Secret History of Silicon Valley: Steve Blank

Below is an amazing lecture from Steve Blank on the history of Silicon Valley.

As military funding was a big part of it, the majority of the talk is around the role of electronic warfare in World War II and the Cold War.

Steve’s Secret History site shares the full slide deck and more.

Some interesting highlights from the talk:

  • World War II was the first electronic war – the German air defence even had radar-guided flak guns!
  • The ground-facing radar on Allied bombers that was designed to help identify targets was used by Germany to track them (and so was the radar warning receiver on their tails)
    • This shows the cat-and-mouse game of measures and counter-measures in electronic warfare
  • Allied bomber formations would throw out a cloud of aluminium foil “chaff” to reflect German radar, which was cut to exactly half the wavelength of the signal.
  • Fred Terman of Stanford moved East during the war to run the Harvard Radio Research Lab
  • He hired 11 colleagues from the Lab to join him at Stanford when he returned. Together they made Stanford the “MIT of the West”
  • Heretically for the time, he encouraged faculty to sit on tech company boards and his graduate students to leave and start companies (for example, Hewlett and Packard)
  • The Cold War became an electronics war as well
  • The USA use the moon to pick up reflected Soviet radar signals and map out the locations of the radar bases
  • CIA and NSA would fund big radio dishes for universities like Stanford as a result
  • Shockley came back to Stanford. He was a great researcher and talent spotter but a terrible manager
  • The “Traitorous Eight” left to start Fairchild Semiconductor and a suite of companies formed in the resulting ecosystem
  • The US military “primed the pump” as the first customer for tech entrepreneurship in the Valley.
  • But in the mid-1970s, the US Government slashed capital gains tax and told pension funds they could invest up to 10% of their assets in VC firms.
    • As a result, inflows to VC firms rose by an order of magnitude and Silicon Valley became a hotbed of for-profit innovation

Comparing Google Plus Codes with what3words

Geocoding systems are essentially software address systems that assign labels to geographic locations in order to improve navigation and the processing of locational data.

Apparently, around 50% of the world’s population doesn’t have a formal physical address, which is a barrier to the access of banking, mail, and emergency services. This is clearly, therefore, an extremely important problem to be solved.

There are lots of different types of these systems, but two notable examples are Google Plus Codes and what3words.

Google Plus Codes

Google Plus Codes, also known as Open Location Code (OLC), was designed by Google’s Zurich Engineering office.

The system assigns each location a short code that is used alongside the name of the settlement or prefixes it with another short string of characters. For example, Nelson’s Column on Trafalgar Square is either GV5C+4R Central London, UK or 9C3XGV5C+4R).

There is a great post by the creators of Plus Codes that evaluates the different “location encoding systems” and explains the rationale behind Plus Codes here.

The main benefit of OLC is that it is a free, open source system. However, a big negative for me is that it is extremely hard to memorise that many characters (see graph below to illustrate the point). I also find it confusing that there is both a long version and a short version of each address point.


what3words (w3w) is a system developed by a London-based startup of the same name that divides the world into 3×3 meter squares and assigns each one a unique 3-word identifier. In this system, Nelson’s Column is life.swung.pounds.

To use what3words requires paying to get access, so I do wonder whether this will limit the adoption rate compared to Plus Codes which has been opened up to the developer community.

However, the beauty of w3w is that the use of only three words makes it super-user friendly and memorable (see graph below).

There are some minor challenges: for example, two locations next to each other will have totally different codes, so you can’t look at two codes and understand if they are close or not. However, they are vastly outweighed by the user-friendly nature of having only 3 words to remember.


I think that the what3word system is a phenomenal tool and usage will grow exponentially over the next 10 years due to its simplicity.

I personally think that Google Plus codes, although a great invention and one with potential uses, will struggle to get adopted by everyday users in the same way.

One thing that intrigues me though. Could what3words make more money by making the entire address system available for free to everyone and then charging for services around it? It would be fascinating to play with the financial model there!

