What is software?

When people ask what I do, I just say software. I don’t specify what I do unless the person I am talking to also does software. 

Few days ago my mother asked a surprising question, what is software? While it sounds trivial, I was surprised and it took me a while to answer. 

Software is the part that tells this lifeless piece of silicon what to do when certain things happen. It is called soft because there is nothing tangible about it.

This was my explanation. Not the best, but given I was caught by surprise, this is good enough.

What’s your definition of software?

Change creates information

Fred Wilson’s today post is about how change creates information. It is too short so I am quoting all of it here.

My partner Albert likes to say that “change creates information.”

I have seen this a lot recently in our portfolio.

A change in leadership, a change in strategy, a change in cost structure.

Doesn’t really matter what it is, it can tell you a lot about what is going on in your company.

Making changes is painful and so it’s understandable that we all avoid change.

But if you can’t understand what is going on and you want some more visibility, make some changes.

You will learn a lot.

This is so true. When I reflect on the Egyptian political events and how things ended, I keep telling my friends, on the bright side, we learned how things are run, we lost hope, and decided to move with our lives. If we didn’t try this change, we would’ve had fake hope thinking that things could be better and ended up wasting our lives.

Don’t mistake this with lack of optimism. I am very optimistic and believe nothing stays the same. It is just as Omar Soliman said “Of course, but hwhen?”.

Yes, change creates information.

My publishing setup

When I decided to commit more to writing, one of the questions I had to answer is where to publish?

I had a blogger blog, then Google bought the platform and abandoned it, making it representing the early era of blogging with no connection to web 3.0. Then I blogged for sometime on Facebook, better reach, but hard to drive meaningful conversations, more noise than signal, and not SEO friendly. 

In the middle I tried self hosted WordPress. I also tried Ghost, which was a new promising publishing platform. It got stuck and I had to move from there.
Medium was very trendy at the time and everyone was moving their blogs there. I decided not to fall again into the controlled platform trap. Once they get bought they ruin your content and your ability to do more. 

I went for WordPress. I spent a year using the cloud hosted WordPress. It was satisfactory to some extent but it still lacked features I wanted. Most of the themes weren’t supported. I couldn’t customize it to what I wanted so when the year ended, I moved to the good old days of self hosted WordPress. 

I now have total control over my content. WordPress is open source. It is used to run est 15-20% of internet websites. It has been there for long and it is going to stay.

Now that I have my website, I need a way to get it in front of the audience. I am not interested in generating traffic, I just want the people who might be interested to find the content easily. As a result I setup a newsletter that sends you new posts I publish. I also have a IFTTT recipe that automatically publishes new posts to medium (this way if medium dies, I have nothing to lose).

The only mystery that remains is LinkedIn. I think LinkedIn reach is very good, however its publishing platform is hard to use. I can’t publish posts using my mobile phone (which I now use to write almost half of my posts). I can’t use a 3rd party to automatically publish new posts there. I ended up not putting everything I write there.

I hope LinkedIn fixes their problems, and I hope I keep writing.

An Illustrated book of bad arguments

I finished “An Illustrated book of bad arguments”. The book illustrates the top 19 logical fallacies the author observed through his work, political situations, and when people argue on the internet.

The book presents every fallacy in two pages, one with text describing the fallacy and how people use it in bad arguments, the other contains an illustration explaining the fallacy using graphical art.

One interesting experience while reading this book is I read it with a friend. We were together on a flight and I told him I brought this so we read it together. We started going page by page. At the beginning, we were starting from the left page which contains the text, read it out loud, then watch the comic. We found it becomes easier to understand the fallacy if we start with the comic, try to understand what is the fallacy at hand, then read the text on the left page explaining it.

Reading a book with someone while it may be slow, makes the experience much more fun. We had discussions on where we see different fallacies in everyday life. We also had fun going back and forth through the book to find the similarities/differences between the fallacies we finished, and the one we are reading at that moment.

SPOILER ALERT: Here is a list of my favorite fallacies, I tried to summarize each in one sentence.

Appeal to irrelevant authority: You should believe the old man, he has seen a lot in his life so he must be true.

Not a cause for a cause: Correlation is not causation.

Appeal to fear: We are fighting terrorism. If we are gone, the country will be in chaos, therefore we shouldn’t go.

Hasty generalization: I never saw a man’s hair grows till his knee, therefore such men with long hair don’t exist.

No true scotsman: He is not a true [something], regardless of his argument, we shouldn’t listen to him.

Genetic fallacy: He is a man, he will never understand women’s challenges.

Guilt by association: Says the man who smokes that smoking is deadly (this is different from the genetic fallacy where one attacks a person’s argument based on an association they can’t control, like being a man).

Appeal to hypocrisy: What you are saying is wrong, I saw your old Facebook status from a year ago when you said otherwise (the fact someone said something different some time ago doesn’t make the current argument false).

