Some thoughts as Steve Jobs resigns as CEO of Apple…

Breaking news: Silicon Valley pioneer Steve Jobs has stepped down as CEO of Apple, and Tim Cook will be stepping up from his previous role as chief operating officer to become CEO.

This post talks a bit about my employer, Pixar Animation Studios, but in no way should be construed as anything but my own opinion. I cannot, and do not desire to speak for them.

Without doubt, TV, papers, blogs and everyone else will be spending time over the next few days looking both forward and back over his career and predicting what the future holds for Apple and Steve himself. I won’t peer into my crystal ball for either: I have no special insight with regards to either, but in the twenty years I spent at Pixar, I did have a view from the side lines, so I thought I might offer a bit of perspective.

Anyone who has talked to me for any period of time knows that I’m not a typical fan boy. I have an inherent skepticism about the rich and powerful. We have a culture in the U.S. which tells us that the those who are successful must be different from the rest of humanity. They simply must be smarter, or braver, or more creative or more insightful than the rest of humanity. I don’t believe it. The fact is that while all those factors play some role in success, good old fashioned luck also plays a role. You could be smart, diligently apply all the advice you got from all the smart people you know, and you won’t necessarily become the next Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates or (yes) Steve Jobs. I suspect that there are alternative universes where Steve Jobs isn’t even Steve Jobs: where a seemingly meaningless event occurred in his alternate existence, and Apple doesn’t get formed. I’m also one of those lefty socialists who doesn’t believe that there is necessarily a link between that which is good and that which is profitable.

But in spite of those caveats: I still think Steve is a remarkable leader. Perhaps uniquely so.

I’ve worked at Pixar since 1991, and in those early days Steve was seen regularly around our campus. I was just a beginning programmer back then, in my first real job, and I couldn’t help but be intimidated (not a usual emotion for me). He was a force of nature. He was ruthless and uncompromising in his pursuit of his vision, and seemed to have little patience for those who didn’t share it. But I’ve experienced the reality distortion field first hand, and it’s very real.

Here’s the thing: he really does have a vision. A bold vision. An inspired vision. And he has an amazing talent for surrounding himself with people who could help in achieve that vision.

The success of Apple and Pixar both required a bit of luck. You can look back to individual things that occurred, and had things worked out a bit differently, perhaps neither would have become the iconic brands that they both have become. But there is no doubt in my mind that Steve’s leadership was essential to the success of both.

Pixar and Apple share a simple principle: that producing good products is the way to build a good company. For Pixar as a film studio, story matters. For Apple as a producer of computers and consumer products, design matters. Both companies try to produce stuff that is simply insanely great. There is a certain respect that both companies have for consumers. Both believe that it is important to put out good products. Customers can tell the difference. Your second best work is not sufficient. Only your best can change the world for the better.

And yes, before everyone piles on, there are lots of things that I don’t particularly like about Apple, not the least of which is my aforementioned skepticism about anybody or anything which becomes too powerful or influential. I don’t really want Apple (or Facebook, or Google) serving as mediator for all my interactions with my fellow man. My support of open source and the culture of sharing is in conflict with the universe that Apple and Steve himself would probably desire. But whatever philosophical differences I have with Apple, I’m reassured that Apple at least has a philosophy, and whatever failings it might have: it’s forward looking, and centered around producing the kinds of products that people want to buy.

Tim Cook, you’ve got some big shoes to fill.

To Steve Jobs, thanks for challenging not just your companies but the entire computer industry to “think different”. You’re going out on top. Best wishes for health and long life.

Hackaday Comment Policy: We’re cleaning up

I am a long time reader of Hack A Day. It’s a great website, and often details projects that I find interesting well before they are picked up on other sites. It also tends to drive significant amounts of traffic to sites mentioned, so it’s good publicity for many interesting objects.

But lately, their comment section has become a complete and utter cesspool. I’ve read hundreds of comments over the last few months which fall into predictable categories…

  • You’re stupid.
  • Your project is stupid.
  • Why didn’t you do X?
  • That isn’t a hack.
  • Your grammar/spelling is wrong.
  • That video is fake, nobody could do X.
  • Any of a number of racist, sexist, and idiotic comments which decorum prevents me from reproducing.

I don’t see any of these kinds of comments as helpful, useful, informative, or inspiring.

To their credit, it appears that the Hack A Day crew are beginning to realize that this kind of stuff does nothing to enhance their brand and are taking steps to correct this.

Hackaday Comment Policy; We’re cleaning up. – Hack a Day

My own blog policy is simple (and given the relatively low number of non-spam comments, pretty easy to implement): be nice. If your postings aren’t nice, then they aren’t going to stay. I can handle disagreements and dissent, but if you can’t do it in a civil way, you can post your comments on your own blog and link back to me. I won’t mind. My blog is like my virtual living room. I wouldn’t allow anyone to come in and act like a complete buffoon in my house, and I’m not going to pay for the web services that lets them do so in my virtual living room either.

And arguing that some kind of “free speech” should be the rule is not going to fly either. You are entitled to your own free speech, but I don’t have to pay for it or promote it. You are free to pursue your own free speech using your own resources, but you don’t get to volunteer mine.

Some people have asked that come kind of comment voting system (like that employed on Slashdot) could be employed. I’ll merely say that I don’t read Slashdot anymore precisely because gaming of their comment system has reduced its utility considerably. It’s never been clear to me that such systems can be engineered to even reduce, much less eliminate, the kinds of negative comment trolling that I’ve been seeing.

Here’s my advice: if you think that a particular project on Hack A Day (or brainwagon or any other site) is deficient in some way, then get off your duff, make a better project, and publish it. Lend your own expertise to the discussion, and help elevate everyone’s game. That’s what the web should be about.

Oh, and keep up the good work, Hack A Day.

How to mistake correlation and causality, from Scientific American

My tweets this morning included a link to a story by Scientific American editor Anna Kuchment, entitled “How to raise a science fair champ”.

How to raise a science fair champ | Scientific American Blog Network

On the one hand, it’s a mildly interesting look at some talented kids who have risen to the top of the increasingly prestigious world of science fairs. But the thing that struck me was how it totally failed to deliver on the promise of the title. The story repeatedly mistakes correlation with causality.

Here’s the basic problem: Kuchment is looking at 15 finalists for the first Google science fair, and trying to determine what they have in common, and then implies that if you can do the same thing with your children, they could join the same kind of elite company as these 15. But that’s a serious mistake, and an incredibly persistent one.

Take for instance this:

Leaving stats aside, the top things finalists named as the foundation of their interest in science was having a family member who was interested in science and making trips to the local science museum.

