The Idea Dude


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Lessons learnt from writing freeware

As you may have gathered from my previous post, we had a bit of spare time between clients and wrote a midi to Smule ocarina score converter / translator.

There's something quite liberating about doing freeware. Liberating because you're free from any expectation about value for money, perceived quality of work, irate customers etc.

Here are some observations in no particular order of importance:

  • If you give generously to a community, they reciprocate in wonderful ways.
  • Following on the previous point, they go out of their way to help make your application even better.
  • As you can imagine, finding a collection of midi files that tested every aspect is pretty impossible and too time consuming. I've had great feedback that resulted in bug fixes I don't think I would have found.
  • Not to mention a couple of neat features that were suggested. The people will tell you how they want to use the app which often flows beyond your own perception of usage.
  • There's definitely a great satisfaction knowing that even something this small helped a few people do something that they will never have done otherwise. In this case, create new music with a terrific instrument.

On that last point, I think of all my years in management, it isn't my achievements that I reflect upon. My legacy should be about the lives of the people I influenced and how I inspired them to reach beyond their own expectations. Strong, focused communities whether it is in a home, building or a country can achieve much more than any one individual. It is not so much of the 'wisdom of the crowds' mentality because I could probably point to many instances where the crowd was swayed and hopelessly wrong.

It is about the power of the collective. The success of evolution is dependent on the number of different paths tested and the number of people testing.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Find the next big idea

Came across a quote by Linux Pauling, "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas".

He's right of course. If you ask any successful entrepreneur, he or she will tell you that the idea that made them successful wasn't the first one they had and in all likelihood not the one they thought would make it big. The key is that they never stopped coming up with ideas and if you believe that "if something is inevitable that it will eventually happen" (quote from American Beauty), then you will be successful. BTW: this isn't the "if you build it they will come".

The thing about startups especially technology or internet based ones, is there is no magic formula. In some ways it is better to be a venture capitalist than the entrepreneur. If you believe in Taleb's Black Swan concept then trying to predict that one big event is foolishness because internet success, at least the ones that return billions of dollars and millions of users, is in fact a rare event. We'd like to believe it is a common occurrance but the dotcom bubble quickly showed that it was not.

The problem isn't that we are all playing the game in the hopes of being that one big winner but like in today's global financial crisis, our greed has made us forget about sound business principles. Taleb calls it living in the Fourth Quadrant where we should not be fooled by simple statistics, where rare events happen albeit rarely and unpredictability is the name of the game. The best advice I found from his discussion about dealing with the fallacy of a single event probability?

"...Avoid optimization, Learn to love redundancy..."

Nature is wonderful in teaching us about redundancy without which evolution would have killed us all by now.

Actually there is one more quote that is great.

"...Avoid prediction of remote payoffs..."

Recently, I read several business plans that had 3 year projections before a line of code was even written. We do this because investors require it. It makes them comfortable that their investment is safe and the return is so big, it swamps any doubts they might have had. Invest in the Thanksgiving turkey because if you look at the first 364 days of its life, there is no indication to the turkey that life one day may change quite radically.

In reality, life in a startup is an S-curve (or maybe even a series of S-curves). 99% of the time, the uptake is slow and painful (unless you have huge marketing dollars or an established player). Assuming you survive, the successful ones transition at some point via a steep climb to the next level. Ergo the S-curve.

I always say, "it's never as fast as you think and yet it could be faster than you ever imagine."

I am by nature a startup junkie. I love the excitement, the freedom and the lure of the big event. But to survive, I can't fool myself I know what the next big idea is. I live in Taleb's Fourth Quadrant of Unpredictability. The only way I will survive is devise a system of idea redundancy. Dream big, dream a lot but make sure I don't follow one dream with blind fervour.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The latest in Digital Expression

The ocarina is an ancient wind instrument. Typically looking like a large hollow oval shaped pebble, it has 4 to 12 holes and a blow hole through which you blow like a flute. It's generally small enough to carry it with you like a small potato.

Here are some that I found on Flickr.

So the folks over at Smule took this concept and created a digital ocarina using the Apple iPhone. The application consists of 4 circles representing holes on the iPhone display. You touch each hole, if you want to close the hole. To create a sound, you blow into the microphone which translates the sound of your breath into a musical pitch.

Pretty amazing stuff because it has really kept the essence of the ocarina instrument.

