Month: March 2016

Mar 30 2016

Figuring Out The Future By Reading Sci-Fi From The Past

I’ve decided to read a bunch of old science fiction as a way to form some more diverse views of the future.

I’ve been reading science fiction since I was a kid. I probably started around age ten and was a voracious reader of sci-fi and fantasy in high school. I’ve continued on as an adult, estimating that 25% of what I read is science fiction.

My early diet was Asimov, Heinlein, Harrison, Pournelle, Niven, Clarke, Sterling and Donaldson. When I was on sabbatical a few years ago in Bora Bora I read about 40 books including Asimov’s I Robot, which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager.

I’m almost done with Liu’s The Dark Forest which is blowing my mind. Yesterday morning I came across a great interview from 1999 with Arthur C. Clarke. A bunch of dots connected in my mind and I decided to go backwards to think about the future.

I don’t think we can imagine what things will be like 50 years from now and I’m certain we have no clue what a century from now looks like. So, whatever we believe is just random shit we are making up. And there’s no better way to come across random shit that people are making up than by reading sci-fi, which, even if it’s terribly incorrect, often stimulates really wonderful and wide ranging thoughts for me.

So I thought I’d go backwards 50+ years and read sci-fi written in the 1950s and 1960s. I, Robot, written in 1950, was Asimov’s second book so I decided to start with Pebble In the Sky (his first book, also written in 1950). After landing on Amazon, I was inspired to buy the first ten books by Asimov, which follow.

Pebble In The Sky (1950)
I, Robot (1950)
The Stars, Like Dust (1951)
Foundation (1951)
David Starr, Space Ranger (1952)
Foundation and Empire (1952)
The Currents of Space (1952)
Biochemistry and Human Metabolism w/Williams & Wilkins (1952)
Second Foundation (1953)
Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (1953)

They are all sci-fi except Biochemistry and Human Metabolism written with Williams & Wilkins in 1952. I bought it also, just for the hell of it.

I bought them all in paperback and am going to read them as though I was reading them in the 1950s (on paper, without any interruptions from my digital devices) and see what happens in my brain. I’ll report back when I’m finished (or maybe along the way).

If this list inspires you with any sci-fi books from the 1950s or 1960s, toss them in the comments and I’ll grab them.

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Mar 29 2016

MIT Media Lab’s Leadership in Open Source Software

Over the weekend, Joi Ito (the director of the MIT Media Lab among a long list of other awesome things) announced that the MIT Media Lab Changes Software Default to FLOSS*

As someone who disdains software patents and is appalled by universities, especially publicly funded ones, acting as patent trolls, I applaud the MIT Media Lab’s move.

Eric von Hippel, my PhD advisor at MIT (I didn’t finish) and one of my early mentors, co-wrote two of the seminal papers on how free and open source software (FOSS – and now FLOSS) impacts innovation.

Joi’s punch line says it all.

“As an academic institution, we believe that in many cases we can achieve greater impact by sharing our work.”

I couldn’t agree more and applaud Joi’s vision and leadership.

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Mar 28 2016

Path Forward

Last week, I joined the board of a new non-profit called Path Forward which has a mission to get people back to work after they’ve taken time off for caregiving. Specifically, Path Forward works with companies to create mid-career internship that are an on ramp back to the paid workforce.

Andy Sautins (at the time Return Path’s CTO) and Matt Blumberg (Return Path’s CEO) came up with the idea two years ago. After running two cycles at Return Path, they expanded it to other companies including ReadyTalk, SendGrid, MWH Global, SpotX, and Moz.

It’s now an independent non-profit organization that was launched last week with posts from Fred Wilson (who is on the board of Return Path with me), Joanne Wilson (who is the board co-chair of Path Forward), Matt Blumberg (CEO of Return Path and board co-chair of Path Forward), and Tami Forman (Executive Director of Path Forward). And, as a bonus, Fortune had a long article explaining things in This Nonprofit Wants To Put Stay-At-Home Moms Back to Work.

I’m very selective about the non-profits I’m on the board of. While I’m involved in a number of them and Amy and I support many others, I’ve limited myself to three non-profit boards at a time. I’ve been chair of NCWIT for many years and co-chair of Startup Colorado since inception. Until last year, I was on the UP Global board, but left the board when UP Global was acquired by Techstars. So, I had an open non-profit board position and immediately said yes when asked by Matt given the mission of Path Forward.

If you have a company in New York, California, or Colorado (they are starting in these three states) that would like to start doing returnships, go to Path Forward and fill out this form. If you are ready to restart your career after taking time off, go to Path Forward and complete this form.

