Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why I'm somewhat apprehensive about Apple's reshuffle


Though I'm not as pessimistic about the Apple executive shuffle as the markets and Joy Of Tech, I'm apprehensive regarding the future of Apple's products.

Jony Ive is a great industrial designer, but Human-Computer Interaction is not Industrial Design. And some of the design decisions in recent hardware (meaning Ive's decisions) seem to ignore realities on the field. Take the latest iMac.

The new iMac doesn't have an optical drive; some pundits (and, I think, Phil Schiller on the Apple event) say that's a normal evolution. After all there aren't floppy disks on computers any longer and Apple was the first to drop them. And look how pretty the tapered edges of the iMac are.

Floppy disks existed as part of a computer-only ecosystem. CDs, DVDs, and BluRay Discs are part of a much larger ecosystem, which includes dedicated players and big screen TVs, production and distribution chains for content, and a back catalog and personal inventory for which downloads are not a complete alternative. (Some movies and music are not available as downloads and people already have large collections of DVDs and BluRay Discs.)

Using floppy disks as an example of change, implying that it is repeated with optical drives, shows a complete disregard of the larger ecosystem and willful ignorance of the difference between the earlier situation and the current situation.

For a laptop, the absence of an optical drive may be an acceptable trade-off for lower weight; for a desktop, particularly one that is a "home" desktop with a HD screen, the lack of a BluRay/DVD/CD drive is a questionable decision.

But look how pretty the tapered edges are, here in the uncluttered Apple Store retail shelves — oops, those computers will be in cluttered real world environments, where the necessary external drive (what, no BluRay drive yet, Apple?) will add even more clutter.

But, on the empty tables and antiseptic environments of "minimalist" designers' imagined world, that tapered edge is really important.

In the rest of the world, there are scores of people who like watching really old movies (available on DVD, not as downloads or streaming — except illegally), new movies in 1080p discs with lots of special features (i.e. BluRay discs that they can buy cheaply in big box stores), or their own movies (which they already own, and could rip — in violation of the DMCA — for future perusal, as long as they want piles of external hard drives); or maybe they want to rip some music that isn't available in download format, say CDs they bought in Europe that aren't available in the US yet.

So, using a decision that is not isomorphic at all (dropping the floppy disk) as a justification, Apple ignores a big chunk of the value proposition (consumption of media that is not available via digital download) on behalf of elegance. And, perhaps some extra iTunes sales — probably too small to make a difference on the margin.

What will this type of philosophy do to software? As Donald Norman wrote in this piece, there's nothing particularly good about fetishizing simplicity. Even now, many power users of Apple products spend a lot of time developing work-arounds for Apple's unnecessary rigid limitations.

Steve Jobs's second stint at Apple had the advantage of his having failed twice before (his first stint at Apple and NeXT), which tempered him and made him aware of the power of ecosystems (not just network effects). This is a powerful learning experience for an executive. Jony Ive hasn't failed in this manner.

Yet.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Great Science/Technology documentary - just no STEM in it please!


Since these days every communication is supposed to be a story, see if you can find the commonality among these four vignettes:

1. A while ago I saw a documentary about a Steinway piano, Note by note, the making of Steinway L1037, which didn't really say anything about the piano: what wood it's made of, how the key mechanism works, how Steinways differ from Bosendorfers or Young Changs, the history of pianos, or really anything about the construction of the piano other than a sequence of glossed-over steps. But it did tell us about the lives of the people who work in the factory, showed a kid hammering away at the keys, and a number of other "human interest stories." The lack of any information about the piano or the making thereof doesn't seem to have stopped this documentary from earning accolades, quite the contrary.

2. Magicians Penn and Teller have a Showtime program called Bullsh*t, where they purport to debunk bad thinking. It's entertaining, but what they do is foster more bad thinking: they typically present the "wrong side" by having highly mockable people say stupid things on camera (helped by editing); then they mock those people. This is precisely the wrong way to go: though it's entertaining to watch, this creates the impression that something is wrong or right because of who is saying it, not of what is being said — a clear ad hominem fallacy.

