What squirrels taught me about post-scarcity societies

If you know any transhumanists or other forward-looking folks, you’ve probably encountered the notion of a “post-scarcity society.”

I just got back from a two-month writing retreat in a cabin deep in the heart of rural Washington, many miles from civilization. The squirrels at the cabin are quite talented at stealing birdseed from the bird feeders around the cabin, and that taught me a lesson about transhumanism and post-scarcity society.

This might make me a bad transhumanist, but I think the hype about post-scarcity society is overblown, and i think the more Panglossian among the transhumanists have a poor handle on this whole matter of fundamental human nature.

I’ve written an essay about it over on Think Beyond Us, which includes a video of squirrel warfare. Here’s a teaser:

We’re moving toward the technology to do things in a completely different way: using tiny machines to build stuff from a molecular or atomic level. In the book Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler envisions a time when we will be able to fabricate almost anything we can imagine from simple raw materials and energy.

And on this foundation, futurists say, post-scarcity society will be built. If we can make anything from any raw materials cheaply or free, there is no longer a divide between rich and poor. Think Las Vegas where everyone is a millionaire whale. Want a car? A sofa? A cup of tea? Program assemblers with the characteristics of the thing you want, push a button, and presto! There it is.

In a society where everyone can have whatever stuff they want and nobody has to work, entertainment becomes very important indeed. And those who can provide it—those who can write, or sing, or perform—well, they control access to the only resource besides land that means anything.

So what, then, do we make of a society where the 1% are determined not in accordance with how many resources they control, but how creative they are? A Utopian might say that anyone can learn to be creative and entertaining; a look around the history of humanity suggests that isn’t true.

Those who own land today command one of the few resources that will matter tomorrow. Those who can entertain command the only thing that can buy that resource. And the rest of humanity? Suddenly, Utopia starts to look a whole lot less Utopian to them, and a whole lot more like the same old same old.

Check it out! You can read the whole thing here.

It’s the econom(ies), stupid!

On a casual browse of the Web this afternoon, I came across an interesting statistic: there are, as of last month, 9.6 million unemployed people in the United States.

More than nine and a half million people. That’s three and a half times more folks than the number of people who live in Chicago. It’s more than the entire population of New York City, by a margin that comfortably exceeds the combined populations of Denver and Boston. It is, in short, rather an astonishingly large number of people.

Imagine this, times 16,000

And that number is considered good news, as it’s smaller than it has been in a while. (Well, at least in theory. Folks who are unemployed for a long time eventually stop being counted amongst the unemployed, as they’re considered to be no longer participating in the workforce. There’s some weird numerical voodoo around the “workforce participation rate” that I don’t pretend to understand, but the takeaway is the number of folks who’d like to be doing something and aren’t is probably higher than nine and a half million people.)

Nine and a half million people. Nine and a half million people. That’s more people than the entire population of many countries. Like Sweden. And Switzerland. And Norway.

Nine and a half million people. People who want to work but can’t find jobs.

So that got me thinking.

If I had nine and a half million people at my disposal, I could probably make a big pile of money. After all, Norway has a bit more than half that many people (total, including folks who are too young or too old to work), and it has a pretty decently sized economy: its GDP is 512.6 billion US dollars a year, giving it an astonishing GDP per capita comfortably north of $100,000 per person per year. (By way of comparison, the US is far wealthier but also far less efficient and way less productive; its GDP is 16.8 trillion per year, but its per capita GDP is only $53,000 and change per person per year.

Nine and a half million people. If even half of them want to work and have something they can do to create value, it should be possible for that workforce to represent half a trillion dollars a year. Even if we assume productivity that’s more in line with US norms than Norwegian norms, that’s a third of a trillion dollars a year, just lying there, unused. And they can’t find work.

Nine and a half million people is a lot of people. It’s more than a city’s worth of people; it’s a country’s worth of people. It’s trillions of dollars, lying on the ground, that nobody’s picking up.

Nine and a half million people. That’s more than enough–way more than enough–for an entire economy. That’s enough people to represent both the production side and the demand side of…well, everything an economy produces. Somebody could start an entire economy, with its own goods, services, production, distribution–hell, with its own currency–with that number of people.

Which brings up, to my mind: Why hasn’t anyone? There’s arguably up to a half a trillion dollars just lying on the ground. Why hasn’t anyone picked it up?

It should, it seems to me, be possible to take that nine and a half million people and just…opt out of the economy. Create a shadow economy, running alongside the “official” US economy, using all the labor that the US economy can’t or won’t make use of.

Wouldn’t that be an interesting experiment to run.

People starting businesses, maybe using their own currency, maybe not. Employing the folks who are currently unemployed, who also become the consumers of the goods and services produced. All running independent of the US economy, much the way Norway’s economy runs independent of the US economy–its own thing, geographically inside the United States but otherwise distinct from it…an economy inside an economy, like those nested Russian dolls.

It clearly wouldn’t be able to scale from zero to half a trillion dollars overnight–but it wouldn’t have to. Being located inside the United States means there’s ample opportunity to utilize the goods and services of the “official” economy while it gathers flight velocity.

Nine and a half million people, working and living alongside the official economy, but creating their own. Sure, there would be points of overlap–presumably, they’d still pay US taxes, but that’s okay.

This economy would not grow the way most economies do. For one, those nine and a half million people are distributed over the entire country…but not thinly. There are geographical concentrations (Detroit springs to mind) where the population density in this ‘second economy’ would be quite high. Modern telecommunication (and most significantly, the Internet) makes things easier too; it’s relatively simple to connect sellers and buyers who are geographically disbursed online.

I recognize significant challenges involved with starting a parallel economy from scratch. I am also not a Libertarian; I do not believe an entirely unregulated economic system will ever produce anything but the most vicious abusing the most vulnerable. A system of regulation to prevent abuse has to be part of any viable economy, and in a parallel economy that becomes more difficult to achieve.

But still, it’s hard to reduce the lure of half a trillion dollars. Half a trillion dollars, sitting there waiting to be picked up. That’s a significant economy, able to support a significant number of people. That’s half a football field of $100 bills, stacked to the middle of the goalposts.

Holy simoleons, that’s a lot of dosh. Nine and a half million people, saying hey, forget waiting for a job to come along, let’s create a brand-new economy. Seems to me it absolutely could work. What would it look like? I don’t know. But wouldn’t it be fascinating to find out?

