Brian Christian on Algorithms to Live By

I’m a member of the Long Now Foundation, whose mission it is to “…provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. We hope to foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”

One of their main activities is producing Seminars about Long Term Thinking, which are available as podcasts, and are my favourite listen on a long drive or trip to the supermarket.

The latest episode is Brian Christian on Algorithms to Live By, which covers recent developments in computer science. He spends much of the talk discussing the “Optimal Stopping Problem“, in which you try to determine the optimum time to stop looking for the ideal house, partner, or similar. It turns out there’s a mathematical answer to this question – if you determine how long you’re prepared to engage in the search process, then you should spend the first 37% (1/e) of the search period examining the choices, and then select the next option that is better than any of the previous choices. There are a significant number of other gems in this talk, but Christian’s parting shot really cracked me up.  According to Computer Science he says, we can rethink rationality in a mathematical way that includes the following principles:

  • Don’t always consider all your options
  • Don’t necessarily go for the option that seems best every time
  • Make a mess on occasion
  • Travel light
  • Let things wait
  • Trust your instincts and don’t think too long
  • Relax
  • Toss a coin

It leaves me tempted, for a few milliseconds anyway, to retake my Computer Science degree.

See the video at:

Access Granted

The great folks at the Access Granted podcast published a wide-ranging interview with me today on “the mosaic of my life”, which you can listed to below:

I cover a quite a lot of ground, including:

Enjoy, and thanks to Mike and Raj!

Two aerial photos

I recently arrived back in Wellington from the Startup Nations Summit in Mexico. On my flight from Auckland to Wellington on 29 November 2015, I passed over the Karori Rip just south of Mana Island.

The Karori Rip

The Karori Rip is an interesting phenomenon, basically a standing wave formed in specific tidal conditions in Cook Strait.  In this case, it was high tide on the Pacific (left) side, and low tide on the Tasman (right) side.  In the photo, you can see the wave roiling.

Then, on the same flight, approaching Wellington Airport from the north, I was welcomed back home by this:

Wellington City

I fall in love with Wellington over and over again. After being in the cities of North America with dubious air quality, she was truly a sight for sore eyes.

TICS bill submission

I recently contributed to a submission on the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill, a rather rushed and ill-considered piece of legislation that has massive potential for abuse by future governments, and which places unreasonable costs and procedures on people providing Internet services.

The introduction reads:

We explain in this Select Committee submission our opposition to the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill on the grounds that—as currently drafted—it is unclear, will not achieve its purpose, and is likely to have unintended consequences that undermine its purpose.

We further argue that New Zealand’s interests—in terms of national security, economic well-being, and protection of citizens’ basic privacy rights—will be best served if New Zealand businesses have the flexibility to innovate, compete, and succeed in creating products and services that provide robust protection for the privacy rights of their customers, while also effectively supporting legitimate interception capabilities required by law where applicable.

To commit the resources and effort required for such innovation, and to be able to attract investment to support growth, businesses need a clear understanding of their obligations, and confidence that these obligations will not unexpectedly change in fundamental ways through no fault of their own.

The remainder of our submission argues the following high-level points:

  • As reinforced by a recent United Nations Human Rights Council report, privacy is a fundamental human right that communications surveillance frameworks must protect.
  • The proposed legislation is unclear on a number of critical issues regarding which businesses are affected, what services are affected, and what obligations businesses have regarding interception capabilities; furthermore, it does not provide businesses sufficient predictability about their ongoing obligations.
  • This lack of clarity and predictability can produce negative side effects and unintended consequences that affect New Zealand’s national security and economic well-being, as well as New Zealanders’ safety and human rights.
  • Despite the numerous disadvantages the proposed legislation would impose on the legitimate activities of government, business, and citizens, it will not enable interception of communications using noncompliant services, which will be most attractive to the individuals whose communications will be most important to intercept.

Conclusion: The proposed legislation as currently drafted is not clear enough to fully evaluate, but nonetheless raises significant concerns that it may be ineffective and have unintended consequences that undermine its primary objectives. Therefore, we oppose the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Bill in its current form.

You can read the full submission on the Parliament web site.


Welcome to Race Relations, Dame Susan Devoy

Dame Susan Devoy was recently appointed Race Relations Commissioner, amidst some controversy.  Like many, I was surprised by the appointment – I’d expected someone to be appointed to the position had some experience in the field, and was known to practitioners.

It’s a done deal now – the appointment has been made, and I think what’s missing is some acknowledgement that although her formal qualifications may be lacking and her actions in the distant past not quite aligned, Dame Susan is a very capable person and has demonstrated willingness to do the job well.  Furthermore, her appointment represents a big opportunity – to bring positive communication about race relations to the general public, rather than continuing to preach to the converted.

My friend Joan Buchanan who (inter alia) runs the Spirit of Rangatahi programme organised a welcoming event on behalf of the faith communities in Wellington earlier this week at the Wellington Jewish Community Centre, which was well attended.  I was unable to be there in person as I was overseas on business, but I prepared the following message for the event:

On behalf of the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation, the local Jewish Community, and the Wellington Council of Christians and jews, Bruchim habaim to everyone, and a special brucha haba’ah to our special guest Dame Susan Devoy.

That’s Hebrew for tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.

I’m Dave Moskovitz – I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person tonight, as I am in California on a long-planned business trip and won’t be back in Aotearoa until Friday.  But thanks to technology, hopefully I can be with you in some ethereal way.

