Sunday, April 29, 2012

IPO lessons from MySpace

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Cleaning spam out of my Yahoo email (it's spam-only), I saw mention of MySpace.

It jogged an old memory. I'd set up an account there in 2006 - mostly to secure a username in case it went anywhere. I still had the old password in my Filemaker web database (it goes back to 1995 or so).

Here's the first entry in my MySpace messages ...
Welcome to MySpace, the best place to connect with friends on the Net! 
I'm Tom, and I'm here to help you with MySpace. If you have any questions, comments, or just want to say Hi, feel free to send me a message! You can also check the FAQ for the most frequently asked questions. 
How do you get started? 
On MySpace you share your profile, photos, blogs, and messages with a fast-growing network of people connected to you by your friends. 
The first thing to do is to invite your friends -- then when they invite their friends you'll all be connected!
There are several hundred subsequent emails, all spam and terms of service announcements as best I can tell. Most of the site UI is advertisements.

Facebook is supposed to go public soon -- in the midst of Bubble 2.0. Investors should remember MySpace.


Progress is a drunken walk.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why did productivity gains go to the elite after 1973?

After 1973, and especially after the early 1980s, productivity gains went towards the 1%. Media male compensation in particular went flatline... (emphases mine)

Where The Productivity Went - Krugman

Larry Mishel has a systematic breakdown of the reasons for worker income stagnation since 1973. He starts with the familiar divergence: productivity up 80 percent, the compensation (including benefits) of the median worker up only 11 percent. Where did the productivity go?

The answer is, it’s two-thirds the inequality, stupid. One third of the difference is due to a technical issue involving price indexes. The rest, however, reflects a shift of income from labor to capital and, within that, a shift of labor income to the top and away from the middle.

... Income stagnation does not reflect overall economic stagnation; the incomes of typical workers would be 30 or 40 percent higher than they are if inequality hadn’t soared.

Happily, Krugman doesn't say whether this is "fair" or "just". Those are meaningless words. Obviously one man's fair is another's unfair. No laws need be broken, though many may be bent. Purchasing politicians may speed the inequality process, but even that is probably not essential.

The interesting questions are

  1. Why did this happen in the late 1970s? What changed? How much of this is a result of computerization, automation, and globalization?
  2. Is this good?
  3. Is this wise?
  4. Should we do anything about it? If so, what should we do?

My answers are

  1. It is technology and globalization, and large corporations changing the ecology of accounting and regulation to perpetuate themselves.
  2. It is not good.
  3. It is not wise. This is a recipe for social collapse.
  4. We should do something. We should tax carbon. We should tax financial transactions. We should institute industrial policies that provide employment to the bottom 60%. We should expect to subsidize employment for the mass disabled of the information age. We should prepare for the AI age.

Your answers may vary.

See also:

Why are Google and Facebook ads so crappy?

In our world billions of dollars are spent trying to get us to read and click ads.


So why are the ads so crappy? Google, which knows more about me than my mother, offered me these two next to my Gmail:
Master of Science Nursing
Earn a CCNE Accredited Masters in Nursing Online - Norwich University...

Overstock iPads 2: $43.20
Today Only: Get 32GB iPads for $43. 1 Per Customer. Limited Quantities...
A probably fake diploma program (or it's Norwich in the UK?!) and a con. Either Google thinks I'm an easy mark (demented already?), or it doesn't really know me after all.

Facebook is no better.

Really, spammers do better. After all, I'm marginally more likely to pay for genital enhancement than to send money to a con man. (I can imagine, for example, developing a brain tumor that might radically change my personality.)

It's not that I'm opposed to viewing ads. I pay $20 a year so that, in part, I can read the ads in Silent Sports.

Let me repeat that one. I actually turn over cold cash to read ads. I'm not the only one. Once upon I would, on occasion, buy a giant monthly phonebook sized slab of newsprint called "Computer Shopper" so I could read the friggin' ads.

I don't read or click Google or Facebook ads. Not because of an ideological objection -- but because they're worthless.

So where are all those billions going? Why doesn't Google or Facebook ask me what ads I'd like to see?

Why am I the only person who seems to notice this? Is it really just me?

There's something very strange going on here.

Microblogging 2012 - Pinboard?

Once every few days to weeks I write a short essay, from a few paragraphs to a few "pages" (remember the page?).  Every few minutes to hours I share a link and a comment from a few words to a pair of paragraphs.

Both forms of writing almost always involve links; they point to a linkable entity.

I have to call the first blogging and the second microblogging because I can't escape the b-word (is there a language in which the name is less painful?).

Whatever the format, I do the writing for same reasons. It's primarily a way for me to learn, think, and remember. I do it publicly because I have the hive-mind communicator gene-set. I want to share the ideas and things that I like.

