No Free Lunch, No Pun Intended

Inflation is still at all time lows (despite the consistent panic that has gripped certain elements of our society), and I don't believe it's going anywhere. Yes, for somethings prices have gone up, but MOSTLY it feels like the range is the same. A low end car in 2000 was AROUND the same price it is today. A medium quality pair of skis was roughly the same. In tech, the prices have actually fallen!

But one that I find really interesting is food prices - they're virtually unchanged at the low end. There was a dollar menu at Wendy's I used to eat atdaily in NYC with about 5 items on it in 1999. Exactly the same as today.

Answer: No.The simple fact is that the quality of food is just either gotten worse, or creation of the food is radically more efficient. Take for example Pink Slime. They've just closed all their plants but in a lot of ways, this was a great product. It was super cheap to make (saving people money), it used every part of the cow (less environmental waste) and it was healthy (no carbs). People could not get past the image or branding, but there's nothing obviously wrong with it (and if people knew what really went on with meat production, I'm sure no one would be running to their local Chik-Fil-A either).

More examples? "Tuna Scrape" and "Meat Glue". Look people, these are PERFECTLY good things to eat. In countries != the US, sucking on the bones to get every little pieces is a GOOD THING(tm).

I love this - I hope we get MORE transparency into this stuff. Either it raises the price of food so that sustainable food will be on par, pricewise, with this stuff, or people embrace it and use every bit of the food we kill. It's the disconnect between what we're told and what's real that's the problem.

What If Underpaid Workers Are Holding Back Innovation

I was reading the Malcolm Gladwell take on the Jobs biography and came across this little gem --

One of the great puzzles of the industrial revolution is why it began in England. Why not France, or Germany? Many reasons have been offered. Britain had plentiful supplies of coal, for instance. It had a good patent system in place. It had relatively high labor costs, which encouraged the search for labor-saving innovations. In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain’s human-capital advantage—in particular, on a group they call “tweakers.” They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

Did you catch that bit in the middle (highlights/bold are mine). I was suddenly reminded of a bajillion graphs I've seen recently, including but not limited, to this one:

What if the problem with current innovation is that there's a "release valve" for it? That is to say, because workers are paid so little (in the US and elsewhere), there's not a pressure to reduce the number of them, so innovation is depressed?

I'm not looking to drive people out of work, but when labor costs are high, there's an inherent desire to make your processes more efficient so you can cut those costs. But the other half of that is that it takes far less capital to get your new businesses going, which means more people can do cool things.

The Walking Dead and The Uncanny Valley

I learned a new (wonderful) word the other day. The definition is pretty straight-forward.

verisimilitude: (n) Having the quality of realism.

Basically, it just means that when you see something, it is internally consistent enough to SEEM real. Think of it this way ... you have a long wall and two people are standing on either end, facing at 45 degrees to the center of the wall, not at each other. And they're sitting there, not throwing directly at each other, but somehow they keep catching it. Now you're standing on the other side of the wall, this looks crazy. How is the ball going back and forth? Allow me to draw it out (crudely):

Now there could be any number of reasons that this works. Maybe there's another wall on the other side that they're bouncing it off of. Or maybe the ball is actually on as string and it's swinging it around. Or maybe the ball has some kind of boomerang effect built in. Or maybe there's a third person in the middle of the wall that they're actually throwing it to. Who knows - but because none of these violate the laws of physics, you can construct a theory in your head that makes everything work together.

In fact, you don't even need a theory that holds to the laws of physics. Let's say this was in a movie, and, in the movie universe, telekenisis was fully part of their world, and people could bend the ball to go where the wanted it to in their minds. No problem - that's how they're playing, and you move on. 

Where things start to fall apart is my topic for today - I call it the uncanny valley of science fiction.

I love Sci-Fi, and especially when the changes in the world that we're asked to believe force us to reevaluate what we're faced with in ours. And, if given the choice, I'll probably watch a Sci-Fi property versus almost any other. However, Sci-Fi done wrong pisses me off to no end - mostly because I feel completely detached from the product and that I've completely wasted my time. A bad Sci-Fi picture is far worse than a bad picture of almost any other genre. I think this is because when it's bad, it has fallen into the uncanny valley.

The two ends of the spectrum of Sci-Fi are the following:

  • Total fantasy
  • Almost real

In the total fantasy side of the world, you look at something like Lord of the Rings. Beautiful world, magic everywhere, creatures being created from mud, and so on. You may look at it with a little bit of science - did that tower topple the right way, did the arrow arc through the air correctly - but by and large everything is on hold because there's no framework in which to judge its realism. Could Gandalf have destroyed the bridge with his staff? Who knows. A wizard did it. But it's enough to tie everything together.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Star Trek. Very tangible world, mostly extensions of inventions we've already created, but standard human biology and physics apply. In this case, ALL science must apply and be applicable, or you have to have a VERY plausible cause for why. If Geordi wants to move a moon out of its orbit, you better explain it down to the nano-newton exactly how he's going to do it. And, in large part, they do an excellent job in doing so, which is why the serieses are so beloved.

