Monthly Archives: January 2008

Academica nervosa

Beware the academic with "gravitas", writes Philip Davis; all it means is that he can make a ten-second banality last ten minutes. A gravitas has "all the inner life of a bicycle pump."

I love it. As for comments on why – no comments. Aside from the fact that anyone connected to academia has met Professor Gravitas. Sometimes on self-reflection.

I am still formulating my thoughts here. 

Delightfully Absurdistan

Cover AbsurdistanGary Shteingart: Absurdistan

Absurdistan bears the same relationship to Russia that John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces bears to New Orleans: It paints a wildly satiric picture that somehow comes up more true than the original. The Ignatius O’Reilly of this book is Misha Vainberg, the grossly overweight, rich and rubbed son of a Jewish oligarch who eventually finds himself stranded in the rapidly disintegrating Republic of Absurdistan (known for its TV remote control factory), an oil-rich enclave by the Kaspian Sea. Misha wants to return to New York where went to Accidental college and learned to appreciate rap, junk food and assorted versions of psychoanalysis:

At Accidental College, we were taught that our dreams and our beliefs were all that mattered, that the world would eventually sway to our will, fall in step with our goodness, swoon right into our delicate white arms. All those Introduction to Striptease classes (apparently each of our ridiculous bodies had been made perfect in its own way), all those Advanced Memoir seminars, all those smposiums on Overcoming Shyness and Facilitating Self-Expression. And it wasn’t just Accidental College. All over America, the membrane between adulthood and childhood had been eroding, the fantastic and the personal melding into one, adult worries receding into a pink childhood haze.

It really is no point trying to explain the plot here, to the extent that there is one. The language and the casual kicks in many directions (the role of the Golly Burton company in instigating civil war to get various military contracts, for instance) is howlingly funny and yet oddly irritating. Misha Vainberg is a despicable character, but with enough money and borrowed cachet that nobody seems to care. he blunders through a disintegrating republic where people are shot in the streets and bombed for the benefit of television, returing to his hotel room to read today’s menu and seeking to escape on the American Express VIP train:

"Wow", I said in English. I turned around to look at my manservant. "Did you see that, Timofey? We did it. We saved a life. What does it say in the Tamud? ‘he who has saved a life has saved and entire world.’ I am not religious, but my God! What an accomplishment. how do you feel, Sakha?

But Sakha could not supply the words of gratitude I deserved. He merely breathed and drove. I decided to give him some time. I was already componsing an electronic message to Rouenna about the day’s exploits. What had she told me in that dream about the eight-dollar apple? Be a man. Make me proud. Done and done. […]

Respectful of the Hyatt sign, the soldiers waved us through, the locals banging on the sides of our vehicle, hoping we could enable their safe passage to the hotel. "Unfortunately we have to save our own hides first," I said to Sakha.

Unfortunately, Sakha, a local democracy advocate with uncertain background and appalling dress sense, gets shot about two minutes later. This eventually earns him a statue and Misha the post of Minister of Multicultural Affairs, with the job of trying to get Israel to finance a Holocaust center and the USA to invade.

And there you are – a novel impossible to classify, howlingly funny, and highly recommended.

Carr on computers as current

Cover The Big SwitchNicholas Carr: The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.

In his excellent book Holidays in Hell, P. J. O’Rourke visits Future World (an attraction at Disney World) and says that it is "like opening a Chinese fortune cookie to read, ‘Soon you’ll be finished with dinner.’"

I get the same feeling reading Carr’s book (an advance copy) – it is well written, stylish and easily recognizeable like Disney World – and understandable to the masses. The main message of the book is that because of faster networks, computing will be centralized and made accessible like electric power. Carr even draws a line back to the history of electric power provisioning. All very well, we already see this happening with Google applications and Gmail. But I first heard this prediction in 1990, spoken not as a wild speculation of the future but as a likely and not particularly exciting outcome by my thesis advisor, professor Jim McKenney at the Harvard Business School.

