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Stewart Brand and the Pace Layer Model

Update: The full audio of the talk is now up on the Long Now blog.

I had the good fortune to see Stewart Brand speak the other night with futurist Paul Saffo as moderator at the The Interval, a bar/salon built by The Long Now Foundation. Brand edited the original Whole Earth Catalog (which Steve Jobs famously called, “Google in paperback form”), founded The Well which pre-dated (and set the tone for) internet newsgroups, and weaved his life in amongst Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and the Haight-Ashbury scene in the 1960s. I am a huge fan of Stewart’s philosophy and knew this would be a special talk. I was not disappointed.

Steward Brand & the Pace Layer Model

“What does this even mean?”

So posted my neighbor in response to my Facebook posting of the diagram above.  I would describe it as a rubric to apply to the way change happens over time.  There is a natural order to systems where some elements move faster than others. This fractal pattern of fast & slow is repeated in all things, best described in Stewart’s book, Clock Of The Long Now

Consider, for example, a coniferous forest. The hierarchy in scale of pine needle, tree crown, patch, stand, whole forest, and biome is also a time hierarchy. The needle changes within a year, the tree crown over several years, the patch over many decades, the stand over a couple of centuries, the forest over a thousand years, and the biome over ten thousand years. The range of what the needle may do is constrained by the tree crown, which is constrained by the patch and stand, which are controlled by the forest, which is controlled by the biome. Nevertheless, innovation percolates throughout the system via evolutionary competition among lineages of individual trees dealing with the stresses of crowding, parasites, predation, and weather.

Stewart Brand – Clock of the Long Now

This model of thinking can be applied to all systems, natural and man made, and is useful to understand inter-dependencies. The model first came together in another book by Stewart, How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built

Pace Layering

Stewart noted that different layers in a building had different rates of change. The furniture (stuff) gets re-arranged freely while other layers such as the structure or skin are much less malleable. The most immutable is the site which is the plot of land upon which a building is standing, in cities bounded by streets and sight lines.

Huge skyscrapers dance to the choreography of (a city) street plan.

Besides rate of change, there are other properties of the layers of the model as you progress from the outside in,

OuterInner
FastSlow
LearnRemember
ProposeDispose
Absorb shockIntegrate shock
DiscontinuousContinuous
InnovationConstraint
RevolutionConsistency
Gets AttentionHas Power

The interplay between each layer in the model, the “slip zones” is where, as Stewart says, “all the action is.” The outer layers move more rapidly than the inner ones but each ring is not independent. There is tension of one upon the other so that something like fashion, which wiggles back and forth, revisiting and revising itself over time influences the other. As one ring moves, there is a viscosity between each layer and there is a tension that pulls and pushes neighboring layers so that changes in fashion lead to changes in commerce which then influences the infrastructure necessary to support that commerce and so on.

When the tension becomes too great, we get “slippage” that must be absorbed to prevent the system from breaking apart. Like tectonic plates along a fault line, if one layer gets too out of sync with another, the shock from rapid movement of a layer causes ripple effects felt throughout the system. Healthy systems can incrementally absorb movements at their own speed. Those that cannot, because of inflexibility, crack and break as a result of the stress. If a government cannot adjust, it will ultimately be overthrown. If commercial pressures  in pursuit of ever greater profits outstrip the ethics of a culture, that too may break apart a system.

The 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco impacted the insurance industry that was not prepared to underwrite damage on such a large scale. This led directly to the financial panic of 1907. This is an example of a rapid movement in nature impacting commerce which required later adjustments to infrastructure and governance after the fact to address the new, post-earthquake reality.

Jupiter

Another way to visualize the Pace Layer model is by looking at the rings of Jupiter. Each ring moves at a different rate and the “shear” on the boundaries of each layer causes the turbulence seen above. Stewart calls these boundaries areas of “productive turbulence” rich in innovation and evolutionary change, similar to the tidal zones of the ocean side.