Roman Roads as a Tube map

I’m a big fan of maps and I’m currently enjoying a spell of learning about Roman history (The History of Rome podcast by Mike Duncan is a particular treat).

You can imagine my excitement when I saw these maps of road networks in the Roman world made in the style of the London Underground or “Tube” map.

Produced by Sasha Trubetskoy in the USA, this one of the Roman road network in the UK is an absolute beaut:

Roman Roads of Britain

He has also produced this one of the major road network across the Roman world:

Roman Roads

Finally, here is his map of the Roman road network in Roman Italy:

Roman Roads of Italy

Great fun for the map nerds among us!

Radio Garden: cool map app showing global radio

Today I found an amazing little app courtesy of Mike Sutton. The app is called  Radio Garden.

Radio Garden shows a 3D model of the globe with green dots representing all the radio stations in that place, which you can then click to pick a station to listen to.

It is a project from Studio Puckey, an “experimental interactive design practice” based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Radio Garden main interface (source: Studio Puckey)

Why is it cool?

Radio Garden is the confluence of three of my main interests: maps, music, and travel.

I love that you can instantly learn about a place that interests you by scrolling to the location and listening to the different radio stations there. It is literally a meeting point for all of the world’s voices.

For example, today I have listened to: a Malian dance station, Gambian pop, and a Scots Gaelic talk show from Stornoway in the Hebrides. How amazing is that?

Future of the app

My biggest concern is whether Studio Puckey can they monetise it in order to keep it alive for the future.

Could they get referral revenues for driving traffic to sites? Offer merchandise or ticket sales via the app? Perhaps just some simple adverts that are shown in a way that doesn’t adversely affect the user experience?

Whatever the route forward, I hope they figure out a way to make it financially sustainable to operate in the long term.

Protecting investors against earthquake risk in Silicon Valley

I’ve often wondered what would be the impact on companies in Silicon Valley when the inevitable earthquake hits. Turns out I’m not the only one.

Earthquakes in the Bay Area: a “ticking time bomb”

The Bay Area is subject to major earthquakes roughly every 145 ± 60 years at the current rate. Given that it is 150 years since the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1868, the next “big one” could happen any day now.

Apparently, about 2 million people live on the Hayward Fault and 7 million are in the surrounding area. A magnitude 7 quake would cause damage in the range of $95 to $190 billion, which would be a disaster for the citizens of the area.

Impact on the tech giants

However, my curiosity centers on what would be the impact on the giant tech corporations that are based in Silicon Valley and the wider Bay Area? Companies like Google, Facebook, Oracle, and Salesforce have their HQs and major footprints in the region, so they will be adversely affected by a natural disaster.

It doesn’t seem like they are particularly well-prepared for such an event, according to this report. Although most of the companies have data centers and operations distributed around the world, an earthquake could still cause potential disruption to the main office and therefore the leadership of the business.

As listed entities, this marks a real risk for their shareholders. Could their share prices or even the whole NASDAQ take a tumble if a major earthquake hits the Bay Area? After the 9/11 terror attacks, the Dow dropped by 14%, so this is not unthinkable.

However, I think the impact goes beyond just their own businesses. The services provided by these tech titans represent critical infrastructure for many European and American businesses, so any disruption could have a huge wider impact.

Early warning: a vital tool to prevent damage

Scientists are getting better at detecting earthquakes early. In Silicon Valley, there will soon be an app called QuakeAlert that can give up to 2-20 seconds of warning of an impending earthquake.

This might not sound like much, but even 2 seconds can be long enough for Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled devices to perform vital preparations such as: opening the doors of fire stations to prevent fire engines getting stuck; isolating certain parts of the electricity, water, and gas networks; slow down trains; and tell elevators to open their doors at the closest floor.

