Retirement fail

It’s time to face facts. My first attempt at retirement has failed. It’s been just over 2 years since I withdrew from the workforce and I’m almost broke. In that time, my total income has been £1’700. Clearly, I’m not financially self sufficient. I have not created the revenue streams that I set out to.

Realistically, I spent the last 2 years farting around. I had some great times, met some great people, I have some incredible stories. But cash flow I do not have.

It’s time to get back on the horse. Time to get back in the saddle. Time to recognise that I must once again return to the pursuit of wealth.

Let me also be clear, this does not mean I will return to exchanging labour for reward. I will not. I will focus on building businesses, not working for money. In that sense, I have absolutely made progress. But the important word here is focus, I need to pull my proverbial finger out and get to it.

The first step is to find a physical space in which to work. Working from home isn’t working. I need a desk in an office somewhere. I’ve put out a few feelers. I’d welcome any suggestions.

I began this journey into retirement with lofty ideals and high ambitions. The last two years have been decidedly retired. Late, lazy evenings, later mornings, and a generally relaxed demeanour. I had hoped to sustain myself financially within that relaxed state, but in that ambition, I have failed.

Now I must rouse myself from the drowsy slumber of retirement and return to the sharp, focused, energised passion of commercial enterprise. Hopefully, with a few well placed choices, I will return to the lackadaisical lifestyle soon. Until then, back to the grindstone.

Free creates social noise

The proliferation of “free” is creating a society in which we are exposed to ever more content. It may seem at a macro level like just more crap on YouTube, but at a micro level it’s more crap our friends are creating, sending, forwarding, spamming. I’m calling this social noise. Crap we are exposed to by our friends.

In exploring this topic, let me clarify some of the terms I’ll use.

Social utility. I’ll talk about lots of social utilities, a term borrowed from Facebook’s self description. I consider a social utility to be any technology that allows people to connect. That’s very broad. It includes the telephone, email, blogs, blog comments, facebook, twitter, and a myriad of others.

Free. What do I mean by free? When I talk about free, I mean generally free to use. Email is largely free because it costs me virtually nothing to send you an email. My typing time is actually the most valuable component of the email, so a single email is not really “free”. But when I email 100 of my friends at once, then it becomes free because I typed once, spammed a hundred times.

Noise. When a Facebook friend sends me an invite to an event on another continent, that’s noise. It was free to send me the invite yet it’s totally unrelated to me. Noise. I chose the word noise because of the signal to noise concept. How much stuff do I get through a social utility which I don’t want versus the stuff I do want. That’s signal to noise. Noise is what I don’t want.

Why does free equal noise?

This is a fascinating question. Why does a friend send me an invite to an event in Edinburgh, Scotland even though I’m in Vancouver, Canada? Why do people post rubbish on Twitter that nobody wants to read? Why do friends email me crap that I have no interest in?

Free. It costs them nothing. If I can easily and freely send rubbish to my friends, I will, simply because I can. It’s human nature. Email started out as useful. Imagine sending a message to the other side of the world, for free, instantly. Amazing. As time goes on, that freeness is the very aspect of email that destroys its usefulness. Estimates suggest that more than 90% of all email sent today is spam. Noise.

Now email has a cost. Not to send, but to receive. There is a cost in sorting 100 messages received to find the 3 you actually want to read. We employ spam and virus filtering in a bid to make the task easier. But by automated means, or otherwise, email now has a cost. It is not free to receive email. One must spend resource distinguishing between what we want to receive and what we do not.

Facebook is the same way. At the time of writing, I have some 409 friends on Facebook. That means any one of 409 people can generate content which will flow to me. When I first joined Facebook, I had few friends, there was little cost. I could log in, see what was happening with my friends quickly, move on. Now I need to wade through 409 people’s garbage to find anything useful.

Two Facebook friends recently got engaged. This was posted on their pages as a message. Amongst the diatribe of other nonsense on Facebook I missed that message. Instead I was reading about hair cuts, parties, weather and other useless crap. The noise drowned out the signal.

Now Facebook has a cost. I need to construct friend lists and filters to separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff. Free to send, it costs to receive. Much like email before it and no doubt Twitter after it. Free creates noise.

