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September 26, 2005

Apple, Microsoft, and Ecosystems

In my personal portfolio, my best investment by far over the last few months has been AAPL, which is now up 48 percent over when I bought it. I was talking about the irrationality of markets with a friend the other day and commented that, as far as I could tell, the market was bidding up AAPL because of excitement over iPod sales, but I was holding AAPL because of the financial implications of the "iPod halo effect" -- that if Apple managed to convert even a fraction of Windows-using iPod purchasers into Mac OS users, it could easily double their market share, which would be momentous.

A couple of days later, I read the following on Paul Thurrott's Internet Nexus. It's an excerpt from an employee Q&A session with Microsoft executives. An employee had asked about competing with Apple. Steve Ballmer deferred to Jim Allchin, who gave his own answer, then turned the floor over to Robbie Bach.

Robbie Bach: There isn't a silver bullet you're going to fire in three months that suddenly is going to make the iPod business a bad business for Apple. But there is an approach we can take on the longer term that I think will bring out the strengths of our ecosystem and will bring partners to bear in a way that will make us significantly more successful and, in particular, will prevent Apple from leveraging their iPod success in a platform success, which is what we really don't want to have happen.
So there are two items of note here:
  1. Microsoft is clearly concerned about the iPod halo effect -- concerned enough that they have created a strategy to attempt to stifle it.
  2. What is this approach that Microsoft will take "on the longer term" that "will bring out the strengths of [its] ecosystem," "will bring partners to bear," and "will prevent Apple from leveraging their iPod success in a platform success"? Now I'm really curious.

September 23, 2005

MMOGs Officially Go Mainstream

Though I haven't experienced it personally, the Corrupted Blood plague affecting World of Warcraft players has been in the news a few days now (Joi Ito's coverage here, The Register's here).

Today, though, when I saw the BBC's coverage of it -- 609 words, by my count, a reasonably long story for their site -- I realized that MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) have now officially gone mainstream. One of the world's leading news sources is now treating significant events within today's leading MMOG -- events that by definition are completely virtual -- as newsworthy.

That's amazing, when you think about it.

The Ultimate Force Feedback Device

The morning after JetBlue Flight 292 made its emergency landing at LAX, I was talking with my co-worker Christophe about what had happened.

Me: You know that JetBlue has satellite TV at every seat, right? So the passengers were watching the whole thing as it was happening.

Christophe: No way!

Me: Way! They left the TVs on until about 10 minutes before landing.

Christophe: That's too bad. If they had been watching TV while they were landing, it would have been the ultimate force feedback device. They would watch themselves touch down, and then feel it, and say, "Wow, that felt real!"

September 22, 2005

So Much for the Hanson Brothers

The NHL has instituted substantial rules changes for the coming season:

The new standard of enforcement will require referees to call penalties on existing rules, including hooking, holding, tripping, slashing, cross checking and interference.

"It's important that people out there in the mainstream of hockey recognize that this is a cultural change in hockey," said Stephen Walkom, NHL Senior Vice President & Director of Officiating. "Accepted practices, practices that have been coached into the game for the past 20 years, will now be called as penalties. The clutching and grabbing of the puck carrier that has bothered the fans for years will be addressed under the new standard of enforcement."

Oh, well, so much for the Hanson Brothers.

I'm all for more international-style, faster-paced, finesse-style hockey, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Hansons.

(By the way, licensed Hanson Brothers jerseys are here. Licensed Slap Shot jerseys ("Ogilthorpe!") are here. The IMDB page for Slap Shot is here.)

September 21, 2005

What's Wrong with American Politics

The Daily Kos has an entry on the report that a Democratic senator, Max Baucus of Montana, has announced his intention to vote to confirm John Roberts for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court:

On a day that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev) showed great leadership by announcing his opposition to John Roberts' confirmation to the SCOTUS, Max Baucus, Senator from Montana, demonstrated his wonderful backstabbing skills, undercutting his Leader by supporting Roberts:
Montana Senator Max Baucus announced today he will vote to confirm President Bush's pick for Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court...

