Friday, December 23, 2011

Gregory Slayton on Innovation

Dartmouth Tuck School of Business Adjunct Professor Gregory W. Slayton was in Beijing this month to give some talks about innovation.  Although creativity and innovation are of course important to me, I haven’t focused on this, partly because I think of it as an art (that you learn by doing) rather than a science (that you learn by studying). Obviously it's a little of both, and as a professor he’s studied it academically, so it was nice to get an overview of the state of the science.
He divides professional creativity into four components:
  • Product: what you make
  • Process: how you make it
  • Interpersonal: who you partner with
  • Strategic: future directions
Companies as well as people can be analyzed on these dimensions, and he asks us to rate ourselves (our “Creative Profile”) on each of the four components and assess where we want to be in five years.
He recommends three classic books on creativity:

as well as some readings I thought were useful about Pixar,  Alessis, and a highly-quoted HBR article by Teresa Ambile.

Other suggestions:
  • Keep a creative journal to write down new thoughts or ideas as they come to you
  • Appoint a “Creative Board of Directors”, mentors who will give you feedback on how to be more creatively successful
Gregory has an interesting background: Harvard MBA, McKinsey consultant, Silicon Valley businessman, and Consul General to the Bahamas. He's also had a longtime interest in Asia, and I enjoyed the short conversations we had during the breaks, talking about his thoughts on China and more.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Zeo vs. the motion sensors

I don't have a Jawbone UP. I tried to buy one earlier this month but Best Buy wasn't stocking them until the kinks have been worked out. Several of my friends rave about it, though:  it's just a bracelet that you wear and it automatically measures your activity, including your sleep.

The UP is one of a number of devices that try to measure sleep based on your movement in bed. It has a tiny accelerometer that picks up the slightest little twitches of your hand while sleeping. Since sleep phases are often accompanied by such movement,  (the theory is) software can later stitch it together to guess how much time you were in REM sleep or deep sleep. But these twitches are just a proxy for the actual sleep phase,  so I'm skeptical that it can measure it as accurately as the Zeo, which uses special sensors to directly detect the electromagnetic activity in your brain. Still, maybe it's "close enough", especially if (like me) you don't have any particular sleep issues that need analysis to the nth degree.

Movement detection is pretty easy, and there are plenty of ways to do it.  There's even an App for that! Smart Alarm, by Arawella Corporation, cleverly uses the built-in accelerometer, plus the microphone, to measure your movement at night and guess the amount of various sleep phases.

How does it compare to my Zeo Sleep Manager?  Last night I tried both at the same time and here are the results:

myZeo Personal Sleep Coach



Smart Alarm Sleep

Answer: Zeo is way better. It’s not even clear that the motion-detection app gave useful information, and might even be outright wrong.

The motion detection method was wrong. It says I:

  • Slept one hour longer than I did. (9 hrs vs 8)
  • Had more phases of REM sleep (6 vs. 4)
  • Had less deep sleep (5 vs. 8+)

Look at the charts and you’ll see the difference.

I don’t know how well this compares to an UP, but I bet the motion-detection systems just aren’t very useful.  If you really want to measure sleep, I say get the Zeo.

By the way, my recommendations:  Zeo comes in two forms: an alarm clock version that doesn’t require anything extra; and a more portable, cheaper version that plugs into your smart phone. If you have an iPhone or an Android, the Mobile Sleep Manager is a little cheaper and smaller.  The Alarm Clock version is nicer if you don’t already have a nice bedside alarm clock, or if you don’t like sleeping near your phone.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I'm sleeping better, but why?

I love my Zeo Sleep Manager, a cool device that measures my brain activity in order to help understand the quality of my sleep: the amount of refreshing REM versus Deep sleep, versus plain-old-ordinary light sleep, and of course the all-up total sleep each night. I started using it in mid-2010, and have used it to track my sleep most nights since then.

I don't have any particular sleep issues, though I was intrigued by the idea that I may be used to a particular quality of sleep, and maybe I just think I'm doing okay. Well, after using Zeo for this long I can't say that I feel all that different -- I feel fine, and always have -- but feelings are hard to measure objectively. Is there a way to measure my sleep quality more scientifically?

Zeo uses a measure they call "ZQ", which tries to combine a bunch of aspects of sleep into a single number you can compare across nights. After analyzing my data for the past eighteen months, I've noticed that my ZQ number seems to be going up over time, for no apparent reason.  At least, I don't think I've been changing anything about myself: I just go to bed when I'm tired, and wake up when it's morning. I haven't deliberately tried to change anything about myself.

But even without trying, my ZQ seems to have improved over the past year.  Since the amount of daylight varies throughout the year, I analyzed my numbers date by date.  (I don't have data for every single night, so my analysis skips the nights when I don't have a datapoint for both years).

Here's a chart that shows the difference in my ZQ compared between given dates in 2010 and 2011.

Sprague ZQ 2011 vs 2010

As you can see, there seems to be a clear trend of my ZQ improving, and for the past few months it's improved significantly – on the order of 20 or more points per night. I wonder why?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Worse than a robot

I’m back in the US for a few days, a good time to order items that I can’t get in China, and that means borrowing the address of a friend to accept delivery. Since I come often, I try really hard not to wear out my welcome with these friends by making the pickup process as simple as possible.

This time I needed wanted a new iPhone 4S, which can have unpredictable arrival times, so I ordered it several weeks in advance. My friend happened to be out when the truck came, and I got an email notice offering to hold it instead at the main FedEx shipping center. Perfect! I thought: I’ll pick it up right after my plane arrives, early in the morning  with no need to intrude on my friend.

Seemed like a perfect plan until the lady at the FedEx counter asked for my ID. Of course I have my passport/drivers license, but the package was delivered to my friend’s name, and as the lady explained to me: “FedEx policy requires that the name on the package match the ID of the person picking it up”.

Well what I can do? I’m obviously who I say I am -- she sees my ID -- and I have the correct tracking number. It’s clearly my package. But policy is policy, according to the  counter lady. My only hope is to get my friend to call FedEx and change the name on the delivery. I explain that it’s early in the morning, my friend did me a favor by accepting delivery in the first place, and I don’t want to impose.  Sorry, she says.  “It’s policy”.

