Somali pirates embrace capture as route to Europe

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Remember when we used to hang pirates? Now Somali pirates are embracing capture as a route to Europe:

Pirates captured after attacking a Dutch vessel have gone on trial in the liberal Netherlands and at least two of them have declared their intention to stay on as residents.
But since Somalia has a record of international human rights violations it will be almost impossible to deport the men after their conviction in the Netherlands.

“Life is good here,” said one of the defendants, named Sayid, about his experience in a Dutch jail.

“I appeal to the government not to send me back to Somalia. The people who live here respect human rights. I wish to settle here.”
“He intends to send for his wife and children as soon as he is released from prison. He knows he cannot easily be sent back to Somalia. He loves it here in the Netherlands,” Mr Ausma told the NRC Handelsblad newspaper.

The Master of Money

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

In The Snowball, Alice Schroeder writes about the Master of Money, Warren Buffet. Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, Home Game) reviews the book, which includes some bits about Buffet’s early life:

Born in 1930, the son of an emotionally abusive mother and a father whom he adored but who was unable to absorb the full shock of his wife, Buffett was emotionally problematic. In Schroeder’s telling, the young Warren was sneaky, socially awkward, and generally a wiseass with a cruel streak. As a man he would reserve his harshest criticism for those who lied or cheated or stole, but as a boy he shoplifted pathologically — not because he wanted a particular thing, but simply for the pleasure of stealing. At ease in Omaha, he was unhappy everywhere else, and so he suffered especially when his stockbroker father Howard was elected to the House of Representatives and he became the new kid at middle school in Washington, D.C. He was young for his class. In the most important social departments, he started out well behind his classmates and, as he puts it, “I never caught up, basically.” He had terrible social anxieties and, right up until the time he married, at the age of twenty-one, a special lack of talent with girls.

In spite of all this he was deeply, ferociously competitive. Here is one of the odd things about the man whom Schroeder describes: the plain facts of his young character assemble themselves into something like a portrait of a universal loser — and yet right from the start Buffett himself seems to have been able to believe that the universe was wrong and he was right. What other people thought of him, and how other people measured him, did not prevent him from establishing his sense of himself as someone who might win. In his Washington, D.C. school (before he talked his parents into letting him return to Omaha) Buffett did well in only one class, typing. Here, in his own words, is how he went about it:

I made A’s every semester in typing. We all had these manual typewriters and, of course, you’d slam the carriage back to hear this ding. I was by far the best in the class at typing out of twenty people in the room. When they’d have a speed test, I would just race through the first line so I could slam the carriage back. Everybody else would stop at that point, because they were still on the first word when they would hear my ding! Then they’d panic, and they’d try to go faster, and they’d screw up. So I had a lot of fun in typing class.

The young Buffett’s ambition found a number of conventional if implausible outlets — bodybuilding, for instance; he devoured books with such titles as Big Arms and Big Chest — and one strange one, at least for a little kid: money-making. At a shockingly young age Buffett learned the pleasure of having more money than his friends. To accumulate it he worked paper routes, bought and managed pinball machines, and created a horse-racing tip sheet that he sold at the local track. Upon arriving in Washington he asked his father to use his congressional status to request from the Library of Congress every book it had on horse handicapping. By the time he was sixteen, Buffett had accumulated the equivalent in today’s dollars of $53,000, and hardly saw the point of taking the spot he had been offered at the Wharton School. He knew what he wanted to do for a living — live in Omaha and invest in stocks — but his parents prevailed and off he went to college. He lasted three years before he returned and finished at the University of Nebraska.

One of the patterns that Schroeder teases out of Buffett’s life — not just in his investments but also in his relationships — is his tendency to seek safe harbors. And yet once he has found safety, he isn’t content to remain there. Instead he waits for opportunities to stage surprise attacks on the outside world. Omaha is his fort; the outside world is lucrative but dangerous, and Buffett never enters it without some cost-benefit analysis.

The Man Who Could Have Been Richer Than Bill Gates

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Gary Kildall was the man who could have been richer than Bill Gates, because he wrote the precursor to MS-DOS, a little operating system called CP/M, the control program for microprocessors:

By the late 1970s, CP/M was running on over 500,000 computers. It powered most of the computers of the time with the exception of the Apple which used not-Intel chips and had it’s own operating system. This included Xerox, Kaypro, Kentucky Fried Computers, Commodore, Morrow.

Intel could have bought CP/M for $20,000 but turned it down.

Along with his wife, Dorothy, Kildall started Intergalactic Digital Research, Inc.. Intergalactic was later dropped. They operated DRI out of an old Victorian home in Pacific Grove, California. Dorothy ran the business and Gary wrote the code.

At the time they started there was barely a market, but soon they were selling thousands and making millions.

Gary Kildall liked the money and soon loaded up on the toys he could now afford — airplanes, speedboats, motorcycles, a stretch limo, a Corvette, A Rolls Royce, Formula One race cars, 2 Lamborghini Countaches, and a Ford pick-up.