But now we come to the uncanny valley, and current sand under my fingernail, The Walking Dead. Agh. The biggest problem here is that while there's not much magic (other than dead coming to life and taking over the earth), there's SO MANY unanswered questions. And everyone of them force me to sit there thinking through those questions rather than enjoying the show. Here's a small list:

  • How did all of the Southeastern US get taken over by people who cannot travel by car? The US is REALLY BIG, and not easy to get around in. Even if they ran NON-STOP, as fast as a marathon runner (3 hours per 26 miles), it'd take at least 24 hours to cross Georgia. Zero chance that goes beyond one state.
  • Why are zombies out in the middle of a freeway, wandering around, walking through stopped cars?
  • Why are zombies out in the middle of a forest, wandering around, threatening people?
  • Why are a bunch of zombies sitting around a school where no living thing has been there for months?
  • It's impossible to get into a tank using just a pistol, let alone your hands. How would a brain-dead zombie do it?
  • Did I mention how big the wilderness is? You could camp out anywhere and likely have zero chance of running into someone else for months - in today's world! Let alone a world where everyone is running for their lives.
  • If ANY significant portion of the population died (let's say 25%), we would have so much food, fuel and spare goods, we would not even know what to do with ourselves.

I could go on. But the net is that shows like this lack verisimilitude. They lack the internal structure that is consistent enough to explain how that ball is defying the laws of physics, and then instead of enjoying the character drama, you just sit there being slightly put off the entire show. I want to like SciFi shows like this - I really do. But pick a body and go with it - the uncanny valley is no place to write your show.

    When The Immovable Object Meets The Unstoppable Force

    Apple has been on such a roll with me product-wise, it's difficult to remember there was a time I did not merely follow every new release with a purchase. That roll, however, ended today.

    I run on a Mac Book Pro at work, and, while it's not my favorite laptop or OS of all time, it's doing a fairly decent job at getting the codez out. Whenever Apple has some new release, and, occasional ridiculous new features aside, I install in and my computing experience is better. I was looking forward to iCloud, as a universal solution to basic cloud requirements (backup, sync) and installed it today.

    To start, it turns out it does not provide Time Machine backup. Strike one. How, Apple, did you let this release go out the door without supporting this killer technology you have for backing and versioning things?

    Second, it also has an steep cost curve. Strike two. I can get free Skydrive from MS (25GB). I can use DropBox for 50 GB for $120 (vs. iCloud 50 GB for $100) - so good, deal, right? No.. iCloud only stores my most recent 1000 photos, and (oddly) does not store ANYTHING from apps that haven't been updated to support iCloud. What? Further, with Live Mesh I can get unlimited space syncing to all my machines - a feature I love.

    Normally this is where I point out that specific features are actually pretty irrelevant and the fact that Apple has a great end-to-end solution trumps all, and they're going to win. And, for all I know, they probably will win because this will be the default solution for the average user.

    However, and finally, iCloud does not let me sync with Google Contacts. WHAT? 100% fail. I use Gmail on the Web, not having sync to my contacts means that I essentially am address-book-less. Yeah, that ain't happening.

    And so, the elephants are dancing and we have to get out of the way. Soon enough, Google (or someone else) will create a syncing solution, and we'll get what we want, but this was a real annoyance. If you're forcing me to choose between using your service cause it's well integrated and has some nice features, and getting stuff done, it's not much of a contest. Sorry, Apple, you lose this round.

    MSFT Is Still The One Who Needs To Catch Up

    MG Siegler talked about Siri yesterday and, summary, he says that everyone and their brother is going to jump around saying how they had speech first and their speech is just as good, but it is not and the proof is that nobody is using theirs, and everyone is using Siri.

    I completely agree with him.

    It's exactly what I wrote about last week - the difference between technology and the implementation that actually touches the consumer makes all the difference in the world. For example, F1 cars are THE MOST technologically advanced motor cars in the world, but if you handed it to the average citizen, they would not even be able to turn the thing on. You have to strip down the technology and put it in a package that someone can actually use before it means something.

    As if to draw out in stark contrast, my brother-in-law's computer broke down this weekend - he got infected by a virus, and asked me to de-gunk it. In fact, it was too hard to de-gunk, I ended up wiping and restoring from the partition. I worked at MS for 6+ years, and really like the company, but doing such a simple task was INSANELY hard, I refuse to believe a single PM ever went through that process. I had to:

    • boot up
    • hold down a function key which was on-screen for literally 1 second
    • identify the correct partition and restore plan (full restore, wipe out all contents, etc)
    • do the full restore
    • reboot
    • connect to the wifi and go through 15 registration steps
    • go through at least 6 different visits and reboots to Windows Update
    • go through and remove at least 10 different pre-installed pieces of software and/or trial-ware

    And by the end, I was left with a function netbook that took at least 1 second to respond when I touched the track pad (they should respond in under 0.2 seconds). This was a totally clean out of the box PC, and it was still miserable to use.