That seems like an interesting fact, but it is actually not a fact, but just a story. There are plenty of people who aren’t science fair champs (or even interested in science at all) whose family members are interested in science and who take them to science museums. Kuchment is reasoning from the result back to the cause. If one is to actually learn something about what makes science fair champs, one needs to look not just at champions, but all the non-champions as well. And when you do that, I suspect that you’ll find thousands of candidates who have many or all of the distinguishing characteristics of the golden fifteen that Kuchment interviewed, save that they didn’t win science fairs.

As human beings, we are all interested in achievement. Mark Zuckerberg becomes Time Magazine’s Man of the Year because he was the brains behind Facebook. We idolize Steve Jobs because of the meteoric rise of Apple over the last decade. We like to read the stories of the rich and famous, because we hope that if we can just do what they did, that we could attain some small portion of the success that they have. But it is devilishly difficult to learn anything truly useful from the stories of the few, because we naturally don’t hear the stories of the many who did all the same things, but didn’t end up rich and famous.

No doubt that a lot of my current sensitivity to this kind of thinking is coming from the fact I’m currently reading Duncan Watt’s Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer. It’s an excellent book, and tries to shake our confidence in the common-sense reasoning that we all seem to rely on when we look at the world around us.

Parents can trump mentors…

Back on July 8th, I wrote a brief post about mentoring. Hopefully, some of you read it. In case you didn’t, I made the completely unsupported claim that mentors don’t normally create interest, they merely nurture the interests that are already there. They also serve to help remove the obstacles that frustrate the enthusiasm of newcomers, providing material, advise, or inspiration.

Gee, that sounds like a parent, doesn’t it?

Last week, I had the opportunity to think about this topic a lot. On Wednesday, I got to tell this
story, which I’ll go ahead and tell you now.

When I was sixteen or so, I can remember being in my grandmother’s dining room, excitedly explaining something about my (then new) Atari computer to her. Remember: this was 1981 or so, and I think it was moderately safe to say that grandmothers as a demographic were fairly ignorant of microprocessors. But my enthusiasm was bubbling over, and she patiently listened to me until I was forced to take a breath and wandered away.

She wandered back into the kitchen, and had the following conversation with my Mom:

Grandma: “Boy, Mark sure seems to know a lot about computers, huh?”
Mom: “Yeah, he’s pretty smart.”
Grandma: “I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about.”
Mom: “Yeah, me neither.”
Grandma: “He doesn’t seem to mind though.”
Mom: “Nope, just keep nodding and smiling. He doesn’t care if you understand, he just wants you to listen.

I used to believe that this story was about my grandmother. She was, after all, a remarkable woman. She taught me a lot: how to cook, how to crochet. Most of the money I spent on that first computer came from mowing her lawns. She made me lemonade on hot days. She would make pies and cobblers from the blackberries and huckleberries I’d pick. When I got my driver’s license, I would drive her on errands. Sadly, when college came, I saw quite a bit less of her. Her breast cancer reasserted itself, and she passed away about 26 years ago. I still miss her, and think of her when I make pickles, potato salad, or pork shoulder.

But I didn’t realize until last week that this story was also about my mom. She too, was a remarkable woman. After all, in 1980, she was willing to support the insane desire of a sixteen year old boy to learn about computers. She didn’t have any expertise, but she patiently accepted that what I wanted to learn about good for me, and she did all she could to help remove the barriers that might have stymied my initial interest. That early interest blossomed into a rewarding career and remains the core of the intellectual joys that you get a glimpse of through my blog. And of course, she was my mom, and loved me (and the rest of her children) with the kind of love that only a mother can.

On Friday July 8th, I received a phone call that my Mom had passed away. I got to tell the story I just related to you at her funeral to her friends and family.

In the grand scheme of things, expertise isn’t that important. Knowledge isn’t that important. My mother and grandmother didn’t have any expertise or special insight into what I was doing. What they did have was love, and that love gave them faith that the path that I saw for myself (even at age 16) was worth supporting and aiding. They removed obstacles. They loved me for who I was and what I wanted to do, unconditionally.

I cannot begin to express the degree to which she will be missed.

Addendum: You might have asked where Dad was in all of this. Dad was awesome too. At age ten or so, I got it into my head that I wanted to build a telescope. I had read some book that said you could do it. Without any real expertise, he supported the project. We sent off to Edmund Scientific and got a mirror grinding kit to make a 6” mirror. We dutifully ground and polished it. But in the midst of that project, he developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which eventually claimed his life in 1978, and I never got to finishing the mirror or putting it into a telescope. Years later, I moved to California, and discovered the Telescope Maker’s Workshop at the Chabot Science Center in Oakland. I got it into my head that I would like to finish the telescope I had started all those years ago. My mom still had it tucked away in her closet. With help from the workshop, I finished that mirror (and went on to help many others do the same as a volunteer instructor) and finished the scope (mostly, it could still use some paint) with the help of my brother. I still have the scope, and will never sell it.

This week, I do feel sad for my loss, but there is no need for pity. All three of the people I’ve lost have left my life full of joy. If I could do the same, I’d consider my own life “well lived”.

Shouldn’t we use programming languages with fewer bad parts?

I was reading that Stanford has begun teaching their introductory computer science course CS101 with Javascript. Despite a lot of the propaganda surrounding the web and a pretty good book on the good parts of Javascript, I can help but think that Javascript has some really tragic flaws. Dijkstra famously referred to PL/1 as “the fatal disease, belonging more in the problem set than in the solution set”, and I kind of feel the same way about Javascript. Yes, it is in every browser now, so it is perhaps the most widely deployed programming language you can find, but it’s got quite a few absolutely horrific features in it. The == operator has some astoundingly obtuse behavior. Automatic semi-colon insertion is simply idiotic. Crockford documents several more features he finds questionable, most of which I think are questionable, because they mirror features in other common languages.

Crockford advises that we use tools which check our use of these questionable features, but wouldn’t it simply be better if the language didn’t contain these features in the first place? We know that some features are bad, so why are they retained in the language? Are we forever to be saddled with error prone and silly features?

Some thoughts on the last Space Shuttle launch…

This morning, I was a bit late coming into work. I decided to sit until 8:26AM Pacific to see if Atlantis would be launched on the final mission of the Space Shuttle program. Low cumulus clouds threatened, but in the end the shuttle rose on its pillar of fire for the last time, and in eight and half minutes, discarded its main fuel tank and was safely in orbit.

Reporters have been trying hard to find some perspective on the event, and in my experience, mostly failing. They put microphones in front of kids and ask them if they want to travel to space someday. They talk to astronauts and former astronauts and ask what it was like to be in space.

I think all that is slightly off the mark.

I was born in 1964, and was a child of the Apollo space program. I remember watching the first tentative steps of Neil Armstrong on the moon on our old Zenith black and white set. Even at that young age, I was interested in space and astronomy. It was a few years later that computers entered my consciousness and come to dominate my time, but I continued to be interested in space and astronomy.