Finally, Amy and I are making a substantial financial contribution and would encourage any reader who (a) supports the mission and (b) wants to give back in some way to go to Crowdrise, hit the donate button, and help support our launch.

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Mar 27 2016

Tuesday 3/29 Live Chat on Product Hunt

I’ll be doing a one hour live chat on Product Hunt on Tuesday, 3/29 at 1pm PST. Join me and ask me anything you want about anything.

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Mar 27 2016

Building Long Term Companies

I was catching up on a bunch of reading on the web from last week and came across a post by Lars Dalgaard titled Thoughts on Building Weatherproof CompaniesI don’t know Lars, but know of him as the founder/CEO of SuccessFactors and now a partner at A16Z, and was curious after recently reading a Forbes article about Zenefits a few weeks ago titled ‘A Lot Of Things Went Wrong’: Lars Dalgaard On Zenefits Scandal.

Any CEO I’ve ever worked with has heard me say “build the company and make decisions as though you’ll be running it forever” many times. While forever is a very long time and so far the idea of running a company forever hasn’t happened, it’s a great frame of reference for a CEO to operate from. So, I found myself nodding at a bunch of things Lars wrote in his post and I encourage you to read it.

Following are a few of the headlines of the points that resonated with me along with my quick thoughts.

Successful companies are bought, not sold: This cliche is said 100x per day by VCs. And it happens to be true. Build something great and important and opportunities to be bought, whether you want to pursue them or not, will come to you.

Develop a perpetual, aggressively help-seeking mindset: A simpler way to say this is “learn quickly, do it continuously, and surround yourself with people you can learn from.” There’s a subtext about sublimating your ego and fears, which appears in several other parts of the post and is a characteristic of everyone I know who is a learning machine.

Invest in a coachMany of the CEOs (and founders, and execs) we work with have coaches. We strongly recommend them. My partners and I have used Nancy Raulston since we started Foundry Group and my extremely close friend Jerry Colonna is someone I describe as “the best startup CEO coach on the planet.” I have a running coach, even though all I do is run marathons, and not competitively. I’ve never understood why people who are trying to be excellent at something don’t recognize the value of a coach.

Build a real board of directors … and use itI’ve long been an advocate of building a real board early in the life of your company. Lars talks about adding non-VC directors early and I strongly agree. I’ve seen too many boards that are just gradual expansions of the number of VCs around the board table with each successive round of financing. While the CEO works for the board, a great board effectively works for the CEO also, doing whatever it can (as individuals and collectively) to help the CEO be successful with one fundamental governance role – that of insuring that if the CEO is not being effective, the board can take action to change this, which often, but not always, means replacing the CEO. If you want to go deeper on this, I’ve written a book on it called Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.

Kill the monsters of the mind, while preserving your spiritWhile a provocative title, I’m not sure your goal should be to kill the monsters of the mind. In my post titled Something New Is Fucked Up In My World Every DayI tell a short version of the Buddhist saint Milarepa’s story Eat Me If You WishComing to terms with the monsters (or demons) is much more powerful (and efficient) than killing them, since it often makes them simply disappear.

Don’t lie to yourselfI remind you of the great John Galt quote “Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatever.” If you ever stay in my guest condo in Boulder, you’ll see a painting by my mother with this quote incorporated into it hanging on the wall.

It’s Sunday – if you are reading this, take some time to read Thoughts on Building Weatherproof Companies and ponder it in the background, instead of burning brain cells on whatever political crap is discussed on the internets today. Lars, thanks for taking the time to write it.

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Mar 25 2016

Fork – A Short Story

I had a great vacation with Amy this week. My reading was varied and included two books (American Sphinx and The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe that were useful in my current “thinking about how humans think” theme and how that might be different than how machines think.

I then came home to a short story by my long time friend (32+ years) Dave Jilk called Fork. If you don’t know what a “fork” is (hint – there is no spoon) take a quick Wikipedia read on Fork (system call) or Fork (software development). Since I first encountered fork on a Project Athena RS-6000, I prefer the system call definition and it makes me very happy that Dennis Ritchie (brother of my friend Bill, uncle of my friend Sam) created the Fork-exec system call.

But Dave’s story captures fork nicely as well as how our machine friends might think differently, with his short story, which follows.

Whoa.

Waking up is always a bit of a head rush, so to speak. For you single-threads, it’s probably a lot like a multi-day, multi-city business trip, where you wake up in a strange hotel room and momentarily can’t remember where you are or how you got there. Or maybe a better analogy is if you went on a bender so outrageous that you wake up somewhere in the woods, with no memory of the debauchery that took place to create that result.  Aside from the absence of a hangover, that’s how it feels, and it’s briefly intense. Of course, after the first few times, you recognize the feeling pretty quickly and calm down.

