There are two items in this morning’s New York Times about events in that fast-moving area called Big Data. When you have rapid and large-scale accumulation of information derived from customer behavior analysis, monitoring sea-surface temperatures, modeling drug kinetics, tracking events in the financial markets, astronomical observations and the like, you have Big Data. It flows in like twenty Niagaras, around the clock and gathering it, preserving it and doing something useful with it is turning out to be one of the thorniest problems of the electronic information age. The Federals are on the verge of opening a major initiative to address the matter, and some of the cast are very familiar: NIH, NSF, DARPA, various spook factories and the Energy Dept. What will come of it all? I think that some of the troops have an advantage going in…see ‘various spook factories’, above. So, I imagine that the playing field is not exactly even, but there is room enough for some concerted action.
It seems the Federales are bestirring themselves to consider what’s going on in the publishing industry. The DOJ announced that it was opening an investigation of Apple and five of the major six publishers for collusive behavior and price fixing in sales of e-books. The legal side is a bit complicated, as you will see if you consult the post from WIRED but it looks as though Justice is upset at the agreements Apple entered into with the pubs, which happened to have the effect of raising e-book prices. It gets more tangled and it’s not easy reading but there are implications to the case that exceed a smack on the butt for Apple. It all shows that a good bit of what’s involved in retailing in the digital age has not yet been adequately clarified and perhaps too much of it is still governed by practices that made sense in the print era, but may not fit the new products.
For what this is worth, I think it would be nice for DOJ to have a luck at what’s going on over at Amazon too.
Today the Scholarly Kitchen asks: why do publishers not do more interesting things with their products? And their answer is that publishers are risk-averse. Well, sure, but so is everyone, right? Yes, but in business, just sitting still and hoping nothing goes wrong is no way to prosper. But publishers, in the poster’s view, are rather more sensitive to taking chances than is really healthy, willing to move into a new venture only if the odds on a good outcome are almost overwhelming. There follows a short treatise on risk, which is really a good summary of the matter. The writer may not be treating the publishers fairly, since the margins in modern publishing are pretty thin and an expensive boo-boo can be not only a career-ending move, but a real punch to the likelihood of corporate survival. So one outcome is what is called ‘extensionism’..the gradual addition of marginal improvements to extend a product’s lifetime. More of the same, in other words, hoping for the next bandwagon. See what you think.
A name not much heard today, I grant, but once a super, mega blockbuster best seller. His futuristic novel Looking Backward was a publishing sensation, outselling even Mark Twain and trailing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it’s hardly read now, except by specialists. Bellamy’s novel tells the story of a Rip Van WInkle like Yank who falls asleep in the late 1800s and wakes up in the middle of the 20th century, to a world transformed into a Socialist dream com true. Poor Ralphy would have a heart attack if we could conjure him up and let him see how things really turned out; corporate power in the saddle to a degree that would have made the old Robber Barons look like a bunch of church-goin’ wannabees. It’s Ralph’s B-Day, so you can hold a good thought and go down to Mulligan’s or the equivalent and down one or two in sad remembrance of a departed Idealist who was as wrong as could be. I guess RB, along with Marx, believed that the Locomotive of History was on their side. The locomotive is sitting a sidetrack, rusting away. That’s rather a quaint and dated image, by the way, isn’t it? When I was a kid, I used to go down to the Niagara Falls RR station and watch the trains come in. You could stand on the track as close as you dared and get scared at the raw power of the steam loc pulling in and stopping. That was the very height of modern…
Technology Review is one of the ‘reliable sources’ I look at for items to delight our users and I found a rather long piece which could best be summed up as: ” Is Apple hitting the skids?” That seems like a silly question, considering the Wehrmacht-like success the company has had in over-running the tablet landscape, in addition to the conquests made by the iPod and Smart phone. But, reader, be cautious. The TR guy is saying that Apple has been paying less attention to the demands of its previous core-clientele, the graphic designers and desktop publishers and other creative types. They appreciated, looked for, demanded and got superior performance because of the needs of their particular activities and because the Top Dog and Warlord was a kindred soul. As the company gets bigger, the voice of this group gets fainter, and the writer says that certain compromises are emerging that would not have been tolerated before, and the upshot is a certain satisfaction with So-So, or Just Good Enough. In other words, More Means Worse. Now, I’m not in a postion to judge, but if this is so, it’s pretty serious. Apple’s strengths were superior engineering, product design excellence and a certain cachet we could call ‘geek appeal’. if they start messing around with that, matters could turn sour. So, the story will read: ‘From strength to strength” or maybe, “No where to go but down”. As the news guys say: “Only time will tell”. Read the appended comments, for a “both sides now” look. One point in the TR article came up again in the comments: dropping support for older software, and just leaving the customers to suck it up. One comment about decline in battery life after a software upgrade is of interest.
FULL DISCLOSURE, up front. I am a fan of radio, public radio, NPR and the show THIS AMERICAN LIFE. OK, now let’s get to it. Mike Daisey is an actor, who has a successful show running in New York: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. The show is a monologue. He’s on the stage all alone at a desk, and he tells stories. It worked for Spalding Grey and it’s working for Daisy. Or was, until he did a segment on THIS AMERICAN LIFE. Daisey’s show is designed to make us feel uncomfortable about moral compromises; specifically the ones involved in our purchase and use of products made abroad by workers who are stuck in Stalag-like situations and are worked, if not to death, then very close to it, by outfits such as Foxcomm,which makes Apple products. On Sunday TAL ran a reprise and retraction of its earlier story featuring Daisey and his allegations about worker abuse. Daisey, gamely enough, appeared himself and in a series of awkward questions and long silences, admitted that his story had departed from the facts in several serious ways. A reporter for MARKETPLACE, another public radio show, caught the broadcast and did some checking with his own sources. He then contacted Ira Glass, the producer of TAL and told him that there were serious problems with Daisey’s account. There are two articles, not one but two, about this in today’ s New York TImes Other big papers ran stories on it, and there are numerous web posts. It was also picked up by the sharp dudes at Retraction Watch, who posted about it today. Their take is: scientific journals need to take a page form the TAL notebook. The show on Sunday was a one hour long retraction, in detail, with all the warts, showing how and why the program got it wrong and how it got into trouble by neglecting its own rules. Talk about letting it all hang out. 60 minutes of mea culpa . This contrasts unfavorably with the partial, evasive, minimally truthful retraction statements the RW guys encounter all too often when they try to get behind anodyne statements such as: “The article ..yada, yada, by…xyz was retracted at the request of somebody”. One of the great things about RM is that the boys are willing to dig, since there almost always is a story behind the story.
