Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Why isn't the world worshipping Elon Musk?

Some thoughts the Tesla/Space-X boss.

 

We all know who Elon Musk is, Tesla, Space-X yada yada, yet he seems underrated by the press and positively despised in the comment section of tabloid newspapers. I'd like to address that here by highlighting some of his thought processes. Normally I aim to blog about 1000 words for a nice bite-sized read, however to cover Musk's brain in such limited space will be a zesty challenge so please forgive if I overrun!
 
Musk is seen by some as a nutcase who smokes dope on the Joe Rogan show, makes unfortunate Tweets about the 'pedo guy' and who got into a very public altercation with rap artist Azealia Banks about acid-taking etc. Only last Friday (1st May 2020) he made a seven word tweet that devalued Tesla stock by $14 billion dollars. Yet despite his maverick social media profile he is capable of thoughts of the loftiest brilliance.
 
I can't for the life of me remember where I originally read it (and I've been unable to find a source - doing a weekly blog doesn't allow as much time to research as I'd like), but the thing I first heard about Elon Musk that really impressed me was the simple idea he had to validate the ownership of bank accounts for use with PayPal. I was a web developer back in the 1990s involved in building e-commerce websites. We used to do them from scratch in those days before generic e-commerce platforms had matured, so I was familiar with the problems involved in taking and making payments online. Systems soon evolved to take payments by credit cards since the card companies had a more modern infrastructure, expiry dates, CV codes etc. Banks however, with their systems rooted in the dark ages had no way to validate the ownership of an account online. Say a client sent you an email with his bank account and you needed to send him some money for the exchange of goods, how did you know the bank account was actually his and not that of some hacker? 
 
Elon came up with the simple yet brilliant idea of paying two micro-payments to the account, say $0.34 and $0.83. The client had to read these numbers from his bank statement and enter them in the PayPal website. Musk had therefore generated the equivalent of a PIN number to verify the account. At first I thought how dumb, to give money away to verify a bank account, but as I thought more about it I realised it was genius. The two numbers would never cost PayPal more than $1.98, an expense which would easily be offset by the reduction in fraud and that would enable PayPal to transact directly with bank accounts, which had much cheaper transaction costs than anything else. You could for example send cash via say Western Union, but then the Western Union agent, usually the post office, would need to be paid to validate the identity of the payee by physically checking the passport which is a costly process in comparison. So from then on, I hailed Musk as a genius capable of conceiving ideas the like of which I could not. 
 
PayPal was not even Musk's first multi-million dollar venture. He'd already founded an online city guide, Zip-2 with his brother Kimbal in 1995 which was sold in 1999 with Musk getting $22million for his 7% share. Prior to that, while in college, Musk has spoken about his musings on the essential matters which would most affect the future of humanity and came up with five things. These were:
 
The Internet
Sustainable energy (both production and consumption)
Space exploration (more specifically the extension of life beyond earth on a permanent basis)
Artificial Intelligence.
Rewriting human genetics
 
Clearly the guy thinks big. Unlike other students with big ideas however, Musk is realising them one by one. With the founding of Tesla in 2014 Musk helped create the first successful new car manufacturer in America in over 90 years. Right now, as CEO, Musk is on the verge of winning a 3/4 billion dollar remuneration payout as part of compensation plan that depended on the company achieving a six-month period of $100 million dollar market capitalisation. This would make him the most highly paid executive in US history. The incredible thing about this is that when Musk negotiated this contract, such a target was unthinkable. The company was only worth $60 billion at $250 per share back then. Musk made it happen, even though he's a part-timer dividing his hours between several other companies. The other somewhat unsung truth about Tesla's success is the way it is transforming the automotive industry away from the dealership model that has pervaded for over a century to a direct model where cars can be bought online. The low maintenance of electric vehicles is also challenging an industry that fed off consumers need for servicing and repair. Musk doesn't just compete in a market, he smashes it to pieces.
 