Monsanto: The Gigantic Evil Megacorp (that’s actually kinda a pipsqueak)

Among the left-leaning progressives that make up a substantial part of Portland’s general population, there is a profound fear of GMO food that’s becoming an identity belief–a belief that’s held not because it’s supported by evidence, but because it helps define membership in a group.

It’s frustrating to talk to the anti-GMO crowd, in part because these conversations always involve goalposts whipping around so fast I’m afraid someone will poke my eye out. It generally starts with “I don’t like GMOs because food safety,” but when you start talking about how evidence to support that position is as thin on the ground as snowmen in the Philippines, the goalposts quickly move to “I don’t like GMOs because Monsanto.” Monsanto, if you listen to Portland hippies, is a gigantic, evil mega-corporation that controls the government, buys off all the world’s scientists, intimidates farmers, and rules supreme over the media.

So I got to thinking, How big is Monsanto? Because it takes quite a lot of money to do the things Monsanto is accused of doing–when they can be done at all, that is.

And I started Googling. The neat thing about publicly-traded corporations is they have to post all their financials. A quick Google search will reveal just how big any public company really is.

I expected to learn that Monsanto was big. I was surprised.

As big companies go, Monsanto is a runt. In terms of gross revenue, it is almost exactly the same size as Whole Foods and Starbucks. It’s smaller than The Gap, way smaller than 7-11 and UPS, a tiny fraction of the size of Home Depot, and miniscule compared to Verizon and ExxonMobil. That’s it, way down on the left on this graph I made:

You can’t shake a stick in the anti-GMO crowd without hearing a dozen conspiracy theories, almost all of them centered around Monsanto. Lefties like to sneer at conservative conspiracy theories about global warming, but when it comes to GMOs, they haven’t met a conspiracy theory they don’t love to embrace.

Most of these conspiracy theories talk about how Monsanto, that enormous, hulking brute of a magacorporation, has somehow bought off all the world’s scientists, creating a conspiracy to tell us GMOs are safe when they’re not.

Now, hippie lefties usually aren’t scientists. In fact, anyone who’s ever been part of academia can tell you a conspiracy of scientists saying something that isn’t true is only a little bit more likely than a conspiracy of cats saying tuna is evil. As an essay on Slate put it,

Think of your meanest high school mean girl at her most gleefully, underminingly vicious. Now give her a doctorate in your discipline, and a modicum of power over your future. That’s peer review.

Speaking of conspiracies of scientists, let’s get back to conservatives and their “climate change” scientific conspiracy. Look at the left-hand side of the chart up there, then look at the right-hand side. Look at the left side again. Now look at the right side again.

ExxonMobil makes more than 26 times more money than Monsanto, and has a higher net profit margin, too. Combined, the country’s top 5 oil companies have a gross revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion, more than 87 times Monsanto’s revenue, and yet…

…they still can’t get the world’s scientists to say global warming isn’t a thing.

If the oil companies can’t buy a conspiracy of scientists, how can a pipsqueak like Monsanto manage it?

I’m planning a more in-depth blog post about GMOs and anti-GMO activism later. But the “Monsanto buys off scientists” conspiracy nuttiness needed addressing on its own, because it’s so ridiculous.

It’s easy to root for the underdog. One of the cheapest, most manipulative ways to make an argument is to refer to something you don’t like as “Big” (Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big SCAM as I like to think of the Supplemental, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine community). We are culturally wired to love the underdog; a great deal of left identity is wrapped up in being the ones who root for the common man against Big Whatever.

So the ideology of Monsanto as the Big Enemy has emotional resonance. We like to think of the small guy standing up against Big Monsanto, when the reality is Whole Foods, so beloved of hippies everywhere, is basically the same size big corporation as the oft-hated Monsanto, and both of them are tiny in the shadow of far larger companies like 7-11 and Target.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to head down to Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte and listen to the hippies rant about how much they hate big corporations like Monsanto.

Some thoughts on government funding for research

Every time you buy a hard drive, some of your money goes to the German government.

That’s because in the late 1990s, a physicist named Peter Grünberg at the Forschungszentrum Jülich (Jülich Research Center) made a rather odd discovery.

The Jülich Research Center is a government-funded German research facility that explores nuclear physics, geoscience, and other fields. There’s a particle accelerator there, and a neutron scattering reactor, and not one or two or even three but a whole bunch of supercomputers, and a magnetic confinement fusion tokamak, and a whole bunch of other really neat and really expensive toys. All of the Center’s research money comes from the government–half from the German federal government and half from the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Anyway, like I was saying, in the late 1990s, Peter Grünberg made a rather odd discovery. He was exploring quantum physics, and found that in a material made of several layers of magnetic and non-magnetic materials, if the layers are thin enough (and by “thin enough” I mean “only a few atoms thick”), the material’s resistance changes dramatically when it’s exposed to very, very weak magnetic fields.

There’s a lot of deep quantum voodoo about why this is. Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:

If scattering of charge carriers at the interface between the ferromagnetic and non-magnetic metal is small, and the direction of the electron spins persists long enough, it is convenient to consider a model in which the total resistance of the sample is a combination of the resistances of the magnetic and non-magnetic layers.

In this model, there are two conduction channels for electrons with various spin directions relative to the magnetization of the layers. Therefore, the equivalent circuit of the GMR structure consists of two parallel connections corresponding to each of the channels. In this case, the GMR can be expressed as

Here the subscript of R denote collinear and oppositely oriented magnetization in layers, χ = b/a is the thickness ratio of the magnetic and non-magnetic layers, and ρN is the resistivity of non-magnetic metal. This expression is applicable for both CIP and CPP structures.

Make of that what you will.

Conservatives and Libertarians have a lot of things in common. In fact, for all intents and purposes, libertarians in the United States are basically conservatives who are open about liking sex and drugs. (Conservatives and libertarians both like sex and drugs; conservatives just don’t cop to it.)

One of the many areas they agree on is that the governmet should not be funding science, particularly “pure” science with no obvious technological or commercial application.

Another thing they have in common is they don’t understand what science is. In the field of pure research, you can never tell what will have technological or commercial application.

