Monday, August 08, 2016

The Month That Was - July 2016

Savage heat, to the point that I regularly ran my air conditioner.  See, I have nice cool basement where I keep a big screen TV (last of the plasmas) and my office is off to the side.  It stays cool down there pretty much all the time so I keep my thermostat set at about 82 on the main floor during the day (which unfortunately makes it in the 90s upstairs), but I don't care because I can hang comfortably in the chill of my basement.  Then before I hit the sheets I drop it down to 74-ish if it's still hot out when I hit the sheets, but usually I can just open the windows and turn on the fans and be cooled down in no time.  But this month required the a/c, and DTE were ruthless in notifying me via helpful emails that my energy usage was on the increase.  I know, guys.  It's a heat wave.

Unfortunately the heat wave hit just when I got all my new landscaping in so, since the summer has been as dry as it has been hot, I've been struggling to keep the soil moist even with a sprinkler system.  Suburban problems.

My dear houseguests have fled south, so things are more or less back to normal.  I miss them.  I was fun having a another kid around the house.

Just a couple of long rants this month -- really ranty rants at that.  They probably don't make much sense.  I have no idea what got into me.

[Ann Arbor] Life in a Bubble
[Tech]State of Tech

[Ann Arbor] Life in a Bubble

Ann Arbor, where I have lived in-and-around for roughly 2/3s of my life, is the bubbliest of bubbles. Honestly, people in Ann Arbor will gladly pontificate on the issues of the day, almost exclusive from a progressive/left as is the case with most bubbles, when in truth, no Ann Arborites -- including Yours Truly -- should pass any judgment on any real world issues because we just don't know. Our lives are nothing like theirs. Thanks to the cheaply available student loan money which has deeply enriched the University over the past couple of decades, we haven't felt a spot of economic distress in ages. That's right kids: here's some pay-later money to give the University of Michigan to prop up our bubble economy. When you graduate and can't find a job you'll have to leave town and move back in with your parents and be in debt for the next decade or so, but you can be proud that because of you the freshmen living in South Quad have a made-to-order sushi bar. Be sure to keep up on your Alumni Association dues.

The only people we are qualified to pass judgment on are folks in places like Madison WI, or Portland OR, or Austin TX. In other words, other bubble people. Yet, judging from my Facebook news feed, all my beloved friends would disagree. They love to share glib and shallow political posts all day long, and of course, always from stage left. Because bubbles are almost always on the left. I love my friends, but sometimes I'm tempted to start linking up posts from the DPRK News Service just to see what the reaction would be.

Here's a perfect example of a bubble controversy. There is a plot of land in the heart of downtown Ann Arbor -- about one square block -- called the Library Lot (because it's across the street from the library). For years there has been debate as to what to do with it and, Ann Arbor being Ann Arbor, it's gotten all tangled up with questions of social responsibility.

First some background. Despite being a wealthy bubble, Ann Arbor has a problem with the homeless. In the interest of social responsibility, Ann Arbor has constructed a homeless shelter on the edge of the downtown area. Naturally, it isn't just some repurposed warehouse or something, it's a high end homeless shelter, because the homeless deserve their fair share of bubble advantages, don't they? So naturally it attracts homeless from all around. Over the years, this has caused various "issues". There were times I recall back in the 80s where shopkeepers -- many of whom were hand-on-your-heart social activists -- ended up asking people not to give to panhandlers on the street because they were getting out of control. The city council passed complex ordinances which are regularly updated to strongly control when and where panhandling can occur so as to limit it severely but not violate state law which says you can't forbid panhandling.

So in the end we have this sort of compromise where there is a low level tension throughout downtown with the homeless. We want to help them because we are good people, but we don't really want them interfering with our bubble lives.

We do something similar with low-income housing (also called "section 8"). We have a couple of complexes around the city that are intended for low-income tenants. This is by design and by acts of city council and so forth. The supposition is that poor people deserve to live here too, and the hope is that by allowing them to do so they will have better lives than they could otherwise afford since most likely they'd end up in slum-ish sorts of places. It's a nice thought. I have to expect there are at least a handful of folks who have found their way out of poverty because they had options outside of ghetto life.

