The wisdom of crowds

NXNEi - Day 2 - Kickstarter.com

NXNEi – Day 2 – Kickstarter.com (Photo credit: Jason Hargrove)

The idea of a collection of people chipping in to raise enough money to make something happen is not a new one. Charities have relied on the concept for years, as have mutuals or building societies. The earliest documented such endeavour is Ketley’s Building Society which grew out of the inns, taverns and coffeehouses of 18th century Birmingham.

The funds in that case were for building houses, but similar societies cropped up to pay out money in the case of misfortune such as bereavement or loss of limbs at sea. The members paid a small subscription hoping against hope that they would never need of the society’s services. Many famous modern insurance companies can trace their roots back to such humble origins.

Mention crowd funding to most people and they will not think of charities, building societies or insurance companies. They will immediately think of crowd funding websites. Just as Amazon and eBay have revolutionised selling over the internet, so have kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com have taken crowd funding to a whole new level.

By combining the reach of the internet with the viral effect of social media, crowd funding websites are ruthlessly efficient funding models. If your target audience likes your pitch, you will probably get funded. If your target audience looks at your pitch and gives a collective “meh!” then your funding deadline will pass with nary a whimper. Successful projects tend to snowball as stretch goals are reached adding more and more swag to the booty on offer.

I recently took part in funding this kick-starter project which went on to become the third most successful ever. It is fast becoming a poster child for the kind of innovation that crowd funding can unlock for successful pitchers. In this particular case, the pitch was for plastic miniatures (used for war-games or table top games). The original funding target for this project was $30k. They went on to raise about $3.5m

The upfront costs in making tooling for plastic miniatures is ruinously expensive. The ongoing unit costs per miniature are very low. Funded traditionally, it makes for a risky business because you never know how many units you will sell and whether you will cover your initial outlay. Crowd funding is perfect because if there is no interest for your product, you find out without spending a fortune. If you are lucky, you will end up with a runaway success.

I believe that crowd funding could offer a much more efficient mechanism for companies to build the right products. Using the same kind of mechanism, product managers could design pitches for new products. Salesmen (or maybe even customers) could commit to delivering a certain sales target. If the project reaches the profitability target, it gets funded.

There is even scope for the project to work in reverse with the consumers designing the pitch and when enough people say “I’d like one too” – a company takes up the mission of delivering the product.

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HD, Blu-ray, 3D – it’s all a conspiracy!

Kicking Television

Kicking Television (Photo credit: dhammza)

A salesman accosted me at an exhibition once and manoeuvred me over to his stand where there were two identical TVs side by side. He was blathering on about the difference that High Definition (or HD) makes to the viewing experience. I looked carefully at the two screens which were showing the exactly the same program.

When the salesman finished his pitch, I asked him when he was going to switch on the HD. He looked at me as if I was a mooncalf and told me it was already on. Puzzled, I asked him which screen was HD. By this time, the salesman thought I was making fun of him. If there was a difference in the fidelity of the display, it was far too subtle for me to pick up.

When our TV needed replacement, we bought an HD model, but only because every TV on display was HD by that time. However, in order to view HD on our TV, we would either need to replace the satellite box or the DVD player and we can see no compelling reason to do so. The satellite box would cost us more money for the same but slightly prettier content. If we replaced the DVD player with a Blu-ray player, there would be no difference unless we also replaced our DVDs.

If I was a cynical man, I would say that such advances come along every now and then and are manufactured to keep the consumer electronics industry and the film industry ticking over. For the consumer electronics industry, they get to sell yet another TV set and another media player. For the film industry, they get to sell the exact same content all over again and usually at inflated prices.

There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle and not only were some of my favourite films shot in standard definition, they are in black and white to boot. They are compelling viewing because of the acting and the storyline, not because of the technical flash-bang wizardry. Don’t get me wrong, I love the impressive special effects that are possible these days with CGI, but in far too many recent films, there is very little else on offer.

If you are one of the people who likes to keep up with the entertainment revolution, take a good long look at your shelf full of blu-ray discs. You are going to have to pay for the privilege of downloading them all over again in 4D holographic projection format (or whatever the next giant leap in home entertainment happens to be).

