June 28, 2006
Robots Sharing Human SpacesIn science fiction, robots share the world with people, moving in the same spaces that humans move and reacting to the same inputs humans do. This was convincingly displayed by Michael Crichton in his 1984 movie Runaway. The movie wasn't very good, but the robots were cool!
The robots in Runaway have always been more fantasy than science fiction. But advances in robotics have been moving very quickly and I think we can expect to see big changes in our lifetimes.
To get robots to move through the spaces that humans inhabit, they need to have the same mobility that humans do. And humans don't move on wheels over roads, they walk up hills, over snow, and across rocky terrain. To do this, robots need legs. And legs are hard to make work.
An amazing example of the advances in robotic legs in the BigDog by Boston Dynamics. Preston Lerner, in a recent article in LiveScience, describes BigDog this way:
Developed by Boston Dynamics with funding from the U.S. military, the BigDog prototype is arguably the world's most ambitious legged robot. Its stability and awareness of its own orientation make it the first robot that can handle the unknown challenges of the battlefield. The Great Dane–size 'bot can trot more than three miles an hour, climb inclines of up to 45 degrees, and carry up to 120 pounds—even in rough terrain impenetrable to wheeled or tracked vehicles. But this one is just a puppy; Boston Dynamics expects the next iteration, ready this summer, to be at least twice as fast and carry more than twice as much.Check out amazing video of BigDog in action at the end of the article or here on YouTube.
BigDog is remote controlled; it doesn't react to the same inputs humans do. But the vehicles in the DARPA Grand Challenge (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration) are autonomous, driving cross country using only their sensors. Five vehicles finished the 132 mile cross country race in 2005. In 2007, the DARPA Urban Challenge will be to complete a 60 mile urban course while obeying traffic laws and dealing with other traffic on the street. These vehicles are leading the way to robots that can share spaces with humans. Wikipedia says:
The U.S. Department of Defense has permitted DARPA to offer prize money ($1 million) to facilitate robotic development, with the ultimate goal of making one third of ground military forces automated by 2015.How close are we to sharing our world with autonomous robots? By comparison, the forerunner of the internet was the ARPANET developed by the Advanced Research Projects Administration, the forerunner of DARPA (DARPA is funding both BigDog and the Grand Challenge). The first ARPANET link was established in 1969. The first web site was put online in 1991. Google went public in 2004. Where is the robot industry on that time line? Closer to ARPANET than Google. But both were in my lifetime. How long will it be before military, industrial, and ultimately consumer robots share our lives? I expect that in my lifetime as well.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 10:18 AM
June 27, 2006
Essential Fantasy ReadingI enjoy reading fantasy and science fiction along with history, technology, and business books. I was fascinated by Jeff VanderMeer's "Exhaustive Essential Fantasy Reading Lists", with 60 "essential" fantasy books. The books are mostly over 10 years old (to avoid "instant classics" that don't end up aging well). Jeff teaches writing and is a judge for the World Fantasy Award.
The entire article includes a much longer "comprehensive" list of fantasy books. And the comments are also interesting and add many more suggestions for books to be added to the lists. I am sure people could easily argue about the books in the list (Jeff doesn't like Vance novels for instance) but the list and attached commentary are an interesting discussion on the subject.
I've only read about a third of the books discussed. I guess that means I have a lot of reading to do!
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 03:58 PM
The Flexibility of Gadgets & WidgetsI think that tech writer Paul Boutin, wrote something important in his piece "A Grand Unified Theory of YouTube and MySpace" on slate.com.
There are two design requirements for technology meant for the masses. First, you need to automate all the techie parts so people can just press Play. ... Second, Web moguls shouldn't presume to foresee what 100 million people will want to do with their site.Flexibility is vastly underrated by many tech companies:
If tech builders want to hand the controls over to their users, shouldn't they presume they haven't thought of everything? Apple's iWeb publishing system is easy to use and way more attractive than MySpace, but we'd have gotten old waiting for Apple to invent a Lip Sync Video template.One of the reasons RSS is exploding all over the web is because it provides flexibility. When I put up an RSS feed I am putting my content out in a form you can grab and use how your program chooses.
