The Creative Currencies Chiasma 2015

I had great fun tonight giving a talk at #include2, the first kick-off intro event for the upcoming Creative Currencies Chiasma that’s taking place in Edinburgh in Feburary 2015.

Chris Speed  Chair of Design Informatics kicked things off by setting the scene with a few insightful comments about the nature of value in society. I rattled through a Bitcoin 101 for an audience of students, academics, entrepreneurs, the Bitcoin faithful and who knows who else – always impossible to know where to pitch it but hopefully there was enough to engage a few people to start to question some of the potential.

After I sat down, it was great to see a representative from the so-called “traditional” financial sector, Dave Barnes from RBS, give a talk in which he ran through the mechanics of Bitcoin. Great to see engagement from the banking sector. The more people that understand and get involved in the debate, the better the debate becomes in my view.

Last but by no means least, it was the turn of Joe Lindley who’d driven up from Lancaster with his fascinating Bitcoin radiator conversion. He’s basically pimped a bitcoin miner by adding a wall radiator which is being powered by the heat generated from the computer. Great idea! He also dropped plenty of nuggets in his talk that I need to go and investigate further, particularly around the whole concept of Design Fiction – in other words, using fictional scenarios in order to envision possible futures for design. I sense a big overlap with the concept that science fiction has the power to predict the future.

A really enjoyable event and what’s more, there’s another one next week, this time in Glasgow. Meantime, I’d encourage everyone out there with an interest in this area to seriously consider applying for the Creative Currencies Chiasma 2015 itself. Hey, you get 2.5 days of solid time to generate ideas in Edinburgh, with hotel and food paid for and a potential prize of £20,000 at the end of the process for the winning team to develop any ideas.

We’re all aware that there’s a talent gap in Bitcoin at the moment. It’s a situation that’s likely to get worse before it improves given the likely growth cycle. Design is absolutely one of the areas that’s crying out for more talent within the industry. So if this sounds like it could be of interest to you, please do apply. Ignoring everything else, it’s be a huge opportunity to get your foot in the door in a sector that’s likely to explode with demand over the coming few years.

Good luck!

We’ve always done it this way

Ever heard someone utter this gem when you’re at work?

Maybe even you? Be extremely wary. Treat it as a red flag.

Why?

Time for some wisdom from the website of Jeff Bridges:-

  1. Start with a cage containing five apes. In the cage hang a banana on a string and put stairs under it. Before long an ape will go to the stairs in order to climb up and reach the banana.
  2. As soon as he touches the stairs all the apes are sprayed with cold water. After a while, another ape makes an attempt with the same result —all the apes are sprayed with shocking cold water. This continues for a few more times with each attempt.
  3. Turn off the cold water. Later on, if another ape tries to climb the stairs, the other apes —to avoid getting sprayed with cold water— will try to prevent the ape from climbing the stairs even though no water is actually sprayed on them.
  4. Now, remove one ape from the cage and replace it with a new ape. The new ape sees the banana and —not knowing of previous events— wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the other apes attack him. After another attempt and attack he knows that if he tries to climb up the stairs, he will be assaulted.
  5. Next, remove another of the original five apes and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs to get to the banana and is attacked. The previous newcomer (of #4) also takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.
  6. After replacing the fourth and fifth original apes, all the apes that have been sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no ape ever again approaches the stairs in order to climb up to get the banana.

Why not?

“Because that’s the way it’s always been done around here”

 

The Genius ISM’s

If you’re running your own startup or maybe plan to at some point in the future, then one of the most important decisions that you’ll make is on the people that you choose to surround yourself with. Each of those decisions incrementally affects everything about the business, from its culture leading to its eventual success (or failure).

I recommend that you take a look at the Genius ISM’s. Another business that passed through the much-heralded Y Combinator in 2011, Genius (formerly RapGenius) is a startup that exists to allow users to annotate lyrics, news stories and pretty much any kind of text.

I stumbled across their ‘Genius ISM’s’ when listening to the most recent Andreessen Horowitz podcast and I think there’s some real gems of knowledge in there. Check out the transcript or listen to it below:

I’ve summarised them before. Hopefully the guys won’t mind. But I do urge you to read their site, if only to get a feel for how the Genius works in practice. Lose yourself down a rabbithole of comments, I dare you. There’s plenty more to these concepts than my summaries.

