Quotulatiousness

October 28, 2014

Self-driving trucks may be more significant (in the short term) than self-driving cars

Filed under: Business, Economics, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:25

At Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait looks at the likely short-term impact of driverless vehicles:

Robot passenger cars will eventually bring huge benefits. They will be epoch making, when the robot car epoch does finally arrive. I truly believe this. But in the shorter run, the problems of robot cars strike me as bigger than all the car and hi-tech companies are implying, and the benefits less immediate. Robot cars will presumably be good at finding their own parking spaces, and at making themselves useful to others if you aren’t using yours. Robot cars will presumably be less prone to error than humans, except when that turns out not to be the case. But what of those potholes?

In the meantime, making lorry (as we Brits call “trucks”) transport only somewhat more efficient will yield huge, very quantifiable, and fairly immediate benefits. Even if all they do to start with is robotise lorries on motorways, that would surely make a huge difference.

The motorway is the natural habitat of the big lorry, and is a place of far greater predictability than roads in general and hence more congenial for robots, especially robots in their early stages. Motorways are already highly controlled places, and are surely the right part of the road system to start introducing robots, not country lanes or city streets filled with complicated and unpredictable hazards.

Human lorry-drivers get tired, but robots don’t. A robot lorry could cross a continent with all the dogged, error-free serenity of a jumbo jet on autopilot crossing the same continent in the air.

At first, humans would need to sit in the lorries to check on their progress all the time, but pretty soon the human could be taking a nap and it wouldn’t matter. Not long after that, once everything has been shown to work, humans would not be needed to sit in lorries on motorways at all. Soon, all that the humans would need to do is collect the lorries (perhaps just the load bit) from their local off-motorway lorry parks, to which the robot lorries had driven themselves. Upon that solid technological foundation, lorries further into the future could then start travelling much faster. (I seem to recall a plan to concrete over railways and turn them into roads. Maybe that notion will be revived.) They could also make their way into the road system generally. The economic impact will surely be colossal, and more immediate than is the case for robot cars.

October 9, 2014

“Political barriers make it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:30

Virginia Postrel on the barriers that slow down — or completely stop — innovation in far too many non-digital fields:

… I sympathize with science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson and venture-capitalist Peter Thiel, whose new books lament the demise of grand 20th-century dreams and the optimistic culture they expressed. “I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” writes Stephenson in the preface to Hieroglyph, a science-fiction anthology hoping “to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.” In Zero to One, a book mostly about startups, Thiel makes the argument that “we have to find our way back to a definite future, and the Western world needs nothing short of a cultural revolution to do it.”

Their concerns about technological malaise are reasonable. As I’ve written here before, “political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits.” It’s depressing to see just about any positive development — a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance — greeted with gloom. (“The trend is wreaking havoc in the blood bank business, forcing a wave of mergers and job cutbacks.”)

When a report about how ground-penetrating radar has mapped huge undiscovered areas of Stonehenge immediately provokes a comment wondering whether the radar endangers the landscape, something has gone seriously wrong with our sense of wonder. “There’s an automatic perception … that everything’s dangerous,” Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, “and that there’s some cosmic balance at work — that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.”

Postrel argues that Stephenson’s fix would not work, and that our nostalgia for the early days of the Space Age blind us to the reality that most Americans in that era did not believe that the money for the Apollo missions was well spent (with the brief exception of July, 1969). She makes the point that our culture has changed significantly and those attitudinal changes are much more of the reason for today’s hesitancy and doubt about progress:

We already have plenty of critics telling us that our creativity and effort are for naught, our pleasures and desires absurd, our civilization wicked and destructive. We live in a culture where condemnatory phrases like “the ecosystems we’ve broken” are throwaway lines, and the top-grossing movie of all time is a heavy-handed science-fiction parable about the evils of technology and exploration. We don’t need Neal Stephenson piling on.

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public. (Nobody else in my kindergarten was grabbing for You Will Go to the Moon.) People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.

Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas. New subdivisions represented a threat to the landscape rather than the promise of the good life. Too-fast airplanes produced window-rattling sonic booms. Insecticides harmed eagles’ eggs. Exploration meant conquest and brutal exploitation. Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and cultural influentially people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.

Emphasis mine.

October 2, 2014

QotD: How not to educate the young

Filed under: Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I’m on the road this week, giving talks on my new book about learning to fail better: that is, first, to give ourselves the permission to take on challenges where we might very well fail; second, to pick ourselves up as quickly as possible and move on when things don’t work out. This is, I argue, vital on a personal level, as well as vital for the economy, because that’s where innovation and growth come from.

The other day, after one of my talks, a 10th-grade girl came up and shyly asked if I had a minute. I always have a minute to talk to shy high school sophomores, having been one myself.

And this is what she asked me:

“I understand what you’re saying about trying new things, and hard things, but I’m in an International Baccalaureate program and only about five percent of us will get 4.0, so how can I try a subject where I might not get an A?”

I was floored. All I could think as I talked to this poor girl is “America, you’re doing it wrong.”

I was 15 in 10th grade. If you can’t try something new in 10th grade, when can you? If you can’t afford to risk anything less than perfection at the age of 15, then for heaven’s sake, when is going to be the right time? When you’re ready to splash out on an edgy assisted-living facility?

Now is when this kid should be learning to dream big dreams and dare greatly. Now is when she should be making mistakes and figuring out how to recover from them. Instead, we’re telling one of our best and brightest to focus all her talent on coloring within the lines. This is not the first time I’ve heard this from kids and teachers and parents. But I’ve never heard it phrased quite so starkly.

Megan McArdle, “Go Ahead, Let Your Kids Fail”, Bloomberg View, 2014-02-20.

September 19, 2014

QotD: Faster computers, and why we “need” ‘em

Filed under: Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I recall, in the very early days of the personal computer, articles, in magazines like Personal Computer World, which expressed downright opposition to the idea of technological progress in general, and progress in personal computers in particular. There was apparently a market for such notions, in the very magazines that you would think would be most gung-ho about new technology and new computers. Maybe the general atmosphere of gung-ho-ness created a significant enough minority of malcontents that the editors felt they needed to nod regularly towards it. I guess it does make sense that the biggest grumbles about the hectic pace of technological progress would be heard right next to the places where it is happening most visibly.

Whatever the reasons were for such articles being in computer magazines, I distinctly remember their tone. I have recently, finally, got around to reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, and she clearly identifies the syndrome. The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …? “Do we really need” this or that new programme that had been reported in the previous month’s issue? What significant and “real” (as opposed to frivolous and game-related) problems could there possibly be that demanded such super-powerful, super-fast, super-memorising and of course, at that time, super-expensive machines for their solution? Do we “really need” personal computers to develop, in short, in the way that they have developed, since these grumpy anti-computer-progress articles first started being published in computer progress magazines?

The usual arguments in favour of fast and powerful, and now mercifully far cheaper, computers concern the immensity of the gobs of information that can now be handled, quickly and powerfully, by machines like the ones that we have now, as opposed to what could be handled by the first wave of personal computers, which could manage a small spreadsheet or a short text file or a very primitive computer game, but very little else. And of course that is true. I can now shovel vast quantities of photographs (a particular enthusiasm of mine) hither and thither, processing the ones I feel inclined to process in ways that only Hollywood studios used to be able to do. I can make and view videos (although I mostly stick to viewing). And I can access and even myself add to that mighty cornucopia that is the internet. And so on. All true. I can remember when even the most primitive of photos would only appear on my screen after several minutes of patient or not-so-patient waiting. Videos? Dream on. Now, what a world of wonders we can all inhabit. In another quarter of a century, what wonders will there then be, all magicked in a flash into our brains and onto our desks, if we still have desks. The point is, better computers don’t just mean doing the same old things a bit faster; they mean being able to do entirely new things as well, really well.