The intersection of change in these zones gives birth to our greatest ideas. The combination of the counter-culture movement of the Sixties with the convergence of technical advancements made available by the space race in Silicon Valley gave us the internet.

When the Pace Layer model is applied to our world today, Stewart argues that some forces such as technology have permeated each layer to the point where they act as “gravity” pulling layers along and keeping them in sync. The trend in wearable computing are very much in the fashion layer and demands and constraints there are driving commerce to keep up. New infrastructure is required to support new devices such as Apple’s iWatch (think beacons) and debates about data privacy are driving debates in our governance. The impact of everyone sharing location are forcing us to re-think our cultural norms. Will the culture of selfies and “competitive happiness” of status updates from Facebook here to stay or will there be a backlash?

Concepts such as Democracy and Capitalism are accelerators. The transparencies of  these methods of organization help transmit information quickly from one layer to the next. Think of them as catalysts that help the slower layers to move in sync with the others, preventing the need for large adjustments of the slower layers which inevitably cause shocks to the system.

Stewart added that the layers also act as filters which sift ideas from the outside layers. His example was that both hula hoops and jogging were born in the same Summer but only one survived to have broader impacts to the inner layers. Jogging begat an appreciation for exercise which drove new industries in commerce, infrastructure changed to allow for jogging paths as an important part of city development and so on.

As a parting thought, Stewart Brand left us all with some homework.

Identify a global issue/challenge foremost on your mind…

Now ask yourself:

  1. Out of which pace layer did it emerge?
  2. In which pace layer are its impacts most felt?
  3. From which pace layer is a solution most likely to emerge?

Consider the time dimension for each of 1 – 3:

  1. How long did it take for the issue to emerge?
  2. How long will it take to resolve?

The challenge proposed was global warming. While changes to the upper layers in fashion and commerce have impacted nature, the feedback from the planet in the form of super storms and long term droughts are now being felt with increasing frequency. Will the upper layers be able to absorb these changes or can changes in the governance layer lessen the impact and put in place laws and infrastructure that can reign in the onward momentum of the upper layers?

One challenge before us is that our existing structures of governance are limited by geography. Local, State and Federal governments are coming together to address climate change but to impact changes as deep as the global climate change, a new form of global governance may be necessary, one that has the teeth to make and enforce global policy changes. If not, we may be in for a rough ride and can expect multiple shocks to the system.

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I no longer have a role at Gigaom

Last week certainly was interesting. On Wednesday morning I was abruptly informed that, along with my VP and two engineers, that our services were no longer needed at Gigaom.

While unravelling my personal social profiles from the various company pages I had set up for Gigaom, it was Facebook’s robotic bit of micro-copy that really brought it home, “You no longer have a role on Gigaom.” Harsh.

No Role at Gigaom

Japanese has this wonderful phrase, iro iro (いろいろ) which means roughly, “lots of things that I’d rather not go into now but feel free to ask me over drinks” and I’ll leave it at that. Nothing dramatic, just a sudden shift of course that made it clear that it was time to move on. I’ll leave it at that.

I had a great run at Gigaom and I thank Daniel Raffel for the introduction and Paul Walborsky and Om Malik for their support while working there.  I joined when Gigaom was a collection of blogs with a nascent premium subscription business. Gigaom Research is now a major driver of revenue. As a Product Manager and later Director of Product the team tackled a number of projects of which I’m proud.

  • acquired and integrated paidcontent.org
  • redesigned Gigaom, Gigaom Research, and Gigaom Events as responsive
  • replaced the e-commerce back end
  • redesigned the gigaom.com post page and front page (twice)
  • rolled out a major re-brand across all properties
  • re-configured the Gigaom Research subscriber acquisition funnel
  • launched Analyst Connect, a simple way to connect to Gigaom Research analysts
  • launched Data Connect, a charts-centric view into Gigaom Research
  • launched Gigaom Search, a faceted search engine across the 15 year archive
  • launched Gigaom Alerts, a free tag-based notification service

In addition to the projects above, I am also pleased with my contribution to setting up how the Product Team is run. As the company grew through the critical 50 employee mark where unstructured cross-department communications begin to break down, the daily stand-up, weekly Dev Diary, Friday Show-and-Tell presentation, and quarterly Product Roadmaps all played an important role in keeping things on track. The methodology was simple and I think that’s what led to its success.

