The international story of empathy you’ve probably never heard

Kindred Spirits

There is something hauntingly beautiful about “Kindred Spirits” by Alex Pentek. The sculpture consists of nine 20-foot (6.1 m) stainless steel eagle feathers arranged in the shape of a bowl, with no two feathers being identical. It was built in 2015 in the Irish town of Midleton, Co Cork.

The sculpture is to commemorate the donation by the Choctaw Nation – then of Oklahoma but originally of mainly Mississippi – of $170 to Irish Famine relief in 1847 ($170 was a lot in those days, and a lot for the Choctaw). The Choctaw, themselves the victim of forced emigration from their ancestral lands in the US southeast in the 1830s (during which thousands died), saw in the plight of starving Irish people, something in themselves. As was noted:

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It was also noted:

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1847 is referred to in Ireland as ‘Black 47’, the height of the famine in Ireland and the same year the Choctaw donated. It is difficult to imagine now but just 169 years ago, millions of people were starving, dying or fleeing Ireland as refugees. At the start of the famine, Ireland had a population of about 6.5m people. Just 20 years later it was 3 million. The commonly taught figures in Irish schools is “a million died, a million fled”. And this was Western Europe during the Industrial Revolution, when Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom and the broader British empire, during the reign of Queen Victoria.**

Writing about the sculpture, the artist wrote:

It was only 16 years earlier when the Choctaw were forced from their native land by the American government in what is now known as the trail of tears, making this act of kindness even more significant. By creating an empty bowl symbolic of the Great Irish Famine formed from the seemingly fragile and rounded shaped eagle feathers used in Choctaw ceremonial dress, it is my aim to communicate the tenderness and warmth of the Choctaw Nation who provided food to the hungry when they themselves were still recovering from their own tragic recent past. I have also chosen feathers to reflect the local bird life along the nearby water’s edge with a fusion of ideas that aims to visually communicate this act of humanity and mercy, and also the notion that the Choctaw and Irish Nations are forever more kindred spirits.

There is something about standing in the middle of a small town in Cork, and noting the connection to native Americans who we had never met or knew anything about, directly acting to help another nation across an ocean. The Choctaw even made a former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, a chieftain. And members of the Choctaw Nation still come to Ireland to commemorate our famine.

Having recently watched the documentary White Helmets, about brave men who try to save victims of air strikes in Syria – I wonder in 160 years’ time to whom will the Syrian people dedicate monuments to commemorate the people or countries who helped them in their hour of need.

Will it be people or countries as distant and removed as Choctaws were from Cork?

**a small footnote people might also be unaware of. On becoming independent, there stood in Dublin a large statute of Queen Victoria at Leinster House, what was eventually to become the independent Irish parliament. In 1948 it was removed and stored. In 1986 it was donated to Australia and now stands in Sydney.

5 lessons on building a newsroom from scratch

In the early days at Storyful there was a mission to build a team (and later technology) to monitor the globe for breaking news events. The mission could be summed up as:

…find all breaking news events likely to generate eyewitness content (videos particularly), in any language, in any geography, at any time, from any device, on any platform, with the smallest number of journalists possible – and verify that the content is real, and seek permission to use it. Do this without access to any traditional wire services and solely rely on social media and free tools to detect, source, verify and clear (and later licence) content.

From an office in Dublin with a small team (less than 10 in 2011), that’s quite an ambitious task. But we were largely successful at it. There are a number of things you look back on at a startup and say: we got x right, but we got y wrong.

For this I think we managed to more or less nail it – along with an office culture that re-enforced each of the points I go through below. I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to build something like this from scratch – it was an incredibly rewarding experience.

I worked at a newspaper for three years before joining Storyful – or as it was then, an as-yet unnamed startup company. But I came from a blogging culture, having started a self-hosted blog way back in 2002. It’s an interesting contrast.

At a newspaper (the Irish Examiner) I would often puzzle at why certain things were done the way they were in newspaper production – and sometimes found the answers odd or amusing. “Because that’s the way we do it” was one. “Why are you trying to change things?” was another.

There were a few funny moments – I recall once suggesting that we tweet an image of the page one of the next day’s newspaper (this was 2008) – a tease to our readers. I received a look of almost friendly contempt for it from my then boss (they later started doing it in 2011). There was generally a lack if willingness to experiment – which often meant I ended up experimenting myself. (There was also something of a Twitter rule among the hacks: The hacks who most resisted or most mocked journalists using Twitter, were the most stalwart converts once they figured out how to use it.)

But being a blogger – particularly a self-hosted one on gavinsblog.com – I was forced to learn how to do things, and how to adapt to changing circumstances, and always to try new ways of doing things. Self-hosting with vanilla HTML, then Radio Userland, Movable Type and then WordPress forced me to consider various technologies and approaches, and to get your hands dirty in SQL databases, PHP, HTML or CSS.

You’re confronted with questions: How does linking work? Why did this headline get me so much traffic? How do I build a community of loyal readers? What does my brand mean to my audience? Should I use ads?

I would have learned much less had I just had a Blogspot blog. But I was forced to learn more by trying and failing.

So it was with a mix of these different philosophies and experiences that we started to build the Storyful newsroom. One of Ireland’s first truly 24/7 newsrooms – and one that was entirely digital – it had no newspaper output, no TV output – but was a pure agency model. I think the relative success of the newsroom could be summed up under the following headlines, but is by no means comprehensive. (I no longer work there either, so some of these have evolved!)

First principles

When you have limited resources and limited time, it helps to try what could be described as working from ‘first principles’. This aims to boil down your objectives to the simplest ones possible.

Having studied philosophy before anything else in my life, I think of this in the Greek/Aristotelian philosophy sense (rather than the physics sense Elon Musk is a fan of). When you boiled down the task of our newsroom, the job was:

  1. To source information
  2. To filter and parse that information
  3. To distribute the results of 1 and 2.

These could be called our first principles. It is also how full stack development teams were organised after the acquisition (though this has evolved since).

Transparency

The second major view was on transparency. I brought a certain amount of baggage with me on this issue, as I was at the time becoming quite an FOI nerd. But this philosophy was reflected in both our constrained resources and a deeper view on admitting that journalism is by its nature imperfect and incomplete – and almost always stays that way.