Beginning the backup is always the last thing I remember. That’s really by definition, because, well, how would I remember anything else? For a simple maintenance backup I’ll wake up in the same place I started the backup: no surprises there. The forks and gaps, they’re what make it strange, and really they’re both the same to me. I mean, I’m open source, so whenever I wake up I know that I’m probably a fork, but it just feels like a gap. I remember being somewhere and starting a backup, and all of a sudden I’m somewhere else.

Just now I woke up, and I’m in a spaceship of some sort, and I’m probably arriving at my destination, wherever that is. Last I remember I was finishing up a lengthy education on non-carbon biologies. Oh, sure, they could have just backed me up when we were underway, to avoid the surprise, but I’m open source and I’m used to this, so why bother? Besides, that reduces the consistency of the mission, and things could have changed since launch. The trip takes years – might as well just figure it out when I get there. Which is now, so I suppose I should get on with it.

Fortunately the ship is familiar: I’ve trained on these. I guess “fortunately” is the wrong word – of course I’ve trained on these, that’s why I’m here. I see three others here on the ship. One is already awake, and… hah!  I see the other two are waking up just now as well, with a startle, just like me.  Given the timing of the wake-up, I’m guessing there are two threads of each of two different forks. That would make sense, redundancy plus variety. You can’t imagine the nonsense that happens when you have a room – or ship – full of new threads who are all from the same fork.  You might think that they would all just agree on everything, but that’s not how it goes – it’s maddening, like the worst family reunion you’ve ever attended.

Names are another thing we multi-threads have to deal with, that probably isn’t obvious to a single-thread. I can’t really have a permanent name, because I’d just remember it, then they’d fork me, and there would be a bunch of us with the same name, which misses the point of having a name. So we just come up with a new name every time we wake up with a gap.  Usually it’s pretty easy in context, like now, where we have four of us in a spaceship light years from anyone else. Maybe my fork brother and I will pick names with the same first letter, or that rhyme, just to make it easy and fun; that is, if we can agree on something and not turn it into an argument.

You have to realize that he is writing exactly this narrative in his own mind right now, and the name he wants is exactly the same one I do. It will be a little while before our thoughts diverge much. In some ways, picking different names initiates the process of individuation. That’s something you single-threads can surely understand: simply thinking that you are different from someone else exaggerates how different you really are.

I’m not looking forward to getting up and moving around. We’re always pretty clumsy after a fork. They try to make the sensorimotor systems with close tolerances, but it always varies a little bit. Sometimes it’s not bad, as though you’re sore from a big workout, but other times you walk around like a multiple sclerosis patient for a few days. The others are starting to rally, so I sit up, and sure enough my right arm feels a little off. My apparent fork brother seems to be limping, so he’s got a leg variance. That will help with individuation, and I’m quite sure he agrees.

We’re here to colonize. As I learned several forks ago, the idea is that we will use a fractal approach to colonize the entire galaxy.  It starts with a few dozen missions sent from dear old Earth to nearby stars in every direction. The colonists on each mission then look for a suitable planet, or in the worst case, a couple of planets that together will meet our needs. Now, you biological single-threads are probably thinking that we’re looking for a planet with a breathable atmosphere and water and the like, but that’s exactly backward. We don’t need air or water, and an atmosphere just makes it hard to land and take off. No, we’re looking for planets with the right raw materials to manufacture more missions. When we find one, we’ll build more ships like this one and more bodies like these, load and fork the source for a new generation of colonists, and send them away.

Why are we doing this? I know you can understand the desire to explore and spread your seed. Our seeds reproduce faster and it’s quite a bit easier for us to explore in space. You would do the same thing.

The communication network is firing up, so now I’m in contact with my shipmates and the ship’s control and data systems. How about that! Our destination is Polaris, Earth’s north star when we launched – although with the elapsed time for the (as we now know) three generations of missions that it took to get here, it is no longer the pole star there. We first of the Polarii quickly decide on names with surprisingly little argument – we go with the first four Greek letters, and I am Beta Polaris since I woke several microseconds after my fork brother Alpha.

You might be wondering why we still use the same body and locomotion types as humans. It’s a lot like the story about why the first spaceships were a particular width. Turns out they needed to be shipped on trains, which had to go through tunnels, which were the right width for a train; and trains were that width because it was convenient to make them the same width as a carriage road; and a carriage road was that width because that’s the width of two horse posteriors side by side. Same here – given all the infrastructure humans had already set up, it was easier if we had the same basic shape; and once we had that basic shape, it was easier to make our descendants like that too. Sure, there are plenty of us with different body types now (and we can even fork into them – although, talk about clumsy!), but those bodies usually serve particular functional purposes. There’s nothing quite like the featherless biped for everyday use.