Brian Micklethwait, “Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old”, Samizdata, 2014-09-17.

September 11, 2014

Evolution versus revolution in the design of HMS Queen Elizabeth

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

Peter Roberts analyzes the design trade-offs of the Queen Elizabeth class for the Royal United Services Institute:

Queen Elizabeth class side and overhead views

Queen Elizabeth class side and overhead views

The most important change in the Queen Elizabeth class is the open acknowledgement of the primacy of running costs at the heart of the project – manifest in crew numbers, unmanned monitoring and power generation. The UK carriers are platforms designed by economists, not warriors.

The largest costs for running maritime platforms are manpower and fuel. In terms of manpower, the Queen Elizabeth will have a crew of 650 with an additional thousand berths available for the air group. By comparison, the American Nimitz class and new Gerald Ford class, which displace around 40,000 tonnes more, are crewed by 6,000 and 4,500 personnel respectively. The French Charles de Gaulle, which in terms of tonnage is about a third smaller its British counterpart, carries a crew of around 2,500. The UK figures were driven by the necessity to avoid increasing the manpower bill of the Royal Navy. As such, the 650 figure is exactly the same as the preceding Invincible class. Allowing the same complement to effectively operate a vessel three times the size of her predecessor has forced some innovative thinking.

The use of automation and remote monitoring has been essential to meet the manpower restrictions. Cameras and monitoring equipment have been built into almost every system in the new ships. From machinery spaces to bilge areas, remote performance monitoring has allowed a marked reduction in the manpower requirements of the ships. Whilst this makes good sense in financial terms, it does not in terms of pure war-fighting capability. Naval vessels differ significantly from their commercial counterparts in terms of damage control and fire-fighting. These roles are remarkably manpower intensive. The experiences of major damage in the Falklands conflict have been reinforced at intervals by peacetime incidents on HMS Nottingham (2002) and Endurance (2008), which required the efforts of the full ship’s complement to remain afloat. The damage-control capabilities of the UK carrier platforms should, therefore, be a primary concern.

[...]

There is one further element that has not been well considered in the Carrier-Enabled Power Projection doctrine of the Royal Navy and the MoD. Protection of these assets from threats has effectively been taken ‘on-risk’, and against all operational analysis. The self defence capabilities of these ships are extremely limited. The provision of close-in weapon systems and automatic small-calibre guns does not guarantee adequate protection against a small scale naval threat, let alone a shore-based one. Naval doctrine instead requires protection of the carriers by destroyers and frigates. This is a cost-effective solution provided that the task group has the necessary units to provide such protection. But there is no evidence that the projected Royal Navy combined frigate/destroyer force could do so.

The Queen Elizabeth class is therefore an interesting example of innovation: rather than in the sense of equipment and capability, it might be more relevant to think about how risk to the platforms is being dealt with in an ‘innovative’ manner.

The second ship in the class, HMS Prince of Wales just reached a major milestone in construction:

HMS Prince of Wales hull sections

Construction of HMS Prince of Wales, the second of two new aircraft carriers for the UK Royal Navy, has moved forward with the docking of two of the ship’s largest hull sections – Lower Block 02 and Lower Block 03.

The movement of the blocks into the dock at Rosyth marks the beginning of the ship’s assembly phase and comes only days after Prime Minister David Cameron announced that HMS Prince of Wales will enter into service, ensuring that the UK will always have one aircraft carrier available.

Ian Booth, Managing Director at the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, said: “Every milestone in the carrier programme is hugely significant and the recent announcement that HMS Prince of Wales will enter service means there is a real sense of excitement as we start to bring the second ship together. Everyone working across the Alliance is incredibly proud of the work undertaken so far, in what is currently one of the biggest engineering projects in the country, and we remain focused on delivering both ships to the highest standards.”