The engineers greased communication even further by migrating off our group Skype chat into HipChat rooms with integrations into GitHub and a script that could spawn a Google Hangouts on demand. We even had a Sonos-driven alarm that would play Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up on queue to remind us all when it was time for our daily check-in. Sometimes it’s the little things.

It’s always bittersweet to leave a place of employment, like the breakup of a band. There’s a lot of talent there and I’ll miss working with them. I will also personally miss the vortex of activity that comes with working at an organization that takes in the news of the day and validates, organizes, and distributes it back to its readers.

Gigaom is a premium content business with increasingly valuable content and services made available to customers at its higher tier customers. I often tell people that the most valuable content is in the internal Gigaom newsfeeds, the price of which is full time employment. As of now, I am unsubscribed.

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Robot underlords

In 15 minutes, CPG Grey’s Humans Need Not Apply paints a bleak picture for anyone who thinks that the coming robot revolution will free everyone up for more creative pursuits. Trouble is, poetry and painting don’t pay the rent.

Transportation, driving things & people from point A to point B employs millions of people today. What will happen to these people when self-driving transport is perfected? In the Great Depression 25% of the workforce was out of work and unable to feed itself. Pointing to a list of the jobs in danger of automation Grey argues,

This list above is 45% of the workforce. Just what we’ve talked about today, the stuff that already works, can push us over that number pretty soon. And given that even our modern technological wonderland new kinds of work are not a significant portion of the economy, this is a big problem.

This is not something that will happen sometime in the future, this is something that’s already happening. Amazon’s Robot Army was mobilized two years ago. It’s a re-occurring theme, robots taking over and turning against their maker. Coming soon to a theater near you in October, Autómata.

I’m not too worried. According to Derrick Harris (who writes about this kind of stuff)

Building an AI system that excels at a particular task — even a mundane one such as recognizing breeds of dogs — is hard, manual work. Even so-called “self-learning” systems need lots of human tuning at every other step in the process. Making disparate systems work together to provide any sort of human-like concept of reality would be even harder still.

When data becomes dangerous: Why Elon Musk is right and wrong about AI

Before AI systems can communicate with each other and learn, we’ll need standards. As long as creation of standards remain in the hands of human-based, quasi-governmental international organizations that take ages to agree on anything, we’re safe

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Facebook is Madison Avenue’s new Yahoo

Ever since it began selling ads 10 years ago, Facebook has been combating doubts about its value to marketers. Search engines like Google offer advertisers a direct link to people seeking out particular products, while television remains the dominant way to reach a mass audience. Now, Facebook claims, it can provide the best of both.

How Facebook Sold You Krill Oil, New York Times

Facebook stock sailed past analyst expectations last month and its stock hit an all time high. It looks like brand advertisers are coming on board now that Facebook has the audience to fulfill the promise of hitting targeted demographics, at scale.

This should be cause for concern at Yahoo (not mentioned in the NYT article) who was the traditional online goto for brand advertisers. The market has since spoken.

FB vs. YHOO stock price

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True University

Running a start-up can be a lonely. What is glamorized in media are the high points, revenue and usage going up and to the right, the launch party, the high-fives when you close a big deal, the opening of your first office.

The reality is more gut wrenching. The late night realization that you may not make a revenue target. The early morning notification that your server is offline. The sinking feeling when a key prospect tells you they cannot work with you. The difficult meeting with an employee when have to tell them you have to let them go.

The life of an entrepreneur is a series of peaks and valleys that can whip you from euphoria to depression and back again in the course of a few days. But it’s when you’re starring into the abyss that you find out who your true friends are, when you find out if you picked the right group of investors, that believe in you and will help you work it out.

