Writing in the electronic margins

I came across an interesting article about the importance of being able to “write in the margins” and how that functionality has been neglected in computer systems in favor of the designer trying (in vain) to figure it all out ahead of time. I love this quote:

The fuzzy intersection of official and unofficial data has never been a comfort zone for information technologists.

How true…

It also follows a theme that has been recurring lately, which might be summed up as “computer science is hard:” in a sense we are trying to re-create the world from scratch, which is a very difficult job! Paper gives you all sorts of abilities “for free” but every new function on a computer (such as the ability to “write in the margins”) must be explicitly designed.

Advice from Steve Jobs

Recently published was some really important advice from Steve Jobs. Well, he was just answering interview questions. But I take it as advice. On getting things right:

“At Pixar when we were making Toy Story, there came a time when we were forced to admit that the story wasn’t great. It just wasn’t great. We stopped production for five months…. We paid them all to twiddle their thumbs while the team perfected the story into what became Toy Story. And if they hadn’t had the courage to stop, there would have never been a Toy Story the way it is, and there probably would have never been a Pixar.

“We called that the ‘story crisis,’ and we never expected to have another one. But you know what? There’s been one on every film. We don’t stop production for five months. We’ve gotten a little smarter about it. But there always seems to come a moment where it’s just not working, and it’s so easy to fool yourself – to convince yourself that it is when you know in your heart that it isn’t.

“Well, you know what? It’s been that way with [almost] every major project at Apple, too…. Take the iPhone. We had a different enclosure design for this iPhone until way too close to the introduction to ever change it. And I came in one Monday morning, I said, ‘I just don’t love this. I can’t convince myself to fall in love with this. And this is the most important product we’ve ever done.’

“And we pushed the reset button. We went through all of the zillions of models we’d made and ideas we’d had. And we ended up creating what you see here as the iPhone, which is dramatically better. It was hell because we had to go to the team and say, ‘All this work you’ve [done] for the last year, we’re going to have to throw it away and start over, and we’re going to have to work twice as hard now because we don’t have enough time.’ And you know what everybody said? ‘Sign us up.’

“That happens more than you think, because this is not just engineering and science. There is art, too. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of one of these crises, you’re not sure you’re going to make it to the other end. But we’ve always made it, and so we have a certain degree of confidence, although sometimes you wonder. I think the key thing is that we’re not all terrified at the same time. I mean, we do put our heart and soul into these things.”

On management style:

“My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better. My job is to pull things together from different parts of the company and clear the ways and get the resources for the key projects. And to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better, coming up with more aggressive visions of how it could be.”

On managing economic downturns:

“We’ve had one of these before, when the dot-com bubble burst. What I told our company was that we were just going to invest our way through the downturn, that we weren’t going to lay off people, that we’d taken a tremendous amount of effort to get them into Apple in the first place — the last thing we were going to do is lay them off. And we were going to keep funding. In fact we were going to up our R&D budget so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over. And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.”

Of course, that’s why it’s amazing to have a huge pot of cash you can draw from. College endowments are very useful for the same reason (plus the fact that it earns interest).

Apple has really done some amazing work. And they are amazing at focusing on a small number of products.

“I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. The clearest example was when we were pressured for years to do a PDA, and I realized one day that 90% of the people who use a PDA only take information out of it on the road. They don’t put information into it. Pretty soon cellphones are going to do that, so the PDA market’s going to get reduced to a fraction of its current size, and it won’t really be sustainable. So we decided not to get into it. If we had gotten into it, we wouldn’t have had the resources to do the iPod. We probably wouldn’t have seen it coming.”

“Things happen fairly slowly, you know. They do. These waves of technology, you can see them way before they happen, and you just have to choose wisely which ones you’re going to surf. If you choose unwisely, then you can waste a lot of energy, but if you choose wisely it actually unfolds fairly slowly. It takes years.

“We don’t get a chance to do that many things, and every one should be really excellent. Because this is our life. Life is brief, and then you die, you know? So this is what we’ve chosen to do with our life. We could be sitting in a monastery somewhere in Japan. We could be out sailing. Some of the [executive team] could be playing golf. They could be running other companies. And we’ve all chosen to do this with our lives. So it better be damn good. It better be worth it. And we think it is.”

Clean energy research

Man, I went to a cool talk today given by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger who recently wrote a book called Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Remember the essay I posted a while back called “Climate change is not an environmental issue”? They were basically backing me up all the way on that viewpoint. It’s always great when someone famous agrees with you AND gives you even better reasoning behind the position.

Their core message, however, which was not part of my essay, is that massive government spending on clean energy research is going to be the primary way we solve the climate crisis. They pointed out that massive government spending is what led to computing, the silicon chip, the economies of scale for the silicon chip ($1000 to $20 per chip in 7 years), and ultimately “silicon valley.” They also cited the very interesting fact that the international treaty banning CFCs (to protect the ozone layer) was not ratified until alternative chemicals to CFCs became available. Analogously, serious global warming treaties will probably not be passed until clean energy technologies as cheap as coal are actually available.

Their position is that carbon taxes are really only useful for raising the necessary money to massively invest in clean energy technologies – so that the true cost of these technologies become competitive with fossil fuels. They think an $80 billion per year investment will be what it takes. This is a lot, but pales in comparison to the defense budget of over $500 billion. This is reasonable for American taxpayers to swallow if they are convinced that it contributes strongly to issues they care about, such as national security and economic security.

Part of what’s amazing to me is that I was already fascinated by solar panels back in high school. Why was that? I guess it just seemed clear to me that the most efficient way to get energy would be to take it directly from its source: the sun. Every other method is incredibly indirect (fossil fuels stunningly so). Four years later, I put much of my savings into solar panel stocks (that was a good choice). And now we have a very clear case being made that solar panels may well be a major factor in tomorrow’s energy sources – it’s just going to take enough research and economies of scale to make them sufficiently inexpensive.

I bought their book (and got it signed) and am looking forward to reading it.