In our foundation text, the torah, the law, the five books of moses, the first five books of the bible, we are commanded to welcome the stranger no less than 36 times.  This commandment is repeated more than any of the other precepts in the Torah, which we can take as an indicator of its importance, as well as the importance of being reminded to fulfil this commandment.

In the Talmud, our 66 volumes of interpretation of the Torah, Peiah chapter 1 verse 1 says:
“These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure: To honor father and mother; to perform acts of love and kindness; to attend the house of study daily; to welcome the stranger; to visit the sick; to rejoice with bride and groom; to console the bereaved; to pray with sincerity; to make peace where there is strife. And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.”

To welcome the stranger and to make peace where there is strife.  These are at the very top of the priority list of the things we must do in life.  And these tasks are at the heart of the job of the Race Relations Commissioner.

Our previous commissioner, the much loved and respected Joris de Bres left some very big boots to fill.  He did an excellent job of encouraging new relationships, and shoring up the societal infrastructure that supports communities’ ongoing encounter with each other as well as wider society.

But we have now have the opportunity to take this message to a new audience, to ordinary New Zealanders who do not necessarily identify as being “different”.  Dame Susan, because of your personal brand, you are uniquely positioned to deliver this message.  I’ve never been a particularly sporty person, but I always cheered for you on the squash court when you won titles overseas for New Zealand.  And now I hope we’ll have the opportunity to be even prouder of you off the squash court, while you’re making a real difference in enhancing our societal cohesion and understanding at home, for lifting your game beyond the game.  Your good work can ensure that we live in a safer and more harmonious country where, according to the ultimate Kiwi value, everyone has a fair go.

Your job is to remind us and wider society that we gain strength from our diversity, and that together we can build a New Zealand that is far richer, more interesting, and more globally connected.  New Zealand can be a global model for how people from seemingly incompatible backgrounds can thrive together in fellowship and achieve great things together, for our own communities, for our country, and for the world.
That’s no small job.  Let’s not be deluded: despite the fact that many New Zealanders believe we have the best race relations in the world, there is still an insidious undercurrent of racism and xenophobia, more prevalent in some quarters than others, sometimes silent, sometimes open.

Some people reluctantly accept this as the price of freedom of expression.  However I believe that it is up to each of us to call out our family members, friends, colleagues, and others when they exhibit bigoted behaviour, as bigotry is not acceptable under any circumstances.  And for the people who don’t even know that they are behaving in a bigoted and hurtful way, it’s our job collectively to help educate them.

Dame Susan, I know I speak for everyone in the room tonight when I say that you will have our individual and collective firm support in your new job.  It is not a job that can be done effectively by one person in a vacuum, or even an Independent Crown Entity.  It is a job that all must to do in order to keep our country great, and ensure a bright future for all of our children.  I know you can call on any of us to help you out should you ever need it.   As I explained at the beginning, we Jews are enjoined by divine decree to help you in encouraging all New Zealanders to welcome the stranger and make peace where there is strife; I can’t speak for the other faiths and ethnicities in the room tonight but I know we all have similar traditions, beautiful in the way they are expressed in their own voice.  In this, as in many other things, we are united.

And should you somehow not manage to satisfy absolutely everyone with every single action you take (or decide not to take), you’ll find us an understanding and forgiving lot – no doubt you’ll need to exhibit both the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job in your new job.  You should know that we’re all right behind you, and we want you and your cause to be successful.

So welcome, we hope to have frequent interactions with you, and as my grandmother used to say, “Don’t be a stranger!”.

I’d like to finish with a Hebrew song, which quotes from the first verse of Psalm 133: Hine ma tov u ma naim, shevet achim gam yachad – Behold how good and how pleasing it is to sit together in unity as siblings.  If you know the song, please join in.

Why we love Lightning Lab

I was recently interviewed about why we invested in Lightning Lab, New Zealand’s first digital accelerator.  Here’s the YouTube clip:

We’d been wanting to start an accelerator for the last few years in Wellington, and when CreativeHQ pulled together the key players, we quickly jumped on board.  So why did we invest in the accelerator itself?  For the same reasons that angels invest in anything.  In increasing order of importance,

1. We want to make the world a better place by creating something of great value
2. We want to contribute to our city and country
3. We really like the team behind the venture
4. We think it has an excellent chance of success
5. We want to get a great return on our investment

Unfortunately the video editor edited out that last point, which is pretty critical.

Bottom line: The Lab is turning out some amazing entrepreneurs and ventures.  I’m confident we’re achieving all of the above, but only time will tell.

I’m not cool enough to own an iPad – Apple, FU!

I was in LA last week on business.  My colleagues had asked me to acquire an iPad so that we could test our web sites and mobile apps on it.

So I went into the Apple Store in Santa Monica, and was amazed to see it packed with so many people nearly ejaculating over the styley gear on offer. I made my way over to the till, and a pimply guy, early 20’s trying to look cool, stopped me. He held out his hand, palm facing me like a traffic cop, and said “Stop. Do you have an appointment?” I thought to myself, “what, an appointment to spend money?” I said, “No, I don’t have an appointment.” “What do you want, anyway?” he asked somewhat belligerently. I said “I wanted to buy an iPad or two”. He looked me in the eye, then looked down my body to my shoes, and up again. He paused. “I’m sorry, we’re all sold out.”

I nearly ran out of the store, wondering what on earth had ever possessed me to step inside an Apple store in the first place.

It’s nice to be back in Aotearoa, an iPad-free zone, for now.