What you resist, you strengthen / Change / Resistance / Conclusions

Before I continue, let me state a few assumptions.

You cannot stop progress. Progress currently means more noise. There’s no stopping it. If you try to resist progress, only you will suffer as a result. This is a principle of life. To nerdily quote the borg, resistance is futile.

As the cost of producing content decreases, the volume of content increases. When it’s free to upload videos to YouTube, millions of people do so. As the cost of video editing, photography and other forms of creation comes down, more and more people create.

As an aside, I fully support this democratisation of creation. Everybody becomes an artist, a source of media. Let the masses create I say. Fill YouTube with a trillion videos of teenage angst, crappy comedy and boring music. Let the content flow.

A torrential storm of content is breaking. This is just the beginning. Resisting is futile.

What are we doing? / What do we do about it? / Response / Result

What does it mean? Where will it all go? Will it ever stop? Great questions. Most likely unanswerable except in the fullness of time. Any answers are predictions at best.

How are people responding? This is a question we can answer today. The trend seems to be filtering, sorting, processing. Automated means of distinguishing what we want to see from what we do not want to see. As purely anecdotal evidence, I’ll quote some examples.

Almost every email service now employs spam filtering and virus filtering. These are automated methods to try and separate content from noise. Blog comments are similarly processed. This automated spam filtering is big business in itself.
Guy Kawasaki talks about how to use twitter as a twool [sic]. He says “Get as many followers as you can.” and then “Monitor what people are saying about you”. If you’re following 20’000 people on Twitter it’s impossible to read all those tweets. Instead the advice goes, be selective in what you read, filter.

The Huffington Post apparently employs at least two comment moderators. These are real human people whose job is presumably to read posted comments and sort the content from the noise. Real people employed as human noise filters.

Seth Godin is notorious for taking the opposite approach, he doesn’t take comments on his blog. He says he made the decision because the cost (responding, curating) is too high.

One way or another, the rise of freeness creates a cost. In the age of free content, it costs not to produce content but to consume it. The cost is borne by the recipients, the readers, the moderators, not by the senders, the writers, the creators.

What can we do?

Given the current landscape of freeness and noise, what can we do about it? I’d like to get specific, so here are the challenges I personally face.

  • I get too much email, most of it I don’t want.
  • It’s hard, if not impossible, to get useful information out of Facebook.
  • Reading Twitter is of virtually no benefit to me.

In addition, the subject of blog comments is close to my heart. As I embark on a journey of creating content and sharing it online, I hope to soon have a noise problem.

As I see it, responses to these challenges are all about cost. There is inherent cost in communication. Free communication moves the cost to the recipient. Non free communication shares the cost between sender and recipient. As I see it, these are the two ways of responding. We can either charge the sender and therefore split the cost, or create systems as recipients to better filter content.

In this next section I will outline some ideas to meet these challenges. These ideas might be copied from existing sources, downright wacky, utterly unconventional and potentially complete nonsense. I leave those judgements up to you.

Professional or Personal Assistant

I believe that most companies are filled with too many managers and not nearly enough assistants. I see, time and time again, managers doing tasks which could easily and practically be delegated to assistants.

In this vein, I am considering hiring a personal assistant to perform a few functions. The first will be read all of my email. Personal and otherwise. Read it all, deal with the noise based on a predefined set of rules, and then give me only the content I want. It will take some time and effort to perfect this system, but once in place, I think the payoff will likely be worth it.

I’m also considering what other social utilities I can have filtered by a real person. Could I have my assistant log into Facebook regularly and write a summary of the most significant activity? Would this be cost effective? Can I do the same with Twitter?

This raises other questions. How much training does a personal assistant need? How much of the value of this setup will be contained within the person’s head and how much in the rules that we establish? Lots to consider, this option is an involved one.

Pay per comment

I have considered charging for blog comments. For $20 you can comment on 20 blog posts. I think that if a reader was to spend $1 to respond to a blog post, they would think more carefully before writing.