The Genius ISM’s

It’s not not your job”: whatever your title, your job is to help the business be successful.

The chaos will not be minimised”: building something valuable will be messy and a successful business resembles an army in battle, not an army on parade.

It should be fun”: if work sucks, communicate widely and fix it.

Only hire A players”: don’t hire people unless their refusal to work for you would be devastating to you. And when you give someone a job, realised that you’re also obliging the company to accept whoever that person will hire in the future.

Don’t fill up on bread”: focus on big projects

Worse is better”: release your first drafts of work and iterate when it’s out in the wild (note: you may have observed that I’ve adopted this strategy with my blog………)

Run into the spike”: when you have a choice, do the thing that you least want to do next.

Take the roast out of the oven”: the worst thing to do is to partially complete a project and then give up. Whilst this might be because you realise that it’s not as useful once you near completion,   learn to choose your projects more carefully.

Being busy does not equal making progress”: don’t just sit there sharpening your pencils. Remember a one hour meeting with five people is equivalent to a five hour meeting with one person, i.e. most of the working day wasted.

“’What is right?”, not ‘Who is right?’”: you shouldn’t do something because Mr X wants it. You should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Feel it to my face”: if you ever wonder “Should I bring this up?”, then bring it up.

What do you propose?”: never give a vague, “Oh, we should do X”. Give specific details. And never complain without completing the sentence with a suggestion of how you can fix it.

Be skeptical of experts”: investors, lawyers, whoever. They are never as invested, or have as much information about the current situation, as you. Make your own calls.

Pitch like you mean it”: everyone in a business must be great at projecting enthusiasm about it in conversations.

Write like a human”: as it sounds. Writing in a way that you don’t normally speak just forces people to be more formal (and inefficient) when they email you back.

Go to a gym-esque place”: take proper rest.

We’ll figure it out”: every business has times when its prospects look terminal. Turn every crisis into an opportunity.

Even if you’re not in a startup, my guess is that at least one of the points about is likely to resonate with you.

 

Factom and Preventing Forgeries in Databases

Yesterday I wrote about using the power of blockchain technology to incentivise people to take part in medical research via the [email protected] project. I hope that helped to give a sense of how the invention of the blockchain has created the potential for far more than simply Bitcoin as a new form of “geek money”.

So today I thought I’d point out another new project that uses the power of the same foundational technology to do something completely different. Factom provides us with a fascinating opportunity to create truly secure, private and global record-keeping using Bitcoin’s blockchain. Check out the video below for further details:

As the video points out, we currently live in a world in which records are kept in centralised institutions that we are forced to trust and rely upon to be both honest and 100% secure. History has of course shown us that this can be a foolish thing to do.

Take the recent robo-signing controversy in the States for example, where five big US banks paid a settlement of $9.3 billion to see off allegations that they were guilty of mass producing a collection of false and forged signed documents. The trusted financial institutions produced documents in mysterious circumstances. Claiming they’d been signed in the past, they then relied on these documents to prove that they were entitled to repossess homes of those who they claimed had defaulted on their obligations.

Without a trusted record that proves when – and if – a document was signed, it had become increasingly difficult to pick up on such fraudulent behaviour.  There was no definitive record of these documents that could be proved to have existed in a certain form on a certain date. This evidential gap had very real life consequences for the thousands of families who were turfed out on the street as a result.

Factom has developed a way of taking a vast database of records, encrypting them so that they remain private and then embedding these within the blockchain. As a result, anybody will be able to prove that a specific document existed in a specific format (i.e. with a signature, in the robo-signing case) at a specific point of time by reference to its permanent record within the blockchain.

For many projects that are looking to expand the use of the blockchain to record additional information, the current limit of 1Mb per block every ten minutes is seen as a challenge. Yet Factom has invented a way to ensure that vast databases can be recorded and represented by only a tiny amount of data being embedded within the blockchain.

You hear plenty of chat from the traditional markets about how Bitcoin needs to be regulated. Yet a project such as Factom provides the regulators with the tools that they need to enforce the very same laws that they’re creating. For example, this technology should make it far easier to prove that institutions have complied with the necessary regulatory requirements as it enables a simple, fast and unforgeable route for a third party to verify (perhaps automatically) the existence (or absence) of key documents.