After spending two days at Stanford University with 250 other individuals who work at True Venture portfolio companies, I have a new appreciation for why someone would want True Ventures as a backer.

Once a year, True,  an investor in my company, Gigaom,  hosts a  True University for its portfolio companies. It’s an incredibly generous offering. Two days rich with talks and workshops on how to run a business. A sample of the sessions include:

  • Steve Blank talking about how to develop a business model and product/market fit
  • Army Major Aram Donigian talking about negotiation tactics learned while in Iraq
  • Robert Brunner, the designer of Beats headphones, talking about design experience
  • Reverend Cecil Williams and his sharp as a tack wife Janice Mirikitani talking about the mission of GLIDE

Robert Brunner on design process
Design should be more than just a phase between marketing and engineering – Robert Brunner

And that’s just the highlight. In between were smaller workshops with folks like Hooman Radfar (the right and wrong way to let someone go), Lars Nilsson (how to set up and run an inside sales team), and Braden Kowitz (how to run a design sprint).

Negotiation Lessons Learned from West Point
Negotiation Lessons Learned from West Point

But it’s more than talks and workshops. I came away with a feeling of community. True University is an environment of complete trust and collaboration. I spoke openly about challenges I was facing and shared with others lessons I have learned. We were all working to build something and we wanted each other to succeed. True Ventures is more than a collection of investments, it’s a platform from which tomorrow’s leaders can take a leap and know that you’ve got a community of like-minded folks are behind you.

True Venture's Jon Callahan  on trust and risk
True Venture’s Jon Callahan speaking on trust and risk

Thank you True Ventures for being an investor and thank you for an amazing couple of days!

Further: videos from past True University sessions are posted at on TrueTube

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Slow-Market Arbitrage in Bandwidth and Finance

Michael Lewis published an fascinating look into the world of high frequency traders on Wall Street in the New York Times. He goes deep into the shadowy world of private exchange “dark pools” and unregulated private networks. As someone who follows technology news and the debates over network peering and net neutrality, Mr. Lewis’ tale of what happens when you let the established players extend their advantage with direct network connections in the world of finance is another argument for net neutrality.

First some background.

As the big financial firms moved their trading online, the speed of the transactions became a competitive advantage. Firms that connected directly to the exchanges gained an advantage as they were able to execute their trades milliseconds faster than the competition, staying ahead of large market moves, shaving pennies that added up to millions at their enormous volumes.

The pursuit of speed reached ludicrous with the launch of projects such as Arctic Fibre which was offering to connect European and Asian markets under the North Pole ice cap to reduce latency.

Artic fiber CDN

When I was working at a securities firm in Tokyo, rumor was that one US firm had used superior hardware (Sun Workstations at the time) that could calculate the Nikkei 225 average a few milli-seconds faster than the mainframes at the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Futures for the 225 were traded in Osaka on the OSE so by running the calculations in Tokyo and sending orders over a high-speed network to Osaka, this firm was able to make a bet on where there market was going with 100% certainty. That gravy train lasted for a few months until the OSE caught on and then someone put something on to that firm’s feed that slowed their signal down just enough to erase their advantage.

These kinds of shenanigans are par for the course in the world of finance which is always looking for the greater fool. Technology has always been used to gain visibility into the market whether it’s counting delivery trucks as an early indicator of business results or Paul Kedrosky’s ladder index, traders are keen to optimize on the latest silver bullet.

So it comes as no surprise that Wall Street brokerage firms used their high-speed trading platforms to trade in front of their customers and skim razor margins off the top to keep for themselves.