Back to Peter Grünberg. He discovered that quantum mechanics makes magnets act really weird, and in 2007 he shared a Nobel Prize with French physicist Albert Fert, a researcher at the French Centre national de la recherche scientifique (French National Centre for Scientific Research), France’s largest government-funded research facility.

And it turns out this research had very important commercial applications:

You know how in the 80s and 90s, hard drives were these heavy, clunky things with storage capacities smaller than Rand Paul’s chances at ever winning the Presidency? And then all of a sudden they were terabyte this, two terabyte that?

Some clever folks figured out how to use this weird quantum mechanics voodoo to make hard drive heads that could respond to much smaller magnetic fields, meaning more of them could be stuffed on a magnetic hard drive platter. And boom! You could carry around more storage in your laptop than used to fit in a football stadium.

It should be emphasized that Peter Grünberg and Albert Fert were not trying to invent better hard drives. They were government physicists, not Western Digital employees. They were exploring a very arcane subject–what happens to magnetic fields at a quantum level–with no idea what they would find, or whether it would be applicable to anything.

So let’s talk about your money.

When it became obvious that this weird quantum voodoo did have commercial possibility, the Germans patented it. IBM was the first US company to license the patent; today, nearly all hard drives license giant magnetoresistance patents. Which means every time you buy a hard drive, or a computer with a hard drive in it, some of your money flows back to Germany.

Conservatives and libertarians oppose government funding for science because, to quote the Cato Institute,

[G]overnment funding of university science is largely unproductive. When Edwin Mansfield surveyed 76 major American technology firms, he found that only around 3 percent of sales could not have been achieved “without substantial delay, in the absence of recent academic research.” Thus some 97 percent of commercially useful industrial technological development is, in practice, generated by in-house R&D. Academic science is of relatively small economic importance, and by funding it in public universities, governments are largely subsidizing predatory foreign companies.

Make of that what you will. I’ve read it six times and I’m still not sure I understand the argument.

The Europeans are less myopic. They understand two things the Americans don’t: pure research is the necessary foundation for a nation’s continued economic growth, and private enterprise is terrible at funding pure research.

Oh, there are a handful of big companies that do fund pure research, to be sure–but most private investment in research comes after the pure, no-idea-if-this-will-be-commercially-useful, let’s-see-how-nature-works variety.

It takes a lot of research and development to get from the “Aha! Quantum mechanics does this strange thing when this happens!” to a gadget you have in your home. That also takes money and development, and it’s the sort of research private enterprise excels at. In fact, the Cato Institute cites many examples of biotechnology and semiconductor research that are privately funded, but these are types of research that generally already have a clear practical value, and they take place after the pure research upon which they rest.

So while the Libertarians unite with the Tea Party to call for the government to cut funding for research–which is working, as government research grants have fallen for the last several years in a row–the Europeans are ploughing money into their physics labs and research facilities and the Superconducting Supercollider, which I suspect will eventually produce a stream of practical, patentable ideas…and every time you buy a hard drive, some of your money goes to Germany.

Modern societies thrive on technological innovation. Technological innovation depends on understanding the physical world–even when it seems at first like there aren’t any obvious practical uses for what you learn. They know that, we don’t. I think that’s going to catch up with us.

Of Android, iOS, and the Rule of Two Thousand, Part II

In part 1 of this article, I blogged about leaving iOS when I traded my iPhone for an Android-powered HTC Sensation 4G, and how I came to detest Android in spite of its theoretical superiority to iOS and came back to the iPhone.

Part 1 talked about the particular handset I had, the T-Mobile version of the Sensation, a phone with such ill-conceived design, astronomically bad build quality, and poor reliability that at the end of the year I was on my third handset under warranty exchange–every one of which failed in exactly the same way.

Today, in Part 2, I’d like to talk about Android itself.

When I first got my Sensation, it was running Android 2.3, code-named “Gingerbread.” Android 3 “Honeycomb” had been out for quite some time, but it was a build aimed primarily at tablets, not phones. When I got my phone, Android 4 “Ice Cream Sandwich” was in the works, ready to be released shortly.

That led to one of my first frustrations with the Android ecosystem–the shoddy, patchwork way that operating system updates are released.

My phone was promised an update in the second half of 2011. This gradually changed to Q4 2011, then to December 2011, then to January 2012, then to Q1 2012. It was finally released on May 16 of 2012, nearly six months after it had been promised.

And I got off lucky. Many Motorola users bought smart phones just before the arrival of Android 4; their phones came with a written guarantee that an update to Android 4 would be published for their phones. It never happened. To add insult to injury, Motorola released a patch for these phones that locked the bootloader, rendering the phone difficult or impossible to upgrade manually with custom ROMs–so even Android enthusiasts couldn’t upgrade the phones.

Now, this is not necessarily Google’s fault. Google makes the base operating system; it is the responsibility of the individual handset manufacturers to customize it for their phones (which often involves shoveling a lot of crapware and garbage programs onto the phone) and then release it for their hardware. Google has done little to encourage manufacturers to backport Android, nor to get manufacturers to offer a consistent user experience with software updates, instead leaving the device manufacturers free to do pretty much as they choose except actually fork Android themselves…which has led to what developers call “platform fragmentation” and to what Motorola Electrify, Photon and Atrix users call things I shan’t repeat in a blog as family-friendly as this one.

But what of the operating system itself?

Well, it’s a mixed bag of mess.

When I first got my Android phone, I noted how the user interface seemed to have been designed by throwing a box of buttons and dialogs and menus over one’s shoulder and then wired up wherever they hit. System settings were scattered in three different places, without it necessarily being obvious where you might find any particular setting. Functionality was duplicated in different places. The Menu button is a mess; it’s filled with whatever the programmer couldn’t find a better place for, with little thought to good UI design.

Android is built on Linux, an operating system that has a great future on the desktop ahead of it, and always will. The Year of Linux on the Desktop was 2000 was 2002 was 2005 was 2008 was 2009 was 2012 will be 2013. Desktop aside, Linux has been a popular server choice for a very long time, because one thing Linux genuinely has going for it is rock-solid reliability. When I was working in Atlanta, I had a Linux Gentoo server that had accumulated well over two years’ continuous uptime and was shut down only because it needed to be moved.

So it is somewhat consternating that Linux on cell phones seems rather fragile.

So fragile, in fact, that my HTC Sensation would pop up a “New T-Mobile Service Notice” alert every week, reminding me to restart the phone. Even the network operators, it would seem, have little confidence in Android’s stability.

