Turtles All The Way Down

There’s a old theory, that was most famously cited in Stephen Hawking’s book, A Brief History of Time:

Turtles All The Way DownA well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever”, said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Stories

We always try to understand the world around us. We live and learn about the things we see and touch. We make stories to explain what these things are, and why they behave the way they do. Humans have a tendency to make up stories, stories that explain the world as best as we can.

Explanations

Richard Feynman was a wonderful storyteller. He was also one of the greatest physicists of our time. A man with limitless curiosity and strong character. This is a short excerpt from an old interview with him, in which he explains why he cannot explain how magnets work. This is the integrity of a physicist who refuses to cheat. Most people, he explains, have a problem separating the analogy from reality. Where does the analogy end and reality starts? It doesn’t. There are turtles all the way down.

If you want to hear more of his stories, read his highly recommended autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Causality

So what is a good explanation? Most scientists will tell you a good theory predicts a phenomenon, and thus both explains the existing knowledge base and is then confirmed by observation. Testability is not enough, though.

Even old myths were testable. When the ancient Greek believed winter is caused by the sadness of gods. In this myth, there’s a sad story of forced marriage. This is a theory that is easy to test (and prove false, because when it is winter in Greece, it is summer in Australia). However, we could have spun a different story which would have been testable. For example, having the sad god walk the Earth once a year, bringing winter where ever he goes.

The problem is that this explanation of winter has nothing to do with the seasons, because none of the details of the story has anything to do with seasons, so they are easy to vary. Today we explain seasons by the tilt of the Earth towards the sun. This is a good explanation because it is hard to vary. The degree at which the sunlight hits the Earth causes it to heat in the summer. This works on any object, anywhere, with any light source. You cannot change this explanation, without destroying many other explanations to other, linked phenomenon.

If someone tells you that real estate prices will keep getting higher, and they can’t give you a hard to vary explanation, they are really telling you a wizard did it. Look back onto the news reports from the last year. A whole lot of wizardry was going around during this recession.

Like Richard Feynman, be wary of bad explanations (and economists).

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Wii Hacks and Other Innovative Interfaces

For years, we have dreamed of liberation from the limitations of our computer. We wanted a computer that was portable. We wanted to use controls that were designed for humans, and not for computers. We wanted to be free when interacting with our world. And we wanted the computer to just understand us.

Here are few examples of innovative user interfaces:

Head Tracking & VR

I’ve learned about Johnny Chung Lee about two years ago, when a video instructing how to create a hand tracking¬† user input device that costs less than $50 went viral on the net. Since that day, I’ve followed Johnny Lee with awe, as he was involved in many other innovative interface projects.

How to use the Wiimote to create head tracking, and enhance first person shooters to full body motion. And the code is open source, so you can download it and start making games.

Low Cost Electronic Whiteboard

How to use a simple projector with the Wiimote to create an electronic whiteboard at a fraction of the price. If you are like me, you like using a physical pen and whiteboard to express yourself, but hate copying the result of your doodling session. Problem solved.

Direct Muscle-Computer Interface

Using electrodes to read the electric pulses from you arm muscles can turn your hand into a four-key input device. This can help you control devices when your hands are busy – for example, when exercising or carrying the groceries. It can also be used to play air-guitar hero, Guitar Hero with an air-guitar!

Project Netal

This amazing project by Microsoft is turning computer vision to a whole new level, making the Wiimote feel like a clunky legacy from a time when we actually needed controllers in order to interact with computers. Netal is by far one of the most ambitious projects I’ve seen in a while. I suppose there’s a good chance it won’t be as good as promised, but there is still time to hope.

The Sixth Sense

Pranav Mistry turns the computer and the entire Internet into a wearable, portable, invisible tool that enhances our lives wherever we may go. Using current day technology, he was able to create a new paradigm of personal computing. Unlike Netal, Sixth Sense isn’t pushing the boundaries of what is algorithmically possible. It uses simple mechanisms to change the way we interact with computers, to create a more useful synthesis between the real and the virtual world.

