Bottling Silicon Valley

One of our TDs took himself off to Silicon Valley a while back to see what was special about the place and more to the point, could we create something similar here in Ireland. In a way, it was a laudable objective, and you can read the article he wrote subsequent to the trip here.

I honestly believe that collective will would allow something special to be created here; but that will isn’t something you’d find in SIlicon Valley. There are a couple of things which make the Valley special – I’m not necessarily going to go into this in detail but the following are obvious advantages:

  • proximity to high quality education
  • infrastructure
  • access to finance

There are a couple of other small items as well such as greater tolerance of business failure, and faster recovery from said business failure.

Eoghan Murphy didn’t really talk about these in detail except the business failure side of things; he concentrated on solutions that involved importing people, via programs of paying people’s salaries, for example.

I’m not sure this is the way to look at things. We need to teach people to have ideas, and the faith that they can carry them through. Ireland is appalling at this; I suspect, in part, because of the social judgmentalism which I think the Catholic Church gifted us. How we judge people’s success is depressing. It’s not often because they have created something special, but only because they went to the right schools, or, made money and talk to the right people.

In my view, the ecosystem which is Silicon Valley, or some functional equivalent, might be better grown here if we look at two key things:

  • education system
  • how we fund start ups.

We do neither particularly well. If you look at both Facebook (which I don’t like) and Google, both of them grew out college projects to some extent. In the early days of Google (and if you have not read In the Plex by Steven Levy you should), they got huge support from Stanford University. It’s the sort of support that not one university here could do because they don’t really have the money.

Via a ridiculous job creation scheme, the government appropriated money from pension funds to do something about our unemployment. If we want to create something innovative and special here, Job Bridge was not where we should have put the money; and nor is it in “trying to create Silicon Valley”.

We have some useful advantages here. We have the wherewithal to build decent data centres. We have the wherewithal to teach people to exploit them. That is where I’d like to see that money going; into the future and not just the present.

Hmmm…So..should we learn Chinese?

Via the Journal – a site I haven’t really worked out the purpose of yet – we have this little piece on whether we should all be learning Chinese.

There are a couple of key pieces of information:

Richard Barrett, who set up Treasury Holdings with Johnny Ronan, suggested from the audience that Irish people should be learning Chinese to equip us to fully embrace the possibilities for trade with the surging Asian economy.

I have issues with this, as indeed I have issues with anyone who pipes up and says “we should be learning X language for Y overly simplistic reason”. I may be wrong but I understand that Richard Barrett does a lot of trade in China which will probably explain his interest in getting our young people to learn China. But it’s not the sort of trade I want to see this country wasting any more money on collectively. Treasury Holdings was a development company and yes, some of its loans were taken on board by NAMA. In other words, this is not a sector of industry which would necessarily create a lot of sustainable economic growth for large numbers of enterprises.

I want to see our young people creating things; being given the freedom to create things. They will need communication skills as well – I will come to that in a moment – but above all, before they can trade with another country, they need something to sell. We are not teaching them to create stuff to sell in general. I’m sure there are people out there trying…individually – but if we were going to put any money and effort into the economic future of the country it should start with problem solving and creating things. So if we’re going to bring something new into the education system, it shouldn’t be ONE particular language, suggested by a property magnate.

I’d be in favour of much improved programming and design skills but that’s another argument later.

The thing is…we don’t trade much with China; not compared to how much we trade with France and Germany. And we already have problems getting our young people to learn to speak either effectively. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I am not going to go into the details now. To get our young people speaking any of the Chinese languages effectively out of school is a massive task when we can’t get them speaking an Indo-European language effectively.

One of the issues I have in Ireland is that it’s possible for someone like Richard Barratt to pop something like this out and have the Taoiseach have to respond to it without any real understanding of how possible it is – where are all these Chinese language teachers going to come from, for example – and how much is it going to cost given the rarity of the skill – and what directly is it going to bring the country if we don’t also – and more importantly – teach our young people to create something that we can trade with? Being able to speak Chinese and English is not enough. You need something to trade with.

Maybe I am missing something here.

oh and on the subject of the reading list.

Currently I am supposed to be reading Alex’s Adventures in Numberland – it is fascinating if you’ve any remote interest in maths by the way – and a couple of science books, one of which is Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries by Douglas Palmer. It’s been fascinating and it’s upping my knowledge of geology (desirable) without it necessarily being via a DVD narrated by some unknown with an ominous voice (serious – watch documentaries on the History Channel to get a vibe for what I am complaining about here). There’s a review from Popular Science here. Also in the pile beside my bed is The Science Book: Everything you need to know about the world and how it works.

I go through phases on the book but have found that, with some notable exceptions (Terry Pratchett being the most noticeable), most of my books are generally non-fiction and mainly drawn from science, mathematics, linguistics, history and travel. Oh, and photography. I have a monumental library of photography books at this stage, with a certain specialised interest in sports photography. And cookbooks.

I should probably stop digging on the pile of books front. Suffice to say, Kindle software and ebooks will be revolutionising my life the more the catalogue grows.

Things I wish could be real in every company

I’m not sure how it happened but Google+ seems to be working for me in the way that I want a social network to work; in the way that I wanted twitter to work (but it doesn’t) and in a way that FaceBook has just never worked for me. In the main, it’s pushing higher quality content to me.

One of the things which caught my attention this morning was this from Sergey Brin. It’s not for the amazingness of a hangout between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama although that in itself is a measure of how much the world of communications is changing.

The line which really got me was this:

Incredible. It was just a handful of months ago that +Vic Gundotra and I were at the office late one day talking about how to make communication on what was to become Google+ really dynamic. The discussion turned to the video conferencing technology that another team was building with a completely different product in mind.