  • It is a portable device, something you would carry with you wherever you go.
  • It keeps the concept simple. Only 4 holes (actually there is a physical limit to the iPhone which will only allow 5 different touchpoints simultaneously.)
  • It combines the analog nature of a wind instrument with a digital host. (Almost like an electric guitar or an electronic violin). Combined with moving the iPhone to introduce vibrato effects, you have an instrument that will sound different when played by different people. In fact it would sound different each time you play it because we are not automatons.

Here's the downside. Like most musical instruments, to create new music on the Smule Ocarina, you must be able to read music notation and translate a music score to the ocarina fingering or find someone who has done so. So firstly you need to find the musical score for a tune you like, then transpose it so that fits the 18 note range of the ocarina (there are 16 possible combinations but the musical range is 18 notes). This would be where most people would have trouble, i.e. they would need to understand the 8 music modes, ionian, dorian etc. and which of the 12 root keys to play the tune in. If I've lost you by now, I think I've proved my point. It is not trivial to come up with new tunes for the ocarina.

Enter the dudes at TheGoodBlogs, ahem... us. We sat down and wrote what is essentially a midi to ocarina converter. There are literally thousands of midi files available on the Internet, what if we wrote a converter that lets someone upload their favorite tune as a midi file and we would try and construct the ocarina score for them. It's not perfect because midi files can range from very simple to pretty complex with multiple tracks and instruments. And sometimes the range is wider than what is possible on the ocarina. But at least an ocarina fan would have a better shot at finding a tune they loved and playing it on their favorite instrument, the Smule ocarina. The best case would be a perfect score, the second best scenario is to be able to play a segment of the tune and worst case, it wouldn't translate at all.

One week later, I'm pleased to announce our midi to Smule Ocarina converter. If you have an iPhone, go ahead and pay us a visit at this url.. Even if you don't have an iPhone, you can play with it to see how a midi file can create an ocarina score.

So this is our small contribution to support the amazing work by the folks at Smule.

TheGoodBlogs Midi to Smule Ocarina Converter

Monday, November 17, 2008

The internet is a fish tank

The Georgia Aquarium is reputedly the world's largest aquarium, home to whale sharks the size of school buses. My favorite exhibit is the one that is the home of African Cichlids, multi-colored fish originating from Lake Malawi, Tanganyika and Victoria in mid-Africa.

Looking at the picture reminds of why internet communities are as beautiful as they are interesting.

  • Diversity - there are apparently somewhere between 1300 to 3000 species.
  • Color - the beauty lies in the many colors rather than the fact they are all the same color. In fact one can say they are all the same yet each one is different.
  • Uniformity - there isn't one overpowering species that is much bigger than others, they are all pretty much the same size, giving a sense of harmony and coexistence.
  • Interest - the randomness (or apparent randomness) of behavior is what makes aquariums interesting and watchable. e.g. you could take a hundred photographs of the same fish tank and never have a duplicate picture.

I think that's what the Internet has done. It has provided both the lens and the means to create communities. However, when communities get too big, they become uninteresting because there is too much information, too much activity. So much so, we stop seeing distinctiveness but everything is blur. The same can be said if there are too few in a community, it becomes boring and predictable. The key is balance.

Perhaps when we design communities, we should think of them more as a dynamic ecosystem that needs to feed and thrive. It is a delicate balance that tipped either way will lead to its demise.

So perhaps I should create an online dating site called, "Finding Nemo"?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ghost from the past

There's one email in my inbox that gets filed away today. It's exactly a year old, sent to myself because it struck a powerful chord. In the email is a link to Kate's post. She asked what's next for blogging?

A year later, I'm not closer to the answer.

MySpace, Facebook, Twitter has gotten bigger. Virtual worlds are be coming more commonplace and social networks are the flavor of the day. But what has really changed? Or is it more of the same?

I remember watching fish in a local aquarium fascinated by how a whole school would follow one fish across the tank. Then distracted by another, they would follow another all the way. It would go on and on in an endless cycle. In some ways, the Internet has become just that. People chasing fads and fancies. The only constant is change. Who will be next Internet prom queen?

Not to say there is nothing good in the Internet. It has facilitated the speed of connection and conversion and thereby built communities (whether it is 2 or thousands) that may not otherwise have happened. It has given everyone a voice and an opinion. It is a wonderful evolution of technology.