It’s a bit disappointing that the one thing I most like about Linux seems absent from Android. Again, though, this might not be Google’s fault directly; the handset makers and network operators do this to themselves, by taking Android and packaging it up with a bunch of craplets of spotty reliability.

One of the things that it is really, really important to be aware of in the Android ecosystem is the way the money flows. You, as a cell phone owner, are not Google’s customer. Google’s customer is the handset manufacturer. You, as as a cell phone owner, are not the handset manufacturer’s customer. The handset manufacturer’s customer is the network operator. You are the network operator’s customer–but you are not the network operator’s only customer.

Because of this, the handset maker and the network operator will seek additional revenue streams whenever they can. If someone offers HTC money to bundle some crap app on their phones, HTC will do it. If T-Mobile decides it can get more revenue by bundling its own or someone else’s crap app on your phone, it will.

Not only are you not the customer, at some points along the chain–for the purposes of Google ad revenue, say–you are the product being sold. Whenever you hear people talking about “freedom” or “openness” in the Android ecosystem, never forget that.

I sometimes travel outside the US, mainly to Canada these days. When I do that, my phone really, really, really wants me to turn on data roaming.

There are reasons for that. When you roam, especially internationally, the telcos charge rates for data that would make a Mafia loan shark blush. So Android agreeably nudges you to turn on data roaming, and here’s kind of a sticking point…

Even if you’re connected to the Internet via wifi.

It pops up an alert constantly, and by “constantly” I really do mean constantly. Even when you have wifi access, it pops up every time you switch applications, every time you unlock the phone, and about every twenty minutes when you aren’t using the phone.

Just think of it as Google’s way to help the telcos tap your ass that revenue stream.

This multiple-revenue-streams-from-multiple-customers model has implications, not only for the economics of the ecosystem, but for the reliability of your phone as well. And even for the battery life of your phone.

Take HTC phones on T-Mobile (please!). They come shoveled–err, “bundled”–with an astonishing array of crap. HTC’s mediocre Facebook app. HTC Peep, HTC’s much-worse-than-mediocre Twitter client. Slacker Radio, a client for a B-list Internet radio station.

The presence of all the various crapware that comes preloaded on most Android phones, plus the fact that Android apps don’t quit when they lose focus, generally means that a task manager app is a necessary addition to any Android system…which is fine for the computer literate, but less optimal for folks who aren’t so computer savvy.

And it doesn’t always help.

For example, Slacker Radio on my Sensation insists on running all the time at startup, whether I want it to or not:

Killing it with the task manager never works. Within ten minutes after being killed, it somehow respawns, like a zombie in a George Ramero movie, shambling after you no matter how many times you shoot it:

The App Manager in the Android control panel has a function to disable an app entirely, even if it’s set to launch at startup. For reasons I was never able to understand, this did not work with Slacker. It was always there. Always. There. It. Never. Goes. Away. You. Can’t. Hide. From. It.

Speaking of that “disable app” functionality…

Oh, goddamnit, no, I don’t want to turn on data roaming. Speaking of that “disable app” functionality, use it with care! I soon learned that disabling some bundled apps can have…unfortunate consequences.

Like HTC Peep, for instance. It’s the only Twitter client for smartphones I have yet found that is even worse than the official Twitter client for smartphones. It loads a system service at startup (absent from the Task Killer screenshots above because I have the task killer set not to display system services). If you let it, it will download your Twitter feed.

And download your Twitter feed.

And download your Twitter feed. It does not cache any of the Twitter messages you read; every time you start its user interface, it re-downloads the whole thing again. The result, as you might imagine, is eyewatering amounts of data usage. If you aren’t one of the lucky few who still has a truly unmetered data plan, think twice about letting Peep have your Twitter account information!

Oh, and don’t try to disable it in the application control panel. If you do, the phone’s unlock screen doesn’t work any more, as I discovered to my chagrin. Seriously.

The official Twitter app isn’t much better…

…but at least it isn’t necessary to unlock the damn phone.

All this crapware does more than eat memory, devour bandwidth, and slow the phone down. It guzzles battery power, too. One of the default Google apps, Google Maps, also starts a service each time the phone boots up, and man, does it hog the battery juice…even if you don’t use Maps at all. (This screen shot, for instance, was taken at a point in time when I hadn’t touched the Maps app in days.)

You will note the battery is nearly exhausted after only four hours and change. I eventually took to killing the Maps service whenever I restarted the phone, which seems to have improved the HTC’s mediocre battery life without actually affecting Maps when I went to use it.

Another place where Android’s lack of a clear and consistent user interface–


Sorry, where was I?

Oh, yes. Another place where Android’s lack of a clear and consistent user interface is its contact management, which is surely one of the more straightforward bits of functionality any smart phone should have.

Android gives you, or perhaps “makes you take responsibility for,” a level of granularity of the inner workings of its contact database that really seems inappropriate.

It makes distinctions between contacts which are stored on your SIM card, contacts which are stored in the Google contact manager (and synced to the Google cloud), and contacts which are stored in other ways. There are, all in all, about half a dozen ways to store contacts–card, Google cloud, T-Mobile cloud, phone memory card. They all look pretty much the same when you’re browsing your contacts, but different ways to store them have different limitations on the type of data that can be stored.

Furthermore, it’s not immediately obvious how and where any particular contact is stored. Things you might think are being synced by Google might not actually be.

And worse, you can’t, as near as I was ever able to tell, export all your contacts at once. Oh, you can export them, all right; Android lets you save them in a .vcf file which you can then bring to another phone or sync with your computer. But you can’t export ALL of them. You have to choose which SET you export: export all the contacts on your SIM card? Export all your Google contacts? Export all your locally-saved-on-the-phone-memory-card contacts?

When I was in getting my second warranty replacement phone, I asked the technician if there was an easy way to take every contact on the phone and save all of them in one export. He said, no, there really isn’t; what he recommended I do was export each group to a different file, then import all those files to my Google contact list, and then finally delete all the duplicates from all the other contact lists.

It worked, but seriously? This is stupid user interface design. It’s a user interface misfeature you might not ever encounter if you always (though luck or choice) save your contacts to the same set, but if for whatever reason you haven’t, God help you.