There are huge possibilities with this once you start to consider the recording of property, such as land or car ownership. For example, just think about recording intellectual property rights – musicians embedding songs within the blockchain to prove their creation date for example – which can then be used to defeat any later third party claims. With Factom, any organisation will be able to rely on cryptographic proof that documents existed as and when they claimed, without any possibility of forgery.

It’s early days yet for the project – they’re planning a crowdsale in February 2014 I believe and only published their White Paper fairly recently. But it’s yet another one to watch.

 

FoldingCoin And Magic Healing Tokens

Every so often, someone will be desperate to point out to me that Bitcoin has a high cost – namely the vast amount of electricity burned by miners across the world who carry out the essential function of processing transactions within the network. How can Bitcoin, they complain, the largest distributed computing project that has ever existed in the history of mankind, a project that harnesses processing power far greater than the combined processing power of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, be so wasteful?

Now it’s true that Proof of Work comes at a significant cost. And I’ll leave the whole Proof of Work versus Proof of Stake (etc) conversation for another day. But I wanted to highlight one project in particular that really drives home both the incredible power that’s arguably under-utilised within the current system and also precisely how the correct incentivisation can drive success for a far wider demographic than just us Bitcoin geeks.

Back in 2000, a distributed computing project was started at Stanford University which continues to this day called [email protected]. The project asks volunteers around the world to download software on their computers. Once installed, it uses idle processing power to simulate protein folding in the body. The more of this work your computer carries out, the easier it becomes for medical researchers to carry out vital investigations into how different proteins work. This knowledge enables essential medical research into the causes of serious diseases to take place. Check out the video for more information.

The project’s been running for a long time and is now the world’s second largest distributed computing project in the world (behind Bitcoin)  Before going any further, I suggest you – at the very least – look at helping out by visiting the website. You can start helping immediately by simply running the folding simulation within a Chrome browser.

[email protected]’s been highly successful. Once the software was released, people all around the world joined in with no motivation other than to simply “do something good”. And this valuable human behaviour has been encouraged by simple gamification – individuals automatically earn points according to the processing power that they’ve spent folding and move up and down leaderboards daily as a result.

Enter Bitcoin – or, more accurately, Counterparty. I’ve already declared myself a fan of Counterparty but I’ll recap quickly.

Counterparty is basically a platform that sits on top of Bitcoin’s blockchain that provides additional functionality. Unlike many other proposals that aim to improve upon Bitcoin by standing alone, it is actually this direct relationship with Bitcoin that provides Counterparty with significant benefits. By piggybacking on the most established blockchain technology in the world, the most significant benefit for Counterparty is that the platform is secure from Day One as it can rely on the protection of the existing Bitcoin network. Other alternatives face the often insurmountable problem of having to attract miners with significant levels of processing power quickly in order to secure the network before it comes under attack.

Now, I don’t want this post to turn into an explanation of the 51% attack. The point is that Counterparty allows anyone to create assets very simply on top of the power of the existing Bitcoin blockchain. These assets can represent anything you like. And herein lies the kernel of a brilliant idea.

We’re agreed that people using their home computers to fold proteins is a good thing. So wouldn’t it be a great idea to incentivise people to take part in a way that enhances the simple feelings of altruism and point-scoring? It would but there simply isn’t the cash available to pay people to take part. If we can’t use cash, why not reward them with a token?

Meet FoldingCoin.

The longer you spend considering the value of tokens and what they really have the potential to represent in society, the easier it becomes to understand the power of the FoldingCoin concept. After all, what are all these coins and notes that we stuff in our pockets if not tokens? We believe such token money to have a certain value in our daily lives and therefore pass them around accordingly. But how is this different? After all, we already know that FoldingCoins have value because – as we’ve all agreed – medical research is, by definition, valuable.

Of course, no-one is saying that FoldingCoins can be used to pay your shopping bills tomorrow. But if you haven’t yet considered how the concept of money works within the current system that we have constructed, I urge you to do so.

With Folding Coin, you simply fold proteins in the normal way using the software on your computer but add your contribution to the FoldingCoin team within the Stanford project. Then, at the end of every day, you receive a share of that day’s fixed number of FoldingCoins, allocated in proportion to your daily contribution to the team.

