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The Northern Spy
July 2010

The Longer Things Remain the Same

Rick Sutcliffe

the faster the inevitable change.

It ought to be a truism that complacency in this technological era in which we live is an invitation to disaster. iSteve's little Cupertino company has become the largest (by market cap.) technology outfit in the Excited States by staying ahead of the technology curve, indeed, by drawing it along in its wake. Others have successfully ridden the top of the wave. Both are potentially dangerous places to be, but "left behind" being a synonym for oblivion, it's the only survival strategy.

Apple has done better than survive or thrive, and is poised to improve its fortunes yet more. As mentioned in this space before, even if the current double-dip artificial financial crisis knocks the recovery from the first one into a loop, Apple has sufficient mind share to keep growing at year over year rates far in excess of the market, and to post phenomenal growth when the recovery does take hold, and IT managers get budget to buy.

For the other side (the downside), consider Palm--ahead of the game for a time, but when the gasoline of innovation ran out, the company stalled, and has now been heaped off to the junk yard by towing company HP.

Even BP is a case in point. Relying on the tried and true, even (possibly, allegedly) cutting a few corners in the good old familiar routine that had worked elsewhere, without seriously planning for what would eventually go wrong in new situations, made disaster inevitable--not, as in the case of Palm, death by attrition, but a sudden catastrophe that demonstrated all too clearly that the blowout technology and the people skills (all the way to the top) were grossly inadequate for the application. BP bet the company by playing a high stakes game with blinders on. It lost.

Likewise, U.S., European, other banks and investment houses (not in Canada) did the same with the economy--packaging ever more opaque and risky derivatives for so-called "sophisticated investors" when even they couldn't understand the risks, while some of the purveyors of those very instruments were placing sure-thing bets that they would fail. All looked tickety-boo until the many-times-removed underlying equity valuation of the housing market weakened. Then, the equally many-times-leveraged derivatives didn't merely fall, they collapsed so spectacularly they nearly brought down the world economy.

Ditto European economies, in particular Greece, where a lucrative pension was part of a social system Ponzi scheme that eventually had to bring the economy down. When its unsustainability inevitably became apparent, the resulting collapse of confidence threatened the entire European Community in the process. It may yet not survive intact unless some countries are removed from the Euro zone to cauterize the wound and let them recover alone as best they can while containing the contagion.

All Ponzi schemes, whether played by investment charlatans, politicians, or via stock and currency speculation, are confidence games. While people can be led to believe in the get-rich-quick (or in the Greek case, get-retired-quick) fantasy, the operator can take money from the gullible and use it to pursue their own ends (whether financial, political, or both). When confidence fractures, the entire house of cards shows its true foundation--not merely a marked deck, but that the marks have been decked.

"Bubbles" in a market work like that, and so have much in common with Ponzi schemes, runaway social engineering on non-existant money, and stock kiting operations. The first in on the ground floor of a rising market can make money, provided they time their exit well. When the South Seas venture, the vacuous technology company, the salted gold mine, or the fake investment club really looks like a sure thing, when the suckers think they can't lose for winning, when the sailing appears to be on smooth seas in a fair wind, beware. A cusp may be approaching, just as it was for the inflated social benefits in Greece, the Bernie Madoff "investments", or pre WWII inflationary Germany.

Some prototypical butterfly then beats its wings in Mongolia, Moose Jaw, or Uganda, and the ripple effect pops the bubble in New York, London, or Athens, revealing the whole political, financial or technological illusion has no clothes. (Some metaphor mash-up, eh?)

Moreover, the inevitability of the cusp-collapse is always clear in retrospect. That's also when the few warning voices seem prescient--much too late.

All right, all right. The Spy will finally get to the point. If Apple is ahead of the technology and social curves, is making things happen, is where things are cool, is reaping the rewards, is on the verge of an upward cusp as a result, then conversely, what hitherto successful (in dollar terms) technology outfit is nowhere in innovation, missing in action on all the current trends and hot product areas (not the desktop any more), completely dependent on marketing problematic upgrades of dubious value to old, creaky, and unreliable software? What hitherto revered company is therefore vulnerable to a precipitous mass abandonment on the next wave of industry product refreshes?

