maxim

Clay Shirky on the changes to publishing & media

From Parul Sehgal’s “Here Comes Clay Shirky” (Publisher’s Weekly: 21 June 2010):

PW: In April of this year, Wired‘s Kevin Kelly turned a Shirky quote—“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”—into “the Shirky Principle,” in deference to the simple, yet powerful observation. … Kelly explained, “The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions, like a company, or an industry, can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.”

CS: It is possible to think that the Internet will be a net positive for society while admitting that there are significant downsides—after all, it’s not a revolution if nobody loses.

No one will ever wonder, is there anything amusing for me on the Internet? That is a solved problem. What we should really care about are [the Internet’s] cultural uses.

In Here Comes Everybody I told the story of the Abbot of Sponheim who in 1492 wrote a book saying that if this printing press thing is allowed to expand, what will the scribes do for a living? But it was more important that Europe be literate than for scribes to have a job.

In a world where a book had to be a physical object, charging money was a way to cause more copies to come into circulation. In the digital world, charging money for something is a way to produce fewer copies. There is no way to preserve the status quo and not abandon that value.

Some of it’s the brilliant Upton Sinclair observation: “It’s hard to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” From the laying on of hands of [Italian printer] Aldus Manutius on down, publishing has always been this way. This is a medium where a change to glue-based paperback binding constituted a revolution.

PW: When do you think a similar realization will come to book publishing?

CS: I think someone will make the imprint that bypasses the traditional distribution networks. Right now the big bottleneck is the head buyer at Barnes & Noble. That’s the seawall holding back the flood in publishing. Someone’s going to say, “I can do a business book or a vampire book or a romance novel, whatever, that might sell 60% of the units it would sell if I had full distribution and a multimillion dollar marketing campaign—but I can do it for 1% percent of the cost.” It has already happened a couple of times with specialty books. The moment of tip happens when enough things get joined up to create their own feedback loop, and the feedback loop in publishing changes when someone at Barnes & Noble says: “We can’t afford not to stock this particular book or series from an independent publisher.” It could be on Lulu, or iUniverse, whatever. And, I feel pretty confident saying it’s going to happen in the next five years.

Jeff Bezos on the differences between gifts and choices

From Jeff Bezos’s “We are What We Choose: Remarks by Jeff Bezos, as delivered to the Class of 2010 Baccalaureate” (Princeton University: 30 May 2010):

What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.

Tomorrow, in a very real sense, your life — the life you author from scratch on your own — begins.

How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?

Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?

Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

I will hazard a prediction. When you are 80 years old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story.

All about freezing to death

Ice mask, C.T. Madigan / photograph by Frank Hurley
Creative Commons License photo credit: State Library of New South Wales collection

From Peter Stark’s “As Freezing Persons Recollect the Snow–First Chill–Then Stupor–Then the Letting Go” (Outside: January 1997):

There is no precise core temperature at which the human body perishes from cold. At Dachau’s cold-water immersion baths, Nazi doctors calculated death to arrive at around 77 degrees Fahrenheit. The lowest recorded core temperature in a surviving adult is 60.8 degrees. For a child it’s lower: In 1994, a two-year-old girl in Saskatchewan wandered out of her house into a minus-40 night. She was found near her doorstep the next morning, limbs frozen solid, her core temperature 57 degrees. She lived.

The cold remains a mystery, more prone to fell men than women, more lethal to the thin and well muscled than to those with avoirdupois, and least forgiving to the arrogant and the unaware.

Were you a Norwegian fisherman or Inuit hunter, both of whom frequently work gloveless in the cold, your chilled hands would open their surface capillaries periodically to allow surges of warm blood to pass into them and maintain their flexibility. This phenomenon, known as the hunter’s response, can elevate a 35-degree skin temperature to 50 degrees within seven or eight minutes.

Other human adaptations to the cold are more mysterious. Tibetan Buddhist monks can raise the skin temperature of their hands and feet by 15 degrees through meditation. Australian aborigines, who once slept on the ground, unclothed, on near-freezing nights, would slip into a light hypothermic state, suppressing shivering until the rising sun rewarmed them.