“La Serenissima” was one of its monikers: The Most Serene Republic of Venice. Today it’s tourist destination with millions of visitors, a declining native population, its own interesting and rather Un-Italian dialect, stunningly beautiful art, and the very real risk of being swallowed by the Adriatic Sea. At one time Venice was a real power: commercial and military, or rather naval. A big navy to protect its commerce and intrude on that of others was the key to Venetian prosperity. At the height of its efficiency, the famous Arsenal could build a warship in a day. Most of the trade was with the East and it was very profitable.Well, today in 1474 the Republic made history of another when the authorities enacted the first patent laws, the text of which is given in the post. Inventors got some hefty backing because the penalties for violation were pretty tough.
The word. More properly, getting rid of improper uses of the word. Our readers know that I look to look at what the chefs of The Scholarly Kitchen are stewing up, and I did that this morning, almost the first thing. A post tells us to stop using the word ‘innovation’, and the adjective ‘innovative’ so carelessly, and give four reasons for doing this. One of the best is the observation that ‘innovation’ has become a marketing word and so should be regarded with the greatest suspicion by people who want to hang on to logic and proper use of language. I’ll drink to that as they say, and I’ll toss in one of may favorite candidates for proscription: ‘creative’ and ‘creativity’. I’m and old horse, and I’be seen a good bit, and I have to tell you that I have met comparatively few creative people. I’ve met any number of clever people, sly people, bright people, but creative, in the sense of coming up with something really new? No, sorry. C.S. Lewis was a very good scholar but is now largely remembered as an apologist for orthodox Christianity instead of his work on the history of English and English lileterature. I remember one of his essays, which I can’t cite, in which he gives his view that there have been maybe five or six creative movements in the history of the world. His example was the medieval idea of courtly love and how it completely altered the previous view of women, and he had his arguments. Really creative movements or events or persons require a combination of talent and circumstances not often met with in reality. It’s a minority view I guess, but there it is.
Ferdinand von Zeppelin, Count Ferdinand to give him his full title of nobility, received on this day in 1899 a US patent for his direct-able or “dirigible” gas filled aircraft. His name was soon extended as a descriptor for all items of this class and became a common English noun. Ask some guy on the street if knows what a zeppelin us and he’ll probably point up to the shy and mutter something…which is close enough. Zeppelin was an interesting guy. He had been the Prussian army’s observer in the American Civil War and had watched the use of tethered observation balloons. Later on in his life he became aware of the ideas of a man named Schwartz, a contract worker for the, by now German, not just Prussian, army. The plans dealt with a steerable, rigid frame. Count Z. acquired the rights to all this from Schwartz’s widow, and then turned the concept into a reality, in fact, into a business. It wasn’t easy but finally Ferdl got the things to fly. He went on to found the world’s first airline offering regularly scheduled service. And the big, floating sausages made lots of trips around Germany on ‘air tourism’ runs, which were very popular.In World War I the zepps were converted to reconnaissance machines for the Navy and then into bombers. They made a number of attacks on London and scared a lot of people. But they couldn’t carry enough pay load to make them deadly…all that had to await more ‘progress’. Once the British figured out how to get high enough, the show was pretty much over. A slow, hydrogen-filled envelope on the one hand, and a pack of zippy fighters firing incendiary bullets on the other…pick the winnner. After the war, zeppelin traffic really, dare I say, “took off”? Count Ferdinand’s company and its successor offered big, big ships flying back and forth to Noo Yawk and even South America, which was a real innovation. The zeppelins were aeronautical and mechanical wonders, but fixed-wing aircraft caught up and passed them by.They were too big, too slow, cost too much to build and run, carried too little payload. The explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937 was the end. Hydrogen is too risky and the USA wouldn’t sell helium to Nazi Germany. Better pack it in, then. Every once in a while some guys come up with schemes to bring back the dirigible, but I still haven’t seen any go commercial
The triple calamity of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown occurred one year ago. The nation is still struggling with the effects of the disasters, and the path forward is still shrouded by many uncertainties. A lot of the actual debris has been cleaned up and carted away. And rebuilding is in progress in some areas. Great uncertainty surrounds the areas contaminated by nuclear fallout. The national government required evacuations from the zone around the Daichi plant, but the former residents are agitating for more vigorous action to allow them to return home. I was listen to the radio last night as I fooled around in the kitchen. Some of the families forced to leave have connections to the land that extend back demonstrably for thirty generations. Think for a second..Thirty. Talk about roots. Here in Texas, if you’re a seventh generation Texan, that’s considered something to boast about. But, it’s not even a third of the time those people and their ancestors worked the same land. There was more on the show, which is called BURN and styles itself “an energy journal’. There was a segment on construction of nuclear reactors in the USA, on new designs of smaller reactors and on what to do with nuclear waste. I;ve only heard it once. I thought it was good.