The Pebble and the Avalanche

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Current Revolutions in Business and Technology

by Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky,

author of The Pebble and The Avalanche: How Taking Things Apart Creates Revolutions


Mon, 2009-Dec-21, 08:26

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Ford and the Car Computer

Some time ago — in the pre-iPhone era, no less — I was asked on two separate occasions for an idea for an automotive product. In both cases my response was the same: an iPhone-style computer for cars, one that can accept clever applications from anywhere. Neither company took my advice.

I see that Ford has implemented this idea with an in-car computer. I can't quite determine if the computer is in production from the news articles, and certainly it does not seem to have the world on fire just yet. (In a remarkably annoying blunder that also keeps search engines away, Ford's home page is completely dependent on Flash, which means I won't bother accessing the Ford web site; I'm left to wonder how software developers will be enticed into working with Ford.) I personally don't hold out high hopes for this computer because it depends on a Microsoft operating system: to my mind this means lack of security, bloated software, bugs, and annoying applications.

Still, I admit that it's nice to be vindicated, and I look forward to the next release of this style of computer, perhaps something that runs on Linus or the Android operating system.

Mon, 2009-Aug-03, 11:18

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The Format Wars: Shooting the Survivors

The format war over "high definition" successor to the DVD, fought between Blu-ray and HD DVD, ended in a victory for Blu-ray. Now it seems thismay have been a Pyrrhic victory.

Reports from China indicate that China's home-grown high definition format has a 30% market share advantage over Blu-ray. Blu-ray players have a built-in cost of $21 worth of licensing fees, and Blu-ray disks are about four times more expensive than a similar "CBHD" China Blue High Definition disk.

In other words, after a long hard scrabble between vendors for a share of the licensing fees, a different standard with a far lower cost structure is spreading rapidly through China. Like any other civil war, both sides in the West may very well have lost the battle over the next generation of DVDs.

Mon, 2009-Mar-16, 09:44

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San Francisco Freeways and the Biotech Blowout

When I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago I heard about some of the advantages of the current economic slump: the San Francisco freeways have less traffic, and when you walk into a fancy restaurant you can get both a table and immediate attention.

Investors have a choice: they can put money into a business or they can purchase houses cheaply, in blocks of twenty, and wait for their guaranteed appreciation. Since the Obama administration's latest initiative to help small business is to lend them money, apparently to pay their increased taxes, I don't find it surprising that businesses find it hard to get money from private investors.

Which brings us to biotech. A quick search shows that biotech firms are in trouble both in the US and in Europe. Of course I've run into many wonderful sentences, such as this one from the print edition of the Wall Street Journal:

Targanta Therapeutics... laid off about 75% of its staff in December... after the Food and Drug Administration asked for another clinical trial to prove its drug.

The vicious cycle of increased taxes, increased regulation, and the implicit government support for only the largest firms continues to kill off the smaller companies. I am looking for a non-obvious lesson all this but haven't quite found it yet.

Thu, 2008-Nov-06, 09:15

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Yahoo Left at the Altar

TechCrunch took a very harsh look at Yahoo today; the most interesting question is what happens next for Yahoo.

The deal between Yahoo and Google foundered on concerns from government regulators who opposed the deal because they felt Google and Yahoo would dominate the market. Monopoly regulation depends very strongly how you define businesses, markets, and customers; as a result, sometimes a dispute over regulation comes down to a question of disaggregation. Should regulators look at every narrow disaggregated piece of a total market and kill a deal because it dominates one of those markets? Or should the government use a hierarchy of disaggregation and evaluate based on broader market segments? This was one of the main questions in the recent merger talks between Sirius and XM satellite radio companies.

That's water under the bridge for Yahoo. To my way of thinking, the question of Yahoo's future becomes how to look at all the pieces of Yahoo and determine what the pieces are and how they can work in combination with other web-based (and non-web-based) services to provide revenue.

Wed, 2008-Nov-05, 08:57

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Palm Problems

I've owned more than a few Palm-based organizers, but they have a tendency to break very frequently. In fact I've got a stack of old and dismembered Palms here in my office.

My latest Palm, a Z22 that I received from Palm after they admitted to making manufacturing flaw in the old m125 models, has just gone into "touch screen not working mode." To crack the case I need my Torx T5 driver, and I can't find it anywhere.

At this point I have two ambitions: leave the buggy, proprietary world of Palm behind as soon as I can figure out how to convert my data into some decent format; and move to a more open platform. The Android will be expensive but I suspect that it will work.

And yes, indeed, today I am paying for violating the principles of disaggregation: I should have moved to standards-based open platform before my Palm gave up the ghost!

Wed, 2008-Sep-10, 10:37

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Can't Hear the Audio, Can't See the Video

I spent some time the past few days fiddling around as I made some videos available for the web; a keynote address with full-motion video as well as video of slides with voiceover.

What I find truly amazing is the amount of work it takes to encode these files so they can been seen on all three major systems: Linux, Macintosh, and Windows. If I convert the files to the proprietary "Flash" format used on YouTube and elsewhere I have no problems. But once I start to create a "standard" movie file I immediately run into deep trouble. The format of the file is standard — it's like a standard-sized shipping box. But the contents of that shipping box aren't standardized. You can choose from dozens of different methods to encode the audio and video.