This raises additional challenges. I believe in offering those who cannot pay a non monetary alternative. That in itself is challenging. Could users also choose to answer 12 (or 25 or 50) captchas instead of paying $1 to post a comment? Some other time consuming task?

How about allowing users to post a selection of pre-defined messages for free. So a simple “Thank you” comment is free, but a comment that requires a follow up has a cost. This might also allow for visual separation of comments. All the “Thank you” comments could be grouped, listing only the names of the people who said “Thank you”.

Automated trust / Feedback / Trust

Crowdsource the cost. As content is posted, allow users to “rate” the content. As positive ratings flow, the content is highlighted. As negative ratings flow the content is hidden.

This model could be applied to many areas from blog comments to Facebook status updates to Twitter tweets. It’s possible to use global or local models. In a global model all positive / negative feedbacks are grouped. In a local model only my friends and friends of my friends feedback matters to me.

There is an inherent challenge in this. It requires users to see some raw output in order to split that output into content and noise. This leaves an opening for spam, even if fewer people see the spam because it is quickly hidden, the cost to the sender is free, so the economy of scale will allow spam to continue.

Resign

I’m seriously considering resigning from Twitter. I gain almost no value whatsoever from my Twitter account. It’s virtually worthless, yet it consumes my time. Facebook is a less obvious example. I gain some value from Facebook, but primarily only from direct, personal content. When a friend sends me a message, replies to my status, these are messages I want to see. When somebody spams me about an event on another continent, that’s noise.

I could try to reduce my Facebook noise by ignoring all invitations and all group messages. I don’t think Facebook currently allows me to do this automatically, so it may require some work on my part. Perhaps this ties into the Professional / Personal Assistant option.

Campaigning

There is a site dedicated to spreading the word about BCC. Send emails to multiple people, put them in BCC not TO. You could consider this to be a campaign. Try to educate people on polite, sensible use of the new technologies available to us. Unfortunately, these campaigns are largely ineffective. They face a couple of challenges.

Firstly, only true friends actually care. The people who send commercial spam really don’t care. They know what they’re doing, they’re doing it anyway, so trying to urge them to do otherwise is not likely to be effective. At least not in a gentle campaign type way.

Secondly, these campaigns take such a long time and require so much effort, the problem has likely moved to a new social utility before any real impact is felt. Personally, I see fewer and fewer emails where a hundred people are in the TO field. Mostly, people in my circles are learning to use BCC. However, that does not appear to have any effect on the level of Facebook crap I receive. So the BCC campaign may be successful, but it doesn’t seem to help the next place the same problem arises.

Having said all that, I think campaigns are the ultimate, long term solution. Only through education can we change habits. In time, as people become increasingly comfortable with new social utilities (not some new service, but the idea that there are forever “new” utilities), the norms of politeness and manners will adapt. But we’ll all have drowned in a quagmire of crap by then unless we find solutions in the mean time.

A space to share, cooperate and collaborate

Seth Godin has shared some lessons from his Alternative MBA.

Has it really been six months? Apparently so. The Alternative MBA was a six month, free, unpaid, learning exercise based out of Seth’s office in New York City.

It’s amazing to look back over the last six months and consider what I’ve done since I applied and was not accepted for the program. I almost got married in Belize. I spent 3 months touring the United States. I learned to ride and bought a motorcycle. I rode from San Francisco down to Los Angeles and up to Vancouver. I put in motion my retirement which will come into effect at the end of this month.

When I sum it up like that, it seems like a busy half year. It doesn’t feel busy though, as I look back on it. It feels like the normal passage of time. Things happen, we go places, we do things. Life continues to roll onwards.

In reading about the Alternative MBA I’m reminded of a dream. The dream of a collaborative working space shared with co-collaborators. The dream of assembling a team of inspiring people to simply collaborate and see what comes of it. I am considering how I might create that environment in my retirement.

I’ve spent most of the last 3.5 years in the developing world. A lot of time in Thailand, time in South Africa, Mexico and a host of other places. Having spent the last 4 or 5 months in the first world, and 6 months last year in Australia, I’m reminded of our greatest luxury: time. Above all else, I believe, first world residents have the luxury of free time.