“Wait,” I say. “What’s to stop me from calling FedEx myself?”  I know the tracking number, the address of the original delivery, and I have an email that FedEx sent to me. Rather than ask my friend to call, why don’t I call myself, pretend to be the friend, and the problem is solved, right?

The counter lady hesitates. I have a good point, she admits, but now that she’s on to me, she says, she still won’t let me have the package because she’ll know it was me just faking to be my friend. The only thing I can do, she insists, is call my actual friend and get her to dial FedEx herself.

But that’s a hassle for my friend, who will have to drop what she’s doing to make a phone call, look up the tracking number, sit on hold.  I really don’t want to impose.  Too bad, says the counter lady. “Policy is policy”.

I called Apple. The person on the line was very friendly and accommodating, but Apple’s IT systems and FedEx IT systems are separate, so it could take as long as 24 hours before word of the different name on the address trickles into the FedEx office. The Apple person offers to speak directly to my FedEx lady, who replies “Nope: it’s policy”.

Finally, after too much time wasted already, I excused myself and went outside. I called FedEx and said I want to change the name on the delivery. No problem, they said. A few minutes later I went back to the counter lady, she looked up the entry and sure enough it’s okay to accept delivery from “Richard Sprague”.

Ugh.  What a waste.

This counter lady adds no value. By sticking so firmly to the rules, she was making herself into an automaton, the perfect job for a robot. Unlike a machine, though, she can’t work twenty four hours a day, and she needs to be paid.  So she’s actually worse than a robot!

If, on the other hand, she had used a little common sense -- the kind that is far more complicated to program into a robot -- she could have realized that my story makes complete sense. I am showing her a real ID, and I’m happy to give real additional contact information in case --against all logic--I am a criminal who somehow stole this tracking number, faked the email I showed her, and now is going through all the trouble of coming to the FedEx office -- in person -- to pick up a delivery of a brown box that has no indication of what’s even inside.

The US unemployment rate is too high, and there are a lot of proposals for how to “put America back to work”. But the unfortunate fact is that too many Americans are like this FedEx counter lady: doing work that is fundamentally replaceable by automation and robots. I don’t know what this particular women will be doing in five or ten years, but I know that if FedEx wants to continue controlling costs, they’ll need to look carefully at how much value she adds, and inevitably they will conclude that a robot is better for this work than she is.

It’s sad, because she, like all humans, has some skills that are extremely hard to replace with machines. But first she’ll need to start acting like a human, and not like a robot.

IMG 3843

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Don’t study engineering or science

Thomas Friedman writes today in his column, One Country Two Revolutions

if one result of the downsizing of Wall Street is that more of America’s best and brightest math and physics students decide to go into science and real engineering rather than financial engineering, the country will be a whole lot better off.

The rest of the article is a glowing account of Silicon Valley and some of the inspiring people he wants us to emulate.  Just for fun, I looked up the education histories of the people he cites:

  • Alan Cohen, VP at networking company Nicira (MBA, MA Int’l studies)
  • Scott Wilson, designer mentioned in Fast Company (B.A. Design)
  • Alexis Ringwald, founder of an education startup (B.A. Political Science)
  • Marc Benioff, CEO of (B.S.B.A. Entrepreneurship)
  • Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn (B.S. Economics from Wharton)
  • Jagdish Bhagwati Professor at Columbia is of course is a BA Economics.

(By the way, Mr. Friedman himself has an undergraduate degree in Mediterranean Studies)

Not a single one of the people he praises is an engineer or scientist!

Like I said after watching the education movie 2 Million Minutes:  Science and engineering are important, but by themselves they are technical skills, like welding or car repair, that can be mastered by anyone with some discipline and training.  You need to be much smarter than that. I’m reminded of the common entrepreneurial wisecrack: “If I need an engineering degree, I’ll hire one”.

China and India have plenty of engineers and scientists.  To compete in the future, we need innovators and risk-takers, along with a culture that encourages people to try new things, even things the “experts” and regulators think are too risky or likely to fail.  The future belongs to people with curiosity, open minds, willingness to change, an ability to empathize with people of different backgrounds, work well with others, and a society with enough flexibility and freedom to allow for many ways of getting there.

If science and engineering are your passion, by all means go for it. But if you (or your kids) are studying it just because experts like Thomas Friedman say you should, then you’re missing the whole point.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

What happened to me?

I just spent eleven nights in the hospital – four of them in ICU. I’ve always been a pretty healthy guy. What happened?

The short answer: a bowel obstruction – a kink somewhere in my intestines that kept food from passing through – plus aspiration pneumonia, which I contracted shortly after they inserted a three-meter tube through my nose and into my tummy.

Exactly two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to return to Beijing feeling a little tummy ache – I thought it was some Mexican food I’d eaten – but the high altitude of the flight – which tends to bloat the internal organs—apparently worsened the situation enough that I was pretty sick by the time I arrived, unable to hold food or water. I pulled myself together enough to complete my MacWorld keynote address, and then headed straight to a clinic for treatment.

Those horizontal lines are not good: it means something is blocking the normal passage of liquids.

Bowel obstructions are nearly unheard of in younger people, but in my case the cause is clear: abdominal surgery as a child left bits of scar tissue that accumulated over the years enough to occasionally wrap around the intestines. Although full obstructions can be somewhat common with a history like mine, I lasted nearly thirty years without trouble, and I’m hopeful that this time was just a fluke that won’t bother me again.

Treatment is pretty straightforward: doctors insert a tube to let the pressure off the obstructed area, and wait for it to heal naturally. Doctors try hard to avoid surgery – after all, it’s the surgical scar tissue that causes the problem in the first place –but it’s always a backup option in severe cases. I’m recovering fairly well, so that doesn’t seem to be a necessity for me.