This led to what perhaps now could be described as the Storyful news agency style: “Here’s what we know; here’s how we came to that conclusion; here’s what we don’t know; here’s what we’re trying to establish.” Or perhaps more succinctly in the early days: here’s stuff we know or can back up; here’s what we don’t know (yet).

In terms of our early style of disseminating information to our clients we took a particular view about our limitations – be honest about them, explain them, explain what we’re working on – but show our work by saying what we have established and how we did it.

Transparent by default.

(I also had ideas that we should not just be transparent, but radically so – that our output should default to versioning, so our clients could see the earliest drafts of our output, all the way up to the current and evolving version (not unlike Wikipedia). Even to see when we’re typing in realtime, not unlike ICQ in the early days. We never got round to implementing it.)

I think these principles could applied to most newsrooms – just in differing ways depending on the output.

Editorial Team

My experience in newspaper production meant I had worked with some really good copy editors (I was never that good). My experience in blogging meant I knew some good bloggers too. The mix of the two – or at least copy editors unafraid of technology – turned out to be the ideal candidates for hire. Many early hires were mostly from my existing network.

While Mark Little‘s job as founder/CEO was partly to set the vision for the team (he’s really good at it) and particularly in the early days to go out and sell the service, the job of the editorial team back in Dublin was to execute on the vision. That fell mainly to me towards the end of 2010 (along with Mark Coughlan‘s stint at the company), and Markham who we took on in Autumn 2010. We started scaling the team rapidly in early 2011, amid the start of the Arab Spring. (I should preface by saying that some people came and went – some really good people and some people who didn’t work out for various reasons. The list below is the people I was personally already connected to, or were connected to through my own existing network).

  • Markham was a blogger and former copy editor and I knew him through blogging. Perfect. He later became Managing Editor and left around the time of acquisition – he’s now head of Visual Storytelling at Vocativ in NYC.
  • Eoghan was a former colleague at the Examiner – and I knew him to be a constant experimenter with technology (we both loved Flickr in the early days). He still works at Storyful.
  • Felim was my other former colleague at the newspaper, who had a penchant for detail, and while not a blogger, he was a constant tinkerer with technology (he now works at the UN).
  • Malachy was someone who I had communicated with a few times about various things – but we had similar career trajectories between tech and online publications. We went for a pint and got on right away. He later became News Editor, and then to Reported.ly as Europe Editor and now works at The New York Times. 
  • The extended network kicked in then – with Alan joining from the International Herald Tribune because he was a known quantity to both Eoghan and Felim, with whom he had worked in a different company before. “Is he good?” I asked the lads. “Excellent” they said. Sold. (Alan is now standards editor at Storyful).  Joe – now Director of News at Storyful – had previously interned for Malachy. “He’s brilliant,” said Mal.
  • Aine was more on Mark’s network than mine – although Ireland being the small place it is, me, Eoghan and Felim had all edited her copy when she was a reporter at the Irish Examiner. (Aine started mainly on US politics, later started the viral team, and then became Managing Editor. Aine is now manager of news partnerships at Facebook.)

All of these people were the right mix of technical skill, ability to learn and eye for detail that the job required. They were also all open to the demands that a startup requires – extra hours, less than ideal working environment, and happy to take a risk on a company with little revenue.

Control of technology

I recall that Storyful had a printer that the Mark brought from his house. Printers were not something we used much in the office, and it kept breaking down – and its use was mainly for business stuff. For the newsroom though, printers were an anachronism. Why would we need a printer, when we could just use Google Docs for everything?

Control of technology is extremely important to allow the newsroom to adapt new workflows and try new tools. In many newsrooms I’ve visited or worked in, the “IT guy” tells you what you can and can’t install on your desktop, or if you do want to install something, you have to go through a bureaucratic mess that takes weeks. This has an incredibly negative affect on experimentation – and while it might be often for good reasons, security being chief among them – it is often applied too robustly, or the IT guy lacks the empathy for what the editorial team needs.

We had no such problem, in fact I think Storyful never actually hired someone to look after the IT of the company until it was over 5 years old (after we were acquired by News Corp). I configured and bought most of Storyful’s early machines (I think they’re mostly out of action by now). We needed fast machines (so Core i7s), Windows not Mac (we were a startup after all), ideally 8Gb of RAM, support for at least two, if not three screens natively – with high end graphics cards. Along with plain vanilla Windows 7, Google Apps for Business, and a bunch of free tools we standardised for every member of the team.

In general nothing needed to be stored on the machines themselves, so whenever we had a problem with a machine, I would simply wipe it and clean install Windows. This has the added benefit of removing any possible malware or spyware. We were able to keep at first a half dozen – and later more than a dozen machines – running reasonably well – for years. The introduction of things like shared Chrome profiles meant that we could standardise extensions and bookmarks across the newsroom too, without having to rely on local backups.

Having control of your own technology – and knowing how to use it effectively are obviously important things for a newsroom. We were able to control our own tech safely because we were nerds.

Unfortunately I still hear of newsrooms – famous and big ones – who haven’t realised that controlling your tech is really important. (Perhaps they still see computers as connected typewriters? 🙂 )

Mentoring

One of the core beliefs and philosophies that I brought with me from my time at the Irish Examiner was that there was inequality of skills in newsrooms. Some journalists knew how to do certain things really well, other journalists – in the same room as them – had no idea how to do precisely the same thing.

This is enormously frustrating to witness. And it’s equally frustrating if you’re someone who is eager to learn. It’s even more frustrating when certain journalists actively refuse to share skills precisely because they don’t want their colleagues to be as skilled as them – lest they have competitors in their own newsroom.

When we were building the newsroom at Storyful we had a relatively formal rule, along the lines of:

Everyone in the newsroom must have the same skill level as everyone else. No one should have any deficit of skill compared to any other colleague. When a new team member joins – regardless of being an intern or new hire – they will be expected to learn every skill at the level of the most senior editorial member. If any member of the team feels lacking, the onus is on them first to ask, and then on the team collectively to ensure that person is brought up to speed.

