Category Archives: technology

Innovation Starvation

Neal Stephenson’s take on how the Internet is starving innovation.  His notion is that isolation spurs creativity: if there is no one to tell you that something cannot be done or that it has been done before, them perhaps you are going to go ahead and do it anyway and do it extremely well.

He ties up this lack of creativity with high risk aversion in the corporate sphere.

Two spaces after a period …

From Farhad Manjoo at Slate.

Do you use one space or two after a period?  Typographers recommend a single space.  I confess that I use two.

The reason for the two-space convention is an interesting example of how technology changes behavior.

The problem with typewriters was that they used monospaced type—that is, every character occupied an equal amount of horizontal space. This bucked a long tradition of proportional typesetting, in which skinny characters (like I or 1) were given less space than fat ones (like W or M). Monospaced type gives you text that looks “loose” and uneven; there’s a lot of white space between characters and words, so it’s more difficult to spot the spaces between sentences immediately. Hence the adoption of the two-space rule—on a typewriter, an extra space after a sentence makes text easier to read.

Huawei in the US

The Chinese equipment manufacturer is doing its best to crack global markets.  They now have operations in the US, Europe, India, Vietnam, Mexico and a bunch of other countries.  As with any Chinese company, they carry a lot of baggage.  They face regular accusations of undermining national security and of being a Trojan horse for the Chinese government.

Economically, however, they have been successful, having built a brand with a reputation for cheap, but quality products.  Business Week has an interesting piece on how the company has grown its operations in the US, its missteps and its attempts to woo the US political machine.  One key element of their strategy is transparency: they allow regulators to study their products with a fine-toothed comb.  Another element is to hire an international workforce: to smoother fears about Chinese domination as well as to navigate tricky cultural straits.

Angst for the educated

Schumpeter at The Economist has an excellent post on employment trends for university graduates.  His prognosis is dire.

It seems that the US and European job markets are undergoing a structural change that will have worrying consequences for a multitude of white collar workers.  For years, it was taken as gospel truth that a university degree was a guarantor of job security and a job-earning potential commensurate with a high quality of life.  As emphasized by the current recession, that seems to be changing.  Getting a white collar job (much less keeping it) has become a more tenuous process.  The reasons are manif0ld.

The supply of university graduates is increasing more rapidly than the rate at which they can be absorbed into the workforce.  Further, western white collar firms are under pressure from Asian professional service firms like Infosys and TCS, which have hungrier employees, willing to work harder and at a fraction of the cost and who supply a more-than-adequate product.

But these trends only exist because of technological developments.

… the demand for educated labour is being reconfigured by technology, in much the same way that the demand for agricultural labour was reconfigured in the 19th century and that for factory labour in the 20th. Computers can not only perform repetitive mental tasks much faster than human beings. They can also empower amateurs to do what professionals once did …

Also, a bigger change is under way:

… the application of the division of labour to brain-work. Just as Adam Smith’s factory managers broke the production of pins into 18 components, so companies are increasingly breaking the production of brain-work into ever tinier slices.


the reconfiguration of brain-work will also make life far less cosy and predictable for the next generation of graduates.

Automation and mass production techniques are doing to white collar jobs what they have already done to blue collar jobs.

  1. The process of production is being standardized and discretized
  2. Each discrete step in the process is then made geographically separable.  Like with manufacturing, the supply chain for many knowledge products has vertically disintegrated
  3. This allows the producer to relocate based on price

Knowledge production has been democratized.  Firms have realized that expert (and expensive) labor is not needed for all steps of knowledge production.  Certain repetitive, time-consuming, lower value products can be easily outsourced.  And so we have medical transcription from US or British hospitals, or discovery for US legal cases, conducted in India.

Trash your smartphone

From David Sirota at Salon.  I concur with his assessment.  Most of us don’t need smartphones.  And for most people, smartphones tend to reduce rather than increase productivity.

Discount Smart Phones …

The market for smart phones is definitely in a transitional phase,” Lars-Christian Weisswange, a vice president at Huawei’s Western European division, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The company is betting that consumers will aim for affordable rather than luxury-brand smart phones.

I think Huawei may be onto something.  They’re staking money on the commodity life cycle.  According to this cycle the commodity moves from luxury good status to mass market to necessity through demand factors and scale effects on the supply side.  Other commodities that have succumbed to this cycle include PCs, air travel and (unsmart) mobile phones.

More from the original article, which focuses on cheap smart phones as game-changers in the African market.

Tablet computers: Reality dawns

The prediction at the Babbage blog at the Economist is that HP has made a great move in getting out of the tablet business.  They can now focus on core competencies, rather than waste resources trying to wrest market share from a dominant Apple.

Apple’s share of the tablet market is over 61% and growing, while all the Android tablets together make up barely 30% and are being squeezed … Windows tablets account for 4.6% and Research in Motion’s 3.3%.

Fighting Apple would always be a losing proposition since no competitor could hope to match the iPad in the quality of the consumer experience.  The Samsung Galaxy Tab is not bad, but even that feels derivative.  HP’s business plan was even more flawed in that they originally matched the iPad price-wise.

poor\; product + same\; price = no\; contest

Since the news caused HP shares to fall precipitously, naturally this presents a great buy opportunity.  HP is getting rid of a product line that is dragging it down.  It will emerge leaner.

The article also has a discussion of the relative merits of the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook.  I did not know that the Nook has a 20% market share in the e-reader market.

The singularity is coming

From Jane Wakefield at BBC News.

Should we be careful? Oh so very careful?

A Useful Primer on Buying HD TVs

From the Babbage blog at The Economist.

The Economics of Data Centres

From the Babbage blog at The Economist:

“the Prineville plant is a leading exponent of a new style of data-centre management. It does away with expensive air-conditioning “chillers”. Instead, air is brought in from outside. For this approach to work, however, the desert is key. For much of the year outside air is actually cool enough to keep the servers from overheating. At the lowest temperatures, just the gentlest of breezes needs to be brought inside at all. And, this being the desert, nights are chilly irrespective of the season, so even in the summer additional cooling is only needed during the hottest times of day.This is provided through a “swamp cooler”. A fine mist of water, much like artificial fog, is sprayed in the direction of the air flow. Heat is leached from the air by the water as it evaporates, and the cooled air passes through the servers.”

These swamp coolers sound like a high tech version of those noisy, but divinely comfortable air coolers used in Delhi in the summer.