Tuesday, December 24, 2013

government exists to support the best instincts and constrain the worst instincts of the citizenry

Collective action is a great thing when the action involved is well considered, and in such cases the involvement of government in some capacity is frequently appropriate.

Mob-like action, on the other hand, demands an altogether different sort of involvement from government, even when it occurs on the floor of a stock exchange or in the executive offices of America's largest coroporations.

One of central myths of our society is that "greed is good" (so long as you play by the rules in pursuing it), that, on balance, it results in more benefit than damage generally. While this may seem an iffy proposition, it's one that most of us have more or less agreed to provisionally pretend is true, so government comes down on the side of supporting a little greed here and there, with the details depending significantly upon which party is in power at the moment, and only constraining cases where it's clearly gone over the top, again with the details being party-dependent. So long as government doesn't become either too much a matter of providing favors to friends and allies, or too negligent, this is actually a passably workable situation.

The predicament we find ourselves in at the moment, is that we have been sold the notion that greed without limit or concomitant responsibility is good, combined with the notion that the aspiration to flatten the distribution of income and wealth is some sort of social disease.

What worries me in the discussion about the secret operation of agencies such as the NSA, is the possibility that they might view their role as serving this twisted version of American values.

We are too big and interconnected a society, with far too much momentum, to rely upon revolution as a remedy for a government gone Tory. We must make our institutions work properly.

right to privacy inversely proportional to the impact on others (or the planet) of one's actions

The more one's choices affect others, the more they are the business of others.

The more one's choices affect the planet, including issues such as diffuse pollution, degradation of biodiversity, paving over arable land, and so forth, the more they are everyone's business.

So in matters involving either widespread or deep impact on others or the planet, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Icahn't understand why they cling to the nest egg

Proving that not every billionaire is terribly bright, Carl Icahn once again displays his failure to comprehend why it might be better for Apple (and its investors) for the company to hold onto the majority of its investments. Apparently he assumes that if they were to pour those assets into buying back stock that it would increase the price per share, and therefore the value of his own holdings. Superficially, that makes sense, but if you credit Apple management with being clever about how they've invested all those billions, and you should, then maybe not.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

choice is not an unmitigated good

Choice is of relatively little value when it resembles a minefield, when all of the available choices are poor or worse.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Steve Jobs' posthumous coup de maître

Who knew that Laurene Powell Jobs was brilliant? Well, probably anyone close to the family, but in particular Steve himself, and, in putting her on public display as he was dying, and leaving everything to her, he acted like a volleyball player setting the ball for another to spike. We've only begun to hear from LPJ; get used to it!

Saturday, October 05, 2013

where's the better alternative to ObamaCare?

If the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party hates ObamaCare so much, they should be offering a better alternative, like single payer.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

one way Apple could respond to the e-book judgement

Assuming they don't win a reversal of the e-book judgement on appeal, Apple still has options.

One option would be for them to move the preponderance of the code in the iBooks app into iOS and OSX, making it available through a new high-level API, so publishers could easily build their own apps based on the Apple code, providing a relatively uniform experience for users, and an opportunity for Apple to incorporate indexes to the collections in these other apps into its own iBooks app, or into a new utility that treated iBooks as just another instance of the category.

Presumably Amazon would also take advantage of this code to build their own iOS/OSX reader.

As for sales, besides the iBooks Store, Apple could offer to host, for a nominal fee, publisher-specific stores that worked with the apps based on Apple's iBooks code and used Apple's payment system, as well as allowing those apps to work with non-hosted stores.

The advantage to Apple is that it would make it possible for them to make their platforms clearly superior for e-book reading, through API improvements that would improve the behavior of all apps based on that API, including Amazon's, giving publishers an even better reason than they already have to be on Apple's platforms.

Smaller publishers and independent authors would still choose the iBooks Store. Medium-sized publishers might opt for their own stores, hosted by Apple. The largest publishers would most likely prefer to host their own stores in-house, but still take advantage of Apple's e-reader code.

While it's unlikely those opting for publisher-specific stores would agree to Apple's usual 30% cut, Apple could set a lower commission for hosted stores, say 20%, and a still-lower commission for independent stores, say 10%, and continue to garner revenue from the e-book business.