How Google Wave can save Twitter from itself

A few months ago, Rob Diana posted on RegularGeek about the hazards of having only one Twitter or one Facebook. Whenever there’s a service that is important to us, and is without competition, consumers are in a disadvantage:

Unless you live under a rock, you have heard that there were massive DDOS attacks that affected Twitter, Facebook and a few other sites. The sites affected had varying degrees of success in staying functional, but Twitter seemed to be the hardest hit. Given that Twitter was having issues for most of the day, many people migrated to other services like FriendFeed. However, FriendFeed is not an alternative microblogging platform, it is a completely different type of site. So, what can we do if Twitter goes down?

If Twitter goes down, the blogosphere reacts as if the world is ending. It may be a bit much, but Twitter has become a mainstream application. When it goes down, a lot of people know about it. Can we avoid downtime? Probably not, but there are ways to work around this problem. First, Twitter could itself become distributed. Similar to software like email, why not have several Twitter installs around the world that all talk to each other?

Here’s the thing: Once you have a winner in social-networks such as Facebook, or in real-time web such as Twitter, it changes the economy in those markets. The network effects of these products makes them extremely hard to defeat. Today, instead of fighting with Facebook and creating a competing social-network, it makes much more sense to compete within the Facebook economy (this is the angle that Zynga and iLike are playing).

Facebook and Twitter, mainly because of their APIs, are becoming economies, and there’s no backup system in place. If Twitter decides to shut down third party clients, so only official Twitter client with official Twitter ads are used, they’ll can do it. Users have no-where to go.

Fail Whale

Fail Whale

Proprietary is Evil

The internet technology stack is built on openness and sharing. Packet routing is a basic pay-it-forward mechanism where each server does its best effort. Firefox and other open-source projects got a huge boost through the shared efforts of many, and they are creating much needed competition to some evil monopolies. Currently, the leading social companies are (quickly!) becoming monopolies.

And the web prefers good over evil:

Wave can fight Evil

Wave is coming with its own set of open protocols. If you want to create a Wave provider that competes with Google, you can. That’s good because (repeat with me): Where there’s competition, the consumers win.

Here’s a short difference by example between the Wave protocols and the old social media services:

  • Email is a protocol. If I don’t like my email service provider, I can switch. It’s a hassle, but not impossible. Technology allows for competition. Competition drives the market. We win. When Gmail announced they are giving 1GB of storage and a new interface, suddenly everybody was innovating their email clients.
  • Instant messaging is a service. When instant messaging just started, I was using ICQ. I hated ICQ, but I couldn’t move until my friends moved. I liked Messenger, but had to move when my friends started using Gtalk. I can’t chose.

We need to build many Wave servers. We need competing Wave providers. We need to hook Wave into the existing APIs of the social-media services. We need to allow consumers to move from the monolithic services to the distributed technologies, without losing their connections. Once we are on the Wave, no one will be able to keep us away from our real-time web and from our friends. You can’t Fail Whale email, you can only Fail an email provider.

By moving from services to protocols, we can turn the Fail Whale into a Prevail Whale.

Prevail Whale

Prevail Whale

All Marketers Are Liars

Seth Godin has written a book titled “All Marketers Are Liars“, meaning all marketers are storytellers. They do not tell the whole truth and nothing but. It isn’t their job. The job of a good marketer is to sell you a story that you can relate to. A story that will create a brand, a movement, a want. The marketer wants you to remember the product when you are looking for a solution to a problem, and wants to assure you you’ve made the right choice when you are having second thoughts about money spent.

The marketer’s job is to create perceived value, that is greater that the worth of the manufacturing.

Think of Zappos – Zappos created immense value to their customers through exceptional customer service. Zappos isn’t about the shoes. It is about happiness.

Think of McDonald’s – the king of fast food is not about the quality hamburgers. It is about very accessible burgers. Just look at how hard the marketers are working to change the perception of the company to understand how powerful your company’s image is.

Now think of the generic DVD player you bought from an unknown Chinese provider. Why did you buy it? Because it is cheaper, and you couldn’t find anything remarkable in any of the other products. Quality of picture is the same, they all display Divx movies, they all have a USB plug, they all break after six months. So you bought the cheapest one.

