Monthly Archives: April 2006

The proto-media center PC…

IBM PC jr family

Boingboing points at the Computer History’s collection of old sales brochures for computers, which is a treasure trove of inflated language and not quite so inflated computers. I will refrain from citing the nerdier items such as brochures for mainframes and acoustic modems, but the "Going to work with your Osborne" (at 24 pounds/11kg) brochure and especially the sales brochure for the (even at the time) extremely underwhelming IBM PCjr are great fun.

The PCjr was IBM’s foray into home computing, but in order not to threaten their profitable line of business PCs the PCjr was crippled so severly that it flopped, big time. (Part of the reason may be that it had the worst "chiclet" keyboard in computing history, though, as the picture shows, it was wireless.).

IBM was fairly early into home computing, but hadn’t yet cottoned on to the real market for home computers, which at that time (in the absense of online peer interaction) was based on guilt: Buy your child a computer, or he/she will do poorly in school and go downward from there. Note the picture, which bears an uncanny resemblance to certain home-oriented products I have been thinking about getting for my own living room lately. I know things have moved on, but can’t help getting that uncomfortable feeling that in about 20 years time I will look at these things and wonder what the hell I was thinking….

But it takes a special kind of thinking to produce something as bad as the PCjr. According to a friend of mine, the then-current explanation inside IBM was that the sales force (ever the upper hand at IBM) had boasted "We can sell anything!", whereupon the product development guys handed over the PCjr, saying "Oh yeah? Try this!"

Free shipping preferred

Techdirt has a little article talking about how people prefer free shipping over price discounts, even thought the final price may be higher. I don’t find that so hard to understand – free shipping offers flexibility in that you don’t feel you need to bunch orders together, enables price comparisons with local stored directly, and just makes life easier. The cost of processing may go down, but human information processing – actually having to figure out what the total price might be – becomes relatively more expensive. Free shipping is worth more because it simplifies your life and your shopping.

That’s all. 


perpendicularThe next technological breakthrough to hit the market in hard disk technology is perpendicular recording. As I understand it, this means that the magnetic field is flipped 90 degrees up from the disk surface, increasing the storage capacity per areal unit as much as ten times. This Flash video from Hitachi (which includes ceiling pointing dance steps  from Saturday Night Fever) should give a technically correct, though rather hokey explanation.

The upshot is somewhat thicker but ten times as powerful hard disks. The initial market seems to be iPods and similar devices (where the density premium is higher, I assume, but maybe also because smaller disks vibrate less just because they are smaller), but 3.5 inch disks are already announced. Today’s top-of-the-line disks have about 500GB capacity, so get ready for 5TB on your laptop within a year to three….

That is rather amazing. I like disk technology – not just because it is the perennial example of  continuously disruptive innovation, but also because every time you think it has reached its technological limit and we will finally switch to solid state memory, a new dimension opens up (this time by using an old technology previously thought too complex to be worth it.)

5TB on a laptop…. I used to say that you can never be too rich, too thin, or have too much hard disk space, but now I begin to wonder. This means simple scanning of all your digital content, including music and videos, and carrying all your information with you at all times. Which new applications will we get that will take advantage of, eventually outstrip this capacity and thus drive the technology forward?

Furthermore, were will disks go once the compression-on-a-single layer dimension is exhausted? Following what happened in computer design, I suspect we will see some architectural innovation (a la Seymour Cray creating supercomputers by creatively combining – and packing – known technology) or just techniques for increasing the number of disks attached to each device. Or perhaps increases in communications technology, especially wireless, will allow us to, once more, go back to centralized data storage.

Ahhh, the march of technology. Don’t we love it. 

(Via Engadget.)

Best transatlantic political analysis so far…

From a web page about how to sell things (courtesy of Pick me up):

For two summers, I worked in the UK. My third year I transferred to
the States. It wasn’t a success, but it did teach me something about
the difference between Britain and America.

Americans tend to buy stuff when it makes them feel warm inside.

Brits tend to buy stuff when it makes us feel smart.

I reckon this is why we find George Bush so mystifying.

Via Dragos.