I want to share -- but sharing has a very important side-effect. Sharing enables indexing.

My extended memory relies on Google Custom Search (oh Google, why has thou forsaken me? I forget too much without you.) Everything I share has an entry in a Custom Search Engine I use several times a day, though recently the embedded ads have become oppressive.

I do the blogging using Google Blogger. I wanted to move to WordPress, but I decided the quality and security issues of an independent WordPress site were too severe for me; I don't have the time. I'm now evaluating a paid account on

The micro-blogging is a bigger problem. I used to use Google Reader Share - one of the lesser known but most beloved products of the days when Google was Anakin. Reader Share died when Google became you-know-what.

Twitter is too constraining and I don't trust Tumblr. After trying several options I settled on Pinboard because of its business model (I pay), sharing/export options, RSS support and, especially, and Instapaper integration. I use IFTTT to republish my Pinboard 's' stream to my Twitter stream, and I'm now experimenting with using IFTTT to repost them to an archival and indexable WordPress or Blogger repository.

The indexable bit is a Pinboard problem. Pinboard's developer does not love microblogging; he wants to have a bookmarking service. Pinboard posts are NOINDEX by design.

Pinboard has other microblogging limitations. I use tags to create routable streams of shared information. Almost all are part of my primary share stream, but some are special sub-streams for my colleagues or for my own reference and actions. Because of the way works many of these are single character tags. This isn't how Pinboard is supposed to work; tags are supposed to be global - not personal. I can't, for example, show only my own tags in the Pinboard UI.

Lastly Pinboard isn't as reliable as Reader Share was - though almost nothing is. Sometimes, when I post, hangs waiting for Pinboard to respond. (The hanging behavior is a design flaw).

I'd be delighted if Maciej Ceglowsk's were more of a microblogging platform. I wish I could see only my own tags for example. Above all, I wish Pinboard included an option to use the Atom publishing protocol to create an indexable and persistent post on a blog. I'd double the amount I pay Maciej for that feature.

I don't hold out too much hope. Pinboard is known to geeks, but it's not a big revenue stream. In a crazy world where a small photo sharing site can be worth a billion dollars, Pinboard is almost an anachronism...

... I wrote Pinboard in the spring of 2009 as a personal project, partly out of frustration with a redesign of Delicious that I felt removed a lot of utility from the site, and partly because I had long wanted to have a bookmarking site that would archive my bookmarks...
... The service has stored about 45 million bookmarks as of January 2012, and has just over 20 thousand active users....

... Pinboard is written in PHP and Perl. The site uses MySQL for data storage, Sphinx for search, and Amazon S3 to store backups....

As a bookmarking service Pinboard is a labor of love. It probably wouldn't do better even if it were extended to be the front end to a standards-based microblogging service - but I hope Maciej will consider the option. There might be some money from current subscribers, and perhaps referral fees if Maciej recommends an optional WordPress service (ex: Dreamhost,

Someday we'll get back to the original Google Reader Shares vision. It might take a while though. After Palm died we were lost in the desert for a decade before we returned to a handheld calendar, tasks, contacts and notes solution. I hope this trip will be a bit shorter.

Update 4/30/12: Maciej is exploring how Pinboard might be a better microblogging profile, and whether it would work to enable Pinboard indexing. In the meanwhile I've turned off IFTTT posting to Blogger and disabled indexing of that test blog. I'll go forward with archiving my Pinboard posts to WordPress -

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Information asymmetry and my Cuisinart coffee maker - Steve Jobs in Hell

Our 15 yo coffee maker finally died. We bought Cuisinart's 2012 equivalent.

It sort of works, much as our current toaster sort of works. Like most of the consumer products we buy, it's firmly trapped in the local quality minima of the Akerlof information asymmetric quality trap. The Cuisinart name, like SONY, is just another meaningless brand, another Apple antithesis.

There are manufacturers who've escaped the quality trap; brands like BMW, Mercedes, Apple, and Shimano. It's remarkable how few succeed, however.

The Cuisinart has  a signature feature that perfectly represents the quality trap. It signals when the water chamber is empty. This isn't an essential feature, but it's not necessarily worthless. A soft pulsing light would be fine, or a gentle chime. Alas, the signal is four piercing beeps that would be awful in an alarm clock. The cheapest possible signal.

If there were a Hell, and if Steve Jobs were in it, this would be his coffee maker.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Optimism bias in Potter fan-fic, software development, and government - we can correct

There may be atheists in foxholes, but there are few realists in the C-suite - or the White House.

Optimists rule, and they scorn realists as "pessimists" and "Cassandras" [1]. No matter than Kassandra Krugman is always right - still he is called Crow.