I recently discovered the work of Clay Shirky and his recent book Here Comes Everybody. I read a bit of Clay’s writing on the Here Comes Everybody Blog. Clay talks about the free time that was created after the second world war when, for the first time, people began to work only 5 days a week.

However, I think the free time we enjoy in the first world is more than just 2 weekend days per week. We have choices which are simply not available to our developing world neighbours. We can choose to opt out. We can choose to live very inexpensively and support ourselves working only a few hours per week. The average person can probably work for one or two months and live the rest of the year on that money if they are careful.

Then there’s the wealth that parents, friends and other family afford us. The security that they provide. So many people find ways to take time out and create or build something they believe in. Support comes in so many forms. Government or other funding for goodwill causes. Private funding to start businesses. Free accommodation related to spiritual practises. Unemployment benefit. The list goes on and on.

As I travel and meet people who are choosing to opt out, I have an appreciation for how truly fortunate we are. The very option to not work is something most of the world’s population cannot possibly consider. It is both beyond their world view, their idea of what is possible, and beyond their financial means.

So here we are, first world citizens, blessed with abundance. An abundance of opportunity. Most importantly, I think, the opportunity to work little and have significant amounts of free time to pursue whatever aims we choose. I have chosen that path, I have chosen to give up work entirely in order to free my time completely from that constraint. I will, in a few short weeks, be at complete liberty to do whatever I please with my time.

Given this newfound and precious freedom, what will I choose to do? I am currently uncertain. There are a few ideas floating around. Some more nebulous than others.

One such idea is to create a collaborative work space. A working collective. An event, for a time, in a place, where people may choose to come and collaborate. What might these people do? I’m not sure it really matters. I think there can be huge merit in simply putting people together under a framework of mutual cooperation and support. An agreement to be helpful and supportive of each other’s work, and collaborate where appropriate.

Part of me wonders if this collaboration need be in a physical space. Could we build a collective electronically, over the wires? At this point in evolution, I think there is still great value in person to person contact. I believe there is significant merit in being able to walk over to another person and ask them for their help. To look into another person’s eyes and offer help if they might need it. I feel like a physical space for collaboration will greatly enhance the opportunities to create actual collaboration and cooperation.

What would be the point of such a space? What is the aim of the idea? I’m not sure it needs an aim or a point. I think in the spirit of an unconference Open Space Technology it might be hugely powerful to simply choose a location, a general topic, and let the magic unfold by itself.

I postulate that a topic like “fostering cooperation and collaboration” might be sufficient to inspire and motivate people. Such a broadly defined mission would allow for any number of projects to arise from the spirit of cooperation.

What next? I have registered the domain name cogawa.org. I was looking for names around sharing. A Swahili dictionary told me that gawa is the Swahili work for share. Cogawa came from that, as in to coshare. Co for cooperate, collaborate, and all sorts of other cogoodness.

On that domain I installed buddyPress, an open source social network. I’m creating a vision for what Cogawa might become. At the moment it is simply an idea to connect people who share a vision around sharing, cooperating and collaborating. Perhaps a physical collective location will serve that aim.

In addition to the domain and buddyPress I have now created a google group. An open platform where people may discuss, via web or email. Perhaps soon via wave. :-)

I think the next step for this idea is to discuss it. To put the concept out there and invite potential participants to share their feedback. Would you be interested in spending time in a space with other people interested in facilitating sharing, cooperation and collaboration? Do you know people who might be inspired by these ideals? I will send this message to some people I know who might be interested and see what comes of it.

Now it is an idea, perhaps through sharing, cooperation and collaboration it may become a physical reality. I warmly invite you to participate in creating that reality.

Announcing my retirement

I am going to retire on 1 July 2009. In a little over 2 months, less than 2 months after my 27th birthday, I will retire.

retire v.intr.

  1. To withdraw, as for rest or seclusion.
  2. To go to bed.
  3. To withdraw from one’s occupation, business, or office; stop working.
  4. To fall back or retreat, as from battle.
  5. To move back or away; recede.