How Apple could monitor sales via independent stores and collect their 10% isn't clear to me, but I'm fairly confident they could find a way of doing so, and by making this their standard approach to the business they could at least put Amazon in the position of having to choose between coughing up 10% of sales or doing without access to the API that enabled a uniform reading experience.

two wrongs don't make a right, but some wrongs are more dangerous than others

Cult of Mac has published a thoughtful piece about the e-book antitrust case against Apple and a collection of publishers with whom Apple was working to build its iBook Store business, in which they link to another thoughtful piece, published by FORTUNE.

The FORTUNE article asks one very poignant question, “Why the Justice Department chose to prosecute the new entrant in the e-book market, and not the monopolist.”

To me it looks like the DoJ chose the safer target. With all of the patent litigation in which it is embroiled, Apple's star is already tarnished. Also, the notion that there might be something illegal about raising prices (conspiring to do so, actually) is likely to play well with the public.

Everything else being equal, lower prices are generally in the public interest. I say 'generally' because there are exceptions. Too low a price on gasoline, for example, would forestall development of alternatives to the internal combustion engine until the last drop of petroleum had been pumped from the ground.

In the case of e-books, the logic is a little different. Let's start by examining the costs involved in publishing books on paper. First there's the compensation to the author, without which many books would never be written. It's not that authors are greedy, but that they need to be able to treat writing as a full-time job to get anything done. They need to be able to live off the proceeds of their writing. Some manage a comfortable living this way; more live on a shoestring.

Then there's the costs to the publisher, which include managerial overhead as well as editing, typography, graphics, and making sure all the legal ducks are lined up. Then come costs for printing, distribution, and publicity, frequently including author tours.

E-books replace the costs of printing and distribution with the negligible cost of a download, making it reasonable that they should be less expensive than the print versions of the same books, but how much less expensive? One could argue that since they seemingly reduce all incremental costs to that of the bandwidth used by downloads, there is no limit to how low the price can go, since the fixed costs can be spread over arbitrarily large sales figures. The flaw in that argument is that one incremental cost remains in the e-book scenario, market saturation, so price reductions will not necessarily result in a proportionally larger market.

The Amazon model is akin to a print distributor which has purchased the right to reproduce and sell some title, for a flat fee plus marginal royalties. The Apple model is like a distributor which charges a percentage of the retail price, paying for printing out of its cut. Neither of these is necessarily better or more appropriate than the other; they're just different.

The problem with Amazon's use of their model is that they have engaged in predatory pricing, sometimes selling e-books below their cost, with the result that they have very little competition.

The problem with Apple's model is that the publishers liked it so much that they wanted to force it on Amazon.

So DoJ hauls Apple into court, and orders it to change its model. Go figure.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Apple should get into the bus manufacturing business (for example)

Okay, maybe not bus manufacturing, but the point here is broader than that.

I've spent about a quarter century in the transit business, 14 years of that as a bus driver. I've driven vintage GMCs, Mercedes, and Carpenters, and new-at-the-time Blue Birds (they used to make transit buses) and Gilligs. That phase, driving, ended in 1997, but since then I've mostly gotten around by bus and bring that experience as a driver to the table in evaluating the buses I've been on as a rider.

To distill that experience into a single observation, it seems to me that bus manufacturers must have a difficult time hanging onto good engineers. (If you're an engineer, working for a bus manufacturer, how many resumes have you sent out in the last year?)

Bus manufacturers are primarily two things: they actually build the coaches or have them built to spec, possibly starting with a purchased frame, and they act as systems integrators, incorporating major components like engines and transmissions as well as minor components like signage and security systems, delivering it all as a package.

Each of these components may have troubles of its own, but in addition to that there are typically problems with the integration of components, and during the break-in period a good deal of debugging must be done before the buses are really ready for service.

In addition to the above, the underlying technology is on the cusp of change, with electric drive having become a practical, affordable alternative to mechanical drive, and rapid progress in battery and supercapacitor technology, as well as sensors, controllers, and electronics of all types. The list of potential improvements is practically endless, but the pace at which they are actually finding their way into each year's new models is embarrassingly slow.

This is a situation ripe for an Apple-style intervention, much as they intervened in the cellular industry with the iPhone, setting the bar higher for the industry as a whole.

It might be a bigger deviation from their core business than Apple would care to make, and there might be another company better positioned to step in, but that notion of intervention still applies.

For Apple such a move would have a profound effect on their brand, assuming they were to use "Apple" in this context. (Note that they don't with FileMaker, which is much closer to their core business.) Initially it would be incongruous, but over time people would come to think of Apple as an approach rather than as a product range, so it might actually be beneficial. Moreover, it would be bold, and people admire boldness.

