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“There are two ways to make money in business: bundling and unbundling”*…

bundle

Many ventures seek profit by repackaging existing goods and services as revenue streams they can control, with technology frequently serving as the mechanism. The tech industry’s mythology about itself as a “disruptor” of the status quo revolves around this concept: Inefficient bundles (newspapers, cable TV, shopping malls) are disaggregated by companies that serve consumers better by letting them choose the features they want as stand-alone products, unencumbered of their former baggage. Why pay for a package of thousands of unwatched cable television channels, when you can pay for only the ones you watch? Who wants to subsidize journalism when all you care about is sports scores?

Media has been the most obvious target of digital unbundling because of the internet’s ability to subsume other forms and modularize their content. But almost anything can be understood as a bundle of some kind — a messy entanglement of variously useful functions embedded in a set of objects, places, institutions, and jobs that is rarely optimized for serving a single purpose. And accordingly, we hear promises to unbundle more and more entities. Transportation systems are being unbundled by various ridesharing and other mobility-as-a-service startups, causing driving, parking, navigation, and vehicle maintenance to decouple from their traditional locus in the privately owned automobile. Higher education, which has historically embedded classroom learning in an expensive bundle that often includes residence on campus and extracurricular activities, is undergoing a similar change via tools for remote learning…

Things that have been unbundled rarely remain unbundled for very long. Whether digital or physical, people actually like bundles, because they supply a legible social structure and simplify the complexity presented by a paralyzing array of consumer choices. The Silicon Valley disruption narrative implies that bundles are suboptimal and thus bad, but as it turns out, it is only someone else’s bundles that are bad: The tech industry’s unbundling has actually paved the way for invidious forms of rebundling. The apps and services that replaced the newspaper are now bundled on iPhone home screens or within social media platforms, where they are combined with new things that no consumer asked for: advertising, data mining, and manipulative interfaces. Facebook, for instance, unbundled a variety of long-established social practices from their existing analog context — photo sharing, wishing a friend happy birthday, or inviting someone to a party — and recombined them into its new bundle, accompanied by ad targeting and algorithmic filtering. In such cases, a bundle becomes less a bargain than a form of coercion, locking users into arrangements that are harder to escape than what they replaced. Ironically, digital bundles like Facebook also introduce novel ambiguities and adjacencies in place of those they sought to eliminate, such as anger about the political leanings of distant acquaintances or awareness of social gatherings that happened without you (side effects that are likely to motivate future unbundling efforts in turn)…

In a consideration of one of the most fundamental dynamics afoot in our economy today, and of its consequences, Drew Austin observes that no goods or services are stand-alone: “Bundling and Unbundling.”

* Jim Barksdale (in 1995, when he was the CEO of Netscape)

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As we contemplate connection, we might recall that it was on this date in 1980 that IBM and Microsoft signed the agreement that made Microsoft the supplier of the operating system for the soon-to-be-released IBM PC.  IBM had hoped to do a deal with Digital Research (the creators of CP/M), but DR would not sign an NDA.

On Nov. 6, 1980, the contract that would change the future of computing was signed: IBM would pay Microsoft $430,000 for what would be called MS-DOS. But the key provision in that agreement was the one that allowed Microsoft to license the operating system to other computer manufacturers besides IBM — a nonexclusive arrangement that IBM agreed to in part because it was caught up in decades of antitrust investigations and litigation. IBM’s legal caution, however, would prove to be Microsoft’s business windfall, opening the door for the company to become the dominant tech company of the era.

Hundreds of thousands of IBM computers were sold with MS-DOS, but more than that, Microsoft became the maker of the crucial connection that was needed between the software and hardware used to operate computers. Company revenue skyrocketed from $16 million in 1981 to $140 million in 1985 as other computer-makers like Tandy and Commodore also chose to partner with them.

And as Microsoft’s fortunes rose, IBM’s declined. The company known as Big Blue, which had once been the largest in America, and 3,000 times the size of Microsoft, lost control of the PC platform it had helped build as software became more important than hardware.  [source]

Microsoft Founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates

Paul Allen and Bill Gates in those early years

source

 

Written by LW

November 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Not with a bang, but a whimper”*…

 

automation

 

What actually happens to workers when a company deploys automation? The common assumption seems to be that the employee simply disappears wholesale, replaced one-for-one with an AI interface or an array of mechanized arms.

Yet given the extensive punditeering, handwringing, and stump-speeching around the “robots are coming for our jobs” phenomenon—which I will never miss an opportunity to point out is falsely represented—research into what happens to the individual worker remains relatively thin. Studies have attempted to monitor the impact of automation on wages on aggregate or to correlate employment to levels of robotization.

