I’ve started an experimental newsletter over at Substack.
I’ve started an experimental newsletter over at Substack.
(This is a followup post to (now) four earlier posts on forecasting.
In the mode of Elon, I propose to outline what I think SpaceX will do over the next decade, how that intersects with Tesla’s strategy of building a sustainable energy future (combined with sustainable transport) and ultimately how that fits in with making humanity a multi-planetary species.
There are a number of moving pieces to this strategy and I can’t cover them all in one blog post, but I will try to distill it down to three distinct parts.
There is far more to this, and as ever with making forecasts like this, it carries lots of provisos.
This part of the plan is already well underway.
SpaceX continues to successfully recover its first stage when the flight configuration allows it. It is increasing its stock of used-at-least-once first stages. These first stages will also double as boosters for its heavy lift rocket the Falcon Heavy when it’s due to launch later this year.
The cadence for launches is already impressive this year, after a couple of launch failures. All of this contributes to reducing the overall cost of delivering payloads to orbit.
Over the coming decade you can expect that the cost of delivering anything to orbit is going to fall significantly. It will become more like catching a flight — and this will create an awful lot more capacity to deploy lots more vehicles. But what demand will meet the abundant new capacity?
Here is where things get interesting over the next 10 years. Up to the end of 2016 there were 1,459 satellites in orbit around the Earth. SpaceX have a backlog of launches in the dozens.
But you have to wonder: even if SpaceX captured 100% of the entire global launch market, would the margin — even with re-use — be enough to make enough cash to continue building expensive vehicles like the Mars Transporter? I would guess no — there’s less than 100 launches per year globally.
Even if SpaceX had 100% of the launch market, and the market was growing at say 20% per year, and SpaceX was making say, $30m profit per launch (a decent margin you’d guess), then that will still only be $3bn profit — hardly enough to build a fleet for transporting 1 million people to Mars and building a colony.
And if all this launch capacity and reduction in cost was only for Mars purposes, how does SpaceX propose to pay for the Mars Transporter(s)?
So what’s the alternative?
Build a global Internet Service Provider (ISP) that requires nearly 12,000 satellites to be put into orbit. Let’s call this new ISP ‘X’ for the purposes of this piece. (it may be a spin-off company from the launch part— SpaceX).
But how do you build a global ISP? First you reduce to cost of delivering satellites to orbit. Then you:
But what does the product look like and how do you go market?
In the style of how Tesla launched the Model S, Model X, Model 3 and the Tesla Powerwall / Tesla Solar Roof, X will launch a product to sell access to the X network. It will be presented by Musk on stage as a huge leap forward in broadband communications. It will also be presented as simple, well designed and integrated.
What form will this come in?
If you think I’m crazy, take five minutes and take a look at the video below from January 2016.
Last year Toyota invested in the Redmond Washington-based (yes!) and five year old Kymeta (who include Bill Gates as one of their investors too).
The X network will look broadly similar, but unlike Kymeta, X will not only sell terminals — they will be building the entire ISP solution — end-to-end. And of course X will not just be limited to cars — it will apply to any location, moving or static.
Here’s some key slides from Kymeta’s presentation:
Indeed you could argue that X should buy Kymeta. Kymeta boast that their system could handle 1Tb of data per month per vehicle (seemingly using the Intelsat network).
If you believe that Tesla/SpaceX are not going to pursue this type of technology then I would argue that this is underestimating Elon Musk.
Towards the end of the talk Kymeta founder Nathan Kundtz even appears to have a dig at a possible SpaceX network.
With 50 [Intelsat] satellites each the size of a bus, and new satellites going into space all the time, this is not some network that will be ready in 2025, this is the network of now.
And let’s look at who SpaceX is hiring in Redmond right now:
Once you’ve built this system, and hopefully overcome regulatory hurdles; got your first 100,000 customers; built the largest ISP in orbit over time; integrated all of your vehicles to the network — then you can use that technology and kn0w-how and scale to deploy the same system to Mars.
You would do this in advance of the colony being established. It makes more sense to pre-position a communications network at Mars than it does to build it in tandem or after astronauts have already landed there.
I’m happy to bet a whole €100 that this will, in large part, be attempted. Whether or not it’s successful is another thing.