Musk also heads Space-X, the rocket-company he founded in 2002. In case you've been living under a rock, Space-X has been successful too, winning a number of private and public US defence contracts. By making as much of his rocket technology as reusable as possible, he has undercut the price of all competition for launching satellites. Musk has said many times he sees the future of mankind as multi-planetary. The idea is that by sticking only on planet earth, mankind could (in fact probably will) succumb to some sort of extinction event. Only by having colonies on other worlds can the human race escape such events and survive into the future. This is a lofty goal but one which Musk is edging towards. Again, one of the things that most impresses me here is how Musk is funding Space-X. One of the key planks of the strategy is the Starlink Internet programme, a network of satellites designed to bring Internet connectivity to all parts of the globe. As well as the much publicised plan to bring affordable Internet to poorer countries in Africa and so forth, Musk has another trick up his sleeve. The satellites will exchange data using line-of-sight lasers. Because space is a near vacuum and there is no medium in space to slow the light signals down, transmission of information will be even faster than the fibre optic cable used on the ground. This lack of latency is expected to be of extremely high value to certain commercial sectors that depend on timely information such as stock brokers. The premium service is expected to provide big bucks for Space-X to fund its future developments.
 
Somewhat crazily, these achievements in themselves would be remarkable enough, yet Musk continually applies his brain to disrupt other industries. Tesla's energy grid batteries are beginning to change the way electricity companies handle the storage of electricity, while boosting the future of fledgling solar and wind-power industries. The Boring Company is set to revolutionise travel by establishing a tunnel network that promises to reduce congestion and journey times. Tesla has recently entered the car insurance industry. By using the data from its own network of cars, Tesla can fine tune risk assessments allowing it to offer insurance at up to thirty percent less than its competitors who themselves are tentative about insuring Tesla automobiles because they have only been on the roads for a decade so the old school actuarial data they use is insufficiently mature. Neuralink is Musk's foray into the world of medicine, developing high bandwidth brain to computer interfaces. He also founded and Artificial Intelligence organisation called Open AI. (He's done all this and yet I have trouble finding something to blog about once a week!)
 
Doubtless in all these other industries, Musk has probably figured out the way to get them to pay for themselves, and has envisaged a sneaky way to undercut competition leading to a big disruption in an existing market.
 
The thing that most impresses me about Musk is that his innovations, which drive market change and arguably the direction society is taking, all take place from within the private sector. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool lefty who believes at some level, the state should be planning the future of society through policy, either with a totalitarian boardroom strategy like China or with a presidential "let's get man on the moon" approach like Kennedy. Musk is proving to me that isn't necessary. He's teaching this old dog (and many like me) new tricks! 
 

My Timemachine of Technology

How I've been lucky to live in a time of unparalleled technological change

 

I feel very fortunate to have been born when I did and to have observed the revolutionary change in technology that I have. Things whizz along so fast these days. My father woke me up in the middle of the night to watch man's first moon landing, but the rocket that took man to the moon only had a 16 bit processor and a tiny amount of memory by modern standards. These days we all have far more power in our mobile phones! It's all happened so blindingly quickly!
 
In fact I feel very fortunate to be born at all, as my parents were quite ‘elderly’ when they had me. Dad was 54 when he had me and mum in her mid forties so I'm lucky to be here. Accordingly the environment I grew up in was full of old technology that had been accumulated over many years. We had a valve radios and television that took ages to get hot before they would work. The family camera was a ‘box brownie’ – little more than a black box with a lens and a winding mechanism to advance the film. The film wasn’t cheap so we took each photograph with care, posing and saying cheese! Then it took days or weeks to get the prints back from the chemist! All these artifacts smelt old and musty, but also everything felt frozen in time as though they had been around forever.
 
Then around the mid-sixties I remember my elderly grandfather went through a number of transistor radios, all of which were made in Hong Kong. My grandad was a bit clumsy and used to drop these ‘trannies’ repeatedly. Invariably the case would break and after a few months of being held together with rubber bands and sticky tape, they would be replaced with another which was always smaller and lighter than the last.
 
I loved to take the old radios apart and figure out how they worked. The valves of old had been replaced by small blobs which were transistors. The other components had all been shrunk too, as had the printed circuit board. Even so, every component was identifiable and it was generally possible to figure out which did what.
 