For kids my age, the usual default answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was “an astronaut.” But more than just being an astronaut, there was sense of optimism: that if the moon was reachable, what other achievements could we reach if we applied our energy and our industry. We dared imagine a world without hunger, and without poverty. Diseases? Cured. Poverty? Eliminated! Ignorance? Educated.

Perhaps it was just a dream, but it was a healthy one. It was a dream that challenged us to greatness.

This morning, Atlantis launched for the last time. Vying for attention on CNN was President Obama, who held a press conference to discuss the meager 18,000 jobs that were created in the last month, the weakest performance since September of last year. When coverage returned to the launch, reporters interviewed a number of people, and the question of the expense of the launch was mentioned. After the launch, the economic news reasserted itself. One reporter said that the growth industries for the next year are likely to be in retail sales and in food service.

I was lucky. As a kid, I dreamed of being an astronaut. Today? Kids dream of being to make just a little more than minimum wage. It’s a pity that I didn’t see my wish fulfilled, but it’s a tragedy that a generation of young Americans won’t experience their dream, even as limited as they are.

Here’s the reality: the space program is little more than a jobs program. Certain industries and certain states (CA, FL, MD, TX) benefit from our dreams of slipping the surly bonds of earth, but the vast majority of Americans don’t get nearly as much benefit. In purely economic terms, the Space Shuttle is a disaster: it never delivered the cost savings that optimistic forecasters suggested were possible in boosting satellites to orbit. So, people argue that the money would be better spent elsewhere, that our dreams are simply too expensive.

The U.S. military spent more on air-conditioning temporary structures in Iraq and Afghanistan than NASA spends in a year. While I appreciate and laud the efforts of our troops, I can’t help but think that cutting our dreams so we have enough money to air condition tents isn’t the kind of society that we should be dreaming about.

For a generation, the space program provided us with inspiration and optimism. As the shuttle program winds down, for all its faults it still seems like the end of a dream. I can’t help but wonder what dream will unite the next generation of Americans in their quest for greatness.

Are you a mentor, or are you just getting in the way?

It’s Friday, and Fridays are good days for thinking. It’s unclear that it is a good day to write about what you’ve been thinking, but here goes anyway.

I’m involved in a couple of different communities (hacking and amateur radio) which might be characterized as “ageing”. As a young adult, I was influenced by Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. It gave a name to the kind of computer exploration that I was interested in, and the description of the early MIT hacker community showed that there were other people in the world who were interested in understanding and programming these amazing machines. Despite the fact that I was coming onto the scene as part of the microcomputer revolution of the 1980s, I felt that the spirit of these hackers was akin to my own. They seemed to experience the same odd pleasure that I got when exploring a machine, and making it do something unusual or unexpected. Many people in this community who are my age are interested in trying to instill some of these ideals into a younger generation of hackers, and have asked what we can do to mentor them along.

In amateur radio, there is a long history of “Elmers”: hams who help younger and more inexperienced hams by giving them the benefit of their experience. There is little doubt that the ham radio community is aging: while attending Pacificon last year, I suspect I was in the youngest two percent of attendees, and I’m in my late forties. It’s a very common thing for hams to actively seek ways to bring new blood into the ranks of the licensees. For some, it’s just a way to help ensure the continued use of the frequencies that they enjoy, but I would suspect that the majority of hams merely want to pass on some of the experiences and joy that they have derived from their favorite hobby.

But here is my somewhat skeptical observation: neither community does a very good job. And frankly, that’s been a source of some puzzlement on my part. For all the effort that we expend trying to extol the virtues of computer exploration or the construction and use of radios, we aren’t attracting huge numbers to the hobby. In fact, I suspect that this kind of advocacy hasn’t resulted in any measurable increase in either community. Why is that?

I suspect it is because mentors don’t actually create interest in subjects. No amount of extolling the virtue learning about antennas or building radios or learning CW ever convinces anyone that they should become a radio amateur. No promoting of the virtues of programming, learning the internals of machines or security will ever make it interesting to someone who isn’t already curious and interested. Either you find such things interesting, or you do not. No amount of advocacy can turn your apathy into interest.

Consider it this way: I’m deeply uninterested in fashion. There are people who nonetheless view it as their passion, as a source of considerable joy in their lives. That’s actually okay. I’m just not one of them, and no amount of cajoling on their part is likely to change my mind.

I’m also relatively (and somewhat oddly) unmoved by music. For me, piano lessons was always mostly a chore. I simply don’t experience the joy and emotions that people get from listening to most music. Intellectually, I can appreciate it, but I don’t feel passionate about it.

If I can’t be mentored into a passion for music and fashion, why am I puzzled when my own efforts to mentor people into things I do enjoy fall mostly on deaf ears?

That’s not to say that mentors can’t be helpful: they absolutely can. The experience of people is incredibly useful, and can help the inexperienced see farther and better than they could stumbling on their own. And, if you happen to find a mentor who has gone along a path you are already interested in, they can serve as inspiration. But they do not themselves create the passion and drive that makes a person try to master a new subject. TThat comes from individuals themselves, and it is inappropriate for “mentors” to imagine that it is through their own virtue that their passions are perpetuated.

A couple of illustrative examples of how things can go wrong:

To become a ham radio operator, you need to become licensed, which means passing a relatively straightforward exam. The entry level license is for a “Technician” class license, which basically requires getting 70% correct on a multiple choice test drawn from a published question pool. It’s not very hard, and in fact a great many ham radio clubs hold “ham cram” events, where they meet for a day to try to cram enough stuff into your head so that you can pass the exam the same day.

One particular ham I know hates these events. His claim is that these events are “cheating” and that they deny the new licensees the opportunity to learn the material “properly”. He usually follows this with a story about how he learned this stuff. How he had to be licensed as a novice, and had to upgrade. How he had to master Morse code, work his way up through the license classes. How he learned to do everything at the foot of his mentors, and how he was glad they were around. He’ll then usually lapse into a diatribe about how kids today “play too many video games” or “don’t work hard like we used to” or “feel they are entitled”.

It makes me groan inside.

A ham radio license isn’t a diploma. It’s a license, just like a fishing license. It grants limited, uses of a shared public resource. Without it, you can’t transmit on amateur frequencies. Hence, it’s really just a road block: it gets in the way of you experiencing the thing that you might be passionate about. From my perspective, you should figure out a way to get licensed so you can get on with your passion. From my friends perspective, that road block should be as high as possible, so you really deserve the privileges you enjoy.

He’s not a bad sort, really. He thinks he’s helping novices, but in reality he’s just trying to shore up the road blocks that keep people from entering the hobby. His “mentoring” is significantly blunted by his desire to make people “pay their dues”.