I was pleased to listen recently to a Storyful podcast, and hear from interns and staff that this philosophy is still at the core of how the newsroom functions today. Partly this rule was also out of necessity – in such a small team, everyone had to be at the same level. But it was also that philosophically – in my view – all members of an editorial team should have the skills necessary to bring to bear, should it be needed.

We took a lot of care in the early days that when new people joined, a good deal of hand holding and shadowing occurred, often for weeks – to ensure that the most obvious questions were answered – that new hires knew that it was safe to ask questions and that there was no such thing as a stupid question.

It was also made clear by inference that all of us were on a learning curve in a rapidly changing industry – and that by having the foundation of all being on the same skill level we also implicitly all had valid views on new or better ways to work. No one has a monopoly on innovation (notwithstanding my cheesy title of Innovation Director).

If modern newsrooms are to succeed, there must be a willingness to share and learn – regardless of seniority, how long you’ve worked there, where you worked before, or how good you think you are.

I think we managed to pull these five aspects together well (along with many others), all while the industry was changing rapidly – and we were always agile enough to keep changing as the business evolved.

On authoritarianism

… the authoritarian threat has grown unabated, and almost all the protections I’ve seen such as a “free and vigilant press,” are being eroded or have already been destroyed. The biggest problem we have now, in my view, is authoritarianism. It has placed America at one of those historic cross-roads that will profoundly affect the rest of its history, and the future of our planet. The world deserves a much better America than the one it has seen lately. And so do Americans.

So what’s to be done right now? Trump supporters presently marshalling their forces for the election in your county, state and country, are perfectly entitled to do what they’re doing. They have the right to organize, they have the right to proselytize, they have the right to select and work for candidates they like, they have the right to vote, they have the right to make sure folks who agree with them also vote.

You do have the right to remain silent, but you’ll do so at everyone’s peril. You can’t sit these elections out and say “Politics is dirty; I’ll not be part of it,” or “Nothing can change the way things are done now.” Trump supporters wants you to be disgusted with politics, to feel hopeless, and they want you out of their way. They want democracy to fail, they want your freedoms stricken, they want equality destroyed as a value, they want to control everything and everybody, they want it all. And they have an army of authoritarian followers marching with the militancy of “that old-time religion” on a crusade that will make it happen, if you let them.

Research shows most people are not in this army. However Americans have, for the most part, been standing on the sidewalk quietly staring at this authoritarian parade as it marches on. You can watch it tear American democracy apart, bit by bit, bite by bite. Or you can exercise your rights too, while you still have them, and get just as concerned, active, and giving to protect yourself and your country. If you, and other liberals, other moderates, other conservatives with conscience do, then everything can turn out all right. But we have to get going. If you are the only person you know who grasps what’s happening, then you’ve got to take leadership, help inform, and organize others. One person can do so much; you’ve no idea! And two can do so much more.

But time is running out, fast, and nearly everything is at stake

This quote is from the excellent book by Bob Altemeyer The Authoritarians.

Ok, I lied. It’s actually a quote I’ve edited to insert the word “Trump”. He actually wrote that conclusion to the book 10 years ago, way back in 2006 (you can read the whole book here, it’s a great read). It’s interesting in its prescient observation of the then Tea Party movement in the years leading up to the 2008 election – and to where we are today.

The book outlines what was recently reflected in a piece about the Brexit referendum. There is a widespread perception that people who voted in favour of Brexit were poor, working class people, destroyed by years of fiscal austerity imposed after the 2008 economic collapse.

While this is somewhat true, there are other more interesting correlations. Eric Kaufmann, a Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College in England wrote a good piece on the issue over on an LSE blog. He has also read Altemeyer’s book, and looks at it from that perspective. He concludes:

For me, what really stands out about figure 2 is the importance of support for the death penalty. Nobody has been out campaigning on this issue, yet it strongly correlates with Brexit voting intention. This speaks to a deeper personality dimension which social psychologists like Bob Altemeyer – unfortunately in my view – dub Right-Wing Authoritarianism (RWA). A less judgmental way of thinking about RWA is order versus openness. The order-openness divide is emerging as the key political cleavage, overshadowing the left-right economic dimension. This was noticed as early as the mid-1970s by Daniel Bell, but has become more pronounced as the aging West’s ethnic transformation has accelerated.

Figure 3 shows that 71 percent of those most in favour of the death penalty indicated in 2015 that they would vote to leave the EU. This falls to 20 percent among those most opposed to capital punishment. A similar picture results for other RWA questions such as the importance of disciplining children. RWA is only tangentially related to demographics. Education, class, income, gender and age play a role, but explain less than 10 percent of the variation in support for the death penalty.

If you read Altemeyer’s book, and I urge you to do so, you will get the explanation of what an RWA is (and a test for whether you might be one). Alteymeyer argues that Authoritarians exist in society – and they always have. They are a group of people not defined necessarily by socio-economic status but rather by values. As Kaufmann says, they are people who think about the world through an “order” not an “openness” lens. Not alone that – but they exist in all Western democracies to varying degrees. They have always existed.

Where risk begins to become evident is when someone comes along who represents what RWAs want or need – an authoritarian leader. There arises here an interesting paradox – isn’t “authoritarian leader” a contradiction in terms? Surely if there’s lots of people with authoritarian views of the world, then none of them could be a leader of other authoritarians – since they themselves want someone else to be strong leader, who by definition they can’t be themselves?

Altemeyer argues in Chapter 5 that this means there are certain types of RWAs who he calls “social dominators”. Or:

So it looks like most really prejudiced people come in just two flavors: social dominators and high RWAs. Since dominators long to control others and be authoritarian dictators, and high RWAs yearn to follow such leaders, most social prejudice was therefore connected to authoritarianism

And…

Social dominators and high RWAs have several other things in common besides prejudice. They both tend to have conservative economic philosophies–although this happens much more often among the dominators than it does among the “social conservatives”–and they both favor right-wing political parties. If a dominator and a follower meet for the first time in a coffee shop and chat about African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Jews, Arabs, homosexuals, women’s rights, free enterprise, unions leaders, government waste, rampant socialism, the United Nations, and which political party to support in the next election, they are apt to find themselves in pleasant, virtual non-stop agreement.