Without perceived value, you can only fight for price and the race to the bottom will kill a business.

All Marketers Are Storytellers

This week on TED, Rory Sutherland explained the job of a marketer with grace and a lot of humor. Also, he tells an unbelievable story of the branding of a morning cereals. A square turned into a diamond, becomes much tastier!

Don’t Lie To Me!

In Israel there are four Internet Service Providers, which are basically the same. They give the same crappy service, the same bandwidth offerings, and the same prices more or less. It’s hard to tell exactly, because your price depends quite a bit on how much you are willing to haggle with the sales person.

Yesterday I got the monthly bill from my ISP, and on the back of the envelope there was a poll result about who is the the most valuable (i.e. cheapest) ISP. In order to get an answer, they called many households and asked them who they percieve as the most valuable.

No facts were harmed doing the creation of this poll. And a shame it is, since this particular question (who is cheapest) is really easy to answer. The worst thing you can do is have your customers catch you, as you try to pull one out of a hat. If you are tainted as a liar, nothing you say will change that for a very long time.

Fighting My Instincts

Project management is about combining what’s now with what’s next. A good project manager knows what status the project is right now, but also has a vision about where the project needs to go. At some point, the vision is transformed into a series of features and each feature is described as a list of tasks, that someone on the team needs to do.

Entrepreneurship is all about vision and getting there. Experienced project and product managers understand that there is a very long process between having an idea and having a product. Developers don’t always notice this. We work in smaller chunks. We tend to dive real deep into much smaller ponds. We have greater understanding of detail, but less understanding of the bigger picture.

You have to stop thinking like a developer

Building a startup is a process. It starts with an idea. The idea has to go through market validation. Do people want what you are making? How can you tell? Only then you can start developing. In many cases, what fails a startup is not the technology, but the product-market fit.

I’m a developer. I think like a developer. My instincts tell me:

This is a really cool piece of technology I’m thinking of. If I write this software, I bet everyone will love me and shed me with riches and prestige and hot chicks. RESTECP.

My instincts are stupid. And shallow.

You will not get rich by writing great software. You will get rich by writing get software people want to buy. Or at least, software they want to use. Jeff has said it better than me:

A smart software developer realizes that their job is far more than writing code and shipping it; their job is to build software that people will actually want to use. That encompasses coding, sure, but it also includes a whole host of holistic, non-coding activities that are critical to the overall success of the software. Things like documentation, interaction design, cultivating user community, all the way up to the product vision itself. If you get that stuff wrong, it won’t matter what kind of code you’ve written.

You have to start thinking like a product manager

The product manager is the person responsible for the transition between what the market wants and what the product is. There are many different approaches to product management, but one of my favorites is that of Eric Ries. Eric teaches a type of product management that is based on rigorous scientific methods. I love these methods because I love numbers.

Here are the pillars of the Lean Startup:

  • Progress is Learning per Dollar. You are looking for a product-market fit. Each dollar spent, should get you closer to product-market fit. Don’t measure progress in features and lines of code. Measure progress in the maximum amount of information you can gain from each dollar. This means:
  • Measure. How is my product performing in the market? The best performance indicators are concrete. How much time does a user spend on my site? What percentage of people downloading my demo actually buy the complete version? What is the Life Time Value of an average customer pay? How much does it cost me to get a new customer?
  • Split Test. Does this change improves the performance of my product? Have half your users use one version, and half use the other version. How did performance compare? There are simple mathematical tools for hypothesis testing, and they are highly recommended. Make small changes at a time, and measure all the time.

These ideas may be easier to implement for a website, however, the practices of the Lean Startup are translating into other fields as well.

I am fighting my instincts.

I am a developer. My instincts tell me I should write the code, right now! Every time we talk to a potential customer or potential investor, I think, “screw this. I should be coding. If I were, the product would be done, and they would all buy into it in great quantities”. But we still hear “No”, more than we hear “Yes”. And sometimes we hear a “Maybe”, which could be a “Yes”, if we understand the product-market fit better.

We still need to find a way to get “Yes” all the way through, before we invest too much in code that does not improve our product.