ourselves off from media that we can accentuate what is most characteristic of ourselves, he argues. In writing, for instance, a degree of isolation and a little serendipity to let the mind wander produces “something that both has rigour and belongs to me alone”.

The worry is that no person or institution is in a position to monitor and control the balance between technology’s advantages and its excesses. While individuals fumble for the best way to behave (and to try to get their children to behave), the companies at the centre of the revolution are driven both by profits and - to give them the benefit of the doubt - a desire to improve and expand their services. As they are always happy to remind us, we are only using them because we choose to.

The metaphor for tech adoption that springs to mind most readily is that of addiction. Digital services and devices ‘hook’ us and we are powerless to resist, most obviously in the world of gaming. One study found that the unemployed who used the virtual world Second Life found it almost as satisfying as getting a job. A dangerous case of escaping into a fantasy world created by software?

But the line between the real and the virtual isn’t as clear as it might seem. When real money is used to buy virtual goods in an online game, is that so different from real money buying an ordinary pair of jeans with a fancy label for a much higher price? What is sport but life lived in a codified and relatively consequence-free setting? And what is money but a token of invented value based on collective belief?

It’s a complex picture, and Chatfield is far from a Jeremiah. For instance, he sees some of the biggest beneficiaries of the new communications technologies being the elderly and the socially disadvantaged. But, as he concludes, the subject begs questions about the very nature of our humanity and social ties.

As I finished the book, I was on holiday in France. One evening we went to an outdoor concert in the local village. A choir of elderly men sang traditional songs to an audience of a couple of hundred people of all ages, sitting on benches, drinking (in moderation), tapping and singing along. It was the very picture of a strong community. Then it struck me: there were no mobile devices to be seen. Nobody was taking pictures, texting, checking Facebook or tweeting. I looked out for any signs of modern technology. All I saw, all evening, was one girl using her mobile - to speak to someone.

Chatfield notes that many of the most popular virtual worlds have pastoral settings. Was my imagined picture of rural contentment just another example of an urban mind in search of a simpler life? Maybe, but the balance between the virtues of direct, physical communication and those of multiple online relationships is surely worth considering. We shouldn’t just accept mindlessly, in the words of Kevin Kelly’s influential book about all this, What Technology Wants.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Wetland Centre: peace in West London

Surprising how much you can feel you have got away from it all if you visit the Wetland Centre in Barnes just before it closes (at 6pm). We hardly saw another visitor. It was just us and the birds (OK, and the odd plane on its way to Heathrow).

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Olympic cyclists in Richmond Park

It was quick, free, and there was a great atmosphere. The police motorbike riders got plenty of cheers as they came along ahead of the cyclists - and entered into the spirit by bowing, waving etc.

It was a great 'morning after' (the opening ceremony) outing. But I couldn't say who was in the lead, or even who was cycling. Somehow that didn't matter.

You could always watch it on TV later if you were interested in that sort of thing. The rumour was that they had to go up and down Box Hill nine times after this. By the time they were there, most of us were having a nice cup of coffee back home.

See also: Olympic torch floats past Barnes

Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic torch floats past Barnes

It was the biggest thing to happen in Barnes and Mortlake since, well, the last flotilla. And that was only in June, for the Jubilee.

You can wait centuries for a flotilla, and then two of them come along at once.

Yesterday the torch was at the BBC in White City with Brucie, and sunshine!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Inside Television Centre

The BBC is selling Television Centre, but part of it will be leased back to the Corporation. Programmes will continue to be made, but there will also be other companies working on the site.

Here are a few pictures I took recently on my own errands around TC (as we called it) - to record its closing BBC-owned days. It looks pretty weird and gloomy. But it's a place to get things done, even if it is a bit Kafkaesque when you stop and look.

Welcome to TC, through the Frithville Gardens entrance (above).

Inside the donut.

Temporary tape storage (above), for Current Ops (below). This is where you take your finished programme to get it "into the system". Once there, if all the paperwork has been done right, it should get transmitted at the appointed hour. 

This button looks as though it would work, but the escalator hasn't for years. 

Goodbye, and back out to Frithville Gardens. 

I've got more pics of the deepest recesses of Television Centre here

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Barnes Fair - rather unfair

It would be nice to say that 'wet weather didn't dampen the spirits...', but probably not true. It didn't stop people turning up though, and comparisons with Glastonbury were heard more than once. The highlight for me was the excellent jazz band in the churchyard. Not loud enough to wake the dead but good enough to cheer them up perhaps.