A Life Lived Before Internet Time

I saw this week that longtime 60 Minutes essayist Andy Rooney is retiring, and predictably the comments that appeared on media sites ran the full spectrum of snark to insult. It is as if everyone born in the last 40 years forgets that a long life lived contains more than just what we know as most current about any person.

Andy Rooney is an interesting person and it was in watching him on Ken Burn’s documentary The War that I decided to learn a little about the man. I’ll skip the full bio and focus on two parts of his life that pre-date the curmudgeon character that most people know as Andy Rooney.

Drafted into the Army in 1941, Rooney was one of a handful of journalists who flew on bombing raids with the 8th Air Force in 1943. The losses that these air groups suffered were horrendous, with the early raids seeing as few as 1/3 of the departing aircraft return undamaged or at all. In 1943 when Rooney stepped into a B-24 or B-17 destined for bombing raids over Germany with fighter protection only part of the way, he knew that the odds that he would return unharmed were not in his favor. Later in the war Rooney was one of the first journalists to enter a German concentration camp and write about the experience… a far different writing task than talking for a few minutes about why the dryer eats socks.

Hired in 1949 at CBS, Rooney along with other pioneering radio and television journalists developed a form of broadcast essay that lives on today in news programs, specials, and evening broadcasts. His writings earned him multiple Emmy’s, Writers Guild Awards, and a Peabody award, covering topics as diverse as race, women and war in the 60’s and 70’s.

It’s not that I have become a hardened Andy Rooney fan, in fact I watch so little television that I can’t even tell you what decade I last saw an episode of 60 Minutes in. What does bother me is the callous nature of public commentary from people who distill a persons life, one as long as Rooney’s is, into a few soundbites that caricature the person in the least favorable light. There’s probably a lot to not like about, well, anyone and Rooney has been no stranger to controversy, but is it not enough to just let the man leave the public stage without each and every person feeling they have something worth saying when they actually know only what is most recent about him?

Artists I Like: Mark Levin

I have not written an Artists I Like post in quite a while so I decided the time was right to pen one on someone who exhibits great technical skill with the eye of an artist.

Mark Levin has a pretty wide range in his portfolio but the pieces that I gravitate to are in his Leaf Series. These tables and shelves are nothing short of amazing and the process he creates them with combines great technical proficiency in woodworking with the patience and deliberation of an artist who combines chainsaws, grinders, carving tools and smoothing implements to create truly amazing forms.

Privacy Obfuscation at the WSJ

The WSJ updated their privacy policy, I read it and read it again and then one more time before admitting defeat… I have no idea what their privacy policy is now.

Why can’t companies express privacy policies in plain and simple language that says what they will do and what they won’t do? When it comes to contextual terms like “personally identifiable information” they should spell out what that is.

There’s a much better discussion of this privacy policy on Google+ in response to a post Dan Gillmor put up (which shows the potential for threaded conversations in G+ btw).


Life With Android, 1 Year Later

A little over a year ago I turned off my iPhone 3 and fired up a new HTC Evo Android handset, the initial experience I wrote about here. I recently upgraded my handset from the Evo to the just released Samsung Epic Touch and wanted to share some thoughts about Android after having lived with it for a full year.

As you might surmise given that I just upgraded my handset, I’m pretty happy with Android but first let’s get some of the negative comments out of the way. Power management is a huge issue with all of these handsets, especially the ones with 4.3″ displays and lot’s of network options. Apple has done a remarkably good job of reconciling hardware and software power issues, Google needs to do better on power management in the platform and providing reference material to hardware providers in order to maximize the consumer experience in this area.

The Android UI is one which only an engineer can truly love… lot’s of icons, buttons, menus, and gestures. I know that this has been an area of focus for the Android team and they have brought on board some significant talent to lead the way to a new and improved user experience. While the current UX is not bad or in any way impairs my usage, improvements can’t come fast enough.

The Android marketplace is very noisy, a function of the explosion of applications that have become available but also a result of an interaction model that favors the carrier’s desire to feature apps of their choosing. It’s time to revamp the Android market(s) by moving away from the category navigation model to a strong search function where someone can use the search facility to find apps by stacking up metadata strings (e.g. category, keyword, rating, free/paid, etc.).