But few in-depth investigations have been made into what happens to each worker after their companies roll out automation initiatives. Earlier this year, though, a paper authored by economists James Bessen, Maarten Goos, Anna Salomons, and Wiljan Van den Berge set out to do exactly that…

What emerges is a portrait of workplace automation that is ominous in a less dramatic manner than we’re typically made to understand. For one thing, there is no ‘robot apocalypse’, even after a major corporate automation event. Unlike mass layoffs, automation does not appear to immediately and directly send workers packing en masse.

Instead, automation increases the likelihood that workers will be driven away from their previous jobs at the companies—whether they’re fired, or moved to less rewarding tasks, or quit—and causes a long-term loss of wages for the employee.

The report finds that “firm-level automation increases the probability of workers separating from their employers and decreases days worked, leading to a 5-year cumulative wage income loss of 11 percent of one year’s earnings.” That’s a pretty significant loss.

Worse still, the study found that even in the Netherlands, which has a comparatively generous social safety net to, say, the United States, workers were only able to offset a fraction of those losses with benefits provided by the state. Older workers, meanwhile, were more likely to retire early—deprived of years of income they may have been counting on.

Interestingly, the effects of automation were felt similarly through all manner of company—small, large, industrial, services-oriented, and so on. The study covered all non-finance sector firms, and found that worker separation and income loss were “quite pervasive across worker types, firm sizes and sectors.”

Automation, in other words, forces a more pervasive, slower-acting and much less visible phenomenon than the robots-are-eating-our-jobs talk is preparing us for…

The result, Bessen says, is an added strain on the social safety net that it is currently woefully unprepared to handle. As more and more firms join the automation goldrush—a 2018 McKinsey survey of 1,300 companies worldwide found that three-quarters of them had either begun to automate business processes or planned to do so next year—the number of workers forced out of firms seems likely to tick up, or at least hold steady. What is unlikely to happen, per this research, is an automation-driven mass exodus of jobs.

This is a double-edged sword: While it’s obviously good that thousands of workers are unlikely to be fired in one fell swoop when a process is automated at a corporation, it also means the pain of automation is distributed in smaller, more personalized doses, and thus less likely to prompt any sort of urgent public response. If an entire Amazon warehouse were suddenly automated, it might spur policymakers to try to address the issue; if automation has been slowly hurting us for years, it’s harder to rally support for stemming the pain…

Brian Merchant on the ironic challenge of addressing the slow-motion, trickle-down social, economic, and cultural threats of automation– that they will accrue gradually, like erosion, not catastrophically… making it harder to generate a sense of urgency around creating a response: “There’s an Automation Crisis Underway Right Now, It’s Just Mostly Invisible.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1994 that Ken McCarthy, Marc Andreessen, and Mark Graham held the first conference to focus on the commercial potential of the World Wide Web.

 

 

Written by LW

November 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”*…

 

book-page-1024x469

 

For years, the Internet Archive has been acquiring books (their goal is every book ever published) and warehousing them and scanning them. Now, these books are being “woven into Wikipedia” with a new tool that automatically links every Wikipedia citation to a print source to the exact page and passage from the book itself, which can be read on the Internet Archive.

Citations to print materials are both a huge potential strength and weakness for Wikipedia: a strength because there’s so much high-quality, authoritative information in print; and a weakness because people can make up (or discount) print citations and bamboozle other Wikipedians who can’t see the books in question to debate their content, context, or whether they should be included at all.

Archive founder Brewster Kahle kicked off the initiative after a discussion with Wikimedia’s executive director Katherine Maher, who was “worried that truth might fracture.”

Wikipedia is a key battleground in the war against disinformation, and the Internet Archive’s measures — which were presented to Congressional staffers yesterday — are a huge advance on the state of the art.

“I want this,” said Brewster Kahle’s neighbor Carmen Steele, age 15, “at school I am allowed to start with Wikipedia, but I need to quote the original books. This allows me to do this even in the middle of the night.”

For example, the Wikipedia article on Martin Luther King, Jr cites the book To Redeem the Soul of America, by Adam Fairclough. That citation now links directly to page 299 inside the digital version of the book provided by the Internet Archive. There are 66 cited and linked books on that article alone.

Readers can see a couple of pages to preview the book and, if they want to read further, they can borrow the digital copy using Controlled Digital Lending in a way that’s analogous to how they borrow physical books from their local library.