It smells like natural selection. In a universe where entropy rules, denial is a survival trait. Group selection, however, sprinkles a few realists about - grumpily cursed (by Apollo) to see things as they are.

Yes, the glass is half full. But that's good, because the wine is poisoned.

I think we're an oppressed minority.

No wonder realists love empiricism. Facts are our friends. We realists welcome science disguised in Harry Potter fan-fic ...

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Chapter 6: The Planning Fallacy (I added some paragraphs, emphases mine)

... "Muggle researchers have found that people are always very optimistic, like they say something will take two days and it takes ten, or they say it'll take two months and it takes over thirty-five years. Like, they asked students for times by which they were 50% sure, 75% sure, and 99% sure they'd complete their homework, and only 13%, 19%, and 45% of the students finished by those times. And they found that the reason was that when they asked people for their best-case estimates if everything went as well as possible, and their average-case estimates if everything went as normal, they got back answers that were statistically indistinguishable....

.... See, if you ask someone what they expect in the normal case, they visualize what looks like the line of maximum probability at each step along the way - namely, everything going according to plan, without any mistakes or surprises. But actually, since more than half the students didn't finish by the time they were 99% sure they'd be done, reality usually delivers results a little worse than the 'worst-case scenario'....

... It's called the planning fallacy, and the best way to fix it is to ask how long things took the last time you tried them. That's called using the outside view instead of the inside view. But when you're doing something new and can't do that, you just have to be really, really, really pessimistic. Like, so pessimistic that reality actually comes out better than you expected around as often and as much as it comes out worse. It's actually really hard to be so pessimistic that you stand a decent chance of undershooting real life. Like I make this big effort to be gloomy and I imagine one of my classmates getting bitten, but what actually happens is that the surviving Death Eaters attack the whole school to get at me...

It's music to my ears.

In my small world I see this every day. My optimist friend tells me it takes 30 minutes to enter expenses, but I track these things and I know it takes 1-2 hours. Another optimist says we'll deliver a new software feature in two months; I know that five months is optimistic and 8 months more realistic.

When we follow Agile Software Development rules, however, we base our estimates on examples from previous "sprints". We take "take the outside view". It works!

The Outside View is why Chile makes reasonable predictions about government finance, while elected officials force the CBO an artificial Planning Fallacy... (emphases mine ....).

Bias in Government Forecasts | Jeff Frankels (via Mark Thoma)

Why do so many countries so often wander far off the path of fiscal responsibility? Concern about budget deficits has become a burning political issue in the United States, has helped persuade the United Kingdom to enact stringent cuts despite a weak economy, and is the proximate cause of the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, which has grown to engulf the entire eurozone. Indeed, among industrialized countries, hardly a one is immune from fiscal woes.

Clearly, part of the blame lies with voters who don’t want to hear that budget discipline means cutting programs that matter to them, and with politicians who tell voters only what they want to hear. But another factor has attracted insufficient notice: systematically over-optimistic official forecasts.

... Over the period 1986-2009, the bias in official U.S. deficit forecasts averaged 0.4 % of GDP at the one-year horizon, 1% at two years, and 3.1% at three years. Forecasting errors were particularly damaging during the past decade. The U.S. government in 2001-03, for example, was able to enact large tax cuts and accelerated spending measures by forecasting that budget surpluses would remain strong. The Office of Management and Budget long turned out optimistic budget forecasts, no matter how many times it was proven wrong. For eight years, it never stopped forecasting that the budget would return to surplus by 2011, even though virtually every independent forecast showed that deficits would continue into the new decade unabated.

... to get optimistic fiscal forecasts out of the Congressional Budget Office a third, more extreme, strategy was required....

... To understand the third strategy, begin with the requirement that CBO’s baseline forecasts must take their tax and spending assumptions from current law. Elected officials in the last decade therefore hard-wired over-optimistic budget forecasts from CBO by excising from current law expensive policies that they had every intention of pursuing in the future. Often they were explicit about the difference between their intended future policies and the legislation that they wrote down.

Four examples: (i) the continuation of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which were paid for with “supplemental” budget requests when the time came, as if they were an unpredictable surprise); (ii) annual revocation of purported cuts in payments to doctors that would have driven them out of Medicare if ever allowed to go into effect; (iii) annual patches for the Alternative Minimum Tax (which otherwise threatened to expose millions of middle class families to taxes that had never been intended to apply to them); and (iv) the intended extension in 2011 of the income tax cuts and estate tax abolition that were legislated in 2001 with a sunset provision for 2010, which most lawmakers knew would be difficult to sustain... can governments’ tendency to satisfy fiscal targets by wishful thinking be overcome? In 2000, Chile created structural budget institutions that may have solved the problem. Independent expert panels, insulated from political pressures, are responsible for estimating the long-run trends that determine whether a given deficit is deemed structural or cyclical.

