Non-Renewable Resources

Information Is Beautiful ran a visualization contest to show how many years of resources we have left at current utilization levels (or at current rates of increase.)  There are some beautiful submissions that made the short list and that won.

A friend helped me do a bit more research to document how much of the original supply we have already used, and I leaned on the Google chart toolkit to put up pretty charts of who is doing the most extracting for each of the resources listed.  Click on through to see my entry – Non-Renewable. (Note: It looks the way it should in Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. Sorry Internet Explorer users.)

Conway’s Law – Once Again

When I first heard of Conway’s law, I though it was a geek joke.  After years of seeing it play out again and again, I’m realizing that it actually communicates a deep truth about how the world works.

Conway’s law (in my words):
Any organization that creates something is doomed/destined to create something that is a mirror image of its own organizational structure.

I’m doing some consulting work for a small organization that is spread out over two continents.  Two continents, about 10 computers, and probably no official full time employees.  The fellow who runs it does so out of love, and he hires people to handle issues as they come up.  There have to be at least 4 or 5 technical folks with their hands on these machines.  Maybe more.  Truth is – I don’t know how many there are, because I’ve never met them.  I don’t even know most of their names.  One fellow I can catch on skype, but I don’t have his phone number.

And the systems of this organization look exactly the same way – a scattering of programs and computers that are cobbled together by a mess of scripts that either don’t interface with each other, or do so in a totally unique and unpredictable way.  When something breaks, it’s an archeology exercise to figure out how it was built and what went wrong.

The organization wants to fix the problem by finding ‘a better computer person’ to add to the group.  Meanwhile, the rest of the bunch still have their fingers in their part of the mix.  If they really wanted to get things shaped up, they’d either hire a serious full time person to take on the whole picture, or at least insist that all the people involved have a regular conference call.  Without that, Conway’s law is going to keep us all poking away at a scattered bunch of misaligned things that don’t come together into anything cohesive.   

Wolfram Alpha

On the knowledge management front, it looks like Wolfram is about to take a major step forward.  I don’t make these predictions often – based on Wolfram’s track record and what it sounds like they’re set to deliver – this could be the next step in knowledge search, research, and computation.  Meaning – it looks like it’s going to make the Google/Wikipedia method look a tad bit dusty.  Wolfram Alpha is set to go live sometime in May. There’s a blog which gives us a bit of a tease.

Dr. Stephen Wolfram demonstrated Wolfram Alpha yesterday at Harvard.  The video (embed below) gives us tons of mouth watering scenarios, video of Dr. Wolfram typing, but almost no views of the product performing.  It sounds like it’s working.  It sounds like he’s demonstrating something quite amazing.

Hat tip to Joel Katz for the heads up.

Stay tuned…

Mission: Lifestyle Income

I’m going to admit it. I don’t want to spend my life programming. It’s fun and interesting, but it’s not what I would call ultimately worthwhile. What I really want to do is learn, teach, grow in love, and raise a family. I think these are supremely good things for a human being to be doing.

None of the things that I really want to do are good ways to bring in income. It may be possible to make a living as a teacher, but it has too many downsides for me to be enthusiastic. Firstly, teachers are grossly undervalued and underpaid. Don’t get me started. This is one of my hot buttons. Secondly, I’m spoiled by high tech income. It’s tough to take an 70% pay cut. Thirdly, I don’t want to start skewing what and to whom I teach based on where I can churn up cash. I think that would be injurious to the love and joy I’d like to teach with.

Even though learning, teaching, and loving aren’t great ways to bring in money, that’s the way I want to spend my time. I’m a bit of an idealist that way. I don’t want to devote too much time to financing the whole affair. The blessing is that I have pretty simple tastes and a modest budget. I want to live in my community in Jerusalem, keep the kitchen stocked, and go out once in a while. I’d be perfectly happy with about $30k a year.

So what I’m left with is this puzzle: What’s the best way for a person like me – with solid skills in programming, design, analysis, and business – to make a modest income while spending only 4 hours a day on the job?

I think it’s all sorts of possible, and the idea of giving it a run is in itself exciting. It may not be the big hairy audacious goal that star-struck startupists are driven by, but it’s audacious in a different sense. I feel like I’ll be prototyping a sane and sustainable approach to a balanced, enjoyable, and fulfilling life. That’s pretty worthwhile – no?

How are we Going to Beat Oil?

