It’s time you learnt (a bit about) how computers work (1)

If you know nothing about how computers work (and I know precious little), it’s probably time that you learnt.

Consider: if software really does eat the world (and the signs are that it is rapidly doing so), huge swathes of your life – everything that is better off digital – will become digital. So it’s a good idea to have at least a rough idea of how computers and software work.

A good place to start is MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming using Python. There are a few versions of this course (MIT 6.0001) on Youtube (alternatives are here and here) but this one’s my favourite. It gets into teaching the (hugely popular) Python programming language pretty fast but has some great conceptual stuff about what computers do and how they work, even in this early lecture, that will almost certainly be useful (or at least interesting) as you sail further into the 21st Century.

Recommend.

Podcast recommendation: Mark Andreessen on Software Eating the World (2019)

Here’s Mark Andreessen on the A16z podcast summarising what it means for software to eat the world:

[In the original 2011 essay] I made three claims, which I would say increase as you go in audacity or arrogance, depending on your point of view. Or just flat out hubris, which is another possibility.

The first claim is that any product or service in any field that can become a software product will become a software product.

So if you’re used to doing something on the phone, that’ll go to software, if you’re used to doing something on paper, that’ll go to software. If you’re used to doing something in person that can go to software, it will go to software. If you’ve had a physical product – think about things like… telephone answering machines, tape players, boom-boxes, all the things Radio Shack used to sell, now they’re all just apps on a phone… There used to be a physical product called a camera, you know, that got vaporised. And by the way, physical newspapers, physical magazines.

If it can become bits, it becomes bits. So why does it become bits? Well, if it’s bits it’s better in a lot of ways. Bits have zero marginal cost, so they’re easier to replicate at scale and become much more cost effective. A lot of bits just drop to free. And by the way they’re much more environmentally friendly, which is an increasing thing for a lot of people. You can change bits much more quickly, you can innovate much more quickly, add new features, add new capabilities. So there’s just lots and lots of reasons why it’s good to get things from physical form into software if you can. And so anything that can get into software will get into software.

The next claim… is that every company in the world that is in any of these markets in which this process is happening therefore has to become a software company.

So companies that historically either did not have a technology component to what they did – or maybe had the classic conception of technology in business which is sort of like, IT, we’ve got these gnomes in the back office and they’ve got their labcoats and they’ve got their mainframes and they kind of do their thing … – there’s that, but then there’s modern software development – especially things like customer experiences: what’s the actual interface with the customer? Any company that deals with customers, especially consumers, is going to have to radically up its game in terms of its ability to build the kind of user interfaces and experiences that people expect these days.

So every company becomes a software company.

And then the most audacious claim is that as a consequence of [claims] one and two, is that in the long run, in every market, the best software company will win.

That doesn’t mean necessarily that it will be a new company that starts as a software company that enters an existing market that wins, but it also doesn’t necessarily mean that an incumbent that adapts to being a software company will win… And you see this in many industries including healthcare and insurance where you see these new pure-play software companies entering these incumbent markets and – usually from a position of youthful naivety, or maybe they’re wrong and maybe the ideas stupid, or maybe it’s Uber and Lyft entering the taxi market and maybe they just have a fundamentally better software driven approach. – and then you’ve got incumbents scrambling to try to figure out how to become software companies.

Marc Andreessen – a16z podcast

Andreesen goes on to outline some of the challenges to incumbents of adapting to the world of software – he argues that it’s a very different type of product and successful software companies usually have different types of workers…

The rest of the podcast is great too – highly recommend.

Future partners

The next time you’re working a colleague or partner, ask yourself if it’s possible that you’ll still be working together in ten or twenty year’s time.

If the answer is “I hope not,” think about why – and ask why it is you work with them now, and how you might stop.

But if it’s even vaguely possible that you might be working together for a long time, you’re look at a fellow traveller, and should ask questions like these instead:

  • “What will make them want to keep on working with me?
  • “What impact could our partnership have over the next decade?”
  • “What will our partnership look like if we both continue to get better at what we do?”
  • “How can I help them get better?”
  • “How can I make it easier for them to do what they do?”
  • “Which bits of my work could I leave to them – or what could they leave to me?”

Lastly ask:

“Who else could join us?” and “How can we grow our scene?”