But in it's haste, it is generating as much noise as it is generating information. Our lives have not become simpler but more complex. Because time has not expanded to accommodate everything we now have to cram into a second. We feel we have to read every blog, return every vampire bite on Facebook or answer every comment, follow every Twitter. We have a responsibility to our friends if we get poked in Facebook. Digital distractions at its very worst.

I can't help but believe that we are still in our digital infancy. This is still the era of instantiation and experimentation. At the end of the day, the constants of today are still mundane and boring things like email, IM and HTML.

But what does emerge is that people are willing to try without thinking of money as a consequence. Build the model and the money will come goes the entrepreneurial thought of today. Good for us but bad for the entrepreneur (at least most of them, for a large number will fail). Darwin exists in technology. An excellent example of this is the Ocarina iPhone application by the folks at Smule. They've built an experience that can only work on an iPhone, using touch, the microphone and the portability of the device to create a digital musical instrument. Would it change our lives. Unlikely but they are pushing the frontiers of digital experience beyond what we are used to today.

A year from now, hopefully I'll remember to look back again and figure out whether we have better hi-fidelity Internet.

For now, this email will get filed away, finally. One ghost put to rest while I continue to look for closure if it even exists...

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No choice

There's a television program on the Food Channel called Dinner Impossible. A reknown chef is given limited time and resources to cook a themed meal for a number of guests. In this particular episode, the chef's mission was to create a Japanese meal with the help of two experienced sushi chefs.

During the preparation of the meal, the rice cooker failed and two batches of sushi rice had to be thrown away costing them valuable time. The head chef lamented several times how luck had let them down. Each time, the Japanese sushi chef simply replied, "No choice!" and carried on as if nothing had happened".

I'm sure the Japanese chef was just as frustrated and perhaps even a bit angry. But his discipline and professionalism shone through. He simply resolved himself to the fact that stuff happens and he had no choice but to continue. Needless to say, the meal was a success.

Often we are faced with the same catastrophes in our lives. I remember shipping code that had undetected bugs, followed by irate customer phone calls. My developers would look at each other trying to find reasons why no-one found the bug, bad code? bad testing? Who was to blame? Was it the developer who didn't write robust code? Was it the tester who didn't have a test case for that scenario? Or me who enforced unreasonable time lines? Perhaps it was the customer with big bucks threatening not to pay if we didn't meet a deadline?

But the bottom line was to teach them was at that moment, the most important thing was to fix the bug, get it tested and make sure we resolved it for the customer as fast as possible. Nothing else really mattered. We had, "no choice". There is no blame because I'm sure we all conspired in some way to that particular situation. And ultimately it is a matter of circumstance and luck. But rather than dwell on what should have been, it is more important to figure out what we should now do to make it what it should be.

Just two words, stands between what was and what will be. "No choice" meaning what is done is done. What will define us is what we will now do.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When going cheap is more expensive

Some friends gave me a golf instruction DVD this year. Watching it showed me all the things I did wrong the last 10 years. While I did some right, I never did all the right things at the same time. As expected, the result was never great or consistent. So making naive adjustments meant magnifying bad habits and throwing away good ones.

Golf was never meant to be a serious hobby and as such the mindset was don't spend 100's of dollars on instruction when reading a book or two was so much cheaper. In retrospect, the hundreds of dollars I spent in the last 10 years was spent in vain resulting in frustration of not really knowing what I was doing and all the while being totally inconsistent. I wonder why I perservered the way I did.

In hindsight, a better solution was to spend the several dollars upfront for quality instruction which would have meant the last 10 years of golf would have been more an exercise in recreation instead of futility.

More perplexing is that I allowed myself to perpetuate this myth of I can teach myself even though I regard myself as reasonable intelligent and often too introspective about my own failures. I missed this most important lesson the last 10 years. I'm sure there are other things I should stop doing but the momentum and effort is far too much or too much of hassle for me to stop doing them. Isn't that the definition of bad habits?

The human brain is so smart in creating justifications of why we should not be doing some things even though they defy cold hard logic.

In many ways, software is done the same way. Often clients can't understand why something should take so long or be so expensive. You do get what you pay for and often going cheap to start means paying more for mistakes in the long run. Unfortunately, it is tough to educate a customer that only can judge you by what they see. i.e. 2 web pages could look the same but the first one is written quickly and badly with no room for growth meaning each change is essentially a rewrite. Whereas the second one written well, taking a bit longer would save you money in the long run.

This week I'm making a conscious effort to stop doing things that really make no sense but I've been too darn lazy to change.