I’m calling it retirement symbolically. I’m putting an end to the work that has been my livelihood for my adult life thus far. The time has come for a change. Time to do something new, in a new way. Time for a new chapter.

Why? My work is just that, work. I exchange time for money. It’s productive, it affords me a lifestyle I enjoy, but it’s just work. I feel that it’s time to change the way I work firstly, and secondly the type of work I do. In order to make that change, I’m choosing to give up my existing work completely. I want to have a clean break, to be free to engage in my new chapter as I choose.

What will I do? I’m not completely sure yet. I’ll start by writing. I will carve out a space in which I will serve my readers. If my service is useful, the financial matters will take care of themselves. That will be my aim, to serve for 12 hours a week. If I can do it well, I’ll be able to sustain myself financially. I’m confident I can offer something of value to readers.

I believe that what a person holds to be possible, what they think they can do, governs what life offers them. I believe I can generate value to society contributing 12 hours per week. I will leave my “profession” behind and take up this challenge.

This photo appeared 1st and 9th searching for the terms “new” and “freedom” with the “most interesting” option set.

Thinking bigger

Thinking bigger by HalonaCoast

I think Seth Godin’s is my favourite blog. His posts are short, concise and usually thought provoking. Seth avoids the mistake of writing too much, too often, and writing crap just to keep the content flowing.

Today Seth talks about thinking bigger. It’s got me thinking about StraightPress.

I host a handful of WordPress sites for family, friends and so on. Every time a WordPress update is released, I manually go through each site, run a backup, apply the update, then test the site. It’s a time consuming process, but it’s important to keep the sites secure. The sites are on my server, so security is my concern. It’s a bit like brushing your teeth. Important, but not always the highlight of your day.

This is where the idea for StraightPress was born. If I can manage a handful of sites, why not manage a few hundred sites, and generate serious economy of scale? Like a professional tooth brusher. We’ll come round to your house at 6pm every night and give your teeth a professional clean. Great I thought, here’s a business I can build that meets my criteria.

Recently I read the excellent book Scientific Advertising (pdf) by Claude Hopkins. The book was written in 1923 and is as relevant today as the day it was penned. It really is an inspirational read. It’s a book about caution, practicality, being realistic. It’ll never inspire you to create Google, Apple or Twitter, but like insurance, it will keep you safe, sensible and secure.

The book makes an excellent point about toothpaste. The author makes the point that tooth paste is easier sold on account of its beauty enhancement than its disease prevention. I do believe that is true. Offering a product that enhances, improves, enriches is a much easier sell than a product that prevents.

Why do you want your WordPress site kept up to date? One of the most important reasons is security. Preventing problems. But that’s not a great selling point. New features is another important point. WordPress 2.6 added post revisions. Every time you save a post or page, it creates a new version. So if you mess something up, you can easily go back to an older version. That’s a very powerful feature.

My question is, how do I think bigger? How do I shape StraightPress so the offering is oustanding, remarkable, notable. What can we offer, around WordPress hosting and management, that would make people sit up and say “Damn, I want me some of that”? I don’t have an answer today, but it’s a question that will be on my mind until I do.

A vision for Lonely Planet

Lonely planet publish books. They’re a book publisher. Books, in their traditional paper form, are dying. I attended a talk by Frances Linzee Gordon on Wednesday night at Gleebooks. Frances is a travel writer for Lonely Planet. She’s a great traveller. She’s a good photographer. She has some fantastic stories. It’s a pity her employer is bound to fail. That is, unless they evolve, and evolve fast.

This got me thinking, what would I advise Lonely Planet to do? I’ve thought about it a little. Here’s a quick summary.

Core offering

At it’s core, a Lonely Planet guidebook is 2 things. First, it’s a guide. Second, it’s a directory of information.

The guide is the bit that people like Frances make wonderful. The guide inspires you. It motivates you. It captures your imagination. You can fall in love with a place just by reading the guide. The information in the guide stays fairly constant. If a place is charming today, it’ll be charming a year from now.

The directory is indispensable. It’s a list of accommodation, sights, attractions, entertainment for the kids, emergency services, embassies, etc, etc. This information changes almost daily. New businesses open. Old businesses close. Places get better, places get worse. Opening hours change. The book can only hope to be “good enough to be useful”. It can’t possibly be “current”.

