Blockchain for good?

I decided it was time to read a bit more about blockchain. First of all I went back to the original article about bitcoin written by the mystical Satoshi Nakamoto back in 2008. It’s a pretty easy read with only a smidgen of maths and you can see why it has spawned so much thinking and activity. While generally understated, it makes some big claims and has all the dog-whistle phrases for the crypto-anarchists and techno-libertarians out there.

But to go a bit deeper, I settled in with Don and Alex Tapscott’s book The Blockchain Revolution and overall I would say it’s a very good introduction. Alongside reading some more technical articles on the web and trying out some of the software for myself (it had moved on quite a bit from when I last tried it in 2013), it gave me a better idea of the potential for blockchain and what the pitfalls might be.

The book is fairly breathless on the opportunities. It runs through hundreds of potential applications — some of which exist and some of which are just on the drawing board at the moment. These range from land registries to international remittance platforms alongside banking and smart contracts. All fascinating stuff and a lot of the proposed applications land firmly in the tech for good camp.

But when I’ve then talked to people who know a lot more about these things than me, most have reservations. There are still huge barriers to adoption and blockchain becoming a truly trusted platform. The main one from the point of view of ‘blockchain for good’ is the fact that humans are involved along the way. Blockchain is a very clever technology but that doesn’t change the fact that things often need to be verified in the real world and the technology can’t yet do that in an unhackable way.

And that’s where I end up on blockchain. Lots of opportunity but it’s never going to do away with the need for institutions or understanding how real people think and behave — indeed, to argue that it will feels dangerous to me.

The GoodGym story

Ivo did an amazing job of telling the story of GoodGym on BBC Radio Four’s Four Thought last night.

I first came across the idea at Social Innovation Camp in 2008 which Ivo mentions in the programme — I remember him doing his final pitch on crutches because he’d injured his knee and using one crutch as a pointer during his presentation. Winning Social Innovation Camp gave him a little bit of external validation which he used to get other people behind the idea. I joined the board and then became a trustee and have followed the journey up to where we are now. There have been plenty of people along the way who’ve said ‘that’ll never work’ but still it keeps on growing.

I think the reason it keeps on growing is the sense of community that people get from being part of it. I was up at the annual GoodGym ‘shindig’ in the Peak District a few weeks back where the branch organisers get together to talk about what they’ve learned and partake in a bit of highly competitive endurance pub quizzing (and running of course). The community is real and authentic and its belief that you can and should do good as you get fit is incredibly strong. I think it’s going to keep on growing and it’s been a wonderful thing to have played a small part in along the way.

The best article I’ve read about being a CEO

I really like this article by Claire Lew about leadership. It neatly summarises what I try to live up to in a clearer and simpler way than I’ve been able to articulate. Beyond her first point “Know the purpose of your role: It’s NOT to manage”, she outlines nine principles which I think are all very practical and actionable:

  • Create clarity
  • Provide context
  • Ensure psychological safety
  • Ask meaningful questions
  • Respond within 24 hours
  • Let go
  • Lead from the front
  • Be consistent
  • Build rapport

Being a CEO isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone and I really hate the chest thumping stereotype of how you should apparently behave. Indeed, many of the best CEOs I’ve worked with are completely the opposite of that. I’d go so far as to say that being a bit uncomfortable in the role is pretty helpful because it means you know it’s something you need to work on.

Car crash?

The opportunity for electric car conversion startups

By 2025/30 I think the majority of new cars sold will be electric only. The signals from governments that they’re going to ban fossil fuel engines will start to shift consumer behaviour much sooner than the dates the bans are actually scheduled to come in. Frankly, I can’t see many of the big car companies making it much longer than 2025/30 either. Not because they don’t have the technology to become electric car companies but because they were too slow to shift their investment programmes. They’re going to make a big loss on the investments they’re still making now in things like more efficient petrol or diesel engines which will put them at a huge financial disadvantage to companies only investing in developing electric car technologies.

But I think the bigger problem for the big car companies is the way they’ve tried to change the nature of car ownership. There was a little mention of it on the Today programme this morning — almost nine in ten cars are leased or on some form of finance rather than owned outright so it’s looking like there will be a glut of second hand cars in a few years time. If you take into account that many of those cars will be diesel and by that point it will be clear that they won’t be welcome in cities, you start to wonder whether there’s a big crash coming. Ultimately the people who own the majority of the cars on the roads are the big leasing companies which in turn are linked to the manufacturers. They have great cash flow but will they be able to weather the storm of a huge drop in value when electric becomes the only thing that people want? It doesn’t look like it to me.