I’ve heard a number of people speak on “how do we encourage the next generation of hackers”. I similarly find these kinds of talks misplaced. When I reread Levy’s Hackers, I experienced some nostalgia, but I also thought there was a lesson to be learned. Levy highlighted three different groups of hackers: the original MIT hacker community which grew up around the PDP-1, the Hardware Hackers who brought about the Altair computer, and the game hackers who surrounded Sierra Online. What I think is amazing is that none of these stories gave any hint of the revolution in computing that was to come. The rise of the Internet, search and social media simply isn’t visible in this book. Richard Stallman is mentioned as the “last real hacker”, with a sort of wistful nostalgia, with the near certainty that he will simply fade into obscurity, totally missing the revolution of free and open source software that he helped inspire. There is no sense that some of the early work of (say) the Xerox Alto would eventually fuel the second phase of Apple’s existance, and ultimately change pretty much everything about computers.

In other words, much of the “hacker” revolution that some of us (myself included) like to refer to with a sense of wistful nostalgia wasn’t as closely linked to the revolutions that were to come as we would like to imagine. When we draw on our own early experiences to try to find ways to educate or inspire newcomers, we often do so through this overly narrow view of history. We might think that “really” understanding machine code or architectures are important, and that the only way to do that is to go through the same sort of exercises that we did. But consider this: if we would have had access to the machines and information back then, we wouldn’t have tolerated this kind of spoon feeding either. We would have simply grabbed all that we could in pursuit of our passions.

Young people today are no different.

Here’s my recipe for success: don’t bother trying to recruit people to your passions. The best you can do is find those already interested, and make it easy for them to find you. Use social media. Publish your passions on your blog. Do what you love, and do it visibly. And when you find others who enjoy the same thing, try to engage. Do stuff. Collaborate. Gather. Exchange.

And most importantly: don’t try to convince someone that the way you enjoy something is the only proper way. Don’t dismiss their approach to their passions, simply because they aren’t the same as your own. Seek to help remove the roadblocks that keep them from progressing, don’t introduce new ones yourself to justify your own approach.

And most of all, have fun, and keep doing what you are doing!

What do you all think?

What is your blog’s business plan? Does it really need one?

It was a convenient time to renew my blog’s hosting plan over the weekend, so I made my payment and you can be assured that the brainwagon blog (which as many as a dozen of you inexplicably read) will be available for another 12 months. It got me thinking about the many bloggers I know who work on authoring and popularizing content as part of a business (or at least, a plan for business). I just spent $83 on hosting for the year, I got to thinking: what’s my business plan?

Well, the fact of the matter is, I don’t have one. It’s actually more than that: not only do I not have a plan, I have planned explicitly to not think of my blog as a business opportunity. It’s an expense, and isn’t expected to pay any financial dividends. Total costs in terms of name registration and hosting amount to about $100 a year or so.

So, why do I do it? Well, why do you plant flowers in front of your house? Sure, it probably does have some effect on the value of your house, but that’s only likely if you are going to sell your house in the near future. Yes, maybe it keeps a home owner’s association from complaining to you. But the real reason most people plant flowers is they like to garden, and it makes the place where they live a better, more beautiful place. You can thus view it as an investment of sorts, but not in the purely rational, economic sense of the word. It’s an investment in ourselves as well rounded and happy individuals.

The primary reason that I blog is entirely personal: I write about the things that interest me, and my blog serves as a diary of sorts. By reading my own posts in the “On this day…” sidebar, I can see what I was thinking about a year ago, and this often stimulates new explorations in the topics that I was interested in.

But there is another ulterior motive: I don’t see very many people blogging about these kinds of topics on a regular basis. I blog at least in part as a challenge and inspiration to others: if you’ve read my blog and found something neat, or like the approach that I take, my hope is that you will go ahead and start your own blog, on whatever topics you like.

I’m trying to inspire people to plant their own gardens on the Internet. Think of it as planting flowers.

It need not be expensive. In fact, I urge you to do it as cheaply as possible. As the saying goes, it’s no virtue to do with more what can be done with less. Every dollar you spend blogging about your interests is a dollar that you aren’t spending on what truly interests you, so minimizing the amount you spend on Internet means you can maximize what you spend on the good stuff. The $100 yearly expense I pay is about two cups of Starbucks per month, which seems entirely reasonable to me, but maybe times are tough for you, and you can’t swing that. You could do without your own domain name, and use free blog hosting like WordPress.com or Blogger, and link to videos that you host on YouTube or blip.tv. Host audio and podcasts on sites like OurMedia.

There is a slightly disturbing trend I’ve noticed where every interaction with our fellow man seems to be viewed as a business opportunity. Let’s face it: we can’t all make our livings selling our opinions to one another. I don’t view my readers as consumers or potential ad clicks. I seek to inspire and to be inspired by them. The payment I receive is in new thoughts and new ideas.

This is not meant to say that you shouldn’t monetize your blog. If you can make that model work, by all means, pursue that and good luck. But there are lots of ordinary people who seem to think that if they can’t make money on their blog, then they shouldn’t do it. My plea is ask people to think of their blog not as an economic opportunity, but an opportunity for communication, for inspiration, and for sharing.

What’s your blog’s business plan? Does it need one? I’d love to hear some different ideas (or even agreement).

What should Radio Shack do to satisfy the DIY/Maker community?

Radio Shack recently posted this (as yet, not incredibly popular) video asking for feedback on what they could do to support the DIY/Maker community:

I’ve thought about it off and on for the last couple of days, and read some other blog posts, and I thought I’d give my take on it.

I mostly don’t think they can help the DIY/Maker.

First of all, there is a cultural element. While Radio Shacks of the distant past used to be populated by people who might know something about electronics, for the most part when I go into them now I see kids working for minimum wage without any real knowledge or even excitement about electronics. They might be able to help you find the right 1/8″ jack Y-connector you need, or a battery, but for the most part, they don’t build things and therefore, they aren’t really very helpful to those who do. It’s nice to have a local store where I might be able to go in and get a voltage regulator or a MPF102, but I haven’t interacted with anyone at a Radio Shack in years who could tell me what one was, or even if they had them in stock faster than I could find them in their component cabinets.

Related to the first is that they simply have lost their niche. Thirty years ago, you might expect that you could see something in a Radio Shack store that was innovative and cool. Perhaps it was the TRS-80 or the Model 102. Maybe it was a ham radio or a scanner. Or even just a plain old stereo or radio (yes, they used to be more of a status symbol than they are now). Now, you simply see the same things that you can see at any of the big electronics stores like Best Buy, but you’ll probably pay more. They simply aren’t as relevent anymore: other than maybe an RC car or some batteries, most people I know don’t even consider making an electronic purchase at Radio Shack.

