Assemblany: Towards Democratic Corporations

Monday, June 11, 2007

My Favourite Charities

This blog post is completely subjective - I'm only talking about my current favourite charities and the reasons why I donate to them. I currently donate most to charities that are trying to address global poverty.

I've been a long-time Oxfam supporter, and still donate on a monthly basis. I occasionally donate to the Red Cross and the Leprosy Mission (hoping to help eradicate leprosy). These charities and others like them have achieved a lot, and certainly health (as measured by e.g. infant mortality rates and life expectancies) has improved remarkably the past few decades.

But for some reason there seem to be a lot of exciting new charities with new approaches springing up. (Maybe there have been for years and I just haven't noticed.) Maybe it's my scientific bent, but I like to see statistics as well as read stories in order to know what effects the charity has already had, as well as what needs they're addressing. I already know that the needs are desparate; what I want to know is, will my donation make a difference?

So statistics like the number of people (families) helped out of poverty in the last year are just what I like to see. If the charity also states how much money was spent to achieve this (so some kind of measure of the effectiveness of each dollar), so much the better.

All of the following charities are very transparent and visible about what donations achieve. They also all support entrepreneurs/small businesses (including farmers), which is definitely an approach worth trying.

* Kiva These guys are doing amazing things. Knowing (and choosing) exactly who I'm helping - lending money to - is a powerful and moving experience. The outcomes feel much more tangible - yes, they're small-scale, but every person who is no longer hungry is a victory worth celebrating.
* KickStart The idea of appropriate technology has been around for a long time, but KickStart has really put it into practice. They develop and sell hand-held pumps to farmers in Africa, allowing them to increase their income up to ten-fold. They're also a great example of the kind of statistics I mentioned above, which was a significant factor in my choosing to donate to them.
* TechnoServe They provide business advice / professional development, for example to farmers in Africa to improve the quality of their coffee/pineapples/other export crops ... and thus earn higher prices.

I've seen a few other great ideas on the Web as well, but haven't yet donated to them:

* Acumen Fund They're doing things like building affordable housing and investing in water suppliers.
* Living Goods From microfinance to microfranchise ... Apparently they help "mobile health providers" to make a living selling health products - thus improving people's lives and providing employment at the same time.

More on the new approach to aid later.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Tales of Silicon Castles #2: The Three Sons of Professor Griffith (Part 1)

Once upon a time there was a professor of computer science, who lectured at a red-brick university. He had three sons, and taught them everything that he could; but because the stipend of a professor is not large, they knew that when they graduated, they must go and seek their fortune in the world.

The first son, Alex, majored in finance and computer science, and did well at both. Immediately after graduating, he accepted a position at a company called Full Speed Astern. They were a high-powered stock analysis software company, with an office in an ultra-modern skyscraper in the city. Their chief customers were hedge funds, contrarian day-traders and a group of rogue accountants who for some reason always dressed as pirates. By contrast, company dress code at Full Speed Astern was a suit and tie, and Alex always wore a sober and sensible tie with faint stripes, small dots or fading triangles. Thanks to hard work and dedication, and a knack for finding better visualisations for the oceans of data that their customers daily filtered like baleen whales, he did well. Within a few years, he was promoted to deputy CTO. But one night, flying back from a conference in Switzerland, he looked out his window and saw the stars. Really saw them, the way he hadn't seen them since he was nine years old, realised their beauty and majesty. He stared and stared, conference forgotten, plane forgotten, alone with the blackness and the galaxy.

When he arrived home, he bought a powerful telescope, and took to driving out into the country to star-gaze, something in him thrilling to the mystery of space. He became a little dreamy in meetings, seeing the stars again in his mind's eye. Secretly he painted constellations with luminous paint on his office ceiling, just for the moment when they would glow after he switched off the lights at the end of the day.

The second son, Brian, majored in psychology and computer science; he preferred the statistical and analytical side of psychology, of viewing others from afar, and was never quite comfortable with the practicals. After graduating he soon found a job with an internet dating startup. They had a medieval theme, and were called - though some of the feedback they were getting from their female customers was that the males took the whole armour and visor idea a little too literally. The office was in a business incubator in a former warehouse, next to some arts studios, but was a fun place to work; the management got the developers nerf lances and wooden shields for stress relief, shouted them ale on Friday nights, and put "Sir" or "Dame" on their business cards.

Late one winter afternoon, with twilight shading the full-length windows behind his terminal, Brian was working on adding some new functionality to the date initiation form. The back-end business logic passed the tests, but he wanted to check out the placement of the new buttons as well, so he fired up a browser. He picked a random profile, clicked through the buttons and completed the form. At that point something about the feedback page rang alarm bells, and he realised that he'd selected the actual site by mistake instead of the test version ... It was too late to cancel, she (the damsel he'd selected at random) would have already received a message requesting a date from him.

