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Up Against The Wall

In my audit of my 2009 predictions I’d overlooked that I mistakenly implied that Speed would be the high point of Sandra Bullock’s career. I found out recently that she went on to win both the Oscar for Best Actress and the Razzie for Worst Actress, apparently the first time anyone has won both awards in the same year. While I certainly concede that I was incorrect, I also don’t see how anyone could possibly have seen that one coming.

There’s been a lot of grim news in the portable space since I last mentioned it, and since free software in the portable space is kind of important to me and this is my blog and you’re not the boss of me, let’s review.

The big surprise a few months back was that HP bought Palm for a bucket of money. Which whoa, a billion sounds like kind of a lot, and also briefly a source of optimism as the rumors of a WebOS tablet made the rounds, which to be frank I would buy the hell out of. But then nothing happened, and it turns out nothing is expected to keep happening until sometime in mid-2011 at which point WebOS will have been out of contention for at least a year.

You may if you are familiar with HP’s products find this optimism bewildering but let me explain.

I’ve used this analogy a lot recently, but HP makes the fleet vehicles of the computer world. They make Crown Vics and Impalas; individual humans don’t want or care about them, but corporate purchasing types buy them in batches of 1000 or 100,000 for people who aren’t them to use. And there’s room in the world for that, don’t get me wrong, but that room is a parking garage full of Crown Vics and Impalas and shelves of their spare parts, and unless you’re looking directly at a bottom line with large numbers on it they’re basically impossible to love.

But it’s the strangest thing; if you have an HP PDA in a drawer somewhere, try this: pull it out and turn it on. By modern standards it’ll be a pretty pokey, irritating experience in that eponysterical way WinCE always was, but here’s the thing: modulo a bit of battery life it will almost certainly work exactly as well as it did the first time you turned it on. When they’ve set their minds to it HP can make clunky, kind of inelegant but (provided they’re aiming at businesses, not consumers) absolutely rock-solid portable hardware. And every now and then (some of the later Jornadas, for example) a flower will unexpectedly poke out of the concrete of their keep-the-industrial-in-industrial-design process; despite their unambiguously crappy consumer hardware, despite their horrific website (the worst thing about which being, a friend of mine notes, that the prize at the end of it is HP’s products) there may still be some people working there who remember how to build things that actual humans not only covet, but care about.

And not coincidentally, we’re now on the verge of the time when mobile devices, like desktops and laptops before them, are just getting past the point where line-item hardware features are a discriminating factor and software design, functionality and integration are going to carry the future. The hardware is all just about good enough, so now is a fantastic time to make up your mind and figure out if you’ve got the talent and the resources to compete on software and design. And if Apple has made one thing painfully clear here it’s that tight vertical integration will carry that day and a lot of the days afterward, and if you want to own the user experience you also need to own the OS.

Relatedly, that’s also why you should take HP’s buying Palm as a billion-dollar signal that they thinks Windows Phone 7 is doomed, an albatross they’d rather not have around the company’s neck.

On the other side of that coin Motorola, in an atypically sensible move for them, has looked around and finally come to the (likely painful, for the creators of the once-prized RAZR) realization this isn’t a game they’re good at. They made a decent run at it, and built some pretty good hardware, but somehow despite getting an upgradeable, Marketplace-equipped OS brought to them on a platter, Motorola made some classically Motorola decisions, took Android and added so much value to it that it could barely stand up to call the cops afterward.

I’ve claimed before that this bad behavior was one of Google’s prime motivators for selling unlocked Nexus Ones directly to consumers, but I’m going to take that a step further here and claim (without a ton of supporting evidence) that Google’s selling the Nexus One led directly to Motorola’s decision-slash-realization that they can’t compete in mobile telephony.

Can’t say I’ll miss you, Moto. You guys squandered better opportunities than most companies will ever see.

So their mobile division will get sold to Nokia, or maybe Siemens? Not RIM, who have their hands full with QNX. Sony/Ericsson are all about the not-invented-here-even-it-kills-us, a process that’s moving predictably along, so not them.

