Thomas A Watson: An Apology

About this time of year, this blog gets a peak in search hits for Thomas A Watson of “Mr Watson, come here. I want you” fame.

Somewhere out there, I imagine, is a teacher who sets the same class assignment every year, and whose students flock obediently to Google in search of information and images. I applaud that teacher. Alexander Graham Bell’s collaborator is not as well known as he should be. While Bell had the big ideas, it was Watson’s talents as an electrical engineer that saw them successfully realised. He was one of the original hardware hackers.

So every year I feel a twinge of guilt that I’m somehow letting down my audience, given the flippancy with which I invoked Watson’s name in a post that contains little meaningful information about the man himself.

To make amends, I have tracked down a copy of Ted Clarke’s wonderfully titled biography “Thomas A. Watson: Does That Name Ring A Bell?” which paints a picture of a true Renaissance man.

Here are 10 cool things about Thomas A. Watson. Nine of them are actual true facts from Mr Clarke’s book. The other one is a barefaced lie made up by me to add a little piquancy for the Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V squad. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Continue reading Thomas A Watson: An Apology

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Brought to book: some subtleties of social interaction

It’s a pleasure to see – at risk of sounding like a Key Stage One Literacy Coordinator – that reading is hot right now.

Into this maelstrom come the Mag+ concepts from BERG for Bonnier. If you haven’t seen the video you should watch it now. Beyond the thoughtful work on the interaction within the user interface, I like the thinking about “how the device might occupy the world.”

And separately, Christian Lindholm has some interesting ideas about linearity as a low-involvement user experience, perfectly suited to mobile.

Everyone’s talking about how it feels to be the reader – how he or she will be empowered to enjoy the best aspects of printed and digital media rolled into one wafer-thin device. It’s all very user-centred.

But I think to succeed eReaders must not only meet the needs of the direct user, but also of those around them, the friends and family who may not welcome their loved one’s absorption in this exciting new media. They are the “next largest context” within which the new device must win acceptance.

Continue reading Brought to book: some subtleties of social interaction

We choose the Moon (without the moan)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as the next guy. I even bought the t-shirt. But listening to Norman Lewis’ thought-provoking talk at TEDxLeeds, I worried that the narrative around the Moon landings is in danger of plunging us into a crater of dusty nostalgia, and doing down some of the amazing things that are happening in the 21st Century.

Norman’s hypothesis is that John F Kennedy’s commitment to the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth” within a decade represented a kind of big picture leadership now lacking in the world. On his blog Futures-Diagnosis, he argues that:

this is the time to develop bold new arguments for why we need

  • more long-term investment in research (as opposed to the short-term funding of development);
  • more experimentation and less emphasis upon predictable outcomes driven by narrow ROI considerations; and
  • more failure to build success.

… and

… the US Space Program (despite being rooted in the politics of the Cold War) provided a bold vision and impetus to the generation of ground-breaking new research and innovation. The research created new industries while NASA provided impetus for the formation of thousands of new companies and product innovation. It is this kind of boldness that is so noticeably absent in our society today.

Really?

The Moon landing was almost the opposite of pure research. It was a development effort with a very practical, specific, measurable and timebound goal, which was met with just months to spare until the end of the Sixties. At just over eight years from inception to completion, the project was significantly shorter than, for example, bringing a new pharmaceutical product to market today.

Neither was it some swashbuckling escapade. America could doubtless have put a man or woman on the Moon even quicker had it not been for the “safely back to Earth” stipulation. Kennedy rightly and explicity included health and safety in the brief from the outset.

And as Norman acknowledges, and Tom Morgan develops further in his thoughtful review of TEDxLeeds, the motivation for the Moon expedition was far from idealistic. It was geopolitical, and possibly even colonial. Maybe we’d have been back more often if those samples of moonrock had proved to contain readily extractable supplies of gold, diamonds or oil.

All that would be an  interesting historical footnote were it not for the way the Moon landing is held up as some sort of benchmark against which early 21st Century people are supposed to fall short.

A trip to Mars would be a cool thing, even one-way as proposed by Paul Davis. Yes, I think we should have a go. But it seems a rather literalistic interpretation to say that, having done the Moon, we’ve lost our bottle as a society if we don’t go on to tick all the other boxes in the I-Spy Book of the Solar System.

It’s not as if humanity has been idle in the intervening 40 years. I think it’s also quite bold to:

These things may not have the same instant appeal as three men journeying to the Moon (and the estimated 500 million who stayed at home to watch them on TV) but they seem to me equally capable of generating massive and unforeseen innovation and benefits.

By all means have reverence and respect for the past. Be inspired by the Moon landing. But don’t let that stop you marvelling at the things our own generation is set to accomplish.

Why I took part in Ada Lovelace Day

Last month’s Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology, was based on the insight that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male ones. I was pleased to help meet that need in a very small way, with a short post about 18th Century venture capitalist Elizabeth Montagu.

At the time I tried to keep my personal pontification to a minimum. It’s hard for men to address this topic without sounding patronising. Anyway, on the day itself many others were making the case for higher visibility of women in technology far more eloquently than I ever can.