Katsuyama and his team did measure how much more cheaply they bought stock when they removed the ability of some other unknown trader to front-run them. For instance, they bought 10 million shares of Citigroup, then trading at roughly $4 per share, and saved $29,000 — or less than 0.1 percent of the total price. “That was the invisible tax,” Park says. It sounded small until you realized that the average daily volume in the U.S. stock market was $225 billion. The same tax rate applied to that sum came to nearly $160 million a day. “It was so insidious because you couldn’t see it,” Katsuyama says. “It happens on such a granular level that even if you tried to line it up and figure it out, you wouldn’t be able to do it. People are getting screwed because they can’t imagine a microsecond.”

When you move from analog to digital the line of a signal gets chopped into samples. The gap between the sample and the raw signal grows imperceptibly narrow the more frequent the sampling. The profit of the high-frequency trading firm is made within those gaps.

Digital Sampling

High-speed fiber optic networks and global exchange liquidity centers are the latest tools of the trade. Co-location of your execution servers in the cage next to a stock exchange drop point in a data center guarantees that you can jump in and out of financial instruments faster than the next guy allowing you to trade in and around that gap between the bid and the ask.

This is a parable for what will happen if Netflix and other big media companies do deals with ISPs to guarantee bandwidth for their content. It undermines net neutrality and the level playing field for all media companies. Smaller, disruptive media companies are shut out, unable to compete with entrenched incumbents. Fast, direct connections creates an unfair advantage for those with the resources, both in the online media world and in the world of finance. If you’re able to deliver a better price or cleaner video signal, it’s all due to bandwidth. In the digital age, bandwidth truly is the new coin of the realm.

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So it begins – iOS CarPlay

Announced at last year’s WWDC, Apple revealed today that CarPlay, the integrated iOS platform for in-dash entertainment and navigation will be shipping in 2014 models by Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. Notable in its absence was Tesla.

The ecosystem will limit apps to approved partners so it’s Siri for voice and Apple Maps for navigation. Music is open to 3rd party alternatives to iTunes with icons for Spotify, iHeartRadio and the newcomer Beats Music. Missing at today’s launch is Pandora.

While a touchscreen launches each app, Siri is now front and center as the main way to interface with each application. I’ve been using Siri to text short messages to my wife while driving and have been pleased with the results.

Automakers have largely failed to open up their APIs and create any sort of developer ecosystem around applications that interface with their cars. The Prius had a healthy hacking community but it was mostly fringe forum chats about hidden menus and easter eggs. People seem reluctant to brick their Teslas.

Will the app ecosystem play into which car you’ll buy next? We all wait for Apple’s entry into the battle for the living room but the opening shots in the battle for the dashboard have just been fired.

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Object Trackers – Two Approaches

Nokia announced, the Treasure Tag, new hardware to go with their Lumia phones sporting the latest update. The tag is a small piece of hardware that communicates with the phone via bluetooth and an app on the phone that monitors proximity, alerting you when the device falls out of bluetooth range from your phone. Until you turn it off (which you can do via the app) the connection between the phone and a paired Treasure Tag is constantly monitored. Nokia says a battery can keep the Tag running for up to six months.

Each phone can support up to four Treasure Tags. The idea is that you attach a tag to something you want to have close-by. Keys, purse, whatever.

The Nokia Treasure Tag app description mentions that you can use, “Audio alerts to find a tag, or a tag to find your phone” but I’m not clear on how a phone can activate the audio on a tag or visa versa if either is out of bluetooth range.

Nokia Treasure Tag

What would be cool is if the Treasure Tag could broadcast GPS coordinates much like an iPad or iPhone can when you activate the Find My iPhone feature on iCloud. Unfortunately, such functionality would be cost & power prohibitive on such a small device that retails for $30. As a work around, the Treasure Tile can put a pin on a map and show you where it last had a connection with it’s phone. Useful if you misplaced an object but useless if someone’s walked off with your purse.