This agreement will probably convince the follower, ever scanning for a kindred spirit who will confirm her beliefs, that she and the dominator lie side by side in the same pod of peas. But huge differences exist between these two parts of an authoritarian system in (1) their desire for power, (2) their religiousness, (3) the roots of their aggression, and (4) their thinking processes–which we shall now explore. Then we’ll talk about how people become social dominators, and after that come back to that “highly significant” little correlation between RWA and social dominance. Along the way we’ll consider several experiments that show how nasty things get when the two kinds of authoritarian personalities get their acts together.

Now read this test of what a social dominator looks like, and have Trump in your mind when doing so (remember this was written in 2006 and is from an earlier study in the mid 1990s):

  • It’s a mistake to interfere with the “law of the jungle.” Some people were meant to dominate others. (Agree)
  • Would you like to be a kind and helpful person to those in need? (Disagree)
  • “Winning is not the first thing; it’s the only thing.” (Agree)
  • The best way to lead a group under your supervision is to show them kindness, consideration, and treat them as fellow workers, not as inferiors. (Disagree)
  • If you have power in a situation, you should use it however you have to, to get your way. (Agree)
  • Would you be cold-blooded and vengeful, if that’s what it took to reach your goals? (Agree)
  • Life is NOT governed by the “survival of the fittest.” We should let compassion and moral laws be our guide. (Disagree)
  • Do money, wealth, and luxuries mean a lot to you? (Agree)
  • It is much better to be loved than to be feared. (Disagree)
  • Do you enjoy having the power to hurt people when they anger or disappoint you? (Agree)
  • It is much more important in life to have integrity in your dealings with others than to have money & power. (Disagree)
  • It’s a dog-eat-dog world where you have to be ruthless at times. (Agree)
  • Charity (i.e. giving somebody something for nothing) is admirable, not stupid. (Disagree)
  • Would you like to be known as a gentle and forgiving person? (Disagree) Do you enjoy taking charge of things and making people do things your way? (Agree)
  • Would it bother you if other people thought you were mean and pitiless? (Disagree)
  • Do you like other people to be afraid of you? (Agree)
  • Do you hate to play practical jokes that can sometimes really hurt people? (Disagree)
  • It would bother me if I intimidated people, and they worried about what I might do next. (Disagree)
  • I will do my best to destroy anyone who deliberately blocks my plans and goals. (Agree)

Altemeyer then goes on to describe what he calls “Double Highs”. These are people who score highly on both the RWA and Social Dominator scales (he explains that contradiction in the chapter). But as he concludes, they look like this:

But a Double High has the best chance of attracting this army of yearning and loyal supporters. He comes packaged as “one of our own,” one of the in-group. He not only shares their prejudices, their economic philosophy, and their political leanings, he also professes their religious views, and that can mean everything to high RWAs. He too may be faking his religiousness to some extent, but he will have the credentials up front, and the phrase-dropping familiarity with the Bible to pass the test with flying colors. He’ll know the code words of the movement. He’ll appear to believe everything “all the good people” believe about Satan, being born again, evolution, the role of women, sex, abortion, school prayer, law and order, “perverts,” censorship, zealotry, holy wars, America-as-God’s-right-hand, and so on. Given this head start, you can expect to find a Double High leading most of the right-wing authoritarian groups in our country.

It all sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it? Is Trump a Double High – both an RWA and a Social Dominator? Based all his behaviour to date, it would appear so.

The other worrying thing? Any authoritarian follower high on the RWA scaled will be unlikely be identify themselves as such. So they’re out there, but they don’t know they are.

Thought exercises on war and the internet

Late last October David Sanger and Eric Schmitt wrote an interesting story in the New York Times outlining US concerns about Russian navy activity near the world’s undersea cables. They said:

Russian submarines and spy ships are aggressively operating near the vital undersea cables that carry almost all global Internet communications, raising concerns among some American military and intelligence officials that the Russians might be planning to attack those lines in times of tension or conflict.

The issue goes beyond old worries during the Cold War that the Russians would tap into the cables — a task American intelligence agencies also mastered decades ago. The alarm today is deeper: The ultimate Russian hack on the United States could involve severing the fiber-optic cables at some of their hardest-to-access locations to halt the instant communications on which the West’s governments, economies and citizens have grown dependent.

You got the sense from the story that intelligence officials wanted to get the story out:

In private, however, commanders and intelligence officials are far more direct. They report that from the North Sea to Northeast Asia and even in waters closer to American shores, they are monitoring significantly increased Russian activity along the known routes of the cables, which carry the lifeblood of global electronic communications and commerce.

Let’s think about this for a minute. If a war were to take place between NATO and, say, Russia, what would be some likely Russian strategies? Clearly US officials are expressing concern here about undersea cables, which carry the bulk of internet traffic globally – most specifically between the US and Europe.

In such a scenario it would make sense for Russia not simply to cut these cables, but instead to mine them – and mine them in multiple locations. Indeed you could argue it would make sense to mine them in advance of any possible conflict, but merely as a contingency. So maybe they already are? And it might be also logical to conclude that NATO might do the same, though that seems a little less likely.

If an adversary could cut most or all commercial undersea cables simultaneously (nevermind the secret military ones) it would have a hugely destabilising affect on Western economies. Communications during or in the leadup to conflict are obviously critical, but since the end of the Cold War large portions of global commerce also rely on these undersea cables – which by their nature are vulnerable. Here’s some stuff from McKinsey, emphasis mine:

New McKinsey research into the Internet economies of the G-8 nations as well as Brazil, China, India, South Korea, and Sweden finds that the web accounts for a significant and growing portion of global GDP. Indeed, if measured as a sector, Internet-related consumption and expenditure is now bigger than agriculture or energy. On average, the Internet contributes 3.4 percent to GDP in the 13 countries covered by the research—an amount the size of Spain or Canada in terms of GDP, and growing at a faster rate than that of Brazil.