And if I am right, Elon Musk owes me a few pints of Guinness 😂.
(Disclosure: I’m a *very* small shareholder in Tesla. 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 (and even a Musk Mars colony needs laws too!). I’m on Twitter if you have any questions)
By launching 11,943 satellites SpaceX will do to telecoms what WhatsApp/Facebook Messenger did to SMS and in doing so capture a $1tn+ business — and there’s fringe benefits for Tesla.
(This is a followup post to three earlier posts on forecasting. The first in May 2015 forecast both blimp-based and dedicated building-based drone deployments (later patented by Amazon); The second in October 2015 largely predicted Elon Musk’s Tesla Masterplan Part Deux by 9 months, the third in July 2016 among other things correctly hypothesised the use of Model X falcon wings for future possible Tesla bus designs. I try to get it right but I mainly enjoy the idle speculation).
I was recently in San Francisco and had a very random number of drinks with two very friendly employees of US telco AT&T. As is often the case I turned the conversation towards autonomous vehicles, and more specifically two of Elon Musk’s companies, Tesla and SpaceX.
I was curious about how cars, such as a Model S, have much greater data connectivity needs than ever before. Right now, Teslas connect to AT&T’s network and it seems clear that data needs will only increase for data hungry vehicles that drive themselves. Already Tesla cars consume quite a few gigabytes of data per month.
Not only do vehicles like Teslas need high-end GPUs for some of their basic self-driving features, but they need good data connections for sharing data with Tesla, and for things like in-car infotainment systems.
As we move towards autonomy (specifically electric vehicle autonomy), cars will likely have even more data needs. Will passengers in autonomous Tesla Mobility vehicles expect Wi-Fi with fast broadband speeds? Will there be two, three or five people per vehicle? Remember all that time you had at least one human concentrating on driving? Well that person will instead be browsing the web while listening to a streaming music service.
This made me wonder: Why would Tesla would continue to bother with a middle-man like AT&T in the future?
Musk is a big fan of full-stack approaches to enterprise — so it seems logical to speculate that the growing data needs of autonomous Teslas will become a core issue Tesla will want to own or control (and perhaps charge for).
This brings me to SpaceX.
Musk often says he has a first principles approach to thinking. So let’s do it.
If you wanted to connect everyone on a planet to high-speed broadband, given technology available today (and not technology based on copper-based infrastructure that has been with us for decades), would you bother digging holes, laying copper, fibre, backhaul, exchange buildings, lay cable that crosses oceans, then on top of that build millions of cell towers with relatively limited range that span continents in order to connect mobile devices?
Probably not — particularly if there was an alternative available where you could grab internet from the sky.
Or as Patricia Cooper from SpaceX said:
“…the common challenges associated with siting, digging trenches, laying fiber, and dealing with property rights are materially alleviated through a space-based broadband network”
(And if you were the sort of person who wanted to build high-speed connectivity on a brand new planet — such as Mars — because the 1 million person colony there will probably want to have iPhones, you would certainly not have the approach of building a land-based communications network. You would do it in orbit. It’s much cheaper.)
As of the end of 2016 there were about 1,459 satellites in orbit around the Earth. SpaceX last month announced a plan to launch some 11,943 satellites — multiplying orbital vehicles by an order of magnitude.
Why so many satellites? Global broadband. Why is this interesting? Because it is completely independent of the switch-based POTS legacy we still largely work with (albeit we have been transforming it from a switch system to an IP-based network for decades now).
What will this new SpaceX satellite system look like? First is the LEO or Low Earth Orbit constellation of 4,425 satellites. Here’s the breakdown:
The second part of the SpaceX constellation will be the VLEO, or Very Low Earth Orbit network, comprising 7,518 satellites. By operating closer to the ground, SpaceX say this will both boost capacity and reduce latency in heavily populated areas:
SpaceX say this should give 1Gb broadband with relatively low latency (25–35ms because of the lower orbit than other space-based systems) to millions (or billions) of subscribers using relatively small user terminals with coverage across continents. They illustrate the relative coverage of the LEO and VLEO systems here:
Both these networks would be meshed to co-ordinate and provide redundancy and capacity, for constant near-global coverage. As you can see here, the higher dots are LEO and the lower ones are VLEO.