But this post from Paul Walsh, trailing a Techcrunch Europe panel on the subject of women and start-ups, prompted me to speak up more directly. In Paul’s opinion:

… the books of males vs females doesn’t need to be balanced in favour of more females. Why? Well, because there are plenty of females in tech and those that aren’t, don’t want to be. Ok, so there might be a small percent who would like to be in tech, but don’t make it. But can’t the same be said for any industry?

Are we trying to balance the books to encourage more males to become nurses?

To which I reply the following (originally posted as a comment on Paul’s blog):

Of course there are some very talented and successful women in our industry. That’s not in doubt. It’s not so much that there are too few women in the tech sectors as that there are too many men! Look around you at most tech conferences and you’ll see mainly male audiences listening mainly to other men.

This is not just bad because women are missing out on opportunities (though I believe some are) but also because, in the words of David Ogilvy, “diversity is the mother of invention.” We are all missing out on the creativity and customer-centricity that a more diverse culture would engender. Think, for example, of how long the games industry remained stuck on the demands of a small power user niche while the needs of the much bigger casual user segments went unmet. What other business opportunities might be there for the taking right now?

The nursing analogy is an interesting one. Why not doctors, one might ask, and how much by nature, how much by nurture? (And yes, I do think men should be encouraged to consider nursing as a career!) Either way, if, as I think [Paul is] suggesting, there are deeply engrained differences between men and women then there’s a clear imperative for us to capitalise on those differences.

That means taking active steps such as ensuring that girls can see strong female role models in our industry, as it seems they might in medicine. It means making work more compatible with family life (from which men also stand to benefit). It means changing our business culture so women’s voices can be heard, and their contributions recognised and rewarded equally with those of men.

The conversation will be more profitable as a result.

“Embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions”

If, as David Ogilvy said, diversity is the mother of invention then the technology media and telecoms sector is missing out on untold opportunities to innovate, stuffed as it is with people who look like me, white and male. I’m proud to work for a company that wants to change this.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology.

When I pledged to “publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same,” I wanted to reflect my interest in the history of innovation. It could so easily have been Rosalind Franklin or Marie Curie or even the Countess of Lovelace herself. The great Eleanor Coades (both of them!) came within a stone’s throw.

But as I Googled around the subject I was repeatedly drawn back to a woman who never, so far as I know, conducted an experiment or wrote a scientific paper in her life. I was a little worried about the thinness of her credentials, but then Suw’s brief for the blog post did say we could interpret technology “widely”, and that the woman in question could be dead.

Besides, my subject was a powerful force in 18th Century London society, a financial backer of remarkable businesses in a remarkable time and place, and a woman who understood how the arts and sciences were inextricably linked.

Introducing Mrs Elizabeth Montagu, the Queen of the Blues

Born Elizabeth Robinson in Yorkshire in 1718, she married the banker Charles Montagu. At her “blue stocking” gatherings she played host to writers, actors, philosophers and inventors. And taking on the family business after the death of her husband she funded start-ups including that of Matthew Boulton, one of Birmingham’s “Lunar Men.”

After a visit to Boulton’s Soho Works in 1772, she wrote of his enterprise as a force for good in a wartorn world:

“To behold the secrets of Chymistry, & the mechanick powers, so employ’d, & exerted, is very delightful. I consider the Machines you have at work as so many useful working subjects to Great Brittain of your own Creation: the exquisite Taste in the forms which you give them to work upon, is another National advantage. I had rather see my Country in continual contention of arts than of arms. The Victories of Soho, over every other Manufacture, instead of making Widows & Orphans, as happens even to the conquering side in War, makes marriages & Christenings…”

She concludes in a phrase that prefigures William Morris by 100 years:

“Go on then Sir to triumph over the French in taste, & to embellish your Country with useful inventions & elegant productions.”

Elizabeth Montagu, Georgian venture capitalist, social networker extraordinaire, with a social conscience and a feel for the combined force of art and science.

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

The history of Leeds: What every geek should know

It was a privilege to present at this week’s GeekUp Leeds on a topic close to my heart, the amazing industrial heritage of Leeds and why it should be an inspiration to those working in the technology sectors today.

Thanks to Deb and Rob for organising another great event, and to the GeekUp participants for putting up with me.

A few people asked for more info so I’ve put together some pages with my slides, notes and lots of links.

The history of Leeds: What every geek should know – part 1 starts here

Abstract innovation

In the spirit of Chris Heathcote’s excellent abstract pointillist powerpoint toolkit, I spent a couple of happy hours putting together 20 slides about Leeds, its industrial heritage and why I find it so inspiring.

I was too late to submit to this week’s Ignite UK North event (but thanks, Imran, for the kind tweet in any case), so I’m sharing the slides here. Some are more abstract than others. Can you guess what each one is meant to be?

View on Slideshare

Update: I presenting on this topic at GeekUp Leeds on Wednesday 18 February under the title The history of Leeds: What every geek should know.