The pneumonia, meanwhile, made my situation worse than it might have been. We’re not sure how I contracted it. I had a bit of a cold the previous week – did my weakened condition cause it to flare into something worse?  Or, maybe in the process of inserting the tubes, something in my throat disturbed the lungs somehow and tipped me into a much worse situation?  Either way, this was quite a scare and it necessitated the ICU, a week of breathing with an oxygen mask, and plenty of antibiotics, which I’ll need to continue taking for several more weeks.

It’s been two weeks and although I’m much improved, I’m not out of the woods yet. I’m recuperating at home, which of course is much better surroundings than in the Chinese hospital I left. This week is a Chinese holiday, and while it’s a bummer that I can’t get out and enjoy the vacation, I’m not missing any work either. For now I’ll just continue this way, taking it slowly until I’m back to my old self.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

[Book] 1493


The New World was created, not discovered, says Charles C. Mann. The impact of Columbus’ historic trip was felt worldwide, ushering in the Age of Globalization that we know today. Nearly everything, worldwide, changed so much as to make the pre-Columbian world unrecognizable. Can you imagine Italy without tomato sauce? Ireland without potatoes? Georgia without peaches?

I was surprised to see that this book is as much about China as it is about America or Europe. In fact, the author did much of his research in China. This is more obvious than it seems: after all, trade with China was the ultimate goal of Columbus and the generations that followed him.

There is a lot to this book and I know I’ll think about it for many years to come. If I had more time or motivation, I’d write a proper summary, but in these days of super-short tweets and instant-access Google, let me just summarize a few of the more interesting takeaways, since I know I’ll likely want to refer back to these ideas later:

  • Columbus’ largest ship, Santa Maria, ran aground on his first voyage, so he had to leave 38 people behind. When he returned eleven months later, they were all dead—the result of conflict with the locals (called Taino).
  • The non-human travelers to America were at least as important as the explorers themselves: bacteria and viruses caused epidemics, insects destroyed native crops.
  • Earthworms were unknown in America until the Europeans arrived. Imagine the soil without them, and all the consequences on mulch and the types of trees possible and much, much more.
  • Trade with China began in the 1560s in Manila.
  • The period of unusual cold known as the Little Ice Age, from 1550 to 1750, may have been caused by the end of wide scale forest burning by native Americans.
  • The Virginia joint-stock corporation shipped seven thousand people to Virginia between 1607 and 1624, of whom eight out of ten died.
  • Tobacco saved England’s New World investments: by 1680 it was exporting 25 million pounds per year.
  • Nicotine addiction was rampant worldwide by the early 1600s: in 1635 the khan Hongtaiji prohibited tobacco. Guangxi Chinese were making tobacco pipes by 1549.
  • The flintlock rifle, which first became available in the late 1600s, was the first weapon that Indians recognized as superior to the bow. John Smith’s matchlocks didn’t work in wet conditions and required a tripod for accuracy.
  • Malaria killed untold numbers of people in the Americas and was common even in New England. Africans, with their “Duffy antigens” were immune and became ideal laborers as a result.
  • One reason Zheng He’s historic travels from China weren’t followed up: he never encountered a nation richer than his own. “For the same reason the United States stopped sending men to the moon – there was nothing there to justify the costs of such voyages”.
  • The Ming prohibited all private seagoing vessels in 1525 (but reversed the order fifty years later in order to trade with Europeans in Manila).
  • Wokou (倭寇) Japanese pirates were a serious threat to trade.
  • Yuegang, near modern Xiamen, was one of the world’s most important ports in the 1600s.
  • By the 1570s, 90% of Beijing’s tax revenue came in the form of silver coins.
  • Potosi, Bolivia’s “mountain of silver” was discovered in 1545. By 1611, its population of 160K was as big as London or Amsterdam.
  • The Qing dynasty enacted a program of smallpox inoculation.
  • “Part of the reason China is the most populous nation is the Columbian exchange” (p177). New, highly productive crops like sweet potato and corn enabled cultivation in otherwise impossible areas.
  • For 167 days in 1925 two Polish researchers lived on potatoes with butter and reported no health problems. [p197]
  • “Roughly 40 percent of the irish ate no solid food other than potatoes”. [p209]
  • Tenochtitlan fell on August 13, 1521.
  • P.312 : 57% of the early descendants of Conquistadores tracked were of Indian descent.
  • P.313 In 1640 there were 3x as many Africans as Europeans in Mexico.
  • P323: Katana-swinging Japanese helped suppress Chinese rebellions in Manila in 1603 and 1609. When Japan closed its borders in the 1630s Japanese expatriates were stranded wherever they were.
  • P.359: English Puritans launched two colonies, one at Plymouth and another off the coast of Nicaragua in 1631.

Like I said, very interesting and there’s a lot more. If you like history in general, or if you’re looking for a fresh take on China, this is definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Chinese Twitter (English version)

Now available on the US App Store: Sina Weibo 微博 download here: then follow me at and see why 200M users like it.

Note: to create an account you'll need some rudimentary knowledge of Chinese (either from something like Google Translate or from a helpful friend).  I assume they're working on an English version of the web site too of course.



Saturday, June 11, 2011

Books versus Conversations

There are two major ways we humans express ourselves: books and conversations.

A well-written book has the advantages of being an exhaustive treatment of a complex topic, but sometimes the length or completeness of a book is inappropriate. “I just asked him for a simple reply to my email but he wrote a novel instead.” If that novel wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, the effort to understand and then respond to it is greater than whatever result I’m hoping to get back.

A conversation, on the other hand, is tentative and ephemeral. If I speak poorly, you can ask me for clarification; if I make an error, you can correct me. A conversation, by definition, is a collaborative act. A one-sided conversation is an oxymoron.

Some conversations are just idle chit-chat, a way to pass the time; but a good conversation, like a good book, leads somewhere, bringing you to an ending that feels like progress on the road of life.

Social networking services are moving us more to a conversational lifestyle rather than a book-like consumption lifestyle. A blog isn’t much fun if nobody responds to what I write; Twitter and Facebook resemble blogs except they’ve made the interactivity—the conversational aspects—much easier.

A book is the distillation of a long series of conversations. A well-written book has value because it saves the reader the time it would have taken to have the conversations that led to the conclusions in the book.