By the time I reached secondary school things started to change a whole lot. My physics teacher explained to me about integrated circuits. Tens or hundreds of transistors were now being fabricated together on one piece of silicon to form whole circuits. These were found in the first pocket calculators. My first calculator, made by Prinztronic cost a fortune but only did +-/* and percentages!
 
It wasn’t long after that I saw the first microcomputer on the television. This was the commodore Pet, which today still looks more like the sort of thing you would find on the deck of the starship enterprise. The Pet seemed unimaginably expensive to a youngster like me, but pretty soon my school purchased a bunch of microcomputers in kit form (NASCOM 1 if you're curious)  and us school-kids were co-opted to spend hours soldering them together.
 
I inevitably found myself working in computers and during the 1980's the IBM PC became the default architecture for most business users. My first experience of these was the Olivetti M24, which was a dinosaur by today's standards but crucially the office had them networked together with this clever thing called co-axial cable. The first time I met with this concept I remember thinking what a waste of money! Surely if two people wanted to work on the same spreadsheet they could copy it to a floppy disk and walk to the next office with it. How wrong I was, which is a recurring theme in my life! Of course from these humble beginnings, networking really took off, bringing us to the Internet and the applications on the World-Wide Web we are all so dependent on today.
 
I'd moved to Spain by the time I saw my first smartphone, a first generation iPhone owned by a friend on holiday from the UK. It seemed so revolutionary at the time, and Apple had clearly got it right - the combination of touch-screen and scrolling GUI was a winner. Now we all have one (or more) in our pockets and think little of it. When you do think about it though, today's smartphones are far more advanced than the communicators used in the first series of Star Trek, which themselves were considered light years ahead at the time. 
 
An example of how far things have advanced is the disdain people have today of optical media, the CD/DVD discs read with a laser, which are now seen as quaint and clunky like the horse and cart of the digital world. With today's Internet speeds it a lot easier to stream a movie from Netflix than it is to watch an optical disk. A laser based tech becoming near obsolete in my lifetime! How amazing is that?
 
You might think then, like the apocryphal story of the commissioner of the US patent office, Charles H. Duell, that everything that could be invented had been invented. (I traced the quote - it was more likely a joke prophecy made in Punch magazine). This couldn't be further from the truth. the 21st century is the age of materials, where scientists are gaining insights as to how to manufacture new things at an atomic and quantum level. Quantum computers are in their infancy but promise to bring unparalleled levels of computing power. Graphene, the single atom thick layer of carbon famed for its conductivity of electricity and heat as well as tensile strength has already made its way into a commercial battery. Though at the moment it is only used to assist and enhance conventional lithium batteries,  it is expected that graphene only batteries will be used in future mobile phones and electric vehicles that will be a fraction of the size of those used today. 
 
So I've seen the world move from valves to the quantum computer in a couple of generations and technological progress is still accelerating. We're living in a world none of us could have envisaged 10 years ago. Who know what the next ten or fifteen years will bring. 

Working From Home. Why Not?

2020 is the year that COVID-19 made home-working a must.
With the relentless advance of Coronavirus and the Daily Express asserting this is the 'End of The World' predicted by Nostradamus (as it does regularly as clockwork about anything from the latest Near Earth Object to God's face being seen in tub of lard), governments across the globe are asking as many of us as possible to work from home. 
 
As I touched on in a previous blog, I've had plenty of experience of this since I first tried it in the early 1990's. In fact for the best part of a decade I was a paid up member of the UK's Teleworkers Association. 
 
In theory, modern communications are so advanced that they should make travel irrelevant save for the transport of goods. With a video camera, a microphone, even 3D virtual reality spaces like Rumii and Meetingroom.io available to anyone with a smartphone, there seems on the face of it, very little reason to leave one's house, nor even ones bed in the morning. 
 