But I love the phrase SpaceX use in the document, because it’s part of the narrative companies like them and OneWeb are using about providing broadband to poorer countries or under-served rural locations:
SpaceX has designed its V-band system to meet the dual requirements of the world’s broadband demand — namely, connectivity for rural, remote and hard-to-reach end-users, as well as efficient, high-capacity connectivity at all locations.
In journalism this is called burying the lead.
What SpaceX are actually seeking is to replace every broadband and communications provider on the planet, by cutting out the middle man of land-based networks that stand between you and the internet. In doing so they will be essentially competing with every communications provider in the world — a business valued at over a trillion dollars. Forget about poor communities in Africa for a second: this is a pitch to replace physical fibre/cable connections in modern industrialised economies.
But a few questions arise from this including the big one: mobile phones. Will the plan be to have mobile phones work directly with satellites overhead? Is that even possible? Or will there be a hybrid approach — provide broadband to physically static locations and work from there?
Which brings me back to Tesla.
Musk was keen to announce recently the launch of the solar roof product — solar cells embedded in most of the tiles on your roof. This roof would in turn be connected to a Tesla battery, storing energy during the day for use at night (and perhaps for your electric car too) — and leading to relative energy independence for many users — and a distributed grid.
But this raises another interesting hypothesis in my mind. OneWeb, a rival to SpaceX for this race for global internet, have shown their prototype device conceivably connecting schools and medical centres in Africa:
What’s interesting about this? The terminal on the roof is:
So what would I do if I were in Elon Musk?
SpaceX plan to launch their first prototype later this year and the first satellites for the constellation in 2019 with a target to complete the network by as early as the mid 2020s (but likely later). And with their success in re-usable first-stage rockets, they have the means and will to meet an ambitious satellite launch schedule, and at a cost that is likely to continue to fall.
It also might bring about the death of land-based networks such as AT&T (current market cap $223bn).
And perhaps even more ironic — SpaceX is charging existing telecoms and TV providers such as Iridium lots of money to launch satellites. But SpaceX’s longterm strategy could be to use the profits from these launches to replace their own customers with a more compelling, fast and global space-based mesh network and offer connectivity directly to every citizen on the planet. So like solar roof customers paying for SpaceX infrastructure, so too would existing communication companies pay for their own possible demise.
So in summary—
Last week The Times in London published a story concerning hate speech videos and the advertising surrounding them. The story by investigations editor Alexi Mostrous began:
Google is to be summoned before the government to explain why taxpayers are unwittingly funding extremists through advertising, The Times can reveal.
The Cabinet Office joined some of the world’s largest brands last night in pulling millions of pounds in marketing from YouTube after an investigation showed that rape apologists, anti-Semites and banned hate preachers were receiving payouts from publicly subsidised adverts on the internet company’s video platform.
David Duke, the American white nationalist, Michael Savage, a homophobic “shock-jock”, and Steven Anderson, a pastor who praised the killing of 49 people in a gay nightclub, all have videos variously carrying advertising from the Home Office, the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, Transport For London and the BBC.
Mr Anderson, who was banned from entering Britain last year after repeatedly calling homosexuals “sodomites, queers and faggots”, has YouTube videos with adverts for Channel 4, Visit Scotland, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), Argos, Honda, Sandals, The Guardian and Sainsbury’s.
At the end of the piece was Google’s response:
A Google spokeswoman said that the company had “strict guidelines” relating to advert placement and that in the vast majority of cases its policies “work as intended”. The company “doesn’t always get it right and sometimes ads appear where they should not,” she said, adding that it would make changes to policies and brand controls.
Since the publication of the story many brands and advertisers have pulled their ad campaigns pending clarification from Google.
Mostrous tweeted an image of The Times editorial that went with the story
— Alexi Mostrous (@AlexiMostrous) March 18, 2017
This tweet led to an interesting conversation between Alexi, Benedict Evans from Andreessen Horowitz and later Rob Kniaz of Hoxton Ventures. The TL;DR of this discussion is as follows:
There are two issues at play from the original story; one is that such extreme videos are on YouTube at all; and the second that advertisements from premium brands are appearing adjacent to this type of content — allowing publishers of such content to make money from public and private sources of ads — often without the knowledge of the brands themselves.
