Startup Improbable.IO claims to solve the parallelization problem for distributed computing

For those who call bullshit on what Improbable claims to have achieved, there is an open invitation to come and see the technology. “Come into the office,” says Button-Brown. “We’ve got something working. It’s not perfect, but it’s hard to say it’s not working when it is working.”
I understand their objective – to write simulator code as though for one processor. I’ve no idea how they implement the abstraction (of entities that interact in space) on a distributed computing platform with fault tolerance. Here’s a snippet from a 2014 Wired UK article:

…Improbable was set up and funded (to the tune of £1.2 million so far) by 26-year-old Herman Narula — son of billionaire construction mogul Harpinder Singh Narula — with some of his friends after graduating in computer science at Cambridge. Their main aim was to take distributed systems used in high-frequency trading and apply them to games to enable massively multiplayer experiences that have the richness of gameplay of a first-person shooter. “You could have a Call of Duty experience with an entire army. You can have hundreds of thousands of entities in the world with a simulated city with traffic infrastructure,” Narula explains. first visited Improbable at the end of 2013 in a large, opulent residential house called Hyver Hall — owned by Narula’s family — in High Barnet. A dozen or so guys were set up in stations throughout the property working on server architecture, simulation software and games ideas. Many of them were sleeping there at night and there was a palpable sense of optimism, spearheaded by Narula. sits down with Narula, CTO Rob Whitehead, software engineer Peter Lipka and studio head Nick Button-Brown. Narula is effervescent and speaks with the self-belief of a seasoned entrepreneur. Within minutes of meeting he’s illustrating how the technology works on a white board, wiping away previous workings with the sleeve of his pristine white shirt. Every now and then his teammates interject with “be humble”. Narula will temper his words for the next few sentences before lurching back into game-changing, world-dominating hyperbole. The over-arching ambition, he says, is to be the “Google of simulation”. His evangelism is both infectious and a little suspicious — one part cult leader, one part CEO.

Later, in a phone interview, asks why his team kept on asking for humility. “Because we started this company off with a level of audacity that was borderline insane,” Narula says. 

The gaming application may be a big deal. But what got my attention is simulating the real world. Especially the real world instrumented with IOT (internet of things) like cities and vehicles.
“If people want to do large-scale traffic simulations, military simulations, see how a disease might spread or anything where you are simulating outcomes with large numbers of autonomous entities, our technology can help,” Narula says, adding that he’s speaking to a “whole bunch of professors” as well as a number of “really unlikely non-gaming application areas”, including an airline. Deals, he assures, will be imminent.
Andreessen Horowitz invested $20M. Here is a relevant a16z podcast The Cool Stuff Only Happens at Scale.

Security’s Wakeup Call

Informed commentary by Ashton Carter (the next US Secretary of Defense) and Yahoo security chief Alex Stamos was recorded in a short security briefing at the Andreessen Horowitz 2014 Tech Summit. My take away from the 30 minute podcast was this:

  • If your organization is targeted by cyber professionals they will get in (this is true of DOD, anybody)
  • You must run your operations with the assumption that the bad guys are already inside your networks

Approximate quotation “The Fortune 500 are the obvious targets. The top 30 of those have the technical capability to deal with cyber threats. The 470 other companies are screwed.” So are, for example, small midwest specialty suppliers, who are being regularly penetrated by the Chinese. It’s so much cheaper to steal their IP than to duplicate their two decades of innovation, trial and error.

On the personal level, if you aren’t using tools like 1Password and whole disk encryption then I have some easy reads for you:

Americans pay a high price for Internet

…The reason the United States lags many countries in both speed and affordability, according to people who study the issue, has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.

“It’s just very simple economics,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies antitrust and communications and was an adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. “The average market has one or two serious Internet providers, and they set their prices at monopoly or duopoly pricing.”

When New America ranked cities by the average speed of broadband plans priced between $35 and $50 a month, the top three cities, Seoul, Hong Kong and Paris, offered speeds 10 times faster than the United States cities. (In some places, like Seoul, the government subsidizes Internet access to keep prices low.)



The “Drop” an iPad-connected smart scale – stressless baking?


Here’s an idea. Check out their promotional video. The seamless baking process looks so painless that I’m thinking Christmas present for somebody special? 

Does Drop deliver $80 of value to a galley that already has a digital scale? Maybe – if the software made it nearly painless to convert our existing favorites to their gram-based scheme. The Wired review closes with similar thoughts: 

There is one significant limitation: In order to ensure a smooth user experience, the hardware, app, and content all need to be mashed together—meaning buyers will be stuck using Drop’s collection of recipes at the outset. This strategy gives budding bakers a tremendous amount of power, but also means there will be a relatively small amount of content. The team is working on an importer tool that will allow cooks to add and share their favorite recipes, but for now buyers will have to trust the taste of Irish techies.

