Sunday, April 18, 2010

Random grab bag

I can't believe that it has been nearly a month since my last post.

If you've been following me on buzz you'll know that I've been doing a joke a day. I started Feb 18, so now I've gone for 2 months, with a new joke each day, without once having to look one up. I'm surprised by this. Today's joke had a musical component that needed to be heard, so it is on youtube.

Stories like this make me sad. Nothing will compensate that man's loss or replace what was stolen, but the county deserves to lose that case.

Moving on, on Hacker News a while ago I tried to explain why quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity conflict with each other. That may be of interest. I sent that link to a well-respected researcher, John Baez, and he thought the explanation was reasonable in so far as it went. Then he recommended the far more detailed explanation at (Look for the Download box at the upper right.) Having read it, that explanation is far longer, but gives much more depth than mine. Be warned that my reaction was, "Now that I've read it I feel less educated on the subject than before. Not because I didn't learn anything, but because I was reminded of how much physics I never learned... I was reassured to learn that C.J. Isham has that effect on many physicists as well.

What else did I mean to talk about and didn't? Oh right. I read The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. On the whole it was a very good book, but it had a spectacularly poorly chosen example at the end. The example was a hypothetical firm selling accounting software named SAX Inc. Despite being the market leader its revenue was not growing as the market expanded, and some low end open source platforms were growing rapidly. Economic projections showed that it was poised to lose huge amounts of market share to these new competitors in the near future, and the question is what it should do.

Now if you're ever in a situation that looks vaguely like this, I've got a recommend. Reach for The Innovator's Solution, read it, understand it, get every executive in your company to understand it, and follow its advice as best you can. Because you're on the wrong side of an disruptive innovation, so you want to see what has been tried in that situation, what worked and not (mostly not), and need to understand the organizational reasons for that.

If you don't know what a disruptive innovation is, that is the scenario where an established market with established companies has competition from a new kind of product which is not good enough for the market, but which will become so with projected technological improvement. In this situation what happens is that over time technology improves, the ecosystem of companies that grew up with the (initially) crappy technology take over, and the established companies see their market implode. For a fuller explanation and lots of examples, read The Innovator's Dilemma. That gives the theory, and then the follow-up, The Innovator's Solution, gives a lot more detail on why companies repeatedly make the same bad choices.

Suffice it to say that The Back of the Napkin comes up with a solution, and it is a solution that I guarantee will fail. And as part of the reasoning they manage to come up with a software development project that is much more ambitious than anything that the company has tried before, and gave some suspiciously precise estimates of how much time and money it will take. If you don't know what is wrong with that, go read Software Estimation by Steve McConnell. (If you are responsible for anything to do with scheduling software development, I highly recommend that book on general principle. Steve McConnell's books on software development range from good to classic, and that is on the higher end of the scale.)

None of this is to say that The Back of the Napkin is a bad book. It is not. Indeed if it were then I'd be less pained by the bad example. But it had the opportunity to explain a bunch of very important things to an audience that normally doesn't hear those things, and didn't. Not only did it fail to explain them, it proceeded to actively misinform.

On a happier note I've also read Accelerando by Charles Strauss. I have to say, without hesitation, that it is the strangest book I've read. Let me give an example. Near the beginning some lobsters that got uploaded managed to escape over the Internet, take over a computer network, and turned themselves sentient. They ask the protagonist for help in getting away from human civilization because they don't want to be near us when technology goes critical. He succeeds. Then the book gets weird.

Don't get me wrong. It is a very good book, and I enjoyed it very much. But the whole point of the book is that technology is accelerating, and the result will be continuous future shock. The first few iterations you are lead into trying to understand how the future rapidly got more bizarre. In later iterations you're just following the personal story of humans with unbelievable technology trying to survive in a world where they are obsolete and unequipped to understand the universe around them.