In 1980, IBM was secretly developing its own personal computer. IBM did not believe the market was going to be that big so they decided to build it out of off-the-shelf parts and license an existing operating system. CP/M was the market standard, so it was the obvious choice.

For some reason, IBM mistakenly thought that CP/M was owned by Microsoft. Microsoft was then just a small company, but the biggest provider of computer languages for microcomputers. Microsoft didn’t sell operating systems.

When IBM called, Bill Gates told them that CP/M wasn’t his and directed them to Gary Kildall. At one time Microsoft and Gary Kildall talked about merging their businessses, but never did. They tried to stay out of each other’s specialty.

The next day, the suits from IBM arrived in Pacific Grove for a meeting.

When they arrived, Gary Kildall wasn’t there.

The legend goes that “Gary went flying”- too busy to talk to one of the biggest companies on earth.

The truth was that he had an appointment with one of his biggest customers and had flown that morning to see them. He didn’t think the meeting with IBM was going to be that big of a deal so he left his wife, Dorothy, to speak to them, but he returned before the meeting was over.

Before the meeting started, IBM handed Dorothy their standard one-sided nondisclosure agreement. The one-sided document stated that the meeting taking place had never taken place and if it was proven that it had taken place anything IBM told DRI was confidential and anything DRI told IBM was not. Dorothy refused to sign it and called her lawyer. While waiting for the lawyer, Gary showed up.

Gary didn’t see the nondisclosure agreement as a big dealï: “so what if a big plodding company like IBM wanted to get into microcomputers” he thought. He would get a couple of hundred thousand dollars of business and that would be it. So Gary signed the form.

The deal killer with IBM was that they wanted to buy CP/M for a flat $200,000 plus a $10 royalty and they wanted to change the name to PC-DOS.

Gary thought-”why should he do that” He was earning millions, CP/M had strong brand name recognition and almost every PC except Apple was already using his operating system. Why would he want to give that up? Gary Kildall said, NO.

IBM went back to Bill Gates to see if he could get Kildall to change his mind. But, Bill Gates game plan shifted. He had given Gary Kildall first shot. He wasn’t going to give him a second. Kildall was a better programmer. Gates was a better businessman and saw the opportunity a lot clearer than Gary Kildall did.

Bill Gates greatest skill is to give people what they want. Bill Gates didn’t have an operating system to sell but told IBM he did. Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder knew of where he could get an operating system just across town.

Tim Paterson owner of Seattle Computer Products had written Q-DOS a close imitation of CP/M. Allen bought it from him for $50,000. He never mentioned that he was going to resell it to IBM.

Microsoft renamed it MS-DOS, then a made a deal with IBM. IBM would pay them royalties for each copy and Microsoft would retain the ownership rights to the operating system. This meant they could license MS-DOS to anyone they wanted.

IBM PCs became the industry standard. But, they priced their machines too high which opened the door for IBM compatible computers or clones and Microsoft sold the operating system to every single one of them.

Kildall became bitter — even though he managed to sell his company to Novell for $120 million in 1991 — and he died a few years later, from a bloodclot inside his skull — which he acquired late one night at a biker bar.


Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

The Dice-O-Matic is a preposterous product that serves a questionable “need”:

It is a 7 foot tall, 104 pound, dice-eating monster, capable of generating 1.3 million rolls a day.

Currently, uses some 80,000+ dice rolls for play in games like Backgammon, Gambit (a RISK clone), W.W.II (an Axis & Allies clone) and others. To generate the dice rolls, I have used Math.random, and other sources, but have always received numerous complaints that the dice are not random enough. Some players have put more effort into statistical analysis of the rolls than they put into their doctoral dissertation.

A few years ago I tinkered with a dice rolling machine made from Legos. Though great fun, it was noisy and cantankerous and unreliable, and it never recovered from the move two years ago. But it had made players happy, at least for a while. So I decided to make a ‘professional’ grade rolling machine.

I had been slowly accumulating parts for over a year when I put out a plea for financial assistance. Many players donated small amounts, and a few made some over-the-top donations. I also received a large donation of the elevator parts. The help allowed me to gather the last and most expensive bits, and four months of spare time later, everything is working better than planned.

I had a soft target of a machine capable of 200,000 rolls a day, as site traffic is growing. However, any automation project worth doing is worth over doing, and I way overshot the mark. The result is what you see here: a machine that can belch a continuous river of dice down a spiraling ramp, then elevate, photograph, process and upload almost a million and a half rolls to the server a day.

Secret of Googlenomics

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Steven Levy explains the Secret of Googlenomics:

But as the business grew, Kamangar and Veach decided to price the slots on the side of the page by means of an auction. Not an eBay-style auction that unfolds over days or minutes as bids are raised or abandoned, but a huge marketplace of virtual auctions in which sealed bids are submitted in advance and winners are determined algorithmically in fractions of a second. Google hoped that millions of small and medium companies would take part in the market, so it was essential that the process be self-service. Advertisers bid on search terms, or keywords, but instead of bidding on the price per impression, they were bidding on a price they were willing to pay each time a user clicked on the ad. (The bid would be accompanied by a budget of how many clicks the advertiser was willing to pay for.) The new system was called AdWords Select, while the ads at the top of the page, with prices still set by humans, was renamed AdWords Premium.

