Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: August 2011 (page 1 of 2)

Who changed the world most, Google or Apple?

A blog post I read earlier by Jesse Brown that’s sophomoric in both premise and conclusion has stuck in my brain, so I may as well write something about it, if for no other reason than so that I can move on to other things. His colleague makes the following assertion:

No company—probably not even Google—and certainly no individual has made as much of a difference or changed the way things work over the past 10 years as Apple has under Jobs.

First, he denies credit to Apple:

Add it all up, and Apple’s biggest impact has been aesthetic. Their products look great and have changed the way lots of other things look. But that’s just it—Apple is all about things. It’s essentially a hardware company, and it’s ill-prepared for a world where objects mean less and information means more. There’s no new God-gadget coming from Cupertino—all Apple can do once it’s done sticking cameras on things and offering them in different colors is to release cheaper iPhones and cheaper iPads, devaluing their gear until the gee-whiz factor is totally gone. This has already happened to the iPod. You probably have a three-old version in a drawer somewhere.

Then, he gives credit to Google:

More than anything, Google has been an accelerator of the greater ambitions of the Internet. Ten years ago, techno-utopians spoke of a future where anyone could be a publisher. Google made random blogs findable and made reader visits bankable. Ten years ago, we heard starry-eyed predictions that any kid could soon have the tools to become a pop star or a filmmaker from their own basement. Now, thanks to Google’s acquisition of YouTube, we take it for granted that this is so. Google preaches “openness,” not because it sounds good, but because the more open and accessible the Internet is to us all, the more money Google makes.

First of all, in his argument against Apple he changes the debate. The question at hand isn’t which company is most likely to change the world over the next ten years, it’s which company changed the world the most over the past ten years. Secondly, he gives credit to Google for acquiring YouTube. Did that really change the world? YouTube was already well on its way when Google bought them out. Anyway, I don’t want to nitpick.

I’ll boil it down to the most world-changing contribution by each company over the past ten years.

Google is the company that improved search engine results enough to really open the Web to the masses. They didn’t invent the search engine, but they did invent PageRank, making search significantly more useful, especially for those who were not search engine experts. Awhile back, I saw a service truck with the terms to use to find them with a Google search painted on the side as part of their contact information. That pretty much says it all.

Apple is the company that brought a real Web browser to the pockets of millions of people. There were other phones that provided “Web browsers,” but before the iPhone the mobile browsing experience did not in any way resemble the experience of using a real Web browser. Once the iPhone was available, it was clear that if you wanted to be a player in smart phones, you needed a device with a screen that was as large as physically possible and that supported a browser that provided a high quality browsing experience. The arrival of the iPhone was the most significant event in telephony since cellular phones were liberated from cars.

Of course both companies have done many other things, but I don’t think any are as significant as those two. Which one made a greater impact? You tell me.

Toward an ethic of entrepreneurship

Chris Dixon on working on projects that matter:

The best entrepreneurs seem to follow a path of increasing gravitas.

I like the idea of that kind of ethic. For another take on the same idea, check out Steve Yegge’s keynote from OSCON Data this year.

The tradition of Koranic recitation

Writing about audio books the other day led me to think about a documentary that aired on HBO a few weeks ago — Koran By Heart. In it, we are introduced to a few children who have been selected to participate in a contest in Egypt for people who have memorized the entire Koran.

Koran By Heart is really, really interesting, portraying a view of Islam not normally seen. Competitors are tested by showing them the first and last lines of a passage from a Koran — they are expected to figure out where in the Koran those lines appear and recite all of the lines between them. What’s particularly impressive is that many of the reciters do not actually speak Arabic — one of them, a young boy, does not read or write in any language.

In English, we place a relatively low value on reading aloud and on recitation. I have always thought of audio books as a short cut for people too lazy to read the books on their own. When it comes to the Koran, Muslims do not agree. There is a set of rules for proper Koranic recitation called tajwid, and competitors are judged not only on their powers of recall but also on how well they conform to the rules of tajwid.

This documentary, and more recently, thinking about audio books, makes me wonder whether I’ve had it wrong when it comes to the spoken word.

Steve Jobs

Today Steve Jobs announced what I have expected and dreaded for awhile — that he’s stepping down as CEO at Apple. I think Apple will be fine but it’s certainly too soon to say goodbye to Steve Jobs.

The news brings me back to the commencement speech that Jobs gave to Stanford graduates in 2005, which I have read many times. In it, he talks about facing mortality:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Read the whole thing.

Audio books as an art form

I confess that I’ve not listened to an audio book since I listened to an album-length version of The Hobbit that we had when I was a little kid. Roger Ebert makes me think I’ve been missing out. This is quite an endorsement:

I’ve been a lifelong reader. My love for physical books is old and deep. I also love audiobooks, and have listened to probably 300 of them. Sometimes they stay with me better than the printed ones. I avoid abridgments in most cases, and listened to Simon Callow read all 12 novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time twice. Every word. It became part of my experience. Now I’m re-reading it in print, and I can hear the voices.

I tried to read Patrick Suskind’s Perfume and never really got into it. Then I listened to Sean Barrett reading it, and it was so enthralling that if it was playing in the car I’d leave the engine idling for half an hour in the alley while an chapter finished. I started James Joyce’s Ulysses several times and always bogged down. After I heard it performed by Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan, I got it. It’s all voices. Hearing them from readers who knew such people, I could finally hear them in my mind.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is so long I certainly would never have read it, although I own two hardbound editions. I get slowed down by the period spelling and language use, and the unfamiliar expressions. I listened to Kenneth Branagh’s performance, and it was like being confided in by a naughty, delightful friend. Pepys is human, flawed, sinful, determined to improve. A gossip. A statesman. A rogue. He joins the crowd in my mind.