Like everything else in life there is a cost. Re-locating the poverty stricken to inside the bubble doesn't instantly change their habits. Areas around low-income housing complexes have elevated rates of violent crime, of which there is admittedly little in Ann Arbor. (By far the most common crime in Ann Arbor is larceny, mostly due to students being fairly lax about securing their laptops and such.) Perhaps more telling is that low income housing has a higher rate of police calls -- usually noise complaints over people having loud public domestic disputes at all hours, or over teeth rattling bass every time a car pulls in or out of the parking lot. The cost is in disruption of your peaceful life and loss of property value, and so low-income housing has gotten built in places which were not quite up to the upper-middle class standard of wider Ann Arbor in general -- near lower-middle class, and often senior, residents who aren't organized to fight city council find them as their neighbors. (They sure as hell aren't next door to any of the U of M doctors or professors.)

So back to the Library Lot. For years a group of involved citizens has tried to get the city to build a park on the library lot. Some of of their arguments are a little iffy, for instance they are argue that many cities benefit from a centralized park, citing New York City. Well, the library lot is about one square block -- Central Park it ain't. Still, who can argue against a park in the middle of town?

Lots of people. There is already a smallish little park right near the Library Lot and it is filled with homeless whiling away their days and causing a nuisance before they head back to their nice shelter for the evening. The library itself is dominated by vagrants sleeping in the chairs and smelling the place up. Why on earth would you encourage further chaos by adding more comfort for them Furthermore, money spent to build the park would reduce the subsidy money for low income housing.

So on the one hand we have folks wanting to increase the green quotient of downtown (it could use it) and encourage a sense of community. On the other hand, we have people who want to assure financing and availability of low-income housing. The unspoken corollaries are we have a group of folks trying to take funding away from low-income to use for a city park where they can sip their lattes and tell themselves how much they love trees, and another group who is using the support of low income housing as a justification for killing something that is going to mostly end up encouraging more homeless to settle in Ann Arbor. Such is the labyrinthine nature of bubble politics -- of making sure we indulge our better instincts as long as other people have to sacrifice. I'm sure these things are discussed with great sincerity across the organic vegetable counters at Whole Foods.

That may be too cynical, but my detachment allows it. You see, I make no apologies for loving my bubble. Everybody loves bubbles, but they only become moral liabilities if they become too large. For most people, their bubbles begin and end at their homes. Your home as a bubble has become more normal over time. As a child I recall it being perfectly natural and expected for a friend or acquaintance to ring your doorbell or call you on the pre-voicemail phone unannounced. Now I screen phone calls and would be mildly put out of someone knocked on my door without warning. That's bubblization. Few people have a problem with that.

If you get some money your neighborhood can be your next bubble. Living in a gated community, for example, is usually sneered at by the righteous. Even if it's not gated, your homeowners association or condo board will enforce rules that are not in place in the wider world to maintain the microculture of your neighborhood appropriately. The next step up is the bubble city or county, which requires a certain amount of macroeconomic insulation. As your bubble grows beyond your home, you get painted as having a sort of character flaw -- a snob, a 1%er, probably even a hateful racist at heart. You don't want people to think this, so you devote some of your wealth to building your bubble into an image of a good progressive community, while being careful not to push it to the point where your bubble bursts and the uglier world intrudes.

I have no idea if taking the homeless or poverty-stricken and transplanting them into rich enclaves is productive. I suspect it is for a small minority of them and whether it is worth the cost, again I don't know. Neither do you, although if you're from Ann Arbor you are certain that you do. To me, it's the social phenomena itself that is interesting. It's a clean example of the contradictions and conflicts we create so we can both claim to be good people but still serve ourselves. Robin Hanson makes reference (slightly tongue-in-cheek) to Homo Hypocritus, arguing that such behavior is deeply ingrainied in our make-up and is perhaps an evolutionary design so that we can forward personal interests while still maintaining strong social cohesion.

All that is probably true, but it's not such a bad thing. I don't see any problem living our lives trying to balance moral righteousness with self interest. Just because we do it in the most haphazard, inefficient, and delusional way imaginable, doesn't make it wrong. Bubbles are nice. If you get the chance to spend much your life in a bubble, as I do, I highly recommend it. But understand, the elevated quality of life should make your less secure in your opinions, not more.

A site called Wallet Hub (huh?) has named Ann Arbor the most educated city in the country. Meanwhile Travel+Leisure Magazine rates Ann Arbor the 10th rudest city in the country (even ruder than Detroit). I'll go out on limb and suggest these two findings may be related.