The exertion that warmed you on the way uphill now works against you: Your exercise-dilated capillaries carry the excess heat of your core to your skin, and your wet clothing dispels it rapidly into the night. The lack of insulating fat over your muscles allows the cold to creep that much closer to your warm blood.

Your temperature begins to plummet. Within 17 minutes it reaches the normal 98.6. Then it slips below.

At 97 degrees, hunched over in your slow search, the muscles along your neck and shoulders tighten in what’s known as pre-shivering muscle tone. Sensors have signaled the temperature control center in your hypothalamus, which in turn has ordered the constriction of the entire web of surface capillaries. Your hands and feet begin to ache with cold.

At 95, you’ve entered the zone of mild hypothermia. You’re now trembling violently as your body attains its maximum shivering response, an involuntary condition in which your muscles contract rapidly to generate additional body heat.

And after this long stop, the skiing itself has become more difficult. By the time you push off downhill, your muscles have cooled and tightened so dramatically that they no longer contract easily, and once contracted, they won’t relax. You’re locked into an ungainly, spread-armed, weak-kneed snowplow.

As you sink back into the snow, shaken, your heat begins to drain away at an alarming rate, your head alone accounting for 50 percent of the loss. The pain of the cold soon pierces your ears so sharply that you root about in the snow until you find your hat and mash it back onto your head.

But even that little activity has been exhausting. You know you should find your glove as well, and yet you’re becoming too weary to feel any urgency. You decide to have a short rest before going on.

An hour passes. at one point, a stray thought says you should start being scared, but fear is a concept that floats somewhere beyond your immediate reach, like that numb hand lying naked in the snow. You’ve slid into the temperature range at which cold renders the enzymes in your brain less efficient. With every one-degree drop in body temperature below 95, your cerebral metabolic rate falls off by 3 to 5 percent. When your core temperature reaches 93, amnesia nibbles at your consciousness.

In the minus-35-degree air, your core temperature falls about one degree every 30 to 40 minutes, your body heat leaching out into the soft, enveloping snow. Apathy at 91 degrees. Stupor at 90.

You’ve now crossed the boundary into profound hypothermia. By the time your core temperature has fallen to 88 degrees, your body has abandoned the urge to warm itself by shivering. Your blood is thickening like crankcase oil in a cold engine. Your oxygen consumption, a measure of your metabolic rate, has fallen by more than a quarter. Your kidneys, however, work overtime to process the fluid overload that occurred when the blood vessels in your extremities constricted and squeezed fluids toward your center. You feel a powerful urge to urinate, the only thing you feel at all.

By 87 degrees you’ve lost the ability to recognize a familiar face, should one suddenly appear from the woods.

At 86 degrees, your heart, its electrical impulses hampered by chilled nerve tissues, becomes arrhythmic. It now pumps less than two-thirds the normal amount of blood. The lack of oxygen and the slowing metabolism of your brain, meanwhile, begin to trigger visual and auditory hallucinations.

At 85 degrees, those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body’s surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.

There’s an adage about hypothermia: “You aren’t dead until you’re warm and dead.”

At about 6:00 the next morning, his friends, having discovered the stalled Jeep, find him, still huddled inches from the buried log, his gloveless hand shoved into his armpit. The flesh of his limbs is waxy and stiff as old putty, his pulse nonexistent, his pupils unresponsive to light. Dead.

But those who understand cold know that even as it deadens, it offers perverse salvation. Heat is a presence: the rapid vibrating of molecules. Cold is an absence: the damping of the vibrations. At absolute zero, minus 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit, molecular motion ceases altogether. It is this slowing that converts gases to liquids, liquids to solids, and renders solids harder. It slows bacterial growth and chemical reactions. In the human body, cold shuts down metabolism. The lungs take in less oxygen, the heart pumps less blood. Under normal temperatures, this would produce brain damage. But the chilled brain, having slowed its own metabolism, needs far less oxygen-rich blood and can, under the right circumstances, survive intact.

Setting her ear to his chest, one of his rescuers listens intently. Seconds pass. Then, faintly, she hears a tiny sound–a single thump, so slight that it might be the sound of her own blood. She presses her ear harder to the cold flesh. Another faint thump, then another.

