Archive for December, 2010

Preserving ideals

“It is not ideals that the world is short of, but methods to stop them becoming a sham, a lie.” -Theodore Zeldin

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I like to say, “moderation in all things — but not too much.”

In other words, keep your moderation in moderation. This sort of sounds like a paradox, but I don’t think it is. Obsessing over moderation is just as unhealthy as obsessing over anything else. You end up worrying about whether your life is perfectly in balance. It shouldn’t be! It should get a little out of whack. Maybe even a lot out of whack, every now and then!

I think this is just the sometimes-overlooked deeper meaning of moderation.

p.s. In chaos theory terminology, I think this concept is related to the chaotic boundary between uniformity and randomness, which is self-similar at all scales. Moderation modulating moderation (modulating moderation, and so on). Uniformity taking hold and then randomly switching to a different uniformity. Randomness that is uniform — usually. But that’s a blog post for another day.

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Toleration is not enough

Gandhi’s life confirms that toleration is an insufficient remedy even when practiced by a very exceptional man.

This is from Theodore Zeldin’s excellent book An Intimate History of Humanity. The chapter it came from points out that despite Ghandi’s incredible charisma, intellect, and patience, his mission was ultimately a failure. He wanted English colonialists and native Indians to live together peacefully — to tolerate each other. The peace did not last.

Zeldin finds that tolerance works when times are good. But as soon as there is a shortage or conflict of interest, those who were tolerated quickly become the bad guys. The finger-pointing begins and the conflict escalates.

What is needed in the long run is respect.

The recent movie Invictus shows how rugby symbolized Nelson Mandela’s deep respect for white citizens and their culture. In one scene, Mandela insists that his team of bodyguards should include an equal ratio of white and black officers. This demonstrates to the country that Mandela respects the white officers so much that he trusts them with his life; in turn, the white officers demonstrate their respect for the president by protecting him. Like Ghandi, Mandela led by example. But Mandela realized that toleration was not enough; respect was necessary for lasting peace.

I find this insight surprisingly applicable to everyday life. It’s easy to fall back on toleration when times are good. I’ve seen this (and have sometimes been guilty) with roommates and coworkers. When interaction is minimal or interests are aligned, things go smoothly. But as soon as opinions differ or hard constraints arise, there is escalating conflict and extreme difficulty at reaching consensus or compromise.

Respect is harder than toleration. It requires understanding and empathy. It requires a willingness to embrace truths that are not your own truths. Humility.

The lesson here is to learn to recognize the difference between tolerance and respect, which can often look similar on the surface.

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The Innovator’s Dilemma

After reading Disrupting Class and several articles about disruptive technology on the asymco blog, I decided I should go to the source and read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen, published in 2000. It’s one of those books that seems fairly obvious in retrospect — now that ten years have passed and its lessons have largely been absorbed into business practice and culture.

The book is based on Christensen’s PhD thesis, which originally looked at technology and business trends in the hard disk drive industry. He found that some technologies (such as improved read-write heads) served to “sustain” existing product lines and cement the dominance of existing companies, while other technologies (such as smaller form factors) ended up “disrupting” existing products to the extent that once-dominant companies sometimes went out of business in just a few years.

The reason these companies failed was not that they were poorly managed, but because the disruptive products were in completely separate markets (and accompanying “value networks”). The existing companies were simply not designed to compete in those new markets. For example, 5-inch drives were sold to minicomputer makers, while 3.5-inch drives were sold to personal computer makers (with shorter design cycles, higher volumes, and lower profit margins). The existing minicomputer customers had no need for 3.5-inch drives, so the 5-inch manufacturers saw no market and no need to produce them until it was too late and other startup companies were already dominating the emerging market for personal computer hard drives (3.5-inch).

In other words, the businesses of making and selling 5-inch versus 3.5-inch drives were so different that being the dominant expert in hard drive technology was not actually much of an advantage. In fact, it was a disadvantage because the whole organization was designed to compete in the old business and naturally fought attempts to undercut that business.

But how do you know if a given product idea is going to be disruptive?

One clue: disruptive products are usually simpler, less powerful, and have smaller profit margins than existing products. So they need to find markets that value product attributes like convenience, reliability, and ease of use over sheer power. For example, business accounting software in the nineties was driven by the needs of large enterprise customers and so was quite complex and powerful. Quicken disrupted this market by creating a simpler, cheaper product based on its personal finance software. This was so much easier to use that it quickly gained an 80% market share among small business owners who did not need all those extra features.