Human nature however works differently. I worked in a organisation many years ago with four geographically dispersed offices in different parts of Britain. Someone had the bright idea that if they invested in a video conferencing system, the cost would soon be recouped by the savings in travel and expenses. In those days, before the Internet and with the insistence on studio quality cameras it was a six figure investment. Despite much goading from above to try and get executives to use it, the system soon became a white elephant. I doubt it ever achieved the return on the investment that was hoped for. 
 
The reasons seemed to be twofold.  Firstly many people are inherently camera shy. Especially if they don't appear in front of a camera very often, most people have that feeling of being 'put on the spot' and of having their natural spontaneity sucked from them by anxiousness. Secondly, people enjoy face-to-face meetings. In contrast to camera shyness, people open-up in the physical presence of another human being. Also, as my boss at the time remarked "nobody wanted to use the thing because they would rather go on a jolly, leave the wife at home for a few days, have a few beers in the evening with their mates and maybe squeeze in a round of golf".
 
When the Internet became popular in the early to mid 1990s I really thought remote working would finally take off. Why on earth would employers maintain offices in expensive locations when they could move to a cheaper place out of town? Why have an office at all if employees could network remotely? Then when the Twin Towers (and building seven) were destroyed in a terrorist attack there seemed to be even more incentive for large concentrations of workers in cities to become a thing of the past. Surely businesses would see the value in dispersing geographically? Incidentally I was working at home on 9/11. In the interests of self-discipline I made a point of never turning on the TV while I was working, so as to avoid distraction. One day, I had a yearning to break that rule. I made a cup of tea and turned on the TV which happened to be tuned to Skynews. The first plane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I watched open mouthed as Kay Burley mistakenly interpreted the incoming footage as being the same crash from another angle. It was the second plane. I don't know what made me turn the television on that fateful day to see the live action as it happened. What did stick in my mind is the sense of being alone in a crisis. There was just me and a two dimensional representation of Kay Burley. I really needed another human being to turn to and just say "what the absolute fuck?", but there was no one other than my cat who was not really interested in the matter. The isolation of working at home can be very frustrating.
 
Anyhoo, despite 9/11, businesses continue to concentrate in ever taller buildings. Twenty years on and the web has made very little impact on employer's desire to keep people in chair so they can keep an eye on them. Most companies have vertical hierarchies, and managers love to manage. Many get into it because they are psychopathic control freaks, the sort of folk who like standing over you watching what you do - seeing how long it takes you to go to the loo and what time you choose to knock off in the evening. Home-working has a different dynamic which old style managers cannot get their heads around.
 
So will generation Z be any different? We're talking about people who were born into being videoed so feel very comfortable with it. They also seem to handle isolation well, being that they are welded to their phones from early childhood and no longer seem to bother talking face-to-face.
 
Somehow I doubt it.  At the end of the day, interaction is at the root of markets, it is at the root of our psyche and it is fundamental to who we are as humans. So however good virtual reality gets and how comfortable future generations become with it, I feel there will always be  the last nine yards in which there is no substitute for direct human contact. Also any companies of the future pioneering teleworking seemed doomed if they try to use the hierarchical management structures of the past. They will need to be more co-operative and have a flatter management structure that is less dependent on monitoring and more reliant on collaboration. I think if such companies do arise they will find big rewards in being agile and competitive. The snag is as, with big open source projects like say, Wikipedia, they end up begging for funding because despite a huge amount of volunteer working they don't have a format that impacts sales in a way that a vertically structured company does. It seems you need an arse at the top banging on doors, making deals and keeping profitability in-check, while confident enough in delegation to keep management structures flat. 
 
I saw an interesting video recently in which Elon Musk was ascribed just these qualities. Apparently in both Tesla and SpaceX he promotes a results-driven culture in which people are encouraged and rewarded for delivering ideas across what in other companies would be considered 'cultural' divides. So if a person working on one aspect of production had an insight into another unrelated field, he or she has free-reign to approach that area's director to make a suggestion. This has led to some quantum leaps in Tesla's development and is the sort of management that is required of companies in the 21st century. I don't know the degree to which Musk encourages homeworking, but presumably because he can't be in two places at once, he must himself be a remote manager for some of his time at Tesla, SpaceX and the Boring company. Perhaps Elon is the chap we should be keeping an eye on. Tesla's market capitalisation has just hit $100 billion which is a trigger built into his contractual compensation plan that could be worth $55billion or more, making him the richest person on the planet. Not bad for a part-timer! 