Book Drop: No Books, Please

Photo thanks to

Facebook’s addicting even if you don’t admit it

It’s a few minutes before the next meeting. Or maybe it’s right before dinner is ready. Or there’s a commercial on TV. Or it’s time to go to bed. Or get up.

What’s your first thought at each of these moments? Check Facebook! It’s a continuous stream of what’s happening among the people and interests in my life, and it gets more and more useful every day. No wonder more than 100 million Americans log in daily. It’s the most popular web site in the world, and it will keep getting more so.

Many of my friends are silent on Facebook, but I know they’re there, lurking, watching, reading all of my updates. Even the shy ones, or those who think they have nothing themselves to say…they still watch.

Japan’s Mixi social networking service (of which I am a member, though rarely active) has a great feature that lets you know when somebody has visited your profile. I wish Facebook had something like that. I bet we’d all be surprised – impressed – at the number of our silent friends who actually watch everything we do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Hard to know for sure

I keep running into this problem of the limitations of knowledge. Today, a professor friend of mine reminded me how the one thing you take away from earning a PhD is how little you know of your field of study. We were discussing the old saying that after your first week in China you’ll feel like you could write a book about the place; after a year you’ll think you could write a magazine article; after a few years you give up writing anything.

The Useless Tree Blog discusses (via China Law Blog) a recent interview with Chinese official Wang Qishan claiming that China is only understandable to insiders like himself, but my first thought is “what does it mean to understand in the first place.” Does anybody really know?

Then there’s Peter Norvig’s excellent review of a recent remark by Noam Chomsky dismissing the use of statistical techniques in linguistics. Chomsky apparently thinks real scientific understanding requires more than a statistical analysis of a bunch of data—you have to synthesize that knowledge, presumably into simpler, fundamental rules that describe the Universe. That’s super-hard, and except in Physics almost always turns out to be an approximation anyway.

This is just restating the problem identified by Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society and by countless others who reflect on the limitations of what we know.

Society gives too much credit to people who appear to know, but I think self-confidence is no substitute for understanding.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

You’ll never understand China

This week’s Sinica podcast notes how a foreigner will never be accepted as a China expert, that Chinese people will always claim that true understanding of China is the exclusive domain of native Chinese.

You hear the same excuse in Japan, though possibly less so as the Japanese become more comfortable being thought of as a Western, not Eastern power.

Americans just don’t think that way. Anyone can offer a perspective about the United States and be regarded as an “expert” if they put in the time or show some quality in their observations.  We’ll even accept a foreign publication, like The Economist or the BBC, as a better arbiter of the truth than many homegrown equivalents. Somebody like Alexis de Toqueville is respected as one of the best American observers of all time.

You can tell the self-confidence of a culture to the degree that respects external experts.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Weibo: The Chinese Twitter++

I bet at least 50% of my work friends check Facebook every single day. For those under age 30 it's probably closer to 100%.

Twitter isn't nearly as popular, as far as I can tell; maybe 5% of my colleagues actively post messages under their real names. It's hard to say how many people check their Twitter streams regularly. I'm sure it's higher, but not that much higher.

Contrast that with China, where Weibo is absolutely dominating. Here among my work colleagues I'd guess maybe 25% are active users -- a couple times a day -- under their own names, and probably 2/3rds are active under pseudonyms (though for obvious reasons it's hard to tell for sure).

Why is Weibo better than Twitter? Because it's the first social networking system I've seen that adds a competitive element to status updates. On Twitter, some people obsess about their number of followers; on Foursquare people obsess about mayorships.  But on Weibo, there's an entire scoring system based on how often you post -- and critically -- how well your posts are received. The result is that people are incented to produce better and better content, which results in more readership, which drives more reasons to make content.

Like Twitter (or Facebook), Weibo has the concept of posting links to news items. But thanks to the incentive system, 60% of Chinese microbloggers say Weibo is their main source of news (versus only 9% for Facebook or Twitter-using Americans).

If I can find a good way to post automatically from Weibo to Twitter to Facebook, I'm switching, and I bet you'll want to switch too.




Saturday, April 16, 2011

“The Fat Years”

Chan Koonchung (陈冠中) author of 2013, The Fat Years (盛世:中国2013年) spoke at the Beijing ex-pat bookstore, The Bookworm recently. The book’s premise of a dystopian near-future where China dominates the world, will be popular in the West when they release it in English sometime soon, but meanwhile I have a few thoughts.

Chan Koonchung

The central idea of the novel is that the people are unhappy and somehow not really free, in spite of their material possessions. One part of the plot revolves around a strange realization that the country has lost a month on the calendar, which nobody can recall.

A few ideas occurred to me while listening to the author:

  • Hong Kong, where the author is originally from, is really a different place. Though dominated by the mainland, its identity is being forced into sharper focus because of the looming merger of political systems set to happen fifty years after 1997.
  • Beijing, which the author describes as his favorite place on earth, is experiencing extremely rapid change, particularly since 2000. The idea of a “lost month” in the novel comes from the experience of living here and regularly realizing that major changes happen all the time and never being able to pinpoint exactly when or how.
  • The author does not believe that the Communist Party is simply another dynasty. The ancient Chinese belief in a cyclical view of history is just not true anymore in the face of the force of modernity. China is just another nation-state that must confront liberalization and democracy just like every other aspiring emerging country.

Just a few new ideas to add to my highly-incomplete picture of China, and a mental note that I must learn more about the Hong Kong (and Taiwan) perception of this place if I really want to understand it.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Anonymous Exchange

Human progress depends on specialization, which in turn requires successful cooperation, often among people far away and unknown to each other, referred to by the economist John Nye and others as anonymous exchange.

This is difficult for many non-Westerners to understand or appreciate. Trust an unknown stranger? in the same way you trust anyone else?  But modern, large societies do it all the time, from accepting green pieces of paper (dollars) as payment for a service, to taking as fact the words in a newspaper column telling us who won the election. Okay, sometimes we don’t completely trust others, but the violations are in the breach, and we feel wronged when the trust is broken.