The centralized and ubiquitous computing future Carr eloquently predicts is, in principle, a return to shared mainframes accessed over telephone lines, only cheaper and faster by orders of magnitude. The mainframe lost dominance to the PC because people wanted control of their own computing and their own data, so they chose a cheap, weak and unreliable computing platform over one that offered stability, performance (at least in the aggregate) and reliable backups. Otherwise known as a disruptive technology.

Many hard disk crashes and viruses later, a significant portion of the populace have not yet moved their files to Google Docs and are unlikely to do so. For that matter, I would venture that more information and computing is still done on mainframes than on Internet-accessible servers. That is not where the innovation is, true, but new computing platforms come in addition to other platforms, not as replacements.

So we will move into the Cloud, but for social computing, collaboration, and information lookup. People will still want their local storage and (at least perceived) local control. And will end up with a three-tiered personal computer architecture: Traditional centralized computers for transactional systems that demand global recalculation (like airline reservation systems), personal storage and processing for the very personal (where are you going to store those photos, you said?) and cloud-based computing for stuff we want to find and share.

Oh well. This is not news. I know Carr’s book is written for the great unwashed, and I admire his language and clarity of examples, but it is like Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat: If you have been reasonably awake and facing in the right direction the last 10 years or so, you will not find any surprises here.

And that’s a pity, for I read books for ideas, not for summaries. And this one, for all its elegance, had me dozing off more than switching on.

Atlantic wall tumbling down

The Atlantic is following the New York Times lead (or, rather, example) and tearing down its paywall so that even non-subscribers can access its articles and archives. This is yet another indication that in the media world, the choice is now between not-quite-penniless relevance and no-longer-so-profitable obscurity, and that the scale is tipping further and further over from the latter to the former.

The point, of course, is that The Atlantic now is linkable, debatable and taggable in this Next Generation Enterprise of ours. I will celebrate by linking to two classic Atlantic articles by Tracy Kidder: Flying Upside Down and The Ultimate Toy, both of them from The Soul of a New Machine (1981), still the best case study (and, come to think of it, introductory text book) on leading techies I have ever read.

Enjoy. And link.

(Via The New York Times and Undercurrent.) 

Building a market for digital movie rental

Seth Godin has a brief yet thoughtful take on the digital movie rental market.

Just about the first thing you learn in microeconomics is that over time, given competition, the price of a product will come close to its marginal cost. Understood by economists for hundreds of years, but not yet understood by the movie industry. Over time, their machinations will make as much sense as the British red flag laws (mandating a person walking in front of motorcars with a red flag) at the beginning of the 20th century. Until then, it seems the content industries will make the same mistakes – first the music industry, then movies and TV, then book publishing.

Frustrating, yet seemingly inevitable.

One of the things I used to wonder about was what would happen when the theory of disruptive innovation (see various articles by Clayton Christensen) became known. Would the effect disappear, like a Heisenbergian attempt at measurement, because managers now knew how it worked? After all, if you understand and recognize a pattern of development you can anticipate it and create a new business model. That is, if you are smart enough to read theory and willing to apply it to your industry rather than find excuses.

I think we see the answer in what is happening in the media industries – a truly disruptive innovation will ruin your business even if you know about it, because (as Weick phrases it) companies select and enact their environment. In other words, they choose what they want to see and discard anything that indicates a deviation of their prejudices. The death-spiral of the RIAA is but one example, with its desperate attempts to turn back time and preserve an anachronistic business model.

At least we now know that disruption is real, hard to prevent, and, for companies with no current stake in the business, a great opportunity, exploitable less for the novelty of the innovation than for the blinkers of the incumbents. Fun.

In and above the flow wikis

Andy McAfee has a good post on how to make people use wikis – use it as a tool to do their work (in-the-flow) rather than document it (above-the-flow).

I have used wikis in classrooms situation for a few years now, this is a call to move more of the activity over to the wiki and away from traditional papers and email.