The result is that, unlike in most industrialized countries, Chile’s official forecasts of growth and fiscal performance have not been overly optimistic, even in booms. The ultimate demonstration of the success of the country’s fiscal institutions: unlike many countries in the North, Chile took advantage of the 2002-2007 expansion to run substantial budget surpluses, which enabled it to loosen fiscal policy in the 2008-2009 recession ... 

Humans are programmed to be foolishly optimistic, but group selection keeps realists around so that famines don't quite kill everyone. 

If we know that our programming is defective, we can correct. Realists know we can learn, because sometimes we do learn.

[1] Update: I should add that Cassandra, was, of course, the ultimate realist. She was always right. Her Curse wasn't pessimism, it was that the Apollo made humans deaf to her warnings. The ancient Greeks apparently understood the planning fallacy. True pessimists probably exist, but they are rare enough that one should consider coexisting clinical depression.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bicycling: How to respond to an unwise driver?

It wasn't even close. When the commercial lawn care pickup [3], MN YBB 1778, squeezed towards me I just moved right. Missed me by at least 3 feet.

I wasn't surprised. I had my eye on him at a prior intersection. He was only one of several drivers doing badly on a gray rainy morning. I suspect a lot of people slept poorly last night.

Still, it is unpleasant when this happens. In a follow-up "conversation" I heard his perspective. He felt I'd "cut him off" when I took my lane about 40 feet prior to the intersection [1]. So he tried to pass me, but of course there wasn't time, so when he pulled into the stop sign he also pulled into me (except I moved).

Clearly, he's not an ace driver; but he's not exceptional. If we eliminated every imperfect driver on the road our economy would crater. Half the population has below-average judgment. Many men, and quite a few women, will respond angrily to an apparent challenge (esp. from an obviously inferior vehicle). A lot of drivers don't remember the rules of the road. People age, rules change, only the extremely aged have to retake driving exams [2].

So I don't want the driver to be ticketed. He's below average, but a lot of drivers are. Education would be a great idea however. Does anyone know a mechanism to send educational information for a situation like this? Is this something the police will do?

[1] Note to non-cyclists: We claim our lane before intersections because one of the most common driving errors is turning right in front of a bicycle at an intersection -- often because the driver doesn't see the bicycle, or because they unconsciously (or consciously) think they have the right of way.
[2] Which is, of course, ridiculous. We should all have to do an online or in person exam every 2-5 years. I think we'll have autonomous vehicles before we get to that however.
[3] I think this was a Steigauf Brothers Inc, 1456 Osceola Ave, Saint Paul, MN 55105-2311 vehicle, but I would not swear to that. The location was right. I did send Steigauf Bros a note.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why we need Google Glasses (really)

There are lots of parodies of Google Glasses. I haven't bothered with them though; too easy a target and the technology seemed pointless.

Until I realized that we will all wear them one day.

No, I'm not crazy. There's a reason.

The reason is that, sadly, it's starting to look like prolonged sitting really is bad for us. It's not just lack of exercise, and it's not just obesity, there seems to be something fundamentally unhealthy about sitting.

So we need to walk more. We also need to be able to work while we walk, and office treadmills aren't feasible.

Enter Google Googles with voice recognition.

Spam-Cram epidemic means SMS dies sooner

The ailing hippo of SMS texting is under attack. iOS/OS X Message is at its throat, Google Voice SMS is on its back, and now the hyenas of spam-cram are on every limb.

Last November I thought SMS had only 2-3 years left, but since then text spam has taken off. Lately text spam seems to be used to trigger inadvertent cram-contracts, like the BuneUS Mblox cram that hit our family plan.

The attack rate may be higher than we think. Since I posted on this yesterday I've had 1 friend and 1 colleague tell me they discovered SMS-triggered spam-cram on their phone bill.  Incidentally, AT&T isn't always as quick to reverse charges as they were with me. [1]

From what I have learned about SIM-boxes and the history of spam-cram in China post unlimited texting, there's no fix coming. The only fix for cramming is for Verizon and AT&T to give up on selling ring tones and weather forecasts -- and to forego their 30-50% cut of cramming revenue. The only fix for SMS spam is to turn off SMS, or to turn off unlimited SMS then block traffic from networks that offer unlimited SMS.

Actually, I should say there's no carrier-fix coming. There is a simple fix:

  1. Phone immediately and put a block on "third party charges". (See details.)
  2. Stop using SMS. Start using iMessage or Google Voice -- and, no, they don't interoperate.

See also:

[1] I told the poor rep repeatedly that I wasn't angry with him and thought he was doing a fine job. I did tell him what I thought of AT&T and asked if he could pass that message on. I think the grinding of my teeth might have shortened the discussion time -- he skipped to the refund step immediately.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Boomers and modern medicine - the economic impact of ailing parents

It seems like all of my friends and colleagues are managing ailing parents - all at once.

