diego's weblog

there and back again

Monthly Archives: December 2011

hacker cooties

I am definitely enjoying this, the tail end of 2011, living largely in disconnected mode, barely looking at news, catching up on books and movies. Come January, there will be time for frenetic engagement with the electronic world.

Something I wanted to share though, was a fragment on Charlie Stross’s “how I got here in the end — my non-writing careers” which, if you are a fan of Stross –or, really, just a self-respecting nerd of any kind– and haven’t read you should (and if you’re not a fan of Stross, it’s probably just a matter of time… until you’ve read one of his books.)

“But for the most part, Banking IT staff — at least, in the 1990s — didn’t have a clue about the internet. I’m pretty sure some of them hadn’t even heard of the internet. And in consequence, their reaction to a phone call from some guy in a dot-com wanting to jump through the certification and approval hoops to connect his EPOS server to their network varied from bovine placidity (“whatever, dude”), to frenetic confusion (“we’ll have to set up a committee to discuss the relevant criteria for approving connecting your — what did you call it, can you spell that for me? — S-E-R-V-E-R to out network”) to panic (“aieee! Hacker cooties are coming to get us!”)”

Hilarious. Happy holidays everyone!

steve’s last theorem

“I finally cracked it.” is what Steve Jobs told to Walter Isaacson when talking about a way to revolutionize TV. Given the usual insanity, wild extrapolation and rumor-mongering that goes on regarding upcoming Apple products, it’s no surprise that this got a lot of people excited. Aside from the typical unfounded speculation, see for example Gruber’s excellent Apps are the new channels. I think everyone that works in tech and read that sentence is still wondering, exactly, what he meant.

This reminded me of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Pierre de Fermat, in his copy of Arithmetica wrote the following in one of the margins:

it is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.

The proof took over 350 years to arrive, and obsessed many world-class mathematicians since it was first proposed. While it is certainly possible that Fermat had the proof in his head, he never published it or even wrote it down anywhere, and Occam’s Razor would dictate that he had the intuition, but not the proof, and he left that down there, to put it simply, as a prank — or, if you find that somehow offensive, think of it as a challenge.

Now, these two problems are as similar as oranges and toasters, but the result is not. Whether he had “cracked it” or not, Jobs knew that throwing down the gauntlet like this was something that would be analyzed, parsed, processed, and argued over for a long time.

He knew that, if Apple had a product in development in that area, he was setting the bar for its release high enough, in public, for all to see (and this is not a minor thing).

That, whether Apple actually had a product in play or not, he was planting the seed of something larger.

That someone, somewhere, would use it as a beacon to say “Steve cracked it, so can I,” and eventually, finally, really crack the problem.

Just a thought. :-)

I for one welcome our new algorithmic overlords


In recent weeks, “markets” (more specifically, bond markets, but that’s less important for this particular argument) have been directly responsible for the change in leadership in two countries (Greece and Italy) and at least indirectly responsible for the change in another (Spain — in the form of all sorts of perceived pressure on the electorate).

At the root of the crisis in Europe is something that no doubt is real — excessive public debt, in some cases, like Greece, plainly unsustainable, while in others (e.g. Italy) the debt was sustainable at reasonable interest rates.

In this game, if everyone stays confident that you’ll be able to pay, and interest rates stay low, then you’ll likely be able to pay. Any loss of confidence can lead to a spiral and end up in default. Again, there’s real problems underlying this, and by now the fact that some countries have already subscribed debt at very high interest rates means the perception has (partially) become reality: short of significant structural changes, they won’t be able to pay the money back. Once doubts reach the people on the street and they start withdrawing their money from bank accounts, well… game over.

But I digress. My point was that a lot of this was driven by “the market(s)”. What exactly is(are) this elusive creature(s)? Is it beast or fowl? Is it a mythical monster? Snooki-like perhaps?

No — it’s just a faceless amalgam of people of course, but something else: software.

Algorithmic trading platforms, whether human-filtered or not. Automatic buy/sell triggers based on complex conditions that can execute in real-time, or near real-time. And so on.

These systems are not in direct control of the entire money supply, but they are in control of a fairly sizable chunk of it. (By direct control I mean that a software system can, without human intervention, execute a transaction, such as buying x shares of a given stock). This, in a system in which few people understand each individual component, and no one has a view, much less an understanding, of what the system entails as a whole.

This is not some sort of “conspiracy”, it’s local optima at the expense of global balance: for each individual, hedge fund, investment banks, etc., it’s perfectly reasonable to set up these various automatic systems and cutoff points, but when you put all of this together you have both a) a lot of really jumpy and sensitive buffalo in your herd and b) are surrounded by cliffs to run into.

The system both generates tiny signals of “movement” (up or down, it doesn’t really matter) and is ultra-sensitive to those same signals.

And in the case of governments and the bond markets, well, even tiny variations are important, because they have significant ripple effects in the long term.

