Reading up on the blockchain

*Updated – apologies for errors – still testing new writing apps.*

There are good reads to be had in the business press this week on the Blockchain – you can call the technology blockchain and the instances of it blockchains, but in these early days of the word, it seems to often be referred to with that determinant and a capital – the technology that makes cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Both The Economist and the FT carry useful analysis.

Blockchain, rather than Bitcoin, is the most interesting phenomenon, describing the latter with deft description that I love from the Economist as a “machine for creating trust”:

To understand the power of blockchain systems, and the things they can do, it is important to distinguish between three things that are commonly muddled up, namely the bitcoin currency, the specific blockchain that underpins it and the idea of blockchains in general. A helpful analogy is with Napster, the pioneering but illegal “peer-to-peer” file-sharing service that went on line in 1999, providing free access to millions of music tracks. Napster itself was swiftly shut down, but it inspired a host of other peer-to-peer services. Many of these were also used for pirating music and films. Yet despite its dubious origins, peer-to-peer technology found legitimate uses, powering internet startups such as Skype (for telephony) and Spotify (for music streaming)—and also, as it happens, bitcoin.

The blockchain is an even more potent technology. In essence it is a shared, trusted, public ledger that everyone can inspect, but which no single user controls. The participants in a blockchain system collectively keep the ledger up to date: it can be amended only according to strict rules and by general agreement. Bitcoin’s blockchain ledger prevents double-spending and keeps track of transactions continuously. It is what makes possible a currency without a central bank.

If you want to delve deeper into the Blockchain, this list by Rob Myers explores Decentralised Applications (DApps) and Decentralised Autonomous Organisations Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs). These ideas – made possible by blockchains are essentially apps and companies that are owned by no one. The thought experiment that illustrates these for now mind-bending ideas is the self-owned self-driving car, operating on an Uber-like DApp, owned by no one, the car is crowd-funded, re-pays its investors and adapts its algorithms, location and other things autonomously.

Beware, all of these terms are becoming buzzwords and will doubtless seem as annoying as big data and its hype-y predecessors eventually became. But don’t let that distract you from the potential of this fascinating technology.

Links – paywalled, but free articles for registrants and also worth coughing up some currency, crypto- or otherwise:

Excellent podcast on innovation

Disruption is a word worn thin by overuse. “Verbal inflation”, Michael Raynor (a long-time collaborator of Clayton Christensen) calls the effect in this Andreessen Horowitz podcast where he talks about his work on disruption theory and how to apply it to planning and prediction (also covered in his book The Innovator’s Manifesto).

Podcast: a16z: Holy Non Sequiturs, Batman: What Disruption Theory Is … and Isn’t

The opportunity in avoiding catastrophe

An article in the FT by Martin Wolf made a point that I’d not heard before: avoiding climate change would bring massive benefits to the global economy (with the side benefit of averting a great deal of human catastrophe).

Even more interesting is that one obvious move is about subsidies – not subsidising renewable energy, but stopping subsidising fossil fuels.

This is Wolf’s article in The Financial Times:

This [energy] revolution will not happen without state support. It would be helped by eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, estimated by the International Monetary Fund at $5.3tn for 2015 (6.5 per cent of global output), with the inclusion of spillover effects, such as air pollution. This is three orders of magnitude larger than state spending on research and development in renewable energy.

5.3 trillion US dollars. That’s 3.26 trillion pounds. That’s almost seven times the valuation of Apple, the most valuable company in the world. 3.5 times the amount the UK government spent on bailing out the banks, every year.

: : The article’s worth registering on the FT site to read if you don’t have a subscription. Also Why Are We Waiting, by Nicholas Stern, published earlier this year by MIT Press is cited often if you want to find out more.

Unstructured writing and thinking

It’s interesting working with your children on their revision. You get to re-learn basic French, discover the reason you learnt algebra (in order to help your children revise algebra, apparently) and also the basics of structuring narratives and essays.

Much of my blogging – when it breaks out* – is off the cuff, exploring an idea through prose. Very often I’ll cut the concluding part of a blog post and paste it to the beginning of the post and then change the headline. By the end of the post, I’ve actually figured out what the post is about.

My children have been taught to write a small plan for their essays and stories at the beginning, even – or especially – in exams. It’s something I could do with trying out more in some of my writing, I guess. Although when I write texts longer than a couple of thousand words I write in a plan – using Scrivener.

Choosing when to write in a structured and an unstructured way is important. Unstructured writing can be a formidable tool for reflection and exploring an idea. As I wrote recently on Medium, I’ve started using journal-like writing instead of using priority lists and plans to work what needs to be focused on and to work my way through complex issues and problems.

Writing in an unstructured way like this – starting a piece of writing without knowing where you are going – helps the subconscious get involved, while allowing the conscious mind to create a little order, a little post-rationalisation for gut-feel decisions, or a little pre-emptive rationalising to set the stage for big decisions to be made.