One key innovation was that all the sidebar slots on the results page were sold off in a single auction. (Compare that to an early pioneer of auction-driven search ads, Overture, which held a separate auction for each slot.) The problem with an all-at-once auction, however, was that advertisers might be inclined to lowball their bids to avoid the sucker’s trap of paying a huge amount more than the guy just below them on the page. So the Googlers decided that the winner of each auction would pay the amount (plus a penny) of the bid from the advertiser with the next-highest offer. (If Joe bids $10, Alice bids $9, and Sue bids $6, Joe gets the top slot and pays $9.01. Alice gets the next slot for $6.01, and so on.) Since competitors didn’t have to worry about costly overbidding errors, the paradoxical result was that it encouraged higher bids.

“Eric Veach did the math independently,” Kamangar says. “We found out along the way that second-price auctions had existed in other forms in the past and were used at one time in Treasury auctions.” (Another crucial innovation had to do with ad quality, but more on that later.)

Google’s homemade solution to its ad problem impressed even Paul Milgrom, the Stanford economist who is to auction theory what Letitia Baldridge is to etiquette. “I’ve begun to realize that Google somehow stumbled on a level of simplification in ad auctions that was not included before,” he says. And applying a variation on second-price auctions wasn’t just a theoretical advance. “Google immediately started getting higher prices for advertising than Overture was getting.”

This is the secret sauce though:

In fact, there’s a key component that few users know about and even sophisticated advertisers don’t fully understand. The bids themselves are only a part of what ultimately determines the auction winners. The other major determinant is something called the quality score. This metric strives to ensure that the ads Google shows on its results page are true, high-caliber matches for what users are querying. If they aren’t, the whole system suffers and Google makes less money.

Google determines quality scores by calculating multiple factors, including the relevance of the ad to the specific keyword or keywords, the quality of the landing page the ad is linked to, and, above all, the percentage of times users actually click on a given ad when it appears on a results page. (Other factors, Google won’t even discuss.) There’s also a penalty invoked when the ad quality is too low — in such cases, the company slaps a minimum bid on the advertiser. Google explains that this practice — reviled by many companies affected by it — protects users from being exposed to irrelevant or annoying ads that would sour people on sponsored links in general. Several lawsuits have been filed by would-be advertisers who claim that they are victims of an arbitrary process by a quasi monopoly.

You can argue about fairness, but arbitrary it ain’t. To figure out the quality score, Google needs to estimate in advance how many users will click on an ad. That’s very tricky, especially since we’re talking about billions of auctions. But since the ad model depends on predicting clickthroughs as perfectly as possible, the company must quantify and analyze every twist and turn of the data. Susan Wojcicki, who oversees Google’s advertising, refers to it as “the physics of clicks.”

Google has gone a bit auction-crazy:

The company used auctions to place ads on other Web sites (that program was dubbed AdSense). “But the really gutsy move,” Varian says, “was using it in the IPO.” In 2004, Google used a variation of a Dutch auction for its IPO; Brin and Page loved that the process leveled the playing field between small investors and powerful brokerage houses. And in 2008, the company couldn’t resist participating in the FCC’s auction to reallocate portions of the radio spectrum.

Google even uses auctions for internal operations, like allocating servers among its various business units. Since moving a product’s storage and computation to a new data center is disruptive, engineers often put it off. “I suggested we run an auction similar to what the airlines do when they oversell a flight. They keep offering bigger vouchers until enough customers give up their seats,” Varian says. “In our case, we offer more machines in exchange for moving to new servers. One group might do it for 50 new ones, another for 100, and another won’t move unless we give them 300. So we give them to the lowest bidder—they get their extra capacity, and we get computation shifted to the new data center.”

I love the story of how Google’s chief economist decided to go into economics in the first place:

It’s a satisfying development for Varian, a guy whose career as an economist was inspired by a sci-fi novel he read in junior high. “In Isaac Asimov’s first Foundation trilogy, there was a character who basically constructed mathematical models of society, and I thought this was a really exciting idea. When I went to college, I looked around for that subject. It turned out to be economics.”

Math and the City

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Steven Strogatz shares a beautiful law of collective organization that links urban studies to zoology, that reveals Manhattan and a mouse to be variations on a single structural theme — but first he shares an older observation:

The mathematics of cities was launched in 1949 when George Zipf, a linguist working at Harvard, reported a striking regularity in the size distribution of cities. He noticed that if you tabulate the biggest cities in a given country and rank them according to their populations, the largest city is always about twice as big as the second largest, and three times as big as the third largest, and so on. In other words, the population of a city is, to a good approximation, inversely proportional to its rank. Why this should be true, no one knows.