Coincidence? Probably not. The 'baby boomers' were a big demographic bulge and we're now between 50 and 60 years old. Our parents are between 70 and 90. Modern medicine has compressed mortality, so a good percentage of boomer parents are still alive. In ten years most of them will be dead.

I wonder what the economic impact of this concentrated elder care will be?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Crammed: Mblox $9.99 a month

I've been expecting this; I'm just surprised it took this long. There was a wee note on my online statement "AT&T monthly subscriptions" "billed usage" - $9.99 for Mblox $9.99 subscription:IQ31CALL8668611606 (BuneUS). (BuneUS is a popular scam, I wonder if my 15 yo unwittingly replied to the scam text.)

I've been crammed. As if AT&T's text spam weren't enough.

I called and, of course, AT&T will reverse the charge. It's the same way they manage text spam -- if you call in the charges will be reversed. Takes a bit of time, but AT&T will happily do it. If you don't call, AT&T will happily keep their profit.

That's not why I'm posting about this though. We don't need another reason to hate AT&T, we hates 'em well enough already.

I'm writing because, unlike texting, there's a fix for cramming. I've not seen it before, but I'm not sure it's new.

AT&T has a free "parental controls purchase blocker". It requires a phone call -- they don't want to make this too easy. I phoned and had all of our family plan numbers blocked -- this blocks ring tones, AT&T product purchases, cramming purchases -- everything. AT&T did insist on sending me a PIN I could use to buy ring tones -- even though I didn't want it.

It's something we should all do. On your mobile dial 611, wade through some voice mail, and ask the rep to block it all on all lines.

See also:

Update: Since posting this I've gotten several reports of cramming associated with text spam. The NYT article from 4/8/12 matches my experience ...

Cellphone Cramming Gets a Second Look -

.. Both AT&T and Verizon deflected any talk of financial upsides of this whole SMS arrangement, but it’s generally understood that roughly one-third to half of the revenue generated by third-party providers goes to carriers. Which leads the Haggler to believe that if the SMS system were set up by a disinterested party, rather than one that is sharing the profit, it would look much more consumer-friendly.

AND now some odds and ends as we wrap up our two-part episode on cramming: The Haggler asked the Federal Communications Commission to explain what’s so hard about cracking down on this con — but received a response so anodyne and unilluminating that, as an act of mercy to both readers and the F.C.C. it won’t be excerpted here. AT&T and Verizon both said that they would block all third-party charges for any customer who calls and requests such a block, at no charge. If you’ve been crammed by Wise Media and want to complain, you can do so through the Georgia governor’s Office of Consumer Protection, at Tell ‘em the Haggler sent you.

AT&T, meantime, said it would not allow Wise Media to sell any “new content” to consumers, which means that if you signed up for HoroscopeGenie, rest assured that you’ll continue to get it. And if you didn’t sign up for HoroscopeGenie, but are currently getting it anyway, fret not — it’ll keep coming.

Global Warming 2012 - Are the Denialists really winning?

This Telegraph article is primarily about a Hansen lecture on humanity's failure to think rationally about climate change, but I found the "Global Warming Policy Foundation" [1] funded response ironically interesting ...

Climate scientists are losing the public debate on global warming - Telegraph

... Dr Benny Peiser, director of sceptical think tank The Global Warming Policy Foundation, said governments and the public had "more urgent problems to deal with" than tackling climate change.

He said: "People have become bored by some of the rhetoric from the green movement as they have other things to worry about.

"In reality the backlash against climate change has very little to do with the sceptics. We will take credit for instilling some debate but it is mainly an economic issue. Climate change is not seen as being urgent any more."...

Over the past decade it seems the Denialist line has shifted from "it's not happening" to "it's not due to CO2 emissions" to "it's boring and not urgent".

That's a pretty radical retreat, even as public support for reducing emissions has collapsed in the face of the Lesser Depression (which is very severe now in the UK).

Contrary to the tone of the article, I call this progress. In the real world, the bad guys rarely fall on their knees and declare they were wrong. Yes, there were tobacco executives who did publicly repent, often after they or their loved ones developed lung cancer, but by then they weren't tobacco company executives any more. This denialist declaration of victory is, ironically, an admission of defeat.

Progress is very non-linear. The Lesser Depression will make action very difficult, even as it reduces carbon emissions far more than any tax ever could. Even so, I think we're moving into an era when the interesting debates begin. Debates about risks and costs, about climate engineering vs energy conservation, about who pays and who benefits and what is possible when. Those are debates about values and judgment as much as science.