Some of these Gadgets will be able to parse RSS feeds and show the content the user wanted. The Gadget designer won't even know what the user is showing in the Gadget. For example, say I have a Gadget that shows a map and an RSS feed of addresses. Suddenly I can have a Gadget on my desktop that shows multiple points on a map. What could I use that for? I could track the location of my packages, or the schools in my area, or the parties going on this weekend. The use of a map + location feed Gadget is limited by the imagination of the user, not the Gadget designer.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 03:48 PM
Maps of Religious AdherentsDifferent regions of the country have reputations for supporting different worldviews. Since spirituality is important to how people develop and maintain their worldview I was fascinated by this set of maps that show what percentage of people in each county in the US hold to a particular religion.
- This map shows the Lutheran clustered in the northern midwest.
- And this map shows the Baptists clustered in the south.
- While the Catholics are spread along the souther border states and in the north east and northern midwest in this map.
- And the overall percentage of religious adherents shows high concentrations in the midwest and south and much less concentration on the coasts in this map.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 03:18 PM
Moderates Get Crushed
"I tried the middle of the road once... I got run down by cars going both directions."I like to think of myself as moderate in my political views. I think a lot of people do. However, I know that I have both some immoderate views and some partisan leanings. So how moderate am I? How moderate is anyone? Are there a large body of voters waiting to be swayed one way or another, or are most voters closet partisans?
The radical leftist UK PM Harry Perkins, in the movie "A Very British Coup".
If there are a lot of moderate swing voters, then politicians should vier to the center. This may alienate some of their base, but where else can they go? The politician should pick up lots of moderates to make up for his lost partisans.
If there are few swing voters, then politicans should "play to their base" in order to energize them and maximize turnout. The politician should pick up lots of votes among the base to make up for the lost moderates.
Jonathan Rauch, in his Reason article "Where the Missing Middle Went", argues that much as he might hate it, politicians who play to their base often have an advantage over politicians who play to the center.
In 1992, the political scientist Raymond E. Wolfinger of the University of California (Berkeley), along with five of his students, published The Myth of the Independent Voter, a book that posed a challenge to—well, to people like me. For some time, I've been saying that the key to American politics is in the center. Independents make up about a third of the electorate, yet are neglected by the two increasingly extreme major parties. Whichever party manages to dominate the center without losing hold of its partisan base will be the majority party, possibly for years to come. Or so I've claimed.The article includes graphs showing the partisan spread of the electorate over time (which has been pretty consistent) and how partisanship effects turnout (the more partisan you are the more likely you are to vote).
One problem with my view is this: Party leaders aren't idiots. Why would they neglect this vast independent center if it is up for grabs? Various answers suggest themselves (for example, primary elections are dominated by fierce partisans who prefer extreme candidates), but another answer is possible. Perhaps independents are not really up for grabs.
Wolfinger and his colleagues took a closer look at independents in presidential elections from 1952 to 1988, using data from the University of Michigan's biennial American National Election Studies. Like many polls, the ANES survey asks respondents to identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans, or independents; but then it goes on to ask Republicans and Democrats whether their party identification is strong or not very strong, and to ask independents whether they think of themselves as closer to the Republicans or the Democrats. It thus shows seven degrees of partisanship, instead of the usual three groups.
Mining the ANES data, Wolfinger and company found that most people who identify themselves as independents are not uncommitted swing voters. Rather, "they are largely closet Democrats and Republicans." Indeed, they vote much as weak partisans do. They may be independent identifiers, but they are mostly not independent voters.
Like Rauch, I would be unhappy if most politicians became raving partizans. I think there is wisdom in the center. But only if the people in the center decide to vote. If they don't, the partisans on both sides will pull politics to the extremes.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 03:00 PM
AuthenticityI found Joe Klein's Time article "Pssst! Who's behind the decline of politics? [Consultants.]" interesting partially because I am fascinated by the mechanics of politics. It may be an ad for his book, "Politics Lost : How American Democracy Was Trivialized By People Who Think You're Stupid" but it also includes a ring of hope for the future of politics.
In his article, Klein covers the subject of political authenticity. In the 2000 presidential race Al Gore didn't seem to have it and lost. Klein recalls a discussion with Tad Devine, one of Gore's consultants.
Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania, but he lost an election he should have won, and he lost it on intangibles. He lost it because he seemed stiff, phony and uncomfortable in public. The stiffness was, in effect, a campaign strategy: just about every last word he uttered—even the things he said in the debates with George W. Bush—had been market-tested in advance. I asked Devine if he'd ever considered the possibility that Gore might have been a warmer, more credible and inspiring candidate if he'd talked about the things he really wanted to talk about, like the environment. "That's an interesting thought," Devine said.Klein goes on to talk about how in the 2004 presidential election, Bush came off as more authentic than Kerry.
In Austin, Texas, the political consultant Mark McKinnon watched the Gore and Kerry campaigns from a unique perspective. He had spent his life as a Democrat and now he was working, as a matter of personal loyalty, for his friend George W. Bush.The three questions, "Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?" can translate as "Can he get things done? Will he do what he says he will do? And will he do things that will help people like me?" People instinctively know that the challenges a politician will face over his term are often unknowable, it is therefore rational for them to ask these "character" questions rather than specific policy questions.
There was little of the hand wringing about whether the shading of a position would offend the party's interest groups. Issues, in fact, seemed less important than they did in any given Democratic campaign. And McKinnon had come to a slightly guilty realization: maybe that was a good thing. Rove's assumption was that voters had three basic questions about a candidate: Is he a strong leader? Can I trust him? Does he care about people like me?
Politics was all about getting the public to answer yes to those three questions. Of course, an integral part of the job was aggressively—often stealthily and sometimes disgracefully—painting the opposition as weak, untrustworthy and effete.
Presidential politics had been reduced to a handful of moments and gestures. In fact, the 2004 campaign came down to two sentences. Kerry: "I actually voted for the $87 billion [to fund Iraq] before I voted against it."
Bush: "You may not always agree with me, but you'll always know where I stand."
Presidential campaigns are, inevitably, about character. In 2004, at a moment of real national consequence for the United States, character was expressed in the most limited, nonpositive way imaginable: I know you don't agree with me—in fact, most polls showed the public thought that Bush had taken the country in the wrong direction—but at least I'm telling some version of the truth as I sort of see it. Oh, and by the way, you can't trust a thing the other guy is saying. This was the clinching argument at a time of war in the world's oldest and grandest democracy.
The answer to the three questions can tell us if the public supports a politician. Kick out any leg and the three legged stool falls over. For example, Bush's low popularity ratings may be because of a deterioration in many people's view of Bush as a strong leader (someone who can get things done). He can't seem to solve the problems in Iraq, even though the public trusts that Bush wants to fix Iraq and believes Bush thinks fixing Iraq will be good for the US public. If they believe Bush can't fix Iraq, they won't support him.
Klein describes how he thinks (hopes?) the rise in the value of political authenticity will effect politics:
I hate predictions. Most pundits, like most pollsters, get their information by looking in the rearview mirror. But let me give 2008 a try. The winner will be the candidate who comes closest to this model: a politician who refuses to be a "performer," at least in the current sense. Who speaks but doesn't orate. Who never holds a press conference on or in front of an aircraft carrier. Who doesn't assume the public is stupid or uncaring. Who believes in at least one major idea, or program, that has less than 40% support in the polls. Who can tell a joke—at his or her own expense, if possible. Who gets angry, within reason; gets weepy, within reason ... but only if those emotions are real and rare. Who isn't averse to kicking his or her opponent in the shins but does it gently and cleverly. Who radiates good sense, common decency and calm. Who is not afraid to deliver bad news. Who is not afraid to admit a mistake. And who, above all, abides by the motto that graced Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Oval Office: let unconquerable gladness dwell.I am not quite so sanguine. I think that many politicians are not authentic because if they said what they really believe their opponents would smear them with it. I think that Joe Klein secretly wants the return of politicians like Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan (who were either authentic or could fake it amazingly well). I am afraid that few politicians can be that authentic (or fake it that well.)
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 02:37 PM
June 22, 2006
When the last supplier goes out of businessThe TOW missile has been one of the premier heavy anti-tank missile in the world for three decades. It has been mounted on everything from HMMVs to Helicopters and can hit targets accurately thousands of meters away.