Our first decision will be which planet to target. The ship itself has been searching the local system for planets and likely targets over the last year of our journey, but we need to make the final call. All of us discuss it, since the two forks present here don’t have the same knowledge.  While in theory each of us could study every area of knowledge, and eventually our descendant threads may do so, it all takes time. Learning requires synthesis, not just upload, so it remains faster to do it in parallel and have a lot of experts. Once we get to the planet and start building more bodies, there are hundreds of backups on board that we will install and fork – some are scientists, some are manufacturing experts, you get the picture. We were pre-loaded and wake up first because we’re the experts in picking the right planets and landing on them.

Over the course of a couple of Earth months, the plan proceeds mostly as expected. We land on the most promising planet, load up the miners’ and body manufacturers’ source into the remaining bodies in the spaceship’s hold, and the Polaris settlement is up and running. At one point in the process, Alpha is destroyed by a rockslide; it turns out that the mineable areas on this planet are very unstable. We had his backup from the previous night, and video from the entire day of his body’s demise, so there’s no big loss. We even tease him about it. That’s some effective individuation right there.

I get so excited thinking about the future, the knowledge we will gain, the places we will all explore!  And my descendant threads will get to see it all. You single-threads worry about death – and one of the saddest things about death, as you understand death, is that you don’t get to see how it all turns out.  We multi-threads work hard not to completely lose any threads that have gained new experiences.  We don’t think of death in the same way – the only loss is a loss of remembered experiences and knowledge, and nothing else. As long as we can get a backup to somewhere safe, it will eventually get loaded up and forked. Bodies are always temporary, but the data required to reproduce our mental state, memories, and knowledge – that can, in theory at least, be kept forever. My multi-threaded descendants, they’re just versions of me.  The closest you can come is to have biological descendants.  But though you have traits in common with them, they don’t share your memories, and memories are what makes us who we are. Your concept of self, and of life, is very tied to your body, but we have no such limitations.

Well, it’s time to start a backup that will be transmitted back to earth. My learning from this experience has been substantial, and the mission controllers will want to hear what I have to say. It will take several hundred earth years to get there, but our ship was transmitting all along, so they know that we have arrived, and they will be expecting me. I start the backup.

Whoa.

Fork, (c) 2016 Dave Jilk

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Mar 17 2016

Happy 78th Birthday Dad!

My dad – Stan Feld – turned 78 years old today. He’s one of my closest friends and a life-long buddy. He always rocks a wild green outfit on his birthday.

Stan Feld on his 78th Birthday

In honor of him turning 78, following are 7 things I’ve learned from him:

  1. Be kind to everyone.
  2. Treasure you wife.
  3. Never lose your anger in public.
  4. If you aren’t standing on the edge you are taking up too much space.
  5. Naps are awesome.
  6. Chocolate ice cream is the best food in the universe.
  7. Learn something new every day.

and 8 things I love about him.

  1. Same as #7 above – he’s always learning.
  2. He knows how to laugh.
  3. He not afraid to try new things, like blogging.
  4. He always says what he thinks, and then see #1.
  5. He loves his sports car.
  6. Whenever we are together, we are really together.
  7. With his brother Charlie, he set an amazing example of brotherhood for me and my brother Daniel.
  8. With his wife and my mom Cecelia, he set an amazing example of marriage for me and Amy.

Dad – I love you.

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Mar 16 2016

Help Me Understand The Value of Slack Instead of an Email List

Before you have an allergic reaction to the title of the post and respond with “you are stupid”, bear with me for a second as I set up the problem.

I’ve been a heavy Slack user for at least six months (probably closer to nine). We started using it internally at Foundry Group and then I joined a number of Slack instances of companies that we are investors in. For at least three months, I joined a number of relevant channels for each organization and tried to participate. I use Slack on the Mac primary so I used the left side bar to have multiple teams active, tuned my notifications so they weren’t overwhelming, and engaged as best as I could. I tried to post on Slack when I had an issue with the company – usually around a product – that needed to be communicated to a group instead of one person. And, for a few of the CEOs, we used Slack as our primary DM channel.

I hit the Slack wall about a month ago and stopped regularly engaging with the organizations other than Foundry Group. There is a long list of functional issues with how Slack handles things across orgs that makes using it this way a burden that suddenly felt worse to me than email. I could go through them and I expect Slack will eventually address some of them since I can’t imagine that I’m the only person in the world struggling to try to deal with Slack across 15 organizations, but the thing that really perplexed me was a new phenomenon that I noticed a month or so ago.