I think firstly, Lonely Planet needs to recognise this divide. Then they need to start separating the parts.

User input

Wikipedia, Wikitravel, Mahalo, they all work. They’re all using user feedback in one way or another. It works. Mahalo are trialling a great model. Something similar would work for Lonely Planet. Let readers update the directory. Business owners, bloggers, anyone. Let them all update the directory. Then have Lonely Planet staff check the facts. Anything else would be madness in this day and age.

The fact checking can be done mostly remotely. By telephone, email, or even online. It’s relatively unskilled work, so it’s cheap and easy to outsource. All sorts of smart algorithms could be used to prioritise what gets fact checked first.

So the content in the directory stays fresh, almost live.

Print

Print is what makes Lonely Planet great. You can buy it in a shop and take it with you. No wires, no batteries, no breakages. Split the book into two sections. Firstly, the glossy guide. Full colour, luxurious pages, beautiful photos. Secondly, the directory. Lighter paper, black and white, no photos. Here’s the genius. Make them two separate books. Put the directory inside the guide. In a back pocket. In a separate holder. Whatever.

Then print the guides every year. Every 18 months. As often as the books are currently printed. But, here’s the catch, print the guides every month. Grab whatever’s ready at the deadline, and print it. Mark what’s been verified and what hasn’t, and print anyway. Offer cheap updated directories for existing book owners. Let existing book owners print their own guides online.

Conclusion

Focus on the strengths. Lonely Planet has a great reputation. Let the travel writers focus on being great writers. Let the readers update the directory. Split the book in half. Print-on-demand the directory, pour even more splendour into the guide.

The reality is, if Lonely Planet don’t do it, somebody else will, and they’ll be the next Facebook to Lonely Planet’s MySpace.

Idea: alternatives.to

I’m always looking for alternatives to sites, for one reason or another. An alternative to Google because of their politics. An alternative to CouchSurfing.com because of it’s unreliability. An alternative to RentaCoder.com because it’s good to spread the reptuation.

This morning, I thought it would be great to launch a simple site that lists alternatives to popular sites. While walking to the shops, the perfect url hit me, alternatives.to of course! Unfortunately, it’s taken. As is alt.to. However, alts.to is available.

So, questions for you, my faithful readers:

  1. Do you think it’s a good idea? Could it be useful?
  2. Is alts.to clutching at straws? Should I try to find a url that really works instead of a second best option?

Answers on a postcard, or a comment below for expendiancy! :)

Update: Both alternates.to and alternate.to are available. Are they better?

Open source and adding value

There has been an interesting shift in Intellectual Property over the last few years. Particularly, the rise in popularity of open-source software. Companies like MySQL, Zend, RedHat, and others are pioneering a new way of doing business. Their core “product”, the software, is freely available. Not only is the product free to use, but you’re free to modify and re-distribute it.

I think this marks an interesting change in focus. What do these companies do to create value? The typical, old-fashioned model is you create something once (some Intellectual Property, IP) and you sell it many times over (Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, etc). Yet these new companies give you the IP for free.

Where many of these companies make money is by charging for additional services. Support, consultancy. Some also charge for alternative licences if you want to include their free software within your non-free software.

Personally, I like this direction. I support the idea of people being paid when they actually do something, rather than being paid many times for the same work. I think music will move in this direction over time, where fans pay for concerts, for events, but not for the music that has already been recorded. Interesting times.

Incremental Backup on Amazon EC2 / S3

Somebody suggested using Amazon EC2 to provide an incremental backup interface to S3. For the likes of rsync to be truly effective, you need to have an rsync program running near the data store. It struck me, you could use an EC2 instance with free, high-speed bandwidth to S3 to do exactly that.

Using S3fuse (currently down) I’m sure you could script something so users log in to the EC2 instance and then mount their S3 bucket locally. Then rsync would work pretty effectively I reckon.

Could even be an interesting business model.