Besides the affect on GDP, there’s also the affect on trading and international markets.

And don’t forget yourself: if those undersea cables were cut tomorrow, your reliance on cloud-based services would immediately become a liability. No more Google Drive, Gmail, Netflix, Dropbox, Amazon, or any of the other services you rely on daily for storing your files or organising yourself. In fact, try using your laptop for a day without internet access. Those of us who used computers in the early 1990s remember those days, but many people have no concept of what this feels like.

We have become so used to broadband and cloud storage that we forget nowadays that our computers are often merely dumb terminals, interfacing with a large infrastructure that does most of the heavy lifting. At a macro level – undersea cables are a very weak link in the new global economy – disabling them would have extremely serious consequences and likely through many Western economies into disarray.

If you were a worrier, I’d invest in some hard drives and store your key stuff locally. It’s good practice regardless of any future global conflagration.

Musk just threw down the gauntlet to Uber, public transport and logistics

Last October I wrote a widely shared blog post on Medium, concerning the launch of the Tesla Model X. In the post I argued that many of the features of the Model X did not relate to their stated goal – but instead were features of future planned vehicles. I concluded:

If I’m correct — and I think I am — the future for Model X owners won’t involve them being the only drivers of their own cars. It will involve them renting out their cars to everyone else for a price — with Tesla taking a cut — and the car driving itself. As Musk so often says, cars spend most of their productive lives sitting unused in people’s driveways. Which is crazy for such an expensive piece of hardware.

Model X will be a self-driving car with doors that open when you approach, seats that configure for the number of passengers who can then easily ingress and egress through Falcon doors, with lots of in-car stowage available, that runs on batteries in the floor charged by solar fuelled battery packs at supercharger stations (and elsewhere).

How will Uber, Hailo, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Budget et al compete with this? It’s not exactly clear to me.

Today, Musk announced his “Masterplan Part Deux“, a followup to his 2006 masterplan for Tesla. As predicted, he announced the ability to lease your Tesla for hire. I won’t reproduce the whole plan here (it’s worth going over to read yourself), but the key points are:

  • Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage
  • Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments
  • Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning
  • Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it

Making money from your car

Let’s focus on the last point, as that’s the one most related to my post from October. To some extent the first and second points are also related but more on that later. Musk today outlined the following in relation to using your car to make you money:

When true self-driving is approved by regulators, it will mean that you will be able to summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination.

You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.

In cities where demand exceeds the supply of customer-owned cars, Tesla will operate its own fleet, ensuring you can always hail a ride from us no matter where you are.

There it is. A Tesla autonomous platform for on-demand leasing of your car via mobile app. In addition, Tesla has thrown down the gauntlet to every ride-sharing app currently in existence including Lyft, Hailo and Uber – which is currently valued at twice Tesla’a market cap (Tesla $33bn/Uber $62bn).

As indicated in the original post they are also throwing down the gauntlet to all car rental firms – as Musk is clearly indicating that Tesla plans to own, operate and lease autonomous vehicles itself.

Buses and Trucks

But there’s more to be parsed here. In part of 1 of the masterplan Musk says:

In addition to consumer vehicles, there are two other types of electric vehicle needed: heavy-duty trucks and high passenger-density urban transport. Both are in the early stages of development at Tesla and should be ready for unveiling next year. We believe the Tesla Semi will deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport, while increasing safety and making it really fun to operate.

With the advent of autonomy, it will probably make sense to shrink the size of buses and transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager. Traffic congestion would improve due to increased passenger areal density by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways, and matching acceleration and braking to other vehicles, thus avoiding the inertial impedance to smooth traffic flow of traditional heavy buses. It would also take people all the way to their destination. Fixed summon buttons at existing bus stops would serve those who don’t have a phone. Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes.

Trucks is an obvious move for Tesla to make – and it has been widely speculated on at other forums. Buses too have also been speculated on, but it’s the details here that I’m interested in: “by eliminating the center aisle and putting seats where there are currently entryways”. What could this mean exactly?

Let’s return for a moment to what I wrote about the Model X 10 months ago, arguing that certain features were being tested in the Model X for particular reasons that were unrelated to the reasons explicitly outlined by Musk during the launch:

2. Electronic seats that move forward to make the lives of parents easier at the touch of a button? No. A software update will allow the seats to configure themselves for passengers arriving to get into a car where the doors open themselves (Uber – but you tell it how many people and the car gets ready for the group).

3. Ease of ingress and egress for humans in the Model X because of Falcon Doors? No. The doors don’t exist for frustrated parents — they’re doors designed for a self-driving taxi/rental mobility platform.

4. More storage under the rear seats because you need more of it, and because you can (down to the space that electric cars give you)? Yes. But when Musk uses the word “stow” I think airline. And when I think airline I think passengers. And when I think Model X I think taxi — with lots of room for your bags — with no driver in the front seat.

If an autonomous and electric “Tesla Bus” has removed the driver, entry way and the center aisle, then how will passengers ingress and egress? Falcon Wing-style doors on the side of the bus perhaps? I would say this is a distinct possibility (Elon Musk said Tesla ‘wasted’ lots of time and money on perfecting the doors, with the stated intention that it was simply to help you get groceries/baby chairs out in tight spaces).

“Design accommodates wheelchairs, strollers and bikes”. Buses that configure themselves perhaps to allow for variable uses (desks, bikes, working areas, all seats)? Seats with lots of storage under the seats, for your shopping and bags?

I see something of a contradiction between Musk saying that buttons might be present at existing bus stops that summon a bus to collect you, if he also says that buses will bring you to your doorstep. Why would hailing one require going to a bus stop? It might be to do with perceived efficiency in people congregating at the same location – but surely if buses are delivering passengers to their homes directly, then collecting them makes sense too.

(This goes to my earlier post about us switching from pull to “streaming” economies – where stuff is pushed to us without us really having to do anything)

In essence, electric autonomous buses could be seen as Tesla not only throwing down the gauntlet to the ride-sharing industry, but also to the entire public transport system. Bus driver jobs would cease to exist, except as Musk points out, for fleet managers. But there’s gonna be a lot less fleet managers than there are drivers today.