"I call 'em as I see them," he said. "Judge Roberts indicated to me personally that he has a healthy respect for precedent and the hard-won rights of Americans. My only yardstick or litmus test is whether or not Judge Roberts is right for Montana and America. I've determined that he is." ... "Throughout my career, I've always tried to reach across party lines to do what's right," Baucus said. "This isn't about being a Democrat or Republican; it's about being a Montanan and American."

Well, I call em as I see them too. And I have found that Max Baucus meets my criteria for a gutless son of a bitch. Baucus demonstrates a healthy disrespect for his Leader in the Senate and for the values and principles that define the Democratic Party...

My yardstick tells me you are a gutless, unprincipled political coward with not an ounce of loyalty to your Party or respect for your Leader. What a useless tool you are.

When crossing party lines based on one's principles results in being labeled a "gutless, unprincipled political coward", it shows me how horribly wrong American politics has gone -- regardless of my personal political beliefs.

September 07, 2005

Our DVD-Influenced Culture

From the latest issue of Iconowatch, a trend-watching newsletter from Iconoculture, the words spoken by Emma, a 9-year-old girl, upon being read the final chapter of a Harry Potter book:

That's it? No special features or anything?

September 06, 2005

Apple's Announcements Tomorrow

The topic du jour seems to be speculation about what Apple will be announcing tomorrow. The pre-event frenzy has AAPL up nearly five percent today as I write this. Due to leaks from Motorola, it seems likely that an iTunes-compatible phone will be announced. So the question is, is that it?

Via Think Secret, The Wall Street Journal thinks it will be an iPod mini based on flash memory. Forbes says:

Jobs is famous for confounding and surprising folks, and could be debuting just about anything. The iTunes phone is virtually a lock, but also keep your eyes open for new flash-memory based iPod Minis, a phone-based version of the company's Web Safari browser, or even a video-capable iPod.
I've been to one of Steve Jobs' signature launch events, the public unveiling of NeXT at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco in 1988. As the "one last thing" at a Macworld keynote address, I can imagine an iTunes phone, or a flash-based iPod mini. But as the focus of an entire special-purpose event?

I don't know what Jobs has up his sleeve. But it's instructive to note just how often he zigs when everyone thinks he's going to zag. Back in the spring, pundits talked about music-by-subscription models, and video iPods, and instead he surprised everyone by building podcasting into iTunes, co-opting the entire podcasting phenomenon in one stroke. So the one thing I'm sure of is that he has some sort of surprise in store.

A Difficult Question

An Australian friend of mine wrote to me from Sydney to ask the following:

I've been following the news of the horrible tragedy of hurricane Katrina...

[T]he thing that is confusing me most about this is the response to the tragedy -- probably best embodied by the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald -- "Shoot to kill, troops told"... and whilst that's the worst of the headlines -- I think each day, the focus has been on the violence that has ensued as a result of the hurricane.

Is the Australian media sensationalising what is happening?

Typically, when there is tragedy -- and the tsunami and 9/11 are two examples that spring to mind -- the focus is on stories of heroism. Why is this so different? It could very well just be the way the media is portraying it here -- but certainly my memory of the stories after the tsunami tragedy were of stories of people helping each other -- not of trying to kill each other.

Is the Australian media sensationalizing what's happening? Not from watching the US news networks.

The real question is, why does the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina seem so much more brutal -- in terms of how affected people have treated one another -- than the aftermath of other similar natural disasters? I spent a couple of days thinking about this, and in the end, wrote back with a list of possible reasons, none utterly convincing, but one that seems to have a possible ring of truth to me.

The Indian Ocean tsunami hit without warning, and across an extremely large region. Since no one was warned, no one evacuated. As a result, the tsunami affected a cross-section of the socioeconomic spectrum, ignoring race, wealth, age, gender, or any other differentiating factors.

In contrast, Hurricane Katrina hit with days of warning. From all accounts, the people left behind in the evacuation were much poorer, on average, than the people who were able to leave. In essence, we took a major American city and cleared out most people above a certain income level. That might have worked out okay had the local, state, and federal governments been prepared and begun restoring order and evacuating people en masse immediately following the hurricane. But as we know all too well, this didn't happen. Without food, without drinking water, without power, without help, feeling abandoned by the rest of the country, and with the population already dramatically altered by the partial, resource-based evacuation, law and order began to break down, at least for some of the people still there. And of course this being America, we had news cameras there in force to record it all.