The slowing that accompanies freezing is, in its way, so beneficial that it is even induced at times. Cardiologists today often use deep chilling to slow a patient’s metabolism in preparation for heart or brain surgery. In this state of near suspension, the patient’s blood flows slowly, his heart rarely beats–or in the case of those on heart-lung machines, doesn’t beat at all; death seems near. But carefully monitored, a patient can remain in this cold stasis, undamaged, for hours.

In fact, many hypothermia victims die each year in the process of being rescued. In “rewarming shock,” the constricted capillaries reopen almost all at once, causing a sudden drop in blood pressure. The slightest movement can send a victim’s heart muscle into wild spasms of ventricular fibrillation. In 1980, 16 shipwrecked Danish fishermen were hauled to safety after an hour and a half in the frigid North Sea. They then walked across the deck of the rescue ship, stepped below for a hot drink, and dropped dead, all 16 of them.

The doctor rapidly issues orders to his staff: intravenous administration of warm saline, the bag first heated in the microwave to 110 degrees. Elevating the core temperature of an average-size male one degree requires adding about 60 kilocalories of heat. A kilocalorie is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of one liter of water one degree Celsius. Since a quart of hot soup at 140 degrees offers about 30 kilocalories, the patient curled on the table would need to consume 40 quarts of chicken broth to push his core temperature up to normal. Even the warm saline, infused directly into his blood, will add only 30 kilocalories.

Ideally, the doctor would have access to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, with which he could pump out the victim’s blood, rewarm and oxygenate it, and pump it back in again, safely raising the core temperature as much as one degree every three minutes. But such machines are rarely available outside major urban hospitals.

You’d nod if you could. But you can’t move. All you can feel is throbbing discomfort everywhere. Glancing down to where the pain is most biting, you notice blisters filled with clear fluid dotting your fingers, once gloveless in the snow. During the long, cold hours the tissue froze and ice crystals formed in the tiny spaces between your cells, sucking water from them, blocking the blood supply. You stare at them absently.

“I think they’ll be fine,” a voice from overhead says. “The damage looks superficial. We expect that the blisters will break in a week or so, and the tissue should revive after that.”

If not, you know that your fingers will eventually turn black, the color of bloodless, dead tissue. And then they will be amputated.

You’ve seen that in the infinite reaches of the universe, heat is as glorious and ephemeral as the light of the stars. Heat exists only where matter exists, where particles can vibrate and jump. In the infinite winter of space, heat is tiny; it is the cold that is huge.

Clarke’s three laws of prediction

From Wikipedia’s “Clarke’s three laws” (2 November 2006):

Arthur C. Clarke formulated the following three “laws” of prediction:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

How to start a startup

From Paul Graham’s “Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas” (April 2005):

Trevor Blackwell presents the following recipe for a startup: “Watch people who have money to spend, see what they’re wasting their time on, cook up a solution, and try selling it to them. It’s surprising how small a problem can be and still provide a profitable market for a solution.”

What successful startups need

From Paul Graham’s “How to Start a Startup” (March 2005):

You need three things to create a successful startup: to start with good people, to make something customers actually want, and to spend as little money as possible. Most startups that fail do it because they fail at one of these. A startup that does all three will probably succeed. …

I can think of several heuristics for generating ideas for startups, but most reduce to this: look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t suck. …

What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can’t save bad people.

Failure every 30 years produces better design

From The New York Times‘ “Form Follows Function. Now Go Out and Cut the Grass.“:

Failure, [Henry] Petroski shows, works. Or rather, engineers only learn from things that fail: bridges that collapse, software that crashes, spacecraft that explode. Everything that is designed fails, and everything that fails leads to better design. Next time at least that mistake won’t be made: Aleve won’t be packed in child-proof bottles so difficult to open that they stymie the arthritic patients seeking the pills inside; narrow suspension bridges won’t be built without “stay cables” like the ill-fated Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which was twisted to its destruction by strong winds in 1940.

Successes have fewer lessons to teach. This is one reason, Mr. Petroski points out, that there has been a major bridge disaster every 30 years. Gradually the techniques and knowledge of one generation become taken for granted; premises are no longer scrutinized. So they are re-applied in ambitious projects by creators who no longer recognize these hidden flaws and assumptions.

