Resource: Seth Godin on Systems Thinking

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 20 (July 10, 2019) – Systems Thinking

This is a great episode of riffs on how systems create – and constrain – possibilities, and the opportunities that open up when systems change. Featuring Mr Heinz and the fictional (!) Betty Crocker.

Akimbo Season 4 Episode 18 (June 26, 2019) – Find the others: Apollo 11 and the making of culture

This episode isn’t flagged as an episode about systems or systems thinking, but that’s really what this telling of the story of going to the moon is all about. We watch the Space Race grow out of the wreckage of the Second World War and unfold across a network of more-and-less-and-un- expected connections within the complex adaptive systems of science, science fiction, culture and politics. I loved it.

Highly Recommend.

Seeds (2): bikes, planes and automobiles

Many of the seeds of the automobile industry came from bicycle manufacturers (I touched on this in Use, Copy, Repair, Make), and on a visit to the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu I learnt some more of the story.

Karl Benz, widely credited as the maker of the first practical automobile, started in mechanical engineering and ironwork and started experimenting with petrol engines to power industrial machines. In 1883 he joined forces with Max Rose and Friedrich Wilhelm Eßlinger who owned – you guessed it – a bicycle repair shop. Benz & Companie Rheinische Gasmotoren-Fabrik made petrol engines for industry, which allowed Benz to develop his expertise and finish his first Patent Motorwagen in 1885.

Other companies that grew out of bicycle manufacturers include Rover, Peugeot, Opel, Skoda, Humber and Hilman, Sunbeam, and Calcott.

There’s a parallel trend with weapons manufactures: Royal Enfield and B.S.A. (British Small Arms) turned their expertise in machining from guns to motorbikes and cars.

And it doesn’t stop at cars: the Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics turned manufacturers who turned their hand to aviation instead.

We needed bike companies to innovate and start making cars, becoming cross-breed or hybrid companies before second generation ‘pure’ car companies picked up the torch and made further innovations as specialists.

So what, Sharky?

Right now, somewhere, in something that already exists, the seed of the Next Big Thing is taking root and getting ready to grow.

  • If you have an idea of what the future looks like, what might the seeds look like? Can you shape your project with the Next Big Thing in mind?
  • Looking at things from the other way round, what might your organisation be the seed of? What’s The Future for your field?
  • Is there a hybrid step (engines and bicycles, bicycle engineering and wings) that you could take to open up possibilities for your organisation?

Typo (4): (no) Standard English

[The task of documenting all the words in the English lanuguage] no longer seems finite. Lexicographers are accepting the languages boundlessness. They know by heart Murray’s famous remark: “The circle of the English language had a well defined centre but no discernable circumference.” In the centre are the words everyone knows. At the edges, where Murray placed slang and cant and scientific jargon and foreign border crossers, everyone’s sense of the language differed and no one’s can be called “standard.”

James Gleick – The Information

Typo (3): the myth of correct spelling

Ironically – considering the frequency with which school children use it for exactly this purpose – the Oxford English Dictionary never set out to specify “correct” spelling.

For “mackerel”, the second edition in 1989 listed 19 alternative spellings. The unearthing of sources never ends, though, so the third edition revised entry in 2002 listed no fewer than thirty: maccarel, mackaral, mackarel, mackarell, mackerel, mackarell, mackeril, mackreel, mackrel, mackril, macquerel, macquerell, macrel, macrell, macrelle, macril, macrill, makarell, makcaral, makerel, makerell, makerelle, makral, makrall, makreill, makrel, makrell, makyrelle, maquerel, and maycril.

As lexicographers, the editors would never declare these alternatives to be wrong: misspellings. They do not wish to declare their choice of spelling for the headword, mackerel, to be “correct”. They emphasize that they examine the evidence and choose “the most common current spelling.”

A new entry as of December 2003 memorialized “nuclar”: “= nuclear, (adjective, in various senses).”

James GleickThe Information

All spellings are made up, and exist as dynamic parts of the complex adaptive system of language. Conclusion: we waste too much attention on typos.

They’re (not quite) taking our jobs: Tim Harford on robots, spreadsheets and automation in the workplace

These are two great episodes from the BBC’s excellent 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy.

Episode: Robot

The robots are coming! Sort of. Featuring Baxter and the Jennifer headset.
More on Baxter here at WIRED.

Episode: Spreadsheet

Fantastic discussion of how the humble spreadsheet destroyed over 400,000 American jobs… and helped to create 600,000 more.

Podcasts: starting points for learning about AI

Stuart Russell on After On with Rob Reid

A thought provoking interview and excellent introduction that sounds a note of caution about AI and gives good reasons for doing so.

