December 30, 2013

Poseidon of the East

Higashi no Watatsumi, Nishi no Sokai ("Poseidon of the East, Vast Blue Seas of the West") is chronologically the first novel in the Twelve Kingdoms series. The destruction of Kyoto and the mention of several key warlords narrows the time frame to the late 15th century, in the aftermath of the Onin War that crippled the Ashikaga shogunate and touched off the Warring States period.

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December 26, 2013

The Disruptor

A few Boxing Day words about one of the country's biggest shippers of things in boxes.

In the Innovator's Dilemma, Clayton Christensen argues that companies tend to put too much emphasis on a successful current business model and fail to anticipate or adopt new technologies that will meet future needs.

This leaves them vulnerable to "disruption from below," competition they ignore because facing it directly would threaten profit margins and require adopting new strategies their long-established business cultures aren't comfortable with.

Paul Thurrott points to this anecdote featured in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone as a near-perfect example of a businessman following Clayton Christensen's advice practically to the letter:

In a move straight out of The Innovator's Dilemma, Bezos in 2004 instructed the nascent Kindle team not to be hobbled by concerns about the firm's then-successful book business. "Your job is to kill your own business," Bezos told the man running the Kindle team. "I want you to proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job."

Eugene Wei take on the glib criticism (often, ironically, coming from the left) that Amazon just isn't making big enough profits (unlike, ironically, tree-hugger darling Apple).

If I were an Amazon competitor, I'd actually regard Amazon's current run of quarterly losses as a terrifying signal. It means Amazon is arming itself to take the contest to higher ground. The retail game is about to become more, not less, punishing.

And arriving just in time to provide a real-time, real-world case study of what happens when a company doesn't adapt to that "disruption from below," Blockbuster is closing the rest of its stores and shuttering its Netflix-style DVD mail service.

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December 23, 2013

Free-range kids (1940's edition)

My mom offers the following reminiscences about her "free-range" childhood (and the limits when it came to my kid sister):

All that freedom! It was the same when I was a kid. Until I was nine years old I pretty much played in my neighborhood, but from 1941 until college I wandered all over Provo [Utah].

When I was a teenager, I regularly rode horses in the foothills. (I now wonder what I would have done if the horse had thrown me.) I rode my bike all over, even down to Utah Lake. Finally, my dad asked me to stop riding to the lake because tramps hung around there. But he didn't stop me from riding elsewhere. The only rule we had was "Be home before sundown!" We ate our main meal at noon.

The one time I didn't get home on time, I was scolded. I recall, one time, leaving my girl friend's house too late and running, running home as I watched the sun sliding down behind the trees.

But by the time Kate was eleven I was more apprehensive--possibly because she was a small child, and possibly because of the times, I don't know--but when she asked permission to ride to the 7-Eleven store [about a mile from our house], I wouldn't let her go. I let Daniel do so and she objected. But she was small and a girl and one never knew what kind of guys might be hanging out at the store!

I do think kids are overprotected now. Times have changed, but not as much as some parents think.

However, I do approve of seat belts. I recall that Ann and Beth used to stand on the front seat while I drove. When I stopped I would fling out my arm to keep them in the seat. One day I was driving with my sister Eleanor in the passenger seat. I had to stop suddenly and I flung my arm out and whacked her in the chest!

When I think of Kate sitting in the back seat while I drove to pick up kids at high school, I shiver. She was so small that if I had braked suddenly she would have flown out the window!

According to just about every statistical measure available, life is safer than it was a quarter century ago. Utah Lake where the tramps use to hang out? It's now a municipal airport and a state park.

As Seth Godin puts it, "The things we have the most abundance of caution about are rarely the things that are actual risks. They merely feel like risks."

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December 19, 2013

Free-range kids

Subtract the smoking references and expand the time frame to take in the late 1960s through the late 1970s and this list compiled by Jenny Isenman turns into a pretty accurate description of my childhood.