Writing in an unstructured way is basically a conversation with yourself. But without the rocking, muttering and shouted expletives that can make colleagues feel uncomfortable and draw the attention of the authorities, if you live in a society where mental health issues are noted and help given by the state. Social accpetable external monologuing, then.

* I am currently experiencing perfect conditions for blogging: (1) I am ill, which always seems to help – I started this blog in 2005 when I was bed-bound with ‘flu – body in ruins, but mind impatient to get on with something; (2) the aforementioned revision with the kids: my son’s revising for exams so now our living room has transformed from a games and TV entertainment hub into a quiet study centre – it’s nice that even with a headful of cold I can sit down here with them and read and write. Maybe I should make this permanent. They’d hate me forever, but we’d all get a lot of work done; (3) I’m trying out new tech – my half-term, man ‘flu-constrained personal project is to rationalise the large number of writing apps I have on my devices and settle on one or two. I might write about the results of that later…

Robo-journo beta open to all

The first report generated by software rather than a human reporter appeared in March last year. It was about an earthquake in Southern California.

Now a company called Automated Insights has made a beta version of its software available for anyone to try, says Wired:

Wordsmith, a platform that provides so-called robot journalists to organisations, is now available to the public.

The platform, owned by Automated Insights, provides “auto generated, data-heavy articles” on topics such as quarterly earnings and college sports. A beta version is available now on Wordsmith’s website, with a full launch expected in January 2016. The technology is already used by companies such as the Associated Press and Yahoo.

Anything that can be turned into a flow chart can be automated, as I heard Ben Hammersly put it at Learnfest this summer.

Having a vision when you can’t see where you’re going

Buzzfeed’s a company I follow as closely as I can – for a couple of reasons. It’s understood content and the Web better than any other media organisation (“sharing is distribution ”) and also it is constantly having to reinvent itself as the Web evolves.

On Friday, CEO Jonas Perretti publicly posted a letter to his company:

During the explosive growth of the past year, it’s been easy to lose sight of the big picture. We don’t have an existing model to copy, because we are building something that has never existed before and wasn’t even possible before social networks and smartphones became the primary way people consume news and entertainment around the world.

The post goes on to calibrate the company’s vision as a “cross-platform global network” for media. That Buzzfeed’s vision and identity changes over time is a strength – more than many CEOs Perretti acknowledges uncertainty about their destination and the route they’ll take.


Progressive policies are worthless without real culture change

Andrew Hill at the FT challenges companies offering amazing-sounding benefits that are unlikely to ever really be used by employees without the backing of leaders and some serious culture change:

The need to have enough people available for vital work puts a natural limit on the ability of everyone to bunk off at once. But, without guidance, it may also lash them more firmly to their desks.

Sir Richard Branson was rightly lampooned for making unlimited leave at Virgin conditional on staff being “a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project”.

Discussing the Netflix policy of giving parents unlimited time off in the first year after a child, Hill says that unless leaders at the company take up the policy, or there are other nudges to encourage staff, it will be a hollow offer. The policy may be there, but culture will stop people using it…

The future of digital literacy


The concept of digital literacy – the ability to use the web and digital media effectively – was brought to my attention by the work of Howard Rheingold, online culture pioneer and edge thinker par excellence. In an interview with Education blog Edmondo, he explains how digital literacy is evolving. Everything he talked about before – literacies of attention, participation, crap detection, collaboration and “network know-how” stands, says Rheingold…

…but is multiplied by the migration from the desktop to mobile. Next up: finally, technology catches up with the dream of virtual reality and many of the attention problems will be multiplied and a new issue of distinguishing digital and physical reality will enter. More and more commercial and political interests are learning how to use digital media to deceive and manipulate—much faster than people are learning crap detection.

At Brilliant Noise we’ve been developing learning programmes for clients like The Financial Times and TUI around digital literacy – we talk about “digital mindset”, but it is the same thing. In the interview Rheingold’s four tips for teachers (and parents)

  • Encourage critical thinking. Ask students to find questionable and reliable websites and tell you why they are.

And I’d extend critical thinking to all areas of one’s life in relation to digital. Why are you using the tools that come as standard on your computer or phone, or that your company issues? How does using a spreadsheet, PowerPoint or word processing software change the way you think when you are working? Which is best? Have you tried outliners, mind-maps or offline tools for organising information and your thoughts?

  • Encourage attention to attention. When you open your laptop in class or look at the screen of your phone, try asking yourself why you are doing it.

This is an extension of critical thinking, and also brings in elements of mindfulness. It’s very easy to get stuck in less useful habits of using digital tools. Personally, I turn off all notifications on my phone and computer, bar text, phone and calendar – and I put the attention hungry apps like Twitter, Instagram and email on the third page of my phone, so I have to make a conscious decision to go and use them. It’s really helped to cut down semi-involuntary app use (but not eliminated it).

  • Encourage participation. Comment on a blog, make a correction on Wikipedia, reblog on Tumblr.
  • Encourage collaboration. Work on a collaborative document, participate in a virtual community.