Yes, I can see why you might want to have separate contact lists, stored and backed up separately. No, that does not excuse the lack of any reasonable way to identify, sort, and merge those contact lists. C’mon, Google engineers, you aren’t even trying.

And speaking of brain-dead user interface design, how about this alert?

What the fuck, Google?

Okay, I get it, I get it. WiFi sharing uses a lot of battery power. The flash uses battery power. Android is just looking out for my best interests, trying to save my battery…

…but don’t all the Fandroids carry on about how much better Android is because it doesn’t force you to do what it thinks is best for you, it lets you decide for yourself? Again I say, what the fuck, Google?

So far, I have complained mostly about the visible bits of Android, the user interface failings and design decisions that demonstrate a lack of any sort of rigorous, cohesive approach to UI design.

Unfortunately, the same problems apply to the internals of Android, too.

One early design decision Google made in the first days of Android concerns the way it handles screen redraws. Google intended for Android to be portable to a wide range of phones, from low-end phones to full-featured smartphones, and so Android does not make use of the same level of GPU acceleration that iOS does. Instead, it uses the CPU to perform many drawing tasks.

This has performance and use implications.

User interface drawing occurs in an application’s main execution thread and is handled primarily by the CPU. (Technically speaking, each element on the screen–buttons, widgets, and so on–is rendered by the CPU, then the GPU handles the compositing.) That means that applications will often block while screen redraws are happening. On HTC Sense, for instance, if you put a clock on the home screen and then you start switching between screens, the clock will freeze for as long as your finger is on the screen.

It also means that things like populating a scrolling list is far slower on Android than it is on iOS, even if the Android device has theoretically better specs. Lists are populated by the CPU, and when you scroll through a list, the entire list is redrawn with each pixel it moves. On iOS, the list is treated as a 2D OpenGL surface; as you scroll through it, the GPU is responsible for updating it. Even on smartphones with fast processors, this sometimes causes noticeable UI sluggishness. Worse, if the CPU is interrupted by something else, like updating a background task or doing a memory garbage collect, the UI freezes for an instant.

Each successive version of Android has accelerated more graphics functions. Android 4 is significantly better than Android 2.3 in this regard. User input can still be blocked during CPU activity, and background tasks still don’t update UI elements while a foreground thread is doing so (I was disappointed to note that in Android 4, the clock still freezes when you swap pages in HTC Sense), but Android 4’s graphics performance is way, way, waaaaaaay better than it was in 2.3.

There are still some limitations, though. Because UI updates occur in the main execution thread, even in Android 4, background tasks can still end up being blocked while UI updates are in effect. This actually means there are some screen captures I wanted to show you, but can’t.

One place where Android falls down compared to iOS is in its built-in touch keyboard. Yes, hardcore geeks prefer physical keyboards, and Android was developed by hardcore geeks, which might be part of the reason Android’s touch keyboard is so lackluster.

One problem I had in Android 2.3 that I really, really hoped Android 4 would fix, and was sad to note that it didn’t, is that occasionally the touch keyboard just simply does not work.

Intermittently, usually once or twice a day, I would bring up an app–the SMS messenger, say, or a notepad, or the IMO IM messenger, and I’d start typing. The phone would buzz on each keypress, the key would flash like it does…but nothing would happen. No text would be entered.

And I’d quit the app, and relaunch it, and everything would be fine. Or it wouldn’t, and I’d quit and relaunch the app again, and if it still wasn’t fine, I’d reboot the phone, and force quit Google Maps in the task manager, and everything would be fine.

I tried very hard to get a screen capture of this, but it turns out the screen capture functionality doesn’t work when your finger is on the touch keyboard. As long as your finger is on the keyboard, the main execution thread is busy drawing, and background functions like screen grabs are blocked.

Speaking of the touch keyboard, there’s one place iOS really shines over Android, and that’s telling where your finger is at on the screen.

That’s harder than it sounds. For one, the part of your finger that first makes contact with the screen might not be where you think it is; it’s not always right in the middle of your finger. For another, when your finger touches the screen, it’s not just a single x,y point that’s being activated. Your finger is big–when you have a high-resolution screen, it’s bigger than you think. A whole lot of area on the touch screen is being activated.

So a lot more deep programming voodoo goes on behind the scenes to figure out where you intended to touch than you might think.

The keys on an iPhone touch keyboard are physically smaller on the screen than they are on an Android screen, and Android screens are often bigger than iOS screens, too. You’d think that would mean it’s easier to type on an Android phone than an iPhone.

And you’d be wrong. I have found, consistently and repeatably, that my typing accuracy is much better on an iPhone than an Android phone, even when the Android phone has a bigger screen and a bigger keyboard. (One of my friends complains that I have fewer hilarious typos and bizarre autocorrects in my text messages now, since I switched back to the iPhone.)

The deep voodoo in iOS appears to be better than the deep voodoo in Android, and yes, I calibrated my touch screen in Android.

Now, you can get third-party keyboards on Android that are much better. The Swiftkey keyboard for Android is awesome, and I love it. It’s a lot more sophisticated than any other keyboard I’ve tried, no question.

But goddamnit, here’s the thing…if you pay hundreds of dollars for a smart phone with a built-in touch keyboard, you shouldn’t HAVE to buy a third-party keyboard to get good results. Yes, they exist, but that does not excuse the pathetic performance of the stock Android keyboard! It’s like saying “Well, this new operating system isn’t very good at loading files, but that’s not a problem because you can buy a third-party file loader.” The user Should. Not. Have. To. Do. This.

And even if you do buy it, you’re still not paying for the amount of R&D that went into it. It’s a losing proposition for the developer AND for the users.

My new iPhone included iOS 6, which feels much more refined than Android on almost every level.

I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention what a lot of folks see at the Achille’s heel of iOS: its Maps app.

Early iPhones used Google Maps, a solid piece of work that lacked some basic functionality, such as turn-by-turn directions. When I moved to Android, I wrote about how the Maps app in Android was head, shoulders, torso, and kneecaps above the Maps app in iOS, and it was one of the best things about Android.

And then Android 4 came along.

I don’t know what happened to Maps in Android 4. Maybe it’s just a problem on the Sensation. Maybe it’s an issue where the power manager is changing the processor clock speed and Maps doesn’t notice. I don’t know.

But in Android 4, the cheery synthesized female voice that the turn-by-turn directions used got a little…weird.