3. Jerome Groopman's book How Doctors Think has a nice collection of decision biases in medical practice. It's a good book; I have both the audiobook and the hardcover versions. But about one-fourth of the text is wasted in descriptions of the environment where the author is interviewing someone, what the person looks like, their life stories, their hobbies, and other unrelated material. These fait-divers are distracting, and not in the sense that they are entertaining.

4. A long time ago I played my first (and I think last) game of Trivial Pursuit. I recall getting the following science question: "who was the president of the [portuguese version of the AMA] after [name long forgotten]?" I said this was a preposterous science question (preposterous enough that I remember it over twenty years later) but other players didn't agree with me. To these mostly educated, but not clear-thinking people, science was about bureaucrats in local professional associations of some scientific nature.

These are four examples — out of hundreds — of the popular misperception of what science and technology are about: most people seem to think that science and technology, STEM to use the broader acronym, is about the people involved. Hence a call for more scientists and engineers, instead of a call for better science and engineering.

But there's hope, though it comes from far away (the UK) and long ago (the 1980s): Richard Hammond and James May and Cosmos.

Cosmos was a great series. Carl Sagan didn't talk about Einstein's love affairs, the view from Galileo's palace, or what Copernicus looked like in breeches. Sagan made the Universe the hero of the series, scientific thinking the sidekick, and occasionally threw in some history for context. Brian Greene's documentaries on PBS are the closest intellectual heir to Cosmos, I think; unfortunatly few people even know these exist.

Browsing YouTube, I found a number of episodes of Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections and James May's Things You May Need to Know. These programs focus on the information or knowledge and leave all the "human interest" aside. (*) A little like Mythbusters shows, except that the MBs have a lot of problems with the science.

Far away and long ago these may be, but they might catch on due to the interaction between the power of the interwebs and a rare species, homo sapiens nerdus.

Reporting on Felix Baumgarten's skydive from the edge of space a few days ago, MSNBC had an unfortunate chyron with "Fearless Felix traveled fasted than the speed of light." A lot of people noticed the problem (MSNBC meant the speed of sound, obviously), but I took it a little further and made some minimal computations to determine that if FF had reached ninety percent of the speed of light, his collision with New Mexico would have wiped out a big chunk of that state in a 1500 megaton explosion. This is called "nerding out."

(Nerds might save our civilization. Be kind to your local nerd.)

Note that there's minimal knowledge of Physics involved in my nerding out. All one has to do is to compute the Lorentz mass $m = m_0 / (1 - v^2/c^2)^{1/2}$ and then use the kinetic energy formula $E= 1/2\,  m v^2$.  (In fact, you could ignore the Lorentz correction altogether and get a close enough answer.) I wonder what percentage of the people who laughed at MSNBC could have done these calculations; I also wonder how many understand why the speed of light is an absolute limit while the speed of sound is not. (**)

STEM is not about haughty jokes or the personalities of those involved. It's about truth (science), achievement (engineering and technology), and thought (math). It's a world of wonder beyond the lives of those involved. That some popularizers think that to make this wonder interesting we must intersperse it with gossip and distractions is an insult to their audiences. Or maybe the popularizers are cowards, unwilling to educate or inspire their audience.

Can we please get people who are really interested in science, engineering, technology, and math to take over their popularization? Otherwise, we'll end up with science documentaries that spend more time on Einstein's hair and political opinions than on the implications of $E = mc^2$.

Like the ones we already have.

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* This expression is getting on my nerves. Is suggests that humans are not interested in knowledge or thought other than gossip and the picayune. Some people defend the inclusion of irrelevant personal details as part of giving the characters involved more depth. My point is that the characters involved are irrelevant for the STEM part; focussing on them only emphasizes the natural human tendency for ad hominem reasoning. (Obviously if the field of study is leadership or creativity or similar the depth of the characters involved is part of the science.)

** In other words, how does most people's knowledge of science differ from what we'd call religious belief in science? To clarify: scientific knowledge (which must be consistent with experiment and observation) differs in a fundamental way from religious belief (based on revelation by authority). But, in my experience, many people "believe in science," not because they understand it and can work out the implications, but because it's been revealed to them by authority (the education system) and it's socially unacceptable in their peer group to not "believe in science." In that sense, their belief in science is not scientific, but rather religious.  Yes, there's a post about this in the wings.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Can we stop talking about "manufacturing jobs"?