Motion sickness: change and stability

If you’ve ever suffered from motion sickness in a car or on a boat, you probably know that it helps to look at a fixed (or at least slower moving) point on the horizon. A stable reference point helps your body to make sense of the continual movement and to stay oriented and balanced.

Lunettes Seetroën - Inspired By You
These amazing glasses from Citroën contain rings half-filled with blue liquid to create an artificial reference point as your body moves. More on Cool Tools.

Rapid, continual change creates its own kind of motion sickness as reference points (people, places, ideas, institutions, traditions) disappear. It’s easy to feel rootless, unsettled and insecure. Karl Marx’s economics were wrong, but he wrote eloquently about the rapid social change brought about by the industrial revolution:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Karl Marx – The Communist Manifesto

Some thoughts about dealing with rapid change

The faster things change or seem to change (we seem much more aware of change as we get older), the more valuable stable reference points become. Here are few ways of establishing or preserving ‘points on the horizon’ in the face of change:

  • Examine your uncertainty and unease in the face of change. What are you worried about? Are your worries well founded? Is the change disturbing because it’s change for the worse, or because it’s compelling you to “face with sober senses your real conditions of life, and your relations with your kind”? Face them – the better our science becomes, the more we need the liberal arts – that is, to know how to live as free people.
  • Guard relationships with old friends – people who knew who you were, remind you of who you are, and help you to see who you might be at your best;
  • Be deliberate about putting down roots in places that are important to you – move less, go deep;
  • Establish traditions – in your family, in your organisation – things you do together that remind you somehow of who you are, and what’s important. “People like us, do things like this.”;
  • Make room for quiet, disconnected reflection in your life – slow down, see what you think about, mull and pray.
  • Read old books, listen to old music and watch old movies. Share them with friends and children to create common reference points.
  • Ask questions – especially of people who have been around for longer than you have – absorb their cultural knowledge and the story of how things have already changed (a better view of change before you arrived on the scene is often helpful for making sense of – or feeling comfortable with – the change you’re facing now).
  • Stick around. Become a point of reference and stability within your family, town, organisation, network or scene.

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,

Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

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:

Learning through use: Kevin Kelly on technology finding its way

I’m a big believer that the way we steer technology is through engagement, by use. I find that most of the inventors don’t even have any idea what the technology will ultimately be used for.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and we have his journals of… what he thought this new ability to record sound was going to be, and his very first idea was that it would be used to record the last words of the dying, and then his second idea was that we could record sermons and distribute them. And he had a whole list of things, and at the very end he was like, well maybe we could do music – and he was the inventor of it.

So I think it’s only through use that we can find out what these things are…

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

Wisdom, for now and later


Eat honey, my child, for it is good;
    honey from the comb is sweet to your taste.
1Know also that wisdom is like honey for you:
    If you find it, there is a future hope for you,
   and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs (of Solomon) – Tanakh / Old Testament

I read this the other day, and got to thinking: I could do with a bit more of two types of wisdom.

Wisdom for now

When you sit to dine with a ruler,
    note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
    if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
    for that food is deceptive.

Most of the time I think about wisdom as short term: knowing the right (or best) thing to do in a given situation, and being able to do it. Things like judging fairly, or staying calm in a disagreement, knowing when to let something drop or when to fight your point, and how to do it well. And this type of wisdom is really important – there are loads of proverbs about it.

Wisdom for later

Put your outdoor work in order
    and get your fields ready;
   after that, build your house.

Critical path theory, c. 600 BC

But this proverb gets at a different sort of wisdom: the make-good-decisions-when-it’s-not-urgent-to-avoid-difficulty-later sort of wisdom. And proverbs is full of these too. On reflection, maybe they’re the same kind of thing, and only different because the consequences are felt in the short or longer term – easier today or easier tomorrow.

This wisdom for later is about doing the right things daily, about building things for tomorrow, about doing the boring work of maintenance or the hard, slow work of building foundations so that tomorrow will be better. It’s about staying away from the things that will hurt us now, and also about making decisions now that will help us to avoid the risk or temptation of trouble later – about applying the right kind of thin end of the wedge. It’s about investing in important things so that you can enjoy treasures that are all too rare, and things that are necessarily rare, because they’re what you built:

By wisdom a house is built,
    and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled
    with rare and beautiful treasures.

May your treasures be beautiful and rare, and the honeycomb sweet.