I mean, it always was weird; you should hear how it pronounces “Caesar E. Chavez Blvd” (something Maps in iOS 6 pronounces just fine, actually). But it got weirder, in that it would alternate between dragging like a record player (does anyone remember those?) with a bad motor and then suddenly speeding up until it sounded like it was snorting a mixture of helium and crystal meth.

It was a bit disconcerting: “In two hundred feet, turn llllllllllleeeeeeeeeeffffffffftttttttt oooooooooonnnnnnnnn twwwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnttttyyyyyyyy–SECONDAVENUEANDTHENTURNRIGHT!” There was never a rhyme or reason to it; it never happened consistently on certain words or in certain places.

Now, Maps on iOS has been slammed all over Hell and back by the Internetverse. Any mapping program is going to have glitches (Google places a street that a friend of mine lives on about two and a half miles from where it actually is, in the middle of an empty field), but iOS apparently has a whole lot of very silly errors.

I say “apparently” because I haven’t personally encountered any yet, knock on data.

It was perhaps inevitable that Apple should eventually roll their own app (if by “roll their own” you mean “buy map data from Tom Tom”), because Google refused to license turn-by-turn mapping to Apple, so as to create a product differentiation point to make bloggers like me say things like “Wow, Google’s Android Map app sure is better than the one on iOS!” That was a strategy that couldn’t last forever, and Google should have known that, but… *shrug* Whatever. Since Google lost the contract to supply the Maps app to Apple, they took a hit larger than their total Android revenue; if they want to piss it away because they didn’t want Apple to have turn-by-turn directions, I think they really couldn’t have expected anything else.

In part 3 of this thing, I’ll talk about T-Mobile, and how they’re so hopelessly dysfunctional as a telecommunication provider they make the North Korean government look like a model of efficiency.

But Apple is evil! Some thoughts on how economies work

I’m still in the process of writing about my experiences with my Android phone, which will see at least two more sections (on the OS itself and on T-Mobile). The short version is I started with an iPhone, got rid of it for a 4G Android phone, decided that Android just doesn’t have it going on, and am switching back to the iPhone.

Now, one thing I’ve seen repeated many times since I’ve started talking here and elsewhere about my Android experiences is a common refrain: It’s not about the phone. It’s not about the operating system, or user experience, or call quality, or ease of use. An iPhone is a bad choice because Apple is an evil company.

With no disrespect intended for any of the dozen or so people who’ve said this to me: I find that to be a remarkably silly thing to say, but not for the reasons you might expect. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

First, before I get into that, let me start by destroying a childhood myth that we all learn in school.

When you make a product for sale, you do not determine the price of your product in the marketplace by taking the total cost of making it, adding some percentage to the cost of making it that represents your profit, and then selling it at that price.

An astonishing number of people seem to believe that this is how the price of goods is arrived at, and I am constantly surprised by how many folks believe it’s true. That isn’t the way it works at all.

When you sell a product in the marketplace, you price it at the absolute tippy-top highest price the market can bear. Then, you drive the cost of making it as low as is humanly possible, using whatever means you can. The difference between the highest price the market will bear and the lowest cost you can make them for is your profit.

Everything is priced this way: cell phones, computers, cars, winter jackets, tea, pencils, small remote-controlled toy helicopters, batteries, electric razors, suitcases, light bulbs, plywood, sofas, dishwashers (and the dishes and detergent you put into them), stereo systems, ice cream, gasoline, you name it.

“But Franklin!” I hear you cry. “What about competition? If I can get my cell phone or my ice cream from many different places, they will compete with each other on price until they have arrived at the lowest profit margin they can accept!”

Which is true, in the same world where unicorns cavort with dragon whelps over fields of cotton candy.

Yes, businesses will sometimes compete with one another on price, to a limited extent, in order to create market share. But let me let you in on a secret: It is better for me to capture only 40% of the market and make a profit of $50 a widget than to capture 90% of the market and make only $3 a widget.

Companies know this. Industries develop a sense of what their expected profit margin ought to be, and then compete on price only so long as it doesn’t erode that. The supply-demand curve they taught you in grade school? It’s rubbish. It doesn’t account for the fact that when consumers expect to pay a certain amount for something, they’ll keep paying that amount even if the cost of production falls. It doesn’t account for the fact that consumers will often rate a product as more desirable if it carries a higher price, even if the quality is exactly the same as a lower-priced item. It doesn’t account for the fact that supply and demand do not exist in a vacuum, nor for the fact that demand is not infinitely elastic, nor for the fact that demand depends on many factors, quite a few of which have nothing to do with supply.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that supply is not always responsive to demand, for reasons that may range from capitalization costs to the fact that low availability can create that air of increased desirability I just mentioned.

Even supposedly “commodity” goods like oil and wheat are not priced according to the strict laws of supply and demand; things like futures and derivatives can change their price even when supply remains exactly the same. (If there is a sudden increase in trading for oil futures, for instance, the price of oil may rise even though the production of oil is completely unchanged and the demand for oil hasn’t budged one bit.)

So when people say things like “You’re stupid to buy an iPhone; if you get a high-end model, you’re paying $100 for $20 worth of additional flash memory,” they’re speaking from a profound ignorance of how any market system works. Sorry, Mr. Savvy Consumer, but you do that same sort of thing all the time, when you buy anything from tennis shoes to lumber.

So back to Apple’s supposed “evil.”

It is deeply silly to say “I’m not going to buy an iPhone because Apple is an evil company.” Not because it’s false, but because it’s trivially true. Well, duh. Of course Apple is an evil company. Apple is ruthless, anticompetitive, and sociopathic. This is not a terribly profound insight. Yes, Apple is an evil company; in other news, the sky is up and water is wet.

Apple is an evil company because every successful multinational corporation is evil.

They have to be. The laws governing and regulating corporations pretty much guarantee that any publicly-traded corporation must be sociopathic in nature. Any company, large or small, doesn’t succeed by leaving money on the table if it doesn’t have to; public corporations are legally obligated to seek maximum return for their shareholders, by whatever means are available to them. A corporation that has the opportunity to increase revenue or lower costs and fails to do so can be sued by its shareholders.

Let’s look at Google, the company whose motto is “Don’t Be Evil.” They make an operating system that is touted as being “open,” that is supposedly “open source,” and that anyone can use to make a smartphone, right?