Solution: seismic sensor network to short the NASDAQ

Could it be possible to set up a network of seismic sensors to warn when an earthquake was just about to hit the Bay Area and then send an order to a trading algorithm that could short the NASDAQ?

A similar system could be used to create an early warning for tsunamis. One candidate is the mega-tsunami that geologists once predicted could be created by a volcanic eruption in the Canary Islands which would devastate the northeastern US coast (although further review of the original study showed that this is a worst-case scenario and probably will not happen for another 10,000 years at the earliest).

Randy Pausch: the Last Lecture

This is a video that I can categorically say has changed my life for the better.

I will never forget when I first watched this video 10 years ago during my final year of university. Watching this talk was the first time I had ever really thought about what I wanted my adult life to be like and the specific things that I had always wanted to do.

Until that point, it was all pretty vague and there was a rough list of goals, but I had never put any intention into discovering and planning them in a systematic manner.

Dr Randy Pausch was a Professor of Computer Science and specialist in Virtual Reality at Carnegie Mellon University.

The university organised a series of lectures, setting speakers the task of presenting what they thought was the most vital wisdom that they would confer if they only had one last lecture to give before they died.

However, before his lecture, Dr Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and, in a case of life imitating art, the hypothetical became real.

What follows is Dr Pausch’s touching talk, Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, posted below.

It is full of wisdom, humour, and kindness. Some great learning points in there include:

  • “head fake” = teaching kids one thing secretly by actually getting them to learn something else (i.e. learn teamwork and perseverance by playing sports)
  • “Brick walls are there to how much you really want it.”
  • “Loyalty is a two-way street.”
  • For women: “When it comes to men that are romantically interested in you, it’s simple. Just ignore everything they say and watch everything they do.”
  • “Don’t bail; the best gold is at the bottom of barrels of crap.”
  • “Don’t complain; just work harder.”

Causes to support in memory of Dr Pausch:

You can also buy a copy of his book, the Last Lecture, on Amazon.

Hyperloop Alpha project concept

In 2012, Elon Musk and SpaceX published this project concept document for Hyperloop Alpha, a radical new method of intercity transportation.

The document is a 58-page proposed solution with rigorous calculations on all socio-techno-commercial aspects of the idea.

Hyperloop Alpha concept sketch (Source: original Hyperloop Alpha concept document)

How does it work?

Hyperloop Alpha is a public transport system that sends people in pods at high speeds through a tube kept at low pressure to reduce air resistance.

By using an electric fan at the front, you can mitigate the Kantrowitz Limit (think of the maximum speed limit of a liquid pushing through a tube such as a syringe). It also has the unique benefit of creating a low-pressure air cushion for the pod to ride on – known as an air bearing.

The design envisages using linear accelerators on the bottom of each pod to achieve a target speed of 760mph (1,2220 kph or Mach 0.99 at 20°C), albeit lower at points where there is a curve in the journey so that the g-forces experienced by passengers are lower.

On the topic of renewable energy, Elon mentions that the installation could be self-powered using solar panels installed on top of the tube. He also mentions that LightSail could provide energy storage, but this shows the age of the document as in late 2017 they all but went bankrupt. Perhaps Elon could consider Highview Power’s Liquid Air Energy Storage technology now!

Future of Hyperloop

SpaceX hosted a 1-mile long test track to help incubate Hyperloop technologies around the world. Now there are several organisations developing Hyperloop solutions, including Virgin’s Hyperloop One and a team from MIT.

Inspiration for me

The Hyperloop Alpha project concept was actually one of the main inspirations for me to create and write this blog, along with a previous thought of mine about Leonardo Da Vinci.

By publishing open source project concepts like this one, Elon found a neat solution to one thing that has always bothered me about Da Vinci’s notebooks.

The ever-creative Da Vinci noted down his abundance of ideas in personal sketchbooks that were way ahead of his time. However, as he didn’t always have the time or resources to follow them up and connect them with the right people that needed them, many of them represent lost opportunities for technology to advance.