Which brings me to the opportunity. Everything apart from the propulsion system in modern cars is amazing. They’re safer, quieter and more comfortable than they’ve ever been. In a few years time there will be millions of chassis that nobody want on the market which I’m guessing will be pretty inexpensive. The opportunity I see is in converting them to run electrically by taking the engines out and replacing them with motors and batteries. It’s not completely straightforward but it may well be much cheaper option for many people than buying a new electric car.

Getting geeky about home espresso with a La Pavoni

I’ve been using an Aeropress to make myself good coffee at home for many years now. But well, you know, I like a challenge so I picked up a manual lever espresso machine on eBay.

My choice was a La Pavoni Europiccola — I think made in the 1990s — which has no thermostat, no pressure gauge and no pumps to help you out. Those in the know though say it makes perfect espresso. It turns out there is no shortage of how-to videos on Youtube but this is seriously geeky stuff and, one week in, I’m nowhere near to mastering it.

Less news feels like more news

Last year I was a voracious consumer of news on the web and my phone. I would check twitter and facebook multiple times a day, often clicking through to links that people had posted. I was using apple news on an ipad we have and I would often check BBC news and BBC sport websites and apps. At a guess I’d say I was ‘checking’ what was going on well over 100 times a day.

It made me really grumpy and I’m not sure I gained anything more of a deep understanding than just what events have happened. Sometimes even that was tricky to work out.

I’ve gradually broken the habit. Partly it was that I didn’t get data for my phone while we were away on holiday but I also began to realise that even the headlines on more reputable old media outlets were being dramatically spun. It wasn’t even that they were being spun in one particular direction as was the case in the New Labour years. It was that they were being spun to confuse deliberately. The Trump team are masters of layers of misinformation where not only are the stories spun, the way that the stories are put out is spun so that nobody really knows what’s going on.

It has highlighted to me that most of what is reported is what people say (not what is done) and even if it is in quotes in the headline, it has no impact on the world other than to confuse. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism put it:

“As happened in the UK in the run up to Brexit, lots of American media outlets treated Trump as entertainment — his soundbites, as shocking as they were, provided fantastic content on social media. For months, many newspapers allowed Trump to get away with making blatantly untrue statements — and elevated those untruths to their front pages.”

Journalism as entertainment is unfortunately going to continue to increase for the next few years unless the big media companies that point to it (Google, Facebook, Twitter) decide to stop. It’s just too lucrative. Jimmy Wales is having a go at addressing it as are some of the other big foundations.

Business model wise, I don’t know what the answer is. It can’t be state funded. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is funded through philanthropy, most notably by David and Elaine Potter who made their money through the founding of Psion. The problem of course is that it’s perfectly possible for people who don’t like the position that the BIJ take to ‘philanthropically’ fund others to muddy the waters or come up with alternative ‘facts’. At worst this is the fake news industry but PR has pretty much the same intention.

My only reflection on all this is that it’s driven me away from the thing that I think it is meant to create — attention. I spend far less time reading news — fake or not — than I used to.

Staying calm

I’ve had a tough day with lots of difficult situations but I think I’ve managed to just about stay calm about everything.

There’s a good bit in Tim Ferriss’s embarrassingly titled Tools of Titans about how highly valuable a skill staying calm under pressure is. I’m not a military person at all but it’s apparently the defining feature of successful special forces commanders. The ability to step back and analyse a situation when all hell is breaking loose can be the difference between life and death for everyone under your command.

My BGV colleague Melanie once joked that I might be like a duck. Calm on the surface but paddling like hell under the water. Generally I am actually pretty calm — it’s not an act — but it is something that I’ve tried to learn how to do over time.

I guess my top tips for staying calm are:

  • Try to stop stressful situations from happening in the first place — put a lot of work into building relationships in a way that makes it unlikely people would fall out. I’m a strong believer that if it’s got to the point of an argument both sides have probably lost out.
  • Diffuse tension with humour if it does happen — if you can manage to make people take themselves a bit less seriously, they’ll take the situation a bit less apocalyptically. It’s almost certainly not as bad as they think.
  • When bad things do happen, think of it as an opportunity. The first thing to say to yourself is ‘good — this is something I’m going to be able to learn from’. Then step back and try and help people see the bigger picture first before trying to resolve the situation.
  • Meditation helps. If you can find time to practice when you do have time, you’ll reap the benefits in the times when you might not.

If you’re in startup life (or investment life for that matter), your ability to stay calm is not a bad thing to try and improve. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.