1. Thinking the middle seat in the front was the best seat because I could get crushed into the dashboard, I mean, because I got to control the five radio stations.

On vacations, the seating arrangement in our ginormous Ford station wagon was three in front, four in the middle, two in the pop-out rumble seats (above the spare tire) in the back.

2. Being totally inaccessible from after school until dinner. Now, we would call that being lost.

"Be home in time for dinner," my mom said as we ran out the door.

3. Having an equal intake of air: 50 percent oxygen, 50 percent second hand smoke.

My parents didn't smoke, thank God. We didn't have air conditioning either. By my teenage years, my dad had installed a whole-house fan that helped a lot.

4. Thinking that SPF 4 was responsibly using sun block.

SPF didn't exist as a concept for most of my childhood.

5. Thinking the haze of Solarcaine I was engulfed in was a healthy way to heal the 2nd degree burns I inevitably got from using SPF 4.

But Solarcaine did.

6. Getting excited when someone had a pick-up truck because that meant the kids got to ride on the flatbed.

7. Sitting on my dad's lap and manning the steering wheel.

8. Eating salami straight from the log.

And lots of raw cookie dough.

9. Playing on a rusted swing set where that one leg always popped out of the ground threatening to propel into space and then came back with a thud.

I know exactly what she's talking about. Remember jungle gyms and monkey bars and dodge ball? All those elementary school delights have since gotten sued into extinction.

10. Helmets? No one wore them and if you did, you were super geeky, protecting your nerdy brain and all.

Another safety concept that didn't exist for most of my childhood.

11. Being a latchkey kid by seven years old. The first couple times I stayed home. I parked a chair right inside the screen door and just sat there staring out, so I could see my mom pull up (also, the world could see I was alone with an open door, brilliant).

12. Fearlessly scaling fences, climbing trees, playing in the woods, and jumping streams without a parent in sight to save us (hell, we used to ride our bikes through a cemetery).

Several vacant lots and a swamp, in my case. We could travel as far as our bikes would carry us. My brother broke his leg playing in a house being built on one of those lots. Nobody got sued.

13. Running into the store to buy an adult cigarettes.

14. Nerf Shmerf—oh, we had them, but cap guns and BB guns were way more likely to shoot your eye out, and we preferred them.

I made a bow and bought real arrows to shoot. Could have killed somebody with one of those. During my chemistry phase, my mom bought me a pound of sodium nitrate. The pharmacist sold it to her, knowing damn well what I was going to do with it.

I bought a canister of calcium carbide at the Army Navy Store without an ID or nothing. Annoyed the hell out of the neighbors making milk carton bombs.

15. Car seats? Bahwawawahaha. My dad drove me around on the back shelf of his convertible in a Moses basket. "Oops, she was here a minute ago, must of hit a bump."

16. And forget seat belts—I barely sat in the seat at all, lying across the back windshield of my mom's Mercury Marquis or popping up and down from the floor was way more fun.

We seatbeltless kids managed to survive the real-time experiments in Newton's First Law of Motion: an object in motion stays in motion unless acted by an outside force. The outside force being a parental arm, not the dashboard.

We were lucky. Ubiquitous seatbelt use is the best public-health idea our safety-obsessive society has produced of late.

17. Jumping on beds until they collapsed. I was once under a bed when that happened.

18. Babysitting at eleven years old. In my town, once you were able to dial 911, you were considered a candidate for babysitting jobs.

19. Eating unwrapped things people handed you in stores—like pretzel logs from the bank.

And everything we could rake in on Halloween. The razor-blades-in-apples myth had just begun to gain traction in the suburbs, but that didn't stop any kid from snagging all the edible loot he could (parental escorts not required).

20. Being left in the car to wait for my mom do the grocery shopping because I didn't feel like going in.

Hey, I've got a book and the radio. I'm fine right here.

21. Running around until sundown without a care in the world, a phone in my pocket or shoes on my feet.

Again, "Just be home in time for dinner."