That’s really the sum total of complaints and shortcomings I would point out. Android is, today, a remarkably mature mobile platform and ecosystem and benefits greatly from hardware innovation and a highly extensible core operating system. The HTC Evo I had was one of the best phones I have ever owned and the Samsung Epic Touch is quickly proving itself as one of the best handsets on the market.

Despite being really large the handset is also very thin and light, which is probably a function of the highly evolved AMOLED display which fuses the glass and the display components together in a compact package. It’s also worth pointing out that the display is manufactured by Samsung so they clearly benefit from having a degree of verticalization in their design and manufacturing operations, something few other hardware manufacturers could boast of.

Battery life on the Epic Touch is far better than the Evo, even when the bluetooth, GPS, and wifi networks are spun up. This is a large battery at 1800 mAh, which gives a reported 10 hours of talk time, but time will tell because new batteries always perform admirably… it’s when you have been using it for 6 months that a true representation of battery life emerges.

The display quality is nothing short of fantastic, and when coupled with a very crisp 8 megapixel camera makes for pleasing experiences while taking images and video. I also noticed that the camera is very speedy in terms of reducing latency and lag, a welcome addition.

I could go on about the hardware but this isn’t intended to be a hardware review so let me close by simply saying that the Epic Touch is a significant achievement in hardware design. One of the reasons why I went with Android in the first place is that I didn’t want to be limited exclusively to what Apple decided I should have for hardware and software… Google has done a commendable job of recruiting great hardware partners and the array of handsets that are available meet a wide range of consumer requirements.

On the software side the portfolio of Android apps is deep and broad, the only application that I would like to have which is not available is Instagram. I like the ability to have additional items in my share menu, which was always a pain point for me on the iPhone and the integration of Google Apps is rich, as would be expected.

All things considered, I am glad I switched over to Android and look forward to getting a tablet later in the year when new devices are expected.

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HP Self Destruction Fully Implemented

This is a devastating expose on the dysfunctional upper echelon at HP:

“The company is coming apart at the seams,” said one person familiar with H.P.’s operations. “Because they may or may not be selling the PC business, the enterprise side is completely frozen. The business customers who buy tens of thousands of these machines along with support contracts are shutting them out. Dell and Lenovo are all over these accounts. They’re having a field day. H.P. is self-destructing.” A full-page ad in major newspapers trying to reassure PC customers did little to assuage doubts.

I feel sad and pissed off at the same time… HP is a company that literally defined Silicon Valley at one point but has become in more recent years the laughingstock as the company that went out of it’s way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

When Apotheker was hired there was a lively Enterprise Irregulars thread on the news and several people expressed dismay that HP had just hired a CEO who understood only $4b of HP’s $126b in annual revenue, and that observation has never been more poignant than it is today.

In the wake of the last week’s public airing of Apotheker’s fate, he is done at HP and I feel bad for him personally because after this it is hard to imagine any scenario where his professional reputation recovers. While he should have known this was not a good fit for him the fact is that HP’s Board of Directors was tasked with finding the right person for the job, not the person who would say yes.

HP’s Board also should be overhauled, and by overhaul I mean completely replaced. Shareholders have suffered tremendously on their watch and the history of Board dysfunction going back to Fiorina needs to be addressed. Exhibit A for the case that they are unwilling to acknowledge their failings is the news that they are considering Meg Whitman as interim CEO.

UPDATE: Kara Swisher is reporting that Whitman will in fact get the CEO role at HP, as early as today. HP has gone from a CEO with experience in 3% of their business to a CEO with experience in 0.00%. Brilliant.


Is Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

All the hand twisting about Rick Perry’s comment on Social Security being a “Ponzi scheme” obscures the fact that the system does have the key requirements to qualify as one: it depends on a group of people paying into the system and not collecting benefits with the proceeds going to pay out another group of participants, and most importantly, the fact that eventually the system will collapse is beyond dispute.

Perry critics respond that he is suggesting the system is a fraud, a criminal fraud but those same critics should stop and consider that if this system were not a government entity that it would in fact be a criminal enterprise under existing financial fraud statutes.

Under common law 3 key elements are necessary in a financial crime: a material false statement made with an intent to deceive (scienter), a victim’s reliance on the statement and damages.

Looking at the long term financial consequences for people younger than the Baby Boomer generation who will be left with a far different Social Security system than we have today and it’s easy to find all three elements of fraud being met.