They also have pretty much abandoned the educational niche that they used to be good at. Let’s face it, there really wasn’t much practical reason to buy a 7400 series TTL gate, but I did, along with some books (probably by Forrest Mims) to help me understand how they work. I built crystal radios and had a 150 in one electronics kit. I learned alot. There are a lot of people today who would like to learn about how to assemble simple electronic and computer gadgets, but they can’t get those supplies at Radio Shack.

Lastly, they just aren’t innovative. Perhaps it is just because they are carrying the weight of their 4500 or so stores: there isn’t a way they can be sufficiently nimble. Small Internet basesd companies like Sparkfun, Adafruit Industries, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, and Seeed Studio are all actively, hungrily trying to develop and market new products, and to make components available to the Maker community. It’s these small companies and their innovation that I think are most exciting, and these are the people I feel more comfortable supporting, since it is obvious that these people “get it” to a degree that Radio Shack simply doesn’t.

What can Radio Shack do? Realistically, not much. If I was unrealistic? Okay, here are some ideas.

  • Revamp your staff. Stop treating them like minimum wage register-jockies, and pursue those with an interest in electronics and in helping your customers.
  • Bring back kits and educational toys. Consider it fertilizing the ground for the future. If kids aren’t exposed to this kind of tinkering, they aren’t going to grow into adults with lots of disposable income who tinker.
  • Bring back ham radio equipment. Hams are tinkerers, you probably want them in your store. Radio Shack used to sell pretty decent and reasonably priced ham radio equipment and scanners. Sunspots are on the rise, and 10m will begin to heat up. Take advantage of the recent increase in hams caused by the dropping of the Morse code requirement, and figure out a way to get them into your stores.
  • Pay attention to trends in open hardware, find popular items, and stock them. I’d go to the Shack to get an Arduino if they had them in stock. Or a Bus Pirate. Or some high power Cree LEDs. Or good solar cells and battery chargers.
  • FInd local hacker/maker communities, and help them. Be nimble. Support your local groups by stocking the equipment and components they need.
  • In short, ask yourself what the value is that you are delivering to your customers, and stop viewing them as mindless consumers. If you seriously want their business, seriously pursue it.

What do you all think? What could Radio Shack do for you that would make you cross their doorstep more often?

Jesse Jackson Jr.: The iPad Is Killing American Jobs

I’m going to divert myself from my normally safe topics of conversations, and briefly wander into a matter of politics, because Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. has been getting a lot of press lately for his astonishingly stupid remarks about the iPad costing American jobs.

Jesse Jackson Jr.: The iPad Is Killing American Jobs.



Sigh.

First of all, blaming the demise of Border’s on the iPad is a bit like blaming the winning horse for making slower horses lose. Go to your favorite financial reporting site, and examine the stock prizes for Borders, for Barnes and Noble, and for Amazon. As recently as 2007, they were all running neck and neck in terms of performance: in fact, the traditional book sellers were outperforming Amazon through most of 2001-2003. But in 2007, Amazon exploded, nearly tripling in price, and despite the recession which caused a temporary dip, it has continued its remarkable growth. Amazon is now trading at nearly $200, while Barnes and Noble is limping along at $9 and Borders faces bankruptcy.

Why would this be the case? Well, it’s simply because Amazon is a better way to buy books.

For one thing, to many destinations, it’s cheaper. For reasons which escape me, Amazon doesn’t charge sales tax for orders shipped ot most destinations. Here in California, that means that list prices are often lower than you’ll find in brick and mortar stores, and often lower even if you take shipping into account. We can thank the Internet Tax Freedom Act for this, which says that stores which do not have a physical selling presence are not required to collect sales taxes. (According to Amazon’s page on the matter at least, I am still confused by the rationale.) Presumably Congress can address this potentially unfair issue with legislation, although state and local governments frequently make curious choices in decreasing the value of money in their jurisdictions by imposing additional taxes, putting themselves at a disadvantage when compared to other areas.

But beyond cheapness, Amazon also is simply a better place to buy books. In the first place, I can get very close to any book that I want, new or used. I have rather esoteric and technical tastes in books, and it’s not wrong to say that most stores (such as Borders) simply don’t have the books I’m interested in buying. But, if I go Amazon’s website, I can get anything which is print, and many used books (integration of new and used books in search is an awesome feature of Amazon). I recently got old out of print books on analog computing and computer architecture by doing searches on Amazon.com. B&N and Borders simply aren’t any help for those kind of searches. Yes, if you wander into a Borders, you can have them order a book for you, but presumably you don’t need their help to do that: if you know what you want, you can just order it yourself. And if you don’t know what you want, you can use their recommendation service to help find books that maybe you do want.

And of course lastly is that Amazon actually has an electronic book strategy. Amazon recognized the potential of electronic books early, invested and developed consumer products to fuel demand for ebooks, and now is reaping huge benefits. B&N is a step behind, but is at least trying to be competitive. Borders? They didn’t have a clue.

Amazon has recognized that it isn’t Borders who is their competition: it’s Apple. The iPad is an excellent ebook reader (and the Kindle app is the best of the ebook readers) so Amazon has to figure out a way to compete in that market without having to go directly toe-to-toe with Apple. And, they discovered a good way: the Kindle, a less expensive (if less capable reader) that has enough good features to make it a reasonable choice.

Okay, now, back to Jackson’s comments.

The iPad (and probably just as importantly, Amazon) probably did destroy American jobs in one sense: they provided an insanely great product that changed the way that people buy and consume books. That’s disruptive: it means that the thousands of people whose job it was to insert themselves between publishers and book buyers are simply lost. You probably don’t use a travel agent any more either, since services like Expedia and Travelocity exist. But the fact is that there really isn’t any practical reason for you to not just download your books or have them shipped directly from a central warehouse, and there are many consumer benefits to doing so.

We are facing an employment crisis: the skills that many of us have are simply not that valuable, especially in the sales arena. We can lament the loss of jobs (and it is a serious problem) but we shouldn’t misunderstand what is going on here: technology is creating new ways for manufacturers to sell more directly to consumers. It’s just more efficient. As consumers, we’ll enjoy reduced prices, right up until the point where our own jobs are lost, and we can’t afford to be consumers any longer.

If you thought about this a little bit harder than Jackson did, you might be comforted by the idea that there are winners and losers, playing in some kind of zero sum game. But don’t get too happy: the winners are very few in comparison to the number of losers. Besides widening the gaps between rich and poor (which I’d submit isn’t good) it also has certain risks. As wealth becomes concentrated, the power of the few wealthy is increased. With increases in power comes increased potential for abuse and, well, insanity.

Blaming winners is silly. If the game is unfair, change the rules. If it’s no fun for the majority of participants, change the game. Provide value to participating in society, rather than exploiting it.

Sony drops lawsuit against Geohot, but not really…

I was directed to a posting about the lawsuit between Geohot and Sony by a twitter from @adafruit.

Sony drops lawsuit against Geohot – a maker, hacker and innovator… « adafruit industries blog.