TOW stands for Tube launched, Optically sighted, and Wire guided. The gunner sights the target, fires the missile, and holds his cross hairs on the target. The gunner's aim is used to modify the missile's flight path so it can hit moving targets. Signals are sent from the gunner down long wires that spool out behind the missile as it flies.
But according to StrategyPage.Com the US Army is having to change the TOW. But not because of enemy action or because it doesn't work:
Coincidentally, the wire control system is being replaced for reason's beyond the military's control. The last supplier for the control wire went out of business three years ago, and the stockpile of wire the army bought, is just about gone. So a radio control system is being built, to replace the old wire system. This is cheaper than paying a large subsidy to get someone to revive manufacturing of the special wire.This kind of thing happens quite often. I remember a story a few years ago about the Navy buying up huge lots of a particular type of old Intel microprocessor. Intel was halting production and the processors were the heart of the on board computer on a Navy jet. The Navy knew they wouldn't be able to retool the on board computer anytime soon. So they built up stocks of obsolete microprocessors to keep the jets flying.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 11:21 AM
June 21, 2006
Passive Unquestioning ConsumersCollie Collier, posted an interesting review of A Million Little Pieces on Collie’s Bestiary. The review, with a postscript covering the author's duplicity, is a good read. However, one point in the review caught me eye:
It is a fierce, lonely, proud independence Frey seeks, and for the first time while reading the book I could suddenly completely empathize. I choose those words deliberately, for I believe you must be forever fierce in defending your mental independence, especially in a society so thoroughly dedicated to creating passive, unquestioning consumers.Successful business people don't want passive, unquestioning consumers. They want to create passionate, involved consumers who love their products. The most important question you can ask a customer about your product is "would you recommend it to a friend?" People who are passionate about a product will recommend it. Passive consumers won't.
I'll grant that we have a society dedicated to creating consumers. The basis of common economic theory is that the demands of the consumer are unlimited. From the wikipedia article on economics:
The basic model of economic activity is often represented in economic textbooks thus: unlimited wants are controlled by scarcity; scarcity requires choice; choice involves an opportunity cost (i.e., choosing one means foregoing the other); and the final goal is maximum satisfaction.But consumers maximizing their satisfaction are involved in the process; they are not passive. Passive consumers can be picked off by competitors offering passionate alternatives.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 04:40 PM
June 20, 2006
A Promise of an ExperienceOn June 12, 2006 Athol Foden of BrighterNaming.com gave a presentation to the local SDForum Marketing SIG entitled "You Named it What?" It was a great presentation. Check out BrighterNaming for great information on product naming.
In the presentation, Athol talked about the importance of branding and his favorite definition:
"A brand is a promise of an experience."
I missed who he got this from. Google attributes the quote to several different people.
I love this definition. The more I think about it, the more useful it is. What experience does a brand promise?
- Apple: Easy to use. Hip. Expensive.
- Toyota: Reliable. Economical. Un-hip.
- Amazon: Complete selection. Low prices.
- Dell: Stable. Boring.
- General Motors: Unreliable. Uneconomical.
- Barnes & Noble Online: 2nd best.
For individuals, substitute "reputation" for "brand". You have certain expectations when you read Seth Godin, Dave Winer, or Glenn Reynolds. They have earned a reputation by providing a specific value to readers for many years. And each of them can probably charge a lot more for their services than another marketeer, engineer, or pundit who might be equally skilled but who hasn't built a similar reputation.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 10:20 PM
June 16, 2006
TWiTThis Week in Tech episode 58 with Leo Laporte, Patrick Norton, Molly Wood, Doug Kaye, and Chris DiBona recorded at the Podcast Academy 3. The big story was Bill Gates stepping down from Microsoft. Ray Ozzie will be taking over leading Microsoft's technical direction. They seem to think that it doesn't really matter. I disagree. Ray is an activist who has focused the last couple of decades on communication and collaboration. I think there is tremendous upside potential there.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 01:39 PM
June 14, 2006
Podcast Academy 3On June 15 & 16 I'm going to Podcast Academy 3. I am looking forward to learning more about how to create, distribute, market, and monetize podcasts. I got some experience with online audio and video while working on what was then called Chess.FM (now ICC Webcast) with the Internet Chess Club.