With respect to Apple, the real point here is that one shouldn't count out the possibility of them doing something as surprising as getting into bus manufacturing, because it isn't a safe assumption that they won't, and the sluggards in whatever industry they do move into had better sharpen up their game if they don't want to be left in the dust.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

society (a.k.a. government) has an obligation to ensure necessary basic research

Society has an obligation to ensure necessary research for which there is no profit motive, or for which the profit motive acts to distort the outcome of the research. Note that I did not say an obligation to fund such research, although that will frequently be the only way to make sure it happens.

In some cases, of course, such as research into MS or cancer, government needn't foot the entire bill, since private donations are significant, but for basic science where it isn't yet known whether any practical application might result, and especially for the investigation of potential collateral effects of developments which have moved into the realm of privately funded applied research, the onus is upon government to take the initiative, in the latter case because companies which stand to profit from the deployment of novel products cannot be trusted to investigate whether that deployment should be allowed.

Take, for instance, the effects of neonicotinoids on bees. How much can you trust studies saying that such concerns are overblown, when those studies have been paid for by the companies which profit from the sale of neonicotinoid-based products.

On the other hand, if the burden for such investigations into collateral effects were to fall entirely on government, that would leave no incentive for the companies involved to constrain their submissions to a likely few. Continuing with the chemical example, they might submit every compound they were able to synthesize and bog down the system to the point that there weren't enough qualified people on the planet to conduct the needed research. So at least some of that cost should be borne by those who stand to profit.

Moreover, it makes sense that the entire cost of determining whether a product should be allowed on the market should be paid for out of profits rather than taxes, so perhaps government should conduct whatever research is needed and then bill the company submitting the provisional product. To take this one step further, perhaps the payment of that bill should take the form of company stock, at market value, so the more often a company proposed a new product, necessitating a new round of research to assure the safety of that product, the more it would become publicly owned. In some cases, of course, the government could end up owning the company, since the cost of conducting the necessary research might exceed the company's market cap.

No doubt this would dramatically slow the introduction of new products to market, particularly in the chemical industry, and, at least in that case, that would be a welcome result. We need to be much more careful than we've been in the past with regard to what we introduce into our bodies and into the environment, taking the time to investigate collateral effects before allowing a new product onto the market.

Perhaps it is only in the chemical industry that such a process might be needed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Larry Ellison displaying projected grief

Apple once pushed Steve Jobs out, and paid a steep price for doing so. More recently Steve Jobs was forced to resign as CEO by a terminal illness, leaving behind a team that understood and loved him. These situations are only superficially similar.

Larry Ellison, on the other hand, has never had to deal with life without Steve since first making his acquaintance, thirty-some years ago. It is understandable that he would want to attribute the success of Apple entirely to Steve Jobs, but in doing so he discounts the possibility that Steve may actually have managed to make himself unnecessary to that success, something he was clearly aiming for in his last few years.

Apple's continuing success is a tribute to Steve's foresight and understanding of the schlock-intolerant collaborative process, which he endeavored to infuse deeply into the way Apple works.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

computing's present as the past's future

Apple innovation not stalled, just reconfiguring

It must be pretty hard to step in behind Steve Jobs and try to pick up where he left off. Try as he did to get his management team to focus on each other instead of on him, and despite his decision to step down from the position of CEO several months before his death, he remained the charismatic leader right up to his last breath, and his death left a large vacuum, an ‘implosion zone’ if you like, because those nearest him had to relearn how to get things done at Apple in his absence.

Tim Cook is not Steve Jobs, doesn't claim to be nor try to be (except maybe for the first year, when on stage), but he's a strong leader in his own right, with a deep understanding of how Apple came to be what it is today, having been there in charge of operations for very nearly the entire time since Jobs returned to the company and through most of the events that resulted in its turn-around. Moreover, he is well suited to the sort of team-building the company desperately needed in the wake of Jobs's death, and continues to need as older managers retire and new ones are promoted, hired, or brought in through acquisition.

The current pause in the stream of new products follows Jobs's last few months by two years, approximately one development cycle, so it shouldn't be a surprise, nor particularly disturbing given that all observers were then aware that the company was going through a very hard time.

If you take the date of Scott Forstall's removal from the equation as an indication of how long it took to get a new groove going, it's been about a year, and, again invoking the very rough two-year development cycle, we should begin to see the fruit of that in about another year. Projects that reach market before then will, most likely, have already been in the pipeline at the time that Tim Cook took over as CEO.