My brief career in the games industry

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the ...

The player-controlled laser cannon shoots the aliens as they descend to the bottom of the screen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every so often, the fair came to town. Some kids liked the scary rides. Some liked the games of skill and the bunco booths. For me, it was the amusement arcades that made my visit to the fair. I loved the synthesised music the arcade machines played. The stylised graphics (called sprites) on the phosphor screens that depicted both your character and the enemies intent on his destruction.

When home computers became affordable in the 80s, bedrooms all over the world were transformed into mini amusement arcades. Most successful games from the arcades were rewritten for the home computer format. The hardware in your home couldn’t hope to match the commercial machines, but they were recognisable imitations all the same. Somehow, the original games written for home computers were more far impressive than the arcade imitations.

I enjoyed playing those games on my trusty Sinclair Spectrum but after a while, my insatiable curiosity took over and I wanted to understand how to construct those games. Spurred on by TV programs of the time like Me and my Micro, I read the manuals that came with my computer. Before too long I had written a dozen or so programs.

Computer magazines in that time used to print listings of programs that you could type in. After several hours of laborious typing, you ended up with a lacklustre computer game. I spent time understanding how those programs worked. I tried changing things to see what happened. Sometimes I would end up with a broken program, but I always learned something.

Some women bloom when pregnant. My mum didn’t. I used to come in from school and ask dad what mum was like today. More often than not, the answer was “same as yesterday”, and I would go and shut myself in my bedroom with my computer. I spent hours programming. I spent even more time reading about programming. When I went to school, I used to talk to other kids about programming.

Eventually, I ended up with a half decent game. It was called “Political World. It was all about being Prime Minister. To win the game, you had to avoid riots, war breaking out and economic ruin, all at the same time as trying to keep your popularity high enough that you stood a chance of re-election. I showed it to all my friends, listened to their feedback and made small improvements.

I don’t think I was ever truly happy with it, but when the feedback turned from negative to positive, I decided to send it to one of the many games companies that had sprung up to ride the home computer wave. For a long time, I didn’t hear anything. Then, a letter landed on the doormat. I could see who it was from instantly by the logo on the envelope.

I eagerly ripped open the letter and scanned the contents. They had agreed to publish the game and wanted to talk to me about more work. Unfortunately, I had exams to pass, so I couldn’t take up their offer of further employment, but I was chuffed to bits.

Estimates vary about the value of the interactive entertainment industry today, with some saying that games have eclipsed the film industry. Whichever figure you look at, it is a huge industry. Today the games are much more sophisticated with a  cast of actors providing voices, artists providing gorgeous graphics and musicians providing more input than programmers.

In simpler times, for one tiny moment – I was part of that industry.

My brief career as a waiter

English: Spring pea soup, with creme fraiche g...

English: Spring pea soup, with creme fraiche galaxy. The recipe was pretty good, but not exceptional. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Governments all over the world are facing up to the economic realities of balancing the books. After a brief bout of teenage profligacy, I found myself in much the same fiscal boat. The obvious solution in my case was to get a part-time job. This was effective on two levels; firstly, whilst I was working, I was kept out of mischief and unable to spend money and secondly, I was also earning money at the same time.

I worked in a large pub restaurant just outside my home town as a barman. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the social contact with the regular customers and revelled in the camaraderie of my fellow bar staff. To my surprise, I seemed to be good at it as well. For a while everyone was happy. My bank manager was happy that the overdraft was inching down, the one-legged owner of the bar was happy with my performance and I was happy doing the job.

One Summer’s evening, the one-legged man walked over to the bar and told us that several of the waitresses had phoned in sick. Not only that, but we were fully booked that evening. There was only one thing for it. One of the bar staff would have to take a shift on the waiting team. We drew straws.

I might be good at working behind a bar, but I’m useless at drawing straws, so a short while later, the Maitre D’ lectured me on what to do and what not to do. I tried to explain to him that I had the manual dexterity of an elephant wearing boxing gloves but he would have none of it.