That makes me want to seek out some audio books.

Are libertarians cultural free riders?

L’Hote accuses of libertarians of holding liberals in contempt even as they revel in the culture that liberals created:

Cosmopolitan libertarians live in liberal urban enclaves, surrounded by liberals, taking advantage of the kind of governmental cultural and transportation infrastructure that liberals created. They consume movies, novels, music, and theater crafted in overwhelming majorities by leftists. They operate in environments where the liberal spirit of tolerance and freedom from conformity underpins everything, yet they will identify again and again the liberal hand as the one of villainy.

It’s not just liberals, either. Plenty of conservatives certainly live in big cities and enjoy the best that blue states have to offer. Here’s his point:

I don’t understand why these people believe that they can express such disdain for cultural liberalism while maintaining the benefits of it. There’s a bizarre faith among this country’s rarefied political class that they can cede every major political battle to the the reactionary fringe and yet maintain their arty bohemian privileged lifestyles.

The modern pluralistic society that we appear to enjoy was built by people whose ideas were seen as radical in their day, and I assume they had plenty of scorned heaped upon them by their beneficiaries back then as well. That said, the next time you see a libertarian gushing about their favorite taco truck, you can feel free to make a rude gesture.

The secret to a successful life

Ta-Nehesi Coates mentions the approach he’s taking to learning French, and asks his readers not to argue:

I’ve found on the autodidact’s path, it’s much more important to “keep going” than to “be right.”

This is a deep truth, and not just for autodidacts. I’ve learned that in life, consistency is everything. If you want to get in shape, the best exercise routine in the world is the one that you can do consistently, right now. People spend too much time thinking about the “best” way to do things, or thinking about what will work for them in five years. Do what you can do right now, and when it quits working or you get tired of it, switch to something else.

In nearly every endeavor in life, “keep going” is pretty much the entire ball game.

The tension between political campaigning and activism

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the conflict between political campaigning and activism for awhile now, and an incident that’s getting a lot of play today provides the perfect opportunity. In short, a frustrated Organizing for America campaign staffer in New Mexico sent an email bashing Paul Krugman and left wing activists for criticizing the debt deal that President Obama agreed to.

Unsurprisingly, people on the left who are already frustrated with the White House are taking this as a sign that the Obama campaign has adopted the strategy of bashing the left in order to ingratiate itself with voters in the middle. Greg Sargent argues that’s not the case. Here’s what he says:

Some folks on the left are pointing to the campaign’s failure to adequately shoot down this story as a sign that the campaign perhaps sees political gain in riling up the left, as part of some kind of triangulation strategy to win independents. I just don’t believe this is the case. It seems far more likely that they see this kind of story as nothing but a headache, and want it to go away. My bet is they worry — rightly or wrongly — that publicly reassuring liberal critics won’t necessarily gain any good will from them, only risks giving the story more oxygen, and gets them involved in a fruitless public dispute about whether they’re triangulating and “hippie punching.”

What Sargent fails to get at, though, is the fundamental tension between someone like Ray Sandoval, the campaign staffer who sent the email, and left-wing activists like Paul Krugman. I have been doing some volunteering with Organizing for America this summer, and I have a good idea exactly what’s going on.

Ray Sandoval’s job right now is to recruit as many volunteers as possible. They’re calling Obama supporters from 2008 and asking them to volunteer now in order to get ready for 2012. The idea is to build up the ranks of the volunteers as much as possible so that there’s a trained core group in place for 2012 when the campaign really kicks off. The bottom line for a campaign worker is that as disappointed as anyone may be in the President, standing aside and letting a Republican win would be infinitely worse. And, of course, if you’re really a committed campaign worker, cognitive dissonance isn’t really going to allow you to be disappointed in the President anyway. You’re putting in long, mostly thankless hours working for this guy. Reading the latest column on why he’s failing at his job is probably not your idea of a good time.

On the other side are activists, who play the essential role of holding the President accountable for the promises he made in the 2008 campaign. They also have the long-term job of advocating for progressive principles, and ideally moving the political debate in their direction. The main complaint most people on the left have with President Obama is that he seems to be abandoning those principles without really putting up a fight. They see the apologists for the President as weakening the progressive side.

The difference in motivations of everyone involved is enough to explain the conflict. It will be interesting to see how things play out over the next year or so, because this conflict will need to be resolved in some way for President Obama to be reelected.

Google needs to get better at P.R.

As part of the announcement of its acquisition of Motorola Mobility, Google has posted a page of quotes from other Android handset makers offering support for the merger. One problem: all of the quotes are exactly the same, variations on this:

I welcome Google‘s commitment to defending Android and its partners.

I realize that PR people make up quotes for people, but it might not be a good idea to collect them all on one page. Ideally, you’d think they would want to avoid this effect.

Don’t tweet where you eat

Mike Monteiro has some good, simple advice for people who use Twitter:

Never, ever, talk about clients on Twitter. Ever.

I pretty much take this one step further — never talk about other humans with whom you have a personal relationship on Twitter. I talk to other people I know on Twitter, but not about them. I try hard not to even make oblique inside jokes about other people or the code they write. It’s unprofessional and rude.

If there’s one advantage to having been online essentially forever is that nobody had to teach me this stuff after I was a grownup. I came up through the world of dialup BBSes, so I had already confronted the implications of social media long before sites like Facebook and Twitter even existed. I was there when people started getting fired for things they posted on their blogs. In some ways, I feel bad for people who have never been online and jump right into it with Facebook or Twitter. The great danger of social media is that it creates the feeling of intimacy when you are, in fact, on a potentially global stage.

My basic philosophy on social media can be deduced from my old post on levels of candor.

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