Phil Schiller's "can't innovate anymore, my ass!" comment right after showing off the new Mac Pro design at WWDC, should be taken not only as pride in that product but also as an expression of confidence that Apple's management team has found a new groove and that the new Mac Pro is just a hint of things to come.

Apple doesn't need a new charismatic leader to try (and inevitably fail) to take Steve Jobs's place; the memory of him is still too fresh and vivid for that. It needs a steady hand at the helm as it continues to reinvent itself and weather the various distractions and disruptions that have been strewn in its path. Tim Cook is the right man for the job. If you think you could do better, you're fooling yourself.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

w/o FRAND, standards essential patents = license to steal

When an industry goes with a standard, all players in that industry are under heavy pressure to comply with it.

As the effort to settle on an important standard nears its conclusion, there'll frequently be a race among those in a position to do so to stake out claims to the technologies that are necessary to the implementation of that standard, combined with lobbying of the committee charged with shaping the standard to go with a version that makes use of their patented technologies essential.

This isn't supposed to be a windfall, nor a club that companies can use to beat down competitors through high royalties. On a per piece basis, the income a company has a right to expect from royalties on standards-essential patents is modest. It is only as that income is multiplied by millions of pieces that it amounts to something significant.

When companies forget that their patents were made valuable by the decision of a committee, choosing to use their technology instead of someone else's, they endanger the ability of companies in general to agree upon standards, and the royalties they demand amount to blackmail.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

“Don't worry, we know what we're doing.”

Frankly, this assurance, the claim on the part of "experts" (those who are in the business) that they know what they're doing, is more often false than true, at least insofar as the implication is that they know all there is to know about the consequences of their beliefs, choices, and actions.

Which "experts" you ask. What business? It's an observation about people and the nature of knowledge, so it hardly matters, except as the stakes may be higher in some cases than in others. One such case is the set of practices collectively known as modern agriculture, which includes the use of GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, and concentrated fertilizers, and which, because it is applied over such a large area, can fairly be characterized as an experiment being conducted on the planet – the only planet we have.

In an article published on the Scientific American website, Professor Nina Fedoroff of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and Pennsylvania State University, states the following:

Most early alarms about new technologies fade away as research accumulates without turning up evidence of deleterious effects. This should be happening now because scientists have amassed more than three decades of research on GM biosafety, none of which has surfaced credible evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques is dangerous.

On this point, Professor Fedoroff is clearly speaking from expertise, but notice that the issue she addresses is whether the process of modifying plants by molecular techniques is inherently dangerous, not whether specific modifications might be so. In the same paragraph, Fedoroff goes on to fume somewhat recklessly:

One scare story based on a bogus study suggesting a bad effect of eating GMOs readily trumps myriad studies that show that GM foods are just like non-GM foods.

Further on she states:

Herbicide-tolerant crops have made a major contribution to decreasing topsoil loss by facilitating no-till farming. This farming method reduces CO2 emissions from plowing and improves soil quality.

At this point I must express gratitude, for her having mentioned the advantages of no-till farming, but there are better ways to manage it than through the application of herbicides. There's the matter of reduction in yields when herbicides are applied and the plants must invest energy in resisting them. Also one must wonder how much attention has been given to the question of whether the genetic modification which provides plants with resistance might itself be problematic, perhaps resulting in byproducts which are toxic to animals and humans. Returning for a moment to an earlier passage, Fedoroff claims:

We can now use these methods to make precise improvements by adding just a gene (or two or a few) that codes for proteins whose function we know with precision.

This is blatant conceit. The proteins genes code for commonly have more than a single function in the development and/or physiology of an organism, and may also have collateral effects that wouldn't be termed "functions". To say that one knows the function of a protein "with precision" is to claim to to know all potential effects of that protein under all conceivable conditions. In her conclusion Fedoroff displays almost childlike naiveté regarding corporate veracity and commerce:

If the popular mythology about farmer suicides, tumors and toxicity had an ounce of truth to it, these companies would long since have gone out of business. Instead, they’re taking more market share every year. There's a mismatch between mythology and reality.

