May 16th 1998 was a pretty important day for me. I’d been skiving off university to help out on a campaign called Jubilee 2000 and that was the day that we knew something pretty special was going on. 70,000 people showed up to an event we’d been organising to form a human chain around the G8 leaders in Birmingham calling on them to cancel the debts of some of the world’s poorest countries.
While debt is still a problem for developing countries, its effects have also become a first world problem. Back then ‘austerity’ wasn’t the word that was used, but the way that the IMF would go into developing countries and demand swinging cuts to public services – including any health care or education that existed – was exactly the same. It didn’t work then and I can’t see it working now.
Not a lot of people know that Groupon started out life as a project to try and put a giant inflatable banana into orbit over Texas, but it did. When I first saw Andrew Mason pitch, the idea was called ThePoint and it was essentially an early version of Kickstarter whereby projects would only get funded if they reached a particular target. The banana project was going to cost $1.5 million.
Now the dream of putting things into space using crowdfunding seems to be coming true (not inflatable bananas yet, but it can only be a matter of time). There are quite a few projects putting CubeSats, weather balloons and other micro spacecraft into orbit and I met the people behind a project in Bristol last week that is even more ambitious and due to announce in the next few weeks. It seems that not even the most monolithic of industries can resist the crowd.
I went along to see Sebastiao Salgado‘s Genesis exhibition at the Natural History Museum on Friday evening. It’s a wonderful and slightly overwhelming set of over 200 photographs of wildernesses around the world, from the antarctic to the wilds of western Russia and the Amazon to rural Africa. If you get a chance, I’d definitely recommend it.
As with much of Salgado’s photography, you find yourself wondering how on earth he created it. The huge black and white prints are unmistakably his style and I started wondering whether he still uses film rather than a digital camera. The answer, apparently is that even Salgado got fed up with the faff of analog camera film:
I photographed with film for many years; now that I work in digital, the difference is enormous. The quality is unbelievable: I don’t use flash, and with digital I can even work in very bad light. Also, it’s a relief not to lose photographs to x-ray machines in airports.
He uses Canon digital cameras and then the files are transferred to analog negatives and processed the way they always have been onto the huge black and white prints. Hence preserving the same signature Salgado style and graininess. Even the greats like to ‘instagram’ their images it seems.
Larry Lessig’s TED talk posted last week is well worth a watch for two reasons. Firstly, Lessig is absolutely right and campaign finance reform would probably be the best thing for everybody in the US to get right next. I spent quite a lot of time there in the run up to the election and couldn’t quite believe how obscene the influence of small groups of political funders was. Even though the problem is on a very different scale in the UK, I think we should have the same response. I’ve posted some suggestions before on party funding reform.
Secondly, it’s a masterclass in the public presentation of ideas. I first came across Lessig in 2002 when he was giving his ‘Free Culture‘ presentation. It completely changed the way I thought about Powerpoint (or more accurately Keynote I think) and made me realise how few presentations actually have that emotional impact. Charles Stross has a plot line in the Jennifer Morgue that involves a villain killing off intelligence officers by turning them into zombies through after lunch powerpoint presentations. In most cases, he’s not far wrong.
I’ve been reading a lot of Charles Stross lately – particularly the Laundry series. He’s one of my favourite contemporary science fiction authors, partly because of the ambition of some of his more conceptual stuff but also because he’s very funny.
The Jennifer Morgue is the second in the Laundry series of supernatural spy thrillers and (without giving too much away) has a strong James Bond theme. You should read it but I really liked the little author’s essay at the back about the cultural significance of Bond. It includes a fictional recent interview with Ernst Blofeld – perhaps the most infamous of the the Bond villains:
Now at age seventy-two, Blofeld is a cheerful veteran of numerous high-tech start-ups, and not a few multinationals where, as a specialist in international risk management and arbitrage, he applied his unique skills to business expansion.
Beneath the humour there’s a darker point that Stross makes – that in the end it was the men of private means rather than the Governments that triumphed. I think his tongue is at least partly in his cheek when he says:
If you turn on the TV you’re likely to see one of old Ernst’s proteges being held up for praise as an object of emulation. President of Italy, captain of industry or chief executive of Enron – SPECTRE won and it’s their world that we live in, the world of the lesser evil.
A great challenge in this talk by the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal urging startup founders to make use of all the amazing technology now in our hands to solve real problems. He says if we’re to solve those problems, we need to widen founders beyond 24-year-old white guys:
Diversity isn’t going to be something that is nice, diversity is going to be something that is necessary.
Here’s a great little video of Guy Kawasaki speaking at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley on 10 mistakes that entrepreneurs make – particularly if they’re rockstar engineers trying to disrupt the pet food industry.
Eze hosted an event at Campus London on Friday with one of my heros – David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. I read the book in 2002 I think and have been experimenting with different ways of making the system work ever since. It’s no surprise that it’s sold 2 million copies – it’s a self-help book that works and has helped create a whole industry around supporting ‘GTDers’.
If you’re working on a startup and don’t know about GTD, you’re probably best stopping what you’re doing and taking some time out to learn about it. Get your co-founders to do the same because if you all have the same framework for personal productivity you’ll understand each other much better.
There a few bits to the system:
Get everything out of your head – the first step and a habit that you need to get into is writing everything down that you want to do. When you have an idea or when you remember you need to do something, write it down and find a system you trust for doing so.
Sift all of that down to actionable tasks – an actionable task is something that you can do in one go. It shouldn’t need you to work out what you meant and it shouldn’t have multiple dependencies. If it does need something else doing before you can do it, work on that task first. A project is just a series of actionable tasks.
Sort into contexts – when you know what you have to do, you need to work out when to do it. A context is just a way of allocating tasks to a suitable time, so you put all your calls into a context called ‘phone calls’ or emails into ‘email’ or errands into ‘out and about’.
Review regularly – this was the bit that came through very strongly in David’s talk on Friday. He even said that the most important part of the system for him now was his weekly review when he takes a step back and works out whether he’s working on things that matter to him.
Huge thanks to the Campus team for organising the event. Really enjoyed it.
Just spotted that MakerBot have announced that they’ll be launching a 3D scanner later in the year. Not sure whether the choice of object to demo it on was significant but, for those who remember a particular South Park episode, it does bring to mind the problem that the gnomes always had was ‘step 2′. That’s going to be the key to 3D printing taking off I think.
There were two great pieces of news for transport in London last week which I think deserve a mention.
First was the announcement of the Mayor’s cycling plans, which include developing the cycle super highways and quiet street cycling routes but also noting (finally) what it is that works about cycle friendly cities like Amsterdam – separation of bike routes from other forms of traffic. I’ve never got why we combine them with bus lanes. Personally, I can’t wait for the switch away from petrol and diesel in road vehicles. Quite apart from the CO2 issues, I think the air pollution issues swing it for me. I’d like to see a ban on petrol and diesel vehicles large and small in urban areas in five years.
Second was the announcement that a Formula E race will be staged in London in 2014 which is also fantastic news. I’ve written before about electric racing and how I think it will spur innovation. As in Formula One, the key is to create a revolving door between motor sport and the car industry. Even just the introduction of KERS into Formula One has pushed the technology forward very quickly. Next season the electric units will be capable of producing 120 horsepower which is about the same as a middle of the range saloon car engine and doing all that from reclaimed energy.