In China I once needed a taxi from one airport terminal to another. I was in a hurry, didn’t know my directions, and a taxi was there so I hopped in.  The driver suspiciously didn’t turn on the meter, a fact which I interpreted as kindness toward a stranger, until we arrived and he insisted that I pay far, far more than the adequate fare.

Why did he rip me off?  Because he assumed I was leaving the country, would never return, and was to him completely and totally anonymous. If I had been a relative, or a friend of a relative, or a member of a community that he respects or thinks of as related to his, then I'm sure he would have treated me very differently.

We hear about this in China all the time, from businessmen who cheat on their foreign partners, to a trusted Ayi (maid) who steals from her employer. Of course such fraud happens in any society, but I think China particularly sees this through the eyes of a not-quite-ended feudalism, an underdeveloped place where you naturally trust only those to whom you have a family or other strong kinship.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An Apple File Store

How often have I been annoyed because I forgot to sync something on my iOS device before leaving the house. I store a lot of data in the cloud. There are my own personal files, of course, usually work-related Office documents (Word, Powerpoint, Exchange Outlook emails). But I store a lot of other stuff too:

  • Podcasts, music, photos – the normal content you associate with Apple.
  • Content apps, like New York Times or Economist. If I forget to download the latest, I won’t have it once I leave the house.
  • Personal content apps, like Instapaper or Evernote. These carry important data that fundamentally exist in the Cloud, but are useful to me only when regularly synced to my devices.
  • Other private information, like from my banking app, or Paypal, or LinkedIn.

Each of these is useful only if it’s up-to-date. If I have a network connection each time I access it, then it’s up-to-date. If not, I’m out of luck.

One straightforward way to give me this is to have something that downloads the data from each app in the background whenever I have network connectivity. I’d need to solve a few multi-task issues to make sure this doesn’t slow down the rest of my experience, but generally it would work.

But there’s a more clever way. What if there were a single, central store someplace, run by Apple, that apps can plug into. The data from each individual app would be stored there, in Apple’s central cloud. Then it would be Apple synchronizing my device, through whatever mechanism they like, perhaps even taking advantage of whatever newfangled subscription mechanism they can get away with.

How it works:

Apps like the New York Times or Instapaper or Paypal or Kindle save their data to Apple’s store, not to my individual device. Developers can continue to use whatever file IO they currently use; maybe Apple updates it to allow for more fine-grained control so it behaves more like IP packets rather than disk read/writes, but whatever: the point is that your app doesn’t need to care exactly where the data is kept.

My device has a file system just like today, except the data itself is in a cache, synchronized to the cloud, magically in the background, whenever the OS thinks it’s okay.

When I start an app on my device, it gets whatever data it needs from the on-device cache. An app that is currently running gets first dibs on the synchronization, so the experience works just like today.

Apple can also make a number of optimizations to make this system work more smoothly. First, there’s no reason to dump an item from the cache unless it needs the space. Play a YouTube video once and you have it for as long as the cache isn’t full. Same goes for Safari itself: don’t go online unless you know something needs to be updated.

Second, it can tell when the same data is being downloaded multiple times. So for example, if my RSS reader has an article that’s also being downloaded by my dedicated NYTimes app, it should only download it once. Similarly, if I have multiple Twitter clients on my device, it’ll only grab the tweetstream once.

Note that Apple can encourage third parties to do their own optimizations. If content publishers put an “official” copy in the Apple cloud, any app that wants to subscribe to that content can explicitly subscribe to the one from Apple. For example, an app that wants a map, or some Point Of Interest (POI) information in order to compute something can simply link to an Apple-hosted geo database and let Apple take care of storing and sending the original data to the device. The app does its processing in the Cloud: no need to bring it down to the device a second time.

Finally, the data of course can go both ways. Your photos or text messages or any other content you create on the device can automatically go to the Cloud, for backup or for different processing when you want it. You can ask FlickR or Facebook to get the photos from Apple’s cloud whenever it has a chance. You don’t need to explicitly do a thing.

Of course there are a bunch of privacy issues you’d need to square away before this can be implemented, but responsible data storage companies do that stuff all the time.

There are so many obvious benefits for Apple to build a system like this, I think we can assume it’s a matter of time before it shows up on a future iOS update.

I can’t wait!

Apples for sale

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Britannicans vs. Wikipedians

Attach a label to a political discussion and people immediately take the same, tired, positions that quickly devolve into heated discussions that more resemble “politics as entertainment” than an honest search for truth. If you really want to resolve some of these disputes, it seems to me that one way to start is by re-categorizing along a different axis.

Instead of dividing the world into Liberal and Conservative or Republican and Democrat, what if we divide everyone into Britannicans and Wikipedians?

Britannicans prefer expertise and experts. They are most comfortable when a well-respected authority is in charge. Wikipedians have less patience for authoritative answers, preferring an iterative approach that gradually converges on truth, rather than single, large revelations.

In most debates over policy or group actions, Britannicans have some big advantages, like decisiveness and accountability. Wikipedians are harder to pin down, and they tend to be more tentative or indecisive.

On the other hand, Britannicans suffer from the seen vs. unseen problem. They do better when a policy or decision has an obvious precedent, or it fits clearly into an existing category. They can be caught off guard in new or previously-unimagined situations. They hate Black Swans.

Wikipedians, though, thrive in the creative destruction that happens in new or uncertain situations. Even in more familiar contexts, they recognize that decisions have outcomes beyond the obvious, so they are skeptical when somebody appears to “have all the answers”.

Wikipedians see “benevolent dictatorship” as an oxymoron; Britannicans are more sympathetic, preferring to emphasize the “benevolent” part.

Wikipedians are often criticized for being ignorant or misinformed, especially by Britannicans, whom Wikipedians in turn accuse of arrogance or hubris.

Britannicans rely on “mainstream news” like the New York Times, CNN, or Fox; they have great respect for universities, especially those with “prestige”. Wikipedians use a diverse set of news sources, many of which are obscure or highly targeted to specific niches; sometimes they just rely on friends.