A lot of people worry about "manufacturing jobs," but the metric is seriously flawed.

Politicians and some financial analysts decry the decline of manufacturing jobs. There has been some decline, but the way these jobs are measured is inherently flawed, as it fails to take into account the change in managerial attitudes towards vertical integration.

Easy to see why with an example:

Ginormous Corp. makes widgets. In the 60s to mid-80s, as it went from being Bob's Homemade Widgets to Ginormous Corp., it added new facilities which had janitorial, accounting, cafeteria, legal, and other support services. All personnel in these support services counted as "manufacturing jobs."

In the mid-80s, Ginormous Corp. figured out (with a little help from Pain & Co and McQuincy & Co consultancies) that these support services were (a) not strategic and (b) internal monopolies. Part (a) meant that they could be outsourced and part (b) strongly suggested they should be outsourced. Let's say that Ginormous Corp. spun out these support services into wholly-owned subsidiaries, with no significant change in overall personnel.

So, all the personnel in janitorial, accounting, cafeteria, legal, and even some of the technical business support went from being in "manufacturing jobs" to being in "service jobs" without any change to what actually is produced and any actual job.

A metric that can change dramatically while the underlying system and processes don't change much is not a good foundation for decision-making. "Manufacturing jobs" is one such metric, as it depends on organizational decisions at least as much as on actual structural changes.

Metrics: useful only when well-understood.

Note: There are many reasons why focusing on manufacturing jobs over service jobs is a bad idea: Old Paul Krugman explains the most relevant, differential productivity increases, here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Math in business courses: derivating + grokking


I used to start my Product Management class with a couple of business math problems like the following: let's say we use a given market research technique to measure the value of a product; call the product $i$ and the value $v(i)$. We know -- by choice of the technique -- that the probability that the customer will buy $i$ is given by

$\Pr(i) = \frac{\exp(v(i))}{1 + \exp(v(i))}$.

My question: is this an increasing or a decreasing function of the $v(i)$?

Typically this exercise divided students in three groups:

First, students who were afraid of math, were looking for easy credits, or otherwise unprepared for the work in the class. These math problems made sure students knew what they were getting into.

Second, students who could do the math, either by plug-and-chug (take derivative, check the sign) or by noticing that the formula may be written as

$\Pr(i) = \frac{1}{1 + \exp(-v(i))}$

and working the increasing/decreasing chain rule.

Third, students who had a quasi-intuitive understanding ("grok" in Heinlein's word) that probability of purchase must be an increasing function of value, otherwise these words are being misused.

Ideally we should be training business students to mix the skills of the last two groups: a fluency in basic mathematical thinking and grokking business implications.

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Administrative note: Since I keep writing 4000+ word drafts for "important" posts that never see the light of blog (may see the light of Kindle single), I've decided to start posting these bite-sized thoughts.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Thinking - What a novel idea


Or: it may look like brawn won the day, but it was really brains.

Yesterday I took some time off in the afternoon to watch the Blue Angels practice and the America's Cup multihull quarterfinals. Parking in the Marina/Crissy Field area was a mess and I ended up in one of the back roads in the Presidio. As I drove up, I saw a spot -- the last spot -- but, alas, there was a car in front of me. It drove into the spot, partly, then backed up and left.

I drove up to the spot and saw a block of cement with twisted metal bits in it, about three feet from the back end. I got out, grabbed the block, assessed its weight at about 100Kg, farmer-walked it to the berm, and got a parking spot.

Ok, so moving 100Kg or so doesn't make me the Hulk. What is my point, exactly?

There were at least two men in the car that gave up the space. They could have moved that block with ease. Instead they went in search of parking further into the Presidio; probably futile, if traffic was any indication. Why didn't they do what I did? Why didn't anyone before me (the parking areas well above the one I ended up in were already full as well)?

They didn't think of it.

Actually thinking is a precondition to problem-solving. Many problems I see are not the result of bad thinking but rather of the lack of thinking.