As an interesting aside, the developers of FoldingCoin are looking to roll it out as the unofficial currency of Meetups around the world. It’s definitely something I’m going to look into as the organiser of the Edinburgh Bitcoin Meetup. It’s powerful because it represents an easy way (arguably even more so than ChangeTip’s recent viral success) to show people the power and usefulness of crypto-currency. With no mention of Bitcoin or any other technical details, you simply present a compelling use-case (donating processing power to help cure serious diseases is a good thing) and suddenly this crazy internet money thing isn’t such a hard sell after all. That’s something we’ve all been waiting for. And for the Bitcoin faithful, it has the added advantage of being a way to finally use all that idle mining equipment that sitting unused in your house after you were steamrollered in the mining arm’s race

Put simply – thanks to Counterparty, you’re not securing a Blockchain. You don’t have to explain any of that. You’re just helping to develop medical research.

Stanford’s stated aim is to reach 1 million connected computers folding proteins. They currently have around 200,000. You know what to do. Go to [email protected] and FoldingCoin now and get stuck in.

 

The Drones Are Coming

So then – who doesn’t want a drone?

If you said no, I don’t believe you. If nothing else, they look like a great laugh. Whether you think you’d be any good at flying one or not, few people would I imagine turn down the chance to at least have a go.

Just to be clear, I’m talking about consumer and business applications here. I’m not suggesting we’re all chomping at the bit to get our hands on unmanned combat aerial vehicles packing firepower here. The ethics around that topic deserve a blog of their own.

The rise of drones has been a long time coming but it’s a topic that finally hit the mainstream around a year or so ago when Amazon announced their plans to trial drones for deliveries. More recently, the company announced that it plans to begin testing same-day delivery drones in Cambridge, England. And then I noticed that one of my old employers, HBJ, has just started using drone-recorded footage for some of its house sales.

The industry got another huge boost in profile today by the rumours that GoPro is developing a new line of consumer drones. When the company that’s known for its high quality video cameras and one that only this summer pulled off the biggest IPO of a consumer electronics company in 20 years moves into a high-growth area whilst already specialising in some amazing rugged video tech, you can bet there’s going to be some fun times ahead.

Interestingly though, it’s an area fraught with legal uncertainty as well. The UK’s laws differ from the US laws (which are shaping up to be far more onerous than the industry had hoped). As Wired has pointed out, there’s certainly turbulence ahead – whether that’s in the form of injury caused by a falling drone, privacy breached by a stalking machine or financial damage as a result of an attack launched on the communication between operator and machine.

But it’s great to see some really innovative companies making headway in this space, not least ex-Edinburgh startup good guy Jono Millin at DroneDeploy and Airware with powerful technology that can, amongst many other applications, only help to increase the efficiency of agricultural production in light of the impending food shortages.

It’s a space to watch no doubt about it. And not only because the video output can be utterly stunning. Speaking of which…

Counterparty and Medici

I don’t tend to write too frequently about Bitcoin here. Which is really odd because pretty much literally all of my time that I’m awake and not doing other (paid) work or doing family things is spent reading about, speaking about or thinking about Bitcoin. I think the reason is simply because the posts that I have written about Bitcoin recently (like here and here) tend to very much focus on the introductory, pack-it-all-in at a 30,000 foot high level kind of posts.

However, I did write one post with a slightly wider perspective back at the start of October following the huge announcement by Overstock that it planned to work with a couple of the core developers from Counterparty on Project Medici – in effect a decentralised exchange for the buying and selling of cryptosecurities. I’m pretty excited about the whole Counterparty project. It’s great to see Scotcoin making the decision to migrate to Counterparty for example – immediately tackling the network security issue full on by coming under Bitcoin’s wing.

Anyway, maybe this is a cop-out today (and certainly SEO suicide for the site….if I was concerned with such things…) – but I thought I’d repost my original piece on the Medici announcement from earlier in October – mainly because there’s some interesting links in there that some of my non-crypto friends might be interested in looking into further over time.