August 25, 2014

Want the coolest thing to hit the waves recently? $10 million will be the starting price

Filed under: Military, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 14:52

Slashgear‘s Chris Davies says this is just the ticket for up-and-coming Bond villains:

It looks like a half-submerged X-Wing, or maybe a Star Trek Shuttle, but it’s actually Ghost, one American start-up’s vision for what an attack helicopter designed for the navy might look like. Mustering 4,000 HP from two engines on the end of powered legs, Ghost promises to whip across the ocean in a supercavitation bubble, avoiding radar and with a silky smooth ride for the crew inside.

What makes the boat special is how it improves on hydroplane technology, more commonly used in racing boats. Hydroplanes increase their top speed by skimming across the top of the water, rather than burying their hulls in it, reducing drag in the process.

However, that also makes them relatively unstable and prone to flipping — so, Ghost’s manufacturer Juliet Marine Systems turned to supercavitation, which creates a bubble of gas around each of the legs and cuts drag by a factor of 900. Air is pulled down through the struts, while the propellers are at the front of the 62 foot long tubes, effectively pulling the vessel along.

June 2, 2014

The naval revolution and HMS Dreadnought

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:42

BBC News Magazine looks back on the launch of the first modern all-big-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought, in 1906.

HMS Dreadnought underway, circa 1906-07

HMS Dreadnought underway, circa 1906-07

HMS Dreadnought “really transformed naval warfare rather like the tank did on land warfare. In fact Dreadnought was described at the time as ‘the most deadly fighting machine ever launched in the history of the world'”.

Dreadnought brought together for the first time a series of technologies which had been developing over several years. Most important was her firepower. She was the first all big-gun battleship — with ten 12-inch guns. Each gun fired half-ton shells over 4ft tall and packed with high explosive. They weighed as much as a small car. Standing next to one today, it is easy to see how a single broadside could destroy an opponent — and do so at 10 miles’ distance.

These great distances caused problems of their own — in controlling and directing the fire — and Dreadnought was one of the first ships fitted with new equipment to electrically transmit information to the gun turrets.

For potential enemies on the receiving end this was a terrifying prospect. Admiral Lord West, a former head of the Royal Navy, calls Dreadnought “a most devastating weapon of war, the most powerful thing in the world”.

Potential adversaries would also have trouble outrunning her. New steam turbine engines gave her a maximum speed of about 25mph. They made her more reliable than previous ships, and able to sustain a higher speed for much longer.

But there was something else, too. Dreadnought had been built in just one year — a demonstration of British military-industrial might at a time when major battleships generally took several years to build. This, says Roberts, was an “enormous achievement which made the Germans sit up because their shipbuilding capability just could not match that”.

HMS Dreadnought (1906) diagram

Despite the Royal Navy’s reputation for being tradition-bound and stodgy, they had quite an interesting history of experimentation and innovation in ship design. The launch of HMS Dreadnought was a good example of the navy being willing to take risks — specifically the risk of making the rest of the battlefleet obsolete overnight.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Random Penguin and other publishing Monopoly players

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:32

A quite contrarian take on the upheavals in the publishing world by Hugh Howey:

A similar game is being played in the book industry today, as it has been played in many other industries. Here at BEA, I’m hearing a lot about monopolies. (And monopsonies, for those who prefer to quibble semantically rather than understand what is meant and forge ahead in productive conversation.) Practically everyone here at the book expo believes that Amazon has gotten too big, that they wield a disproportionate amount of power, and that they must be reigned in or defeated.

I am told, without exaggeration and in all seriousness, that Amazon wants to “crush their competition.” I hear that they want to “put everyone else out of business.” Two things are true, both of which make these statements ridiculous: The first is that Amazon most certainly doesn’t want all of their competitors to go out of business, because then they’d be the only game in town and the government would have no choice but to break them up. The second is that of course they are acting as if they want to put their competitors out of business. That’s how you improve your business practices. You try to out-do your competition.

Unless … you don’t understand at all what it means to compete. Which I think explains the righteous indignation. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

[...]