I’m inclined to say that both Alexi and Benedict are correct and wrong, but for different reasons.
I spent many years at Storyful (which was acquired by The Times’ owner News Corp) with breaking news content on YouTube, and working with my colleagues to find original — often graphic — content, working on YouTube for the web first, and then via the API to find content that is real/original, re-uploaded/copies, copyrighted content, or what is often referred to now as ‘fake’ content. This would often involve millions of API calls to find and verify the content we needed.
Of course it is the case already that YouTube does employ/contract people to deal with content — YouTube Policy. A quick look at LinkedIn suggests approximately 400 people working on this problem at YouTube — though Google generally does not share the actual number of staff working on this team.
I’m going to start at this problem from how it was articulated by Benedict: that is technically extremely difficult or impossible to vet billions of hours of video per day.
This is undoubtedly true, but I think it’s also a bit of a straw man argument.
The first question is: do billions of hours of videos need to be vetted algorithmically or manually to help solve this problem? I’d say no.
YouTube is built on two things; content and the accounts that upload that content. If you want to build a system to vet hate speech, for example, you start with accounts that create the content, not the content itself. From an algorithmic standpoint this is the lower hanging fruit. And if you want to start with even lower hanging fruit, you start with the known creators of extremist content.
In order to create a YouTube account, you need to create a Google account. This usually involves giving a real name/username and a real phone number to confirm it (though this is not obligatory). This is the starting point and here are some questions to ask:
Therefore: a possible checklist upon upload of a new piece of content by either a) a brand new account or b) an account with which there were issues before (in whatever order is the most logical)
I’m sure the smart people at YouTube have thought of all of these things, however one of the perennial issues that affects YouTube is its relationship with Google — ie they are not the same thing. So it can be hard to get both companies on the same page, despite being from the same company.
It is also clear that the problem is not necessarily that every video uploaded by every person has to be checked, as Benedict seems to argue. What can happen at a technical level is outlined above — and more.
At Storyful we had built enough intelligence on top of YouTube to know what known account was likely to upload content of a real world event before the account even did so. We’d also know whether that content was likely to be graphic in nature before watching it. And we’d also have some idea of the reliability of the account.
And it the account was new to us: we’d have a fair idea whether the account was a sockpuppet account, a legitimate account, or a re-uploader, using signals available through YouTube’s own API (e.g. account creation date, related accounts, number of videos already posted).
And that was five years ago.
Alexi and Benedict are both right that YouTube could be doing more. Alexi is right that they could be doing a helluva lot more. Benedict is right that it’s not technically easy to mine billions of hours of videos in realtime — but that’s not necessarily the problem either.
The problem is this: YouTube has a policy on what videos can and cannot go on its platform. It has likely erred on the side of letting more content through than it should. It should re-consider.
And as for the other problem of ads being displayed next to extremist content: brands want to be assured that their ads are not associated with hate speech — by working to solve the problem above, YouTube also benefits by being able to assure brands to a greater degree than before that their ads are not showing next to such content (a YouTube CMS equivalent for where ads show).
Given everything that’s going on in the world, I think it’s important to re-familiarise ourselves with history. I highly recommend watching all of the following.
“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.” Karl Jaspers
The World at War is a 26 hour documentary about the Second World War. It is still a groundbreaking documentary, originally aired in 1973. It contains extensive interviews with people who witnessed or experienced many of the events in the war. It is narrated by Laurence Olivier and the opening credits are, in a word, haunting.
The Nazis: A Warning From History is both a dark and amazing documentary. It comes in 6 parts, at 45 minutes each. It charts the rise of the Nazis from the early 1920s to their ultimate demise. It is in many parts shocking – it contains interviews with perpetrators of mass killings, or people who betrayed their neighbours to the Gestapo. The interviews and file footage are harrowing. In a way, the series lulls you into a sense of comfort in the early episodes, and then punches you in the face in later ones. It also goes into some detail about the sheer disorganisation of the Hitler regime, and how the bureaucracy operated (or failed to operate) under him. Here is part 1, the rest should be available online.