The Undoing Project

Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman (image from this article in the New Yorker)

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis is the story of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the two Israeli psychologists who created a whole new discipline — behavioural economics — and in doing so, changed the way we think about thinking.

The book starts in a strange place — with a basketball game and links the reason for Lewis writing the book back to a previous best-seller of his — Moneyball. That was all about the use of statistics in baseball by the Oakland A’s coach Billy Bean who beat the system by choosing to look at things that the big teams missed when making his draft picks or transfers from other teams. He looked for value rather than assuming that because somebody was a big hitter they would be the best player. It worked of course and now the rest of sport has cottoned on to it — ‘moneyball’ is the dominant approach in a lot of professional sport. When Lewis was reading the reviews of the book somebody said that the book was great but that it was something that was already known in psychology and economics because of the work of Kahneman and Tversky. Lewis had never heard of them but soon started to find out more.

Tversky died in 1996 well before Lewis started writing the book but Kahneman took part in interviews as did many of their collaborators over the years. The key to the story though is something Lewis never saw, the relationship between the two men and that’s what the book is about. Lewis tries to get to the core of why these two people were able to question so much that had gone unquestioned before. Both admitted that it wasn’t something they would have come up with on their own but they were an unlikely couple save for the fact that they were both Israeli psychologists and bumped into each other at the University of Michigan in the 1960s.

The book does explain most of their work but you can get that from Kahneman’s excellent summary Thinking Fast and Slow. What it tries to dig deeper into the creative partnership and how it worked. Strangely an academic interviewed them both about it in the 1970s as part of a book about creative double-acts. Tversky and Kahneman claimed they didn’t know themselves but admitted there was a hint of competition about it. Ultimately they fell out over the way that the profile and plaudits were shared. Tversky’s outgoing personality meant that he was the most in demand and Kahneman felt slighted by that. In the end it was Tversky’s illness and impending death at the age of 59 that brought them back together.

It is an amazing story but one you wouldn’t think could make a good book (or a movie, although you can bet after Moneyball and The Long Short there will be one), but it does. It’s a wonderful exploration of the relationship between two incredible people and how that relationship changed the world.

Finding all the Tech for Good Meetups in the world

The phrase ‘tech for good’ seems to be resonating with more and more people as a shorthand for using technology to purposefully address social or environmental problems. It’s not just about use of technology by existing not-for-profits (although that can be part of it and Netsquared/Techsoup have done a fantastic job of promoting that), it’s also about doing new things using technology including for-profit ventures that aim to benefit millions of people and deliver returns to impact investors.

Meetups have become a really important gathering point and place where people can find co-founders and investors and bounce ideas around. In the UK there are already Tech for Good Meetup groups in Bristol, Cambridge, London, Manchester and Sheffield and I know people are thinking of setting them up in other parts of Europe too. At BGV we’re really interested in helping the movement grow, so if you know of groups you think we should know about please add them here or if you’re interested in starting one, also let me know and we’ll see if we can help.

Update: You can add Meetups to this spreadsheet!

What really lives in your lower intestine?

I surprised myself by really enjoying Gut by Giulia Enders. I’m generally fairly squeamish about all things medical but I I’m glad I picked this one up. It’s full of interesting stuff from the emerging science of our digestive systems. There are some great sections about what actually happens in all the processes we don’t like to talk about and Enders has a lovely turn of phrase, writing that the movements involved in burping or breaking wind “are as delicate and complex as those of a ballerina”.

Gut bacteria are such an interesting area and we barely understand anything that goes on in there. For a long while we thought that there were very few types of bacteria but it turned out that there were many other types but they just didn’t survive when they were cultured outside the body. We’ve probably still only just started to scratch the surface of the types of creatures that are in there and we know even less what they do.

Gut science has also taught us a bit about human history. By looking at the strain of Helicobacter Pylori in our stomachs we can see where people in particular countries came from. So when the strain in the stomachs of pacific islanders was found to be the same as those from latin america it proved that they’d come that way round. The scientists who proved that there was a bug capable of living in stomach acid did so by drinking the stomach contents people with ulcers and making themselves ill. They won the Nobel prize for medicine 20 years later.

One of the lovely things about the book is Ender’s absolute fascination with her subject. She’s a young doctor who has specialised in gut research but she writes so well (and not without humour). The book was written in German so some credit should go to the translator as well because it’s a fantastic read.

We focus so much on heart health and brain health but actually gut health is just as important. There’s pretty good evidence that it can be linked to depression, heart disease and many other things. I think we’ll see it develop as an area pretty rapidly over the next few years as the tools to decode the composition of the bacteria and other critters in our intestines start to be understood.