On health issues, Britannicans listen to their doctors; Wikipedians try everything, including alternative medicine, supplements, or home remedies. Britannicans might disagree about whether universal coverage is important, but in principal they respect the idea of a national health service, staffed by well-intentioned experts who decide the best medical treatments and policies, making reasonable and impartial tradeoffs between outcomes and costs. Wikipedians would be terrified of such a single arbiter of medical “truth”.

Britannicans like strong, well-funded public education. Wikipedians mistrust anything centralized, so you’ll see them favor a wide range of things, from volunteering in their local school, to supporting charters, to home-schooling.

Wikipedians are by nature skeptical of anything large, including the military, though they’ll have a wide range of opinions depending on what kinds of threats exist. Britannicans too have many opinions, but generally are more comfortable the larger the scope of influence; for example, they prefer a defense based on cross-national units like NATO or the United Nations.

You’ll find religious Britannicans as well as Wikipedians. The idea of a strong, all-knowing God comes naturally to Britannicans, so they also make good atheists if they reject religion. Non-believing Wikipedians are more agnostic; the believers gravitate toward decentralized groups.

The environment is important to everyone, but Britannicans are particularly attracted to Global Warming as an opportunity to impose sweeping international policies. Britannicans who deny global warming are the types who will spend hours pouncing on every fact trying to “prove” the other side is wrong. Wikipedians are more skeptical, either that the consequences are well-understood, or that much can be done. They may respond with personal lifestyle decisions, like buying organic or driving a Prius.

I’m deliberately trying to draw lines that cut through the traditional political divides; I know both die-hard Democrats and Republicans who would find themselves on the same side of this split.

As for me, I think I’m a Wikipedian because I tend to appreciate bottom-up solutions over top-down ones. I’m skeptical of experts (even when I am one myself!) and I enjoy understanding both sides.

How about you?


Wikipedia Logo Encylopaedia Britannica 1875 edition

Mac needs a half-way decent blog editor

Say what you want about Mac versus PC, but if you are a blogger there’s no question: Windows7 PC is better.

I’m writing this sentence on a Mac (Word 2011) and all is well: matching quotes “”, great spell- and grammar-checking, best-of-class tables, footnotes, and much more. Nothing wrong with this experience.

If this were a PC, I’d simply take this note and copy/paste to the free Windows Live Writer app, maybe add a photo from FlickR (by searching for a keyword on the fly), hit “publish” and I’m done.

Here on my Mac with the $40 MarsEdit that everyone claims is the “best on Mac”, the process is awful. Copy/Paste and (of all things!) it pastes an image of the text . Sure, I can copy/paste the HTML but I lose the formatting. Worse, once in the editor -- even the "Rich Text Editor" -- it’s not WYSIWYG: how unMac is that?

I paid the $40 because I believe in supporting small developers and because I truly need the best blog editor on the Mac. But is this the best Mac can do?



Monday, February 21, 2011

CEO as Editor (Jack Dorsey)

I often listen to Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders podcast, but there's a particularly good one this month with Jack Dorsey.  Best known as the co-founder of Twitter, he’s a wonderful speaker: short, clear, to-the-point, with great takeaways like:
“Make every detail perfect, and limit the number of details.”
“Expect the unexpected; and wherever possible, be the unexpected.”
He wraps this in the idea of “CEO as editor”, how leaders should be responsible for the story of their organization: hiring (the cast), internal and external communication, and attracting customers and investors. Apple, he reminds us, is one of the truly great story-telling organizations: their business cycle revolves around events and unveilings.
His talk is about 30 minutes: perfect for a commute.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"If you loved it, you'd be doing it"

Great one-hour video/podcast by Ken Robinson, public education expert.

I liked this part (about 43 minutes in) when he relates a conversation he once had with a musician:

Ken: "I'd love to do what you do."

Musician: "No you wouldn't."

Ken: "What do you mean?  Of course I would."

Musician: "I practice six hours a day and play five times a week. I've been doing this since I was a small boy. I do it because I love it. You like the idea of doing it.

If you loved it, you'd be doing it."

Ken Robinson

Many more great ideas in there about why today's entire education system is misguided and needs to be transformed, not simply reformed.  It's a video, but no slides or anything, so go ahead and listen to it on your commute like I did.

Note: you have to buy a $5/month subscription to Fora.TV to download from the site, but you can get the MP4 file for free if you subscribe on iTunes.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The coming wave of sensors

I want my mobile device to have a ton more sensors. The iPhone’s GPS, compass, gyroscope, and accelerometer are just the beginning. How about some additional built-ins like:

  • Temperature, barometric pressure, altitude, humidity(obvious)
  • Near-field communications (already rumored)
  • Particulates (to measure air pollution)
  • Electromagnetic software radio (to detect and decode short-wave, TV, and anything else in the broadcast spectrum)
Better yet, give me a standardized interface so I can add my own sensors. A big part of the cost of specialized sensing devices is the electronics necessary to make them useful: a CPU/GPU, display, power supply. But my iPhone has all of that already.  Let me plug whatever I want with an easy-to-use, USB-like plug that enables options like:
  • Medical: Blood pressure, glucose, fever
  • Sleep device (like the Zeo)
  • Spectrometer
  • Geiger counter (radioactivity)
  • Weather (wind speed)
  • Radar/sonar/ultrasound
  • Light and optics, for microscopes, telescopes, infrared sensors, etc.
For each of these, the core electronics are cheap and easy-to-manufacture. Of course, more sophisticated and higher-quality industrial grade sensors are also possible at the high end, but think of what happens when millions of people are using them, and there’s a market for great apps to help analyze and aggregate the results.

That’s when things get especially interesting: combine with the rest of what’s on the device.  Now the sensing can happen in the background, as you’re going about your day. With the right privacy protections in place, we can build a map of everyone’s sensing information, updated automatically in real-time.

Remember that the iPhone and Twitter didn’t even exist five years ago, so something like the above revolutions are easy to imagine within the next five years. I can't wait!

Herbert George Ponting and telephoto apparatus, Antarctica, January 1912

Unexpected future history

Most -- maybe all -- of the interesting changes that happen in history are completely unexpected. Well, maybe not completely, and there will always be people after the fact who will claim they knew such-and-such was coming, but history is only interesting to the degree that it marks events you didn't expect.