October 3rd, 2014

The big news in recent days has undoubtedly been the announcement from Overstock that it will commit real time and money to build a platform upon which cryptosecurities can be sold using Counterparty’s decentralised exchange. Adopting the name of Medici (in a nod to the pioneering Italian bank that pioneered improvements in the ledger accounting system in the 15th century), Overstock’s goal is to build a system that will let individuals trade securities directly on a decentralised exchange, thereby removing the need for any third party transfer agents.

There’s huge potential for a project that attempts to reimagine the financial markets using blockchain technology. If you’re looking for disruption, building a system that lets individuals execute trades of their own cryptosecurities directly in such a way that the cryptographic confirmation is verifiable to all on a public blockchain is a pretty good start.

CEO Patrick Byrne is no stranger to the world of cryptocurrencies of course. He drove his business to become the first billion dollar business to accept bitcoins earlier this year and gave the keynote at the Bitcoin 2014 Conference. However, the news is significant in itself for a number of reasons – not least because this is arguably represents the first major milestone for a 2.0 platform in the long journey towards much-touted mainstream usage.

Debate has raged about the choice of Counterparty, with members of the NXT and BitShares communities (amongst others) actively putting forward strong arguments for their own technologies during a process that was curated in part via Overstock’s wiki (“How to Issue a Cryptosecurity”) that was launched a couple of months ago with the purpose of focusing the debate. The decision is undoubtedly a significant boost for Counterparty which only launched at the start of 2014. But it’s important to bear in mind the fact that once any cryptosecurity is ultimately issued, the owner will be free to exchange this on another platform of his or her choosing in the future. Any decision to go with a specific platform was always going to split opinions amongst many exceptionally talented and committed individuals who appear at times to be competing, if simply for community mindshare.

However, the fact remains that the first attempt is being spearheaded by a corporation with ‘skin in the game’, so to speak, to deliver on the promise of decentralised exchanges for the mainstream – a concept that has been openly discussed within the wider crypto-community for a long time with few tangible results.

The benefits of a successful project are clear. To Byrne, a man who has campaigned against the inefficiencies – and alleged criminalities – of the capital markets for over a decade (focusing in particular on existing loopholes within centralised clearing and fractional reserve banking), the potential for pushing decentralised blockchain technologies to tackle the issues head-on is hugely attractive.

In theory, a decentralised exchange could bring significant benefits by enabling startups to take their companies public more easily – accessing deeper pools of public money to fund their growth – by slashing a significant chunk of IPO costs which currently go to middlemen. Some estimate that the costs of issuing a crypto-security via a decentralised exchange could be as much as 20% below the costs charged by Wall Street banks for listing.

But we shouldn’t underestimate the obstacles that lie ahead, nor the likely cost of surmounting them.

The reality is that the technology hurdles are small in relation to the regulatory obstacles and it’s without question that the regulators will have plenty to say about Byrne’s campaign to democratise Wall Street. Overstock have partnered with Perkins Coie, a law firm at the front of crypto developments, to shape that battle. And ultimately, regardless of the success or otherwise of Medici, Byrne and Overstock deserve much credit for  shouldering the cost (5-10% of Overstock’s cashflow has been earmarked) of a project that directly or otherwise will be used by others to deliver future implementations of the concept.

The costs are unlikely to be solely financial – hence the importance of having a figurehead who’s not frightened of ruffling a few feathers. It may be a long, arduous journey ahead but there can be no doubt for all those in favour of innovation that it’s worth watching the progress of Medici very closely over the coming months.

 

Success and The PayPal Mafia

For some people, there’s always a reason not to do something. Outside entrepreneurial circles – or at least to those who don’t hang around with individuals with a “growth mindset” – the colossal success of others can sometimes even undermine their motivation. The sad fact is that while many will be impressed by the success of another’s company, they will often use this as evidence that their own unique circumstances render any attempt to replicate such a journey futile.

So the argument goes – why try to follow in X’s shoes? X was a company in the right place, at the right time, that delivered a solution that people needed and were willing to pay for. The market’s now moved on, looking elsewhere, for people other than me to help them.

That doesn’t seem to present in the PayPal company ethos however.

Now, we hear a lot about PayPal in the Bitcoin world. About how it can’t possibly replicate the benefits that Bitcoin provides given the fact that, when all’s said and done, it has always been, and always will be, a third party. But that’s not the point of this post. And when you’re sitting within that crypto echo-chamber, it’s far too easy to discount the progress that has been made by previous trailblazers in their day.