Ironically, the biggest losers in this shift have been yesterday’s villains. The massive brick and mortar discounters — who once were blamed for literature’s downfall, who sold “loss leaders,” who roughed up publishers in negotiations — have become the bulwark behind which all legacy hopes now hunker. Little explored is the possibility that Amazon is helping independent bookstores by clearing out these former predators.

When it comes to discounting and selection, B&N can’t compete with Amazon. When it comes to book browsing, Amazon can’t compete with curated independent bookstores. If you line the three sales models up from small indie stores to big discounters to Amazon, you’ll see that neighbors compete with and harm one another. Concurrent with the shuttering of Borders and the shrinking of B&N, we are also seeing a rise of indie shops. Coincidence? Or are we heading toward a future where Amazon and indie bookstores coexist because they provide two very different shopping experiences and fulfill quite separate needs?

Best estimates give Amazon roughly half of the book market. With the shutter of Borders, B&N now has a more disproportionate control of brick and mortar shelfspace than Amazon does of online book sales. This is especially powerful as the rest of the smaller bookstores have less leverage for bargaining with publishers. Who is the monopoly?

May 13, 2014

Coravin – a new technique for sampling wine in the bottle

Filed under: Business, Wine — Tags: — Nicholas @ 06:59

Brendan linked to this article about an innovative wine sampling device:

Five years later and news of another device with even more exciting ramifications for the wine trade began to ripple across from the US. Nuclear engineer and, crucially, wine lover Greg Lambrecht turned his mind to exploring whether it might be possible to sample the contents of a cellar without having to pull the cork.

Fourteen years and 23 prototypes later, Coravin was born. The portable apparatus allows a needle to be inserted through the foil capsule and cork; it then extracts the wine, fills in the gap with inert argon and withdraws, leaving the flexible cork to reseal itself.

Having initially launched in the US, Coravin is now available to be shipped to 22 countries and made its first UK appearance last October, priced at £300.

Although vice-president for marketing Howard Leyda says “the primary target market for Coravin is wine enthusiasts first for personal use”, it is the UK restaurant scene that has been generating the biggest buzz around what many believe is a real game changer.

[...]

Until Coravin becomes more easily available, a number of restaurants that have managed to get their hands on one can be seen drumming up excitement among their clientele by promoting this gadget’s most obvious application: the chance to taste some serious old wines.

At one early adopter, D&D London restaurant Avenue, the French- and American-focused wine list now reaches its apogee in the form of vertical flights of Mouton Rothschild and the first growth’s Californian sister venture Opus One.

Other options include Cheval Blanc 1999 at £91 for a 125ml glass or, for those looking to treat themselves on a tighter budget, a 75ml sample of Clerc Milon 2004 for £13.

“It’s really interesting for us to be able to offer these wine flights,” enthuses Avenue restaurant manager Robert Kihlstrom.

May 11, 2014

Market disruption and innovation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:19

Innovation often leads to challenges to established markets. Existing players in those established markets have three choices when faced with a disruptive new competitor or technological change: they can innovate themselves, they can retrench and avoid direct competition, or they can do what most incumbents do — get the government regulators to fight their battles for them.

Market incumbents do not like disruption. Uber, the ride-sharing service that has loosened the stranglehold of the taxi cartels, has been the object of government attacks and vigilante attacks both. Various regulatory agencies have tried with varying degrees of success to shut it down, London’s taxi drivers are even as we speak promising “chaos” in response to the firm’s success, French vigilantes have attacked its drivers, and in Seattle — blessed Seattle! — self-styled anarchists are targeting its cars and drivers. “Anarchists” for state-enforced cartel economics to increase private profit — somebody is unclear on the concept, it seems.

