A Jovian Dream

October 1st, 2014

Jupiter beckons in the distance, a small light, the greatest planet of all
I stare through the window, timeless, as the light slowly grows larger
I wonder what it will be like to see it with my own eyes
Swirls of orange and red and brown, a globe so large I can’t comprehend
The Jovian moons circling around the greatest planet of all, enraptured,
Captured
It is growing larger through the window
Through the window that separates me from the void,
Separates warmth and air and life from emptiness and death
This is what we have constructed
To ferry us across the great emptiness of space
It is larger still, I see color!
To see it with our own eyes
I see the moons!
To see if there is life beyond our little blue dot, so far away
To strike off into the unknown once again
To extend humanity beyond our home
I see it, I see it! I see!

But oh, this is the dream of a child
A great dream, but a dream
Remembered by an old man,
What could have been

After China placed limitations on candidates for Hong Kong’s city leader, Hong Kong erupted in protest. This, of course, presents a large challenge to Xi Jinping and the PRC. Edward Wong and Chris Buckley write for the Times:

China’s Communist Party has ample experience extinguishing unrest. For years it has used a deft mix of censorship, arrests, armed force and, increasingly, money, to repress or soften calls for political change.

But as he faces massive street demonstrations in Hong Kong pressing for more democracy in the territory, the toolbox of President Xi Jinping of China appears remarkably empty.

It’s an especially difficult challenge for Beijing because their options are so limited. If they come to an agreement with the protesters, or even remove the limits entirely, it will not only show weakness on Beijing’s part (something they are loathe to do), but could encourage similar protests in China proper. But they also have little ability to clamp down on protests in Hong Kong.

This is as large a threat to the PRC we’ve seen in years, and it has the potential to rival the 1989 protests.

September 29th, 2014

Apple Watch

September 15th, 2014

The phone dominates your attention. For nearly every use, the phone has your undivided attention. Browsing the web, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, watching video, reading, messaging—all require focus on a screen that fills your vision, your primary attention, and generally some kind of interaction. Everything else, too, is always a home button or notification-tap away at all times.

Is that a shock when the phone is the single gateway to nearly everything? The PC is now for doing work, but the phone is for messaging, taking photos, sharing them, the web, Twitter, Facebook, finding places to go, getting directions there, and even making calls.

That is the reason we find ourselves, when we receive a message and pull out our phones to respond, often descending into a muscle memory check of our other iMessages, emails and Twitter stream. We pull out our phone for one purpose, like responding to a message or checking our schedule, and end up spending several mindless minutes (or, if I am honest, more than “several minutes”) checking in on whatever it is. We find ourselves doing this even when we shouldn’t. We do it while seeing friends and family, while out to dinner with them, while at home with family when we should be spending time with them or doing other things.

I used “we” above because I think anyone with a smartphone, or anyone who knows people with them, can find truth in it to a greater or lesser extent.

My concern with wrist-worn “smartwatches,” starting with the Pebble, is that they appear to primarily exist to push notifications that we receive on our phone to our wrist. They seem to exist to make dealing with phone calls, messages, updates easier; seeing them, ignoring them, replying to them. They are there to make dealing with our phones more convenient. And in large part, that is how smartwatches have been designed and used. “It’s there so I don’t have to pull my phone out of my pocket.”

But that idea of what smartwatches are for, making it more convenient to deal with the flood of notifications and information our phones provide us, is unimaginative. I think what the smartwatch can do is make the phone unnecessary for many purposes, create new purposes altogether, and allow us to benefit from a wrist-sized screen’s limitations.

The Apple Watch

On September 9th, Apple introduced their long-awaited watch, appropriately named the Apple Watch (from herein “the Watch”). We won’t be able to fully understand what Apple’s built until next year, but they did provide a fairly detailed look at the Watch and the software it runs.

It appears that, in contrast to Google’s approach with Google Wear (which is heavily focused on showing single bits of information or points of interaction on the screen, and relies on swiping between cards of data and interaction), Apple intends the Watch to run fairly sophisticated applications. The Watch retains the iPhone’s touch interface, but Apple has designed new means of interaction specific to a small screen. In addition to the tap, the Watch brings the “force tap,” which is used to bring up different options within applications (like, say, the shuffle and AirPlay buttons within the music application), and the “digital crown,” a repurposing of the normal watch’s crown into a sort of scroll wheel for the Watch. Using the digital crown, users can zoom in and out of maps and scroll through lists with precision and without covering the small screen. And, most interestingly, they have replaced the familiar vibration alert in our phones with a light “tap” from the Watch to notify the user.