What makes technologies “disruptive” rather than just “niche” is when they progress far enough to compete up-market with existing product lines. For example, Quicken continued to add features so that larger and larger businesses were able to use its software, pushing out the old software companies to only serve the largest enterprise customers. Potential disruptive technologies should have a plausible development plan that will eventually displace existing products up-market.

The big take-aways are:

1. If you want to start a new company, do it with a product idea that is likely to be disruptive. Otherwise, you have very little chance of making any headway against existing players.

2. Generally the only way to manage disruptive technologies from within an existing company is to create a totally separate organization with the sole purpose of going after that disruptive technology. If you don’t keep it separate enough, resources will inevitably be borrowed to take care of existing business and the new products will languish.

Apple has a better record than most for its ability to disrupt its own products before competitors get the chance. Horace Dediu makes a good argument that the iPhone should be seen not as “a better phone” but as a disruptive technology for personal computers: a simpler and more convenient way to accomplish computing tasks such as email and web surfing. The inclusion of a phone capability just makes it all the more convenient. I know at least one person who decided to get an iPhone instead of a new laptop; and Apple’s iPad is even more competitive with laptop computers. iPhones and iPads will continue to “move up-market” by adding the ability to conveniently handle ever more computing tasks. As this happens, Macs and other desktop PCs will increasingly be seen as high-end tools for power users.

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2001: Space Art

I just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, mostly with the goal of better understanding nerd cultural references. I hadn’t realized until I looked at the DVD jacket that it was released way back in 1968, shortly before the first real-life moon landing in 1969.

I assume (and skim from wikipedia) that 2001 is legendary for its pioneering special effects (such as simulated zero-gravity environments and spaceship fly-bys) and the philosophical and scientific questions it raises. I’m not going to try to dispute its status as a work of genius. I remember enjoying the book version when I read it many years ago.

But of course, by this point in history, artificial intelligence has been thoroughly discussed, and the astronomical cost of space travel makes the lavish and enormous spacecraft in the movie seem absurd (for example, the jupiter-bound ship is way bigger than necessary for supporting a mere six crew members).

And it seemed to me that the parts of the film which actually moved the plot forward could have been condensed down to about 15 minutes. The rest is better interpreted as space art, to be enjoyed at leisure in a gallery while pondering the nature of humanity.

All of this is to say that I found the movie to be extraordinarily boring.

But at least I’m one step closer to understanding what the heck my co-workers are talking about…

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Practical people

“What is the point of having discussions with practical people who always say you cannot change the world?”

-Theodore Zeldin

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Dramatic photo

I took this photo from the Queen Anne neighborhood in Seattle (walking distance from my office), looking southwest towards Elliot Bay.

Camera: iPhone 4.

Post-processing: Digitally removed power lines via Photoshop.

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The enemy of truth

“Truth… depends on evidence. Without evidence, anything goes. The enemy of truth is very often not the lie, but the myth.”

-Harold Kroto

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Collective intelligence depends on social skills

Researchers from MIT and elsewhere recently published a study where groups of two to five people had to solve various problems such as “visual puzzles… negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex rule-based design assignments.”

They found that “the average and maximum intelligence of individual group members did not significantly predict the performance of their groups overall.” However:

Groups whose members had higher levels of “social sensitivity” were more collectively intelligent [i.e. those groups had better scores on the problems they solved together]. “Social sensitivity has to do with how well group members perceive each other’s emotions,” says Christopher Chabris, a co-author.

The study was billed as a way for managers to form better teams. But the more important point to me is: social intelligence is critical in business. When students enter the workforce without well-honed social skills, the teams they’re a part of are less effective and make worse decisions.

As another of the study’s co-authors said, “What individuals can do all by themselves is becoming less important; what matters more is what they can do with others and by using technology.” If this is true, effective schools will need to prioritize social intelligence in the curriculum.

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BASIC was designed for students

I’m not sure when I put this article about CS education reform into my Instapaper, but I learned something new:

In the early 1960s, the professors John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz developed BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) at Dartmouth College because they thought educated people, and future leaders of America, should have some first-hand experience with computing.

I like this precedent of developing tools for students first, and business markets later. Focusing on students (and particularly “100-level” classes) is a great motivation to keep things simple and easy to learn. When/if the technology eventually gets powerful enough to compete with other tools, it will win because real people might actually want to use it.

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