Publishing an idea in an open source format, allowing access for others that are better placed to work on it, ensures that technology moves forward in a way that benefits humanity (even though the ideator as an individual may not benefit directly).

I am not assuming that anything I put on this modest site will be anywhere near the same league as those guys, but given that good ideas can come from anywhere it is a possibility that something I put up in my Ideas section may be useful to somebody, somewhere.

The Hyperloop Alpha concept document is more detailed than any of mine, but Elon Musk does have a big team of world-class engineers to draw from as needed! community lightning detection and mapping project

After three nights in a row of awesome thunderstorms at the end of May 2018, I became fascinated by the work that people are doing to study thunderstorms, such as the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) of the USA and another great initiative below.

I found an excellent real-time map of lightning strikes. Check it out here on

Turns out that it is a community project of citizen scientists, which in my mind makes it even cooler!

It even shows the thunder wavefront so you can see when the sound wave of the lightning should hit your area. Genius!

The community project,, is a network of people around the world who have set up a total of more than 500 detectors (currently priced at less than €300 each) who then upload the data to some central processing servers.

The detectors are VLF (“Very Low Frequency”) receivers based on the time of arrival (TOA) and time of group arrival (TOGA) method.

You can see a coverage map of global network here.

The general documentation for the project and assembly instructions for the current generation of their detectors, “System Blue”, give useful a background on the science behind the project and what it takes to get involved.

To support their network, you can make a small donation via PayPal or credit card here.

The UK’s most important 21st century infrastructure project? Cybersecurity

I believe that the most important 21st century infrastructure project for the UK will be the development of world-class cyber-security.

So much of our national infrastructure is being digitalised that it is easy to lose track.

My sector, the energy industry, is in a massive state of change. The emerging “smart grid” scenario comprises connected renewable generation, storage, metering, and demand response. This deep level of decentralised control will yield enormous benefits for cost and sustainability. However, these will come at the price of potential vulnerability to cyber-criminals and attack from state/non-state actors. A hijack of our energy infrastructure would have catastrophic consequences for our economy, security, and general way of life.

This is not just a problem for the energy sector. Digitisation is sweeping through our industries at breakneck pace. The automation of vehicles, the proliferation of digitally connected appliances in the home and industry (the “Internet of Things”), digitisation of medical records, and even the cultivation of food in “vertical farms” means every aspect of life will be affected.

Improving the resilience of these assets must be of paramount importance. However, the rise of high-profile hacks of data and growing incidences of “ransomware” attacks show this is not translating into action.

Increasing cybersecurity literacy for all ages must be a priority for the government. Many people still use easily-hackable passwords and can be fooled by a simple phishing attack. Education must start at school and continue in the workplace, even at board level.

The 2017 ransomware attack on the NHS shows how crippling cybercrime can be for our institutions. The attack exploited a vulnerability which would not have been an issue if the IT infrastructure had been the latest available. Budget cuts at the NHS Trusts meant that they had de-prioritised IT upgrades and exposed themselves to cyber-risk.

The UK Government must make it clear to leadership at all critical organisations that IT security has to be priority #1 for all spending, with ring-fenced budgets. HM Government should set up a unit of “white hat” hackers that is responsible for penetration testing the Police, NHS, and other assets of national importance on a constant basis.

Our economic advantage as a nation arguably rests on our ability to innovate. Therefore it is also critical to help the private sector to protect itself against industrial espionage, which is often sponsored by nations with low respect for Intellectual Property rights.

The physical communications network underpinning the internet also needs to be protected. The vulnerability of our undersea cable connections to other countries to attack by hostile actors needs to be addressed, and the UK needs to have a strong presence in the Space sector to remain at the leading edge of innovations.

Developing the world’s best cybersecurity infrastructure will put the UK in pole position to capitalise on the opportunities of digitalisation while protecting itself against future threats. All other infrastructure will need to build on this platform, which is why I regard it as the most important.