Mr. Petroski suggests that 30 years – an implicit marker of generational time – is the period between disasters in many specialized human enterprises, the period between, say, the beginning of manned space travel and the Challenger disaster, or the beginnings of nuclear energy and the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. …

Mr. Petroski cites an epigram of Epictetus: “Everything has two handles – by one of which it ought to be carried and by the other not.”

Why infosec is so hard

From Noam Eppel’s “Security Absurdity: The Complete, Unquestionable, And Total Failure of Information Security“:

A cyber-criminal only needs to identify a single vulnerability in a system’s defenses in order to breach its security. However, information security professionals need to identify every single vulnerability and potential risk and come up with suitable and practical fix or mitigation strategy.

Paul Graham’s lessons for startups

From Paul Graham’s “The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn“:

1. Release Early.

The thing I probably repeat most is this recipe for a startup: get a version 1 out fast, then improve it based on users’ reactions.

By “release early” I don’t mean you should release something full of bugs, but that you should release something minimal. Users hate bugs, but they don’t seem to mind a minimal version 1, if there’s more coming soon. …

I’ve seen a lot of startups die because they were too slow to release stuff, and none because they were too quick. …

Even if you had no users, it would still be important to release quickly, because for a startup the initial release acts as a shakedown cruise. If anything major is broken– if the idea’s no good, for example, or the founders hate one another– the stress of getting that first version out will expose it. And if you have such problems you want to find them early.

Perhaps the most important reason to release early, though, is that it makes you work harder. When you’re working on something that isn’t released, problems are intriguing. In something that’s out there, problems are alarming. There is a lot more urgency once you release. And I think that’s precisely why people put it off. They know they’ll have to work a lot harder once they do.

2. Keep Pumping Out Features.

Of course, “release early” has a second component, without which it would be bad advice. If you’re going to start with something that doesn’t do much, you better improve it fast. …

By “feature” I mean one unit of hacking — one quantum of making users’ lives better.

As with exercise, improvements beget improvements. … You should make your system better at least in some small way every day or two.

… Users love a site that’s constantly improving. In fact, users expect a site to improve. …

They’ll like you even better when you improve in response to their comments, because customers are used to companies ignoring them. If you’re the rare exception — a company that actually listens — you’ll generate fanatical loyalty. You won’t need to advertise, because your users will do it for you. …

If your product seems finished, there are two possible explanations: (a) it is finished, or (b) you lack imagination. Experience suggests (b) is a thousand times more likely.

3. Make Users Happy.

Improving constantly is an instance of a more general rule: make users happy. One thing all startups have in common is that they can’t force anyone to do anything. They can’t force anyone to use their software, and they can’t force anyone to do deals with them. A startup has to sing for its supper. That’s why the successful ones make great things. They have to, or die.

When you’re running a startup you feel like a little bit of debris blown about by powerful winds. The most powerful wind is users. They can either catch you and loft you up into the sky, as they did with Google, or leave you flat on the pavement, as they do with most startups. Users are a fickle wind, but more powerful than any other. If they take you up, no competitor can keep you down. …

The median visitor will arrive with their finger poised on the Back button. …

There are two things you have to do to make people pause. The most important is to explain, as concisely as possible, what the hell your site is about. … A startup should be able to explain in one or two sentences exactly what it does. … You probably shouldn’t even start a company to do something that can’t be described compellingly in one or two sentences.

The other thing I repeat is to give people everything you’ve got, right away. If you have something impressive, try to put it on the front page, because that’s the only one most visitors will see. Though indeed there’s a paradox here: the more you push the good stuff toward the front, the more likely visitors are to explore further. …

The industry term here is “conversion.” The job of your site is to convert casual visitors into users …

4. Fear the Right Things.

Another thing I find myself saying a lot is “don’t worry.” Actually, it’s more often “don’t worry about this; worry about that instead.” Startups are right to be paranoid, but they sometimes fear the wrong things. …

What you should fear, as a startup, is not the established players, but other startups you don’t know exist yet. They’re way more dangerous than Google because, like you, they’re cornered animals.