My first table seemed to go OK, but it was only two covers. Lulled into a false sense of security about my skills as a waiter, the Maitre D’ assigned me to a larger table – four covers this time. I took their orders and when the very attractive lady in the pretty white dress ordered the pea soup, my heart sank. I’d already tried a dummy run in the kitchen with a tray full of bowls filled with water – it didn’t end well.

As the chef called service, I took my place at the serving hatch. Ever so carefully, I balanced the four starters on the tray. Making sure the tray was rock steady, I set off towards the table. I moved slowly, planning my route carefully so that I avoided any chance of a collision. Arriving at the table, I lifted the first starter and placed it on the table.

The tray lurched in an alarming fashion and the soup came very close to the rim of the bowl. I adjusted the tray, but unfortunately over compensated. Almost in slow motion, the bowl slid down the tray and over the small lip at the edge. Like a heat seeking missile, the bowl and its contents tumbled end over end before landing squarely in the attractive lady’s lap. Her pretty white dress was covered in bright, green soup.

With surprising swiftness, the one-legged man appeared and ushered me away from the table whilst the Maitre D’ appeared from nowhere and apologised profusely to the customers. Before too long, I was safely ensconced behind the bar once more. The one-legged man admonished me and told me that was the last time I would be a waiter. Silently – I agreed with him.

I caught sight of the woman leaving the restaurant later that night with her soup-stained dress. As she walked out, she smiled and blew me a kiss.

The observer’s guide to corporate creatures

My Accountant

My Accountant (Photo credit: billypalooza)

The corporate environment can be bewildering to the outside observer with its strange menagerie of creatures. This handy cut out and keep guide helps the reader in observing and identifying subjects. The corporate ecosystem exists in a delicate state of balance and too many or two few of these creatures may prove disastrous.

The Bean Counter (accountant numeralis)

Often observed among the spreadsheets that make up their native environment, bean counters have a language all of their own and communicate completely in numbers. Knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, they are called upon for their mystical ability to bamboozle people into making decisions. They are most active around times of the year known as quarter ends when they can become quite aggressive if provoked.

The Rock Lifter (auditor maximus)

Usually appearing during the auditing season, rock lifters frantically run around lifting rocks. Should they find anything nasty beneath the rock, they squawk loudly until someone cleans up the nastiness. Their main predators seem to be risks and non-conformities which they fear greatly.

The Computer Programmer (computus debuggerus)

Computer programmers are perfect – any of them will tell you so. It is therefore a mystery as to where the insidious bugs in computer software come from. Many such creatures are more comfortable interacting with machines than with people. Computer programmers are fiercely territorial and often take the opportunity to rewrite perfectly good software to make it their own.

The IT Technician (switchit offandonagain)

Fed on a diet of computer components, their waste products are slow, unstable laptops. Thought to be nocturnal as they are seldom seen during the day. Difficult to spot as they often hide behind something strangely called the “help” desk.

The CEO (buck stopshere)

Solitary creatures, seldom seen outside their native environment of the ivory tower, CEOs spend their lives in search of elusive creatures known as earnings per share. CEOs are superstitious creatures who often consult with bean counters before making any big decisions.

The Salesman (barrow boyus)

Salesmen hunt the creatures known as deals. Once they bag a deal, they bask in the aftermath and feast on commission often until they next become hungry. Ruthless in nature, they look for any weakness in the opponent before pouncing.

Stop polishing nose cones!

Rocket Engine, Liquid Fuel, H-1

Rocket Engine, Liquid Fuel, H-1 (Photo credit: cliff1066™)

Working on a “nice to have” feature when there are more important requirements to fulfil is a crime. It becomes a heinous crime when it happens in a resource constrained environment. And yet – I see it all the time. If you ever find yourself working on a nice to have feature – stop, and ask yourself “is this the most urgent problem that needs solving?”

We have a special term for such work which, according to my trusted sources, originated in the IBM lab’s. We call it “polishing nose cones“.