These two tips work well together. I encourage working together with colleagues to try out new behaviours and tools, with the objective of seeing if they work for you as individuals and as a team. Bookmarking tools like Diigo are particularly useful for this, or collaborating on a Google Doc article together, if you don’t use that already. Digital literacy grows with a combination of experience, critical thinking and reflection. You need to use digital tools rather than just read about them or have them explained in order to really know how they work.

Brilliant to read more of Howard Rheingold’s thinking – he has been a consistent inspiration to me personally and professionally. If you’d like to find out more about his work, I recommend his book Net Smart and he also runs courses – the next one is on cooperation theory.

Strategy and the UK General Election 2015


Image: Poor taste or poor strategy? A mug bearing one of Labour’s 2015 election pledges.

I’m interested in the role strategy played a role in how the parties behaved in the General Election that has just concluded. Strategy – when it is done well – gives organisations a clear answer to the question: how can I use the limited resources I have to achieve the result I want.

Looking at strategy won’t give us all the answers to why the election result was a surprise – when 45 million people get to make a decision together we should be careful to remember what John Tooby calls “nexus causality” (in layman’s terms explanations for events are never as simple as we’d like to think).

Comparing two accounts of the strategy of the two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives (now the two main parties in England, at least) there are signs that one got its strategy very right and the other very wrong.

Discussing the Labour strategy, Martin Kettle in the Guardian says:

It has always been clear that Miliband has been following a targeted electoral strategy. The generous view is that he believes that, after the financial crisis, there is a winning coalition to be built from core Labour voters, disillusioned Liberal Democrats and middle-class sympathisers with the poor. But last night it became clear that this strategy has quite simply failed.

If this was the Labour strategy it was a wishful thinking at best, at worst it was a vague vision passed off as a strategy. People think that visions are a good thing in strategy, often mistake them for strategy, but in the merciless, street-fighting reality of an election, visions are messages, stories to inspire, they are not effective ways of focusing resources.

The analysis was vague, the resolution equally so. No matter how much energy and resources Labour activists could muster it was going to be squandered on a “strategy” that had a lack of focus and direction.

Labour should publish it’s failed strategy, if it really had one, so that Miliband’s successors can learn from their mistakes.

The failure of Labour’s approach is even strarker when you compare it with the actual focus and discipline of the Conservative strategy, planned and delivered by political consultant Lynton Crosby and Chancellor George Osborne.

Here’s Kiran Stacey in The Financial Times on how the Tory campaign began:

Despite polls showing the Tories in a dead heat with the opposition Labour party, Mr Crosby was in ebullient form. “He told us everything was in our favour,” says an MP who attended. “As long as we made the campaign about the economy and Labour leader Ed Miliband’s weakness.”

Mr Crosby, who cut his teeth in the world of macho Australian politics, had studied the data and knew victory was in the Conservatives’ grasp if they could just win over a few thousand voters in a few dozen marginal seats in England.

What the Conservatives did was deliver well on both halves of the strategy equation: the analysis and direction were right, but then they implemented their plan without losing their nerve even when almost everyone else was telling them they were wrong.

This election was a very close run thing – for all the rejoicing in the blue camp about a majority, it is still wafer thin. Nonetheless, it is far better a result than anyone, bar the leadership of the campaign expected.

Confidence in the strategy waxed and waned in the tense six weeks that ensued — and the strategy itself sometimes wavered. But yesterday morning his approach was vindicated as the Conservatives confounded expectations by sweeping not just to victory but to a majority in parliament.

“The campaign managers were always confident that we could get there, but that confidence was not always shared at the top,” says a Conservative strategist. “Lynton was right all along.”

The Tories learned from their mistakes in 2010 and ran a more focused, consistent campaign in 2015. Labour did not learn from 2010 – it just replaced its leader and substituted wishful thinking for strategy.

People who are disappointed with the General Election result would do well to push for more effective leadership and better strategy from the Labour party. As professor of strategy Richard Rumelt put it in a paper on bad strategy for McKinsey:

The only remedy is for us to demand more from those who lead. More than charisma and vision, we must demand good strategy.

A final point on leadership. There was a strange trope on Twitter along the lines of “if only people voted for policies and not personalities”, as if the ability to develop and then deliver policy would be completely separate from personality. We may not have presidential elections in the UK, but backing a party is rightly affected by voters’ views on the leadership and whether they would be an effective leader for the UK.

New leadership might be hard to come by without a lot of new recruits to Labour, if we’re to believe Paul Mason of Channel 4 News the party hasn’t got the right people to think this through:

Miliband’s inner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted….

Labour […] is waking up to something much worse than failure to win. It has failed to account for its defeat in 2010, failed to recognise the deep sources of its failure in Scotland, and failed to produce any kind of intellectual diversity and resilience from which answers might arise.

Ironic to think that a party that values diversity suffers from a lack of diverse brain power. It certainly needs to promote political and intellectual immigration into its own ranks if it is to rebuild its ability to win elections.