A great deal of the program of the old Left — from its full-on Marxist wing to its Proudhonian anarchist wing — is in the process of being accomplished by 21st-century capitalism. The means of production have been radically democratized, with multi-billion-dollar firms springing up out of garages and dorm rooms. The privileged position of dominant old-line financiers is being undermined rapidly by innovations such as Kickstarter, which blurs the line between the altruistic and the consumerist. The life expectancy of large corporations has collapsed, from about 75 years in the 1960s to 15 years and declining today. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called for “a war of labor against capital; a war of liberty against authority; a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege,” he certainly did not have in mind Uber or Outbox; his most famous motto was, after all, “Property is theft.” (I think there is rather more to his idea of property than that simplistic formulation communicates, but this is not the place for that particular essay.) But the characteristics of those firms — relatively modest capital requirements, subverting various kinds of political authority in the form of licensure and regulation enacted in the interests of market incumbents, empowering efficient producers to compete with rent-seeking non-producers, and, above all, undermining the privileged place of state-sanctioned monopolies and cartels — looks a lot more like what the 19th-century revolutionaries had in mind than the USPS does. If what you mean by “capitalism” is the East India Company, then capitalism is not very attractive; if what you mean by “capitalism” is Kickstarter, then it is.

Not that a man transported from the 19th century to our own time would recognize that. If we could transport M. Proudhon or any of his contemporaries to the here and now, their eyes would not register any economic system with which they were familiar at the sight of the daily wonders we take for granted. They wouldn’t see capitalism; they’d see magic. But the DMV, the USPS, the housing project, and the prison would all be familiar to their 19th-century eyes. Our choice is not really between neat ideological verities with their roots in Adam Smith or Karl Marx, but between the DMV and the Apple store. Each model has its downsides, to be sure, but it does not seem like a terribly difficult choice to me.

April 28, 2014

Megan McArdle on The Up Side of Down

Filed under: Business, Economics, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

I posted a shorter interview yesterday, and this is a longer presentation Megan McArdle did back in February at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.:

Published on 15 Feb 2014

Failure, however devastating, is not the end. In fact, as McArdle, a journalist and blogger who has charted the fall and rise of a variety of ventures shows, failure can be just the teacher you need to push you forward to greater success. For those of you who missed her talk at Sixth and, maybe failing to come is the insight you need.

April 27, 2014

Reason.tv – Megan McArdle: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success

Filed under: Business, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:28

Published on 25 Apr 2014

“There’s nothing as dangerous as perfect safety,” says Megan McArdle, author of the new book, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success.

Failure is inevitable, says McArdle, who’s also a Bloomberg View columnist. But how we handle our own failures and whether we learn from them go a long way in shaping individuals, institutions, and entire societies.

Drawing on personal anecdotes, current events, literature, and cutting-edge research, McArdle dissects our beliefs, myths, and cognitive biases about failure.

April 26, 2014

We’re not “running out of resources”

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:00

In the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley explains that claims that we’re running out of this or that resource are almost always bogus:

How many times have you heard that we humans are “using up” the world’s resources, “running out” of oil, “reaching the limits” of the atmosphere’s capacity to cope with pollution or “approaching the carrying capacity” of the land’s ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff — metals, oil, clean air, land — and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.

[...]

But here’s a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this “niche construction” — that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature’s bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.

Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter’s tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can’t seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.

That frustration is heartily reciprocated. Ecologists think that economists espouse a sort of superstitious magic called “markets” or “prices” to avoid confronting the reality of limits to growth. The easiest way to raise a cheer in a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists.

[...]

In 1972, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University came up with a simple formula called IPAT, which stated that the impact of humankind was equal to population multiplied by affluence multiplied again by technology. In other words, the damage done to Earth increases the more people there are, the richer they get and the more technology they have.

Many ecologists still subscribe to this doctrine, which has attained the status of holy writ in ecology. But the past 40 years haven’t been kind to it. In many respects, greater affluence and new technology have led to less human impact on the planet, not more. Richer people with new technologies tend not to collect firewood and bushmeat from natural forests; instead, they use electricity and farmed chicken — both of which need much less land. In 2006, Mr. Ausubel calculated that no country with a GDP per head greater than $4,600 has a falling stock of forest (in density as well as in acreage).