Even more amazingly, Zipf’s law has apparently held for at least 100 years.

So, how are Manhattan and a mouse variations on a theme?

Around 2006, scientists started discovering new mathematical laws about cities that are nearly as stunning as Zipf’s. But instead of focusing on the sizes of cities themselves, the new questions have to do with how city size affects other things we care about, like the amount of infrastructure needed to keep a city going.

For instance, if one city is 10 times as populous as another one, does it need 10 times as many gas stations? No. Bigger cities have more gas stations than smaller ones (of course), but not nearly in direct proportion to their size. The number of gas stations grows only in proportion to the 0.77 power of population. The crucial thing is that 0.77 is less than 1. This implies that the bigger a city is, the fewer gas stations it has per person. Put simply, bigger cities enjoy economies of scale. In this sense, bigger is greener.

The same pattern holds for other measures of infrastructure. Whether you measure miles of roadway or length of electrical cables, you find that all of these also decrease, per person, as city size increases. And all show an exponent between 0.7 and 0.9.

Now comes the spooky part. The same law is true for living things. That is, if you mentally replace cities by organisms and city size by body weight, the mathematical pattern remains the same.

For example, suppose you measure how many calories a mouse burns per day, compared to an elephant. Both are mammals, so at the cellular level you might expect they shouldn’t be too different. And indeed, when the cells of 10 different mammalian species were grown outside their host organisms, in a laboratory tissue culture, they all displayed the same metabolic rate. It was as if they didn’t know where they’d come from; they had no genetic memory of how big their donor was.

But now consider the elephant or the mouse as an intact animal, a functioning agglomeration of billions of cells. Then, on a pound for pound basis, the cells of an elephant consume far less energy than those of a mouse. The relevant law of metabolism, called Kleiber’s law, states that the metabolic needs of a mammal grow in proportion to its body weight raised to the 0.74 power.

This 0.74 power is uncannily close to the 0.77 observed for the law governing gas stations in cities. Coincidence? Maybe, but probably not. There are theoretical grounds to expect a power close to 3/4. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute and his colleagues Jim Brown and Brian Enquist have argued that a 3/4-power law is exactly what you’d expect if natural selection has evolved a transport system for conveying energy and nutrients as efficiently and rapidly as possible to all points of a three-dimensional body, using a fractal network built from a series of branching tubes — precisely the architecture seen in the circulatory system and the airways of the lung, and not too different from the roads and cables and pipes that keep a city alive.

These numerical coincidences seem to be telling us something profound. It appears that Aristotle’s metaphor of a city as a living thing is more than merely poetic.

Lost In the Meritocracy

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009

Walter Kirn explains how he was Lost in the Meritocracy — or, rather, how he gamed the system to no real end:

Kirn grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, when technocrats were thoroughly systematizing American public education. In his suburban grammar school, subjects like art and music were formed into “units” and “modules,” implying that “learning could be engineered, and that it had been, perhaps by government scientists — the same ones behind the Apollo program, maybe.” At the same time, the teachers were squishy, easily flattered and willing to coo over any creative daub that seemed to express “feelings.” “Art” could be whatever he said it was, Kirn realized, and producing it was the equivalent of such apple-polishing activities as emptying the classroom pencil sharpener. When he concocted bogus stories about the emotions that supposedly inspired his projects, he won “praise, and sometimes hugs, eventually convincing me that art was about one feeling above all others: being loved.”

So there you have it: the young Walter Kirn quickly learned that achievement could be precisely quantified, but also that the system for arriving at that quantification could be gamed. “I was the system’s pure product,” he writes, “sly and flexible, not so much educated as wised up.” He figured out how to turn a teacher’s question inside out and parrot it back in a simulation of thoughtfulness. If asked, “How does racial prejudice contribute to inner-city hopelessness?” he’d reply, “Is our conception of ‘inner-city hopelessness’ perhaps in itself a form of prejudice?” A maestro of multiple choice, he managed to ace his SATs despite having cracked only three “serious novels” by the age of 16: “Frankenstein,” “Moby-Dick” and “The Great Gatsby.”
In one respect, Kirn lucked out: his college years coincided with the ascendancy of “theory” in American academia. Since hardly anybody understood the deconstructionists to begin with, it was that much easier for Kirn to bluff his way through, powered by bravado alone. Better yet, theory was intent on proving the illegitimacy of all those great books he’d never read. “We skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism,” he writes of his cohort, “deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.”

The Novelty Effect

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Steve Blank (The Four Steps to the Epiphany) tells the story of the Video Spigot and the Novelty Effect:

It was early 1991 and Apple’s software development team was hard at work on QuickTime, the first multimedia framework for a computer. At the time no one (including Apple) knew exactly what consumers were going to do with multimedia, it was still pre-Internet. But the team believed adding video as an integral part of an operating system and user experience (where there had only been text and still images) would be transformative.