Looking just at existing competitors can give you a false sense of security. You should compete against what someone else could be doing, not just what you can see people doing. A corollary is that you shouldn’t relax just because you have no visible competitors yet. No matter what your idea, there’s someone else out there working on the same thing. …

And in any case, competitors are not the biggest threat. Way more startups hose themselves than get crushed by competitors. There are a lot of ways to do it, but the three main ones are internal disputes, inertia, and ignoring users. Each is, by itself, enough to kill you. But if I had to pick the worst, it would be ignoring users. If you want a recipe for a startup that’s going to die, here it is: a couple of founders who have some great idea they know everyone is going to love, and that’s what they’re going to build, no matter what.

Almost everyone’s initial plan is broken. If companies stuck to their initial plans, Microsoft would be selling programming languages, and Apple would be selling printed circuit boards. In both cases their customers told them what their business should be — and they were smart enough to listen. …

5. Commitment Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.

I now have enough experience with startups to be able to say what the most important quality is in a startup founder, and it’s not what you might think. The most important quality in a startup founder is determination. Not intelligence — determination. …

Time after time VCs invest in startups founded by eminent professors. This may work in biotech, where a lot of startups simply commercialize existing research, but in software you want to invest in students, not professors. Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google were all founded by people who dropped out of school to do it. What students lack in experience they more than make up in dedication. …

In a startup, there’s always some disaster happening. So if you’re the least bit inclined to find an excuse to quit, there’s always one right there. …

You have to be the right kind of determined, though. I carefully chose the word determined rather than stubborn, because stubbornness is a disastrous quality in a startup. You have to be determined, but flexible …

6. There Is Always Room.

… There is always room for new stuff. At every point in history, even the darkest bits of the dark ages, people were discovering things that made everyone say “why didn’t anyone think of that before?” …

The reason we don’t see the opportunities all around us is that we adjust to however things are, and assume that’s how things have to be. …

So for all practical purposes, there is no limit to the number of startups. Startups make wealth, which means they make things people want, and if there’s a limit on the number of things people want, we are nowhere near it. …

7. Don’t Get Your Hopes Up.

Startup founders are naturally optimistic. They wouldn’t do it otherwise. But you should treat your optimism the way you’d treat the core of a nuclear reactor: as a source of power that’s also very dangerous. You have to build a shield around it, or it will fry you.

The shielding of a reactor is not uniform; the reactor would be useless if it were. It’s pierced in a few places to let pipes in. An optimism shield has to be pierced too. I think the place to draw the line is between what you expect of yourself, and what you expect of other people. It’s ok to be optimistic about what you can do, but assume the worst about machines and other people. …

Shielding your optimism is nowhere more important than with deals. If your startup is doing a deal, just assume it’s not going to happen. The VCs who say they’re going to invest in you aren’t. The company that says they’re going to buy you isn’t. The big customer who wants to use your system in their whole company won’t. Then if things work out you can be pleasantly surprised.

The reason I warn startups not to get their hopes up is not to save them from being disappointed when things fall through. It’s for a more practical reason: to prevent them from leaning their company against something that’s going to fall over, taking them with it.

For example, if someone says they want to invest in you, there’s a natural tendency to stop looking for other investors. That’s why people proposing deals seem so positive: they want you to stop looking. And you want to stop too, because doing deals is a pain. Raising money, in particular, is a huge time sink. So you have to consciously force yourself to keep looking. …

VCs and corp dev guys are professional negotiators. They’re trained to take advantage of weakness. [8] So while they’re often nice guys, they just can’t help it. And as pros they do this more than you. So don’t even try to bluff them. The only way a startup can have any leverage in a deal is genuinely not to need it. And if you don’t believe in a deal, you’ll be less likely to depend on it. …

The way to succeed in a startup is to focus on the goal of getting lots of users, and keep walking swiftly toward it while investors and acquirers scurry alongside trying to wave money in your face. …

Human life & wasted time

From Paul Graham’s “The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn“:

We take it for granted most of the time, but human life is fairly miraculous. It is also palpably short. You’re given this marvellous thing, and then poof, it’s taken away. You can see why people invent gods to explain it. But even to people who don’t believe in gods, life commands respect. There are times in most of our lives when the days go by in a blur, and almost everyone has a sense, when this happens, of wasting something precious. As Ben Franklin said, if you love life, don’t waste time, because time is what life is made of.