Work on Stuff that Matters

Great post by Tim O’Reilly in which he quotes this passage from a Commencement Address he gave.

Some of you may end up working at highflying companies. Some of you may succeed, and some of you may fail. I want to remind you that financial success is not the only goal or the only measure of success. It's easy to get caught up in the heady buzz of making money. You should regard money as fuel for what you really want to do, not as a goal in and of itself. Money is like gas in the car — you need to pay attention or you'll end up on the side of the road — but a well-lived life is not a tour of gas stations!

It’s a very good sermon (in the best sense of the term). Worth reading in full, especially in the run-up to Obama’s Inauguration.

198 reasons why we’re in a mess

Insightful Simon Caulkin column

We live in strange times. In the private sector, market rules are so degraded that it has become the role of companies in the real economy, some built up over decades, to act as chips tossed around by high rollers in the City supercasino. Meanwhile, the public sector is in the grip of a central planning regime of a rigidity and incompetence not seen since Gosplan wrote Stalin’s Five-Year Plans…

He goes on to draw on Jane Jacobs’s seminal Systems of Survival (which is subtitled: “a dialogue on the moral foundations of commerce and politics”) to suggest that the root of our problems is the way the ‘moral syndromes’ that characterise our two basic modes of governance — ‘conquest’ and ‘commerce’ — have become inextricably mixed.

Ad Blocking and the future

This morning’s Observer column

I have seen the future, and it’s scary. Well, scary for some, anyway. I installed Adblock Plus from This is a plug-in – ie, a small program that adds some specified capability to an internet browser. Its purpose is to strip out all the ads that today litter many web pages. I installed the Firefox version and, believe me, it does what it says on the tin…

47% of Americans now have broadband at home

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has released its Broadband Adoption 2007 report.

The report finds that nearly half (47%) of all adult Americans now have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to a February 2007 survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The percentage of Americans with broadband at home has grown from 42% in early 2006 and 30% in early 2005. Among individuals who use the internet at home, 70% have a high-speed connection while 23% use dialup.

The 12% growth rate from 2006 to 2007 represents trails the 40% increase in the 2005 to 2006 timeframe, when many people in the middle-income and older age groups acquired home broadband connections. Those groups continued to show increases in home broadband adoption into early 2007, but at lower rates than in the past.

Full report here.

Has e-commerce peaked?

Interesting New York Times piece argues that it may indeed have peaked…

Since the inception of the Web, online commerce has enjoyed hypergrowth, with annual sales increasing more than 25 percent over all, and far more rapidly in many categories. But in the last year, growth has slowed sharply in major sectors like books, tickets and office supplies.

Growth in online sales has also dropped dramatically in diverse categories like health and beauty products, computer peripherals and pet supplies. Analysts say it is a turning point and growth will continue to slow through the decade.

The reaction to the trend is apparent at Dell, which many had regarded as having mastered the science of selling computers online, but is now putting its PCs in Wal-Mart stores. Expedia has almost tripled the number of travel ticketing kiosks it puts in hotel lobbies and other places that attract tourists.

The slowdown is a result of several forces. Sales on the Internet are expected to reach $116 billion this year, or 5 percent of all retail sales, making it harder to maintain the same high growth rates. At the same time, consumers seem to be experiencing Internet fatigue and are changing their buying habits.

John Johnson, 53, who sells medical products to drug stores and lives in San Francisco, finds that retailers have livened up their stores to be more alluring.

“They’re working a lot harder,” he said as he shopped at Book Passage in downtown San Francisco. “They’re not as stuffy. The lighting is better. You don’t get someone behind the counter who’s been there 40 years. They’re younger and hipper and much more with it.”

He and his wife, Liz Hauer, 51, a Macy’s executive, also shop online, but mostly for gifts or items that need to be shipped. They said they found that the experience could be tedious at times. “Online, it’s much more of a task,” she said. Still, Internet commerce is growing at a pace that traditional merchants would envy. But online sales are not growing as fast as they were even 18 months ago.

Forrester Research, a market research company, projects that online book sales will rise 11 percent this year, compared with nearly 40 percent last year. Apparel sales, which increased 61 percent last year, are expected to slow to 21 percent. And sales of pet supplies are on pace to rise 30 percent this year after climbing 81 percent last year.

Growth rates for online sales are slowing down in numerous other segments as well, including appliances, sporting goods, auto parts, computer peripherals, and even music and videos. Forrester says that sales growth is pulling back in 18 of the 24 categories it measures…

All good things come to an end.