But Apple had planned to announce and demo QuickTime without a way to get video into the Mac. They had this great architecture, and Apple had figured out to get movies into their own computers for a demo, but for the rest of us there was no physical device that allowed an average consumer to plug a video camera or VCR into and get video into a Mac.

A month or two before the QuickTime public announcement in May, the SuperMac hardware engineers (who had a great relationship with the QuickTime team at Apple) started a “skunk works” project. In less than a month they designed a low-cost video-capture board that plugged into the Mac and allowed you to connect a video camera and VCR. But to get video to fit and playback on the computers of the era, they needed to compress it. So SuperMac engineering also developed video compression software, called Cinepak. The software was idiot proof. There was nothing for the consumer to do. No settings, no buttons — plug your camera or VCR in and it just worked seamlessly. (The Cinepak codec was written by the engineer who would become my cofounder at Rocket Science Games.) It worked great on the slow CPUs at the time.

Engineering gave us a demo of the prototype board and software and asked, “Do you guys think we can sell a few of these boards?” Remember, this is the first time anyone outside of Apple or the broadcast industry had seen moving images on a Macintosh computer. (A company called Avid had introduced a $50,000 Mac-based professional broadcast video editing for two years earlier. But here was a $499 product that could let everyone use video.) Our engineers connected a VCR, pushed a button and poured in the video of the Apple 1984 commercial. We watched as it started playing video at 30 frames/second in a 320 x 240 window.

Up until that moment Quicktime had been an abstract software concept to me. But now, standing there, I realized how people felt when they saw the first flickering images in a movie theater. We must have made them play the demo twenty times. There were a few times in my career I knew at that moment I was watching something profound — (Holding the glass masks of the Z80 microprocessor. My first IPO at Convergent. First silicon of the MIPS RISC processor.) I stood there believing that video on computers was another — and equally as memorable.

When we all regained the power of speech, our reaction was unanimous, “What are you talking about — can we sell it? This is the first way to get video into a computer, we’re going to sell and market this board like there’s no tomorrow. Even though we won’t make a ton of money, it will be an ambassador for the rest of our product family. People who aren’t current customers of our graphics boards will get to know our company and brand. If we’re smart we’ll cross-sell them one of our other products. We might even sell a few thousand of these.”

Everyone laughed at such an absurd number.

“What are we going to call it? Lets see. It’s video input. How about we call it the Video Spigot?”

Now, in hindsight, with a spigot, you’re actually pouring stuff out, and, in fact, the ad actually shows you stuff pouring stuff out, but into your Mac. It made no logical sense (a fact engineering reminded us about several times.) But it made the point that this device could pour video into your Mac and consumers instinctually got it.

Our CEO and our VP of manufacturing were incredibly nervous about manufacturing more than a few hundred of these boards. “There’s nothing to do with this product once you get the video in. You can’t manipulate it, you can’t do anything other than playback the video in QuickTime.” And they were right. (Remember there were no video applications available at all. None. This was day zero of consumer video on the Mac.)

Our answer was, “People will love this thing, as long as we don’t oversell the product.” We knew something our CEO didn’t. We had seen the reactions of people playing with the prototypes in our lab and when we demo’d it to our sales force. When we saw our salespeople actually trying to steal the early boards to take home and show their kids, we knew we had a winner. All we had to do was tell customers they could get video into their computer — and not promise anything else.

But the rest of the management team really skeptical. We kept saying, “Don’t worry, we’re going to sell thousands of these.” Little did we know.
We launched the product with this ad that said “Video Spigot, now pour video into your computer,” and this just hit a nerve.

We sold 50,000 Video Spigots in six months.

Renewable Energy Isn’t Free

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Ralph Ellis reminds us that renewable energy isn’t free:

Oil is not free, despite it just sitting in the ground; water is not free, despite it falling from the sky; nuclear power is not free, despite the raw materials being ridiculously cheap, and neither is any renewable energy resource ‘free’. In fact, the conversion process from ‘free’ renewable energy to usable grid electricity is remarkably expensive and its enormous costs are being subsidised by the consumer. In the UK, this subsidy is achieved through Renewables Obligation Certificates, the cost of which are eventually passed onto the consumer. In 2006 the cost to consumers was £600 million, and this is predicted to rise to £3 billion in 2020. 1 That is about £200 per household per annum, on top of current energy bills, for the privilege of using of ‘free’ energy.

His greater concern is that renewable energy is unreliable energy — or at least dangerously intermittent energy:

Perhaps the first renewable source we should discuss is tidal power. Unfortunately, while tidal power initially looks like a dream power source of cheap, renewable energy, it suffers from massive variability in supply. The energy that it produces is tidal, and the tides are, of course, linked to the orbit of the Moon, with there being about two tides every day. This sinusoidal tidal pattern produces four slack periods during each day when the tide is turning, either at high tide or at low tide, and during these slack periods the tidal power system will not generate any electricity at all. Unfortunately, the energy that is produced is therefore delivered at set periods of the day which are connected to the orbit of the Moon, rather than our daily lives, and so the electricity produced is in no way synchronised with the electrical demand cycle. If these slack periods coincide with the 7-am and 7-pm peak demands for electricity, as they will several times a month, then the whole generating system is next to useless.