Via Boing Boing: “The Internet Archive’s massive repository of scanned books will help Wikipedia fight the disinformation wars“; for more details, read The Internet Archive’s announcement here.

“Together we can achieve Universal Access to All Knowledge, said, one linked book, paper, web page, news article, music file, video and image at a time.”

– Mark Graham, Director of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine

* George Orwell

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As we accelerate access, we might send insightfully-humorous birthday greetings to William Penn Adair Rogers; he was born on this date in 1879.  A stage and motion picture actor, vaudeville performer, cowboy, humorist, newspaper columnist, and social commentator, he he traveled around the world three times, made 71 films (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), and wrote more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.  By the mid-1930s Rogers was hugely popular in the United States, its leading political wit and the highest paid of Hollywood film stars.  He died in 1935 with aviator Wiley Post when their small airplane crashed in northern Alaska.

Known as “Oklahoma’s Favorite Son,” Rogers was a Cherokee citizen, born to a Cherokee family in Indian Territory (now part of Oklahoma).

“I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.”- Will Rogers

220px-Will_Rogers_1922 source

 

Written by LW

November 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Infrastructure is much more important than architecture”*…

 

The wind driven Kincade fire burns near the town of Healdsburg, California

 

A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books.

In software development, engineers have long noted that taking the easy way out of coding problems builds up what they call “technical debt,” as the tech journalist Quinn Norton has written.

Like other kinds of debt, this debt compounds if you don’t deal with it, and it can distort the true cost of decisions. If you ignore it, the status quo looks cheaper than it is. At least until the off-the-books debt comes to light…

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion to get Americans back to an acceptable level of technical debt in our infrastructure.

Of course, it’s been saying that for many years. The number is so big as to be almost laughable. It’s 2.4 times the amount Donald Trump’s tax cuts are to add to the American budget deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Washington Examiner

Climate change will soon expose a crippling problem embedded in the nation’s infrastructure.  In fire-ravaged California, it already has: “The Toxic Bubble of Technical Debt Threatening America.”

[TotH to AR]

* Rem Koolhaas

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As we aspire to be good ancestors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1906, at the first International Radiotelegraph Convention in Berlin, that the Morse Code signal “SOS”– “. . . _ _ _ . . .”– became the global standard radio distress signal.  While it was officially replaced in 1999 by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, SOS is still recognized as a visual distress signal.

SOS has traditionally be “translated” (expanded) to mean “save our ship,” “save our souls,” “send out succor,” or other such pleas.  But while these may be helpful mnemonics, SOS is not an abbreviation or acronym.  Rather, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letters were chosen simply because they are easily transmitted in Morse code.

220px-Thesos source

 

 

Written by LW

November 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

“You just don’t get any perspective if you are looking at a map on a small screen… and the batteries on handheld devices run out, especially in very cold environments”*…

 

Stanford Map

 

Home to the world’s largest collection of maps, travel books and globes, its customers include governments and armed forces from around the world… Based in Covent Garden, in the centre of London, family-owned Stanfords is a 166-year-old British institution. Opening its doors in 1853, it harks back to the great expeditions of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Its famous customers from that time included David Livingstone, who explored much of Africa, and Ernest Shackleton, who led expeditions to Antarctica. Even fictional character Sherlock Holmes was a fan.

Vivien Godfrey, 58, has been chief executive and chairman of Stanfords since March 2018, but her connection to the business has been a lifelong one. Her family have been majority owners since 1946, and she is now the third generation to lead the company. She describes Stanfords as having “been part of my entire life”.

However, when she graduated from Oxford University with a degree in geography in 1983, her father wouldn’t let her join the family firm…

Stanford's 2

The story of one of London’s treasures, and the woman who leads it: “The map store boss who took the long route.”

[TotH to friend KE]

* Vivien Godfrey, on the benefits of printed maps

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As we carefully re-fold, we might spare a thought for a cartographer of a different sort, James Grover Thurber; he died on this date in 1961.  A cartoonist, author, humorist, journalist, playwright, children’s book author, and all-round wit, he was probably best known for his cartoons and short stories published mainly in The New Yorker magazine (like “The Catbird Seat” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”)– though his Broadway comedy The Male Animal (written in collaboration with his college friend Elliott Nugent), was later adapted into a film starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland.

Q. No one has been able to tell us what kind of dog we have. I am enclosing a sketch of one of his two postures. He only has two. The other one is the same as this except he faces in the opposite direction. – Mrs EUGENIA BLACK

A. I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could, however, remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and a cold chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct.