I do not suspect Professor Fedoroff of being a complicit apologist for industry, but I do suspect her of habitually misplaced trust.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Apple being harassed to distract attention from Monsanto

This is how is looks to me, peering through the murk. Apple has fans in Washington, but Monsanto has allies, and those allies have arranged to hustle Monsanto out of the news as quickly as possible after March 25th and the March Against Monsanto, in no small part by setting Apple up for public chastisement. What better distraction than to put the company responsible for the iPhone and iPad on trial for conspiracy to inflate the prices of electronically delivered books? What convenient timing! GMOs, monopolization of seed supplies? Pishposh, nothing happening there, go sling mud at Apple instead.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Free The Press: Indiegogo campaign to raise $660M to buy The Tribune Company

Free The Press is an Indiegogo campaign, sponsored by The Other 98%, aimed at raising enough money to buy The Tribune Company.

So, okay, I'll admit there's something about this that smells slightly fishy. There's no mention, anywhere that I could find, exactly what they intend to do with The Tribune Company should they succeed in buying it. Will contributors to the campaign become stockholders? It seems not. More likely they'd set it up as a private, non-profit corporation, but that's speculation on my part.

Nevertheless, I hope they do succeed. Whatever they have in mind, even if it is to set the staff of The Other 98% up as the The Tribune Company's new board of directors, has got to be better than the alternatives mentioned in the featured video.

If this succeeds, maybe we could start a campaign to raise enough money to buy Monsanto.

I wish I could afford to kick in a million or two.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Something to Yahoo! about

Marissa Mayer is swinging for the fences. First we hear about Yahoo!'s acquisition of Tumblr, then, almost as a footnote, we learn that Yahoo! property Flickr is undergoing a major facelift, which includes a full terabyte of space for each user!

Apple's position on corporate taxation

As expected by anyone with more than half a brain, Apple has not been engaging in tax evasion, here or anywhere else, and only seeks to avoid paying the full U.S. corporate tax rate of 35% on funds earned and already taxed outside of the country, just to be able to bring those funds here. Quoting from Apple's official position document, Current US corporate income tax law severely discourages the use of these funds in the US by imposing a 35% tax on repatriation. Having been singled out for criticism on this issue, Apple is taking advantage of the platform they have been handed to push for corporate tax reform. The company's official position is available as a PDF.

Update: The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has issued a report which tells a very different story, and for which that committee is very likely to soon be sorely embarrassed, as the weight of public opinion shifts behind Apple.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Apple needs to grow a parent company

Apple has a branding problem. No, there's nothing wrong with the brand "Apple" as currently used. The problem is that it isn't pliable enough to encompass new businesses the company might want to get into. To solve this, Apple needs to become the wholly owned subsidiary of its own parent company, which would initially be nothing more than a shell for the company as it currently exists, but that would change as new businesses were added.

Call it Pome, if you like, or Rose, both of which are generalizations of "apple" in botanical terminology, or find some other name that projects Apple's approach to business without its product category limitations, and, to give it an immediate reason for being, move Filemaker out from under Apple, giving it sister company status.

A rule of thumb might be that any operation with something to sell independent of the Apple product supply chain should be moved in this manner. This might include Apple's IC design operations, if, for example, they were to decide to sell older designs into the microcontroller market. It would also facilitate the acquisition of companies with existing businesses representing more than a small fraction of their value, businesses that didn't fit Apple but which it wouldn't make good economic sense to shut down, while easing the problems associated with being assimilated into Apple's corporate culture – specifically including the dissatisfaction experienced by ambitious key personnel, resulting from the transition from having creative control to working in service of some personally less-compelling purpose.

It would also provide a framework for spinoffs, businesses based on technologies developed internally, with greater potential than could be realized within the context of the role they might play in Apple's product line, and which, in some cases, would need a degree of independence in order to provide Apple with the greatest benefit, for example proposed industry-standard technologies.

The logistics of such a change are conceptually rather simple, although I have no doubt the details would be anything but. Convert all of Apple's current stock to stock in the new parent company, convert the Board of Directors to being the board of the new parent company, and allow Tim Cook to serve as CEO of both Apple and the parent company, at least to start with. This would require approval by the shareholders and from the SEC, no doubt, but being a value-neutral change intended to reposition the company for further growth, neither should be a problem.

Given this new arrangement, the board might find that it has better things to do with the company's liquid assets than to buy back stock.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Apple's new core competencies, and where they lead

Back when Steve Jobs had just resumed control of Apple, as the iCeo (‘i’ for interim), the focus was on trimming back speculative projects and making the company concentrate on its core competencies, which, at that time, meant Macs – two desktop lines, one consumer and one professional, and two laptop lines, also one consumer and one professional.