The barriers to entry for media publishing are plummeting on all fronts. Doing online interviews and creating medium quality audio content seems to require tools that are free or relatively cheap. RSS feeds make online distribution a reality (for a select but valuable audience). iTunes and the blogosphere make inexpensive marketing possible, if not easy to do. Monetization is still a mystery to me. In the long run, the Dave Winer school may prevail, a blog or podcast is an advertisement for creator and adds to the value the creator can supply and charge for. I can live with that.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 02:19 PM
June 12, 2006
The Highest Performing Email Newsletter Ad in HistoryAnne Holland, the President of MarketingSherpa.com recently wrote about "The Highest Performing Email Newsletter Ad in History." The format of the email newsletter resembled a blog or an online magazine. The ad was identified by a header reading "Advertisement" but was formatted to resemble body copy. Here are the important elements that Anne pulled from reviewing this ad:
The best-pulling ad of all time:This kind of ad placement seems like a slam dunk for blogs. Savy advertisers could easily create ads that felt like blog copy. The ads could even be formatted to resemble a blog entry, with a linked headline, body copy, and "continue reading" link at the bottom. All links would lead to the ad's landing page.
Kristin says the ad with the best click through rate of all time for the newsletter ran in their May 2006 issue. (You can see a copy of it in the Creative Samples link at the end of the Case Study below.) I spotted four elements that probably helped clicks soar:
1. Preview pane "hotspot" --
The ad is placed immediately above the first story of the newsletter edition. So, it's where the readers' eyes naturally go when they are looking for "real" content.
2. Text-only --
The ad is nothing more than copy, set in the same size and style as articles appearing immediately below it.
3. Wording --
The ad is very clearly an ad because it's labeled as such in the headline. However, without that label you might not guess it's an ad at all. The copy is styled to read as though it's just like one of the article summaries directly below it. The first two words are "Business Tip" ... and the name of the newsletter is "Business Tips Newsletter." That kind of customized copy must pack a wallop.
4. Link at the end of the paragraph, not in middle.
The hotlink to click to respond to the ad is at the very end -- not the middle or the start. This has two advantages - first it looks more like a story summary that also feature a link at the end. Plus, it is easier for humans to click on links that are next to white space, rather than buried within text.
Such an ad might pull clicks extremely well. However, it would hurt the reader's trust in the blog and ultimately drive down the blog's readership.
Some sites, like engadget.com, put text ads on a yellow background. I am sure the ads get fewer clicks, but it helps preserve the site's editorial integrity.
Advertising on blogs is a constant struggle to preserve editorial integrity and reader trust while creating clicks from readers who legitimately want to know more about the ad. Lessons like the ones described by Anne Holand may be appropriate for an e-newsletter, which has an overtly commercial purpose, but may not be appropriate for a blog whose purpose is more editorial.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 12:31 PM
June 10, 2006
The word for Silcon ValleyEvelyn Rodriguez in Monied Sex, Sexy Money, and Silicon Valley's Word talked about Silicon Valley as a place in an interesting way:
In Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert traipses through Italy, India, Indonesia to find herself (psst, you don't have to leave home). In Italy, her friend Luca Spaghetti posits that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there.What a great concept and a fascinating way to talk about a place. Evelyn Rodriguez goes on to suggest that Silicon Valley's word is KALI."...if you could read people's thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be- that is the word of the city. And if your personal word does not match the word of the city, then you don't really belong there."Lotus Reads shares, "According to Luca, SEX was Rome's word and for the Vatican it is POWER. In New York City the word is ACHIEVE, in Stockholm its CONFORM, in Naples it is FIGHT and so on."
I have searched high and low for the blog post to no avail, but another blogger thought NYC was more like CREATE. And Berkeley was RIGHT (which I can say having lived there is so true; as in smugly RIGHT). The author was stumped for a word for San Francisco - which though is an altogether different vibe than Silicon Valley.