Tile

The Tile is taking a different approach. Instead of looking for a paired device, the Tile can pair with any device running the Tile app. For example, if someone’s walked off with your bag and ends up at a party where someone else is running the Tile app, their app will send time and location of that occurrence from their phone to yours via their phone’s GPS. This is, of course, useless again if the thief discovers the Tile and throws it in the trash but the approach is innovative in its crowdsourced approach. There needs to be a critical mass of people running the Tile app for it to be truly effective but one can imagine the Tile being able to tie into the iOS Beacon sensors in every iPhone & iPad as a quick way to get to scale.

The Tile is also different is a couple of other ways. There is no replaceable battery. A tile lasts for a year, then you replace it. It also features a, “where you last saw it” function that pushes a pin into a map so you can figure out where to begin your search. There is also an audio signal that you can activate to find a Tile that might be hidden under your sofa cushions or in your laundry. Finally, there is an on-screen feature on the app that gives an indicator when you are getting closer or further away from an item when you’re within 150-50 feet of the item.

Tile Getting Warmer

I’m not sure which approach wins here. The goal is to sell a small accessory that you can attach to an object that lets you keep track of an locate it. Each has its own strengths but my gut tells me that form factor is pretty important. If the prime use case is attaching a sensor to your keys, wallet, (or, as my daughter said, television remote), size is pretty important. While the Tile wins on size, it’s unfortunate that you have to landfill the tag every year and would keep me from buying a set.

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To Give and Not Receive

This afternoon New York Times readers were assaulted by a full page takeover that unfolded across the front page effectively roadblocking the news of the day with a “special report” layout that was both interruptive and offensive. If this is where they are going with their native advertising, I do not like.

Merrill Takeover

All publishers need to make a buck and, as someone that works in online publishing, I encourage experimentation but the fact that an institution such as the New York Times would stoop to running such an amateur-looking infomercial hints of desperation. While the Face Retirement campaign is innovative (the landing page asks for access to your computer’s camera so it can take a photo of you and “age” you), there page curl takeover is as old as the hills and takes me back to the Dancing Mortgage Man remnant ads we used to joke about at Yahoo. These ads take more than they give.

The add was frequency capped so it only ran once per unique visitor but the CPMs must have been pricey. But I can’t help but think that the hundreds of thousands spent by Bank of America to run this ad could have been better spent in other ways. Instead of invading your senses, wouldn’t both the audience, publisher, and advertiser have been better served by underwriting an open house for heavy users of the site? What about granting a free subscription to the paper for three months in return for some personal information that helps you better market your retirement planning services with glossy mailers? There are so many other ways that you can spend $250k, throwing up roadblock banners just seems lazy all around.

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this yor folt

The Reply Allpocalypse is something everyone who has ever been on a large email list (NYU, Columbia). It’s an amateur mistake but it starts out with someone send an email to the entire list but is then compounded when people on the list (the larger the initial list, the more chances they’ll be some jokers in there that don’t understand how email works) start to reply and, instead of replying to the sender, decided that everyone on the list needs to see their response.

As the thread continues, everyone’s inbox starts to fill up with further replies of things like “unsubscribe” or “stop spamming me!!” that are also sent to the entire list. This can spiral out of control and bring a mail server to it’s knees and totally take out any mobile mail clients that are frantically trying to keep up.

At some point, people begin to realize that the list is a way for anyone to push a message to everyone at the entire company so you get and “open mike” situation where everyone who has had anything to stay will jump on the bandwagon with their own one-liner they just had to share.

The graphic above is from one such incident that happened while I was at Nokia. I don’t even remember the initial email but it was sent to a large list, could have been the entire company which I think is over 100k souls. As the Reply Alls started to pile on, everyone’s inbox was momentarily taken over and then someone helpfully decided to make an infographic of the type of responses that piled up.

Most famously was the “this yor folt” which came from someone in one of the Central European offices. English was obviously not his first language but his one-liner kicked off a whole new thread of people who started a new thread to poke fun at his butchering of the language as a representation of the folks who kept hitting Reply All to vent and complain,  not realizing that they were actually compounding the problem.

If you’re going to send out a mass email, the BCC is your friend.

Commemorative T-Shirts!
and mugs too!