Imagine if you will, a factory building rockets. The man in charge runs a tight ship and he organises his factory into departments. The engine department takes care of the bottom of the rocket, the propellant and coolant department takes care of the mid-section of the rocket and the nose cone department takes care of the very top of the rocket.

The guys down at the business end of the rocket, the engine department, have their work cut out. They have to develop the rocket engine (or more correctly the rocket motor) which involves some tricky engineering. The engine guys have to come up with a rocket motor that will get the vessel into space without running out of fuel and without blowing the rocket into smithereens. Their work takes a long time.

The coolant and propellant guys also have a mountain to climb. They have their specifications from the engine guys and they are pretty demanding. Some how, they have to provide enough coolant to stop the engine consuming the rocket in a ball of flame, but enough fuel to make sure that the rocket can make it to orbit. Not only that, but they have to operate within strict weight criteria.

The nose cone guys have the easiest job of all. All they need to do is manufacture the pointy end. Sure they have weight constraints, but their only job is to make something aesthetically pleasing. So the nose cone guys finish long before the coolant and propellant guys and the engine guys still have a ton of work to do.

So do they go and help the other guys – no – because they are in the nose cone department. Once they have finished the essentials, they start on the “nice to haves”. They start polishing their nose cone.

If I ran the factory, I would get away from the department idea and create a resource pool. All the engineers would constantly be picking up the most important tasks on whatever part of the rocket. OK – so maybe my nose cone wouldn’t look quite as good – but I bet my rocket would be ready for launch first.

With apologies to Robert Browning…

Robert Browning

Robert Browning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, to be in writing,
finding food to feed my soul.
Nothing so exciting,
as a proper writing role.

I care not what about,
words would pour upon the page.
I don’t have any doubt,
my readers would engage.

My keyboard ever tapping,
more titles on the shelf.
There’d be no time for napping.
I’d have to pinch myself.

My workrate never dropping,
until the next deadline is hit.
My typing never stopping,
’til I’m sure I have a hit.

My message to you readers,
is to give this man a chance.
To join those rare succeeders,
and earn my first advance.

I’m obsessed by statistics!

Blog Machine

Blog Machine (Photo credit: digitalrob70)

My wife thinks I’m crackers, but I am glued to the stats that get produced from the two blogging platforms I use. When I post something, I want to know that someone has read it. Not just that – I want to know that they have enjoyed reading it. Not just that – I want to know that my readership is increasing and not declining. A neutral observer might say I am obsessed.

As a blogging platform, WordPress provides excellent stats. The way that they have used game mechanics in the blogging dashboard is first class, and I feel that they must share some of the responsibility for my obsession.

There is a little tiny notifications icon in the top right hand corner. When your blog achieves something, that beautiful little icon slowly starts to glow, and almost in perfect time, I start to smile with it.

However good the blogging stats are on WordPress, they are not perfect. I find that sometimes I get a like when the number of page hits doesn’t go up. Sometimes, the counters get out of sync’ but no matter, they are still a useful barometer of activity on your blog.

When I get a follower, my heart soars – someone has subscribed to my random musings – I must be doing something right. When I get a “Like” on one of my posts, I cannot help but smile. When I post something and nothing happens, I descend into misery. But then that little notification icon glows slowly into life and I am bouncing off the walls again – such is the bipolar life of a blogger.

I find that I am not the best judge of my writing. Some of the work that I am most proud of has fewer “Likes” than some of the work that I’m maybe less proud of. But whichever way you cut it, all feedback is good. When people take the time to comment on one of my posts, I love to see their perspective. Somehow I haven’t managed to inspire the level of engagement of some of the blogs I admire, but any comments are a start.

I find that being part of the blogging community myself has changed my behaviour when reading other people’s blogs. Where I read a blog now, I look for some way to give the author feedback. I know how much it means to them to know that someone is out there and they care about what they are reading. I would urge you to do the same.

If you read some good work – congratulate the author. If you disagree with what you read, comment and argue your point. If you don’t like what you read, give feedback (but please be gentle).

Whatever you do – don’t play possum.