Macintosh's QuickTime, out of the box, isn't very friendly at all to standard ("avi") movie files. After a great deal of fiddling around I discovered that if I encode the movie using a particular video encoder and a particular audio encoder I can both see and hear the movie with QuickTime. Finding the right combination literally took hours of my time.

As for Windows... well, what can you say about Windows, especially when children may be reading this blog? I believe my current settings will work, but frankly I was not certain at first. Fortunately, no complaints so far.

This problem is a textbook case of what happens when you have disaggregation but insufficient effort on making the pieces useful again afterwards. Disaggregation of the video and audio coders — the contents of the movie — from the box they came in — the standard "avi" file format — led to many useful and innovative coders with a wide range of cost versus quality. But Windows and Macintosh don't seem to have much incentive to provide compatible decoders; as a result movies visible on one system may not be visible on the other.

Mon, 2008-Sep-08, 16:35

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Trying to Understand "I Want Sandy"

Obstensibly, "I Want Sandy" provides a nice service: an automated email assistant. Want to get a reminder about a meeting? CC "Sandy," say "Sandy, please remind me about meeting X at time Y on date Z," and "she" will send you an email or text reminder message.

That's great, but I can't quite figure out the terms of service and privacy policies. I get the distinct impression that they're reading and storing any email I CC them, and if I want to keep something private I should not send it to them... so how can I use them for anything?

Mon, 2008-Sep-08, 08:39

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What End Users Really Want: Featuring Mabel and the White Mice

Here is my talk "What End Users Really Want: Featuring Mabel and the White Mice," which I gave at the August 2008 SpeechTek conference. The talk focuses on innovative services in speech technology, but aside from some jargon the overall point of the talk should be fairly clear.

The video consists of the conference audio track synchrnoized to the slides (download, PDF). If you find the correct icon (the screen icon, to the left of the progress bar) you can view this presentation in full-screen mode.

Fri, 2008-Sep-05, 07:34

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Video: If Information Wants to Be Free, Where Is It Hiding?

The keynote address I gave at Cluecon — "If Information Wants to Be Free, Where Is It Hiding?" — now available online as a video presentation. Here are the slides in PDF format.

The abstract of the talk:

Interesting web applications demonstrate that information really does want to be free. Developers mix and match data from various sources to create new, fascinating, and useful web sites. By comparison, telephony applications incorporate limited information and -- in a mobile world -- almost nothing in the way of location-sensitive information. What information will be free in twenty years? How will telephony applications incorporate this information? How do we get there from here? How can we make money during the journey?

I've also updated both parts (Part I, Part II) of the CCXML Workshop. If there are any remaining problems with the video, please contact me.

And with any luck, I should have another interesting (but much shorter!) talk available online later today.

Thu, 2008-May-22, 08:51

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Microsoft to Enslave the Third World via the One Laptop Per Child Project

One of Microsoft's worse nightmares is that one day ordinary consumers may wake up and discover that, fundamentally speaking, there's no real need for Microsoft at all. Microsoft received a foretaste of this during Vista's disasterous release; Vista provides no benefits to its users relative to previous versions of Windows, and companies clearly saw that the emperor had no clothes. This brings companies closer to the realization that Microsoft's inferior, bug-ridden, resource-intensive operating system and applications can be replaced — for free — with open-source software running on less-expensive hardware that's relatively immune to viruses and spyware. One way for Microsoft to avoid that dreadful fate is to capture children at a young age and indoctrinate them with the idea that computers mean Windows and vice-versa.

Microsoft hated the One Laptop Per Child initiative. The OLPC project puts computers into the hands of children in less-developed countries, places where computers are prohibitively expensive. OLPC distributes small, rugged laptops with easy-to-use software and child-sized keyboards; the cost of these laptops continues to drop towards the OLPC goal of $100 each. The criteria of easy-to-use and low cost led the developers to create an interface just for children based on the Linux operating system. Linux requires less memory, less computational power, and let the software developers exercise remarkable creativity.

While the OLPC project successfully distributed their machines in some parts of the world, in other places the educational authorities demanded that the laptops be available with Microsoft Windows. (Given Microsoft's history, I have dark suspicions about the possible sources of this requirement.) Recently the OLPC project agreed to provide Microsoft's Windows XP on their computers.

This decision spells the end of the OLPC project. Some developers immediately quit the project because they have no desire to work in Microsoft Windows' proprietary and frustrating environment (and some for other reasons). The cost of the laptops will increase by about 5%, which is a big step backwards. But most of all, I believe the utility of the OLPC will suffer in several important ways — even if the project survives, it will still be a failure.

First, a Microsoft version of this product will lose many of the remarkable pieces of software that are in the current version. For example, the innovative "mesh" networks that allow a classroom full of children to connect effortlessly to each other's computers is not compatible with Windows.

Worse than this, the children will become Microsoft serfs. They'll learn to believe that it's reasonable to go to the "Start" menu to stop the computer. They'll think that odd quirks, strange commands, annoying pop-up notifications, and "My This" and "My That" are reasonable methods to approach a computer system. A cesspool of viruses, spyware, and other dangers will probably infect entire classrooms.

Finally, the students and their teachers lose the chance to become computer experts themselves. The current OLPC environment, an open-source effort, provides all the right tools for experimentation with computers. The deal with Microsoft will snatch all that away.