[1] Funded by Michael Hintze, a hedge fund billionaire. Other funders are not known, but one assumes the usual suspects (Koch, Exxon, etc).

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Song of Ice and Fire - don't start

Today there are 182 1 star reviews of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 4. If you haven't started the series, even if you've digested the first book, I urge you to read a few. For example....

...  GRRM will end up breaking our hearts. He is notorious for not keeping notes and "writing from his mind". So unlike Jordan, who had extensive outlines, notes and ideas for a future ghostwriter to work from in the event of his untimely death, GRRM may leave nothing but an unfinished series...

... The book is filled with plodding, excruciatingly descriptive chapters about the ASOIAF world that don't do much to move the plot forward. Half the chapters consist of characters traveling from point A to point B, or they feel like info-dumps. What happened to the story?...

... feel really ripped off and abused by this book. It is truly awful - not only dull, but positively unpleasant. I started to wonder if he was having a miserable divorce while writing it, because he seems suddenly to have it in for women. So many of the women characters in this book are the same: scheming, mean, controlling, lewd b------. It's the same idea, over and over.

He's awful in what he has happen to the two positive female characters in the book. Everything is negative and horrid in this story. There is no one to root for, not even a couple of characters who were very appealing in the other books.... ... He actually admits in the preface that he had trouble with the book, wrote it far too long and so cut it in half, with all the good characters left out of this one!!!!! It's worse than that - he didn't put much plot in it either...

It's rare in Amazon land to find such a long series of reviews that express my own feelings so well. This series is the Turkish Delight of the fantasy genre -- tasty at first, then vaguely distasteful, and finally calling for an intervention. By the time I got to the fate of Brienne I needed a long shower and a lot of fresh air. Yech.

If you dislike books, and especially series of books, that start without an end in mind - then skip Fire and Ice.

You have been warned.

Update 4/15/12: The Dance with Dragons reviews are equally scathing -- and rather brilliant in places. For example ...

So here is a release schedule, with my estimated projections into the future, giving George 5 years to complete each future volume:

Part I, Vol 1 (A Game of Thrones): 1996Part I, Vol 2 (A Clash of Kings): 1998Part I, Vol 3 (A Storm of Swords): 2000

Part 1.5, Vol 1 (A Feast for Crows): 2005Part 1.5, Vol 2 (A Dance with Dragons): 2011Part 1.5, Vol 3 ... 2016 (Climax in Meereen)

Part 2, Vol 1 .... 2021 Dany reaches Westeros)Part 2, Vol 2 .... 2026Part 2, Vol 3 .... 2031

Part 3, Vol 1 .... 2036Part 3, Vol 2 .... 2041Part 3, Vol 3 .... 2046

The series will never be finished.

Stories in passing

Some years ago a man named Rob N. told me he was a keen reader of this blog. Those were the days of Bush and Cheney, and I often posted on the ills done by them and in their name. Rob implied he was a Republican, but for some reason he liked the blog. He was a fan of Gordon's Notes, one of a very select group.

He friended me on Facebook; he was perhaps the only "friend" of mine on Facebook who I truly didn't know.

He didn't post on his Facebook page -- except to share some of my Notes. The last one he shared there was from November 22 2011.

By a chance, for I could easily have missed the Facebook "tag", I learned that he died April 5th, 2012, aged 44. He was a pharmacist and Preventive Medicine clinician in the US Army, "from Gulfport Mississippi". I've been to that town, I don't know if he was stationed there or born there. Looking at his Friends and Family he had at least one daughter who is 12 years old.

Ours is not, by nature, a kind world. Be kind to someone today.

Update: Roger Ebert today: I remember you.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mobile carriers to attack Apple's margins?

When I researched replacing a stolen iPhone I was a bit surprised to learn that AT&T offers high value (corporate?) accounts a contract extension and subsidized iPhone upgrade as frequently as every 12 months. I did know that even a non-elite account are often eligible for subsidized iPhones (and contract extensions) after 18 months; 6 months ahead of the official end of contract.

This is surprising because AT&T probably pays Apple something like $550 for a 4S with a contract-price of $300 4S [1]. (I'd have to pay $750 were I to buy the same phone without a contract). Assuming AT&T gets a margin of $40 a month from each iPhone customer, it would take 6-7 months to start making money on the deal -- and a yearly subsidy means only five months of profit. (Customers who don't upgrade their phones on contract termination, but who stay with the AT&T's pricy plans, are pure profit. Carriers probably have rude nicknames for them.)

So why does AT&T offer this early renewal option at the same time that they're hiking upgrade fees (from $20 to $40 recently), SMS fees, and capping data on "unlimited" plans -- even as Apple kneecaps them with iMessage and FaceTime?

