We don’t know where science might lead

I’ve just started reading a book called Longitude by Dava Sobel. It’s a history of the scientific quest for a practical method of finding longitude.

Great minds from all over Europe, from Galileo to Isaac Newton, pursued an answer. And that’s what leads us to this great paragraph:

In the course of their struggle to find longitude, scientists struck upon other discoveries that changed their view of the universe. These include the first accurate determinations of the weight of the Earth, the distance to the stars, and the speed of light."

We have no idea what might come from the pursuit of knowledge. The connections we can draw. Important revelations along the way. Some research is often scapegoated around the time budgets get passed, used as a token of waste. But this is a big presumption.

Some of the best science and discovery really begins when assumptions and predictions fail. We have no idea the riches that curiosity will reveal.

Bring on the obsessives

“there’s a real difference between someone who is obsessed with the work that they are doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they are doing. I will take the obsession and teach the skills over getting the skills and having to teach the obsession.”

That’s an excerpt from a great chat between two of my favorite thinkers and writers, Tyler Cowen and Ezra Klein. The context is a discussion about finding and hiring good people, as Klein continues to build Vox.com.

This is something that resonates with me. Since I found journalism a few years ago, I’ve filed stories while on exchange in Germany, on holiday in Sri Lanka, and even from the practice nets while attending the Brisbane international. My mind doesn’t shut off. I’m always looking for stories. Even thousands of miles from my job.

Nowadays, I never go anywhere without a notebook and a recorder. I’ve been late to classes after stumbling across protests that interested me, put off projects because I needed to study for an interview. I have read farther and wider than was required, arming myself for as many eventualities as possible.

I loved every minute of it.

What I do is a part of me. It’s a mission. And it’s something I bend an extraordinary amount of effort towards. Far exceeding the little monetary reward I have received so far. But this is not something I can really show or receive credit for. I’ve been passed over for a lot of jobs, ostensibly for lacking skills, experience or contacts. The fact that I have the drive and burning desire to pick up all of this is repeatedly discounted, in favour of candidates with more polished credentials.

Both sides have missed out from this. I might not be ready now, but my ceiling is far higher than most. You can teach skills. You can’t make someone’s eyes light up when they explain what they do. This is something Klein acknowledges here and I hope more bosses start to do the same.

I’ve recently found an employer who has looked past my youth and inexperience and seen the fire. If only all my fellow obsessives could have the same luck. We would all benefit.

In case you’re interested, here’s the entire question and answer:

TC: We all are looking for other talented people to work with and you’ve had a bunch of great ones. Matt and Melissa, Dylan Matthews and a whole bunch of others, some of whom I don’t know. But what’s your best talent finding tip?
EK: Look for people who are desperate to be doing the thing that they are doing. I have often found really great people by finding people who seemed, who either were literally doing what they need to be doing for free, because no one was yet paying them for it. That’s an ethos that comes out of, I did that as a blogger and I found Dylan Matthews doing that kind of thing. You can teach a lot of things but you can’t teach obsession. And there’s a real difference between someone who is obsessed with the work that they are doing and someone who is simply skilled at the work they are doing. I will take the obsession and teach the skills over getting the skills and having to teach the obsession.

I listened to this yesterday and it has played on my mind so much that I came back and found it while sitting on the train. If there’s any problem in the transcription, this is the reason – it was all done on an iPhone at 6 in the morning. If you have the time, I very much recommend listening to the entire chat.

Chatting about data with Prof Michael Blumenstein

UTS Professor Michael Blumenstein is someone I’ve had on my show a fair bit. He’s helped us explain big data, new data, weird data and much else. On this week’s show I dedicate the entire half hour to a chat with Prof Blumenstein, to get a more in depth look at the current state of data science and what will result as chips get imbedded in more and more things.



Can’t see the player? Jump over to Soundcloud and have a listen.

A different kind of transfer

A couple of days ago another on-demand startup closed its doors. You’ve probably never heard of Washio. It was an on-demand laundry service (yes, really), and only plied its trade in a couple of American cities.

I bring this up because the demise of Washio coincided with the Twitter reemergence of a great Kevin Roose article from back in 2014. Writing at the beginning of the on-demand boom, Roose marvelled at the torrent of service-based start-ups. Many featuring non-existent business models, betting big that these markets were only small because of price sensitivity and “friction”.

This business model is great for consumers. As a result of start-ups’ willingness to lose money for months or years at a time, I get cheap, fast services that come with an effective subsidy that can add up to thousands of dollars a year. But they’re problematic for the businesses themselves. Unlike Amazon or Google (which have profitable core operations that subsidize the money-losing services elsewhere in their business), or Uber (which uses the profits from its high-margin Uber Black and Uber SUV lines to subsidize its low-margin UberX service), many of today’s start-ups have no profitable parent company pouring in money. They’re simply taking millions of dollars in venture capital with the hope of keeping prices low, pushing rivals out of the market, and eventually finding a way to turn a profit.

But there’s another great point buried in the Roose article. Where this money is coming from. It’s just so easy to talk about “venture backed” start-ups without considering where the money in these funds come from. A big source is pension pools. The pensions of many people who have little access to the services they are subsidising – they don’t live in the few big cities these start-ups called home.

while some of the money used to fund money-losing start-ups comes from rich Silicon Valley investors, some large amount of it comes from public pensions, college endowments, and other, more modest sources. Lyft backer Andreessen Horowitz, for example, has gotten investments from the Imperial County, California, Employee Retirement System and the University of Michigan; the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System invests money with SpoonRocket backer General Catalyst. If you asked them, I’m sure that firefighters in Memphis and public schoolteachers in El Centro would have no idea that their retirement funds are being used to lower the price of my delivery lunches and rides across town. But that’s exactly what’s happening. And when these venture-backed price wars happen in dozens of high-end service sectors all at once, you have a strange cultural phenomenon in which Main Street dollars are being used to finance the lifestyles of cosmopolitan yuppies.

(Emphasis added)

It’s probably wrong to think that rural firefighters are losing money because of the bets placed on on-demand start-ups that never worked out unit economics. Their money is only fraction of a huge pool. The money allocated to VCs would be only part of a diverse portfolio. And these VC funds themselves factor in a certain amount of bad bets.

But as the Internet hollows out the middle, as globalisation rebalances industry away from places like Memphis, it’s worthwhile thinking about where the capital is coming from. And whether they are the ones benefitting. This is a rather weird transfer.

You really should read the entire Roose article.

Let’s look at how computers changed design

A couple of weeks ago one of my colleagues had a really interesting interview. He was speaking to a mathematician, Stephen Woodcock at UTS. He’s the kind of mathematician who does modelling of complex systems. Almost in a throway moment the Dr Woodcock started talking about how maths had completely revolutionised the way we design things like bridges. For thousands of years, he said, we built bridges that looked and functioned almost identically. We had no idea why this design worked. But it did. So we were doomed to repeat it.

But advances in maths changed all this. All of a sudden we could mathematically model what was going on. We could “test” on a piece of paper. And so we were able to build marvels like the Golden Gate and Sydney Harbour bridges. And they worked.

This is happening all over again. Except now it’s computers that are providing the breakthrough. Computers, the internet, the cloud etc., allow designers and engineers to “build” virtually, and then “walk” through and test and share their designs. They’re unlocking a whole new world.

It’s this transition that I explored on the latest episode of Thing Digital Futures:

Can’t see the player? Jump over to Soundcloud and have a listen.