Microsoft’s downfall and pinning the blame on Ballmer

A Vanity Fair article tries to pin Microsoft’s downfall on Steve Ballmer: How could a company that stands among the most cash-rich in the world, the onetime icon of cool that broke IBM’s iron grip on the computer industry, have stumbled so badly in a race it was winning? First of all, Microsoft was never an icon of cool. Unless you happen to live or work in Redmond I’m betting you’ve never seen anyone wearing a Microsoft T-shirt, let alone someone cool.

Looking the part

Siobhan Thompson writes on Twitter: Diversity hiring is scary because it makes people realize that part of why they got their job is because they look like the idea of that job — Siobhan Thompson (@vornietom) October 21, 2015 This is something I’ve been aware of for a long time. Last time I found myself unemployed in a new city, I went and spent time sitting outside some offices when everyone went to get lunch.

Catastrophic catastrophic flood insurance

I’ve often written about situations where free markets don’t work. This time, for a change, I’m writing about a situation where government caused disasters by interfering with a free market. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy struck the Gulf Coast, causing massive damage. At the time, no companies offered flood insurance. So in 1968, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which is managed by FEMA. Although flood data allowed some commercial insurers to start offering flood insurance over the following decades, there was a problem: NFIP insurance was really affordable.

How Kodak invented digital photography but went bankrupt

Eastman Kodak employee Steven Sasson invented the digital camera — in the mid 1970s. Management at the time were not impressed: “They were convinced that no one would ever want to look at their pictures on a television set,” he said. “Print had been with us for over 100 years, no one was complaining about prints, they were very inexpensive, and so why would anyone want to look at their picture on a television set?

On AI and existential risk, continued

Bret Victor expands on something I mentioned in my article on AI: I am generally on the side of the critics of Singulitarianism, but now want to provide a bit of support to these so-called rationalists. At some very meta level, they have the right problem — how do we preserve human interests in a world of vast forces and systems that aren’t really all that interested in us? But they have chosen a fantasy version of the problem, when human interests are being fucked over by actual existing systems right now.

Google’s social failures, and how they could still win

Ars Technica has an article about Google’s failure in social, which ignores the toxic nymwars but is otherwise very insightful. I use Google+ and Gmail. I have an Android phone. I’m subscribed to Google Music All Access (because it works in a Linux browser and pays artists the most). I’m signed up to get Google Fiber. I’m not anti-Google at all, yet it seems like they keep trying to drive me away.

BitTorrent Sync

Once upon a time, there was a great product called BitTorrent Sync. It allowed you to sync files between your devices — computers, phones and tablets; Windows, Mac and Linux, iOS and Android. It was released as a free preview in 2013. It wasn’t open source, but developers said: Never say never :) We still consider this option. The software used strong end-to-end encryption, so your files couldn’t be snooped on in transit or grabbed from a central server.

Etymology of “You’re fired!”

Tonight I watched a 90 minute documentary about Thomas J. Watson Sr, founder of IBM. (No, I didn’t get paid to watch it.) The most interesting thing I learned wasn’t about IBM, though. Before IBM, Watson worked for the National Cash Register Company, aka NCR. The head of NCR at the time was John Henry Patterson, who makes Steve Jobs look like the Dalai Lama. As well as randomly terminating the employment of people who failed to answer even trivial questions to his satisfaction, Patterson would sometimes lay off executives just to “break their self esteem”, and then hire them back once they clearly knew he was alpha bastard.

Food labeling news

I’ve noticed some recent discussion and news coverage of the idea of labeling foods with red, amber or green labels, based on how healthy they are. It’s known as the ‘traffic light’ system. This isn’t actually a new idea. It was proposed in 2006 in the UK, but didn’t happen then because of objections from the processed food industry. Studies had examined the effect of the traffic light labels on people’s eating, compared to US-style ‘recommended daily intake‘ labels.

Memo to music corporations

If you don’t offer lossless downloads, you’re leaving money on the table. Here’s why: People who are serious about music and buy a lot of it tend to be serious about sound quality. In my own tests, I’m able to distinguish lossless files from even 320kbps MP3s. Therefore, I’m very reluctant to buy anything but lossless music. Right now, the CD is dying. Amazon is full of people selling their old used CDs.