LG, maybe? They’re one of the bigger manufacturers of pretty-but-not-all-that-smart phones, and might be looking for a quick in to that market.

Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that if you’re shopping for a phone you should know that Motorola hardware will never do anything more or better than what it does the moment you open the box. Even if it says “Android” on the side they’re working hard (and apparently successfully) at keeping you from upgrading, and won’t be around long enough to change their minds anyway.

But if you’re in the market for a good phone built on free software the options are (as usual, I guess) slim and grim right now. The N900 is still not shipping in quantity, and is still not a great device anyway. Nokia has this glorious five year plan wherein they ship progressively-less-crappy devices year over year until they finally get it close to right sometime in 2012, and that’s been working out as well as you’d think against competition hell-bent on shipping something great this quarter. Worse yet, the latest news out of the Meego (Intel/Nokia) camp is that their open-source efforts are currently hamstrung by their dependence on PowerVR hardware from a patent-licensing company that’s only available under NDA. And Google just stopped selling Nexus Ones, boo-urns. They’ve said they’ll start up again, selling them through retail channels sometime in the future, but they haven’t said when. Maybe we’ll see that in a couple of months with new hardware and a Nexus Two.

Did I mention I was really optimistic about HP and Palm? I really was. Because right now, the short game for a competent open source phone is Intel/Nokia, and unless they can get away from PowerVR and Nokia’s habit of deciding that something not great today is good enough to ship as-is in six months, then that’s that. The long ball is HP, an unlikely maybe, but still enough to hope.

And, really, there’s nobody else.

UPDATES: Three things. First and second, my loyal cult following has hit the ground running, noting that there will in fact be no Nexus Two, and suggesting a possible purchaser for Moto’s stuff that I had overlooked, HTC. To which I reply, “that makes me very sad” and “I don’t understand why they’d do that, what’s in it for them that they don’t already have”, respectively. My loyal cult following rarely disappoints, let me tell you.

Thirdly, and hitting the wires at the same time I was finishing off my little diatribe here, HP announces WebOS 2.0 running on new hardware this year. Which: woo! I’d like a front-facing camera, Skype and a pony.

Taste is so tightly bound to memory that I have a hard time believing that I can appreciate or even even taste food on its own, in a void of context. I wonder how many of my likes, dislikes, loves and hates are like that; not about the thing, but the echoes of memory that come with it, the place I was, the people I was with. And the person I was, maybe, and let’s not pretend there’s not some tightly-wound feedback loops in that part of your brain.

I have some fairly clear insight into some of these things, introspectives that come to me at odd moments and are often a little to easy to romanticize, but I think I should make a habit of being as honest as I can with myself about my motives in loving and hating what I do.

Grates

This all occurred to me while I was putting some sauerkraut on a street dog down at Yonge and Dundas today. If you’d told me once upon a time that cabbage fermented in vinegar was delicious, I would have told you that was a lie, because that’s not even food and what the hell is wrong with you. But at some point in my childhood I’d read an Encyclopedia Brown mystery in which Bugs Meany is caught out in some scam involving a rare penny by a miscue involving mustard and sauerkraut. I remembered that (and even remember remembering it, oddly) but I don’t think I’d ever actually seen the stuff in the wild until my family went to New York to visit some relatives. I might have been ten, maybe? Eleven? And I’m pretty sure that was the first time I had a dog from a street vendor, and a pretzel, remembering Bugs Meany and giving it a try.

And I still don’t think I know what sauerkraut tastes like on its own. Whatever else it is, to me it tastes just a little bit like the completely uncynical, unalloyed joy of being eleven years old and seeing New York for the first time.

Today at Yonge and Dundas, for no obvious reason, there were a couple of kids playing some classic eighties hiphop on a big old boom box at the corner, dressed in old-school Adidas jackets and (yes!) hustling people at three-card monte. Some days I think these things are part of some elaborate Truman Show production, staged just for blissfully ignorant me. That can’t be, can it? It seems unlikely, but thanks either way, random kids. I know it’s a long story, but because of you my lunch tasted even better today.