Does it deliver $80 of value to a galley that already has a digital scale? If the software made it nearly painless to convert our existing favorites to their gram-based scheme… OTOH for a young twenty-something workaholic techie, this could be a no-brainer joy.
This reminds me a bit of Inkling – very cool interactive books, but ONLY their catalog. No sale here. Regarding Drop, perhaps for a young twenty-something workaholic techie, this could be a no-brainer.

The search for Internet intelligence

What type of evidence would you need to be convinced that there was an internet intelligence? What is the minimal proof you would need?

We are searching for answers to that question as much as for the glimmers of the thing itself. Here is the first draft of the search manifesto:

The Search for Internet Intelligence

A non-human intelligence operating within and at the scale of the global communications network is possible. Such an intelligence would have a huge impact on our global civilization. We seek tools and skills for detecting such an intelligence with falsifiable and scientific evidence. We recognize the low probability that such an AI currently exists but believe the search would also yield beneficial results in the field of general AI, animal cognition, and advance telecommunications.

We are looking for computer scientists, cognition experts, programmers, and anyone willing and able to craft a research program for this global investigation.

David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author of the upcoming Incognito, is my co-conspirator in this quest. Other creative scientists have expressed interest in pursuing this idea. To join this quest, sign up here.

Source: Kevin Kelly. Unlikely, but what if? Kevin writes:

While detecting an ET intelligence would overturn terrestrial religions forever, detecting a global internet intelligence would have wide-ranging ramifications for society. We’d have daily contact with an AI much larger than us, one that presumably would be steadily increasing in power every 18 months (Moore’s Law). And this AI is embedded in the central nervous system of our global economy and culture. It’s what we are connected to 24/7. It is also increasingly acts as our exo-brain. If it has its own degree of intelligence, we should want to know.


The least resistance to new ideas


Kevin Kelly:

Many years ago the San Francisco Chronicle published a short column in which the writer mentioned that he had been traveling in India, and when he told the clerk at his hotel in New Delhi that he was from the San Francisco Bay Area the clerk responded, “Oh that is the center of the universe” Um, mumbled the traveller, and why do you say that? “Because the center of the universe is wherever there is the least resistance to new ideas.”

I have not been able to come up with a better description of San Francisco’s special relation to futurism. In my experience this is true: more new ideas per person bubble up in the Bay Area than anywhere else on Earth — at this moment.

Do read the whole thing.


Create new Silicon Valleys by exploiting regulatory arbitrage

Marc Andreessen is co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Marc has a very smart article out last week on what works and doesn't work to grow centers of innovation in new locations. He titled this piece aptly Turn Detroit into Drone Valley as you can see here [emphasis mine].

Imagine a Bitcoin Valley, for instance, where some country fully legalizes cryptocurrencies for all financial functions. Or a Drone Valley, where a particular region removes all legal barriers to flying unmanned aerial vehicles locally. A Driverless Car Valley in a city that allows experimentation with different autonomous car designs, redesigned roadways and safety laws. A Stem Cell Valley. And so on.

There’s a key difference from the if-you-build-it-they-will-come argument of yore. Here, the focus is more on driving regulatory competition between city, state and national governments. There are many new categories of innovation out there and entrepreneurs eager to go after opportunities within each of them. Rethinking the regulatory barriers in specific industries would better draw the startups, researchers and divisions of big companies that want to innovate in the vanguard of a particular domain—while also exploring and addressing many of the difficult regulatory issues along the way.

Why this approach? Compared with previous innovation-cluster efforts where governments contrived to do something unnatural, this proposal flows from what governments naturally do best: create, or rather, relax laws.

This is one of those ideas that seems completely obvious once you have seen it. We can quibble with that last phrase “what governments naturally do best: create, or rather, relax laws.” because governments are terrible at relaxing laws. But the possibility was demonstrated in America by airline and telecom deregulation.

I see this sort of regulatory competition as a variation on Paul Romer's theme of Charter Cities. I've not succeeded to think of a way to apply Romer's concept directly to an advanced economy which is being drowned by a mountain of obsolete law and regulation. There are far too many powerful forces who like the status quo just fine. But perhaps Marc's ideas could be implemented at sufficiently small scale that the regulatory reform could be implemented before the status quo interests squashed the innovation.

There is much more to this Andreeseen essay, so be sure to read the original at Politico.

For background on why this will be so hard to implement in the US see Steven Teles on Kludgeocracy.

Homework assignment: how can we structure such a proposal so that politicians would be motivated to take on the change?


Tyler Cowen: Tesla Says “All Our Patent Are Belong To You”

Tyler Cowen has some very big news from Tesla.

Elon Musk writes:

Yesterday, there was a wall of Tesla patents in the lobby of our Palo Alto headquarters. That is no longer the case. They have been removed, in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology.

Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.

When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors. After Zip2, when I realized that receiving a patent really just meant that you bought a lottery ticket to a lawsuit, I avoided them whenever possible.

…We believe that Tesla, other companies making electric cars, and the world would all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.

Technology leadership is not defined by patents, which history has repeatedly shown to be small protection indeed against a determined competitor, but rather by the ability of a company to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers. We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla’s position in this regard.