I think the article’s title is rather misleading. Sony didn’t drop the lawsuit: the lawsuit was settled. While Geohot admitted to no wrongdoing, he agreed to a permanent injunction barring him from distributing the information and code that he developed for the PS3. I don’t actually view this as a victory for hackers: Sony knew full well that once this information was published, the cat was already out of the bag. They also likely knew that any monetary damages they could have conceivably extracted wouldn’t pay for the costs of actually fighting the case. The only thing that they could really hope for was to use the threat of legal action so silence Geohot and any other PS3 hackers from further dissemination of their works.

Which is precisely what they did, and precisely what they got. The message from Sony wasn’t that “if you hack our system and publish the results, we realize that’s within your rights as an owner of Sony equipment”, it was “you can expect us to have our lawyers call you, and threaten you with a lawsuit that could cost you your life’s savings unless you capitulate.”

I don’t view this as a huge victory for owners of Sony products.

The Ham’s Inconsistent Love/Hate relationship with Progress and Technology

WARNING: pontificating and ranting ahead. You’ve been warned.

Tom pointed out that I had an inadvertent markup error which ended up dropping several paragraphs of this post. It is now corrected.

Julian, G4ILO followed up yesterday’s post about technology not being good for ham radio with a nearly equally confusing one today entitled Platform for progress. I find it confusing because the over the bulk of it, I’m entirely in agreement. He says that there are a (presumably significant) number of technophiles who get involved in amateur radio, only to drop out immediately when they realize that it isn’t a replacement for the cell phone or Internet because the infrastructure isn’t as extenstive or reliable as they expect. I’d agree that is probably true, although it’s hard to say that hams who never really become active have any actual negative effect on the hobby.

He then goes on to criticize the existing top end of HT radios, and in most respects I agree with him. When I compare the level of technology that’s inside my VX-8GR to the level of technology inside my two year old iPhone 3GS, the difference is palpable. But I think that’s mostly unfair: after all, the iPhone is cutting edge mass market product, with sales in the millions, and the VX-8GR will probably sell a few tens of thousands of units. And, of course, the IPhone’s purchase price is in most cases heavily subsidized by high fees from the cell phone companies which are simply not available to ham radio manufacturers.

But even taking those things into account, the state of the art in ham radio HTs is maddeningly primitive, and in ways that make operating your radio more difficult and more confusing. My VX-8GR has impossibly small buttons in an undistiguishable array on the front. Many important functions require pushing both a function key on the side and then a button on the front, a maneuver which cannot be done with one hand, and if you were left handed, require a very odd grip. The display is small and often fails to contain useful information, while commonly cluttered with information you don’t need. All the APRS functions are hidden behind the need to hit the MODE button, which puts you in a different mode, with different setup options, and a similarly bewildering method for navigating among APRS messages. Programming memories is (as it is on virtually all radios) a similarly mystifing barrage of error prone button clicks. It’s simply horrible.

And yet, it’s probably one of the better and more capable radios out there. Go figure.

Julian’s vision of how HTs could be transformed is remarkable, and I wish that ham radio manfuacturers would listen to him. While some people criticize attempts to make things easier to use as “dumbing down”, I completely disagree. No good purpose is served by poor interfaces, even for experts. It’s ridiculous how much effort it takes to get a radio programmed with local repeaters. I recently did this for the VX-8GR, and it involved:

  • Buying a custom cable and software, because even if you had the cable (which is of course not a standard type), you still can’t find software to program the radio for free, despite having spent $350 on the radio.
  • Surfing over to K5EHX’s awesome repeater site and downloading an export of all the local repeaters.
  • Loading them into the software, and then deleting obvious duplicates and bad data.
  • Organizing them into banks.
  • Adding a bunch of FM satellite frequencies, along with Doppler shifts for satellite operation.
  • Adding in APRS setups for both terrestrial (144.390) and satellite (145.800) frequencies.

I can imagine a world where I plug the radio in, visit a website, and all this happens automatically. Would this be dumbing down amateur radio? Of course not. It doesn’t take any particular intelligence to program a radio: it’s just a bit of tedium that could reasonably be automated. But the state of the radio art is a long way from making this happen. What’s more, because most radios hide behind undocumented protocols and stupid non-standard cables, it isn’t even possible for guys as clever as K5EHX (who programmed and maintains the repeater maps himself) to step up and make life easier for everyone.

So, Julian and I are in violent agreement, right up until the end of today’s post, where he says:

So why won’t this happen? I guess the reason for that is that Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood and the rest don’t make cellphones. Their business is making radios that are intended to be as dumb as most of their users. Ham radio is just an offshoot. The market just isn’t big enough to justify developing what for them would be a completely different and unique hardware platform. So I guess for the foreseeable future we’ll be stuck with our geeky walkie talkies and the cool stuff will all be on cellphones.

Argh. First of all, I don’t see how anything good comes out of insulting a bunch of your fellow hams. Our own intelligence lies along a continuum, and while I admit that there are a lot of people considerably stupider or less experienced than I, there are also a whole bunch of people on the other side who are considerably smarter and more experienced. It’s hard to understand how calling other people stupid actually enhances ham radio. James has pointed out that Julian was likely referring to business and public radio users as being “dumb”. I’ll strike the previous paragraph as a misunderstanding of his point. I do think that Kenwood, Yaesu and Icom don’t design ham radios the way they are because of any conviction that their radios need to be simple (in fact, I’d say that they are needlessly complicated to use, as my examples above were meant to indicate) but that simply they have successfully sold radios of similar design, and their isn’t enough competition for them to invest in improving them in significant ways. I also think it is possible (but I have no evidence to support it) that there might be some fear that a significantly new and radical architecture for radios might be met with some trepidation by hams, who have a reputation of not being the most progressive and quick to adopt new things.

Secondly, it presumes that technological advances in ham radio must come from manufacturers. Even today, that simply isn’t true: modes like APRS and PSK31 were originally designed by amateurs, and have been copied and extended by amateurs until the manufacturers took notice, and are just now being adopted as features in products. We also see software defined radio in inexpensive amateur kits like the Softrock, and now adopted into semi-commercial products like The SDR Cube. My guess is that you’ll see a commercial offering of similar capability reasonably soon. My point: we can serve to lead and inform manufacturers what technology we find interesting by developing it ourselves, and creating a market for it..

Lastly, I’m exasperated by the fatalism that is expressed by these kind of statements. Here and in the responses to yesterday’s article, Julian expressed doubts that “ordinary hams” could learn enough about SDR or acquire the ability to work with surface mount parts. I’m baffled by this kind of negativity. Here in the U.S. we are regulated under Part 97, which says that the amateur radio service was created to allow for self training, experimentation and advancement of the radio arts. It doesn’t say anything about mastering “just the easy bits” or “just the non-software bits”. Julian also made the claim:

Those that have the expertise to experiment with new technologies in ham radio probably learnt those skills professionally. The reason why I am against the incursion of advanced technologies into this amateur hobby is that it forces more and more of us true amateurs into being mere appliance users.