[Tech] State of Tech

When I heard Verizon was in going to buy Yahoo, my thoughts turned to Computer Shopper magazine. You're probably too young to remember Computer Shopper (it might still exist as an emaciated shadow of its former self), but it was an enormous computer oriented magazine -- and when I say enormous, I mean physically. Unlike most magazines which are roughly 8.5 x 11, it was 11x14. Apart from the glossy cover it was printed on pulp, and its 800-ish pages made it about two inches thick. Every single month. There were the requisite reviews and opinion pieces but the vast bulk of it was filled with ads for white-box PC compatibles (as desktop computers were then known) in various states of assembly, or parts for those who could roll their own. Back then, there were actual differences in the PC compatibles and which hardware/software combinations made the best machines was a matter of some debate among the nerdy set. Now there are maybe, what, 6 or 7 practical sources for PCs, almost exclusively of Chinese construction, and the only way to tell the differences is in measured testing and only obvious in edge cases.

Similarly, PC Magazine used to hold an annual Word Processor review. In their heydey, there were dozens of choices often with significant differences in features and performance and interface philosophy. Now there is MS Word and couple of minor others that do their best to copy MS Word on the cheap. But then, people don't generally produce "documents" such as they were. We complete forms and templates, write email or text messages, compose posts and tweets, and so forth. All these need a simple, specific interface, not the generalist tool of MS Word. The majority of my writing is done in Google Docs.

It has been a remarkable transformation in the technology market over the past quarter century from the wild west of garages and basements to the oligopoly we are settled into. The purchase of AOL and Yahoo is Verizon's attempt to stay relevant. I don't have much hope for them. Let's review the players.

Google has to be considered the top dog. Their fingers are in everything, and they seem to be pretty well positioned in most markets, although Facebook probably has the better social media presence -- Google has youtube; Google Plus seems dead in the water, but it's still valuable as platform waiting in the shadows for Facebook to screw up. Google has the best ad engine in history. They own search, which is now much more than search. In my discussion of snapchat in another post, I opened my browser and typed "what are the advantages of snapchat" and it guided me to a number of pages. That's a very powerful position to be in. Think of all the ways you used to try to find info on anything in the past -- now all you have to do is ask you browser and you'll get links and videos galore - the only price is an ad or two to look at and some stranger possibly tracking your preferences. That's not bad.

Google has a hardware brand without actually making the hardware. The Nexus line of phones and tablets, all of which are good enough, but nothing more. They own Android which I hate but, again, it works and it sells and is open for use in just about anything. They have an outside shot at an operating system/pc combo with chromebooks. As most everything moves to the cloud, a decent chromebook is probably all you need, right? We'll see. For content delivery they have Google Play (new, but promising) and the Chromecast stick device thing (meh).

Google also has an toe in pipes and tubes. They're rolling out Google Fiber at an agonizingly slow pace, but wherever it hits, it can put your cable company to shame for throughput. And now they have the Fi service to complete with cell providers, and frankly it's probably the overall best product in that space, unfortunately you need a Nexus device to use it. All in all, Google is in a terrifyingly good position.

Most people would say their biggest competitor is Apple, but I think it's Amazon. Amazon is the only store left standing in any non-niche sense. About the only thing you can't get from Amazon is products that are fairly specialized and can be purchased simply from the producer. Plane tickets comes to mind. Certain tech items you probably will buy direct from Microsoft or Apple or Dell. Amazon still doesn't do great with groceries, but nobody does. And of course eBay also counts as a competitor for sales. But generally if you have something to sell, you're better off setting up an Amazon storefront and taking advantage of all their tools rather than trying to roll your own. The power of Amazon's position is best illustrated by seeing what a weakling WalMart, one of the biggest retailers in history, looks like when they try to compete. The only potential competition they face is Chinese retailer Alibaba. It will be interesting to see how things progress forward as the two companies butt heads more and more. (A Jack Ma vs. Jeff Bezos throwdown would be epic.)

Although Amazon has eschewed tubes and pipes, they have yet another area where they are the 900 pound gorilla and that is cloud sourcing. Amazon Web Services is enormous and they have a huge leg up on anyone else when it comes to hosting cloud functions. This is really back-end/behind the scenes stuff, but one way to think about it is that cloud services are your personal computers when everything is on the cloud. That gives you a sense of how big this market is and Amazon already has a dominant position.