What this allows is fairly sophisticated applications. You can not only search for locations around you, but you can zoom in and out of maps. You can scroll through your emails, messages, events or music. You can control your Apple TV.

This subsumes many of the reasons we pull out our phones during the day. We can check our schedule for the day, check a message when it’s received and send a quick reply, find a place to get a drink after dinner (and get directions there without having to walk and stare at your phone), ignore a phone call by placing your hand over your wrist, or put something on the Apple TV.

But what force taps and the digital crown will not do is make the Watch’s small screen as large as a phone’s. You can’t type out a reply to a message or email. You can’t browse the web for something. You can’t dig through a few months of your email to find a certain one. You can’t mindlessly swipe through Twitter (well, you could, but it’s going to be pretty difficult). That, though, is an advantage the Watch has over the phone. Because it is inherently limited, it also has to be laser-focused on a single purpose, and while using it, you are limited to accomplishing something. It’s a lot harder to lose yourself in a 1.5″ screen than it is in a 4+ inch screen.

That’s going to be one of the Watch’s primary purposes for existing: allowing us to do many of the things we do on our phones right now, but in a way that’s limited and, thus, less distracting. If you’re out to dinner and receive a message (and haven’t turned on Do Not Disturb), you’re going to be a lot less likely to spend a couple minutes on a reply, and then Instagram, if you’re checking and responding it to it on the Watch. It just doesn’t work that way.

In that way, I think Apple has embraced the wrist-worn watch’s inherent limitations. Rather than try to work around them, they are using them. They’ve built new means of interaction (force tap, digital crown, “taptic” feedback) that allows fairly sophisticated applications, but they didn’t use them to cram iOS in its entirety into the Watch.

What I think Apple is trying to do is build a new mode of personal computing on the wrist that is molded from the inherent limitations and opportunities that creates.

Truly Personal

In Jony Ive’s introduction to the Watch, Ive ends with a statement of purpose of sorts for it. He says,

I think we are now at a compelling beginning, actually designing technology to be worn. To be truly personal.

That sounds like a platitude, but I think it defines what Apple is trying to do. “Taptic feedback,” which Dave Hamilton describes as feeling like someone tapping you on the wrist, is a much less intrusive and jolting way of getting a notification than a vibration against your leg or the terrible noise it makes on a table, and more generally, focusing the Watch’s use on quick single purposes is, too.

What is interesting to me, though, is they are using the Watch’s nature to do things in a more personal—human—way, and to do things that the phone can’t. When providing directions, the Watch shows them on the screen just as you would expect on a phone, but it also does something neat: when it’s time to turn, it will let you know using its Taptic feedback, and it differentiates between left and right. As a result, there isn’t a need to stare at your phone while walking somewhere and getting directions.

They’ve also created a new kind of messaging. Traditionally, “messages” are either words sent from one person to another using text or speech. Since messages are communication through word, something inherently mental or intellectual rather than emotional, they are divorced from emotion. We can try to communicate emotion through text or speech (emoticons serve exactly that purpose), but communicating emotion to another person is always translated into text or speech, and then thought about by them, rather than felt. In person, we can communicate emotion with our facial expressions, body gestures, and through touch. There’s a reason hugging your partner before they leave on a long trip is so much more powerful than a text message saying you’ll miss them.

In a small way, using the Watch, Apple is trying to create a new way to communicate that can capture some of that emotion. Because the Watch can effectively “tap” your wrist, others can tap out a pattern on their Watch, and it will re-create those taps on your wrist, almost like they are tapping you themselves. You could send a tap-tap to your partner’s wrist while they are away on a trip just to say that you’re thinking about them. Isn’t that so much more meaningful a way to say it than a text message saying it? Doesn’t it carry more emotion and resonance?

That’s what they mean by making technology more personal. It means making it more human.

The Watch is not about making it more convenient to deal with notifications and information sent to us. It’s not even about, as I described above, keeping your phone in your pocket more often (although that will be a result). The Watch is creating a new kind of computing of our wrists that will be for different purposes than what the phone is for and what the tablet and PC are for. The Watch is for quickly checking and responding to messages, checking your schedule, finding somewhere to go and getting directions there, for helping you lead a more active (healthier) life, and for a more meaningful form of communication. And it will do that without sucking our complete attention onto it, like the phone, tablet and PC do.