Right. And those unicorns in cotton candy land just love it.

The reality is rather different; Android is not really “open” in any meaningful sense of the word, and Google is as big a bully as Apple, but less public about it. Google, for example, recently forced Acer to cancel a smartphone built around a rival operating system, threatening to cut Acer off from source code and revoking Acer’s right to use Android if it didn’t comply.

You know how anyone is free to download and build the Android source code? Well, err, that applies only to older versions, and even then only to some parts of the Android code base, excluding Google’s apps that run atop it. You know how anyone can use Android on their mobile phone? Well, err, the name “Android” is trademarked, so you have to license the use fo the name from Google…and how many consumers going to buy an Android phone that’s advertised as running an “Android-like operating system”?

That gives Google considerable leverage. So much that they can tell a hardware maker “We demand you cancel your phone that uses a rival operating system” and the handset maker will comply so fast that journalists will still show up for the product launch and end up milling around an empty hall.

Yes, Apple is an evil company. Google is an evil company. Microsoft is a company of such breathtakingly creative evil that even the Department of Justice is effectively powerless to reign it in, no matter how egregiously it has broken the law. If you find yourself with warm, fuzzy feelings about any globocorp, it is only because that globocorp has paid good PR money to program you with those feelings. To believe anything else is naivety in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Those underpaid workers making iPads in Foxconn factories? They’re making gizmos for Dell and Cisco and Microsoft and HP and Motorola and Nokia and Samsung and Intel, too…and under working conditions that the folks making sneakers for Nike would give their right arm to enjoy.

Of course, not all evil is created equal. The evil of Google and Apple might reach farther than the evil of Nike, but the evil of Nike is probably a lot more serious for those on the pointy end of it. As evil as Nike is, it’s a whole lot less evil than the Wall Street companies that crashed the economy (and then blamed the wreckage on “poor people buying homes that were too expensive”), or the company you likely bank with if you use a large bank.

Me? I use a small, local credit union. And I’m still buying an iPhone.

Apple v. Samsung: Nickelgeddon and Number Illiteracy

In case you haven’t seen the news that’s been lighting up the tech sector these days, Apple recently sued Samsung for multiple patent violations concerning Samsung’s cell phones allegedly knocking off iPhone design and technology, and won, to the tune of $1 billion in fines.

There’s a rumor going around the Internet that Samsung is planning to pay the fine in nickels, shipping, or so it’s said, 30 trucks to Apple’s headquarters stuffed full of small change.

Now, that sounds wildly implausible to me, on a number of levels. First, it seems like getting one’s hands on a billion dollars’ worth of nickels would be an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Second, it seems to me that a billion dollars’ worth of nickels would occupy one hell of a lot more than 30 trucks.

One of the things I often complain to zaiah about is something I call ‘number illiteracy’. As soon as anyone starts talking about numbers higher than a thousand or so, people’s eyes glaze over and that little drop of drool forms on the corners of their lips. A million, a hundred million, a billion…these all seem like synonyms for “really big” to a lot of folks. Hence folks complaining about the money spent on the Mars Curiosity rover without realizing that we Americans spend about the same amount on Halloween candy every October…but I digress.

Just for giggles, I did a rough, back-of-the-envelope estimate of what it would take to pay a billion dollar fine in nickels.

A billion dollars in nickels is 20 billion nickels, or roughly 64 nickels for every man, woman, and child in the entire United States. That is almost the entire number of nickels in circulation; the total number of nickels that exists is estimated by the Treasury Department to be around 25 billion or so.

A nickel weighs a sixth of an ounce, so 20 billion nickels weighs in at 208,333,333 pounds, or 104,167 tons, give or take a few hundred pounds. In the United States, a tractor trailer rig traveling on public roads is permitted to weigh no more than 80,000 pounds (gross) by law. A typical tractor trailer rig weighs in at roughly 20,000 pounds, leaving no more than 60,000 pounds for cargo. (From a quick Google search, it seems most commercial truckers won’t haul more than 50,000 pounds, but since I know fuck-all about shipping I’ll be generous and go with the 60,000 pound limit.)

At 60,000 pounds per truck, a billion dollars in nickels would require 3,473 trucks. Since a semi trailer is 53 feet long (not including the cab), the trailers, lined up end to end with no cabs, would make a row roughly 35 miles long.

I did a quick Web search to see what the shipping cost would be. From Samsung’s US headquarters to Cupertino, home of Apple, the cheapest rate I could find on my quick-and-dirty search was $503 per half ton, or $104,792,002 for the whole shebang. That’s about $105 million in shipping charges, though I bet a job this size might qualify for a bulk discount.

So now you know.

Edited to add: When zaiah and I first talked about the problem of sending a billion dollars in nickels, we were driving and didn’t have easy access to Google, so we made an even rougher back-of-the-envelope calculation, using guesswork, imagination, and the XKCD “if I can throw it, it weighs about a pound” rule. I can throw four rolls of nickels, so I guessed that four rolls would be about a pound.

The first approximation of an answer we came up with, which we figured might be within half an order of magnitude or so of the right answer, was 4,000 trucks. Later, with Google and a calculator and a lot of legwork, we came up with what you see above. So, go us!

“But why aren’t we spending it on CHILDREN? Think of the CHILDREN!”

So for those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of days: Yesterday, something amazing happened.

No, I don’t mean the US soccer Olympic team beating Canada by one point in a dramatic overtime goal. I mean something really amazing. Something mind-blowing.

We took a one-ton nuclear-powered robot rover and threw it 350,000,000 miles, then landed it on the surface of another planet using cables from a flying rocket-powered robot crane.

And it worked. That’s the cool thing about science: It works whether you “believe” in it or not.

However, as always happens whenever NASA does something amazing, a bunch of people have trotted out all sorts of nonsense about how we shouldn’t be spending money on space exploration when there are so many problems back here on earth. I went to a Curiosity landing party at the local museum of science and industry, and sure enough, someone posted something on the Facebook page for the event something to the extent of “I wonder how many children will die from lack of clean water while we land a probe on Mars” or something.