Related posts

Land of the paranoid
Free-range kids (1940's edition)
L.M. Montgomery's free-range kids

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December 16, 2013

The bright side of the Moon

Actually, the far side of the Moon is no darker than the near side. In astronomical terms, the word would have originally meant "unexplored." (And then there's that more well known Dark Side of the Moon back here on Earth.)

Another modern urban myth is that we have the Space Program to thank for Tang, Teflon, and Velcro. All three predate NASA. But we can credit Project Apollo for a fantastic illustration of what defines a true introvert.

It comes from Al Worden, the Apollo 15 command module pilot. XKCD calculated that as he orbited the far side of the Moon, he became one of handful of men who've been not only the furthest away from human civilization, but from any other human being.

Of the experience Worden recalled:

There's a thing about being alone and there's a thing about being lonely, and they're two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely. My background was as a fighter pilot in the air force, then as a test pilot--and that was mostly in fighter airplanes--so I was very used to being by myself. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn't have to talk to Dave and Jim any more. On the backside of the Moon, I didn't even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight.

Introverts don't necessarily mind talking to people, but they loath being compelled to talk to people on terms not of their own choosing.

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December 12, 2013

Dated celebrity endorsements

How old do you have to be to know what this group of actors has in common? Or even recognize them? And spot who is missing? Or remember when IBM made personal computers? (Click image to enlarge.)

The Personal System/2 from IBM was released in 1987. M*A*S*H premiered in the U.S. on 17 September 1972 and ended 28 February 1983. So the reference was already a bit dated, though reruns would have sustained the popularity of the series.

Maybe they thought having Harry Morgan (featured) with McLean Stevenson (not featured), and Wayne Rogers (featured) with Mike Farrell (not featured) would just be weird. Do actors hang around with the actors they replaced?

I can't remember Alan Alda doing much in the way of product endorsements and IBM probably didn't want to pay to persuade him. Ditto David Ogden Stiers, who does a lot of voice-overs for PBS. Alda was great on Scientific American Frontiers.

IBM exited the personal computer business in 2005 when it sold the division to Lenovo. That's the year I bought my ThinkPad. It still sported the IBM logo.

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December 09, 2013

Gordon Prange

University of Maryland professor Gordon Prange spent his entire professional life not finishing the definitive work about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was left to a former student, Donald Goldstein, to edit 10,000 pages of notes into what would become At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor.

The story of this improbable literary and historical journey is recounted in Prange & Pearl Harbor: A Magnificent Obsession. Goldstein, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, is featured prominently in the documentary.

Prange not only amassed an entire shipping container full of source material (the Gordon W. Prange Collection at the University of Maryland), but as chief historian in MacArthur's staff, he interviewed key players in the Pearl Harbor attack and later brought several to the U.S. as his personal guests.

The movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) was based on two articles Prange wrote for Reader's Digest, a précis of what would become At Dawn we Slept. Instead of laying blame for Pearl Harbor at the feet of American incompetence, Prange credits Yamamoto with executing a brilliantly planned attack.

Though it proved a Pyrrhic victory, the consequences of which Yamamoto himself prophetically foresaw:

I shall run wild [in the Pacific] for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.

The tide of war turned a mere six months later at the Battle of Midway. And a year after that, Yamamoto was killed when a squadron of P-38s shot down his transport plane over Bougainville (again thanks to U.S. codebreakers).

Prange & Pearl Harbor: A Magnificent Obsession still shows up on public television stations. The Utah Education Network (KUEN) broadcasts it every year on December 7, something to keep in mind for next year. In the meantime, the DVD should be available from Maryland Public Television.

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December 02, 2013

GITS Surface ad

Coinciding with the theatrical reboot of the Ghost in the Shell franchise in Japan, Microsoft commissioned a three minute short/Surface tie-in ad.

If you have a pressing need to kill lots of bad guys and steal computer data, the Surface is the tablet for you!

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