A lot has changed in the meantime, Macs included, and Apple has a whole new set of core competencies. These include materials, fabrication methods, automation, radios and antennas, solid state storage, integrated circuit design, operating systems, APIs, development and application software, natural language comprehension, cloud storage, and powerful encryption. They also have an experienced and adaptable supply chain, a large and growing distribution network, and stellar customer satisfaction.

So, looking at this collection (and even this list is incomplete), what can we conclude about where Apple is headed?

First, Apple is too heavily invested in hardware to become a company that only concerns itself with software. If there was ever a time when such a move was under serious consideration, those bridges have long since been burned. If anything, Apple is now more of a hardware company than it was a decade ago.

On the other hand, Apple gains too much advantage from its software and services ecosystem to let that go. The pairing of apps and online businesses is a cash cow, from which Apple has gained a huge amount of experience, experience that is now being applied to building out their iCloud services. Remember iTools? Apple hasn't pushed their online services through four iterations – iTools, .Mac, MobileMe, and now iCloud – just because they were bored with the names. Sure, they were a little late getting into this game and haven't executed in the same deft manner as they do with hardware and operating systems, and really they have yet to broadly succeed in the social space. But they continue to try.

It's notable that we haven't yet seen a series of acquisitions. Apple could easily afford to pick up a few social internet operations, cobble them together, and integrate them with iCloud. That they haven't done so might be taken as an indication that it just isn't that important to them. Alternatively, you can interpret it as meaning that they won't be satisfied with anything not developed in-house, to Apple's exacting standards. Considering how visibly embarrassed Steve Jobs was by the awkward roll-out of MobileMe, I lean toward the second interpretation. If they were to acquire one-to-several such companies, that would be a clear indication of their intention to stake out a significant piece of the social pie. Meanwhile, iCloud has several hundred million active users and is growing rapidly, meaning that even services only available between iCloud users can no longer be taken lightly. Given sufficient intrinsic value, iCloud may begin to gain converts, corporations and associations as well as individuals.

Apple's design prowess and its family of closely-related, scalable operating systems make it rather simple for the company to prototype new devices, not only in categories we already associate with the company but of practically any sort whatsoever. Taking the device to market is another matter. Apple's brand more easily stretches to encompass some new additions to the product family than others.

Moreover, Apple doesn't have much experience with moving parts. There was the arm on which the display was mounted, for the second major iteration of the iMac, but aside from that the only examples of mechanical design from the company are hinges, clasps, switches, including keyboards, and the SIM drawer in iPhones and cellular iPads. Other examples, like the trays in early optical drives and the active insertion that came later, were designed and built by suppliers. Of course, as with IC design, Apple only stands a few acquisitions away from possessing leading-edge mechanical design skills, so we can't eliminate products with moving parts from consideration.

The biggest question is where the market opportunities in closest conjunction with Apple's existing competency set lie. There have already been open hints that they are getting into the wearable computing business, which is likely to mean more than just an iWatch, even though that by itself should prove very profitable. They may also have something comparable to Google Glass in development. Wearable augmented reality, a VR layer over physical reality, especially if it is unobtrusive enough to be worn routinely, should prove to be huge market. The potential applications are endless.

But even the wearable market will sooner or later begin to feel limited. To continue to grow, Apple must find markets beyond gadgets, and the sooner they lay the groundwork for this the better. One such possibility is 3D printing. Apple could buy their way in, acquiring a user base so long as they maintain those relationships without significant disruption, and begin to push the technology (for example printing circuitry as well as structure). Combined with support in Xcode for programming common microcontrollers, this would, in short order, endear them to the hobbyist community, with moderate investment and minimal risk. And as those hobbyists generated designs worth producing in larger numbers, that would drive demand for the 3D printing equipment. And, so long as that equipment was up to Apple's usual standard of quality, it would act to stretch the brand without distortion or dilution.

And, really, that's the trick for all of us, to find ways of growing with integrity, without sacrificing who we are.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Robert Parry traces the right-wing takeover of big media

In an article titled It's the Media, Stupid!, Robert Parry tells the story of how “those who held entrenched power” pushed back against the honest journalism which became common during the latter part of the Vietnam War era, characterizing it as “liberal” and “anti-American”, and how they came to dominate the news a mere few years later.