Twenty-five years is not such a long time.  The mid-1980s is about 25 years ago, yet think of some stunning ways the world is now different:

  • The Soviet Union, Cold War, and all its consequences, not to mention a newly reformed China that was barely alive.
  • Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Microsoft were around but who really knew or cared?
  • Technology: Internet, mobile phones, personal computers, cordless phones, VCRs, digital cameras, home theatre
  • Venture capital, hedge funds, and other forms of finance that now seem routine were much more specialized and rare.
If anything, we'll look back on the early 2010s with just as much amazement over the huge changes.  Here are some examples of things that are nearly certain to happen in the next 25 years:
  • End of the Cuban Embargo (and surge in development and tourism).  Same with North Korea.
  • A major earthquake significantly incapacitates Tokyo.
  • Nuclear terrorism
  • A Chinese recession (3+ quarters of negative growth) and resulting political shakeup
  • Major disease epidemic kills millions of people worldwide
But even without specific events like the above, imagine a world 25 years from now where the following are true:
  • Post-petroleum world that makes the Middle East (and other oil-exporting countries) economically irrelevant
  • Developing countries no longer suffer major casualties from common infectious diseases like malaria and AIDS.
  • Major news organizations like The New York Times or CNN are no longer significant information sources, either because they're out of business or because they're entirely eclipsed by something new.
  • Enrollment in "traditional" colleges and universities plummets as the process of higher education is replaced by something else.
  • The United States no longer has military bases in Japan, Korea, Europe, or the Middle East.
  • A new type of finance (microloans? e-bartering?) is mainstream and common.
I'm deliberately trying to offer examples that are entirely plausible and would seem inevitable in hindsight.  Can you think of others?
future cities

Saturday, February 05, 2011

You're fired

In 1841, the Chinese negotiator Qishan was ordered dismissed and executed for agreeing to a treaty that ended hostilities with the British in exchange for Hong Kong and $6 million in indemnities. Ironically, his counterpart, Charles Elliot -- the guy who out-negotiated Qishan -- received the following letter from his boss, the director at the foreign service, Lord Palmerston [Spence, p.156]

“You have disobeyed and neglected your instructions; you have deliberately abstained from employing, as you might have done, the force placed at your disposal; and you have without any sufficient necessity accepted terms which fall far short of those which you were instructed to obtain.”

I find this oddly inspiring, both because of the way two powerful men were humbled by forces beyond their control, and how we in the future look back and calmly smile at what must have been traumatic at the time.

You're fired!


Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Banned in China

I’m not sure most of my non-China friends (whether “real” or “Facebook”) understand what those of us in China must do when we get on the internet. Here is a short list of some things we can’t access from China:

  • Facebook, Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Nearly any blog written by a private individual and hosted on a site like Wordpress, Blogger, Tumblr, SixApart, etc.
  • Photos (but not the text) on FlickR
  • Photos (but usually not the text) on Wikipedia

If you try to access any of the above, you don’t get a message saying “Sorry, this site is blocked”. Instead, you get something much more sinister: nothing. The first few times you see this you’ll probably just think it’s your computer, or your internet connection. Most other sites appear to work fine –,, Expedia, TripAdvisor—so you might suspect that something’s wrong with just that site. “Is Wikipedia experiencing technical difficulties?”

It’s possible to get around this Chinese interference with the internet, but the solutions are annoying. The most common way is to purchase a subscription to a “virtual private network” or VPN. Essentially, this is a way to connect your computer to another computer someplace else, usually in the US, where internet access is unrestricted. A VPN turns internet access into a two-step process: the web page loads onto an offshore computer, which then feeds it to your computer inside china.

This works, and it’s reliable, but besides the cost (a few dollars a month) and hassle of setting it up, there are a few problems. First, it can be slow, because all the data has to go back and forth across the ocean an extra time (the technical term is “latency”). But worse, it’s not always convenient to install the extra software necessary to get your computer to talk on the VPN. It’s hard to get it to work from an internet café, for example, or on a mobile phone or iPad. It can be done – people like me do it all the time – but it’s a pain and requires some technical expertise.

Some people worry that China may close off VPN access, but I think this is unlikely. It would require somebody in the government to manually track every single VPN provider in the world and turn off the IP addresses. That’s doable – the easiest way would be to allow Chinese internet users to only access “approved” sites – but it would be a serious drag on all businesses, which need VPNs to securely conduct electronic payments, for example. But the bigger reason I think the government won’t bother is because there’s little point. Very, very few people in China care that they can’t access these (mostly) English-language foreign sites. Those who do care can afford the modest access fees and endure the technical difficulties. Like most other inconveniences in China, you just get used to it.

From 2010-07-21 001

Re-reading James Fallows and China

I re-read parts of James Fallows’ short book of China essays Postcards from Tomorrow Square because I was trying to remember his conclusions. I respect Fallows because I liked his thesis from the 1980s, when he concluded that America doesn’t need to copy Japan, but rather should be More Like Us.  But since Postcards was among the first of many books about China that I've blitzkrieged my way through since arriving here two years ago, I like reading it again now with more seasoned eyes.

I would summarize his conclusion like this: China is simply too busy holding itself together as it escapes poverty, too busy for America to worry about as a serious rival. Rather than worry, we (Americans) should view China with confidence, helping them avoid some of the natural problems they’ll face on their long road to modernity.

I agree, though I'm probably more uncomfortable than he is with some of the self-destructive behavior of the American government over the past few years, with its emphasis on tougher homeland security, centralization of decision-making, and even Internet regulation -- all of which makes me think the United States is trying harder to become more like China than the other way around.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Alvin Toffler predicts China's impact on the future

CNReview summarizes the China implications from Alvin Toffler's 40 predictions for the next 40 years.

Prediction No. 2

Nation-state power around the globe will be increasingly ‘multi-polar’ in terms of who wields it and where

  • The economies of Brazil, China and India will become less US and EU centric.
  • Foreign Direct Investments will shift toward developing economies.