This, naturally, also applies to the spiral up (followed by the spiral down) of the 2006-2008 bubble/crash.

So while software embedded in weapon systems has been our obsession as a culture (the “Terminator scenario”) where it’s really been causing problems for a while (even contributing to toppling governments!) has been in finance/economics.

So I think one could make a fairly convincing case that what we have here is a sort of mix between Skynet and the Ants from Deep Space Homer (where, incidentally, the meme “I for one welcome our X overlords” started).

Another thought: this could be considered as an indication that the Singularity has already happened in some form, where a meta-entity that we can’t see or control is now operating and unknowingly causing impact back on our level. By ‘unknowingly’ I mean that I don’t think meta-entity (Singularity or not) implies meta-consciousness, whether reflecting on itself or on the elements that are part of it, in this case, us+Earth. Or it could be that it is aware to some degree or fully, but perhaps it finds it impossible to control itself, or needs to do it to survive (imagine the destructive effect of many of our physical actions on our own particles — say, breathing, or eating).

Interesting…

Now, perhaps appropriately, I’m off to re-read Accelerando. Those lobsters crack me up every time.

dreaming it all up again

“It’s no big deal, it’s just — we have to go away and … and dream it all up again.”
 U2 at the Point Depot, Dublin, December 30, 1989
Today was my last day at Ning.

Seven years ago, almost to the day, I wrote on my weblog about looking for the next big thing, after clevercactus, my previous startup, ran out of funding. I had spent all the money I had pursuing an idea, to the point that for a few days in early December 2004 I couldn’t buy food (I eventually got a contracting job that tied me over for a bit), but I didn’t regret it. More to the point: I was exhausted and more than a little burned out, and I couldn’t really see clearly what I wanted to do next…. except move back to the Valley, and to take on a new challenge.

The response was amazing — many people, most of whom I didn’t know, emailed me to offer advice, help, and some of them, opportunities.

One of those emails was from one Marc Andreessen. I met him, and Gina at their small office (at that time the company was still called 24hourlaundry, “meeting absolutely none of your laundry needs”) in Palo Alto. After five meetings (!) they made an offer and I accepted it “in principle” without even knowing exactly what the idea was –it was that much in stealth mode– and we agreed that if I didn’t like the idea, once they described it in detail, I could say no. Now, it may sound crazy to accept an offer sight-unseen, but I’ve always valued teams more than anything and we had had a great time talking about ideas, the state of the market, and what social could be if it was really pervasive (remember, this was late ’04/early ’05).
I had to go back to Dublin, so we arranged to do a web meeting to go over the idea.

We set up the call, and the first slide went up. No fancy graphics, no eye-catching copy. It just said:

     A web platform for social applications


Holy shit, I thought.

I got it, instantly.

I didn’t hesitate. Before Gina could start talking, I said “where do I sign?”

And that’s where Ning started for me.

.o.

I got working on it immediately, on the first piece of the system we needed to boot up the environment, the administrative interface.  Funnily enough that interface is basically the one piece of code that still runs relatively unchanged to this day.

What followed was an incredible journey. I became Chief Architect, then VP of Engineering, then CTO, taking the job over from Marc. Throughout all this, we grew from 20 people or so in 2007 to over 120 in 2008, from 100K users in early ’07 to 1MM users in December that year, to 10MM users in December ’08, and beyond that.

We went through a couple of years of people telling us things like “a platform for social networks? Well, I can build that in PHP in a week, why would anyone want that?” until it somehow became obvious that people would want just that (and that no, you couldn’t build it in a week), and they would even (gasp!) pay for it. In 2009/2010, acting Chief Product Officer as well as CTO, we designed a new product offering and business model, and then I focused (with just a couple of brilliant engineers) on creating a new mobile product from scratch, Mogwee.

Today, just like two years ago, Ning networks register millions of users a month, and have reached people everywhere, even if they don’t know it. A lot of them do know it, though — I’ve met a lot of people that have told me that Ning changed their life, and I can’t even begin to explain how it is that they have actually changed mine.

When Glam Media acquired Ning in September, I decided that it was a good time to start something new. Glam+Ning have great stuff coming up and I look forward to seeing it unveiled in the coming weeks and months, but the itch to go back to being a Pirate was something I just couldn’t ignore :-).

So, here I am.

I am deeply grateful to Marc and Gina for giving me the opportunity early on to be a part of something amazing, and to the many, many people that contributed to make Ning what it is today, including its Network Creators, who are the most committed user community I’ve had the privilege of working for.

I’ll be starting something new, and I’ll certainly be blogging more over the next few weeks. In theory, I will even be taking time off over the next week or two, but who knows how that’s going to pan out. (A friend said, “Yeah, I can see you taking one or two… days off.” Heh).

 And that’s it for now. All I need is some time to…  dream it all up again.
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