Now, I have been told that it’s technically illegal to beat these folks. And I’m sure their hearts are in the right place; they’re not trying to be anti-intellectual, they just have little sense of the size and scope of the economy, nor how much money gets spent on space exploration, nor how much money we spend every year on things that we really could do without. And they seem to have an either/or mindset as well, as if to say that every dollar that goes to space exploration is a dollar that is taken away from needy children as opposed to being taken from, say, the Pentagon’s budget for paper clips.

Now, I think that doing things like, oh, finding out if there is life on other planets in our solar system represents a better investment of money than, for instance, buying T-shirts with pictures of NFL logos on them–something we typically spend about four times more per year on than we do on trying to learn about the universe.

So I spent some time doing a bit of research, and I’ve put together a handy-dandy chart that shows the cost of the Mars Curiosity mission, compared to the cost of some other things we might be acquainted with. The chart is a little lopsided, in that it shows how much we spend per year on other things, and the cost of the Curiosity mission so far represents seven years’ investment; to make things more representative, the bar for the Curiosity mission should be 1/7th as long as it is here.

Since we aren’t technically allowed to beat folks who complain about the cost of space exploration, hitting them over the head with this chart will have to do instead. (Figuratively! Figuratively! You can’t literally hit folks with it unless you, I don’t know, print it out and wrap it around something first. Which, as I mentioned, is technically illegal.)

So now when someone says “Why are we wasting money on space exploration instead of fixing problems here at home?” you can say “Why are we wasting even more money on Halloween candy, Christmas trees, or perfume, or football games?” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “We shouldn’t spend money on perfume when there are so many problems here at home.”

Because, you know, spending money on perfume is way more important than finding out whether or not there is life not on this world.

From iPhone to Android

A few weeks back, I decided I needed to replace my aging iPhone 3G.

I got the 3G when it first came out. My roommate at the time and I spent quite a while waiting in line in front of the Apple store, only to be told when we were two places from the door that the stock for the day had been sold out. t took several more days of waiting in line before we were able to get our hands on one.

The iPhone 3G was the first smartphone I’d ever owned. I’ve been a cell phone user for quite some time, since the days of giant handsets with one-line LED displays, but I’d never owned anything even remotely approaching a smartphone before. For me, the iPhone was a game-changer. I have a notoriously bad sense of direction–it is not impossible for me to get lost just a few blocks from my home–and the GPS feature alone in the iPhone was a huge improvement in my quality of life.

Having real Web access was also a big deal. I do a lot of IT work, and the ability to get a call from a client and check the client’s Web site right there on the spot even if I’m not in front of a computer is huge.

But over the past few months, the 3G hasn’t been cutting it for me. The GPS is getting a little wonky, and the battery isn’t holding a very good charge any more, and the iOS 4.2 update made the phone feel a bit sluggish. On top of that, the amount that AT&T was charging me every month was enough to give me a nosebleed.

I spent a few weeks looking at several options: upgrading to an iPhone 4 and staying with AT&T, upgrading to an iPhone 4 and jumping to Verizon, and getting an Android phone.

Then Google announced the open hardware development kit for Android, and that significantly tilted the balance toward Android. The Google hardware kit for Android phones is based on the Arduino prototyping board, which I already have experience developing and programming for.

I went into T-Mobile and found that I could save quite a lot of money every month with a contract from them if I went to Android, so that’s what I did.

The phone I got and will be talking about here is the HTC Sensation 4G, running Android 2.3. It’s been an interesting, and at times rough, transition. I’ve been surprised by a number of things about Android, both pleasantly and unpleasantly.

But before I get into that, let me talk about what Android isn’t.


Android isn’t a religion. To hear many folks talk about it online, you’d think that the choice of cell phone operating systems was a religious or philosophical choice. Android, we’re told gravely, is “open.” The iPhone operating system is “closed.” To use Android is to celebrate freedom and democracy and other wonderful things; to use an iPhone is to toil under tyranny and totalitarian rule.

It’s hooey, of course. Android isn’t open, at least not in the way the religious folks say it is.

Oh, it’s open in the sense that the source code is available, kind of, eventually, when Google says it is. This sort of freedom isn’t really equal, though; Google decides who gets it when, and which partners get to have it first.

But the thing to remember is that from the perspective of the folks who make cell phone software, you aren’t the customer. The handset makers are the customer. Android is open–for them. You, as the person who buys the cell phone, get exactly as much freedom and openness as the handset maker lets you have.

On my HTC Sensation, for instance, the cell phone bootloader is locked down tighter than a nun’s–ahem. It was possible, if I wanted to, for me to jailbreak my iPhone. My Sensation? Nope, no can do. Not even the Cyanogen team has figured out how to root it yet.

The same is true for some other Android phones as well. Supposedly, HTC has had a change of heart and will be unlocking its phones in the future. It’s not clear whether this will apply to me; I’ve read one article online that says all HTC phones will be unlocked, and another that says only HTC phones not tied to a particular network or under contract with a particular carrier will be unlocked.

On the iPhone, the fact that I could, if I chose, jailbreak my phone never mattered to me; I never saw any good reason to. With Android, the fact that I can’t jailbreak it is kind of a bother, and that brings me to the second issue with Android.


With Android, we’re told, there is more openness in software, too. Android programmers do not have to go through any particular approval process to get their apps on your phone. The iPhone App Store is tightly regulated; apps that Apple doesn’t like aren’t available. The Android app store is an open bazaar; anyone can make any sort of app at all.

That’s not 100% true. The carriers have coerced Google into removing apps they didn’t like from the Google app store.

More to the point, though, the openness is really more for the handset maker’s benefit than for yours. With Android, we are back to the bad old days of Windows XP and Windows Vista, where each computer maker tended to stuff their computers so full of demos and third-party software and their own support applications that the term Craplets (crap applets) was devised to describe them.

Most computer manufacturers came to their senses, eventually, and cut it out. It didn’t help that some of this crapware, like HP’s support application that they bundled onto their computers, contained security vulnerabilities that let hackers pwn HP computers.

But Android phones often come so stuffed with pre-bundled crapware that, in my case at least, nearly half the available application memory is occupied right off the bat. Worse, unlike desktop crapware, the Android crapware can’t be removed without jailbreaking the phone. I’ll talk about some of that crapware in a bit.

So my experience with Android has been interesting. In the rest of this post, I’ll run down the differences I’ve found between using an Android phone and using an iOS phone, and rate the quality of everything from the handset design to the apps to the user interface. If that sounds like your thing, click here to read more!