Affiliate Revenue Sharing

A friend recently told me about rakeback poker sites. When you play poker, you pay a small fee to the casino for the use of the table, this is called a rake. If I introduce you to Poker Website X, they will pay me a percentage of your rake. The latest affiliates offer to share that percentage with you, it’s called rakeback.

I think this concept will take off and spread to other affiliate schemes. For example, the travel related site BeWelcome.org could sign up as an affiliate with somebody like Expedia (an online travel agent). If BeWelcome receive 5% of user spending, they could split that with the user. The result as a user is a 2.5% discount on Expedia.

The same principle could apply to any number of affiliate schemes. From selling books to cars or credit cards. I think there’s a great untapped market here, particularly amongst existing community web sites like Facebook and MySpace. These sites could command impressive deals with affiliates and offer their users great bargains. It’s a win-win.

Using the purchasing power of 30m Facebook users to get better deals would be great for business on all sides.

21st Century Communal Living

For a few years now I’ve been considering the balance between sharing a flat, as most students do, and living alone, as young professionals tend to. I’m sure there’s an in-between option, combining the personal space and independence of your own flat and the communal living of a shared space.

It struck me tonight that the solution could be to have individual, self contained, single bedroom flats that share a communal living space. The individual flats could be owned, mortgaged and sold as usual, with the added benefit of a shared living room. Each flat could have its own bedroom, toilet, and kitchen / living room and have a lockable door into a central living room. The shared living room could have a large screen TV, sofas, seats, a dining table, a small kitchenette, a toilet and so on.

All the benefits of having your own flat, your own front door, your own space, you’d never have to see your neighbours if you didn’t want to, combined with the central, shared living space that’s so great about sharing a flat. It’d be great for having dinner parties, you’d have a huge living room to use, all the benefits of watching telly with other people, talking about work, effectively living with people independently.

Any architects out there? Any space planners? Everyone’s thoughts welcome…

Open Plan Productivity

I’m in the process of writing a functional spec, and one of the things I read while researching it is Joel on Software – The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code.

It’s an article that lists 12 steps to better software development teams. Question no 8 is do your programmers have quiet working conditions? Question no 9 is do they have the best tools money can buy?

Right now, I’m working in an open plan office where all the staff have very old computers. There’s such a fantastic parallel between the two.

Talking to people who’ve worked in this office for some time, they say productivity just disappears because of the constant interruptions (see q8 in the Joel Test). It’s the age old problem of the constant interruptions. According to Joel’s article, on average it takes 15 minutes to get to maximum productivity, or get yourself “in the zone”. However, it can take only a few seconds when someone asks you a question to take you out of the zone, and you’ve got another 15 minutes to get back into it.

I experience this problem myself for probably the last two years, sharing an office with 1 to 3 other people. We tried various things, but they didn’t last. However, I have an idea which I’m going to try the next time I’m in that environment again. I think they key is to have time blocks. For example, everyone in the office agrees that there are no interruptions between 9:30 and 11:30, and between 14:00 and 16:00. These are the two “productivity zones”. If you need to speak to someone during that time, you have to email or IM them and they’ll get back to you when they can. I’ll talk more about email productivity later.

Obviously this wouldn’t work everywhere, but it could make a huge difference in some offices.

Coming back to the office I’m currently working in, the cost of running the office of about 70 people is in the region of £500k/month. However, there are 70 people working on computers that must be 3 years old. It’s ridiculous, a quick check on Dell reveals a new PC of good spec will cost around £600 including a flat panel monitor. So compare, 70 x £600 = £42k, less than 10% of the monthly running costs and everyone would have brand new PCs. Exactly like Joel Test q9.

The world is a crazy place.

easyDesks

Standing in the shower (as you do at 12:30 when you’re a self-employed, home worker!) I’ve just had one of those “bing!” moments.

I’m travelling to Malta on business Thursday and it involves a 3.5 hour stop in Gatwick. Being an infrequent business traveller, I don’t have BA executive club membership and so don’t have access to their lounges while travelling alone.

However, it struck me that if there were a desk by the hour service at Gatwick, it would be perfect. I’m travelling on expenses, so the cost wouldn’t be critical, and it would hugely improve the trips productivity. A simple, small desk with a computer, internet access, and a phone would be great. I could pay by credit card, or open an account, potentially even have a stored profile if I have an account. If it had WiFi and ethernet access included for laptops that would be even better.