The Watch is for doing things with the world and people around us. Finding places to go, getting there, exercising, checking in at the airport, and sending more meaningful messages. Even notifying you of a new message (if you don’t have Do Not Disturb turned on) while out to dinner with family or friends serves this purpose, because if you have to see it, you can do so in a less disruptive way and get back to what you are doing—spending time with people important to you.

The Watch is a new kind of computing born of, and made better by, it’s limitations. And I can’t wait.

The founders of Siri are working on a new service called Viv that can link disparate sources of information together to answer questions:

But Kittlaus points out that all of these services are strictly limited. Cheyer elaborates: “Google Now has a huge knowledge graph—you can ask questions like ‘Where was Abraham Lincoln born?’ And it can name the city. You can also say, ‘What is the population?’ of a city and it’ll bring up a chart and answer. But you cannot say, ‘What is the population of the city where Abraham Lincoln was born?’” The system may have the data for both these components, but it has no ability to put them together, either to answer a query or to make a smart suggestion. Like Siri, it can’t do anything that coders haven’t explicitly programmed it to do.

Viv breaks through those constraints by generating its own code on the fly, no programmers required. Take a complicated command like “Give me a flight to Dallas with a seat that Shaq could fit in.” Viv will parse the sentence and then it will perform its best trick: automatically generating a quick, efficient program to link third-party sources of information together—say, Kayak, SeatGuru, and the NBA media guide—so it can identify available flights with lots of legroom. And it can do all of this in a fraction of a second.

If I understand the advancement they’ve made, the service (1) will allow third-parties to link in their information or service and define what it is in a structured fashion (so Yelp could define their information set as points of interest, user ratings and reviews, and Uber could make their car service available) and (2) the service knows how to connect multiple information and/or services together so that it can answer a user’s question or fulfill their request.

The Wired article linked above provides an example of what this would look like. A user tell Viv that they need to pick up a bottle of wine that pairs well with lasagna on the way to their brother’s house.

Providing a solution to that requires the interaction of many different information sets and services. Viv would (1) use the user’s contacts to look up their brother’s address, (2) use a mapping service to create a route from the user’s current location to their brother’s house, along with some radius along the route with which the user is willing to deviate from to pick up the bottle of wine, (3) identify what ingredients compose “lasagna,” (4) identify what wines pair well with those ingredients, and (5) find stores within the specified radius of the user’s route that carries that wine.

That’s incredibly complicated. If Viv can do that not just for pre-planned scenarios (like Siri and Google Now currently do), but for arbitrary scenarios provided they have the necessary information and services, then they must also have made an advancement in natural language recognition to support it.

What most intrigues me, though, is the founders’ vision for providing Viv as a “utility” akin to electricity, so that any device could tap into the service and use its power. Effectively, what they are trying to build is a structured, universal data source. I wrote about this idea when Apple released Siri in 2012 and it’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last 5 years. The idea is to structure the world’s data so that it can be retrieved in a useful (read: computer usable) form.

It’s incredibly ambitious. With a sophisticated natural language front-end, users could ask for information on virtually anything and receive it immediately. You could, while cooking (is it obvious I make an application for cooking?), ask for healthy substitutes for butter, or the proper technique for blanching vegetables. The service would also have an API so that other software and services could access it. Imagine a hypothetical research application that allows you to request (not search!) the average temperature for each year in Los Angeles for 1900-2010, and getting back the data, and the data assembled into a chart. And then imagine requesting the average temperature for Los Angeles for 1900-2010 along with the amount of CO2 emissions for each year in the same range. With the data charted.

That’s a rather mundane example, actually. Imagine what kind of analyses would be possible if the world’s data is not only made available, but is immediately available in a structured format, and is constantly updated as the data is produced. There is the potential here, I think, for this to be as important as the advent of the Internet itself.

What concerns me, though, is how will this be made accessible. The article quotes Dag Kittlaus as saying that they envision deriving revenue from referrals made within the service. So, if you buy something through Amazon or request an Uber ride through Viv, they will earn a referral fee for it.

That makes perfect sense and is fairly brilliant. But what about making scientific data accessible? Will that require some kind of payment to access? Will I only be able to access that information through some kind of front-end, like a research application that I’ve paid for (and where the application’s developers pay some kind of fee to get access)? That would certainly be an advancement over where we are today in terms of making data accessible, but it would also prevent incredible innovation that open access could allow. Imagine if Wikipedia was a for-profit operation and, instead of being publicly available, was only accessible through subscription or through some kind of front-end. It would not be nearly the same thing.

It is heartening, though, that they are thinking so deeply about a business model. It would be a shame if such a terrific idea and incredible technology fails (or is absorbed by another company) because they hadn’t considered it. However, I hope they are considering, too, what open access to certain kinds of data (historical, political, scientific) could allow.

August 12th, 2014

I Want to Know

August 8th, 2014

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by space. One of my earliest memories—and I know this is strange—is, when I was four or five years old, trying to grasp the concept of emptiness in space. I imagined the vast emptiness of space between galaxies, nothing but emptiness. I tried to imagine what that meant, but most of all, I tried to imagine what it would look like.

That question, what color empty space would be, rolled around my brain the most. I couldn’t shake it. I would be doing something–playing Nintendo, coloring, whatever–and that question would pop into my head again. What does “nothing” look like? First, I imagined that it would look black, the black of being deep in a forest at night. But that didn’t seem right, either; black is still “something.” And then, I remember, I realized I was thinking about a much worse question. I wasn’t trying to imagine what the emptiness of space would look like. I was trying to imagine what nothing would look like.

I have that memory, I think, because thinking about that sort of broke my brain. I couldn’t comprehend what nothing is.

That question, of course, begins down toward the central question of what our universe is and how it was created. I think that’s why space–the planets, stars, galaxies–so fascinated me then; it’s this thing so alien to our world, that dwarfs it on a scale that’s incomprehensible to us, and yet it is us. We aren’t something held apart separate from it, but intimately a part of it and its history.

Trying to understand the physics of our universe, its structure and history is also an attempt to understand ourselves. I think, at some gut level, I understood that as a kid.

I poured myself into learning about our solar system and galaxy. My parents’ Windows PC had Encarta installed, and I was enthralled. I spent countless hours reading everything I could find within Encarta (which, at the time, felt like a truly magical fount of knowledge) about Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. And when I exhausted that source, I asked for books about space, and I obsessed over them. They were windows into these incredible places, and I couldn’t believe that we were a part of such a wondrous universe.

Through elementary school, my love for space continued to blossom. Then, NASA were my heroes. To my eyes, they were the people designing and launching missions across our solar system so we could understand even more about it. Many of the photos of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune that I was so enraptured by were taken by spacecraft designed, built and launched by people at NASA. They were the people who had risked their lives to leave Earth and go to the Moon, to do something that most people up until just decades prior couldn’t even imagine as being possible. And they were the people who were exploring Mars with a little robotic rover called Sojourner that very moment.

They were my heroes because they were the people pushing us to explore our solar system, to learn what was out there and what came before us. I felt like I was at living during a momentous time in the history of humanity, and that I would live to see advances as incredible as 1969′s Moon landing. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.

That year, in 1997, I was nine years old. It’s been seventeen years.

Since then, we have indeed made great advances. In that time, we’ve sent three separate rovers to Mars, and we discovered that Mars certainly had liquid water on its surface long ago in its history. We landed a probe on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, which sent back these photos. We’ve discovered that our galaxy is teeming with solar systems.

All truly great things. But we are no closer today to landing humans on Mars than we were in 1997. In fact, we are no closer to putting humans back on the Moon today than we were in 1997.

Some people would argue that’s nothing to be sad about, because there isn’t anything to be gained by sending humans to Mars, or anywhere else. Sending humans outside Earth is incredibly expensive and offers us nothing that can’t be gained through robotic exploration.

Humanity has many urges, but our grandest and noblest is our constant curiosity. Through our history as a species, we have wondered what is over that hill, over that ridge, beyond the horizon, and when we sat around our fires, what are the lights we see in the sky. Throughout, someone has wondered, and because they wondered, they wandered beyond the border that marks where our knowledge of the world ends, and they wandered into the unknown. We never crossed mountains, deserts, plains, continents and oceans because we did a return-on-investment analysis and decided there were economic benefits beyond the cost to doing so. We did so because we had to in order to survive, and we did so because we had to know what was there. We were curious, so we stepped out of what we knew into certain danger.

And yet that tendency of ours to risk everything to learn what is beyond everything we know is also integral to all of the progress we have made as a species. While working on rockets capable of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, it would hardly be obvious what that would allow us to do. Would someone then have known that rocketry would allow us to place satellites into orbit which would allow worldwide communication, weather prediction and the ability to locate yourself to within a few feet anywhere on Earth? Economic benefits that result from progress are hardly ever obvious beforehand.

But it is more than that. It isn’t just that exploration drives concrete economic benefits. We think in narratives. Since the Enlightenment and industrial revolution, we have built a narrative of progress. With each year that passes, we feel that things improve. Our computers get faster, smaller, more capable; we develop new drugs and treatments for diseases and conditions that, before, would be crippling or a death sentence; with each year, our lives improve. For a century and a half or so, that feeling hasn’t been too far from reality. But most especially, we have continued to do something that cuts to the very center of what it means to be human: we have explored. We explored the most dangerous parts of Earth, we have explored our oceans, we put humans into space and humans stepped foot on a foreign body. There is a reason that, when we think of our greatest achievements as a species, landing on the Moon comes to mind with ease. At a very deep level within us, exploring the unknown is tied up with what it means to progress.

As exciting and useful as it is to send probes to other planets and moons, it fails to capture our imagination in the same way that sending people does. The reason is because doing so–exploring the unknown ourselves–is such an incredible risk. What Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins did in 1969 was unfathomably dangerous. They knew–everyone knew–that there was a very good chance that they would fail to get back to Earth. But they accepted that risk, because for them, learning about the unknown was worth that risk.

Abandoning human exploration of space, then, has consequences more far reaching than what its proponents intend. We would not just be abandoning putting humans into space, but at some fundamental level within us will be resigning ourselves to staying here. We will have decided, as a species, that we have gone far enough, we will leave our borders at our planet’s atmosphere, and leave the rest of the solar system and galaxy to nature. And with that decision, we will resign ourselves to no longer exploring in the general sense.

That’s why it is so integral that we continue exploring. Pushing on the edge of what’s possible is what fuels our desire and ability to explore in all other areas, too.

There are still incredible mysteries for us to unlock. We don’t know whether Mars had life early in its history. We don’t know whether, in Europa’s and Enceladus’s oceans, there are lifeforms swimming through them as I write this. We don’t know whether there is intelligent life living on planets in solar systems in the Milky Way and beyond. We don’t know how life began on Earth, let alone how life began at all. And most of all, we don’t know whether it is possible for us to move beyond our own solar system.

But what I do know is this: I want to know. I want to know.

Apple’s Advantage

June 3rd, 2014

Monday’s WWDC Keynote was easily the largest set of changes made to Apple’s platforms since iOS 2 was announced in 2008. The effects of what was announced will be felt and discussed for years to come.
There is a lot to think through and write about, which I will be doing in the coming weeks. However, something struck me during the keynote that felt fairly small but, upon thinking about it afterward, I think could end up being important to Apple’s future success.

Apple announced further updates to their cloud service where you can save all of the photos and videos you take, all of your documents and all of your data. Apple announced that their Touch ID feature, which identifies you using your fingerprint, will now be accessible by third-party developers as well. And Apple announced that a new app and framework for centralizing all of your health and fitness data, which—given your permission—can automatically be sent to your doctor.

That’s in addition to storing your contacts, calendar and reminders, and tracking your location (and keeping that data on your device) over time so your iPhone can provide you with timely updates on how long it will take to get to home or work with current traffic. Combined, Apple is asking you to store nearly all of your intimate information on their devices and servers, and even to provide the most intimate—your health data—to your doctor.

And yet I’ve heard little or no consternation over Apple’s consolidating our most private data, in an era where our government maintains call logs, collects security and encryption exploits, breaks into private services to collect data, and lied to the public about the extent of what they are doing.
That should be surprising, especially considering how much push-back companies like Google and Facebook have received for collecting and using our personal data. On the whole, people seem to trust Apple to respect their personal data.

The reason, I think, starts with that Apple’s business is *not* their users’ data. Their business is selling devices and services to their users. As a result, Apple’s interest in their users’ data is not to generate revenue (which is inherently Google and Facebook’s interest), but rather to use it in such a way that they can create compelling and meaningful products for their customers. Their incentives are aligned with user incentives because of their business model.

Second, Apple takes this relationship very seriously. iOS makes it very clear when applications are requesting access to our personal data. Apple has worked quite hard to make sure that the *user* decides what and how much they want to share.

I don’t think Google or Facebook could announce that they are going to collect their users’ health data and optionally send it to their doctors without some reasonably large amount of criticism and fear of abuse. The reason is obvious: their primary business is utilizing user data to generate revenue, so why couldn’t they do the same with health data?

As time continues, the integration of our smartphones, health tracking devices and the increasingly sophisticated use of the data they generate together will become the primary space where meaningful development occurs in technology. There’s huge potential for what Apple has announced with HealthKit. If it takes off, it will be a single place to store all of our health data. This will not only benefit doctors because they will be able to see it for the first time, but by aggregating it together for each individual (and potentially for groups), we will be able to see trends and correlations related to our decisions and health that we just could not see before.

That has the potential for both better decision-making and for doctors to get ahold of us when something appears to be seriously wrong that we ourselves may not even be aware of. There is incredible potential here, and I think Apple is the only company that can pull it off. This puts Apple in a unique position as we continue into the future and provides a special advantage that no other company has.

No Answer

March 31st, 2014

You have all the answers to my questions
Even ones I didn’t have
Why should I know anything at all?

You know everything I need
Everything I may need
You hold it all for me
So I waste no time

But still I wonder, why don’t I wonder?
Like I did as a kid
But no answer

Tesla plans to build a massive new lithium ion factory that would double world production volume. Doing so could dramatically change the car industry:

When Tesla first began working on its Model S saloon barely five years ago, lithium-ion batteries were priced at about $1,000 a kilowatt-hour (kWh). Manufacturers are notoriously secretive about pricing details, but industry insiders hint that prices have now slipped to anywhere from $400 to $750 a kWh. Even so, that means the 85 kWh pack in a Model S costs Tesla between $34,000 and $63,750. A study by the Boston Consulting Group projected that prices would need to come down to $200 or less per kWh to make electric vehicles truly competitive with the more familiar car that relies on internal combustion. The gigafactory would slash these production costs.

Tesla intends to do so, presumably, to reduce cost enough to make an affordable Tesla.

People enjoy making Hyperloop jokes about Elon Musk, but there’s really no one else in the world doing such ambitious work. How can you not love that?

March 4th, 2014

Julian Sanchez:

I’m perfectly open to the notion that it may be wise and justifiable to extent the protections of anti-discrimination law to groups not currently covered—but I also wish supporters of such reforms would acknowledge that there’s a genuine impingement on associational freedom involved in such extensions, and that no simple sweeping principle can obviate the need for a close examination of the tradeoffs in each case.

March 1st, 2014

Sean Penn:

The Oscar-winning actor and political activist accused the US media of smearing Venezuela’s socialist president and called for journalists to be punished.

“Every day, this elected leader is called a dictator here, and we just accept it, and accept it. And this is mainstream media. There should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies.”

Not only does Sean Penn defend authoritarianism, but he suggests that critics should be imprisoned for calling Hugo Chavez a dictator.

Lovely guy.

February 22nd, 2014

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February 22nd, 2014

Matt Bischoff on the New York Times’ 10-free-articles-a-month limit:

Since The Times’s mobile products are partially supported by advertising, it’s counterintuitive to drive down the number of ad impressions by cutting off enthusiastic users just as they’re getting excited about the content. Ten articles per month just aren’t enough to justify keeping the apps installed; it’s almost insulting. The proof is in the plummeting App Store ratings as well as in the company’s usage statistics, which I suspect show readers returning less frequently since the change.

I read the Times every morning and have for the past five or six years. So let’s be honest: Not only are their subscription plans inscrutable (separate plans for smartphone and tablet access? Why?), but the new 10 articles-per-month limit is clearly designed to coerce people into subscribing. But instead of convincing more people to subscribe, it’s likely to piss more people off and turn them away from the Times.

It appears that the Times doesn’t have a unified strategy to transition their company to digital. Sad.

February 12th, 2014

Amy Harmon wrote a terrific article for the New York Times about a Hawaiian town’s “debate” over whether to ban genetically-engineered crops, and the insanely stupid things said about them:

A report, in an obscure Russian journal, about hamsters that lost the ability to reproduce after three generations as a result of a diet of genetically modified soybeans had been contradicted by many other studies and deemed bogus by mainstream scientists.

Mr. Ilagan discounted the correlations between the rise in childhood allergies and the consumption of G.M.O.s, cited by Ms. Wille and others, after reading of the common mistake of confusing correlation for causation. (One graph, illustrating the weakness of conclusions based on correlation, charted the lock-step rise in organic food sales and autism diagnoses.)

The left’s global warming.

January 28th, 2014

Fascinating article in Popular Science about the development of insect-like drones:

They teamed up with Wood, whose lab had since joined Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, and together they applied for an Air Force grant. Wood’s group then used an image-capture system to record and analyze fly behavior before, during, and after collisions with glass. By closely observing the positions of the flies’ body parts, they could measure the exact flip and twist of wings and legs. 

When Guiler and Vaneck slowed down the film, they were amazed at what they saw. “I thought the fly would tumble a bit and lose a lot of altitude,” Vaneck says. “But the fly recovery was elegant. It happened so rapidly; it was breathtaking.”

One of the more thought-provoking articles I’ve read in a while. What struck me while reading it is how much we are now learning about life by observing and understanding how the simplest creatures—worms and insects—deal with and thrive in a complex, changing and threatening world. We may be the dominant and most intelligent species, but we have much to learn about how life succeeds. And by casting away the arrogance that being the dominant species engenders, we will learn much, much more.

January 27th, 2014

Tony Fadell Explains Nest’s Sale to Google

January 21st, 2014

Last week, Nest was acquired by Google for $3.2 billion.

There are only a few companies that have truly excited me in the last few years, and Nest is at the top. They worked on a very original, very real problem—thermostats were not only a user interface disaster and something nearly everyone hated to use, but also were an opportunity to do something meaningful: use energy more efficiently in people’s homes while also improving their relation with an important but ignored device. In addition, it clearly was the first product in a much larger plan. And it was a very good first step in a very good plan.

So, when I heard that Nest had sold to Google, I felt a pang of disappointment. Not because it was Google (which, if Nest were to be acquired, makes more sense than any other company I can think of), but rather because Nest is an incredibly ambitious company that, I think, had the opportunity to be as important to the next wave of development in personal computing and the Internet as Apple and Google were—and potentially as large. They were a key member in Silicon Valley’s next generation of meaningful companies, I thought.

Of course, nearly every bit of that can (and will) still be true, with the notable exception of remaining independent. They can still do all of that, but they will do so under Google’s banner, and for Google’s benefit. And that’s fine, all else being equal. Before I continue, though, we need to discuss why Nest decided to sell in the first place, and “for the money” doesn’t count, because I know Tony Fadell, Matt Rogers and everyone else there didn’t do it for the cash.

Here’s why they sold, according to Fadell:

I was spending nearly ninety percent of my time on building the infrastructure of the company and I wasn’t able to spend enough time and cycles on what I love doing: products and creating differentiated experiences for our customers. That is where my love is and Google offered to let us focus on that, but with scale that will help bring our horizon closer to us, faster. Google offers to bring that scale to us. For me, ultimately building great products is key.

Fadell cites European distribution as a specific example of what he means by “scale”—physical distribution and dealing with legal issues surrounding something as regulated and disparate as energy. Fadell wants to focus his time on developing products rather than handling all the issues surrounding it.

It’s hard to argue with that. Nest clearly wants to move quickly. The Nest thermostat is a shockingly good first product, and Nest Protect—which they released just two years later—is at least as good. Nest Protect also began revealing their larger strategy. Owning either one of them is great, but owning both of them makes each one better. Since they use your home’s wireless network, the Nest thermostat will automatically augment itself with the Protect’s motion sensors. And more importantly, if the Protect senses rising levels of carbon monoxide, the thermostat will shut off your home’s furnace. Their strategy, then, appears to be modular devices that are convincing on their own, but when used together not only all function better, but begin to form the basis for a connected home.

Being a part of Google will allow them to realize that strategy faster by increasing their resources so they can focus their bandwidth on developing product. Google also is doing industry-leading work in learning systems and web services, which obviously will benefit Nest. Like I said, of all the companies in the world that could have acquired Nest (which, admittedly, is a fairly short list), Google is the best fit.

But Google didn’t agree to acquire Nest entirely for Nest’s benefit. They did it, I assume, because Nest fills in particularly important holes in Google’s capabilities and in Google’s future development. While Google has been very good at building web applications, web services and a mobile operating system, they’ve done very little to prove that they can design and make hardware that real consumers will pay real money for. There’s a lot more involved there than design and supply chain. To a much greater extent, making hardware involves doing businessy things like identifying a target market for it, identifying what price they’ll pay at necessary levels of sales and margin, and then manufacturing a quality product in an efficient enough way to hit that margin. Nest has shown that not only can they do all of that, but they can produce an exceptional product that customers truly love. That’s invaluable, and it’s something Google hasn’t done.

Nest also provides an entry path for Google into the home. Starting into the connected home requires building hardware, and it requires a no-bullshit vision for how the connected home can improve people’s lives in substantive ways. Nest provides both of those things.

It sounds a symbiotic relationship, then. Google can provide Nest what it needs and Nest can provide Google something it needs, too. In Nest’s ideal vision of the relationship, Nest will remain largely independent—their own brand, leadership, teams and products. People and resources may flow across the Nest-Google boundary, but the two entities will nevertheless remain distinct. But in Google’s, Nest will begin to overlap and merge with Google itself. If Google wants the Nest acquisition to result in an improved capability for creating hardware products that consumers really want, then that necessarily requires Nest’s leadership to extend outside of Nest itself—which would require splitting their time, too. This is because while Nest may become functionally a discrete unit within Google (the “connected home” unit, let’s say), if it is to have any effect on the rest of Google, there has to be some sort of cross over. This may mean putting Nest’s leadership (whether that’s Matt Rogers, or another member of the team) in charge of Google’s hardware, or even having people in leadership roles move back and forth across the boundary. In any case, the boundary begins to smear, and Fadell’s reason for doing the deal—to focus his team’s time exclusively on product—begins to seem less likely.

Of course, that’s not necessarily negative. Perhaps a Nest-infused Google, and a Google-infused Nest, is better for everyone involved—Nest, Google, and us. I think there’s a good argument to be made there. But inherently, as that occurs, Nest begins to fade as a distinct entity, and it becomes more Google.

I think the most optimistic comparison for this acquisition is Disney’s 2006 acquisition of Pixar. Pixar remained an independent studio, kept their leadership, kept their campus, kept their culture, and created some of their most artistically and commercial films afterward. In return, Disney received Ed Catmull and John Lasseter’s services for turning around their declining animation department. And turn it around they did; Disney Animation Studios is enjoying something of a renaissance. Frozen, released in December 2013, was Disney’s biggest hit since The Lion King. The Pixar acquisition is one of the most successful acquisitions in history.

That could be how it works out here, too. I suspect, though, that while Pixar has thus far been able to retain its independence, Nest will not retain independence to the same extent. I have two main reasons for thinking so. First, the Disney-Pixar deal was incredibly specific in its intent: the deal was Catmull and Lasseter would oversee Disney Animation and Pixar would remain its own studio. The Google-Nest deal, as far as I can tell, doesn’t appear to be nearly as well-defined. As a result, blurring will happen with relative ease. Second, while in the movie business it’s actually beneficial for Pixar to remain independent in substance and in brand—it allows them to experiment in ways they couldn’t necessarily do if it was all a single studio, and it also allows them to release multiple movies per year in a way that doesn’t feel like Disney movies are competing for people’s attention—that structure doesn’t make nearly as much sense for Google and Nest. In reality, centralizing their hardware operation makes much more sense than continuing Nest as a parallel operation to Google’s other hardware operations. As a result, I think what we are more likely to see is Nest more or less become a part of Google while the brand continues on as Google’s “connected home” brand.

In the short-term, then, I think there’s very good reason to be excited about the deal. I bet we are going to see even more incredible things come out of Nest than we would have seen otherwise, and probably faster as well. But long-term, I’m disappointed. Nest is one of those rare companies that identified a brilliant product idea, in a large market, that would allow them to develop into something much greater in the future. And along the way, they built a first-rate company in all areas. I believe Nest would be one of the most important companies in the world for the next twenty years. And while they may still be integral to personal computing and the web’s future, it will likely be under Google’s banner. For better or for worse.

Previously