Slippery slope: If we have free internet, people will watch porn, porn is bad, then we shouldn’t have a free internet (this argument is most used by my mom when she tries to justify refusing something. I also see it the most when I discuss individual freedom topics with conservatives and what I call “Fake Liberals” which are people who claim to be liberal, as long as these liberties are not given to conservatives).

The book is available to read online for free here. It is translated in many languages including Arabic.

Thoughts on Construction

While commuting in the morning I pass next to a building in its early stages of development. There are caterpillar excavators moving sand out of the soil into big trucks. There is a man operating this vehicle to do what seems a fairly repetitive process. Left > Down > Up (Lift sand) > Right > Down (Drop Sand) > Repeat from the beginning. This process took few weeks to finish.

This led me to think if there are any efforts to make these machines operate autonomously. The problem scope seems much smaller than building an autonomous car. There are very few unexpected circumstances for the caterpillar operative than those for a car driver. Sensors have gotten accurate enough to be able to detect the space of a piece of land, how deep you want the hole to be, and where to put what’s coming out.

Imagine the efficiency having these machines operating 24/7. Big driver of the current cost comes from the humans operating these machines. This leads to not being able to make the construction work 24/7, which leads to making the process taking longer, inevitably increasing costs for the end consumer.

One problem, one reason, and one solution

I listened to another great episode from the knowledge project. This one was with Sanjay Baskhi. He is an economics professor and apparently someone prominent in value investing.

In one part of the episode they were discussing multidisciplinary thinking, and the following part stuck with me.

When you are trying to evaluate something you are trying to ask the question why, why did this happen? and when you reflect upon it, you find that the answer sometimes comes from multiple disciplines and you get down to that and try to figure it out. It is very enjoyable to do it in that way.

The process for me has always been to ask the question why and wait because the mind will tend to jump to a certain answer, and that’s not the only answer so you know the way I think about it is when there is a complex question which I am trying to answer I always start with the words “part of the reason is this” and which means that there must be other parts too and I like to think about what those parts could be.

They don’t have to be twenty of them. Even if there are three or four of them, that is better than one so it helps me ask the question why and then look for answers.

They way I have always been educated is that there is only one problem, one reason, and one solution. When I started to explore how complex is the world, how many problems may arise, and how most of the time there is no one size fits all solution, it made me to some extent not comfortable around people who think otherwise.

The first thing I did is changing one phrase everyone is Egypt repeats “the problem is” to “one of the problems is”. In reality, most of the time there isn’t one problem. There are multiple problems leading to the problematic situation one sees.

Another thing I started doing, whenever someone asks me a question about why or what could be done, I used to answer by saying “there are X solutions”, then I start articulating them. I found that most of the time, while I am articulating these answers, I discover more answers, and hence I decided to replace “there are X solutions” to “there are multiple/few solutions”, then I start articulating them one by one.

Last week I was discussing a bug with my team, and I said “the worst that could happen” then I caught myself saying that so I corrected myself saying “well, it is not the worst, there could be much worse things that we are not aware of”, because we are humans, and humans are bad at predicting the worst outcomes.

That’s why Sanjay’s “part of the reason is” stuck with me. It is another great way to open one’s mind and think deeply about reasons. I completely agree that when we change the way we answer, it makes us change the way we think, and discover new areas undiscovered before.

It is rarely one problem, one reason, and one solution.

The autonomy race in one picture

I took this photo while visiting Hella Ventures to attend a meetup for autonomous cars enthusiasts. It is a summary of the current race towards level 5 autonomous cars, who are the players, and what each level of autonomy means. 

You can find a larger/zoomable version of the photo here.


Naval on Happiness

Last weekend I listened to this podcast by The Knowledge Project with Naval, the founder of AngelList. These were two hours very well spent. I need multiple posts to highlight the parts I liked. Let’s start by Naval’s answer to his definition of happiness. I like it because I can relate to it, and it is similar to my father’s approach to life, which I also can relate to.

Today, I believe that happiness is, it’s really a default state. It’s what’s there when you remove the sense that something is missing in your life. We are highly judgmental, survival, and replication machines. We are constantly walking around thinking I need this, I need that, trapped in the web of desires. Happiness is that state when nothing is missing. When nothing is missing, your mind shuts down and your mind stops running into the future or running into the past to regret something or to plan something.

In that absence for a moment, you have internal silence. When you have internal silence, then you are content and you are happy. Feel free to disagree, again, it’s different for everybody, but people believe mistakenly that happiness is about positive thoughts and positive actions.

The more I’ve read, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve experienced, because I verify this for myself, every positive thought essentially holds within it a negative thought. It is a contrast to something negative. The Tao Te Ching says this more articulately than I ever could, but it’s all duality and polarity. If I say I’m happy, that means that I was sad at some point. If I say he’s attractive, then that means that somebody else is unattractive. Every positive thought even has a seed of a negative thought within it and vice versa, which is why a lot of greatness in life comes out suffering. You have to view the negative before you can aspire to and then appreciate the positive.