Then it struck me that you could operate offices on that basis. Walk in, find a desk, punch in your details and start working. Calls are billed to the account, internet access and the desk is included, if there’s enough demand, printing services billed to your account, etc. It’s just like easyInternetCafe but with a slightly bigger desk and an extra service or two.

There could be a huge market for it, anyone out there fancy exploring it?

Your online identity

Following on from my earlier Treo post, I’m at my PC (as I was then, just checking if it worked! :)) and figured it was time to let the cat out of the bag on my wee idea.

Currently there are a number of “trusted” organisations that issue things online. Nominet is a good example. Nominet manage all domains that end in .uk (.co.uk, org.uk, etc). When you register a domain name, they send you a letter which lets you confirm your legal status (are you a company, a person, etc) and then download a certificate if you like. Another good example is VeriSign, a company that issue SSL certificates.

Most people probably don’t know this, but the process of getting an SSL certificate is quite involved. The issuing authority (the company that sell you it) have to be satisifed that you are actually who you claim to be. This can involve faxing a copy of your passport, confirming codes received by mail, confirming codes received by phone, and so on. The rationale behind it is that when you put your credit card details into a web site, you want to be sure you know who you’re dealing with.

This explains a bit of the background to the non-techies out there. Another concept I should introduce non-techies to is that of public and private keys. A strange one to get your head round at first, but it does make sense in the end! Emails, files, credit card details, and so on, can be encrypted using what’s called a “public key”. The public key allows you to encrypt something so that only the person with the matching private key, can decrypt it. This is the basis of most encryption online. You issue a public key to anyone who wants it, they encrypt whatever they’re sending, and then only you can read it.

Ok, so you’ve got the background, well my concept is very simple. If a standard protocol was designed, it would be possible to issue Personal Identity Certificates, similar to SSL certificates, which could be used to confirm your identity online.

As an example, you could visit your bank’s web site (Smile if you’re an ethical, UK consumer) and instead of having to log in, you could use your Personal Identity Certificate (PIC) to verify who you are. Then you could visit your electricity supplier’s web site to check your bill, and again, your PIC would do all the security checking for you.

Then you visit a new web site you’ve never seen before, and they ask you to register. Then you give them your PIC details, and tell your issuing company what information you’d like that web site to see. For example, you could only allow the web site to see your email address and name, not any other information. It could even go a step further, and if you receive an email from that web site, it could come through your PIC. So if that site started spamming you, you could easily revoke their access to your PIC.

The concept is very simple, but it could become huge. It could allow you to legally sign documents electronically. You could apply for a mortgage without having to see any printed paperwork whatsoever. As technology develops it could be linked to biometric information so your fingerprint or retina scan would confirm your identity.

The fundamentals are this:

  • Certificates issued by trusted companies
  • Individuals identity confirmed by traditional means
  • Your data easily accessed by any web site you authorise
  • An open standard that anyone can use

I’m not really sure how to promote this idea, so if there’s anyone reading who’s interested, post a comment or drop me an email and let’s get chatting.

The nightmare of registering

I’ve had an idea…

There’s a great requirement to register with web sites these days. To download a software demo you have to register, set up a username and password and then receive and respond to an email in order to confirm your email address. I would guess one in ten web sites gives you the option to register.

Of course if you’re like most people, you use the same username and password with every site and you give every site the same email address. Then you end up with a load of spam you can’t get rid of. Or, you’re like me and obsessed with preserving your email address, so you get a domain name (something.com) and you give web sites their own name at your domain as your email address, so each site has a unique email that can be individually blocked if necessary.

Either way, soon enough you end up on a site and someone’s already got your username, or your password is rejected because it’s too short, or too long. After a while you end up with hundreds of accounts you’ve forgotten about, passwords you can’t remember and a big mess.

Well I’ve had an idea that could solve all that, but I’m typing on my treo, so I’ll tell you my solution a bit later on… :)


Sent from my Treo