Presumably because, until recently, they thought they didn't have a choice. If AT&T reduced their subsidies, Verizon would take their customers. That's how competition works. The only way to escape this trap is to collude with competitors, so everyone agrees to confront Apple at the same time.

Collusion is, of course, illegal. I assume there are ways to do it though - certainly airlines seem to manage it. Signaling intent by coordinated media leaks for example (emphases mine) ....

Apple analyst raises estimated EPS 39%, downgrades stock - Apple 2.0 - Fortune Tech

The commentary by wireless operators is likely to be decidedly more firm in how they plan to continue to hold back the rising phone upgrade rates that are hurting their margins. Even weak operators like Sprint, which has a large contractual commitment with Apple, will likely experience a decline in iPhone sales based in part on changes to its upgrade policies last year. They will not be alone as we expect a similar trend at Verizon, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, America Movil and Telefonica, to name a few. In the United States, we expect iPhone sales to decline 4 million sequentially to 9 million with the largest impact coming from AT&T, Apple's largest customer.

Coordinated price increases are a tricky business, but clearly the carriers are desperate. Since Google's Android margins are almost zero, the carriers can't extract much money from them. They must be hoping that Microsoft/Nokia will save them, in which case I wonder if they'll offer Lumia contract upgrades before iPhone contract upgrades.

It's going to be interesting to see how this plays out, and how this strategy fits with AT&T's newly less restrictive unlock policy (aligns with Verizon). AT&T is making it curiously appealing for iPhone customers to move somewhere, anywhere, else.

Of course Apple has options too. They could respond by promoting pay-go options and cutting the cost of an unlocked iPhone to, say, $600. In that case, many of us would do what smart Europeans do -- buy the device outright and pay much less in monthly fees.

A dangerous road ...

See also:

[1] I am making these numbers up using some half-educated guesses. If you know some real numbers send them on! I couldn't find any, it's highly proprietary information of course.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Modern Firm - a review

I like to read management books years after they're popular, not least for the unintended humor.

In 2004, for example, John Roberts' ($6 used, including shipping) used Nokia and BP as shining examples of corporate excellence, but mentioned Apple only as a company led astray by a CEO's enthusiam -- for the Newton.

Obviously things look different now. BP's fast moving culture led to the Deepwater Horizon spill and Nokia's pride blinded them to the Doom of Cupertino.

Of course if that's all there was to Roberts' book, I wouldn't be writing about it now. Yes, like all business books from The Prince to the latest fad, there's a healthy helping of CEO sychophancy in addition to the usual misguided analyses of the gem of the moment. Happily though, there's also a solid review of the history of corporate economics.

It's the economic history that's worth the $6. In particular, Chapter 3 on the "Nature and Purpose of the Firm" alone is worth the (used) price of admission. From Smith to Coase to Akerlof and information asymmetry Roberts ties together themes I've been pecking at for years.

Economic models aside, what else is interesting in the book? After a decade years of participant observation of the mysterious Peoples of the Firm I did find a few reasons to read the later chapters. Nokia is a great lesson of a corporation that did a lot of things, maybe most things, right -- and yet still got clobbered. It's worth remembering that sometimes stuff happens. If Steve Jobs had stayed at Disney Nokia might still be great. I recommend reading the chapters on "motivation", exploitation and exploration, and organizational structure to better understand why CEOs follow consulting company recommendations. These chapters can also help you catch the warning signs that you're in a dying division.

It's a good enough book, not least because of the quaint hand drawn diagrams, but there's much more to be told in books to come. 21st century corporations aren't really the kinds of machines Roberts dreams of -- they're more like feudal kingdoms or ecosystems rife with agendas and conspiracies (and now, of course, now they're Persons). Perhaps for reasons of self-preservation, and the timing of the book, Roberts steers clear of corrosive impact of winner-take-all executive compensation (watch for problems to come at Apple). He barely mentions China (2004 is a long time ago) and the role of economic geography and innovation clusters. There's nothing about how corporations use finance as weapon, or about regulatory capture, or the role of talent. Unsurprisingly, he's not interested in the corporation as an ant-hill like emergent entity.

The story of the 21st century corporation is yet to be told. I wonder if we'll have to wait for a (sentient) Corporation to write its own story.

See also:

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Thinking about autism

There is truth here  ...

The Autism Wars -

...The term has become so diffuse in the public mind that people start to see it as a fad,” said Emily Willingham, who is a co-editor of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism.” “If we could identify individual needs based on specific gaps, instead of considering autism itself as a disorder, that would be preferable. We all have our gaps that need work.”...

Practically speaking, however, it will take years to separate services from labels -- even when the label are not terribly useful. The legal and regulatory framework is rigid by design.

Why did AT&T end its iPhone eternal carrier-lock program?