KALI. Oh, we could call it disruptive innovation, or creative destruction, but do I look like Clayton Christenson or an economist? If you belong to Silicon Valley, the notion of recreating Silicon Valley is absurd. "How to Be Silicon Valley?" You might as well ask "How Do I Cling to the Past?" "How Do I Capture that Musical Note Ten Minutes Ago during the Symphony?" Heck, go right ahead there, meanwhile those of us here in S.V. will create the next thing. Accept no imitations, baby.I'm not buying it. A bit to sideways for the valley. Evelyn used a more representative word in her description. She even unitalicized it! The word for Silicon Valley? NEXT.
The valley worships the future. What's past doesn't matter. What's now is already obsolete. What's next is where it's at! That's where the ideas are, where the money is made, where the future is! Nothing now is worth saving if what comes next is better. It's not even what have you done for me lately, it's what will you do for me next?
These attitudes lead to a profound impermanence. Buildings, companies, relationships all are built, tested, and reinvented at astounding speed. It is tough to be comfortable in the valley or to ever relax. The valley must continuously reinvent itself as a part of a long boom and bust cycle. Since World War II orchards became aircraft manufacturing became military electronics became semiconductors became personal computers became bio-tech became the internet became web 2.0 and is becoming... what? What's next?
If we knew, it would already be obsolete and we'd have to become something else.
If the cycle ever stops, the energy in the valley dries up and and it becomes just another soulless suburb. Part of the energy of the valley is the fear that one day we won't find what's next and the bust cycle will go on and on.
Silicon Valley? If it didn't exist, we'd have to invent it, just so we could find out what's next!
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 06:05 PM
dog + rabbit = drabbitCheck out Miles Teves site with weird photoshopped pictures of animal combinations like dog + rabbit = drabbit or bull dog + komodo dragon = bulldrog. Funky!
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 05:07 PM
China's problems with non-performing loans (NPL)The 06/06/06 edition of Stratfor's Geopolitical intelligence Report, a free email newsletter, is focused on China's issue with massive amounts of non-performing loans. Stratfor.com is a consulting service that aims to provide businesses with the same kind of intelligence reports that government officials get from national intelligence services.
The 06/06/06 report includes estimates that the Chinese economy is carrying at least 670 billion dollars in non-performing loans (NPL). It is a testimate to the scale of the NPL problem that clearing the non-performing loans would nearly wipe out China's foreign reserves (estimated at about 800 billion dollars). The report states that Chinese banks are madly lending money to the companies with non-performing loans so those companies can keep up payments on their previous loans. This is not a long term solution.
Massive amounts of non-performing loans were at the core of the South Korean currency crises and recession in the 90's and the decades long recession (near depression) in Japan in the 90's and 00's. China's economy may be growing at 9% a year, but it may be cruising for a bruising if there is even the slightest downturn and the debts come due.
If China has a significant slowdown in economic activity, there are a number of possible ramifications:
China could stop buying American bonds, forcing the US treasure to raise interest rates to finance the US government deficit. Higher US interest rates could cause an economic slowdown in America.
China could have increased internal unrest. The Chinese Communist Party has maintained its legitimacy with the people because it has "delivered the goods" in terms of increasing standards of living. If living standards fall, the Communist Party will loose a lot of its legitimacy (it does not have the legitimacy that emerges from popular elections). With people unhappy about economic troubles, other tensions inside of China (urban vs. rural, young vs. old, regionalism, nationalism, language differences, etc.) could bubble to the surface, creating unrest.
If there is unrest, the Party may have to crack down to maintain power. Unrest and crackdowns are significant business risks, and could make foreign investors less likely to keep pouring money into China.
I'm not saying that China is going to implode. However, the non-performing loan problem is a significant risk for investors in China and that risk can result in problems that reverberate around the world.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 04:57 PM
June 08, 2006
BloggerCon IVI just signed up for BloggerCon IV. It should be interesting, I went to BloggerCon III in November 2004 and got a lot out of it. One useful item was a chance to talk to Doug Kaye of ITConversations fame and learn about recording interviews over phone lines. I expect to get a lot of useful nuggets from BloggerCon IV.
Posted by georgegmacdonald at 12:24 PM