I came across the diagram below today that’s fascinating:-

PayPal Mafia
PayPal Mafia

It’s easy to forget precisely how successful – and important – PayPal has been to the tech ecosystem over the past number of years. Just take a look at that diagram and see just how many of the people who were closely connected with the business moved on to build really significant companies. TechRepublic published a great list of some of the most impressive companies and organisations that were formed after individuals moved on from PayPal. I’ve blogged about that niche club of billion-dollar unicorns. It’s not an easy club to gain access to. But somehow the so-called ‘PayPal Mafia’, a team of only 220 people created no less than 7.

1. Tesla Motors – $27.5 billion
2. LinkedIn – $20.4 billion
3. Palantir – $9 billion (private company, estimate)
4. SpaceX – $7 billion (private company, estimate)
5. Yelp – $5.26 billion
6. YouTube – $1.65 billion
7. Yammer – $1.2 billion

Incredible. That’s a huge list. And that’s just the most successful businesses that were created by PayPal individuals in financial terms. There are many more that aren’t even on that list that have also become significant parts of the wider tech ecosystem.

Did the company culture somehow create that success, moulding individuals in a way in which success was more likely whatever they chose to turn their hands to after leaving the business shortly after eBay snapped it up for $1.2 billion? Or were these people just born winners from day one?

Interestingly, I’ve read a number of articles that mention the fact that friendships were very strong in the business. Of course, friendships are far easier to build, I suspect, when things are going well than you’re in a startup that’s continually teetering on the brink of insolvency. But the strongest bonds are always forged under the most intense pressures. I’m sure that successfully working on a rocket ship that’s flying faster every day is a ‘better’ sort of pressure out of the two to choose.

It’s just like the 4-minute mile story I guess. Thought to be impossible, as soon as Roger Bannister showed the world that it could be done, the floodgates opened in the following years. PayPal’s a pretty extreme example but I suspect it’s true – choose your work colleagues carefully.

 

To Comment Or Not, That Is The Question

Comments on a website are a funny thing. At their very best, they challenge both author and audience by introducing a valuable extra layer of insightful, brief and often witty points for further debate that serve to elevate the original material in the eyes of the average reader. The interaction helps to inform the natural bias of the author so that he or she can either take this on board or develop the argument further to ensure that it becomes more robust.

The visitor learns from the author who in turn learns from the crowd-sourced knowledge of the audience in a virtuous circle. It really is a case of the sum of all parts being far greater than the whole.

Of course, not all websites achieve such comment nirvana. For those that are fortunate enough to receive comments in the first place, it’s not uncommon for some of the comments to be ill-considered, factually incorrect, abusive or, on occasion, a collection of all three.

Some believe that it is the disassociation of place and identity that gives people the licence to say things that they wouldn’t necessarily come up with to somone’s face. Allowing pseudonymous profiles to comment does leave some writers fighting a seemingly endless crusade against the inevitable trolling and anti-social behaviour that can ruin a website.

There seem to be three main strands here. The first is websites (such as PopSci) who deal in topics that can on occasion violently divide opinion. Take global warming and the concept of evolution, for a starter. They made the decision to stop accepting comments on their website over a year ago, claiming that part of the reason was that evidence proved that strongly-worded disagreements by commentators could undermine the general public’s belief of how robust scientific research was. The more controversial the research appears in the minds of the general public, the harder it becomes for public funds to be allocated in support of such causes.

The second type of websites appear to be those for whom success is just a given because frankly the quality is always just so damn high. For example, Seth Godin’s brilliant blog doesn’t have comments enabled simply because, in exactly the same way that he doesn’t spend significant amounts of time of social media, he just doesn’t have the time (or the inclination) to respond. It’s not that he’s in some way ambivalent to that public commentary. It’s just that he has a relentless, razor-sharp focus on actually “shipping” his product on a daily basis and he uses his main text to refine his big ideas (as opposed to explaining the finer points).

Next you have the websites where bluntly the empty comment section at the bottom just looks a little bit feeble. As an individual blogger, it’s less of an issue (he says, confidently – although please prove me wrong by telling me why not in the comments below). But as a professional news organisation (such a re/code) that’s never had a great deal of engagement, it’s perhaps best to play it safe by removing the option (and the cost).