In shock he stared at the screen. She - Maria - wasn't his type at all; in her photo, she wore chunky jewellery and colourful clothes, and her bio said she liked poetry. But she'd feel insulted if he cancelled - wouldn't he? He logged in to the customer database and found her records. No dates offered or initiated for the past two months ... now he felt worse. Maybe he should go to the date, be as nice as possible, but then fake an oversea trip or serious illness or something - would that work? Would she see through it? Would she think it was pity - would that make _her_ feel worse?

Before he could decide anything, an icon on his browser flashed - she'd already answered! And accepted, and suggested dinner on Friday night at a nearby Greek restaurant he'd always avoided. Numbly he agreed.

The rest of the week passed in a blur. Friday night he got there early, wearing arguably the most colourful and interesting clothes he owned. He sat there, outwardly still, inwardly nervous, and was still somehow surprised when she arrived and sat down opposite him. After introductions (yes, he did work at the dating company, like it said in his bio, he had to admit), and discussions about the restaurant (no, unfortunately he'd never been there before), she sat back and looked at him with a small quizzical smile.

"To be honest, Brian, I was rather surprised that you asked me for a date. From your bio, you don't seem my type at all - very conventional, mainstream background, job in IT, the only interests you list are sci-fi and roleplaying games - no offense, but you seemed like a typical geek. But, you know, so far none of my other dates worked out - too self-absorbed or, well, unstable ... I was going to cancel my account anyway, so I thought why not? But tell me, why _did_ you ask me for a date?"

Brian coughed and looked away. The question had come sooner than expected, and now he found that he couldn't lie to her. He mumbled "Really sorry ... just testing some code out ... it was an accident ... I didn't want to hurt your feelings by cancelling ... I'll refund your subscription fee ... " He wanted to say "and you're beautiful" but his throat closed up, so he just stopped there.

Maria was making a strange noise. He looked at her - she was laughing! He flushed even redder and looked at his feet. But she said, "Thank you, Brian, I do appreciate your not cancelling - though I wouldn't have minded if you'd told me why at the time. As it is, let's forget about the date, but since we're here, we might as well keep each other company while we have dinner. I think you'll like the food here; it's one of my favourite restaurants."

He looked up, gratefully - she was still smiling, now warmly and somewhat ironically. "Thank you", he managed.

The food was good. He found out that she actually reviewed books - serious books, literature - for newspapers and that she'd tried some Asimov once but didn't like it. At that, he suggested a selection of other science fiction, from Anne McCaffrey through Orson Scott Card and Iain M Banks, stopping only when her smile grew a little too wide. Somehow over the course of the evening he also admitted to having a semi-famous father, and got her laughing about his experiences with a lab rat called Walter.

This was the rat that had bitten his finger when it was supposed to be eating cheese, then dived onto the floor and disappeared. Brian had searched for the rest of the practical, but hadn't found him. The tutor said not to worry, they set out traps at night. So he headed off to the lawns for lunch, only to find Walter hiding in his bag and only crumbs remaining of the sandwiches he'd packed. On discovery, Walter had fled again, back to the psychology building, never to be recaptured - to his knowledge, he added.

They discovered that they'd gone to the same university - she'd been a year ahead of him, they hadn't taken any of the same classes but they did have a friend in common, a student politician of that time. Somewhere around dessert time, he also agreed to read some Walt Whitman to make up for not taking any English classes after high school.

As they said goodbye outside the restaurant, he felt relieved that she'd taken it so well, yet somehow flat.

It was a flat week. He forgot to read any poetry. Work was dull, even surfing the web didn't lift his mood - life seemed gray, overcast, he had nothing to look forward to. But late Friday afternoon, there was a knock on the side door to the adjacent studio. It was Maria, her smile electric, glowing bright enough to dispel the winter gloom instantly. She had a friend working in the art studio, it transpired, who didn't know exactly which company was next door, except that they were some kind of crazy geeks who hit each other with rubber sticks. So here she was. Without knowing it, he was smiling uncontrollably, too, and when she suggested that they go and see a new avant-garde near-future romantic comedy, he happily agreed. They exchanged phone numbers outside the cinema, and left open the possibility of having dinner again sometime.

The next week he read Walt Whitman and enjoyed it, because it reminded him of Maria. On their third date, he finally told her that she was beautiful; that evening, she kissed him as he said good night. In two months, they were engaged; within a year, they were married.

His company had just folded after burning through the last of its VC cash; the suits of armour (officially only used for marketing and promotional purposes) were sold off at discount rates. It wasn't long before he found a new job with Maria's help, at a small B2B company for authors and publishers. It was called "market of the mind" (all lower case). There he found a niche for himself in fixing intermittant bugs and reducing users' frustration. Maria kept on reviewing novels, now including an occasional obscure science fiction release.

[End of Part I - to be continued, as we find out what happened to the third son, Chris.]


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Fast Company - Design

For a recent (day-long) train trip, I wanted some new reading material, but the local newsagent was out of "The Economist". They did still have a copy of "Fast Company", and as it happens, I'd read a few articles from there lately (including browsing the article on Gordon Bell the life-logger). So I took a chance and bought a copy (the November 2006 edition).