“I bet you can just throw that into profiles with a couple of lines of javascript,” I said mostly sarcastically to goad him on. Sure enough about 15 minutes later we were participating in our first hangout thanks to some amazing engineering footwork and maybe a bit more than a couple of lines.

This is basically how video conferencing got into Google+. An off the cuff remark. It was in response to the dilemma of making Google+ more dynamic. I’m not sure what they were talking about there, but what interested me about this was the utter flexibility of the development model in Google that enabled them to do this; to take a piece of functionality that they were developing for one product and implementing it in another product without a convoluted mess of process to get permission to do this. In one way it is an example of that ultimate evil; project scope creep; in another, but more important way, it’s an example of recognising how to make a great product better without being hung up on bureaucratic process.

That takes vision.

Tools appropriate to the task

A couple of things cropped up today. Microsoft were looking for user feedback – I’m happy to give this for the most part so that was done.

Then there was *that* argument. I stopped reading Slashdot because of *that* argument and I think I’ve written about it before on previous sites. It relates to computer operating systems and the tribalism that goes with them.

I run iOS on my mobile devices. I run Windows on my personal computer, Windows is applied to me at work and as far as business systems are concerned, I have a lot of experience with an IBM mainframe.

*That* argument first raised its head in a discussion on mainframes. Put simply, a significant number of slashdot readers were of the opinion that mainframes were obsolete, and should be replaced by Linux server farms. I think that was the first time I came into contact with Linux fanboys to be honest and it was not a pleasant relationship. A key issue I had with the whole argument was that they were unfamiliar with what mainframes did, had to do, but assumed their shiny server farms could do it because they were expert in Linux and loads of servers and…

That’s not to say they couldn’t do what mainframes did. But because they didn’t know exactly what mainframes did, and what was required of said mainframes, they weren’t, in my opinion, qualified to comment one way or the other. *That* debate was interesting because you could see a key difference between basically two generations (I’m comparatively young and most mainframe experts are generally older than me). The older guys, the guys who knew large systems, took the view that there were many systems and many tasks and no system was appropriate for all tasks. That there were some things that mainframes did better, and some things that more modern server farms did better, and likewise on the desktop front. You could not argue that only one OS was able to do everything. It could but that didn’t mean it was any good at it.

Debates of this nature wear me out. Today it was desktop related. One key argument given in favour of anything other than Microsoft Windows is that it’s a) easier to configure and b) easier to use than Windows. In other words, Windows is the worst.

Again, and again, and again, it’s really not that simple. Windows is actually very easy to plug in and play. It’s when you want to do something outside the box that it can be not straightforward. But that lack of straightforwardness is often accepted as normal for Linux installs. And the software you might want to use may not have a Linux version. Photoshop is a key example.

It’s not that there aren’t functional equivalents, and in the Linux world, yes, there is the Gimp. But I’ve used it. And I have paid for Photoshop because it has been worth it to me.

Probably the easiest plug and plays are Macs. But if you’re a technogeek who likes messing around with the innards of an OS, it may not be the best choice for you. In fact, given the way Apple are going with their mobile devices it almost certainly won’t be in the long term.

Ultimately, the point I am making is that it is not true that Linux or Mac or Windows is the only answer to the question. Different OSs, different systems do different things better or worse. It’s almost like the laws of comparative advantage. So your main objective shouldn’t be to religiously devote yourself to one OS. I’m really not impressed if you say unto me that you do everything in Linux because in the grand scheme of things, that does not render you qualified to imply that everyone should do things your way or, indeed, that everyone needs to accomplish the same tasks as you. In other words, different tools fit different requirements and this is true even at the OS level.

Interestingly enough, as it happens, Microsoft, in their user survey today, were all about Google and not, for example, Linux or Mac. As noted by this particularly interesting xkcd:

Mac versus PC via xkcd

The game is changing, basically.

ETA: This post was written before I heard that Steve Jobs had died.

So the presents have started arriving from Open University

Twice in the last couple of weeks, I have missed package deliveries and had to re-arrange forwarding. Both were from the Open University.

Today’s one which was the third, and apparently final mailing for my first maths module, arrived today. It had books for every chapter, and the one that caught my interest – more than anything – was Block D. Block D concentrates on Chance/Probability and it’s what I remember most from 2o years ago.

Chance and probably is quite topical in the UK at the moment because a senior judge has recommended that Bayes theorem not be applied in expert statistical evidence in court cases. This has caused a lot of debate amongst statisticians and mathematicians (including the “he’s probably not qualified to make a call on that in his own right” line of reasoning.

One of the things which saddens me most about the generally low levels of numeracy in Ireland is that people aren’t equipped to have these debates; they’re not equipped to assess the likelihood of things happening based on prior data (like oh, house price crashes). While I’ve signed up for a degree in mathematics and statistics, Open University also does a degree in maths and maths teaching. Given a wider debate about the quality, and the level of qualification, of maths teachers here in Ireland, this is quite interesting.

For me, most of what this year consists of is modelling. I’m interested in this too because I have tangential interests in wave modelling and to a lesser extent, climate modelling. What’s great about all this is that it’s going to provide me with tools to do other things I am interested in beyond the day to day business of work and life. There’s a tiny undisciplined part of me which would really and truly like to hit on Part D before I do anything else because I remember probability from school and liking it very much (and scoring full marks in the probability question in my leaving certificate); but I recognise that some discipline is going to help me most through this.

There is always a lot to be said for learning something new, however, so this makes me quite happy.