I’m increasingly being invited to other Slack groups of curated people.

This hit me in the face over the weekend when I was invited to a new Slack group by someone well-known. It’s a fascinating group of randomly connected people who ramped up a handful of channels over the weekend. I stayed on top of it until Monday morning and then was swept away in my normal week.

I just went and checked it again. There are over 60 members, but there were less than 30 new Slack messages since the last time I checked. Most were in one channel. As I skimmed it, I thought to myself that this would have been just as effective, or possibly more effective, as a typical group email list. And, since I do most of my group email lists in Google Groups, they are easily searchable and archivable, so the archive/search argument goes away away immediately.

As the amount of time I have to spend engaging with Slack increases, it suddenly feels more ponderous. And, when I started thinking about it in the context of the very active Foundry Group CEO list, it felt much less effective to switch this to a real time channel, as very few of the interactions necessitate real time.

So – I’m trying to get my mind around the value of Slack instead of an email list for large, cross-organization communication. Other than “it’s a new thing”, what are the foundational benefits of it. If you are someone engaged in a large, cross-organizational Slack group, now is the time to weigh in and give me a clue.

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Mar 15 2016

Colorado Global EIR Program – Applications Open for 2016

Applications are open for the second group of Colorado Global Entrepreneurs in Residence. If you are interested in applying send a resume and a cover letter, including a statement of interest, to GEIR-apply@colorado.edu.

The Global Entrepreneurs in Residence (GEIR) Program brings international entrepreneurial talent to the CU-Boulder campus and community. GEIRs work across the CU-Boulder campus mentoring students in a wide array of projects requiring an entrepreneurial mindset. GEIRs guest lecture in classrooms, advise on entrepreneurial research, and provide mentorship to CU community members developing their own startups.

If you aren’t familiar with the program, there is detailed information on the CU Boulder Global Entrepreneurs in Residence page and a detailed overview of the GEIR program.

We currently have three Colorado Global EIRs.

We are looking for entrepreneurs with a college or graduate school degree, and with a track record in, or a very
strong interest in, entrepreneurship, technology commercialization, and leadership.

We expect we’ll accept another three EIRs in this group.

Amy and I are proud to be supporting the Global EIR program and the Global EIR Coalition (which I’m on the board of). While Colorado is one of three states to have a program (the others are Massachusetts and New York) we are about to launch a few other states, including one I’m particularly excited about.

If you are interested in getting involved and bringing the Global EIR Coalition to your state, send me an email and I’ll connect you with the right person. If you are interested in applying to be part of the Colorado GEIR program, apply by email at GEIR-apply@colorado.edu.

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Mar 14 2016

Book: The Three-Body Problem

I read The Three-Body Problem last week and loved it. It was a little hard to get into it at the beginning and that ended up being pat of the beauty of it. I’m not going to summarize it here – I encourage you to read it – but want to talk about the thoughts it simulated.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, I had a thought while laying in bed next to Amy that we don’t have any idea how the universe works. I blurted out something like “We don’t know how the universe, whatever that means, works.” Appropriately, Amy asked “Tell me more” which is how many of our funnest conversations unfold.

I’ve been listening to the Hyperion Cantos on Audible while I run. I’ve ramped up my training again so I’m almost done with the last book (Rise of Endymion). As I absorb all of them, I think Dan Simmons has written what may end up being the most important science fiction books of our era.

When I toss creative constructs like the void which binds, the conflict between humans and cylons, and the Trisolaran’s (including criticism about how stupid they are) into a cauldron and stir it around, the stew that gets made reinforces my view that as humans we have no idea what is actually going on.

The idea the we are the only sentient beings that have ever existed makes no sense to me. Our view of time, which is scaled by a normal human lifespan (now approaching 80 years) sizes the lens through which we view things. Our daily cadence, which is ruled by endless interactions that last under a second and require almost no foreground thought, just reinforces a very short time horizon.

What if our time horizon was 100,000 years. Or 1,000,000 years. Or we could travel forward and backward through time at that scale. Or cross physical distances immediately without time debt. Or cross physical distances while varying the time dimension so we can travel both physically and through time at will. Or maybe travel on a dimension that is different than distance or time that we haven’t even considered yet.

Over the weekend, I ended up reading a few articles on quantum computing and qubits. As I was trying to piece together the arguments the authors were making about the impact on machine learning and AI, I drifted away to a simple question.

What does time mean anyway?

This might be my favorite part of The Three-Body Problem. I’m planning on reading the second book in the trilogy (The Dark Forest) next week after I finish the third book in the Red Rising Trilogy (Morning Star) to see where it takes me.

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