So I suppose one could call Hurricane Katrina an accidental experiment in socioeconomics. What happens when you remove most of the affluent and middle-class citizens from a city, subject those citizens left behind to a deadly natural disaster with ongoing effects, and then fail to help them, day after day after day? The answer isn't pretty. Should we have expected it would be?

September 04, 2005

The Unreliability of Life

I've blogged before about Stephen Batchelor's book Living with the Devil. He has an gift for elegant prose, and when he's at his best, he can be profoundly moving:

[C]reated things are subject to breakdown, corruption, deception, and extinction. They are ultimately unreliable. No matter how well we care for this organism of flesh and nerves and blood, it will one day fail us. "The undependable lord of death," remarks Shantideva, "waits not for things to be done or undone. Whether sick or healthy, this fleeting life cannot be trusted." The stuff of which we are made, that allows the possibility of consciousness, love, and freedom, will also destroy us, wiping out that poignant identity of a sensitive creature with an unrepeatable history, who has become a question for itself.

September 03, 2005

The Times-Picayune Knew

Via The Chicago Sun-Times:

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune's five-part series in 2002 about what would happen if a major hurricane struck:

"Amid this maelstrom, the estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter... for people too sick or infirm to leave the city. Others will end up in last-minute emergency refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground.

"Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days."

National Public Radio Knew

From a September 2002 story for NPR, "Hurricane Risk to New Orleans", part of the series Nature's Revenge: Louisiana's Vanishing Wetlands.

Walter Maestri is struggling to help New Orleans prepare. Maestri is the czar of public emergencies in Jefferson Parish (that's the county that sprawls across a third of the metropolitan area). He points to a map of the region on the wall of his command post.

"A couple of days ago," explains Maestri, "We actually had an exercise where we brought a fictitious Category Five Hurricane into the metropolitan area."

The map is covered with arrows and swirls in erasable marker. They show how the fictitious hurricane crossed Key West and then smacked into New Orleans.

When the computer models showed Maestri what would happen next, he wrote big letters on the map, all in capitals.

"KYAGB -- kiss your ass good bye," reads Maestri.

"Because," says Maestri, "anyone who was here when that storm came across was gone -- it was body-bag time. We think 40,000 people could lose their lives in the metropolitan area."

And some scientists say that figure is conservative. People have known for centuries that New Orleans is a risky spot -- the biggest river in North America wraps around it; and most of the land is below sea level. But researchers say they've been learning just how grave the problem is, only in the last few years. And they say the city and the nation aren't prepared to handle it.

"...Your Stupid, Stupid Dreams"

Found on Flickr:

Your Stupid, Stupid Dreams

September 02, 2005

National Geographic Knew

Via Daily Kos, the opening paragraphs of the article "Gone with the Water," by Joel K. Bourne, Jr., from the October 2004 issue of National Geographic:

It was a broiling August afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Big Easy, the City That Care Forgot. Those who ventured outside moved as if they were swimming in tupelo honey. Those inside paid silent homage to the man who invented air-conditioning as they watched TV "storm teams" warn of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing surprising there: Hurricanes in August are as much a part of life in this town as hangovers on Ash Wednesday.

But the next day the storm gathered steam and drew a bead on the city. As the whirling maelstrom approached the coast, more than a million people evacuated to higher ground. Some 200,000 remained, however -- the car-less, the homeless, the aged and infirm, and those die-hard New Orleanians who look for any excuse to throw a party.

The storm hit Breton Sound with the fury of a nuclear warhead, pushing a deadly storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain. The water crept to the top of the massive berm that holds back the lake and then spilled over. Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level -- more than eight feet below in places -- so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse. As it reached 25 feet (eight meters) over parts of the city, people climbed onto roofs to escape it.

Thousands drowned in the murky brew that was soon contaminated by sewage and industrial waste. Thousands more who survived the flood later perished from dehydration and disease as they waited to be rescued. It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't -- yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City. Even the Red Cross no longer opens hurricane shelters in the city, claiming the risk to its workers is too great.