Just as oppositions do not win elections so much as governments lose them, it seems to the Spy that any technology company that fails to maintain a presence at the leading edge of the curve is dooming itself to collapse, and at the pace things move today, that collapse is more likely to be swift than slow. The loss of mindshare, the flush, the spiral, the sudden exit through the tube and into the sewer are all too common when technology gets old. Remember his predictions for typewriter manufacturers back in the early 1980s? Today, his death watches for SCO and Palm have passed, predictions of the obvious come true. Long live a new death watch, this time for Microsoft. The cusp approacheth.

One symptom of this

is that Apple has not only surpassed MS (and Dell combined) in market cap, its revenue is also rapidly closing in on the fading giant's. Expect that in the soon-to-be-reported quarter, or the next at the very latest, Apple's revenue will indeed shoot beyond that of MS. Given that the analysts do not seem to be factoring in iPhone and iPad sales from the new product introductions, figure on sooner rather than later. The curve is becoming exponential.

Much speculation is therefore rampant concerning what Apple will do with all that cash it has stacked up in the bank. Buying a small country like Greece seems gauche, somehow. Counterproductive, too, because of all the bad debt rooted in failed political theories of the past. Putting IBM, HP, Sony, or MS in Cupertino's pocket also has the flavour of throwing good new money after the bad old, though if MS fails, Apple could, one supposes, acquire the applications division at a bankruptcy sale for a song. No, it's better to pick up something that is both relevant to the future of the business and potentially profitable. A chip maker/designer, as the Spy has previously speculated, is certainly a possibility in the short run, and has the advantage of promoting vertical integration.

But the more he thinks about both this and the direction Apple is taking the industry, the more attractive a major telecommunications investment seems. Given the Spy's belief that the future lies in ubiquitous Wi-Fi, (he isn't particularly interested in an iPhone) rather than POCS (plain old cell systems), given Apple's ongoing investment in server farms, given that the world seems to accept it always needed whatever iSteve is prepared to offer, and given the latter's penchant for controlling the user experience from top to bottom, the construction or acquisition of a Wi-Fi everywhere network seems a practical and logical, albeit expensive, step. Or, does everyone but the Spy think that iSteve is prepared to accept the necessity of putting up indefinitely with the likes of AT&T, Rogers, and their ilk as partners? Bad company corrupts good press, after all.

Another flawed intro

seems to be the mantra in the wake of difficulties surrounding the iPhone 4 startup. Apple's servers were once again unable to handle the load, apparent victims of gross underestimating even by iSteve of the probable demand. (The Spy's rule of thumb: server capacity, disk size, and bandwidth should always be maintained at four times foreseeable capacity.)

The new design is apparently problematic too, in that holding the iPhone in the left hand (actually, thumbing the surface antenna) can affect reception.

As someone who, though sorta right-handed, always holds small devices in his left, and whose skin is so acidic that metal pens dissolve into rust in his shirt pocket, the Spy understands this full well. Touch or even put your hand very close to the metal part of an antenna, and its electrical characteristics will surely be affected. Indeed, as anyone who as a kid built or repaired radios will readily tell you, where reception is dodgy, or if the antenna toucher's personality is magnetic or her disposition acidic, reception will surely be in danger of dropping.

The Spy's old Palm Treo 600 had the antenna covered in plastic and protruding from the top right--ugly, but practical. You held the device left or right without the hand touching the antenna, and it never, in five years of service, dropped a call once connection was established. (Getting it in the first place, and getting rid of Rogers in the last was sometimes an adventure, but....) The new iPhone may represent stunning visual design, but at the cost of optimum antenna utility.