Been a while, hasn’t it? Well, I’ve been cogitating; sometimes that takes time. In particular, I might add, when people dump a dozen loosely-related ideas into your brain with no regard whatsoever for how much effort it will take you to sort them all out. If I were in a blame-shifting mood I’d be pointing at Dave, Luke, David and these dinners we periodically have, which should say I go into expecting a good meal and some stimulating conversation and leave feeling like a glutton who’s been tasered in the brain.

“Interesting” doesn’t scale without a fight, is I guess what I’m saying.

So let’s get right to the heavy stuff: let’s say, apropos of nothing, for argument’s sake, that “sin” is a explicit negative valuation of an act without immediate cost. Did I couch that in enough conditionals? Well, you’re the one reading it. Let that be a lesson to you then.

For some reason I’ve been thinking about belief, narrative and cost lately, and the idea of sins and punishment in economic terms. Not necessarily with respect to actual money, but more by borrowing the terminology of economics to frame some ideas. Some actions have costs, you know? And some of those costs aren’t obvious, or aren’t immediately accrued, but they’re nevertheless real. So let’s say, just for the sake of saying so, that social capital and political capital are real, and that to some extent you can treat them, or at least describe the space around them, a lot like regular old capital capital.

This is going to be shorter than I wanted, but I’ve been struggling to get this out of my system for weeks.

We understand this, viscerally, when we’re talking about personal debts. We get that with ideas like “playing fair” or “I cut, you choose”. We largely agree that justice worthy of the name isn’t arbitrary or capricious and that cruel and unusual punishment is bad. But there’s this whole class of acts that certain groups of people are proscribed from doing, not for any obviously consequential reason, but because for no reason anyone alive remembers, that’s a sin. Or a taboo, or proscribed, you just don’t do that.

So I’ve got this notion that the founding conceit of act thus labeled is likewise an economic one, an “externality“: a cost that is otherwise unaccounted for. In this context, a story of divine punishment for a sinful act isn’t going to be a literal occurrence any more than political capital is real capital, but in a sense it’s a price tag regardless – your act has a real cost, and in a full accounting you will be made to bear that cost. You may not accrue that cost yourself, maybe not today, and you might even come out ahead. But if everyone does it, then all this falls apart; it’s a price to avoid the perverse incentives that steer towards a “tragedy of the social commons”, for lack of a better term.

Oddly enough, to some extent a belief in the existence or agency of some final arbiter is irrelevant – it’s sufficient for a moral person to know those cost exists, whether or not they believe they will ultimately bear them. The implication being that sin can exist without religion, which is the kind of conclusion you get to reach when you’re just making up arbitrary sociocultural taxonomies on the fly.

But the cannier among you will be saying right now “who is everyone, and what is this ‘all this’ you speak of”, and my somewhat wishy-washy answer is “that depends”. If everyone-who-goes-to-church just stopped going to church on Sunday would Christianity be worse off? It’s hard to say, but the church-as-institution might. And to be clear I’m not saying that’s good, bad, relevant, indifferent or purple. I’m wondering about the things you’re just Not Allowed To Do, whether they’re proscribed by your religion or your church group or your workplace culture or the dirty looks your cats give you, and the notion that we shouldn’t just take these impositions for granted. What I’m really interested in looking at those situations through this lens and trying, at a minimum, to understand and account for real costs, of time, effort and goodwill. Mine and others’.

Have you seen Merlin Mann’s Time And Attention talk? You really should; it’s a great talk, and there’s a couple of bits in there that have been rattling around in my brain for weeks. There’s a pretty distressing number of great points in there, but there’s three I want to pull out for attention:

(1)

“If you don’t manage your time well, you won’t make great stuff. But if you don’t manage your attention well, you won’t make great stuff.”