    This is what MS will suffer with for a long time. Because they allow other people to stand in between their products and the final user experience, the user experience will always suffer. I love my Windows Phone, but you can just feel that the hardware is not optimal. Maybe they'll get there some day - The Windows Phone Hardware Requirements are a decent start - but not until they have hard core USER EXPERIENCE requirements. You don't pass, you don't get to ship Windows. 

    Steve Jobs Passing

    As I said on Twitter, I'm really moved by Steve Jobs passing. Difficult to think of the death of another person who moved me more though I never met him. Looks like the rest of the world is just as moved - his death accomplished the very rare TwitScoop sweep:

    Apple's First Failure of the Tim Cook Era

    Obligatory comment: Apple is still crushing it and will have phenomenal earnings and profits for years, if not decades. That out of the way...


    Apple failed today. For the first time in about 10 years, they held a press event where the butt hurt was almost palpable before the last white on black slide was complete. The biggest problem is this product announcement fell victim to the exact same problem that everyone else in the industry has suffered with for years, and I hope Apple is able to correct course immediately. That problem is the obsession with numbers.

    Quick, excluding all iOS 5 features already announced, what's one new feature that Apple announced today? Find my friends? Siri? You can count them on one hand, and still have room for a wicked pinky ring. But then why did the conference go on for as long as it did? Apple spent an enormous amount of time covering chipsets, download speeds, talk times and lots of other nitty gritty. Boooooooorring.

    There's a rule in publishing that says for every equation you have in you book, cut your total sales by 10%. Apple used to understand the corollary about new product announcements... Numbers = death. There's nothing sexy, inspirational or engrossing about numbers and specs. They do not connect to users, or encourage people to create new experiences. And, worst of all, there's nothing unique about them to your platform, where people now get to compare in what they think is an objective way column a and column b. Congrats, even if you took the lead, you're now in a race you don't want to be in.

    Apple got to where they are by being completely the opposite of numbers - inspiration, style, image. The numbers were always good (sometimes great), but they only served to support the larger vision that they were selling - if you bought Apple products, you were this kind of person. Now it is, if you buy an iPhone 4S, you have got something that has an A5 chip in it. That is not how they will win.

    It's snarky, but this image sums it up nicely:

    reddit.com/NextRound.net

    Today's Take on the Global Warming / Climate Change Debate

    Let it never be said I cannot admit when I'm wrong. I saw the following comic:

    (Courtesy of The Brads)

    And thought - "what a nice way to sum up a non-obvious climate issue." However, according to the NOAA, the comic (and I) were wrong.

    They found no evidence — no human “fingerprints” — to implicate our involvement in the snowstorms. If global warming was the culprit, the team would have expected to find a gradual increase in heavy snowstorms in the mid-Atlantic region as temperatures rose during the past century. But historical analysis revealed no such increase in snowfall. Nor did the CSI team find any indication of an upward trend in winter precipitation along the eastern seaboard.

    Sadly - this will no doubt cause all climate change deniers to go nuts, but science is science. It's NEVER 100%, and anyone who points at any single data point as proof is lying to you.

    Everyone Is Wrong, Apple Will Be Different (and Almost Certainly Worse) Post-Steve Jobs

    The news media and every pundit in the world basically said Apple would be just fine, thank you very much. DaringFireball / John Gruber summed up a lot of the sentiment with the following:

     

    Jobs’s greatest creation isn’t any Apple product. It is Apple itself.

    So Apple will be exactly the same no matter what because Steve Jobs carved in stone and left it for all the world to consume? 

    Of course not. Either Steve Jobs is the fantastic leader, innovative, and will continue to change the world, or he's a worthless hanger-on, and provides no value. The entire world seems to be saying the latter. Well, actually, that's not strictly true. They all SAY the former, but by implying Apple's going to be just fine, and crank along like nothing will at all change, they're IMPLYING the latter.

    I think that Steve Jobs was and is critical to Apple's success and Apple WILL be different (and almost certainly) worse if he's not arround. That's just the law of talented people. There are a finite amount of them in the world, it is rare to EVER find one working at your company. When you lose one, you are likely to not find another one.

    But to steal from an excellent post from Tim Bray:

    I’m irritated at the prattling pundits prognosticating Apple’s future, most of them saying “Everything’s just fine, Tim Cook he da man.” Jeepers, the essential point about business is that you never know how the story’s going to end.

    EXACTLY. No one in the world could have predicted the direction Apple was going to take and succeed in starting in 1997 when Jobs returned. I doubt anyone can accurately predict where they will be even three years out, even inside the company. Everyone has plans, and nice connect the dot lines from here to there, but guessing what's actually going to happen is just a total crap shoot. One thing I will promise - Apple WILL change, it already has.