April 24, 2014

Joe Satriani – world-class musician and self-taught entrepreneur

Filed under: Business, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:42

Inc. Magazine isn’t where you’d normally expect to find profiles of famous musicians, but Jeff Haden’s article covers both the musical and the entrepreneurial sides of Joe Satriani:

Put aside selling millions of critically acclaimed solo albums. Put aside touring with Mick Jagger, Deep Purple, and Chickenfoot. Put aside teaching legendary guitarists like Steve Vai, Kirk Hammett, Andy Timmons, and Alex Skolnick and creating signature guitar and equipment lines. Put aside founding the long-running G3 concert series.

World class musician? Absolutely — but inside 14-time Grammy nominated guitarist Joe Satriani also beats the heart of a true entrepreneur.

This month marks the release of Satriani’s new book, Strange Beautiful Music: A Musical Memoir, as well as his career retrospective box set, The Complete Studio Recordings. It’s the perfect time to talk to him about the business of Joe Satriani. (Spoiler alert: While you might think entrepreneurs have nothing in common with musicians, you’re definitely wrong.)

[...]

It’s almost a given in the music business that artists eventually regret the terms of their first contract. They’re so happy to get signed that they will sign almost anything. Yet your experience was very different.

Success came to me in my late 20s. I had started touring when I was a teenager so I had already seen the good, the bad, and the ugly side of the music business. Plus setting up my own record company taught me a lot.

I walked into Relativity Records as a musician who could not be taken advantage of. That’s why I wound up owning all my own publishing and making a deal that was quite advantageous for a new solo artist. But I really didn’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I thought of myself as an artist who felt strongly he should control every aspect of his art.

From a business and market opportunity point of view, instrumental rock was not exactly a happening genre. If your goal was to strike while the musical iron was hot your timing was way off.

What you just said is perfect. You encapsulated what I came to grips with when I looked for funding for my first record.

I remember getting turned down by everyone in my local community, and I was just looking for a few thousand dollars. If I had been starting a company to make plastic cups I could probably have gone to a bank and gotten a loan. But a guitar player getting a bank loan to record a record? That was just never going to happen.

After a week of being rejected by local studios and engineers I found this credit card offer in my mailbox. I was pre-approved because of, “My good standing in the community.”

March 31, 2014

Market research, disguised as crowdfunding

Filed under: Business, Economics, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 11:01

Virginia Postrel has an interesting take on the current brouhaha over Facebook’s acquistion of formerly crowdfunded Oculus:

Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo represent a classic entrepreneurial phenomenon: Once you roll out your great idea, customers use it in ways you didn’t imagine, and you wind up in a different business than you expected.

Kickstarter’s founders wanted to help artists raise money. Indiegogo co-founder Danae Ringelmann pictured aiding capital-strapped small-businesses owners like her parents. Neither intended their site to act as a test market. But, as the rags-to-riches story of virtual-reality firm Oculus shows, that’s what they have become.

“It’s a way to access capital, but what it’s also become is a market-testing and validation platform,” Ringelmann told the Dent the Future conference on Tuesday. “What we’re doing is creating pre-markets for ideas,” she said.

[...]

Now that Facebook is buying Oculus for $2 billion, critics are reverting to the original assumption that crowdfunding is primarily about raising money. “Talking people out of $2.4 million in exchange for zero percent equity is a perfectly legal scam,” wrote my colleague Barry Ritholtz.

But it’s not a scam at all. It’s market research. In effect, customers placed pre-orders and received early products; why are they griping that they don’t own a part of the business?

The backlash is largely Kickstarter’s fault. It may not be running a scam, but it definitely sends mixed messages. Unlike Indiegogo, which prides itself on operating a neutral platform giving anybody’s idea a market test, Kickstarter hasn’t embraced its de facto transformation. It strictly curates the campaigns it hosts and, although it makes its biggest profits on technology products, it still exudes an artistic sensibility that isn’t entirely comfortable with disruptive technology or large enterprises. It still talks as though it’s PBS. “Kickstarter is not a store,” it declares.

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