AT&T is ending it's post-contract carrier-lock program.

This is unexpected good news for current AT&T iPhone customers. Our used iPhones will become more valuable, particularly in the overseas market. It will be even simpler to use cost-effective services like H2O Wireless. The value and price of a used iPhone should increase, though it never fell as much as I'd expected (perhaps because the overseas device demand remained high despite AT&T's carrier-lock).

It's bad news for the unlocking industry, though they will still have work to do. It will also decrease Apple's sales of its $700+ unlocked devices.

It's mixed news for AT&T. More customers will do as we have, handing old iPhones off to our kids (not to bring to high school though!) with H20 Wireless SIMs rather than paying AT&T's high family plan texting and data fees. That will reduce AT&T revenue, but, on the other hand, AT&T wasn't earning any friends with their unusually restrictive policies. Macintouch reader reports have been aflame with posts by irate customers newly discovering that the phone they'd purchased for by contract and fee still belonged to AT&T. I'd sent my own letters off to a senator and the FCC. I've also wondered if a creative lawyer might decide that post-contract carrier locking was a form of theft.

The policy wasn't earning Apple any friends either, since AT&T routinely shifted blame to Apple. (Since Verizon and Sprint have had much less restrictive policies few believed AT&T.)

So why did AT&T, a carrier desperately seeking fees to offset the end of SMS, cave now? Did the timing have anything to do with Tim Cook's forcing Apple to unlock a single customer's iPhone two weeks ago? Did AT&T jump, or were they pushed?

I think, even though the decision is somewhat in AT&T's interests, that they were pushed. Pushed by Apple, pushed by the FCC, pushed by US Senators, and, recently, pushed by the press. When sites like Macintouch and mainstream blogs start to figure things out, the NYT is not far behind [2].

I'll try unlocking our 3 older devices in a few weeks and I'll post what I learn on

[1] Even as Apple enables iMessage on data and FaceTime on WiFi for all iOS devices. Sometimes I wonder if Cook despises AT&T.
[2] Marginal stories like this one take years to get from geek and specialist blogs to the NYT. Bigger issue stories tend to break everywhere, not least starting with the NYT.

Update 8/31/2012: A bit late, but after 3 unlocks I write a summary post.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Why we tolerate Facebook, but despise Google

Google is dead to us. Dead to we who admired, even liked, the Google of Schmidt and Brin.

I read Google's blogs, but they bore me. I use Google services every hour of the waking day, but sadly. Inside Google, morale is poor. At a meeting of data geeks, where once Google ruled, no-one speaks their name. Dying Yahoo gets more love. Hearts yearn for broken old Microsoft.

Why is this, some wonder? Is Google really more evil than Exxon or Facebook? I don't love Apple, but I buy their stuff willingly. I use Facebook, even though I'd never sell it to anyone.

Is it merely Google's hypocrisy?

It's more than hypocrisy.

We trusted Google. It wasn't just marketing, Google's actions were different from other public companies. That's why we gave Google control of our email, why we used Google's search tools, why I signed up for Blogger, why, even a year ago, when I should have known better, I let Google manage my net identity.

We were wrong. We feel betrayed.

Google made me feel stupid.

That's why we despise Google.

See also:

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Side-effect of the iOS in-app purchase model - the reviews are worthless

I haven't seen this mentioned elsewhere, so I'll get it on the record here.

Prior to the introduction of in-app purchases there was a difference between reviews of "free" (ad-supported) apps and honest apps. Reviews of free apps were worthless; a mix of fly-by reviews and scan reviews paid for by app revenue. Reviews of honest, pay for what you get, apps were useful. It was relatively costly to pay for a large number of favorable reviews.

With in-app purchasing freemium model apps though, the reviews ad-supported app quality - worth nothing.

Why doesn't the world's richest company make better software?

People who make their money on selling shares claim Apple stock will rise ...
Apple expected to become world's first trillion-dollar company by 2014 
... Shares of Apple have been projected to reach $1,000 in calendar year 2014, which would give the company a market capitalization of about a trillion dollars...
Maybe they're right, though similar things were once said of Microsoft -- and probably Hughes in its heyday. Certainly I cannot remember a company like Steve Jobs' Apple.

Which brings me to a puzzle. With all of its vast wealth, why isn't Apple's product quality better?

Over the past few weeks, for example, I've spent far too many hours managing quality problems in OS X Lion, iMovie, Aperture, iCloud and Time Capsule. Not to mention iWork.

Apple's software quality isn't necessarily worse than Microsoft or Adobe's quality, but it's not much better. So why don't they produce better quality products? It's clearly not a matter of money. Perhaps more importantly, will they ever pay a price for their poor quality?

I remember when Dell's product quality fell. It was a few years before their share price declined ...