B. Akunin goes retro

Boris Akunin: Murder on the Leviathan, Phoenix, 2004

Writers of historical detective novels have a dilemma: Should their protagonist be modern (in the sense that he or she is rational, humanist, evidence-based, and not hampered by the superstitions of the day) or saddled with contemporary racial, scientific and historical prejudices? Umberto Eco’s Thomas of Ockam (in The Name of the Rose), for instance, has been criticised as almost superhumanely modern for the 14th century.

B. Akunin’s hero Erast Fandorin strikes a nice balance, and I look forward to reading more of the books about him. The Leviathan is a classical (a tad bit too classical, actually) tale in the tradition of Agatha Christie, with a limited set of suspects, each with their own secrets that eventually come out, a conspiracy, and a bumbling police detective. The plot is fantastic, but I get a little bit annoyed with the breaking of one of the key rules of the classical crime novel: Thou shalt not introduce evidence the reader does not have access to as part of the explanation. Furthermore, I found the Parisian police inspector a tad bit too bumbling to be believable, and the alternative theories offered a bit too contrived.

But these are minor annoyances: B. Akunin cheats a little, but does even begin to sink to the Dan Brownish levels. I at first found the Japanese participant a little hard to believe, but since the author is a expert on historical Japan I will take him at his word. And the Victorian pace and language of the novel is not irritating, simply because it is done consistently and with great care. What the novel lack in tightness of the plot and terseness of description it makes up for in richness of characters and liveliness of villains. More Sherlock Holmes than Miss Maple.

In Norway, the Easter vacation is often spent reading mysteries – a tradition borne from skiing holidays spent in log cabins with bad weather and lack of electricity. I could think of worse company than B. Akunin’s books, especially as a replacement of the musty Agatha Christie volumes commonly found there.

Human metadata

smudged mapJonas Söderström, Swedish information architect and pioneer blogger, has a brilliant illustration of the value of information about people’s information seeking behavior: In a complex information seeking situation in the subway in Milan, he finds the way from the central station to Cadorna (where Leonardo’s The Last Supper is.) He does this by observing the smudge pattern left behind by hundreds of people putting their finger on the map and tracing out the route:

 If anything illustrates the value of what Google and other search engines do, this is it: A gigantic Delphi analysis where we all know a little, and together know a lot.

There is, of course, the implied danger captured in the phrase "ten thousand lemmings can’t go wrong," but a system with feedback (i.e., repeated searches and some learning) the danger of that should be small. Most of Wikipedia’s errors eventually get corrected, and the algoritms of search engines improve daily. The fact that we all leave electronic traces may be worrying from a privacy viewpoint, but the upside is a unique opportunity of turning searching and finding into unwitting and implied teaching.

We learn as we search, but now we can teach as we search.

Flatworld revisited

Edward E. Leamer, Chauncey J. Medberry Professor of Management at Anderson School, UCLA, has written an excellent critique of Tom Friedman’s The world is flat. In fact, something close to the review I wish I had written rather than what I wrote.

Leamer has some issues with the imprecise language and confusion of direct and indirect causality of Friedman, but ends up concluding that the book communicates a message rather well – and that the market, despite his misgivings about the book, has concluded that it is good. Language and metaphor trumps academic discipline and data. Leamer reduces Friedman’s ten forces to three (p.12):

  1. More Unskilled Workers: Economic liberalizations has injected a huge number of unskilled workers into the global labor market.
  2. New Equipment for Knowledge Workers: The Internet and the PC have fundamentally changed the nature of knowledge work, raising productivity and emphasizing talent.
  3. Communications Innovations: Cell-phones, beepers [beepers? who uses beepers?], e- mail and voice-mail keep us all wired and connected 24/7, thus eliminating the borderline between time at work and time at leisure. These same communication tools, together with the Internet and virtually costless telecommunications have extended the geographic reach of suppliers, and have increased the intensity of competition for mundane work.

and argues that the first two aren’t "flattening", only the third (and he much prefers the term "smaller world"). In essence, we can communicate, so distance becomes less important. Another turn on Beniger’s control screw, in essence.