Another unique move for Amazon is in content, where they are leveraging their Prime service. Prime music can't compete with Spotify (yet) but it's improving and it has the advantage that it's already got a huge base of possible users. You still have to sign up for Spotify (and 30 million have) but there are more twice many Amazon Prime users. So let's say you are like me and you've had Amazon Prime for years mostly for the free shipping. Or let's say you're a Spotify user and you decide to get Amazon Prime for free shipping or for video content. In either case, as soon as Prime Music approaches Spotify in features and selection, I am either dropping or never considering Spotify -- it's superfluous. The same argument can be made for Prime Video vs. Netflix. Both Spotify and Netflix will be at a constant disadvantage because of how Amazon has brilliantly leveraged their retail strength.

Amazon has tried their hand at devices and it hasn't been encouraging. The standard Kindle line has been a great success, but the Fire tablets less so and the Fire phone was an outright flop. (Personal aside: I have a Fire phone a Fire tablet and a Fire stick. The phone has ceased to be able to charge. It doesn't even know it's plugged in. The tablet freaked out after the last OS update and now thinks it's ad supported when I paid for it to be ad-free. It was lousy tablet anyway. The Fire Stick is a solid streamer, but no more Fire things for me.) And then there's Alexa and those re-order buttons you can buy -- I suppose it's possible those will succeed, although I have heard nothing to suggest they will.

But that's a comparatively small concern. I don't see any lessening of Amazon's might in the upcoming years.

Apple has to be one of the most overrated companies. As near as I can tell they have one asset: the iOS ecosystem. That's huge, but beyond that I don't see anything. Apple Music (iTunes) is sizable but no longer the leader and were it not for it's deep integration with iOS, it would be an afterthought. Apple TV has made no inroads. Macs, like all personal computers, are flatlining at best. What is Apple's strategy for the future? They have no play in Pipes and Tubes. They have no play in Content. They have no play in the Cloud. iOS is, quite frankly, better than Android, but as we have seen, better is no guarantee of growth. Profits are still huge, as is market cap, but as I see it Apple is no longer an innovator and a tech leader. Their latest big product release was a essentially a copy of the Microsoft Surface. They are milking a cash cow now. Steve Jobs is spinning like a blender.

Microsoft is really the most interesting one of the bunch. Like Apple, they are milking a cash cow, but theirs is a little more broadly based: Office/Windows. They also have solid software positions in various development tool/back end markets. They have the IE/Edge browsers, the only value of which that I can see is that it can have Bing as the default search and hope you won't bother to change it to Google.

On the hardware side they have Xbox, which is a worthwhile thing to have as a potential platform unifying games and streaming entertainment. The Surface line of tablets and laptops has had some success, but to what end in the cloud future? Windows Phone/Mobile has cement boots, which is sad because it was the best phone interface ever made and the hardware was as good a iPhone. Microsoft has suffered this fate before with Zune, which was also quite wonderful and actually set software design standards for much of the current clean and flat styling you see in apps. Note: I was using my Fire Phone as a dedicated music player and when it died, I fired up my old Zune and it didn't miss a beat.

They bought Skype which conceivably would have put them in position to create a Google Fi type carrier service that switches between wi-fi and cell networks for calls and texts, but Google, not surprisingly, were the ones who made it a product.

Groove Music, their music service is another instance of Microsoft keeping its fingers in things with a market afterthought, like Bing and Windows Mobile. It's almost as if they are intending to keep these products around in the hopes of having technology ready if a unifying vision ever occurs to someone.

Right now that vision seems to be a focus away from the consumer to the business market which their purchase of LinkedIn seems to align with. They have a solid cloud strategy, called Azure, leveraging their Office products into a software-as-a-service offering and presumably offering very hardware/networking combinations with Surface as a managed point of entry and various remote services including Skype. Their vision messaging on this sucks but I could see businesses, and not just big corps, becoming "Microsoft shops" again, as many were back in the early 2000s.

On the other hand, Microsoft has a remarkable propensity for developing great products only to have them fail for one reason or another, so who knows. Like I said. The most interesting player right now.

The only other name that comes up in a Tech oligarchy discussion is Facebook, but Facebook is a one trick pony. You have to admire the eyeball count, but they are pure social media. They'll make tons of money, and what with the Instagram and Whatsapp purchases they will battle Google for the consumer profiling dollars. But as a prime influencer in tech, I don't see much.

So that's what makes Verizon look so lame. A solid old school carrier and couple of beatdown consumer profilers (AOL, Yahoo) do not relevancy make.

The long term oligopoly is shaping up with Google and Amazon as GM and Ford and the rest as a handful of smaller orbiters. The good news is that perhaps that means stability of some sort is coming and we won't have interfaces to re-learn and incompatibilities to struggle with. At least until the next revolution.