I don’t really mean to pick on Julian, but I find this to be almost entirely wrong. First of all, everything I know about amateur radio, electronics, digital signal processing and microcontrollers I learned because of personal interest, and I know literally dozens of people of similar stories. And of course, there have always been skilled amateurs in our ranks who learned their material as professionals, and brought their skills to amateur radio. Julian appears to be saying that the participation of skilled, professionally trained people in amateur radio is undesirable. I find that baffling.

I also think his conclusion is odd. To me, the inclusion of software technology into amateur radio serves as an incentive to bring large numbers of skilled software engineers into the ranks of amateurs, enabling new applications and new techniques. The vision I have for the future of amateur radio is one where we are more more engaged, not less. Furthermore, if we drag our feet in adoption of technology, amateur radio as a whole becomes increasingly irrelevant as the rest of the world advances in technology. We simply become a kind of technological re-enactment society, like a kind of radio Rennaissance faire. (Apologies to those who like Renaissance faires…)

Ham radio is a very odd endeavor: for an activity which is centered around one of the greatest advances in technology in human history, we have a surprisingly large number of people who treat it with mysticism, who want to hold it just at the level that they themselves feel comfortable, and who resist efforts to change or advance it. There are radio amateurs who are obsessed with tube rigs, and refuse to consider modern solid state design. They’ll tell you there is something just inscrutable about transistors, but the truth is, they’ve never manufactured a tube, and for the most part, tubes are just as inscrutable as transistors. SImilarly, there are people who refuse to use ICs in their rigs, because somehow it just seems to be “cheating” to use a device that integrates more than one gate in a package, even though making transistors is just as inscrutable as making ICs. You’ll find people who don’t want microprocessors, so they do crazy things like using 555 timers in reckless abandon, with all sorts of diode based switching, when a $2 Atmel chip will do the same and more for less money and actually with less circuitry.

Julian’s blog has lots of really cool stuff, stuff that has inspired and challenged me to learn and do more. I hope he continues with it. Like him, I’m eagerly awaiting G3XBM’s DSB 10m rig design, and hope to be constructing one. I’m still playing with beacons, and APRS and other things that he’s interested in. I just wish we could send out a consistent, careful message to our fellow hams and potential hams to be that technology and amateur radio aren’t strange bedfellows. We are the Amateur Radio Service, not the Antique Radio Society.

What ideas infect my brain and why…

Some of you might be wondering what it is about this Karplus-Strong algorithm that has got me interested. Of course, long time readers of my blog might well have wondered that about any of a number of things that I’ve written about. What is it about checkers that prompted me to write a checkers program? What is it about prime numbers or pi that made me write programs to compute them? What is it about the FFT? What is it about FPGAs and computer architecture? Why did I find Brian Beckman’s Physics of Racing intriguing?

I think it has something to do with hidden complexity.

Consider for example the Karplus-Strong algorithm that I coded up. It’s relatively simple: just a few lines of code. But it has complex behavior: behavior that is in some sense surprising. It’s hard to see from examining it how it can generate the kind of sounds it produces. Ken Steiglitz’s book doesn’t really provide enough background on how it works until 100 pages in, and even then, there is a lot of subtlety which isn’t really apparent. There is genuine genius in the dozen or so lines of code that make it up: genius that hints at hidden knowledge and new ideas.

Ditto for checkers. Payne did some of the first analysis of so-called “First Position” back in the late 1700s. These are some of the most basic checker positions: two king versus one king and one man endgames. Yet, inside these positions are some deeply complex principles, principles which still make writing a good checker playing program difficult.

Beckman’s Physics of Racing provides some insight into how race cars actually work. Making a car go fast around a track is more than just weight and horsepower. It’s about understeer and oversteer. It’s about balance. It’s about friction and slip.

There is more in these systems that are evident from first glance. In many cases, mathematics provides an insight into the underlying structure and complexity. Computers can lend insight into systems which are too complicated to understand from first principles. And in the end, engineering and actual physical implementation provides us with the glory of music, the fun of games, and the thrill of racing.

Richard Feynman once famously mused that science provided a glimpse into a kind of deep beauty. Rather than paraphrase him, I’ll let him talk…


httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28

The world of mathematics and physics and computing provides us an opportunity to explore the deeper inner beauty of things in new ways. And geeky as it is, that’s what I think underlies some of the themes I explore on this blog.

There, glad I got that off my chest. Now, back to work.

Thoughts on the Google/Verizon net neutrality proposal…

I’ve had a few days to sit and think about the proposal that Google and Verizon have published, and I think it is time to write some of it down. If nothing else, in the future it will provide me perspective in future years, as August 12th rolls around each year, this post will circulate back to the top and I can see how prescient I was.

First of all, if you haven’t read it, you probably should. It’s only a couple of pages, so surf on over and give it a read. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Verizon-Google Legislative Framework Proposal

Okay, did it leave you with an uneasy feeling? It did me. Most of the people I respect seem to think that I should feel uneasy, but a select few seem to think that I’m overreacting. I am not sure which is right, but I’ll let you know what my specific qualms are, and then follow it with a few general comments.

First of all, the section on Consumer Protections qualifies that broadband Internet service providers should not prevent users from accessing “lawful content of their choice” or “running lawful applications and using lawful services of their choice”. IANAL, but I’m a little troubled by this concept of “lawful content” or “lawful applications”. Lots of people are whining about this provision, presumably because it prevents them from downloading copyrighted material on the Internet. I’m a bit concerned by this, because it gives the ISP a convenient excuse for nearly any modification of internet access: “we are trying to prevent trafficking of copyrighted materials”.

The section on Network Management is similarly a bit strange. I agree that ISPs need to be able to efficiently run their networks in an efficient manner, but I am a bit concerned at the idea that “any technically sound practice” can be used, without any guidance as to the underlying principles that must be followed. A technically sound practice might include simply disconnecting the top 1% of the bandwidth users to mitigate connection problems. It might even be agreed to by the majority of service providers, but it isn’t necessarily the right choice for consumers. I think it is entirely reasonable to allow ISPs to limit the total bandwidth or capacity, or to price their service according to bandwidth used, but not to pick and choose which services or which users are “managed” out side of those basic constraints.

But the section that really disturbs me is the “differentiated services”. I wonder really what those differentiated services are, and they were very coy in their proposal. Some people might think that delivering VOIP over the internet is a “differentiated service”. Or running an FTP server. Or downloading Netflix. Applications to your mobile phone. All of these things were “distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet” at some point, but now are part and parcel of what people use the Internet for every day. I cannot help but think that this is an attempt for ISPs to carve out special exceptions for neutrality on new services so that they have a preferred track to sell such services and prioritize them over the more “traditional” Internet services. This is bad for competition, and bad for consumers.