All of that said, long winded, to me happiness is not about positive thoughts. It’s not about negative thoughts. It’s about the absence of desire, especially the absence of desire for external things. The fewer desires I can have, the more I can accept the current state of things, the less my mind is moving because the mind really exists in motion towards the future or the past. The more present I am, the happier and more content I will be. If I latch onto that, if I say, “Oh, I’m happy now”, and I want to stay happy, then I’m going to drop out of that happiness. Now, suddenly, the mind is moving. It’s trying to attach to something. It’s trying to create a permanent situation out of a temporary situation.

Happiness to me is mainly not suffering, not desiring, not thinking too much about the future or the past, really embracing the present moment and the reality of what is, the way it is. Nature has no concept of happiness or unhappiness. To a tree, there is no right or wrong. There is no good or bad.

Nature follows unbroken mathematical laws and a chain of cause and effect from the big bang to now. Everything is perfect exactly the way it is. It is only in our particular minds that we’re unhappy or not happy and things are perfect or imperfect because of what we desire.

Loving to read

A friend of mine was asking for book recommendations. He said he doesn’t like reading but every year, he tries to find books that would make him love reading.

I had the same problem but in a different way. Arabic books were never interesting. They are mostly literature and history. I am more interested in science, technology and later discovered I have other interests like philosophy, psychology, economics, and business. English books were not as accessible and because my English wasn’t as good as it is now, it was hard to get an English book and fully read it.

Two things changed all of this. E-readers and reading the first interesting book. E-reders and reading my first book.


E-readers solved three problems.

Having to carry a physical book since my hands get tired quickly by carrying physical books and having to use both hands most of the time to read them.

The second problem was being able to translate any word I don’t understand using the e-reader’s built in dictionary.

The third is accessibility. I could download any book I wanted from the internet and if I don’t like it, I would just delete it and download a different one.

Reading my first book

The first English book I fully read is “Brain Rules”. My colleague Ahmed Gamal had a Sony e-reader back then and he gave it to me to read a little. I liked it and decided to buy an e-reader. I finished Brain Rules on my e-reader then Amr Samir was reading Gladwell’s outliers. He told me what the book is all about, I got hooked, and decided to read it next. Since then I read all the books on my books list.

Now reflecting on this, if you want to get started reading books, these are few things I tried that worked with me and some of my friends.

The medium

Find your preferred medium. Paperback. E-Book on tablet/phone. E-reader. or Audio?

I only read e-books on my Kindle and listen to audio books on Audible. Recently I am experimenting listening to the Audible version of “The intelligent investor” while reading it on my phone. The kindle app automatically flips the pages as the Audio progresses.

The mood

To start reading, you need to have a reading mood. Some read while in transportation, others like to read in bed. Some have a dedicated chair or sofa where they dim the lights and read. Finding your “reading mood” is very important to get started.

I read ebooks before sleeping, and I listen to audio books while commuting/walking. I tried taking my Kindle with me outdoors but couldn’t read since I am very easily distracted.

The first book

The first book you completely finish is the most important. It takes time to find this one. You need to start looking at what titles interest you, buy a few ones, and try to read them one by one until you are hooked to one of them.

Preferably make the first few books short. No more than 250 pages. I also found with some people that audio books work better as a reading starter since they require less effort. However, if you are starting with audio, make sure to pick ones that are 7-8 hours maximum. One of the drawbacks of audio books is you lose focus and have to repeat some parts. So the shorter the better in the beginning.

Friends with Books

While book tastes are personal, having friends who love to read, understand you and your taste is invaluable.

Your friends will mostly have a similar taste to yours, and since they are your friends they will know what you may like. Reading a book recommended by a friend who read it gives you the motive to finish – as long as it is interesting – to have a discussion with that friend later.

Ask your friends what they recommend to you. Pick a few of these titles, try to read them, and discuss them with those friends. My happiest moments are when someone says they liked a book I gave to them, and we start a discussion on that book.

Those were my E£0.36 (according to today’s exchange rate). The key here is trying different things until you find what makes you read. And as Sia said “Never give up”.

I have a page with all the books I read here. If you have any questions or looking for recommendations, shoot a comment or a message.

Platform Distance

Platform in this post doesn’t mean tech platform. We are talking train platform here. 

One of the things I like about Berlin, and Dusseldorf is how close the subway and the tram gets to the platform. 

For wheelchairs this is crucial since the risk becomes much higher the bigger this distance get. 

Sadly this wasn’t the case in Holland. Even in Rotterdam where the whole city is newly built, the platforms aren’t the same.

Most developed countries have a process for helping passengers in need get on/off transportation vehicles. Sometimes it is a dedicated person on the platform, other times the driver takes this responsibility. The Dutch didn’t figure this out, yet. I hope they do.