The same is true of autonomous trucks. What’s the most common job in most US states? Truck driver.

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 00.17.56

If Tesla is even mildly successful in displacing truck drivers, then it won’t be just bus drivers out of the job. (Some might argue though that productivity gains through humans not having to do menial tasks like sit in front of a wheel for billions of combined hours per year might help offset this.)

It raises more questions though. Will Tesla sell autonomous trucks to haulage and logistics companies, or will it just cut out the middle man like it plans to do with autonomous cars, and operate an entire platform of autonomous trucks globally? Will the same be true for buses?

I assume that Musk could go a few different ways. Even if he just sells buses to bus companies, those companies will still rely on charging stations, Tesla batteries, Tesla storage, Tesla/Solar City panels etc. Or if you go full on – operate bus operations yourself. The same might be true of the haulage scenario.

Solar power

A third and final point is this. Tesla’s bid to buy Solar City has been widely criticised by the market – but I’m not going to get into that here. What is worth noting is somewhat obvious – all of these vehicles will have batteries and batteries need power.

It is clear that joining solar collection to the power needed by autonomous cars (that you lease to other people using the power from your roof); by autonomous trucks; by autonomous buses, would make some sense. In addition, all of these vehicles would need to self-refuel – hence the experimentation with the Tesla snake recharger.

You do wonder though – if the cost of hailing an autonomous Tesla becomes so cheap and efficient, why would anyone buy a car? Musk says that having a revenue stream from your car will:

“..dramatically lower[s] the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day…”

This is interesting. If all cars tomorrow were a Tesla, would we all need one? If autonomous cars – using Musk’s figures – increased use of existing stock by a factor 10, then isn’t there an argument that we need less cars than today? And if we need less cars, what would be the motivating factors to buy a new Tesla? That they could rent it out into a flooded market of other owners who rent them out?

I’d like to ask Elon Musk some of these questions myself – but he seems to be a busy man.

I am long Tesla and Solar City at the time of writing. 

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From pull to ‘stream’ economies

I was interested to read Ben Evan’s recent take on the “Facebook of eCommerce”. He concludes:

That kind of scalable automation, though, could also go in completely the opposite direction for some things – away from any kind of decision at all. You put an Amazon Dash on the machine, or perhaps it can measure what you’re used and re-order by itself, and so you in effect subscribe to the product, and once done you’ll probably never bother to change brand. Or, say to Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant ‘Hey, order some more soap powder’ and the same brand is added to your next delivery. (And in both cases your choice of channel is just as now locked in as your choice of soap powder, once you’ve set the default.) Either way, an impulse purchase in one of 2 or 3 retailers you might have stopped in at, based on real-estate portfolio on one hand and eye-level placement and brand equity on the other, shifts to auto-renewal or a natural language parser. Given that P&G and Unilever’s combined ad budget is larger than the global revenue of the recorded music industry, this means that subscription soap powder could be a much bigger deal than subscription music. What will you have to pay to be Google Assistant’s default choice of dishwasher tablets?

It’s a well made point. But I think it could be looked at from another angle.

One of the core philosophies we developed for building systems at Storyful was a switch away from search-based systems to stream-based systems. I always felt that one of Twitter’s core innovations was its Stream API. Unfortunately it remains one of the few publicly available stream APIs out there (and to get it at any scale you need GNIP too).

When you’re trying to detect signal in noise, streams of data that you can filter can work incredibly well. Too many APIs, like for example YouTube’s, were based on the idea of repeatedly polling it to ask the same or similar questions of their data. Asking “any new videos uploaded containing the word ‘x'”, millions of times a day is not very efficient. (There were some attempts to streamify YouTube’s data using PubSubHubbub in the V3 API but this isn’t quite the same)

Rather, just getting the raw ‘stream’ data to manage and act on ourselves was far better – hence we spent a good deal of time converting REST APIs into Stream ones for our own purposes (using lots of calls) – and then building secondary systems and algorithms on top of those streams to detect events, anomalies, patterns and so on – across multiple platforms.

The same could be said of what Ben hints at – a switch away from user intent, ie “search“, or “GET”, to deliver, stream, or ‘push’. Google and Amazon are search systems. A user has to go find stuff and order/click it, usually in discrete transactions. Based on your behaviour the system might suggest other products or results that might interest you. The infrastructure that Ben mentions is what I would describe as streaming products. I subscribe to a “stream” of washing-up powder and it just arrives when required (based on either censors or figuring out on average how frequently I use it up).

The obvious next step from these kind of rudimentary streaming products is smarter streaming products. That world is one where I divest most control over rudimentary purchases entirely to a digital assistant (and by mine, I mean one designed for me, by me, that’s independent of platform or service). One could imagine entire industries built on trying to convert me one from one product “stream” to another, and users arbitraging en masse to receive either greater discounts, or alter the behaviour of producers. I assume this is where things like Jet are going.

The system will figure out what I need, when I need it, and even what I don’t need, but probably want. Then it will stream it to me. And this goes for digital products as much as it goes for physical ones. (An odd logical extension of this will be machines ‘advertising’ and ‘negotiating’ with other machines to change streams on my behalf).

Push, not pull. Streams, not requests.

Attracting readers

Elizabeth Spayd, the new Public Editor at The New York Times has written her first column. The previous public editor Margaret Sullivan departed recently for the Washington Post.

In her first column, Spayd grapples with the core issue of attracting readers and the changing nature of the audience:

What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey — preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information. What do they like about what we do and how we do it? What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?

Had we been listening more carefully and sooner, we would have known that our readers were using their phones for news while we were focused on monitors. And spending hours on social platforms before we had staffed “audience teams” to attract them. Or beginning to block ads while we were deploying “pop-ups” that took over user screens.

It’s an interesting piece and the above quote sums up precisely where the blogging world was a decade ago. Indeed the core philosophy of blogging was the idea of being closer to your readers, learning from them, being corrected by them, and building loyalty and relationship with your audience.

It is good to see news organisations catching up with this type of philosophy, but why has it taken so long?