The psychology of ebooks

books

books (Photo credit: brody4)

I enjoy writing. It’s like a new hobby to me and I try to write something whenever I get the opportunity. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I get a new hobby, I spend a lot of time reading about it. I don’t just want to be a writer – I want to be a good writer – so I have read blogs, magazines and articles on how to improve. The one piece of advice that almost all of them contain is that avid writers should read lots of books.

So I have made a concerted effort to read more. Like most budding technologists, I have the ability to read ebooks. I have Kindle installed on every device I have and have a nice little collection of ebooks in my library. This means that these titles are available to me pretty much everywhere.

I also have a big pile of crusty old physical books as well. There are shelves and shelves of them in our house. I regularly buy more of them – typically from the charity shop. Unlike the ebooks, I have to make a conscious choice to carry these books with me if I’m going to read them. So in theory, they are available to me much less often than their electronic equivalents. The odd thing is, my ebook library is littered with unfinished reads, whereas I’ve flown through the last 10 physical books I picked up from the charity shop. How does this make sense?

Either consciously or unconsciously, my preference is to read the physical manifestation of the text rather than the electronic. I do find reading a very emotive, tactile experience. I like the smell of old books. I like well read books from the charity shop because it reassures me on some level that other people have enjoyed that title too.

The physical form factor is important too. I need to feel like I am making progress through the book, so I prefer books with larger text and shorter chapters. I know that the font size can be set in electronic books, but somehow, the effect is not the same. When you are reading a physical book, you can easily see how far you are through by looking a the block of pages read compared to the pages you still have to read. I know that I can see that numerically at the base of my kindle screen, but again – it’s just not the same.

There are a few other downsides too. I can pick up a superb potboiler from the charity shop for 50p, but prices for ebooks seem far too high considering there are no raw materials or distribution costs. Once I have finished my physical book, I can lend it to someone else or even take it back to the charity shop for someone else to enjoy. I can’t do that with my ebooks.

There are good things about electronic books such as the anonymity – nobody knows what you are reading which surely helped the recent success of the 50 Shades trilogy. They are also weightless – apart from the device itself (which many people carry anyway) – each book adds no weight or bulk.

But when it comes to ebooks – colour me a Luddite.

The UK goes supernova

The supermassive black holes are all that rema...

The supermassive black holes are all that remains of galaxies once all protons decay, but even these giants are not immortal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A supernova is a colossal explosion of a star when the fuel within that star becomes too much to handle. When such a celestial event happens, the star shines brighter than an entire galaxy, but only for a celestial instant (a few weeks or months). During this time span, the star will burn more energy than our Sun will burn during its entire lifespan. Such events are uncommon. The last one observed in the Milky Way happened over 400 years ago.

In the wake of the star that has shone so brightly is left either a neutron star or a black hole. Neutron stars are tiny. One could fit in the area covered by Greater London. They are, however, very dense. One teaspoon of neutron star would weigh a billion tons. If the star going supernova is big enough, instead of ending its life as a neutron star, maybe it will become a black hole instead. Black holes are not seen. Black holes spend their time pushing the rest of the galaxy around in the background.

During the last year or so, I can’t help but feel that the UK has gone supernova. We have had a Royal Wedding. This year, not only have we have celebrated the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen taking the throne, but we have also witnessed the very first British winner of the Tour de France. To top it all off, London has been host to the Olympics – the first city ever to host the event for the third time. To add to that – we picked up our biggest medal haul ever.

Notwithstanding the Paralympic Games (which we are all looking forward to), there is a certain finality to this evening’s closing ceremony when we hand over the Olympic baton to Rio. After a glittering array of events on the horizon, we are back to life as usual. No Royal weddings to look forward to, no impending Royal anniversaries, no world-class sporting events.

As a nation, we will be coming down from a very big high.

When the cameras of the world are packed up and taken home, will the UK become a neutron star? Small, but full of substance and shining brightly. Or will the UK become a black hole? Almost invisible and only detectable by the effect of the country’s actions. Time will tell, but I fervently hope for the former rather than the latter.