In case you haven’t heard, Better Place is the effort to completely wire-up an electric car infrastructure. It’s starting in Israel, and Denmark and Australia have also signed up. Tim O’Reilley sat with Better Place founder Shai Agassi for a solid half hour discussion at the recent Web 2.0 conference.

While at PresenTense, I heard Mike Granoff, the first investor in Better Place, tell a story of the formation of the company. While still at SAP, Shai pitched his plan to get the world off oil to Israeli president Shimon Peres, wanting the Israeli government to take up the charge. Peres called him late that night, and told him that it wasn’t going to happen that way. A government couldn’t do it; something like this is the job of a business man – “It’s your job”, he said. Shai protested that he was near the top of SAP, one of the most important software companies in the world. Peres responded – “I don’t know what you’ve got in the pipeline over there, but it better be some damn good software.” The next week, Shai left SAP.

The conversation jumps into the brass tacks of how the technology and the business will work. A lot of my questions on the business model were answered here. It’s a great to see Shai Agassi in action, and really worth watching the whole thing.

I’m psyched to trade in my gas guzzler – really psyched.

Drawing out the Best

How do you draw the best out of people?

The question has been at the forefront of my mind for a number of years, and has made me a student of the art of human interaction. I’ve found that people flower in the warm wind of another’s listening. The deeper and purer the listening, the greater the potential. One who walks in this world with attention to others and belief in their potential leaves a trail of blossoming life in his wake.

The amazing work of 826 National comes down to this listening, this attention and belief. They’ve set up creative tutoring centers all over the world, changing the lives of thousands of kids, lighting up their eyes and their creativity. Dave Eggers attributes it all to ‘shining a light’ on each kid. Most of these kids never had someone believe in them, someone really interested in their ideas. That’s all it really takes – one person, an hour a week, truly valuing them and what they do.

Believing in someone isn’t easy. Who do you truly believe in? Who do you truly think has great potential? I’m surprised at the ways I find to discount another person, to judge them or box them up. Recently, I realized that my helping someone can be a veneer over my lack of faith in them. I find that I can be “helping” because I don’t think they can do it on their own, because I don’t really believe in them.  That’s my problem, but it can hobble their potential.

Sincere belief means that I believe that the other person is far greater than I perceive, has the answers to his challenges within him, and has something to teach me. My belief in that goes a long way to making it manifest. It’s a discipline of loving, a discipline that brings new life into the world.

I’m starting to see, and appreciate, that in this world, I’m just a midwife.

In truth, there is no just a midwife. Can you image a work with greater importance? A work that so touches the intimate secret of life and creation?

May we all be midwives to the people we encounter, and to ourselves.

My Five Whys

Joel Spolsky, in case you hadn’t noticed, just writes intelligent insightful stuff. He seems to have been on a blogging break for the past few weeks, and I’ve actually missed him. Now he’s back, and his latest piece has my brain thumping. In it, he speaks about the 5 Whys, originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota.

(digression: When I was young, my father drove a Toyota. It must have been 20 years old. The antenna was missing, and the frame was beginning to rust away, but the car just kept going. When I went to buy a car, I looked at the Ford Focus. In Israel the Focus is actually a very sweet car; we get the European models, totally different than the US models. The Focus drove tight, had lots of power, and was kitted out with all sorts of cool stuff inside. Then I tried the Toyota Corolla. It wasn’t as sexy, it didn’t have all the gear – it was boring, and it was the same price. Then I realized – they must have put the money in to something. If it wasn’t the MP3 radio and kitted out interior, it was probably the things you can’t see – like the engine. I bought the Toyota.)

The idea behind ‘5 whys’ is to keep asking ‘why’ until you get to the root cause of a problem. There’s nothing holy about 5, fell free to add another few whys if it suits you. I decided to tackle a problem with the 5 whys, and at the risk of being overly self-referential, here’s what I came up with:

Problem: I’m not blogging on a regular basis

  • Why? I find myself not possessed with ideas worth communicating.
  • Why? I get involved in routine things, and not things that stretch my brain.
  • Why? I somehow feel like doing really interesting things would be wasting time.
  • Why? I get caught in a hamster mindset, where I have to do things that are immediately demonstrably valuable, but not really long term contributions.
  • Why? I don’t maintain consciousness of the unique contribution my soul can make to the world.

The question I’m holding now is what to do with the realization. Better yet – knowing a low-level cause, and that cause being a matter of ingrained outlook, how do I bring myself into the more healthy mindset that I’d like to? How do I plant, deep down, the realization that the real valuable contributions I have to make to the world are coming from within?