But of course, many blog posts survive with vibrant commenting communities. Just take a look at avc.com, a blog that I read daily that’s one of the leaders in the field when it comes to reader engagement. So how does Fred Wilson’s blog succeed where so many others fail?

I believe it’s down to a couple of simple facts. First, the information that is being shared by the author turns out to be genuinely valuable. Generous and insightful commentary on relevant issues by someone who has a fairly unique combination of knowledge, experience and influence. And that generosity is reflected in the quality of the commentary where the community – for the most part – regulates itself. Most people respect the fact that many other commentators are well-respected leaders in their own field.

A couple of the websites that have recently switched off comments have claimed that this is because commentary now takes place predominantly on social media channels. I understand their point but I totally disagree. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen because commentary clearly does happen in these places. However, I’ve always felt that over the six years I’ve been using it, the biggest weakness that Twitter has remains its inability to pull conversation together around a topic for consumption in a cohesive way. Hashtags are a really basic attempt that can only ever get you so far. Add in the space constrictions and you have no obvious social location to read in-depth commentary around a post that’s more effective in my view than that little collection of comments, lurking, for good or bad, at the end of an article.

If you want a vibrant community, you have to spend the time cultivating and encouraging it. I suspect that part of the issue is that the news organisations simply lack the resources to develop these communities. I can’t believe that the system we have now will survive the next decade online but I do think it’s short-sighted to simply give up on it at this stage. It’s always harder to build than to maintain.

 

PIN Numbers and Passwords

Did you realise that the inventor of the ATM was Scottish? It was a new one to me too. Actually, there’s some debate around who gets the credit, but both of the front-runners are Scottish so it’s a pretty safe statement to make. I only found that out a couple of days ago when one of them, Jim Goodfellow, received an honorary doctorate.

However, Mr Goodfellow’s inventiveness was not just restricted to the ATM. His second significant claim to fame was that he invented the Personal Identification Number (PIN). It’s a system that’s still being used 48 years later in 2.7 million ATM’s worldwide as well as in point of sale (Chip & Pin) terminals that handle 1 billion transactions daily.

There’s only 10,000 possible combinations when it comes to a 4-digit PIN code. And around 11% of us are still using 1234, with another 6% using 1111. Of course with the rise of Bitcoin, its easy to see that a robust replacement is now starting to gain traction.

But as fallible as our existing PIN numbers might be, the passwords we choose are little better. The simple act of replacing four numerals with a collection of any number of letters, numerals and symbols of our own choice provides us with the opportunity for far greater creativity. And, as a fascinating article by Ian Urbina in the New York Times earlier this week showed, the passwords that we choose can reveal a huge amount about the individuals that we actually are.

I loved this piece. From the heartbreaking stories of one man’s attempts to get Cantor Fitzgerald back up and running in the aftermath of the 911 attacks (658 workers killed in one day, necessitating difficult conversations with family members during those first 48 hours in order to guess critical passwords) to the more mundane explanations by everyday people in which they reveal the reasons behind their password choices, one thing becomes clear. However strong a security system we build, it is always undermined by the fallibility of humans who inevitably remain the weakest chain in the link of internet security. For example, many use the word “incorrect” as a password – simply so that when they get the password wrong, their own computer will prompt them, i.e. “Your password is incorrect”.

It turns out that many passwords are essentially keepsakes we use as memorials to remind us of significant turning points in life, often of a painful nature. When a huge database of hacked passwords was made available a few years ago, analysis showed an above average usage of words relating to ‘love’. And some people use the password process as a way to reinforce a personal message that they want to be reminded of during the course of the many log-in’s required in an average day – eat more fruit, phone mum, that sort of thing.

It’s clear that we all hate passwords. The average number that we need and use on a regular basis increases almost by the day. And there’s some great advice out there for how to create truly memorable secure ones of course. But the reality is that for most people, perhaps we just need a little more humanity in the process than we would otherwise admit to.

Yes it weakens the security. But perhaps for that one brief second when you assume that you’re on your own, when it’s simply you at the temporary doorway that’s popped up on your screen, as it does every day in life, maybe we all just want to be reminded of something that’s means something real to us – and not just a line of numbers and symbols.