So, knowing only the design details, and without actually holding one of these in his conductive little hands, the Spy suggests the following remedies: for the short term, either wash and dry hands thoroughly before using, or hold the wee delicate beastie in your right hand, or make an effort not to curl the base of the thumb around far enough to allow the skin's permittivity to "short" the antenna (oversimplification, he knows), or attach a small piece of electrical tape over the problem area (Scotch tape may be sufficient). Better: buy a case for the thing that will keep your hands off the metal parts. Better still: iSteve needs to apply a plastic coating over the antenna to prevent it from being directly touched. Note, however, that for some people (read some hands) the latter will be insufficient. The Spy alters some antenna's characteristics just by being nearby. Number two son can made a computer crash by walking into the room. So, best solution of all: the designers could try weaving the antenna back and forth in the upper part of the face. It would be in no one's way in that part of the phone, unless it were turned horizontal and gripped rather tightly by a large, fleshy hand indeed.

Book of the month

is a quirky piece of work, found on the bargain table at Chapters, but deserving of better even if it isn't a very recent publication. It is "A Brief History of Fighting Ships" by David Davies, last published in 2002, and containing a brief account of the naval encounters fought by England for supremacy of the seas from 1793 to 1815. (ISBN 978-1-84119-469-1)

Davies details both the ships themselves, and the major sea battles of the era, nearly all won by Britain, some against extremely long odds. He also gives some account of the character and training of the men who made it possible.

And of what is this a propos? one might ask. Just that the tall ships were the product of and crewed by an army of highly skilled designers, artisans, and professionals. They represented the epitome of the relevant technology of the time, and their successful deployment and use under Nelson's leadership while crewed by the thoroughly trained and drilled British tar, changed subsequent world history dramatically. The French and Spanish had arguably better ship building techniques at the start of this period, but destroyed their own leadership, failed to give their men sufficient training in mathematics (and thus in both navigation and gunnery) and squandered their technological and financial lead while England shot past them in all respects to achieve world dominance.

Had Nelson failed at the Nile, Napoleon could have held Egypt, and his invasion of the east would surely have succeeded. Had he failed at Trafalgar, the invasion of England would have resulted in him dictating terms to a conquered London. France, and not England would have dominated the world for the next two centuries, and we'd all be speaking French today. But because Nelson cast conventional military doctrine aside, and used the technology and men available to him in creative ways, England's enemies had little chance in those battles, and toward the last, the participants knew it. In the end thwarted by lack of transport across the channel, Napoleon took his great army to Russia, where it perished, The final battle at Waterloo was therefore a close win for England rather than the overwhelming defeat it should have been.

The moral of Nelson's story for leaders: Plan ahead, thoroughly inform everybody of those plans (so that when all the officers are dead even a lowly bosun can both issue the command to repel boarders and lead their charge), take calculated risks, don't become overly wedded to old techniques. In short, think different.

The moral of the story for the rest of us: Study your algebra, trigonometry, calculus, and computing science. Besides that doing so fits into the category of giving account to the Steward for the proper use of your talents, scientific and technological advance is impossible without the infrastructure mathematics provides. Moreover, knowing them may well change your world. It did that of the boys who became Nelson, his officers, and his gun captains.

The Spy, by the way, writes Alternate History Science Fiction, in which Ireland, not England, became the world power. In his Hibernia, the scientific revolution began in the early 1300s, and the tall ship era reached its peak in 1439 when Ireland's own Nelson-figure, Admiral Amy Rae (in the best Hibernian military tradition a noted scholar of the sciences), defeated a larger force of Spanish and French ships off Trafalgar point, mainly because of a combination of unorthodox tactics and superior gunnery. Does the path of history require that certain techniques be invented and used, does the available technology dictate subsequent history, or is it a combination of both the above.

New versions worth a mention

include Fetch, BBEdit, Retrospect, Spell Catcher, Drag Thing, and the regular OS security updates. Your kilometerage may vary.

Next month

the Spy will depart from the extended editorial of this month's rant, and review backup programs. A fanatic in this area, he feels himself uniquely qualified for the task.

--The Northern Spy

Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics as well as Senate Chair at Trinity Western University. He is also on the board of CIRA, operator of .ca. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to ArjayBB.com. Participate and you could win free web hosting from the WebNameHost.net subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.


The Northern Spy Home Page: http://www.TheNorthernSpy.com

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The Spy's Shareware download site: http://downloads.thenorthernspy.com/

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Last Updated: 2010 05 21