Since the energy produced earlier in the day cannot be stored, as will be explained later, extra generating capacity will have to be brought on-line to cover the deficiency. This means that for every tidal system installed, a conventional power station will have to be either built or retained to ensure continuity of energy supply. But this power station will have to be up and running all the time, what is known in the industry as ’spinning-reserve’, as it takes up to 12 hours to bring a power station on-line from a cold start-up. Thus if we are to maintain continuity of supply, this wonderful ‘free-energy’ tidal source actually results in twice the cost and saves very little in the way of hydrocarbon fuels.

Wind power is even more problematic:

A report from Denmark2 indicates that the Danish ‘wind carpet’, which is the largest array of wind turbines in Europe, generated less than 1% of installed power on 54 days during 2002. That is more than one day every week of the year without electrical power. However, if we broaden the definition of ‘without power’ slightly, the same Danish ‘wind carpet’ generated less than 10% of installed capacity for some 16 weeks during 2003. Yet Denmark has the same kind of northerly, maritime weather systems as does the UK. Thus the wind-generation industry is lying to us, once more, for a ‘wind carpet’ that generates less than 10% of installed capacity it next to useless, for the national electrical grid will never cope with such a massive reduction in power supply. In fact, wind generation is so useless, that Denmark, Europe’s largest wind generating nation by far, has never used any of its wind-generated electricity — because it is too variable. It is almost impossible to integrate wind power into a normal generating grid, and so Denmark has merely exported its variable wind supplies to Norway and Sweden.3 These nations can cope with these electrical fluctuations because of their abundance of hydro-electric power, which can be turned on and off quite rapidly, unlike most other generating systems.

Solar’s obviously impractical in the UK. Of course, it’s not particularly well-suited for Germany either, but that hasn’t stopped them…

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Meerkats Don’t Spoil Their Mind-Numbingly Cute Babies

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Meerkats don’t spoil their mind-numbingly cute babies forever — just for their first 100 days:

Zoologists at the University of Cambridge wanted to understand why a young meerkat would stop using its charm to get free food and begin working for its own food. Joah Madden and his colleagues studied groups of wild meerkats in the Kalahari Desert, and found that as the pups aged into juveniles their voices changed: Pup begging calls peaked at an average of 1231 Hz, whereas the juveniles peaked at a deeper 953 Hz.

This change in pitch might make their begs less persuasive, eliciting less food and leaving the juveniles no option but to forage on their own. To explore this option, Madden followed adult meerkats around with a loudspeaker that played younger baby meerkat begs. He found the adults started offering their own food, even to older juveniles. And the juveniles — which had been past their begging prime — eagerly ran over to grab the free meals, ceasing their own foraging. The results appeared May 17 in Animal Behaviour.

Rabbits Out of the Hat

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Steve Blank (The Four Steps to the Epiphany) explains how they were able to pull so many rabbits out of the hat at SuperMac. It all starts with some good news and some bad news from Engineering:

The bad news: The new family of eight high performance graphics cards we were counting on couldn’t be delivered. The plug-in co-processor architecture was too complex and couldn’t be made to work reliably. Instead of the family of eight products we were expecting, only one could be delivered. Nothing else was in the development pipeline for the next 12 months.

The good news: Instead of eight boards, Engineering was going to be able to deliver one new graphics board. Just one. But it was going to be the fastest graphics board ever made. In fact, according to our Potrero benchmark suite this new board ran our customer applications ten times faster than our current products.

So, instead of a product family, like their competitors had, they had just one product. What to do?

The next day I walked in uninvited to the VP of Engineering’s office and asked if he had a minute. I said, “I realize you’re trying to get the one board out to market, but I have a question — can you slow our new board down?” It doesn’t take much imagination to see the look he gave me when I asked that question. “Steve, this hasn’t been a good week. What do you really want?” I felt sorry for him, he was working really hard to dig out of this mess. I replied, “No joke. Can you make it slower? I think he wanted to strangle me as he barely got out, “We worked for years to deliver a product that’s ten times faster than anything that exists and you want to make it slower?” Well, not exactly, “What I want to know is if the board would work if you slowed it down by 10%?” Yes, was the answer. “How about if you slowed it down 20%?” Yes, was still the answer. “By 30%?” The change in his demeanor — from trying to kill me — to laughing, as it dawned on him where I was going, could only be described as hysterical relief. “40%?” Yes, yes and yes.

We were about to be partners in building a new product family.

First, what we proposed is that we take our world class, ten-times-faster-than-anyone board and build an entire product family around it, by slowing it down. We wanted nine boards, each differing in performance by 10%. The only real difference between them would be the addition of “wait states” or “slow down” instructions on a chip. Our entire new product family would be an identical board.
Next, we were going to create three separate product families, each its own unique brand. And within each brand we would have a “good”, “better”, and “best” graphic board. All tailored to our color publishing market.