Prediction No. 25

China will continue to position itself as a long-term economic power-player around the globe

  • China teams with other emerging countries (Brazil, India and China) to influence currency utilization.
  • China partners with other countries (Venezuela and Africa) to meet energy needs and to import a wide range of raw materials.

Prediction No. 37

China’s monopoly control of the world’s rare earth metals market will have a significant impact on US national security and the economy

  • The seventeen elements that make up a group known as rare earth metals will remain critical to the performance of hundreds of products and technologies.
  • The US will be reliant on China’s metals to produce such things as high-performance weapons components, internal guidance systems, microwave communications systems, radars, the motors and generators that power aircraft and ships, wind turbines, high-performance batteries, hybrid cars, superconductors, computer chips and digital displays.

The last one is a mistake out of Futurism 101: never project a "trend" from something that first appeared in headlines within the past five years.  Rare metals doesn't make the cut. Even something we think of as completely transformational, like Facebook or the iPhone, will change a lot and maybe disappear in forty years.  Already, just a few months after this headline appeared, a bunch of "new discoveries" are being made of new deposits and substitutions. If anything, the brief period rare metals appeared in the news will lessen China's long-term influence, as manufacturers wake up to the problems of being dependent on a single source for their supplies.

More generally, I think Toffler is summarizing too much of the accepted wisdom from the last few years, rather than look at China  -- and some other big trends -- in a longer term context. Sure, China is becoming more influential, and as a result, the relative power of the United States will fade. But one of the consequences of the much bigger globalization trend is that all countries -- in fact the very definition of "country" --  are becoming less relevant.  Neither China nor the US can make an iPhone without the other. There is a complex web of relationships among all the people who know how to make iPhones -- the designers and engineers, parts procurement specialists, factory assemblers, logistics experts, marketing and salespeople -- but none of those relationships is defined by nationality.  In forty years it will be obvious that the web of people not countries matters most.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Kindle Singles and the future of publishing

The print publishing industry thinks a lot has changed in the past 20 years,  but they haven't seen anything yet. The transformation from print to all-digital publishing will happen very quickly.  We are months and years, not decades, from when electronic distribution on Kindles and iPads becomes the mainstream format of choice.  The TED people just announced TEDBooks, available for about $3 each as Kindle Singles, and I can't wait to see many more.

Creating and then publishing to Kindle is  straightforward: create a document in Microsoft Word (though, curiously, they want you to save in the old .doc format, rather than the much more flexible and modern .docx format), test the formatting on Mobipocket Reader, and upload to Amazon.  Besides the odd prohibition against the .docx format, your text also must be free from special fonts or character formats like bullets. You can include .JPEG photos, but you need to be sure they look okay on the Kindle greyscale screen.

Kindle ebooks have several big advantages over internet web sites or blogs:

  • The content is final.  It can be referenced later as a single, fixed work. There may be updates or corrections, just like there can be a new edition of a hardcover book, but the original stands as an unchanging point of reference.
  • It can be viewed offline.
  • Standardized display and viewing conventions.  It can be easily printed when necessary and it "makes sense" when printed because it has an clearly identifiable start and finish.

If the end user cost were 99 cents or lower, or if there were the equivalent of completely free content, then eBook publishing will be open to many more new applications:

  • Class notes, published by the instructor or a motivated student note-taker
  • Church or other non-profit organizational bulletins and newsletters.
  • Company catalogs or detailed product descriptions
  • Help and product manuals
  • Christmas newsletters, either on behalf of an organization or a family
  • Special reports.

In fact, to really take off we need the equivalent to print publishing of what podcasting is to audiobook publishing: free, easily publishable and discoverable content that's as easy to produce as it is to consume. As with audiobooks, there may be a lot of garbage there too, but eventually some quality brands will appear and the publishing world will never be the same.

Evolution of Readers

(photo by John Blyberg)

Friday, January 28, 2011

I like trucks

Steve Jobs is right:

When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks, because that’s what you needed on the farm. But as vehicles started to be used in the urban centers, cars got more popular. Innovations like automatic transmission and power steering and things that you didn’t care about in a truck as much started to become paramount in cars. … PCs are going to be like trucks. They’re still going to be around, they’re still going to have a lot of value, but they’re going to be used by one out of X people

But after living with an iPad since it was available last year, I'm thinking I still like trucks.  Most mornings I've been using Flipboard or Reeder to watch my various RSS feeds. But while the iPad is nice for lying in bed, or for spontaneous and quick reads when I have a minute to myself, it just can't beat the power of a truck, er, laptop.

I just outfitted myself with the updated NetNewsWire 3.2.8, the one with the new Instapaper button. I need Instapaper so badly that I considered switching  (to Shrook, the only interesting-looking one in the Mac App Store, but I gave up when I found it doesn't sync to Google Reader), but now that I have it, I'm wondering why I don't stick to Mac for all my serious RSS reading. I also added the NetNewsWire to Evernote Applescript on the Veritrope site; that plus the FastScript utility from Red Sweater Software, and I'm just a command-E away from sending all my interesting clippings immediately to Evernote for safe-keeping.  Try that on your iPad.

Sometimes a truck really is better.

Trucks having a hard time passing each other (China)

Truck in China



Saturday, January 15, 2011

Having a bad day

The sheep in this video, taken during our trip to Harbin last week, probably woke up thinking everything in his life was going great: plenty of food, attention from the farmer, nice place to sleep in the cold Heilongjiang winter. Amazing how quickly things can go from pleasant to absolute disaster. Compared to him, it’s hard to imagine any situation being really all that bad.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Don't share your dreams

In this new TED Talk, Derek Sivers (the guy who made that viral video on how to start a movement) gives reasons to walk the walk, rather than talk.

He's right. We all know people who are forever making some new affirmation about themselves.  But notice that physically fit people talk about fitness after they're healthy, real authors talk about books after they're written, engaged people talk about marriage after they've set the date.  You know who you are.

One of the many things I respect about the New Apple (the one after Steve came back, as opposed to the one where I once worked) is how they talk about new products after they're finished and ready to sell. Too many people and companies, in the name of "setting expectations" or "being predictable", give their customers a "roadmap" for the future.  I think the only roadmap that counts is your track record.