Leading by example: two stories

When health care institutions are charging outrageous prices, we need to stand up and say, "That's insane."

I was struck recently by two stories in the New York Times. The first, “Bishops Follow Pope’s Example: Opulence Is Out,” tells how bishop after bishop, either inspired by the Pope’s example or afraid of being shamed for not doing so, is moving out of his expensive, newly renovated residence and emulating Pope Francis’ emphasis on living simply. “Francis has very definitely sent out a signal, and the signal is that bishops should live like the people they pastor, and they shouldn’t be in palaces.”

I contrast this in my mind with the “do as I say, but not as I do” style of leadership shown by the US Congress on health care, where the message of “bending the cost curve on health care,” and limits on “Cadillac plans” was for everyone else. Congress’ own gold-plated plan remained in place, despite posturing to pretend that members of Congress were in the same boat as everyone else.

But when the leaders themselves don’t lead, sometimes individuals stand up to be counted. Read more…

Comment: 1 |

The evolving purpose of design

Design is about communication and respect as much as function.

Mine_Kafon

Massoud Hassani’s wind-powered land minesweeper, the Mine Kafon. Photo by Rene van der Hulst, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

For more than a century, design has been determined by its applications to the physical world. As architect Louis Sullivan expressed in an 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered“:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

But Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thinks that’s a law best consigned to the dustbin of history; she gets exasperated when design is presented as the subservient handmaiden of utility.

“There shouldn’t be any differentiation between form and function,” she maintained in a recent interview. “The idea that form must follow function, that’s out the window; it’s a tired cliché. A good object, a well-designed object, is encompassing. It is unified, the material embodiment of a strong idea.” Read more…

Comment: 1 |

Full-stack developers

Developers who understand the whole stack are going to build better applications.

Since Facebook’s Carlos Bueno wrote the canonical article about the full stack, there has been no shortage of posts trying to define it. For a time, Facebook allegedly only hired “full-stack developers.” That probably wasn’t quite true, even if they thought it was. And some posts really push “full-stack” developer into Unicorn territory: Laurence Gellert writes that it “goes beyond being a senior engineer,” and details everything he thinks a full-stack developer should be familiar with, most of which doesn’t involve coding.

Lists like Gellert’s are both too long and too short; and, while I agree that a full-stack developer and a senior engineer aren’t necessarily the same people, I resist the idea that full-stack developers have near-magical skills in many different areas. (So does Gellert; he asks for “familiarity in each layer, if not mastery.”) At the same time, I’d add several items to the list that he only hints at: source control, data infrastructure, distributed computing, etc.

With that in mind, we can try to start by defining the stack. We can start with the now-ancient LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl. That list is only partial and certainly dated. Linux and Apache are still with us, though there are other servers like nginx that are gaining importance; MySQL is still around, though we now have dozens of post-relational databases (most notably MongoDB and Cassandra); and I wouldn’t be surprised to see MariaDB displace MySQL in the next few years. Nobody writes CGI programs in Perl any more; many languages come into play, from Haskell to Java. But even though dated, the LAMP stack has the right idea: an operating system, a server, a database, middleware. Read more…

Comment: 1 |
Four short links: 10 April 2014

Four short links: 10 April 2014

Rise of the Patent Troll, Farm Data, The Block Chain, and Better Writing

  1. Rise of the Patent Troll: Everything is a Remix (YouTube) — primer on patent trolls, in language anyone can follow. Part of the fixpatents.org campaign. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Petabytes of Field Data (GigaOm) — Farm Intelligence using sensors and computer vision to generate data for better farm decision making.
  3. Bullish on Blockchain (Fred Wilson) — our 2014 fund will be built during the blockchain cycle. “The blockchain” is bitcoin’s distributed consensus system, interesting because it’s the return of p2p from the Chasm of Ridicule or whatever the Gartner Trite Cycle calls the time between first investment bubble and second investment bubble under another name.
  4. Hemingway — online writing tool to help you make your writing clear and direct. (via Nina Simon)
Comment |

Biohacking and the problem of bioterrorism

Natural bioterrorism might be the bigger threat, and the value of citizens educated in biosciences can't be overstated.

You don’t get very far discussing synthetic biology and biohacking before someone asks about bioterrorism. So, let’s meet the monster head-on.

I won’t downplay the possibility of a bioterror attack. It’s already happened. The Anthrax-contaminated letters that were sent to political figures just after 9/11 were certainly an instance of bioterrorism. Fortunately (for everyone but the victims), they only resulted in five deaths, not thousands. Since then, there have been a few “copycat” crimes, though using a harmless white powder rather than Anthrax spores.

While I see bioterror in the future as a certainty, I don’t believe it will come from a hackerspace. The 2001 attacks are instructive: the spores were traced to a U.S. biodefense laboratory. Whether or not you believe Bruce Ivins, the lead suspect, was guilty, it’s clear that the Anthrax spores were developed by professionals and could not have been developed outside of a professional setting. That’s what I expect for future attacks: the biological materials, whether spores, viruses, or bacteria, will come from a research laboratory, produced with government funding. Whether they’re stolen from a U.S. lab or produced overseas: take your pick. They won’t come from the hackerspace down the street. Read more…

Comments: 2 |

Business models that make the Internet of Things feasible

The bid for widespread home use may drive technical improvements.

For some people, it’s too early to plan mass consumerization of the Internet of Things. Developers are contentedly tinkering with Arduinos and clip cables, demonstrating cool one-off applications. We know that home automation can save energy, keep the elderly and disabled independent, and make life better for a lot of people. But no one seems sure how to realize this goal, outside of security systems and a few high-end items for luxury markets (like the Nest devices, now being integrated into Google’s grand plan).

But what if the willful creation of a mass consumer market could make the technology even better? Perhaps the Internet of Things needs a consumer focus to achieve its potential. This view was illuminated for me through a couple recent talks with Mike Harris, CEO of the home automation software platform Zonoff.

Read more…

Comment |