Next is the Death of Yugoslavia (1995). It describes how a country can quickly disintegrate and draw lines around ethnicity. It was so well written and produced, and the interviews so exclusive, they it was partly used as evidence during the prosecution of war crimes. If you’ve never understood the war in the 1990s in Yugoslavia, this is where you start.
There’s lots more, but these are a good place to start. I’d also recommend American History X and Schindler’s List on the movie side.
Eight years ago, I was in an unseasonably warm Grant Park in Chicago when Barack Obama was elected:
I had visited Georgia six weeks previously, after the brief war there with Russia. This is what was left of the tiny Georgian Navy:
I then visited Aleppo, Hama, Palmyra and Damascus in Syria, 10 months after attending Obama’s inauguration in Washington DC:
My first ever visit to New York was on September 26, 2001, where I walked around the devastation wrought by terrorist attacks on 9/11, in a largely deserted lower Manhattan — still largely covered in dust and pictures of the missing.
All of those moments have defined my adult life in one way or another. But in my view one above all defines my life: and it wasn’t 9/11.
The election of Donald Trump in November is the moment that will define the rest of my life and everything that is to come. It won’t just be the next four or eight years, it will be the next forty.
The world I grew up in was a relatively simple timeline of; the Cold War; the collapse of the Soviet Union; the first Gulf War; the boom in Ireland in the 1990s along with increased EU integration (including increased globalisation and the rise of the internet); the 1990s ‘era’ ended on 9/11, followed by the second Gulf War in 2003; the global economic crash in 2008 (with Obama elected at the same time); the Arab Spring in 2011; the Russia intervention in Ukraine in 2014; and finally the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Pretty much all of my life has been defined by the US as a global economic and military power. Whether it was the Cold War, the post-Cold War era (including the NATO intervention in Serbia), 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, and the crash of 2008 — all of these were within a global political order in which the US was the pre-eminent power, particular from the early 1990s onwards. Or as a capitalist power which precipitated the largest global economic collapse since 1929.
The world that I was born into in 1981 ended in November.
Indeed, I would go further. I would argue that the world my parents knew — the one from the 1950s to today, is also ending.
We are going through the largest transformation in the global political order since 1945. And it is entirely driven by the US electing Trump as their President (partly aided by Russian intervention in the election).
And Jonathan Kirshner summed it up thusly:
And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.
The upheaval that is coming will be unprecedented in my lifetime, and it’s happening just as the generation that lived and fought in the 1940s dies out.
And let’s think this through a little.
The globalised world that I saw grow in my teens in the 1990s — the evolution of internet commerce, the global trade system, goods manufactured in China and delivered to your home — is a) relatively novel b) inherently brittle and c) depends on a global political order that to date has been defined by American hegemony.
Any hint of conflict, either trade or military, will disrupt this weak system. And it will break. It will break fast. Any countries dependent on this system of trade will be affected quickly, not slowly. Knock on affects would include food production (do countries produce for domestic or international customers?), energy production (how dependent is an economy on imported energy?) and basic access to goods (how much of what you buy every day is manufactured nearby?).
And all of this is happening when energy — the driver of the global economy — is going through a transformation. The cost of producing energy is declining rapidly, thanks to the technology of renewables. Any countries that are dependent on fossil fuels for energy and revenue will be in trouble. And it so happens that one of them has thousands of nuclear weapons, and has been trying to destabilise the order (for better or worse that US-imposed global political order is) that has existed since 1945. And vested interests, such as the Exxons of this world, have a clear interest in delaying the shift to renewables as much as possible — why? Because there’s trillions of dollars still buried in the ground. Why would we shift to renewables when there’s money still buried?
There are times when people say: this time is different, and you don’t believe them.
This time is different. Within a very short period of time we will find ourselves in a completely different world, one that none of us is ready for nor indeed for which we have any frame of reference. And there will be few people still alive who have that frame of reference to teach us.
In a new world order of authoritarianism, we will need to learn fast.
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:
It was also noted:
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.
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!)
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:
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).
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.
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).
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.
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? 🙂 )
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.
… 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
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):
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.
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.