Finally, these product families would be priced to bracket (box in) everyone of our competitors’ products with better price and performance. We were going to price the products from $699 to $3,999. Our calculations had us losing money on the two lowest cost boards, breaking even on the third and making great margins on the other six. We calculated our blended gross margin for the company by estimating the number of units we would sell of each board times the gross margin of each individual board (then I crossed my fingers and prayed we were right.)

In essence we were proposing that we ship the same board in 9 different colored boxes and charge from $699 to $3,999 depending on the color of the box and the speed of the board. (This turned out to give our customers immense value. We would have charged $3,999 for the high-end board. Now we could give customers lower price boards without Engineering spending 12 months to design new ones.)

This was not a popular strategy within the company — but it worked:

Our new graphics boards became the market leader of the industry. In three and a half years SuperMac’s market share went from 11% to 68%, as we went from bankruptcy to $150 million in sales.

Years later, I was having coffee with the VP of Sales and Marketing from one our competitors and he said, “We would have beat you guys, but we just couldn’t keep up with the tidal wave of products coming from your engineering department. They came up with exactly the right products at the right price.” I took a long sip of coffee as I thought of all the things I could say. Instead I smiled, nodded and said, “Yep, it was amazing, they just kept pulling rabbits out of the hat.”

Hollywood eyes $70 zombie movie wowing Cannes

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

The marketing power of the incredibly cheap independent film has hardly diminished as Hollywood eyes a $70 zombie movie that’s wowing Cannes:

It was by advertising for volunteer zombies on social networking site Facebook, borrowing make-up from Hollywood blockbusters and teaching himself how to produce special effects that thrifty director Price was able to make the film for less than the price of a zombie DVD box set.

“The approach was to say to people, ‘OK guys, we don’t have any money, so bring your own equipment,’” the the 30 year-old director told CNN.

With help from a makeshift band of friends and volunteers, Price shot and edited the feature — which ingeniously spins the zombie genre on it’s head by telling the story entirely from the zombie’s perspective — over a period of 18 months while working nights part-time as a booker for a taxi company.

Online social networking was an invaluable tool in both generating buzz and cheaply sourcing the undead: “We went on Facebook and MySpace and said ‘Who wants to be a zombie?’” Price told CNN. “We managed to get 50 brilliantly made up zombies and stuff them into a living room.”

In keeping with Price’s beg and borrow approach, most of the zombie make-up in the make-up artists’ cases was inherited from other movies. “One of our make-up people came off ‘X-Men 3,’ so we were having the same latex that was put on Wolverine,” he told CNN.

Price says he came up with the idea to make a no-budget film because he realized that he and his friends would never be able to scrape together enough money to make even a low-budget film.

“A couple of friends were round a few years ago watching Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ recalls Price. “And we were lamenting the fact that we could never make a zombie film — we wouldn’t be able to acquire a budget.”

“Then I just woke up before everyone else — I was probably a bit hungover — and I wondered if a zombie movie from a zombie’s perspective had been done before.”

The end result is “Colin,” a zombie film “with a heart,” Price says, shot using production values cribbed from endless re-watching of making-of featurettes and director’s commentaries from his personal DVD collection.

Colleges Weighing 3-Year Degrees to Save Undergrads Time, Money

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post reports that colleges are weighing 3-year degrees to save undergrads time and money. She gives an odd history of the four-year degree:

The four-year bachelor’s degree has been the model in the United States since the first universities began operating before the American Revolution. Four-year degrees were designed in large part to provide a broad-based education that teaches young people to analyze and think critically, considered vital preparation to participate in the civic life of American democracy.

I seriously doubt that the universities operating in America before the Revolution had a curriculum designed to prepare students to participate in democracy.

Not only was democracy in extremely short supply then, but four-year degrees were hardly education for The People. Even by the 20th century, only a tiny fraction of men — around three percent in 1900, six percent in 1940 — had four years of college. An 8th-grade education was considered a good, solid education — and that was the “vital preparation to participate in the civic life of American democracy.”

The fact that Cambridge and Oxford offer three-year degrees has little to do with England’s comparatively recent move toward populism.

Educators are concerned that a move to three-year degrees would be giving students — and their parents — what they actually want:

But critics said they fear that an undergraduate’s academic and social experience would be compromised by shortening it to three years. College would tilt more toward job training and away from the broad-based education many U.S. schools have offered.

“Most high governmental officials who speak of education policy seem to conceive of education in this light — as a way to ensure economic competitiveness and continued economic growth,” said Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University. “I strongly disagree with this approach.”