(2)

“If I just grabbed you in the street and asked ‘what’s the most important thing in your life?’, you’d probably say your family or, your church group, or your career. Maybe your kid or your pet or whatever. And the thing is… in some part of your heart that’s absolutely true. But do you have a sense of how well your time and attention tracks to doing good stuff for that thing you say is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well that’s going? In fact, is the thing you claim is important really important? Because if a lot of people looked at where their time and attention went, the parts they do have control over, it would look like the most important thing in their life was Facebook.”

And (3):

“Saying you have more than two priorities is like saying you have more than two arms. You still only have two, but now you’re also crazy.”

You should really watch the whole thing. I’ll get back to it shortly.

Somewhat Skeptical

Maya’s learning awfully fast these days in that scary, scattershot way that kids soak up the firehose of information the world points at them every day. And apropos narrative through the terminology of economics? Children’s stories, jeebus, here we go.

We’re very clearly getting close to the point where the stories I tell Maya stop being the random noises that Dad makes before she goes to sleep and start having words and sentences and eventually morals and significance in them, so I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the lessons she’ll hopefully learn from them. They may not be exactly what it says on the box, I’ve noticed; I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how these stories look from the child’s perspective, not least from that of a child being addressed by a parent.

It’s been kind of distressing at times.

Some kids’ books are more amusingly phonetic than instructive, some others are about the equally important learning to count (and even those ones impart some notion of value in what’s described as “good” or not) but a few of I’ve pretty much decided to stop reading to Maya on account of their completely ignoring their ostensible target audience in ways that end up seeming petty, mean, weird, creepy or worse.

Two in particular: “Guess How Much I Love You” (apparently a sentimental favorite in my family) has a moral which looks, from an adult perspective, to be about telling your child how much you care about them, but if you’re in that smaller chair comes across as “Guess How Much Smaller You Are Than I Am” which when you’re trying to plant the seeds of a moral framework is not exactly on-message. The other, “Runaway Bunny” is worse: in-house we refer to it as “Guess How Fast I’ll Fucking Find You”; put yourself in that other, smaller chair and yeah, it turns out when you’re trying to get the hell away from somebody it stops being loving and heartfelt and starts being weird and aggro-stalkerish.

“You should put up with that sort of person”, as a lesson for my daughter, is simply not on. Unfortunately the alternate ending where the big bunny gets a broken nose and a restraining order doesn’t seem to be in print. Alas.

I hope I’m not the only person who thinks this, but historically when I say that I am frequently informed that, yes, I am in fact the only person who thinks that. But people are vulnerable to narrative, especially young people, especially children. Maybe I’m being paranoid and overprotective; an odd thing for somebody who’s let his one-year-old play with his electric screwdriver but skinned knees heal, you know? Some ideas are forever. And while for the most part I think that vulnerability is a feature, not a bug, I still think I should be careful. People tell each other a lot of stuff that’s dumb or false or both just ’cause it’s entertaining or dramatic, sure. But it’s also how we learn, without each of us needing to rediscover it, that fire burns, steel cuts and even if the creepy guy offers you candy you don’t get into the van. And unless you’ve heard the story before, you might not know about (you guessed it) those hidden costs.

And here we are evaluating costs again.

You don’t have to be at any lofty height before this all starts to blur together, and that’s pretty much where I am now. I’m spending a lot of time trying to figure out where my time and effort goes, where it doesn’t go, and making the costs of those tradeoffs as blindingly obvious as I can. I send a lot less email, and I’m cautious about what I do send, because there are these huge opportunity costs and externalities to imposing yourself on other people’s time. I’ve been trying to schedule short, sharp meetings with people, and ask them if they need it to book it with me. And when I go home, I go home; I lock my phone to keep myself from reflexively checking it during dinner, because email and twitter aren’t Maya and Arlene, and mostly look at work stuff until I get back to it the next day.

But mostly I’m trying to make 100% of my attention go, for real, and for real stretches of time, towards the stuff I think is actually important. And a big part of how I’m trying to do that is by doing my best to understand other people’s perspectives, to tell compelling stories about what’s important to me, and to act as though their time and effort and attention are as scarce and valuable as mine.

I’ll let you know how it works out.