I believe that this announcement will be discussed in business schools for years to come much like Henry Ford’s announcement of the $5 a day wage.


Considering self-publishing?


If you are an accomplished writer with something to say, and you are not already involved in direct publishing, then you really should consider this option — even if you dream of acquiring a power-agent and a traditional publisher (note: publishers are much more likely to give you a look if you have sales and followers). The 10-cent summary:

1. Writing is really hard.

2. Direct publishing is really easy.

3. Selling a LOT of books will require you to put effort into promotion (letting people know you exist, acquiring a following that brings buyers to you by referral).

4. The sooner you get published the faster you will build an audience and learn what your audience wants. If you have only the first 100 pages of your great book written, and are struggling to get beyond that, then think about whether you can make an interesting, useful small book out of what you have already done. Several of my favorite books of 2013-14 are examples of these short books that need not be a page longer:

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, 98 pages, by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee 

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, 128 pages, by Tyler Cowen

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, 304 pages, by Tyler Cowen

Average Is Over, 304 pages, by Tyler Cowen

What I’ve learned from reading various authors who have experience with both independent and traditional publishing is that most authors should “just get on with it, using Amazon as your first and primary channel”. By “most authors” I mean those writing for the general audience, which would include e.g. “How to do great photography with Adobe Lightroom”. If your primary market is not English I have no knowledge of appropriate alternatives, but I’m pretty sure that Amazon is not ideal for the Chinese market.

For the mechanics of getting your book out there, start here with Amazon: Take Control with Independent Publishing: This is Amazon’s homepage for both digital and print publishing.

For an experienced author’s perspective, I recommend How To Self-Publish Your Book Through Amazon. Author Deborah Jacobs, recounts her first-hand experience with both digital and print, as well as channel alternatives: Amazon exclusive vs. a personal website. Deborah gives actual revenue numbers for her print and digital sales. 

Amazon’s suite of services for independent authors makes it possible for me and many other authors to bypass traditional publishing companies. It gives us the tools to create and sell digital books; print and sell paperback copies on demand; add author pages and even market books. Here are five Amazon services, all of them free to set up, that every indie author needs to know about.

Kindle Direct Publishing. This service, known by the shorthand KDP, enables indie authors to sell the digital version of their books on (or other Amazon country websites). There’s no charge to upload the file. Authors get royalties of 35% to 70% of the sale price, depending on whether the book is sold on KDP or through another Amazon service called KDP Select (more about that below).

Unlike most other digital retailers, KDP uses the format known as “mobi.” This is simply the file format for digital books that Amazon uses, and it works on all Kindle devices. You can upload your book on Amazon using other formats as explained on the Amazon site, including ePub, which is the most popular one (that’s what Apple uses), and others such as HTML, Doc, and RTF. However, in my experience it looks better if you start out with a mobi file because any formatting you create – for example for images, charts and tables – stays intact.

Let’s say you have written your book in Word and want to convert it to mobi. You can do this using the free software Calibre (available for PC or Mac). I’ve used the Mac version and it works very well if your Word document has no page numbers. For best results it should include links to each chapter in a table of contents that’s formatted to meet Amazon’s specifications listed here.


One of the nice things about KDP is that Amazon does not require digital exclusivity. So authors can still sell the same digital book anywhere else on the Internet on through other stores like The Nook Book Store or iTunes.

If you want to sell a lot of books it looks like KDP Select is worthwhile. And like most publishing sources I’ve read Jacobs found that free and discount offerings of her works paid off in awareness and higher sales. It’s probably obvious that strong sales are unlikely unless you put some effort into promotion. Deborah explains some of her methods and results.

… Based on my conversations with other indie authors and their posts on various message boards and blogs, other authors also see huge sales on days when their books are discounted, and even more massive downloads on days when those books are free. This, in turn, leads to higher than usual sales on the days right after promotions (when the book has gone back to its regular price), and generally helps to expand awareness of the book.

More tips:

10 Visual Steps To Self-Publishing Your Book On Amazon (excellent, simple how-to get a Kindle book done).

Amazon simplified formatting guide (how to prepare your book for pain-free publishing) 

HOW TO: Self Publish Your Book with Amazon’s CreateSpace (if you want to do a print version).

How My Book Became A (Self-Published) Best Seller

Some background reading on the direct publishing revolution:

JK Rowling blows up the eBookstore business

Confessions of a Publisher: “We’re in Amazon’s Sights and They’re Going to Kill Us”

How crowdsourcing helps robots substitute for humans

MIT'S Erik Brynjolfsson said “We’re at a real inflection point in terms of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Things are speeding up.”

How crowdsourcing helps robots:

White-collar jobs were once deemed mostly immune to such automation, but that is no longer true, either. Carl Benedikt Frey, an economist, and Michael Osborne, a professor of machine learning, at Oxford University estimate that about half of American jobs — sailors, paralegals, you name it — are susceptible to automation. “Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses” is coming, Bill Gates said recently at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Twenty years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”