Monday, April 15, 2013

In agriculture robots replace job vacancies

Here's the bottom line…

So as new types of machines find their way into the fields, rest assured that they are not, for the most part, displacing workers who would otherwise be in those fields, but rather, in some cases, moving them into more technical work as robot tenders, and in other cases taking over work that fewer and fewer people are willing to do for the money it pays, and that, for those few who are displaced, there will be other farmers nearby anxious to hire them. Meanwhile, a new industry will be germinating.

See the full article on Robohub.org

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Drones not required

The use of pilotless drones might reduce the cost of operation and/or increase loiter time, but the surveillance technology which many are so concerned about is here now.

Fukushima, two years later | SBS Dateline, via Journeyman Pictures

Tour the exclusion zone and listen to a few of those who lived (or still live) within it.

Monday, February 04, 2013

more of a multiplicity than a singularity

What does the word singularity suggest to you? If you understand it to mean a turn of events so full of portent that it effectively divides past from future, you'd be on the right track. If you are aware that the word is also applied to black holes, those infinitely dense bundles of mass at the centers of many/most galaxies, then for you the notion may be laced with overtones of the one-way nature of crossing an event horizon, as in there's no turning back.

It has been suggested that it's only a matter of time (months, years, or decades) before an artificial intelligence becomes self aware and therefore an artificial life form, replete with self determination, and that this event will initiate a transition to something radically different, perhaps even a post-human world, but certainly to one in which humankind is eclipsed by this machine.

While I see nothing preventing the emergence of a self-aware AI, I expect the first such will, like a black hole too small to be self-sustaining, evaporate as quickly as they emerge, until such time as self-awareness occurs in the context of strong connection to the physical world, as in robotics, and that long before then another turn of events, also involving robots, will have utterly transformed how we humans conduct our lives.

The central development around which this sequence of events turns is that of self-reproducing factories.

You've probably heard of self-replicating machines, and that might work if the machines in question are nano-scale and composed of DNA, or grow from a single cell as we do, but, for machines that exist at the same scale as ourselves and are composited from parts, self-replication is impractical. They would need access to other machines for the manipulation of materials to create the parts from which to construct replicas of themselves, and it's doubtful that something like a robotic vacuum cleaner would be able to contribute anything useful to the process, so its involvement would essentially be limited to issuing a "clone me" command to something external to and far more complex than itself.

A factory, on the other hand, besides being able to fulfill the order to clone the vacuum, might also be able to fabricate all of the parts needed to build another factory, and also to produce the machines to assemble those parts, perhaps even scavenging materials by sorting and recycling garbage.

Say the first such factory devotes only 10% of its capacity to the project of replicating itself, and that replication takes five years. After five years there would be two such factories, and, if both continued to devote 10% of their capacity to the project, after another five years there would be four, and so forth.

On the other hand, if the first factory devoted 50% of its capacity to replication, the second factory could be online in one year, four after two years, eight after three years, and so forth. By the end of the tenth year, there would be 1024 factories, and the 50% of capacity they devoted to other purposes than replication would dwarf the 90% of capacity from a meager four factories in the first scenario.

This logic is compelling. Given a factory capable of self-replication, it makes sense for it to put a significant portion of its resources into that replication, until the need for additional production capacity is erased, and that point won't have been reached until anything such a factory might produce has become affordable for the purpose for which it is designed, and appropriate designs exist for all worthy purposes.

What this means in the spaces between factories is a profusion of new products, many of them robotic - some designed to handle specific tasks, and some more general in their design - all steadily dropping in price as overall production capacity grew.

Between the many new robotic designs and the dropping prices, many things will change, not least the nature of work. We'll spend more of our time figuring out ways in which machines could perform useful tasks, and contributing to their design and programming, and less time doing work that could be done by some machine.

How this equates to a transformation as profound as I'm claiming it does is a matter of attention to detail replacing the fast and loose methods we've become so accustomed to that we're numb to how abusive they are. In some contexts this is the difference between sustainability and a path that leads to terrible, painful disruption, for example due to famine. By driving down the cost of robotics we acquire the means to save ourselves and the only planet within light years capable of supporting us in large numbers.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

David Kelley of IDEO interviewed by Charlie Rose

Charlie Rose of CBS's 60 Minutes interviewing David Kelley, founder of IDEO and of d.school: Institute of Design at Stanford. The conversation encompasses his relationship with Steve Jobs, his family, the early days of IDEO, and the design philosophy practiced there and now taught at the d.school.