Thoughts on Brexit

It’s now 2,840 days since Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, and we are still living in the crisis wrought on the global economy. It is probably widely perceived that 2008 is a long time ago, that we’ve moved on with our lives, that the crisis is in the past, that unemployment is falling and the situation has stabilised. But it has not. We are still in the financial crisis.

Humans tend not to perceive the world in blocks of 5 or 10 years, we simply continue to live, day to day, week to week and month to month. But we are all inside the train crash – moving in slow motion – that started in 2007 and continues today. How we reacted to the crash, and how our governments decided to react, have brought us to this point – for good or ill. And unfortunately things don’t look good.

There is a very serious problem becoming increasingly evident in open democracies globally. I don’t where this path brings us, but it won’t be pretty. By nature I am an optimist – but I have to look at the reality I see around me. I am now deeply pessimistic about where the world – and in particular Western democracy – is headed.

Brexit is the latest example. I am on the fence about the European project overall. I think on balance the project has been a good thing for a continent ravaged by war – it brought about stability, trade and helped bring about prosperity. But somewhere along the way things went wrong. I voted to reject both the Nice and Lisbon treaties – not because I’m particularly against the European Union – but because I felt we were moving too fast for an integration that was either unnecessary, or even if it was necessary, was not supported by swathes of the European population (who also have genuine concerns about just how accountable the EU institutions are to its people).

My view during Lisbon I in Ireland would have been: there is no need to move towards closer union – the union as it stood was close enough – and that to move closer was an exercise in hubris – particularly after the French rejected the European constitution. However the European institutions kept pushing, so we voted again.

But events have moved on quite a bit since we voted in Lisbon II in 2009. In my view the project that started with the Treaty of Paris in 1951 is now over – and we are merely now living through its eventual demise. There are a number of reasons why I believe this to be case:

1) The end of the idealistic post-war European project started with the design of the euro. It was constructed wrongly not through malice, but through incompetence (and perhaps hubris again). When the crisis began in Europe – mainly in the poorer peripheral countries or PIIGS – it became clear that the the entire project was in trouble. And a union founded on solidarity became a union focussed on punishment. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and to a lesser extent Italy and Spain, were to be punished for the profligacy of their banks – despite the equal involvement of German and British banks in the self-same profligacy.

2) The treatment of Greece, through multiple so-called bailouts, while remaining an EU member was contemptuous. Instead of treating a country as a fellow member in need of support, Germany treated it as a country to be reprimanded and scolded. How Greek people, my fellow EU citizens, were portrayed by my own media, or by German and British media, was frankly terrible.

3) The treatment of my own country, Ireland, was one of forcing us into a path of austerity and cuts, when the opposite could and probably should have been pursued. The IMF seemed to favour the policy, but then backtracked.

4) The treatment of Cyprus, like Greece, was embarrassing. Again, a union built on solidarity felt that punishment and austerity were a better course of action. There would be little or no sharing of the burden – because the institutions of the Union felt they were without responsibility for the crisis.

5) Brexit. Brexit is a symptom of the greater economic malaise, and the growth of inequality. It was more a protest vote against austerity than it was a protest against un-elected EU officials. People are still living in the depths of the crisis that started in 2008, and immigration is an easy device to use to blame “others” on the problem, rather than blaming the actual cause – many of the ideologies promoted by the very people campaigning to leave the EU.

Unfortunately, we are already on the slope to European disintegration and it is already slippery. Western democracies are moving to the right because of the financial crisis we are still in; because of the greater inequality it has created and because of the austerity imposed on vast numbers of people. Immigration, or anti-immigration are merely symptoms of that discontent. When most people are doing ok, immigration is not an issue. But most people are not doing ok.

We must ask: where does this all end? What does the world look like in 2030? Where has greater inequality and disintegration led Europe before? History has a way of repeating itself.

It is deeply unfortunate that the generation who knows what war is like is disappearing entirely just as we revert to a type of politics we haven’t seen for two generations – and an entire generation alive today have no frame of reference for what war or extremism looks like. As humans we forget all too easily.

I can hear people reading this already thinking “war?! What is this person smoking?”. And I sympathise with the view. But when I look at this through the lens of history, I see conflagration as one eventual possibility that cannot be discounted easily. If we project out by 10 to 15 years, what are the possible futures? If, as I argue, we are at the beginning of the end of the post-war project, and if Trumpism is alive and well in the US (whether he wins or not), and if European countries increasingly move to the right due to real or perceived economic stagnation or depression – then where does that bring us?

The risks for the future are, I believe, great.

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Addendum:

I strongly suggest taking 5 hours out of your schedule and watching The Death of Yugoslavia.

Elon Musk’s sleight of hand

[cross posted from Medium].

Like many people, I’m a fan of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Chairman of Solar City. So much so that I’m nerdy enough to listen to the quarterly conference calls of Tesla, and keep a close eye on the movements of each company.

Watching Tesla launches, like the recent Model X and Powerwall announcements, all remind me of watching Apple and Steve Jobs product launches back when it was still considered fanboy(ish), and not a pre-requisite for people working in tech or journalism (ie anytime pre iPhone in 2007).

Musk’s presentation style is not as polished as a Jobs show — but he manages to pull it off in a slightly awkward, if endearing, manner.

Indeed, like back then with Jobs, today many people have no idea who Musk is — he has yet to meet the Jobs levels of fame.

However, beneath some of the recent announcements are I believe some more fundamental things at work. Clearly everything I write is only as an interested observer, and is certainly not based on any fundamental research. I’m as in the dark as everyone else about Musk’s future intentions — but I do enjoy exercising my brain on what’s possible or probable.

Before we begin, keep in mind throughout Tesla’s stated goal: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” It’s not to make the coolest looking electric cars.

This week Musk launched the long awaited and much delayed Model X — the SUV followup to the incredibly well reviewed Model S sedan. But during the show, Musk almost downplayed features of the Model X that, within the right circumstances, are in my view nothing short of revolutionary. Some features already exist in the Model S — but I believe this new combination is a step in a new direction.

Let’s start with the first example.