Scientific American Knew

The introduction to the story "Drowning New Orleans" by Mark Fischetti, from the October 2001 issue of Scientific American (full article available for fee):

THE BOXES are stacked eight feet high and line the walls of the large, windowless room. Inside them are new body bags, 10,000 in all. If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water. "As the water recedes," says Walter Maestri, a local emergency management director, "we expect to find a lot of dead bodies."

New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh -- an area the size of Manhattan -- will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die. The body bags wouldn't go very far.

September 01, 2005

Intelligent Design as a Hoax

Via Boing Boing, a brilliant opinion piece by philosopher Daniel Dennett (available on Edge here or at The New York Times here) on "intelligent design" as, essentially, a hoax.

One highlight is Dennett's destruction of the creationists' use of the eye as a structure that must have been designed because it's too complex to have evolved:

Brilliant as the design of the eye is, it betrays its origin with a tell-tale flaw: the retina is inside out. The nerve fibers that carry the signals from the eye's rods and cones (which sense light and color) lie on top of them, and have to plunge through a large hole in the retina to get to the brain, creating the blind spot. No intelligent designer would put such a clumsy arrangement in a camcorder, and this is just one of hundreds of accidents frozen in evolutionary history that confirm the mindlessness of the historical process.
Then he goes on to show the clever forensic trick that creationists use to demonstrate why they should be taken seriously:
To date, the proponents of intelligent design have not produced... experiments with results that challenge any mainstream biological understanding. No observations from the fossil record or genomics or biogeography or comparative anatomy that undermine standard evolutionary thinking.

Instead, the proponents of intelligent design use a ploy that works something like this. First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach.

Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic. "Smith's work in geology supports my argument that the earth is flat," you say, misrepresenting Smith's work. When Smith responds with a denunciation of your misuse of her work, you respond, saying something like: "See what a controversy we have here? Professor Smith and I are locked in a titanic scientific debate. We should teach the controversy in the classrooms." And here is the delicious part: you can often exploit the very technicality of the issues to your own advantage, counting on most of us to miss the point in all the difficult details.

But my favorite part of the piece is when he challenges creationists to, in effect, put up or shut up:

[N]o intelligent design hypothesis has even been ventured as a rival explanation of any biological phenomenon. This might seem surprising to people who think that intelligent design competes directly with the hypothesis of non-intelligent design by natural selection. But saying, as intelligent design proponents do, "You haven't explained everything yet," is not a competing hypothesis. Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists. But intelligent design hasn't yet tried to explain anything.

To formulate a competing hypothesis, you have to get down in the trenches and offer details that have testable implications. So far, intelligent design proponents have conveniently sidestepped that requirement, claiming that they have no specifics in mind about who or what the intelligent designer might be.

To see this shortcoming in relief, consider an imaginary hypothesis of intelligent design that could explain the emergence of human beings on this planet:

About six million years ago, intelligent genetic engineers from another galaxy visited Earth and decided that it would be a more interesting planet if there was a language-using, religion-forming species on it, so they sequestered some primates and genetically re-engineered them to give them the language instinct, and enlarged frontal lobes for planning and reflection. It worked.

If some version of this hypothesis were true, it could explain how and why human beings differ from their nearest relatives, and it would disconfirm the competing evolutionary hypotheses that are being pursued...

[T]here is not the slightest shred of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.

But here is something the intelligent design community is reluctant to discuss: no other intelligent-design hypothesis has anything more going for it.

I had never thought of it this way. Intelligent design isn't a competing hypothesis, it's just inflated naysaying by people with an agenda driven by their faith. (How many atheist intelligent design advocates can you think of?)

The saddest thing about this ongoing debacle is that it is drawing attention and resources away from our schools when they are so critically in need of every bit of help they can get. Every dollar spent on creationist curriculum, every hour spent by a school board debating intelligent design, is a dollar and an hour that could have been spent on actually improving our schools. Meanwhile, in 2003, our 12th graders scored 19th out of 21 surveyed nations in science and math proficiency.