Library Hours at an Undisclosed Location

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

As a very junior employee at a very secure “customer” site, Steve Blank (The Four Steps to the Epiphany) found himself reading more than he was supposed to:

Before long I realized that down the hall sat all the manuals for all the equipment at the entire site. Twenty times more technical reading than just my equipment. Although all the manuals were in safes, the whole site was so secure that anybody who had access to that site had access to everything — including other compartmentalized systems that had nothing to do with me — and that I wasn’t cleared for. Back home at ESL control of compartmentalized documents were incredibly strict. As a contractor handling the “customer’s” information, ESL went by the book with librarians inside the vaults and had strict document access and control procedures. In contrast, this site belonged to the “customer.” They set their own rules about how documents were handled, and the safes were open to everyone.

I was now inside the firewall with access to everything. It never dawned on me that this might not be a good idea.

Starting on the safe on the left side, moving to the safe on the right side, I planned to read my way through every technical manual of every customer system. We’re talking about a row of 20 or so safes each with five drawers, and each drawer full of manuals. Because I kept finding interesting connections and new facts, I kept notes, and since the whole place was classified, I thought, “Oh, I’ll keep the notes in one of these safes.” So I started a notebook, dutifully putting the classification on the top and bottom of each page. As I ran into more systems I added the additional code words that on the classification headers. Soon each page of my notes had a header and footer that read something like this: Top Secret / codeword/ codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword / codeword.

I was in one of the most isolated places on earth yet here I was wired into everywhere on earth. Coming to work I would walk down the very long, silent, empty corridors, open a non-descript door and enter the operations floor (which looked like a miniature NASA Mission Control), plug a headset into the networked audio that connected all the console operators — and hear the Rolling Stones “Sympathy for the Devil.” (With no apparent irony.) But when the targets lit up, the music and chatter would stop, and the communications would get very professional.

Nine months into my year tour, and seven months into my reading program, I was learning something interesting every day. (We could do what!? From where??) Then one day I got a call from the head of security to say, “Hey, Steve can you stop into my office when you get a chance?”

Now this was a small site, about 100–200 people, and here was the head of security was asking me over for coffee. Why how nice, I thought, he just wants to get to know me better. (Duh.) When I got to his office, we made some small talk and then he opened up a small envelope, tapped it on a white sheet of paper, and low and behold, three or four long black curly hairs fall out. “Are these yours?” he asked me.

This the one of the very few times I’ve been, really, really impressed. I said, “Why yes they are, where did you get them?” He replied, ‘They were found in the ‘name of system I should have absolutely no knowledge or access to’ manuals. Were you reading those?” I said, “Absolutely.” When he asked me, “Were you reading anything else?” I explained, “Well I started on the safe on the left, and have been reading my way through and I’m about three quarters of the way done.”

Now it was his turn to be surprised. He just stared at me for awhile. “Why on earth are you doing that?” he said in a real quiet voice. I blurted out, “Oh, it’s really interesting, I never knew all this stuff and I’ve been making all these notes, and …” I never quite understood the word “startled” before this moment. He did a double-take out of the movies and interrupted me, “You’ve been making notes?” I said, “Yeah, it’s like a puzzle,” I explained. ”I found out all this great stuff and kept notes and stored in the safe on the bottom right under all the…” And he literally ran out of the office to the safes and got my notebook and started reading it in front of me.

And the joke (now) was that even though this was the secret, secret, secret, secret site, the document I had created was more secret than the site.

Home Economics

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times unabashedly praises Aaron Patzer’s online personal-finance software, Mint. Her only complaint is how it makes money:

Significantly, the site also proposes seemingly advantageous ways to switch credit cards or take advantage of various other financial deals. This is where Mint makes its money: it advertises financial-service companies directly to users whose economic circumstances suggest a need for them. If you click on “Ways to Save,” for instance, you’re not given advice on how to darn socks or make stews you can freeze. Instead, logos and promotions for companies like American Express, Starwood and Discover come up. This makes Mint seem somewhat less benevolent. In fact, it’s downright sinister. Unlike other personal-finance guides, Mint does little, if anything, to discourage credit-card use; rather, it encourages users to find “better” cards.

An online service has certain advantages:

By my lights, the best Mint feature is one that lets you compare your own financial freakiness to other people’s. Bar graphs in a beachy palette compare how much you spend at Neiman Marcus or Trader Joe’s, say, with how much money people nationwide — or people just in your state — spend in those franchises. By running my expenses up against those of other household economies, Mint has permitted me raptures of smugness at the thought that, for example, I don’t own a car. It has also chagrined me for days with the realization that I’ve retained so many chump habits from 2006 and am still blowing way too much money at Starbucks.

Of of the secrets to its success is its game-like quality:

Such emotional reactions suggest that the site is, at its core, something other than a mere bookkeeping tool. After only a few weeks, I was regularly on Mint and essentially playing with it, as with a crossword puzzle: analyzing my spending habits, lowering my monthly caps on this or that category and calling my bank to contest Mint-flagged charges. This new diversion was — I noticed — distracting me from other sites, namely eBay and Etsy. That was rich. Where eBay had once turned shopping into a game, Mint had now turned saving into one.