It was highly enjoyable reading. In particular, I thought the design was excellent and exemplary. (It compares favourably to the design of "New Scientist", not coincidentally another of my favourite magazines, which also pays careful attention to readability.) The text is easily integrated with the images, just about every page seems fresh and readable (no doubt helped by having plenty of short 1 or 2 page articles), and it used some great photographs. (I know nothing about design, these are just my impressions.)

No doubt I'd get bored with it over time, but this, the first edition I'd bought, was a highlight.

The next time I was looking for a magazine to buy (for a 3-hour plane flight this time), I couldn't find a copy of "Fast Company" ... but they did still have the Christmas double edition of "The Economist", so I was happy to settle for that.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tales of Silicon Castles #1: Going Green

Tom worked for a large software company. He'd worked there for five years, the first job he'd had after he'd graduated. He'd kept his head down, worked hard, never spoke up, passed unnoticed by most of his colleagues.

One day he noticed a small green sprout growing from the carpet near his PC.

He stared at it for a while, then acted as if it wasn't there. But when no-one was watching, he watered it and gently stroked its tiny leaves. When he touched it, he thought he heard a faint parrot squawk and smelt the raw, damp, green smell of a rainforest after the rain.

His cubicle was out of the way and no-one usually came to visit. It was two weeks before anyone else noticed his plant, and by that time it was a foot tall and had pale blue flowers.

"What is it, Tom?" they asked. "How did it get here? What have you done?" He shrugged and said nothing.

The next day it was gone - there was just bare ground where it had been. An email informed all employees that there was a new policy on plants in the office.

Tom resigned that afternoon, and moved to a small farmhouse in the country.

At first he tried setting up his laptop on a card table on the back lawn, under a tree, with a chain of extension cords leading inside. But the wind, sun and insects got a little too distracting.

He talked to a local builder, but straw bales or pressed earth weren't quite right, and then to the local scout master. He ended up with a lean-to made of branches, with a leafy roof and grass for a floor. Most days he worked barefoot, shaded by the roof and cooled by a breeze, bird feeder set out nearby.

Work now was bits of this and that - small contracts, open-source, web design. His old company sent him an email asking whether he'd like to come back on contract for a couple of months; his reply was polite but definite - no thanks. He attached a JPEG of his floor, saying "My feet are on the ground now."

He took to eating apples from the trees in the overgrown orchard, drinking rainwater, talking to the birds that came to eat at the feeder.

One morning he went to the lean-to to find that the extension cord had become a root leading down into the soil and his laptop was flowering. He laughed, shrugged and started typing.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Definition: Unstitute

unstitute (n.): a network set up to solve a problem and not perpetuate itself; an institute without self-preservation instincts.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Thoughts on Limited Tribes

As a thought experiment, consider a meta-org created to pursue long-term goals that a number of people belong to. Over time, as opportunities arise and/or customers express interest, it spins off short-term organisations (limited tribes). Each limited tribe has one specific goal that they are dedicated to, and dissolves when that goal is met.

If the meta-org is a company, then the limited tribes are project teams, which many people are familiar with. But if the limited tribes are companies, then the picture looks quite different ... I know there would be problems, like "what about liabilities and support" - most customers feel more secure knowing that the company will be around for a long time - there wouldn't necessarily be a cash buffer against the times between projects. But consider the advantages for a moment: think of the excitement in starting a new company every year; the chances to keep the best parts from previous projects/tribes; the chance to work with self-selected groups of people (assuming that people in the meta-org have the freedom to pick their own project, which I admit is unrealistic).

There can be a productive creative tension between short-term and long-term thinking in companies - though often things that should be changed regularly are preserved past their use-by date and vice-versa. If many policies and the mission statement change every year, while procedures spelling out which version of which software to use remain unchanged for 5 years, there's a mix of confusion and conservatism in the minds of employees (and probably management) of that company. There have been so many opportunities for positive change in the last 10 years (how many people used the internet 10 years ago?) - organisations should be open to them and ready to seize them. More on this topic later.

Definition: Limited Tribe

limited tribe (n.): a group of people who agree to work together for a defined time to accomplish a goal (and/or project). Usually construct and preserve a common (group) identity through the use of jargon (slang), in-jokes, rituals etc.

See also "transient tribe", "sunset company", "mayfly org" and "tempany".

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Democratic and/or Creative MMORPGs

I recently discovered that "A Tale in the Desert" allows users to vote on laws, so it could be described as a democratic MMORPG (though I'm not sure if the Pharaoh is up for election :)

Similarly Second Life (no link necessary :) would have to be one of the more creative MMORPGs - I hear that you can design vehicles and buildings as well as clothing (and hairstyles).

But I think there's still room for innovation. From a previous post: imagine a MMORPG where you could also vote in rules that allowed entirely new classes of objects; where the profit from fees was shared by developers or re-invested in the business; where new realms or worlds could be created at the whim of the players. (All of this, of course, assumes that the developers can actually implement the changes in a reasonable time :)