Highlights include:

  • some interesting stuff about how people and robots process goals and the huge number of actions and priorities that make up a single ‘simple’ action (around 32 minutes);
  • Discussion about recent progress with AI learning to play real-time strategy video games that are far more complex than chess;
  • A definition of ‘beneficial’ AI and some other nuances beyond standard ‘general artificial intelligence’ around 43 minutes;
  • A brilliant illustration about robots cooking cats at 1 hour and 16 minutes.

Rodney Brooks on Econtalk

Brooks is less concerned, and takes an ‘AI will take a lot longer to develop than anyone thinks’ approach to the topic, with some good points about how developing AI forces us to clarify our own ethics and priorities.

Start the Week with Yuval Noah Harari

Harari paints an unsettling picture of a post-human future.

Amy Web on Econtalk – Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Big Nine

On my hit list. I’m a Russ Roberts fan and expect this will be a useful addition, in particular on “the implications and possible futures of a world where artificial intelligence is increasingly part of our lives.”

See Also

Resources in WtF from Kevin Kelly, Tim O’Reilly and James Gleick,

Use, repair, copy, make: Tim Harford on bicycles and technological development in Japan

In a recent episode of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy Tim Harford uses the bicycle to illustrate – among other things – how new technologies and industries grow out of old ones, and how technology and industries develop:

The first safety bicycle was made in 1885 at the Rover factory in Coventry, England. It’s no coincidence that Rover went on to become a major player in the car industry. The progression from making bikes to making cars was obvious.

The bicycle provided stepping stones for modernising Japanese industry too. The first step was the importing to Tokyo of Western bikes around 1890. Then, it became useful to establish bicycle repair shops. The next step was to begin making spares locally, not too much trouble for a skilled mechanic. Before long, all the ingredients existed to make the bicycles in Tokyo itself, in around 1900. By the outbreak of the second world war, Japan was making more than a million bikes a year, masterminded by a new class of businessmen.

Tim HarfordBicycle Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy

Rover wasn’t the only car company to start out making bicycles: Peugeot, Opel and Skoda – and a few more listed here.

Funnily enough, I can’t find any clear examples of bicycle companies making this leap in Japan. Soichiro  Honda’s dad was a blacksmith-turned-bicycle repair man, and early Honda made motors for bicycles, and Toyota and Suzuki started out in the textile industry.

Resources: Software is eating the world

WTF?! In San Francisco, Uber has 3x the revenue of the entire prior taxi and limousine industry.

WTF?! Without owning a single room, Airbnb has more rooms on offer than some of the largest hotel groups in the world. Airbnb has 800 employees, while Hilton has 152,000.

WTF?! Top Kickstarters raise tens of millions of dollars from tens of thousands of individual backers, amounts of capital that once required top-tier investment firms.

WTF?! What happens to all those Uber drivers when the cars start driving themselves? AIs are flying planes, driving cars, advising doctors on the best treatments, writing sports and financial news, and telling us all, in real time, the fastest way to get to work. They are also telling human workers when to show up and when to go home, based on real-time measurement of demand. The algorithm is the new shift boss.

Tim O’Reilly –The WTF Economy

This phrase comes from a 2011 Marc Andreessen article in the New York Times, which you can read here. In it he describes how software was – and is, and will continue to – take over the economy. Here are a few more WTF illustrations:

  • The world’s largest bookstore is a software company
  • Two of the world’s three biggest retailers are software companies
  • Five of the U.S.’s eight biggest companies are software companies (Alphabet/Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook)… some of them even make and sell software.
  • The world’s biggest Encyclopedia is mainly software… and not even a company

Conclusion / Questions:

  • How are you using software in your non-software organisation?
  • What would it enable if you thought of your organisation as a software company?

See Also: WTF? Technology and you

Listen to the technology: Kevin Kelly and the giant copy machine

Technology often has built in biases, certain ways that it wants to be used. So the internet is the largest copy machine in the world by nature. It’s inherent in the thing. Anything that can be copied it that touches it will be copied.

So don’t fight that – work with it. Work with the fact that copies are promiscuous and it’st just going to go everywhere, it’s a superconductor for copies. You can’t battle against that, you have to say “okay, we can see how it is.”

Within the first four or five years it was clear that this was the way it was going to be… can you imagine if the music industry had accepted that from the front? It would have been amazing. They’re just coming around to it now, but [imagine] how far ahead they would have been if they’d just said “okay, this is inevitable, this copy thing. We’re just going to try to work with it. There’s thing to adjust, but let’s accept it.”


Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Further reading: The Technium: Better Than Free – 8 ‘generatives’ to thrive in a world of free copies.

See also: