Feed on

It’s no secret that I’m a big pro­po­nent of e-books. I love my Kin­dle for all sorts of pre­dictable rea­sons. It’s con­ve­nient, it lets me carry lots of books around with lit­tle weight, I can pre­view things and so on. By now, the litany of Kin­dle virtues is prob­a­bly famil­iar to much of the Internet.

Image via Stock.xchngHow­ever, something’s been bug­ging me lately, and it’s taken a while to put my fin­ger on it. Cer­tainly, there are some stan­dard com­plaints with the Kin­dle that are as famil­iar as its praises (DRM! No Shar­ing! Stu­pid Pric­ing!) but I’ve made my peace with all of those, at least for the time being. No, this is some­thing else.

The prob­lem, so to speak, is one of con­ve­nience. My kin­dle goes in my bag along with my lap­top or ipad, and if I for­get it, I can just as eas­ily swap to another device to pick up on my read­ing. The net result is that I swim in a sea of ambi­ent books, and that seems like it should be a won­der­ful thing. If I have a few min­utes free, I can just read whatever’s on mind, right?

That’s the the­ory, but the real­ity is that with all the devices I have, I usu­ally have some­thing else on hand bet­ter suited to fill­ing 5 min­utes, whether it’s a stu­pid game or just read­ing some­thing shorter form, like a blog entry or my instapa­per queue. When I was younger and could only carry a book with me, that book was the thing I would turn to. Now I carry an entire suite of things, and my options are not so narrow.

By itself, this is not so bad. I’m not going to beat myself up over read­ing a lit­tle bit less just because things used to be dif­fer­ent. Unfor­tu­nately, there’s also a prob­lem revealed by turn­ing this on its head — just as I am sur­rounded by ambi­ent books, I’m also sur­rounded by ambi­ent every­thing else. Read­ing is no longer a dis­crete task — it’s some­thing I can tab into and out of like an app on my desktop.

That unex­pected down­side of con­ve­nience hits me hard, since it means that I find less and less time to just sit down and read, because if I’m doing that, why not also check twit­ter? And email? And maybe a few blogs? Intel­lec­tu­ally, I know that mul­ti­task­ing is a sucker’s bet, but prac­ti­cally, I find it creeps up on me when I’m not looking.

Is there a solu­tion to this other than just being aware of it? I’m not sure. There’s a good argu­ment that maybe this is the real rea­son to swap back to paper books from time to time, explic­itly because they’re less con­ve­nient. I don’t think i could go back full time — the ben­e­fits of the Kin­dle are still there and still pro­found — but per­haps an occa­sional excep­tion would help remind me of what I’m missing.

Tools and Anger

So, Mer­lin Mann snapped.

This is kind of a big deal because Mann is one of the big thinkers in pro­duc­tiv­ity on the web, and has been instru­men­tal in help­ing a lot of peo­ple (includ­ing me) help get a grasp on things like Get­ting Things Done. His Blog, 43folders, is part of my reg­u­lar read­ing rota­tion. He’s had enough good, impor­tant things to say that have influ­enced my think­ing that I’m writ­ing about the bad one solely to inoc­u­late myself against it. Writ­ing makes it eas­ier for me to be philo­soph­i­cal about it rather than worked up.

This actu­ally began with a pre­vi­ous post over on his per­sonal site that was a not-so-subtle mock­ing of dis­trac­tion free writ­ing soft­ware like Write­room, Write­mon­key and such. I sus­pect it was inspired by IA Writer’s fea­ture that hides all the text except that which you’re work­ing on (which is kind of silly, but the app’s pretty good oth­er­wise). It was a nice bit of mock­ery and I walked away smil­ing and shak­ing my head and think­ing “Man, Mer­lin hates those apps.”

Now, its worth not­ing that I love those apps, and most of the writ­ing I get done is in those sorts of pro­grams. It’s the right tool for me. But I’m OK with it not being the right tool for every­one. Com­pared to the non­sense I’ve had to field for using Mole­sk­ine note­books, this is small potatoes.

Any­way, that post lead to this one, a fairly long, sus­tained explo­sion about the crit­i­cal prob­lem with any and all pro­duc­tiv­ity tools and meth­ods, which can be sum­ma­rized as fol­lows: Any tool that might help you get more done can also be used to waste time pre­tend­ing to get things done.

We’re all famil­iar with this phe­nom­ena — you see it when you get a spiffy new day plan­ner or piece of todo soft­ware and then spend more time using your new tool than you do actu­ally get­ting any­thing done. You see it when some­one starts on a new method­ol­ogy (like GTD) and spends all their time tun­ing their sys­tem rather than work­ing. You see it when some­one spends a hun­dred bucks on a note­book and folio and three hun­dred dol­lars on a pen and pro­ceeds to fuss about ink rather than writ­ing. You see it when some­one buys a two-thousand dol­lar cam­era and spends all their time fid­dling with but­tons and set­tings and bags rather than going an tak­ing pictures.

This is both insid­i­ous and frus­trat­ing. It’s insid­i­ous because the per­son doing this feels busy. They’re engag­ing the tool, so they don’t real­ize they’re not engag­ing the work. It’s frus­trat­ing because the prob­lem does not cor­re­late directly with the tools or meth­ods. In some­one else’s hands, that tool or method may be exactly the thing they need to do the job, and that’s the rub. What­ever your frus­tra­tion with how peo­ple use the tools, if you focus on on that you will encounter a group of peo­ple who will stand up and say “this tool works for me.”

And that’s why Mann’s explo­sion was inevitable, but still kind of prob­lem­atic. There’s no way to get as deep in pro­duc­tiv­ity as he is with­out get­ting pro­foundly frus­trated with peo­ple who turn to the tools rather than the work. Sooner or later you’re going to see some tool that is so utterly use­less to you that you’re just going to snap and make it clear that this tool is emblem­atic of all your frus­tra­tions and annoy­ances at how peo­ple are doing it wrong.

So, I don’t blame him for that. But that the blunt instru­ment he’s wav­ing around is a tool I get a lot of use out of kind of makes it prob­lem­atic to me.

Now, heck, I doubt he intends to come across as if dis­trac­tion free writ­ing soft­ware is really the apex of all that is wrong in pro­duc­tiv­ity. Ask him on any other day and I sus­pect you’ll find that he’s fine with the tool so long as peo­ple use it rather than use it to not do things. Sim­i­larly, if you ask him another day, I think he’s less likely to equate a tool with a fail­ing on the part of the per­son using it. But today? Today he snapped.

And it’s ok. Every­one reaches that point sooner or later, and Mann has earned more than enough good credit to make up for it. But I admit I’m just going to sort of sidle past this one and let it fall to the way­side of time. And that’s maybe a shame. There are good, salient points mixed in with the rage, and some part of me says its worth hang­ing on to it just for those.

But one other thing I’ve learned from real pro­duc­tiv­ity is this — no mat­ter how use­ful some­thing is, if it hurts you every time you pick it up, that’s prob­a­bly not the tool you want.

A Bucket of Books

When I buy a book, I am effec­tively buy­ing water (the con­tent) and a bucket (the actual book, with all it entails). I am taught that most of the value is in the bucket, because that’s what pric­ing is keyed off of. Hard vs. Soft­cover estab­lishes the price, not the qual­ity of the con­tent. I take no price guid­ance from things I might rea­son­ably take as indi­ca­tors of qual­ity, like the author. So right off the bat, the bucket indus­try has trained me that the price of water is low, maybe even free. They don’t care though, because they make their money on buckets.

To mud­dle things fur­ther, I have been taught by liv­ing in a civ­i­lized soci­ety that it is entirely rea­son­able for me to drink the water for free as long as I don’t steal the bucket. That is, once I own a book, i can resell it or give it away. If I don’t own the book I can read it for free by bor­row­ing it from a friend or from the library, or even just by hav­ing it read to me. Once again, I’m taught that the value is in the bucket.

Now, the bucket mak­ers aren’t nec­es­sar­ily happy with this arrange­ment, but they’re kind of obliged to deal with it. Part of that is social pres­sure – this free­dom is part of the cul­ture of books, and fight­ing it makes you the bad guy – but another part of it is more cyn­i­cal. See, every other non-consumable good in soci­ety is tied to these rules as well – you can gift and loan tools, jew­elry, cars or any­thing else you can think of. To buck this trend, the bucket mak­ers would have to say “Well, wait a minute, we’re dif­fer­ent than these other goods. We have this great water which has value of a dif­fer­ent kind” and that’s a prob­lem, because so far the whole model is based on putting value on the buck­ets, not the water, so they don’t want to upset that cart.

This has worked well for a very long time, and peo­ple really love their buck­ets, but now some crazy guy has gone and invented plumb­ing. Sud­denly I can get my water from the source, and that really screwss things up. The ways in which it messes things up are a whole other con­ver­sa­tion, but here’s the bit that inter­ests me.

What hap­pens if, when I want to make a gift of a book, I don’t need to buy a new bucket?

See, I will never feel bad about libraries or gift­ing read books, at least under the cur­rent model, but I also feel it prob­a­bly hurts cre­ators more than any­one else. But the idea of “gift­ing” an elec­tronic file really means “giv­ing a dupli­cate” unless you want to do some­thing par­tic­u­larly cum­ber­some with it. I can imag­ine a world where, in the absence of buck­ets, the cost of that is small enough to pay casu­ally, and goes directly to the creator.

Sure, this upends a lot of assump­tion. If money goes to the cre­ator directly, he then becomes the per­son who has to hire all the peo­ple who make a book pos­si­ble rather than them hir­ing him. That’s a dras­tic change, so much so that it may seem impos­si­ble. But in my gut, I’m won­der­ing if it’s the only pos­si­ble outcome.

PS – So it’s clear, this is not a “Death to Pub­lish­ers!” posi­tion, merely a “The roles of every­one involved in the book chain are poten­tially sub­ject to dras­tic change over the next decade or three”

(This was orig­i­nally a com­ment in a dis­cus­sion of piracy on Chuck Wendig’s blog, but I wanted to pull it out and make it it’s own thing)

Book Buying

I don’t buy books any­more, at least not the way I used to.

I mean, I still buy books. In fact, look­ing at Ama­zon I’ve bought 14 books in the past 30 days, not count­ing ones I’ve got­ten for free. Of those, 3 of them were phys­i­cal books, and the rest were all e-books. I am well and truly con­verted over to the ebook man­ner of read­ing, and there’s no turn­ing back. The real proof of it? Jim Butcher’s Changes came out in this win­dow too. I’m not count­ing it because I’d pre-ordered, but it’s nicely illustrative.

See, it was one of the books that got caught up in Amazon’s squab­ble with the pub­lisher, and the kin­dle ver­sion got yanked off shelves (so to speak) shortly before release. Now, Ama­zon made it right — they sold me the hard­cover for the price I’d paid for the ebook, $9.99 — and I’m grate­ful for that, but here I am a month later, with this book form a series I love by an author I dig which I’ve heard is fan­tas­tic, and I haven’t touched it. Why?

Because it is just too much of a pain for me to bother with car­ry­ing it around. I always have my kin­dle. It’s part of my reg­u­lar kit. And I’ve got four dif­fer­ent books that I’m read­ing at once going on it. It lets me read in strange places at ran­dom time. In con­trast, for the hard­cover I need an unin­ter­rupted block of time at home, some­thing I just don’t have with a ram­bunc­tious 15 month-old in the house.

All of which is to say, I am very much the ebook audi­ence these days, and its with that in mind that I want to high­light the three books of the past month that AREN’T elec­tronic, because I think they illus­trate some­thing impor­tant. See, I still love books, but the kin­dle has changed how I think about them. There are books I buy because I want the actual book, but there needs to be some rea­son beyond read­ing it. If it’s just the con­tent I want, the Kin­dle does a bet­ter job.

Set­ting aside gifts and books with sen­ti­men­tal value, I think these three books do a good job of illus­trat­ing what attrib­utes call for a real book.

The first is San­jay Patel’s Ramayana: The Divine Loop­hole. Patel’s a graph­ics guy from Pixar and the book is, to put it frankly, absolutely beau­ti­ful. I saw it on the shelf in Bor­ders and every page was a won­der to behold. It’s pos­si­ble this book would do well on some­thing with a really nice screen (like an ipad) but for some­thing this lovely, the abil­ity to flip pages and be struck by the images is entirely worth it.

So I’ll buy a book if it’s beau­ti­ful.

The next is Head­first Rails. It’s an instruc­tional book about the Ruby on Rails pro­gram­ming lan­guage. The Head­first series are unique and well regarded because they present the infor­ma­tion the reader needs in really engag­ing and inno­v­a­tive ways. Com­par­ing their books to a ran­dom com­puter text­book is like night and day. They use lay­out and pre­sen­ta­tion as a tech­nol­ogy, using the book form to its fullest. It is prob­a­bly read­able in elec­tronic form, but it’s so well designed as a book, that would actu­ally seem less efficient.

So I’ll buy a book if it takes advan­tage of being a book.

The last book was the late Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Strikes Back. This is a great book and I *really* wanted it, but it wasn’t avail­able as an ebook, and given the cir­cum­stances of its pro­duc­tion (Sny­der died before it went to print) I didn’t feel con­fi­dent it would be avail­able in any kind of timely man­ner. So I bought the phys­i­cal book, and despite it being fan­tas­tic, I’ve barely dented it for the same rea­sons I haven’t read Changes.

So I’ll buy a book if I have no other choice.

I would sug­gest against publisher’s lean­ing too heav­ily on #3 — in most cases there’s a dif­fer­ent book I could buy, and I almost cer­tainly will. How­ever, #1 and #2 are hope­fully a lit­tle bit more infor­ma­tive, and they both have some­thing in com­mon. Both cel­e­brate the book as an object rather than a mere container.

Now, none of this addresses the very real frus­tra­tions I have with ebooks — the inabil­ity to gift or lend them is a par­a­lyz­ingly bad ele­ment that I tol­er­ate only because they’re still in their infancy — and I under­stand fully why any of those other prob­lems might keep some­one from embrac­ing the ebook. But once you do, it’s hard to go back, and it also makes you appre­ci­ate the books that really deserve appre­ci­a­tion all the more.

Vocational Context

In junior high school, I took a lot of shop class. I had to take some­thing in the period. I had no artis­tic tal­ent to speak of, and enough atavis­tic sense that home ec was for girls that I spent one period a day doing some mechan­i­cal thing or another: Wood shop, metal shop, alter­na­tive energy (we made hot dog cook­ers!), mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing and so on. It was good, fun stuff and I was really glad I did it.

When I moved on to high school, I set it aside. Rather than being part of the cur­ricu­lum, shop was is own dis­tant wing of the school, vis­i­ble only occa­sion­ally from Gym or Driver’s ed. It wasn’t shop, it was “Voca­tional Edu­ca­tion” and the kids who went there didn’t over­lap much with my world. I was a power-nerd, on track with var­i­ous hon­ors classes, good tests and mediocre grades. My view of the uni­verse assumed there were var­i­ous tracks of aca­d­e­mic suc­cess, and over time I bought into the gen­eral idea that some­where below the low­est aca­d­e­mic track was Vo-tech (Vocational/technical edu­ca­tion), and I had the gen­eral sense that that was where kids ended up rather than drop­ping out of school. These were “the dumb kids”, trou­ble­mak­ers and smok­ers, the ones with­out real futures, unlike me and my hon­ors class compatriots.

Yes, I was a dumb, arro­gant, know-nothing snot-nosed brat. I know this. I’m also in the future.

This idea got smacked out of my head one night when I was at an awards cer­e­mony. I’d got­ten an NHS nom­i­na­tion (beat­ing out my fel­low power nerds, who had only got­ten the equiv­a­lent of hon­or­able men­tion) though the award was pretty much just for show since my grades were mid­dling at best. I hung around for the whole cer­e­mony to be polite, even when it came time to hand out the vo-tech awards.

I did not rec­og­nize the woman giv­ing out the awards – she might not have even been a teacher at the school, but given my dis­con­nect from vo-tech, who knows – but I remem­ber her twangy accent as she made a point of fully pro­nounc­ing “National Voca­tional Tech­ni­cal Honor Soci­ety” every time it came up, never short­en­ing or abbre­vi­at­ing it. I don’t remem­ber much of the specifics of what she said, but it caught me up short all the same. See, for most of the folks at this cer­e­mony, this was a lit­tle sideshow, a chance for the not-so-smart kids to be seen on the stage before we could go back to rec­og­niz­ing the best and brightest.

It was clear this woman knew that, and it was clear it made her angry as hell. And not angry because it’s what she did, angry because she was damn proud of these kids up on the stage and what they had done, and it meant less than noth­ing to most of the peo­ple watch­ing. She didn’t rant or any­thing. She just made a short state­ment about how these kids deserve respect, and she made sure that no part of the cer­e­mony was rushed or abbre­vi­ated. But that pride and anger shone through as clear as day, and it kind of knocked me on my ass.

There are few times in my life when I have so clearly seen what an utter dum­b­ass I’d been. That night pretty well upended my whole per­spec­tive on voca­tional edu­ca­tion. I stopped see­ing it as a safety net for losers and started rec­og­niz­ing it as some­thing valu­able, a path that some­one who knows what they’re doing can and should set their feet upon, and know they’re going to get some­where. Hell, com­pared to the vague plans that come form a four year degree, it was pos­i­tively enviable.

I men­tion all this because it gives a lit­tle con­text for how intensely dis­ap­pointed I was with the book Shop Class as Soul­craft. I had read the reviews and heard the inter­views and I was intensely excited about it. The premise was that there was value in real work, in learn­ing to do and make things with your hands, and that that had been lost and needed to be regained by our soci­ety. This res­onated really strongly with me, and I had hoped for a book that addressed it.

Instead, I get a book by and about a Doc­tor of Phi­los­o­phy who gave up a think tank job to repair motor­cy­cles, and has now writ­ten a book for the sole pur­pose of jus­ti­fy­ing that deci­sion, and pos­si­bly air­ing a few of his favorite bits of pol­i­tics. It’s utterly dis­ap­point­ing, and I wrote a review to that effect, but I wanted to get down the rest of my frus­tra­tion, if only for myself.

Blame it on my (loosely) Catholic upbring­ing, but I grew up think­ing that bad behav­ior was addi­tive. That is, if you do a bad thing, then do it again, that’s twice as bad as if you’d just done it once. This was sup­ported by my sim­ple under­stand­ing of con­fes­sion and penance, and held up by my equal sim­ple under­stand­ing of law enforce­ment and crim­i­nal sen­tenc­ing. Sure, there was a cer­tain amount of nuance — theft seemed to be judged more on total value than the num­ber of things, for exam­ple — but that was the basic model. What’s more, as the more well behaved of my sib­lings, it seemed like a very fair arrange­ment to me.

That sense of fair­ness haunted me well into adult­hood with­out my giv­ing it much thought. I would see peo­ple do some­thing that seemed very clearly bad in my eyes, and have other peo­ple shrug it off. That was ok, peo­ple have dif­fer­ent tol­er­ances, but what got me was that they would do it again, or do some­thing com­pa­ra­bly bad, and the excited lit­tle kid in my brain would want to hump up on top of some­thing and point and say “SEE! SEE! That’s TWICE as bad! Aren’t you appalled?”

But the thing is, peo­ple weren’t. The peo­ple who were both­ered the first time were both­ered again, and the peo­ple who weren’t both­ered the first time just shrugged it off. That just seemed wrong and, per­haps more impor­tantly, unfair. This nig­gled at the edge of my mind for a long time with­out ever really crys­tal­liz­ing — it just didn’t come up enough to really merit more than annoyance.

Then the inter­net came along, and I was del­uged by exam­ples of this on a daily basis[1]. This proved the basis for many impor­tant moral lessons, but it also laid out the addi­tive fal­lacy in the stark­est of terms. Go to blogs and forums where peo­ple are com­plete jerks and you will quickly dis­cover that they always have a body of peo­ple will­ing to defend them, no mat­ter how obvi­ously rude, insult­ing or destruc­tive their behav­ior. Some­times there’s a clear expla­na­tion, like a fierce free speech advo­cate or just a big­ger jerk, but usu­ally it seemed to just be a func­tion of com­mu­nity. Para­dox­i­cally it seemed the more often the per­son was a jerk, the more tol­er­ant their com­mu­nity was of it.

Occa­sion­ally, the bad actor might strain tol­er­ance, usu­ally if he’s really machine-gunning the hate, but most often the only way things could change would be if the bad actor took things to the next level, to make his behav­ior dras­ti­cally worse, such as by start­ing to include racist com­ments in what had hereto­fore been merely misog­y­nis­tic remarks. But oth­er­wise? No problem.

It really hurt my heart to acknowl­edge that if bad behav­ior is addi­tive, then it suf­fers from dras­tic dimin­ish­ing returns — repeat actions only move the nee­dle up frac­tion­ally, and only for as long as mem­ory lasts. If peo­ple are will­ing to be tol­er­ant of the first bad action, then they will prob­a­bly be tol­er­ant of each sub­se­quent bad action. In fact, these sup­port­ers will become so inured to it that when some­one else raises it as an issue, the sup­porter will sin­cerely won­der why this per­son is over­re­act­ing so strongly.

This is, to be frank, a kind of crappy moral con­clu­sion to reach. At best it sug­gests a zero tol­er­ance pol­icy of ass­holes, and while that seems sat­is­fy­ing on paper, it over­looks the sim­ple fact that every­one has the occa­sional bad day. And, if I’m com­pletely hon­est with myself, I have to acknowl­edged that there are a few ass­holes that I also tol­er­ate in this fashion.

It’s good to be aware of that. Yeah yeah, pop phi­los­o­phy, blah blah blah. Not very sat­is­fy­ing, but the alter­na­tive is that lit­tle part of me that still really and truly wants things to be fair, and I;m pretty sure I don’t want to let him out of the box.

1 — In ret­ro­spect, I would prob­a­bly have seen it sooner if I lis­tened to more talk radio.

So Cory Doc­torow, who is usu­ally a pretty smart guy, weighed in on cloud com­put­ing today. I’m inter­ested in what he has to say, so I absolutely went and checked out his opin­ion. I was sur­prised to say the least.

What’s jar­ring is that his the­sis — that cloud com­put­ing is so excit­ing because peo­ple think they can make money off it — is pretty fair. I would go so far as to sug­gest that it’s not even par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial, out­side of a few techno-idealists. It’s just that the rea­son­ing and exam­ples that fol­low are far less about that point and far more about…honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe the man keep­ing us down or something.

For my two bits, cloud com­put­ing is far from any kind of new idea (even if the ter­mi­nol­ogy is newly hip). There has always been a con­flict between the idea of doing every­thing locally with one mighty com­puter and doing things remotely where there are advan­tages like redun­dancy, acces­si­bil­ity and cost. The idea of the “thin client” — a cheap com­puter that plugged into a more pow­er­ful com­puter to do every­thing — was a re-emergence of the clas­sic dumb ter­mi­nal, and it was the next big thing for a while, until com­put­ers got cheap enough that it seemed wasteful.

Today, com­put­ers have got­ten cheaper still, to the point where the aver­age user may well have access to sev­eral com­put­ers. This is impor­tant because it means that for nor­mal human activ­i­ties, like writ­ing or play­ing music or play­ing games, it mat­ters a lot what is on which com­puter. There are solu­tions for this — home net­works, USB dri­ves and such — but they all have their own lim­i­ta­tions. For a user, being able to get to their con­tent from any machine with­out has­sles is the ulti­mate con­ve­nience. There are some ubiq­ui­tous exam­ples of this, like gmail and flickr, but it’s pos­si­ble drop­box is the best bet­ter exam­ple. I have a free 2 gig account with them, and any­thing I’m writ­ing gets saved to the local drop­box direc­tory, and gets synced to all the other machines I’ve signed up. If I’m on some­one else’s machine, I can access my stuff via the web.

None of this is par­tic­u­larly hard­core. I don’t talk about Ama­zon or Rack­space and the cloud ser­vices they offer here, I’m just talk­ing about things that my mom might use. And that, I think, might be where my opin­ion ends up dif­fer­ing from Doc­torow. He is right about the sheer amount of com­puter power that can be cheaply bought by the aver­age user, but even he acknowl­edges that it’s sim­ply more com­puter than most peo­ple need. This sim­ple truth has sold a lot of net­books and a lot of cheap Dells, and it’s ulti­mately the flaw in any argu­ment that a cloud ser­vice is not as fast or pow­er­ful as your com­puter. Users (except­ing a very nerdy seg­ment) don’t mea­sure com­put­ing in absolute terms — they need enough power to per­form cer­tain tasks, and most of what’s past that point is likely to be lost on them. If remote com­put­ing can clear that thresh­old (and evi­dence says it can) then it can do the job.

Now, he’s right to be wary of preda­tory pric­ing schemas and bad busi­ness prac­tices, but I don’t think that’s news, and if noth­ing else the robust­ness of the cloud mar­ket seems to have suc­cess­fully dri­ven the entry price to “free” for the aver­age user. And that’s the rub — I think Doctorow’s sense of the aver­age user is a bit more rar­efied than mine. If he thinks Amazon’s ser­vice is for the aver­age guy, then heck, maybe he’s right. We may already all be too smart to need any­thing but sftp, our per­sonal linux box and a few scripts. I cer­tainly know peo­ple for whom that is true, but their time tends to be worth enough to merit just pay­ing for the service.

But I appar­ently know many fewer of them than Mis­ter Doctorow.

The Microsoft Store

The Penny Arcade guys have a great post today about the approach­ing Microsoft Store.  No shock that they find the funny in it, but I was par­tic­u­lar­ily taken by this passage:

On the desk­top, and this is unfor­tu­nate for them, the only way to make a truly dis­crim­i­nat­ing choice is to pur­chase a competitor’s product.

That is to say, going with Microsoft is not a choice for most shop­pers, it is the absence of a choice.  Or, as they put it in the comic: “Isn’t every store a Microsoft Store?“‘

It is hard not to look at this effort by Microsoft as a slightly petu­lant swing at the suc­cess of the Apple Store.   The ulti­mate proof will be in what kind of store it turns out to be. The fear is that it will be a com­puter shop where the bulk of cus­tomer choice is between which ver­sion of Vista or Win­dows 7 will pro­vide them the “best expe­ri­ence”.  Like a tiny Best Buy, with­out the over­priced DVDs.

Even with things which work really well, like the X-Box (which boasts a fan­tas­tic online expe­ri­ence and store), how do you trans­late that into a worth­while shop­ping experience?

I’m not opti­mistic about this effort. I intel­lec­tu­ally hold out hope that the guys at Microsoft are smart enough to keep this from being every bad thing one might expect , but I don’t feel it. All the ways to make this smart and work­able are too small for Microsoft as a whole.  Maybe the store folks will be given enough lee­way to prove me wrong. Maybe.

But all this got me won­der­ing if there was a way to make a Microsoft store any good, and I real­ized there was.

The para­dox that Microsoft will need to over­come is that they have too few choices among their prod­ucts, and too many choices among all the things that sur­round them (hard­ware and soft­ware). For a store to be suc­cess­ful, they don’t need to con­cen­trate on cre­at­ing more choices among their prod­ucts, they need to find a way to give me fewer choices among other prod­ucts.  That means they need to either look at hard­ware or soft­ware.  Hardware’s kind of a dead end — com­pet­ing with Dell is eat­ing their own lunch, and coop­er­at­ing with them is just redun­dant.  Soft­ware, how­ever, is rich with potential.

If you use Macs, you will some­times hear Win­dows users talk about the sheer breadth of soft­ware avail­able for the PC, and how that’s a point against Macs.  Mac users laugh this one off because they know the secret — less soft­ware means that what there is tends to be bet­ter. There are two big  rea­sons for this. First, most Mac Soft­ware has a degree of pas­sion behind it: pro­gram­mers only develop for the mac because they want to, and that sets a nat­ural bar.   Sec­ond, and per­haps more impor­tantly, there are fewer options, so find­ing the good ones is easier.

Microsoft fans may be expe­ri­enc­ing a knee jerk now at the asser­tion that Mac soft­ware is bet­ter than Win­dows, and that is clearly Very Wrong Indeed, so let me explain the con­trast.  There is a lot more soft­ware avail­able for Win­dows than there is for the Mac, and that has a pro­found impact on the qual­ity of the user expe­ri­ence. Assume the qual­ity of prod­uct is exactly the same, and the dis­tri­b­u­tion of qual­ity is roughly equal, find­ing a really good piece of soft­ware -  the kind you get excited about, some­thing like Scrivener or Omn­i­graf­fle -  is like find­ing a nee­dle in a haystack. The trick is that the Mac haystack is much, much smaller.   More is not nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter in this case — even if the Mac soft­ware is gen­er­ally bet­ter, there will still be more good win­dows soft­ware just out of pure vol­ume, but you can go nuts try­ing to find it.

The other fac­tor of qual­ity is that the most excit­ing Mac soft­ware comes from smaller com­pa­nies. The posi­tion of Adobe Cre­ative Suite and Microsoft Office are pretty well cemented in the uni­verse, and the really inter­est­ing stuff comes from peo­ple who aren’t try­ing for a piece of that pie, and instead are look­ing to fill some other niche. These are the com­pa­nies who make the most excit­ing stuff, but they are the hard­est to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from the noise around them in the PC world.

This is where a Microsoft store could really shine. Rather than offer­ing me the same soft­ware I can find at Best Buy,  Micro Cen­ter, Frys, Sta­ples or Ama­zon, why not offer me the best soft­ware out there?  Why not offer the kind of soft­ware that is so good and use­ful that win­dows users can be smug rather than apolo­getic? For those com­pa­nies and indi­vid­u­als putting out elec­tronic prod­uct, use some of that Microsoft mus­cle to help them put phys­i­cal media on the shelves. Be picky as hell, limit shelf space to only those pro­grams that cre­ate enthu­si­asm, and sud­denly there’s some­thing to buy.

That’s a store I’d shop at.

(And for the naysay­ers — that soft­ware really is out there. The fact that you haven’t seen it is mostly just an illus­tra­tion of the under­ly­ing problem. )

The Live­scribe Pulse is pretty much one of the most bril­liant devices of recent his­tory. The abil­ity to have your writ­ing cap­tured to a com­puter with­out the pain of weird clip­board attach­ments is a really excit­ing tech­nol­ogy for peo­ple who like writ­ing long­hand (like, say, me).

Unfor­tu­nately, the first gen­er­a­tion pen is a mon­ster. Not to say it doesn’t work, but the thing is huge. It’s like writ­ing with a big, fat marker, and all the tech­nol­ogy in the world can’t make it appeal­ing for me to write with. I’ve been qui­etly hop­ing for their suc­cess so that they can even­tu­ally pro­duce a sec­ond gen­er­a­tion pen that’s a lit­tle more manageable.

Thank­fully, all signs point to things going well. Tar­get car­ries them, which is great. Plus, one of the first paper prod­ucts they released were mole­sk­ine knock­offs, which shows a great under­stand­ing of their tar­get audience.

I was at Tar­get the other day and dis­cov­ered that they’ve clinched it. They seemed to have entered into a part­ner­ship with paperblanks, the mak­ers of the dis­tinc­tive note­books with the mag­netic clo­sures. They don’t even have them up on the web­site yet, but they were stacked neatly under the pens. It’s a small thing to be excited about, but it’s the sort of con­ver­gence I’m really happy to see.

Paper Beats Rock

I am still wrestling with my opin­ion of The Age of the Unthink­able: Why the New World Dis­or­der Con­stantly Sur­prises Us And What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo. It is both a very good and a very annoy­ing book.

To explain that con­tra­dic­tion, I’m going to talk a lit­tle bit about Clause­witz and Jomini. They’re a pair of 19th cen­tury mil­i­tary writ­ers, and some of the most influ­en­tial mil­i­tary thinkers of all time. I do them a great dis­ser­vice in sim­pli­fy­ing their work here, but they are iconic of a divi­sion in mil­i­tary think­ing which is mir­rored in most other sorts of think­ing. Clause­witz argued that the way to win a war was through over­whelm­ing force, applied unre­lent­ingly at your enemy’s weak­est point. In con­trast. Jomini argued for win­ning a war by fight­ing smarter – strike at your ene­mies’ sup­ply lines, fight only when you can win, pick your bat­tles and in doing so you can over­come a vastly supe­rior force.

This actu­ally got played out very inter­est­ingly in the US civil war, which was fought in a pretty Jomin­ian fash­ion form the out­set, which went badly for the north because Robert E. Lee and his gen­er­als were much, much bet­ter at it than the union gen­er­als. Grant’s vic­tory came in large part because of a shift to Clause­witz­ian tac­tics, and a will­ing­ness to grind out the fight with the south to its bru­tal conclusion.

This con­flict, between force and cal­cu­la­tion, has been with us for most of his­tory. George Eliot called it the dirk ver­sus the cud­gel, and I’ll use those terms now if only because I’m tired of try­ing to spell Clause­witz. It shows up in fas­ci­nat­ing places in mil­i­tary his­tory (look up Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a navy some­time), as recently as with the mod­ern Amer­i­can fas­ci­na­tion with air power. Like the per­pet­ual cycle of offense vs. defense, the dirk and the cud­gel rise and fall in rela­tion­ship to one another, but this pat­tern is a bit more inter­est­ing because of its predictability.

Put sim­ply – intel­lec­tu­als and engi­neers love the dirk. They love its ele­gance and its empha­sis on knowl­edge, under­stand­ing and intel­lect. They are con­stantly cer­tain that the cud­gel is just going to up and go the way of the dinosaur any time now because the dirk is just so much more ele­gant. And they are always sur­prised when some­one shows up and takes a cud­gel to the side of their head (or, more prop­erly, the heads of the guys they’ve sent to fight for them).

On a lot of lev­els, Age of the Unthink­able is a pre­dictable tract on the death of the cud­gel, writ­ten in a man­ner bet­ter suited to an ambi­tious grad stu­dent than a vet­eran of the world stage. It is so enam­ored with flex­i­bil­ity and resilience that it either dis­misses or merely pays lip ser­vice to strength and deter­mi­na­tion, and that is what keeps it from being great. By the end there is a nod to the idea that we need both to thrive, but it is so absent from the rest of the book as to cut it off at the knees.

Worse, it falls right into the worst sort of traps. Have you seen Ris­ing Sun? Recently? It was a kind of fun action flick when it came out, but nowa­days it’s run­ning theme of JAPANESE SUPERMEN WILL RULE US ALL is almost com­i­cal to behold. Ramo seems to feel the same way about the Chi­nese, and he does things like quote Sun Tzu in ways that might have been novel and inter­est­ing 20 years ago, but are just tired now.

And that’s sort of the rub. 20 years ago, this would have been a bril­liant book. Earth-shakingly bril­liant. But now, it’s full of insights that are going to be trite to any­one who has read any decent non fic­tion (or good sci­ence fic­tion) in the past decade or so.


The thing that keeps me from dis­miss­ing this book entirely is that they are good and legit­i­mate insights, even if some of the analy­sis (and writ­ing) around them is flawed, and it’s pos­si­ble that there are peo­ple they would be new for. So if you’re a reader who is actu­ally baf­fled by the rate of change in the world, and if you don’t under­stand why plan­ning and response might make for a more robust defense than bar­ri­ers or why an orga­ni­za­tions abil­ity to learn is impor­tant, then this book is a great primer for such things. It’s prob­a­bly a great read for high school fresh­men, for example.

On a purely prac­ti­cal level, the first chap­ter can be skipped, as can most of the sec­ond. If you’re annoyed by gim­micky writ­ing, expect to get annoyed early and often – he overuses nar­ra­tive tricks like the reveal pretty much every chap­ter.  For all my cyc­nicsm about this, if you aren’t a reg­u­lar reader of non-fiction or sci­ence fic­tion, this may be an inter­est­ing read.  If you are then this will likely pro­vide a few inter­est­ing anec­dotes, but lit­tle in the way of revelation.

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