A Growing Lifetime of Not Understanding

The older I get, the less I seem to understand, but I don't think its just me!
 
I rarely visit the UK, but the last time I did I confronted one of those new-fangled self-service tills in a shop for the first time. It confused the hell out of me! I had to get my niece to show me what to do. This was particularly embarrassing because I'm supposed to be a techie guy - Computer Steve - the dude who has been bothering microchips since the early seventies. The odd thing is that while this is factually correct, the world has progressed while my understanding of it has become increasingly muddy.
 
I'm not talking about things I don't understand about life in general, like why women fashion hats out of towels at some point during the process of taking a shower, or why dogs don't chew their food whereas they're so adept at chewing on furniture. I'm specifically concerned with the wall that has been growing between man and machine since electronics has been migrating from analog to digital.
 
If you are old enough to remember the 1960's this wall didn't exist. If you owned a radio or a TV, the chances are it had two dials - one that turned the volume up and down, the other which tuned the device through different channels. There was also a good chance that these were labelled 'volume' and 'tuner' in English. 
 
The first suggestion in my world that things were about to get ugly came with the Cassette Tape recorder. Do you remember those? We used to use them to record the top 30 pop songs on a Sunday night. A tune I remember fondly was Queen - Seven Seas Of Rhye which was as near as I got to liking heavy metal back in the day! Anyway, the thing that was lost on me and probably many others at the time, was that the controls on these machines had a language-independent interface. This allowed the manufactures to streamline tooling so they could basically knock out the same machine and sell it to different countries with the minimum of changes, perhaps with just a different mains plug and user manual. This was a subtle but important turning point as it meant we, the great unwashed public, had to start  learning a new language of symbols. (The posh word for this is semiotics but lets not get ahead of ourselves).
 
Now a cassette recorder wasn't rocket science but it was more complicated than a radio. One had to express forward/back, stop, record/play and pause. This was done with the use of symbols and sometimes colour, with the red being used to signify record. Us old folk have had forty years to forget how we first learned this interface but I understand it still foxes kids today when they see a Sony Walkman for the first time. 
 
Household appliances of all kinds have undergone similar 'progress' since those heady days. Our washing machine back then was so simple a child could use it. There was a dial that had labels in English that said meaningful things like 'wash', 'rinse' and 'spin'. The washing machine I use today has a dial with dozens of signs on it that look as though they were invented for the purpose of confusing the hell out of me by some insane professor of Aztec hieroglyphics! Fortunately the Devil's spawn was already here when I moved into the house, so I just leave the dial where it has always been, throw my washing in, switch it on and hope for the best! Seems to be OK but God only knows what all the other settings do. As for the washing instructions they put inside clothes, don't get me started!
 
It's the same thing with steam irons. No idea! Turning the dial clockwise seems to make them hotter but as for the other symbols, not a clue!
 
Things really started to get mysterious when appliances became digital. An old analog microwave oven was a joy to use. There was just a timer and a power level control - easy. Does anyone really understand the interface on a conventional digital microwave? Weird images of chicken drum-sticks and steaming bowls? I would never buy a microwave with an interface like that, but I had occasion to use one a few years back, and in the absence of a manual (or anyone else that was in possession of the sacred knowledge of how it worked), I eventually managed to cook some popcorn after about five minutes of trial and error, randomly pushing buttons and trying my best to gauge the results.
 
The removal of language in favour of internationalization is only one of the problems. The other is that all signs are not equal. If it were just the case that a picture represented something recognisable, things wouldn't be too bad. Think of a public toilet for example. There is an image of a man, an image of a woman and an image of a person in a wheelchair. It's not easy to confuse these icons for the things they represent in the real world.
 