I’m also troubled by the desire for an exemption for wireless networks. There is simply no rationale given, merely the assertion that they have “unique technical and operational characteristics”, so the requirement of transparency would be required for operation over the wireless networks. I can imagine that the cellular phone networks are very happy with this provision, since they already run some of the least consumer-friendly and most lucrative networks available, and this provision is essentially carte-blanche to permit or deny any service on their networks that they like. They would have the power to be the kingmakers of the wireless internet, purely by allowing or denying companies access to consumers.

Okay, those are pretty specifically the parts that annoy me. In the end, we give up network neutrality on wireless networks, we grant the ISPs the power to differentiate their networks by selling differentiated products and we have to deal with consumer agencies who are asked to fill a law enforcement role (or who can at least hide behind it as an excuse for nearly arbitrary changes in service). We also agree to allow the industry players to decide what practices can be used to solve their networking problems. And in return consumers get….? Greater transparency, okay. And the ability to ask the FCC to investigate on a case by case basis any abuses, but without any additional rulemaking power.

I’m underwhelmed. I think you should be too.

Google is partnering with Verizon on this proposal, and I think we as consumers should be skeptical of this. After all, the wireless industry engages in all sorts of activities which are terrible for consumers, and which are antithetical to the principles that allowed the vibrant Internet growth of the last decade or more. Wireless companies uniformly try to lock consumers into long term contracts, with high penalties for early cancellation, and often include excessive activation fees for account changes. Consumers often have no protection against accidental overages, or must pay (again) excessive charges to prevent overages. Consumers pay high fees for SMS messaging, despite the nearly neglible costs associated with sending SMS because of the incredibly low amount of information sent. Consumers have to deal with phones which are locked by vendors to prevent a consumer from leaving a particular network and going to a competitor. Consumers cannot get any information about the delivered call quality, or the percentage of dropped calls.

The Verizon-Google proposal talks about the “increased competition” in the wireless arena, but even though there are probably three or four carriers that might reasonably be used in an area, often the effective number is only two or even one major carrier. When you combine this with the long contracts and high penalties for switching, this presumed “competition” simply vanishes.

Consider AT&T’s most recent filing with the SEC. As part of that filing, they had to list the risk associated with the possibility of losing the relatively lucrative exclusivity agreement with Apple and the iPhone. They downplayed this risk in a number of ways, including statements like:

As these exclusivity arrangements end, we expect to continue to offer such handsets (based on historical industry practice), and we believe our service plan offerings will help to retain our customers by providing incentives not to move to a new carrier. As noted above, more than 80 percent of our postpaid subscribers are on Family Talk® Plans and business plans that would involve moving the whole group to a new carrier. Moreover, the vast majority of our postpaid subscribers (including Family Talk® Plan users) are allowed to accumulate unused minutes (known as rollover minutes), a feature that is currently not offered by other major post-paid carriers in the United States, and users would lose these minutes if they switched carriers. As is common in the industry, most of our phones are designed to work only with our wireless technology, requiring customers who desire to move to a new carrier with a different technology to purchase a new device. In addition, many of our handsets would not work or would lose some functionality if they were used on another carrier’s network (even a carrier using GSM technology), requiring the customer to acquire another handset.

The cynic in me reads this as “the majority of our customers won’t switch because our industry has made it painful and costly to switch”.

Okay, so what is my answer? I think that we need clear separation between carriers and service providers. Carriers should not be allowed to sell services or differentiate traffic with respect to source or application. They should be required to be transparent. They should be permitted to sell Internet bandwidth in ways which allow customers to pay for the bandwidth and latency that they need. Consumers should have portability of devices, and be protected against absurd overages and upgrade fees. And the future Googles and Facebooks of the world shouldn’t be stifled by Verizon and AT&T.

Okay, back to work.

My Thoughts on The Acceleration of Addictiveness

Paul Graham has a interesting little missive over on his website on the increasing trend toward addictiveness in our society:

The Acceleration of Addictiveness.

I don’t think it is bad as far as it goes, but I wonder why he didn’t ask what I thought was the obvious question: “why are things becoming more addicting?”

Let’s consider what we eat as an example. Hardly a day goes by when you can’t find a story about the obesity epidemic that is going on here in the United States. We’re getting fatter, and we are having fatter kids. And everyone is asking why this should be happening.

I think the answer is really quite simple: we are addicted to food. Well, not food precisely, but to things that we eat which sort of vaguely resemble food, but are engineered to be addicting.

No doubt some of you are tsk-tsking. You’ll probably post a comment which says that what we eat is a personal choice, that we have control, and that we simply don’t exercise enough and that we eat the wrong things. You probably will also look at the people you know who still smoke, and wonder why they simply don’t quit.

I’m going to say that while you are right in a sense (nobody can get you to quit except you) but you are wrong in that it is simple or easy. Nobody really likes to be overweight, if it were easy to avoid being so, they would. If you examine the rate at which people successfully lose weight and keep the weight off, you’d find it was vanishingly small. In that respect, it seems very similar to drug and alcohol addiction. The actual effectiveness of even well accepted treatment options like AA is near zero, if not actually negative. But that’s another posting…

If there is an acceleration in addictiveness, it seems to me that there is an increase in the number of suppliers of these addictive products. Let’s call them what they really are: pushers. Pushers are willing to sell products to consumers which aren’t really good for them. They are eager to reduce the cost of their product, to increase its availability, and to increase their potency. They may not start selling addictive products intentionally, but let’s face it: it’s much easier to sell products to addicts than to people who can take or leave your product.

Pushers will tell you that they are just filling a demand, and that their consumers are adults who are responsible for their own choices. At best this is denial. At worse, it’s just a lie that attempts to shift responsibility to the addict.

It astonishes me that there are still people farming tobacco and making cigarrettes. Not because it should be illegal, but because it takes an inhuman lack of respect for others to profit from selling them products which are so dangerous. I’ve begun to feel the same way about many packaged food producers and fast food purveyors, who carefully market “food” which is sadly nutritionally deficient and which maximizes the use of things like HFCS and processed white flour to reduce costs and to unnaturally manipulate appetite. And perhaps we should begin to consider companies like Facebook to be in this realm as well: they are using games and social interaction as an enticement to reveal much of your private information, and this only works if they can entice you to return again and again.

If we are concerned about our increasingly addictive, impatient, immediate gratification based society, perhaps we should all be asking ourselves whether we are becoming pushers: purveyors of behaviours which are ultimately bad for us. If we are, perhaps we should consider forgoing the profits that dealing addiction can reap, and figure out how to apply our effort and ingenuity in more productive directions.