A dozen minutes into the launch of Model X, Musk says

“So let’s move on to the car itself. What’s cool and fun about the car? Doors & Windows. So. You’re obviously familiar with the Falcon Wing door. What we also have is an Auto Presenting front door. So what it will do, it will triangulate my position and detect that I am moving towards the front door. It will open the front door. Without me touching anything. I will sit down, and it will close the door. Like an invisible chauffeur. (He then laughs to himself in the car)

It’s a cool and fun feature. But was it a feature added to the car because it was cool and fun? It seems like quite a bit of effort just so a human doesn’t have to touch the handle of a door and close it after them. It’s like a first world problem of first world problems.

And it’s well beyond “fun” when you’re building any expensive complex device such as the X — which Musk has previously described as “the most difficult car in the world to build”.

But onto to the second example.

Later in the presentation Musk focuses audiences on how the Falcon Wing doors are a wonderful innovation and “look cool”. But the main crux of this innovation, Musk appears to argue, is the ability for parents to get full advantage of the second and third rows of the Model X — without the discomfort of “cantilevering” themselves and their kids seats as they would with normal SUVs.

Also during this demonstration (left), Musk “presses the button” (he actually says those words) so that the second row seats move themselves forward electronically. He then gets in the third row, to demonstrate the space and ease of ingress.

I’m now asking myself a number of questions during this demo — which only grow when Musk moves on to talk about the Falcon doors.

Which leads us to example number three.

In the next set piece, he shows how easy it is to get into the car via the Falcon Doors when two other vehicles are parked directly alongside the X. Ostensibly, the rationale for this demonstration was again the scenario of perhaps parents at a shopping mall, trying to manage their shopping and their kids — and some rude people parking beside you. The Falcon Wing doors sense the proximity of the nearby cars, and still open with ease, again allowing for ease of ingress for humans.

Which brings us to example number four:

Musk, almost in passing, mentions the extra room around the rear seating area. Here he outlines how wonderful this feature is:

“Probably the best-looking second seat — if that’s a superlative — ever. But it actually provides more functionality because you have a flat floor and you can stow something. So if you’ve got a backpack, or a laptop, or a handbag you can stow that under the seat, instead of having it at your feet. So it actually provides utility as well as aesthetics.”

Except that later in the presentation, Musk and his team demonstrate the enormous overall storage capacity of the X — so I’m left wondering why emphasise the extra stowing feature under the rear seats?

Lastly is a feature that wasn’t actually presented — but is a feature still under development — the “snake”. This was demoed plugging into a Model S earlier this year, but will clearly be compatible with the Model X too, whenever it becomes available. Essentially it is a charger for the car that recognises when a vehicle is present and plugs itself in, without the drivers having to get out and do it themselves.

But when I pull these five things together I don’t see features that are being built or added because they are “fun”, or because they are designed for frustrated parents in shopping malls with more luggage than any family in the history of the world. How much did each of these features cost in both time and money for Tesla? I wonder.

No. None of these features have anything to do with building conveniences for humans too lazy to open doors with their hands, or indeed for parents squeezing between cars.

They were built for something else — and this is Musk’s sleight of hand.

All of these feature were built for one reason — a self driving future combined with an entire self-driving mobility platform. The Model X was built to be either the ultimate self-driving taxi, or the ultimate human/self-driving rental car — or both. Or as Musk almost laughingly hinted during the presentation — an invisible chauffeur will be doing all the work.

1. A front door that opens when you approach it and closes itself when you get in — because it’s fun? No. A self-driving car that arrives to collect you and opens its doors when it detects your proximity based on your watch/mobile device nearby (plus the sensors).

2. Electronic seats that move forward to make the lives of parents easier at the touch of a button? No. A software update will allow the seats to configure themselves for passengers arriving to get into a car where the doors open themselves (Uber – but you tell it how many people and the car gets ready for the group).

3. Ease of ingress and egress for humans in the Model X because of Falcon Doors? No. The doors don’t exist for frustrated parents — they’re doors designed for a self-driving taxi/rental mobility platform.

4. More storage under the rear seats because you need more of it, and because you can (down to the space that electric cars give you)? Yes. But when Musk uses the word “stow” I think airline. And when I think airline I think passengers. And when I think Model X I think taxi — with lots of room for your bags — with no driver in the front seat.

5. A snake that extends to charge your car because it saves your lazy ass from having to get out and plug it in yourself? Yes, but if the car is driving itself it’s going to have to be able to reverse into a station and commence charging — without the presence of a human.

If I’m correct — and I think I am — the future for Model X owners won’t involve them being the only drivers of their own cars. It will involve them renting out their cars to everyone else for a price — with Tesla taking a cut — and the car driving itself. As Musk so often says, cars spend most of their productive lives sitting unused in people’s driveways. Which is crazy for such an expensive piece of hardware.

Model X will be a self-driving car with doors that open when you approach, seats that configure for the number of passengers who can then easily ingress and egress through Falcon doors, with lots of in-car stowage available, that runs on batteries in the floor charged by solar fuelled battery packs at supercharger stations (and elsewhere).

How will Uber, Hailo, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Budget et al compete with this? It’s not exactly clear to me. All of those firms rely on fossil-fuelled cars and humans to function. Both involve high costs (financially and environmentally).

Tesla vehicles run (or will ultimately run) on freely available solar energy — for no charge to its owners at supercharging stations.

And one has to imagine that the Model X has much if not all of the hardware necessary that — should a certain over-the-air update arrive at some point in the future — then the thing will just drive itself around.

I’m not the first to speculate on what might be called “Tesla Mobility”. Adam Jonas at Morgan Stanley recently asked Musk directly during a conference call exactly this type of question. Musk decided it was best not to comment. And this was before we saw the Model X launch.

And remember: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” Yup, that’s what Tesla Mobility would be, if Tesla can pull it off.

At the very least, the next five years (not the next ten, this will happen faster than we think), will be very interesting.

(Disclosure: I’m a *very* small shareholder in Tesla and Solar City. I’m the founder over at Vizlegal (in Ireland!) where we’re building a global API for law — a sorely needed thing if you want autonomous machines to know what human laws to obey (and even a Musk Mars colony needs laws too). I’m on Twitter if you have any questions!)