Icons however are only one of the three categories of sign recognized in semiotics, the study of signs. The other two are symbol and index. Icons are reduced depictions of the object they represent, such as our toilet folk. Symbols however are signs that represent an object without resembling it.  Most national flags are abstract symbols, which clearly represent a national identity without imaging a real thing (there are exceptions - some flags may contain stars, lions etc but for the purpose of the example I'm talking about plain flags with just lines and colours). Indexes are pointers to a concept that often cannot easily be represented directly, e.g. drawing three horizontal squiggly lines doesn't look much like water but it does suggest a river or sea and maybe used to indicate water, swimming, tide and many things water related. 
 
All three types of sign are found in the earliest cave paintings dating back hundreds of thousands of years. The paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been doing a study of the objects represented in engravings and paintings in caves across the world and has discovered that all the designs can be reduced to a basic 'vocabulary' of 32 separate signs. She mentions in her excellent and fascinating TED talk on the subject that "There is a striking lack of diversity in the earliest rock art from France and Spain to Indonesia and Australia". The thought that the outlook of people across the human world hundreds of thousands of years ago could be expressed in 32 signs is a sobering one. Hold onto it while I describe what happens next in my story.
 
Computers, as you will know, are a lot more than glorified adding machines. Since the early days of punch cards and paper tape, the interfaces through which we connect to computers has been gradually evolving. From my earliest contact with them during the 1970's until the middle of 1980s, all interaction was mainly through a 'terminal' model, where one would see a command line on a screen, type in commands and get the answer back as lines of text. Later, many alternative custom graphical interfaces came and went but the one that endured was called the WIMP interface (standing for windows, icons, menus and pointers - or mice and pointers depending on which version of computer history you believe). This found its way into the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and other home computers such as the Atari and Amiga until eventually being reinvented by Microsoft as their flagship interface, Windows.
 
I was a command-line ninja having been a Unix programmer who had worked in this type of environment for so long, so I personally found the move to a graphical user interface a very painful one. Implicit in all these interfaces was the dubious conceit that they represented your desktop and the items within it, such as files, printers, waste-bins and so on. I couldn't see what was intuitive nor useful about say, clicking my cursor on a file and dragging it onto the printer to print it. In my experience, dropping a physical A4 document onto a the top of a physical printer or photocopier would not induce the latter to print, so why should it be so on my computer? It really took me decade to get my head around it.
 
Meanwhile the academic thinkers in the process of constructing the Tower of Babel we jokingly refer to as Computer Science had another trick up their sleeve. The number of printable characters back in the 60's was originally a lowly 128, due to the limited bit-length of early computers (the size of the blocks of numbers the computers were able to work with at a low level - this grew over time time from 8, 16, 32 to 64 etc as technology improved). The size of the possible 'alphabet' was extended throughout the years, but the huge uptake of computers internationally and the need to represent different character sets such as Japanese Kanji text meant a complete overhaul of how characters were represented was in order. The boffins came up with Unicode, a standard which is now used to represent hundreds of thousands of characters. 
 
Now you will probably be aware that techies used smiley symbols 🙂 back in mainframe days. When mobile phones became a craze in Japan during the 1990s, their phone manufacturers extended this idea and ran wild with it creating the sub-culture of the emoji, those crazy little images that almost substitute for text in messages exchanged by young people. This soon spread beyond Japan and cutting a long story short, emojis are now represented across technical platforms worldwide using the Unicode standard. They are now mainstream!
 
Smartphones didn't come out until I was well into my forties, by which time the last thing I wanted to do was learn yet another interface. The gestures, swiping and pinching all baffled me for some time. I still get the shivers If I have to copy something from one app to another on my phone or have to print something out, but I'm getting there. 
 
My Waterloo however is messaging. I sometimes get messages, especially from young people, that look like they were copied from the walls of an Egyptian tomb. Icons, symbols and indexes all in the shape of modern emoji. I know what they are, I just can't figure out what they mean, because there seem to be thousands of these things. When I see them I often think back to Genevieve von Petzinger's fundamental 32 character vocabulary and wonder how old I actually am, because I often feel nearer to our cave-dwelling, stone-age ancestors than I do to our couch-dwelling Generation-Z!