Back to Basics

Stanford has launched an intriguing new project — Clean Slate Design for the Internet.

We believe that the current Internet has significant deficiencies that need to be solved before it can become a unified global communication infrastructure. Further, we believe the Internet’s shortcomings will not be resolved by the conventional incremental and ‘backward-compatible’ style of academic and industrial networking research. The proposed program will focus on unconventional, bold, and long-term research that tries to break the network’s ossification. To this end, the research program can be characterized by two research questions: “With what we know today, if we were to start again with a clean slate, how would we design a global communications infrastructure?”, and “How should the Internet look in 15 years?” We will measure our success in the long-term: We intend to look back in 15 years time and see significant impact from our program.

In the spirit of past successful inter-disciplinary research programs at Stanford, the program will be driven by research projects ‘from the ground up’. Rather than build a grand infrastructure and tightly coordinated research agenda, we will create a loosely-coupled breeding ground for new ideas. Some projects will be very small, while others will involve multiple researchers; our goal is to be flexible, creating the structure and identifying and focusing funds to support the best research in clean-slate design.

Fantasists and lazy journalists

Here’s a fascinating — and (for anyone interested in journalism) salutary — tale from James Cridland’s blog.

It all started – on the internet, at least – with an interesting story in the Daily Record, on 26 February 2007 – 5 million listeners – and radio boss Ryan is only 15. A heartwarming story, penned by Rod Mills, of a young boy making it big in the radio business, and teaching the big boys a thing or two. After two years, Ryan is employing 40 people and running an internet radio station; and the headline, while confusing ‘hits’ with ‘listeners’, is a great good-news story.

And it was quickly picked up by other media: keen to bring some good news to their readers, listeners, or viewers. After a few fluffy appearances on BBC Scotland and Scottish television company STV, national newspapers were next: Teen tycoon hits paydirt with shed radio station appeared in The Sunday Times on the 4th March 2007.

The Sunday Times article contains a lot of information about this station’s success: all the more remarkable since it broadcasts from this grey-roofed shed in a well-to-do suburb of Ayr. We learn that his employees are actually volunteers, paid in gig tickets. We learn…

A 15-YEAR-OLD schoolboy has grown an internet radio station run from his father’s garden shed into a company that claims 250,000 listeners and has 40 people working for it. […] The peak slot is drive-time between 4pm and 7pm, which Dunlop says averages 80,000 listeners. He is projecting turnover of more than £1m in his first year of trading, most of which will be profit.

These are serious numbers, so many congratulations should go to this young chap. who we discover from a later interview on BBC Radio 5 Live, thinks his station has the potential of bringing in £25m a year. All in all, this is a great story. Ryan is clearly a businessman with great talent….

The only problem: it was all hooey. James asks:

why did journalists swallow this false story? Two minutes of Google searching produced a substantial and inescapable realisation that the story was false; just one call to any radio expert would have blown the whistle. Why didn’t they check their facts? The people who should be ashamed in this episode are the journalists in the newspapers and the television, who went to air with a false story.

He’s right.

Life-Long Computer Skills

This is an old story — the scandal of the ICT curriculum in schools. (I’ve ranted on about it before.) Now Jakob Nielsen’s having a go

I recently saw a textbook used to teach computers in the third grade. One of the chapters (“The Big Calculator”) featured detailed instructions on how to format tables of numbers in Excel. All very good, except that the new Excel version features a complete user interface overhaul, in which the traditional command menus are replaced by a ribbon with a results-oriented UI.

Sadly, I had to tell the proud parents that their daughter’s education would be obsolete before she graduated from the third grade.

The problem, of course, is in tying education too tightly to specific software applications. Even if Microsoft hadn’t turned Excel inside out this year, they would surely have done so eventually. Updating instructional materials to teach Office 2007 isn’t the answer, because there will surely be another UI change before today’s third graders enter the workforce in 10 or 15 years — and even more before they retire in 2065.

There is some value in teaching kids skills they can apply immediately, while they’re still in school, but there’s more value in teaching them deeper concepts that will benefit them forever, regardless of changes in specific applications.

Teaching life-long computer skills in our schools offers further benefit in that it gives students insights that they’re unlikely to pick up on their own. In contrast, as software gets steadily easier to use, anyone will be able to figure out how to draw a pie chart. People will learn how to use features on their own, when they need them — and thus have the motivation to hunt for them. It’s the conceptual things that get endlessly deferred without the impetus of formal education…

He goes on to list the kind of conceptual skills he has in mind. Useful essay.