Leamer also discusses the impact of the communications revolution on work, saying that the more "mundane" the work, to a larger extent it can be moved to a place with lower labor costs. He even provides this list of work in terms of its mundanity:

  1. Type this page.
  2. Edit this page.
  3. Write an article for an Economics journal.
  4. Write a good joke.

(Incidentally, I love this list, because I can, at least when I feel a need for self-justification, place blogging somewhere between 3 and 4 and thereby tell myself that I am doing something unique. Or perhaps something nobody else wants to do?) He also draws a useful distinction between trade that requires a relationship and trade that doesn’t but stops short of discussing to what extent increased communication can establish relationships that will enable trade to move from the very mundane to the less mundane.

Where Leamer really shines is in the facts department, where he shows that the world is becoming flatter at a much smaller rate and in a much more localized pattern than Friedman postulates. Income in India and China is on the rise, but the top 18% of the world rises faster. (He also points to Yale professor William Nordhaus’ excellent spinning globe, which indicates a kind of temperature chart of economic activity, showing red-hot localized areas (notably few in India and China) and solid blue for most of the globe.) Trade contributes to the decline in manufacturing jobs, but doesn’t seem to be the primary driver (technology is). Outsourcing of intellectual work is "a small drop in a very large bucket", and the US does not need to fear for its economic leadership in Tom Friedman’s world.

Leamer concludes with a useful distinction between the computer as forklift (a source of income equality, since anyone can learn how to operate a forklift and thus obviate competitive advantages in strenght) and the computer as microphone (an amplifier of talent and thus a source of income inequality). He ends by saying that the world is not getting flatter, but that to a larger extent the difference will be between those with and without talent.

Which sounds a lot like a flatter world to me.

And therein lies my issue with Leamer’s paper, to the extent I have one. To me, his conclusion sounds like Friedman’s, albeit with less fancy metaphors (though still halting – a weak artist gets better with a microphone, and song distribution services like Pandora are income equalisers for talent, in that they decompose the delivery of music and thus reduces the need for recognizeable artists).

For my part, I think economists should do what I think Leamer is doing, but not quite admitting: Come to peace with Tom Friedman and his book, and use it (and, of course, Tom Friedman) as a communications vehicle to promote what Hans Rosling calls a facts-based discussion of globalization and economics. Tom Friedman creates language and ideas that may not be as precise and well-defined as academia would want, and his conclusions are definitely on the livelier side of average. But people read the book and, like it or not, it becomes the reference point. And I read Leamer’s critique because, well, I read Tom Friedman’s book.

Worse could have happened. Think of philosophers having to explain their ideas in terms of Sophie’s World, The Tao of Pooh, and anything Ayn Rand has put out. Not to mention management researchers having to deal with Who moved my cheese? At least Friedman tells good stories and provides wonderful examples. It is up to academe to bring a more coherent story to the table, and make it as understandable.

(Via Marginal Revolution via Brad Delong.)

John Sviokla blogs

John SvioklaDon’t know how this escaped my notice, but John Sviokla now has a blog which I immediately added to my blogroll. John taught at Harvard while I was a student there and was one of the few professors from the technology side who paid attention to ecommerce and the Internet from the very beginning. He left Harvard to consult in the space (literally, marketspace) between marketing and technology. A quick sampling of his posts promises thoughtful observations on issues such as the evolution of technology platforms (including the iPod) as well as discussions of RFID and customers service interfaces.

John writes in a style that is understandable for business managers yet doesn’t lose sight of the often rather subtle attributes of technology that really makes a difference. And he does like wikis.


Time and place

I just had to have a post at this particular point in time, though the time format used here may make the historical significance less obvious.

And while I am at it, thinking about time and place – Steven B Johnson has a post about his new book, The Ghost Map. Which is about place and time, if you think about it. Mostly place, as you will see from Snow’s map.

(Via Wired, amongst others.)

One world, in practice

The world
I find this entry in the CIA World Factbook fascinating: The World. Yes, there are lots of factoids that should be there – for instance, Spanish is a larger language than English, but that is for first languages only – and isn’t the world’s most important language "broken English"? Still, just the fact that an entry like this can be put together with some kind of factual underpinning is to me proof that the world is getting smaller. I also like that the very first page of the CIO World Fact Book contains an option to "Submit a Factual Update" (though the link is to a general "contact CIA" page), which is an indication that someone, somewhere, understands that mistakes are inevitable and change constant.

(Via one of the blogs on my blogroll, can’t find the entry.)