The Thurber Carnival (1945)

220px-James_Thurber_NYWTS source

 

Written by LW

November 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”*…

 

Beer

 

Of all the substances people intoxicate themselves with, alcohol is the least restricted and causes the most harm. Many illegal drugs are more dangerous to those who use them, but are relatively hard to obtain, which limits their impact. In contrast, alcohol is omnipresent, so far more people suffer from its adverse effects. In 2010 a group of drug experts scored the total harm in Britain caused by 20 common intoxicants and concluded that alcohol inflicted the greatest cost, mostly because of the damage it does to non-consumers such as the victims of drunk drivers…

No Western country has banned alcohol since America repealed Prohibition in 1933. It is popular and easy to produce. Making it illegal enriches criminals and starts turf wars. In recent years governments have begun legalising other drugs. Instead, to limit the harm caused by alcohol, states have tried to dissuade people from drinking, using taxes, awareness campaigns and limits on where, when and to whom booze is sold.

The alcohol industry has pitched itself as part of the solution. In Britain more than 100 producers and retailers have signed a “responsibility deal” and promised to “help people to drink within guidelines”, mostly by buying ads promoting moderation. However, if these campaigns were effective, they would ruin their sponsors’ finances. According to researchers from the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a think-tank, and the University of Sheffield, some two-fifths of alcohol consumed in Britain is in excess of the recommended weekly maximum of 14 units (about one glass of wine per day). Industry executives say they want the public to “drink less, but drink better”, meaning fewer, fancier tipples. But people would need to pay 22-98% more per drink to make up for the revenue loss that such a steep drop in consumption would cause.

Health officials have taken note of such arithmetic. Some now wonder if Big Booze is sincere in its efforts to discourage boozing. In 2018 America’s National Institutes of Health stopped a $100m study of moderate drinking, which was partly funded by alcohol firms, because its design was biased in their products’ favour. And this year the World Health Organisation and England’s public-health authority banned their staff from working with the industry…

alcohol

Governments are growing more suspicious of Big Booze: “Alcohol firms promote moderate drinking, but it would ruin them.”

See also “How much beer does your state drink? In the thirstiest, about 40 gallons a year per person,” source of the image at top.

* Homer Simpson

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As we muse on moderation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1944 that Harvey, a play by Mary Chase, opened on Broadway.  It ran for 1,775 performances and won the (1945) Pulitzer prize for Drama.  The story of a care-free dipsomaniac named Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend was a “pooka” (an imaginary rabbit named Harvey), it was directed by Antoinette Perry– the actress, director, and co-founder of the American Theater Wing, for whom the Tony Awards are named.  It’s been regularly revived on-stage, and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film that starred Jimmy Stewart as Elwood.

220px-Harvey-FE-1953 source

 

Written by LW

November 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens”*…

 

Wonder Bread

 

Because of its central role in human nutrition, bread has appeared in countless cultural and religious keystones: the epic of Gilgamesh; the description of Egypt as the land of bread-eaters; Jewish oppression and the feast of Passover (bread of the afflicted); the Roman cry of “bread and circuses”; bread as a symbol in the poetry of Omar Khayyam; bread that signifies the body of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, made with simple, wholesome ingredients, bread is the staff of life. German bread continues to exemplify this tradition, one that Jews were supposedly destroying with processed white bread.

In contrast to the German disdain for white bread, in the United States it had become a symbol of successful industrialization, of a promising modern future. In the early twentieth century, Americans had developed a new anxiety about the potential contamination of their food supply. Eugene Christian and Mollie Griswold Christian exemplify the dramatic phobias surrounding both home-baked and bakery-bought bread in their 1904 book Uncooked Foods and How to Use Them: A Treatise on How to Get the Highest Form of Animal Energy from Food, with Recipes for Preparation, Healthful Combinations and Menus. They write, “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ, because millions of these little worms have been born and have died, and from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog.” Yum! Mass-produced bread seemed somehow safer, more sterile, in the public eye…

Food, politics, and culture– the dark and white flours of ideology: “Breaking Bread.”

* Robert Browning

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As we loaf, we might recall that it was on this date in 1826 that Noah Cushing, of Quebec, who two years earlier had received Canada’s first patent for his mechanical washing machine, patented a threshing and winnowing machine… which was briskly overtaken by Cyrus McCormick’s better-performing reaping machine, patented in 1834.  Threshing and winnowing capacities were added to the reaper to create the now-standard “combine” that’s used to harvest grain.

450px-Plaque_du_Premier_brevet_d_invention

Plaque commemorating Cushing’s (first) patent

source

 

Written by LW

October 31, 2019 at 1:01 am

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