People in retirement or near it resist changes to Social Security on the basis that they paid into the system their working life and deserve the benefits they were promised. It’s a fair statement but one that fails to recognize that they paid into the system in order to sustain the benefits for people who were in retirement while they were working. As life expectancy increases and a large number of people enter retirement, the current ratio of 1.75 working people to support each retired person is untenable. Either we have a radical restructuring of Social Security or we have a surge in employment (it’s an and/or really)… absent of that then Social Security is a fraud and young generations will find a different retirement reality than generations in or near it today.

Unintended Consequences

I love the Law of Unintended Consequences, not only does it provide near daily fodder for me to write about in the absence of other news items but it always serves to remind me how complicated our world is.

Just this weekend I was pondering this while driving on a road that I frequently transit. A few years ago the powers that be decided to install speed bumps on this nice stretch of country road, no doubt at the behest of residents who complained about drivers fracturing the speed laws on occasion.

Through a period of trial-and-error I discovered that if driving 39 mph (yes, 39 is optimal) on this road the attenuation of the vehicle suspension is such that one barely feels the speed bump, it’s basically like running over a small pothole. This is mildly interesting but unintended consequence I wish to share is a result of the opposite, drivers slowing to well below the speed limit to observe the speed bump.

My son noticed a snake on the side of the road so we stopped and I could not help but listen to the frequent accelerate-decelerate cycle of cars driving by, and if one lived on this stretch of road it would not take much to realize that the tradeoff for cars observing the speed bumps was now noise while other drivers, such as myself, would drive considerably faster to minimize the annoyance factor of the speed bumps… so in the end the residents gained nothing from the speed bumps but two additional complaints to give voice to. Unintended consequences.

Another item that I caught today which I filed under the same theme is this one about the unintended consequence of the drive to get people to stop smoking, researchers are suggesting it is a factor contributing to the rise in obesity. Whether or not this is qualified and peer reviewed research, I do not know but it seems reasonable on it’s face when looking at the probability for obesity in smokers versus the non-smoker population, and then the overall rise in obesity.

I wouldn’t suggest that we turn back the clock on cigarettes because that would be a Hobson’s choice but if held to be accurate this research presents a juicy policy dilemma for government regulators who have taken it upon themselves to invest their regulatory powers in our lifestyle choices. Unintended consequences…. what’s your favorite story?

When Smart People Double Down on #FAIL

I awoke this morning to an email from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings saying he was sorry… although it wasn’t entirely clear if he was sorry for losing half of his market cap in the last year (shareholder) or sorry for the crappy streaming catalog and losing Starz while implementing a price increase (customer).

It became clear he was sorry for the latter and it turned out to be a fascinating read from the standpoint of hitting on the 3 major must-dos for Internet crisis management:

1) Start out with an un-equivocating apology:

“I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation.”

2) Focus on the emotional dimension of the customer dissatisfaction:

“It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming, and the price changes.”

3) While reflecting on the past look to the future with actions that you are taking:

“It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming.”

BONUS: Re-iterate the apology as a “sincere” or “heartfelt” apology and that the perceived injustice certainly wasn’t “our intention”… as if it pissing off your customers is ever intentional.

As an apology this is pretty good but I’m left more confused than I was yesterday about what Netflix is trying to do. I always thought they were in the business of delivering entertainment but according to Hastings they are in one business of delivering DVDs and another that streams.

Businesses split and divest units all the time, typically when the economics of a business shift or one part of the business becomes constraining on another… or when you are HP. In this case, according to Hastings, the move is a result of:

“So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently.”

So reading between the lines, Hastings knows he makes more money on streaming and needs to shift more of the business to streaming at the expense of DVD by mail. That much is clear, otherwise he would have split off streaming and called it Streamster or one of Shawn Fanning’s other orphaned children. To draw a conclusion on imperfect information, the only thing that is constraining streaming, according to Hastings, is marketing and pricing.

The first thing I recalled when reading this note, available on long form in the Netflix blog, was Ford’s ill-fated rebranding of what was then the #2 selling mid-sized sedan in the U.S., the Taurus, to the Ford Five Hundred name. Several years later Ford capitulated and in their own words acknowledged destroying a billion dollars of brand equity in the rebadging, and rebranded the Five Hundred back to the Taurus.

Netflix has in one act reaffirmed the pricing strategy that has cost them up to a million subscribers and split the brand into two entities, the unknown of the two being core business. Color me skeptical.

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