June 29th, 2011

Counting e-readers and tablets


According to this, "Apple said it had sold 25 million iPads to date."

The Pew questions asked about tablets in the United States, which included more than just iPads (altho iPads surely dominate, probably by 80+%) -- but iPads also sell outside the US. Assuming that the population in the US is on the order of 300 million, 8% would imply about 24 million. If we assume that iPads sold outside the US are about the same in volume as competitor tablets in the US (if you think this is unreasonable, I'd be interested in your reasoning and/or evidence, if any. If this is just duelling assertions, I'll stick with my own.), this suggests that Pew's assessment of tablet penetration is Correct.

If Pew got tablets right, do we think they also got ereaders wrong? If they got ereaders right, 12% implies that there are 36 million ereaders out there, give or take. Given that Digitimes has reported over 12 million shipped in 2010 and over 25 million expected to ship in 2011, 36 doesn't sound entirely wrong.

I'm a little puzzled, because there have also been reports that more media tablets shipped in 2010 than e-book readers. I'm not sure exactly to make of all this, other than to note that just because something ships does not mean it sells. My erratic skimming of The Digital Reader suggests that there's a fair amount of rebadging going on with ereaders, and there are a _lot_ of crappy, cheap tablets that aren't worth buying even at a very low price point.

Maryn McKenna covering MRSA in meat

I have a recurrent fascination with emerging disease/public health/food policy so I'm a little surprised I didn't notice McKenna's excellent reporting prior to today. But hey, better late than never. I ordered _Superbug_, and if I can somehow find a way to ignore what's on the Tivo, I may even read it; it'll almost certainly be better than _Little Bets_, which I want to like, but am sort of disappointed by.

This is what caught my eye over at google news:


Great coverage of an elegant study in the Netherlands, which:

"has one of the lowest rates of human antibiotic resistance in the world, thanks to especially stringent infection control and drug-conservation policies. Paradoxically, it has the highest rate of antibiotic use in agriculture in Europe. As a result, when something starts to move into humans, it is easier to distinguish, because there is no “background noise” of high rates of hospital and community drug resistance such as there are in the US. And because there are no competing resistance factors from other sources, it is easier to identify and explain."

You should read McKenna's coverage of finding antibiotic resistant strains in chicken meat and people hospitalized with E coli. She is concise and accurate and has a pleasant authorial voice (strong without stridency); no summary of mine can do it justice. And while you're there, you should read some of her earlier reporting as well.

Complaining about _Small Bets_ Ignoring the Obvious

From _Small Bets_, location 1198 or so:

"As any user of Adobe, Apple's iTunes, or Microsoft Office knows, new software releases occur far more frequently than in the past."

I know it's super hard, but try to ignore the non-parallelism in the list.


"That's in part because once a new feature is released the company can learn how well it's solving user problems or needs."

This is an extremely weird sentence.

(1) Companies _can_ now do small, frequent releases because computers are faster and have more capacity and networks are more extensive and blah, blah, bleeping, blah. Better release technology (that was developed for reasons other than to do releases).

(2) Once companies could do small, frequent releases, somebody did, and it turned out that customers kind of liked that, and companies that did that got better at that and customers liked that, too.

(3) And once some companies were doing small, frequent, popular releases, pretty much everyone else with a competitor doing small releases (or with customers accustomed to small releases) was under pressure to do the same.

I don't think _any_ of these companies were doing it because they wanted to see how customers reacted (altho I could be wrong). The best customer reaction to an update is (a) no response and (b) reduced complaints about whatever it was you fixed. The main reason companies do updates is to get result (b).

I thought at first that maybe I'm just real cynical because I have a powerful tendency to go for the 80/20 solution, rather than to make something really good. And then I thought about all those app updates I've done, and the explanations that show up on the update screen.

I think Peter Sims has assigned such a blanket positive value to "creativity" and "small bets" and "prototyping" and so forth that he's lost track of the more reality based aspects like "constraints based thinking". He knows about constraints and describes Gehry (really? This is your example for constraints? All right.) using them, but I don't think he's internalized constraints based thinking in any kind of comprehensive way.


I went down a small hole into Wonderland when Sims used a really disturbing quote from Mohammed Yunus (when you compare a woman's perspective to a "worm's eye view", and the way you get her to come out of the house and talk to you -- a man -- when none of the men are around is to pick up one of her kids until they scream and run away, I'm going to start being really, really suspicious of you and your ideas. Even if you _have_ been charming on the Daily Show and otherwise are an icon.) and I felt compelled to investigate. After a minor distraction involving Tom Heinemann's controversial documentary on Grameen Bank and Yunus, I stumbled across this:


Look. It was in _Groningen_. Of course I was going to slog through the whole thing. If I'm not mistaken, Roodman works for WorldWatch (so I'm more or less required to at least pay attention to what he is saying), but Bateman had really great responses -- and the reviews of Lamia Karim's book on Amazon are awesome. If only _any_ of the books on microfinance written by the three of them were available on the kindle, I would have bought them already.

Maybe later.


"Ironically, despite being one of the most knowledgeable people in his field, Tim [Russert] was constantly open to new information and ideas from an extremely diverse network of people."

From around location 1618. Ignoring the poor quality of the evidence supplied that Russert interacted with an extremely diverse network of people, I'm reasonably certain that "ironically" is used wildly inappropriately here. It's not "wryly amusing". And I'm not sure how Sims _thinks_ people get to be knowledgeable, but in my experience, it's generally by being open to new information and ideas. People who are _not_ open to new information and ideas generally don't become knowledgeable.

If the irony has to do with some other aspect of Russert's character, then the sentence is poorly structured.

I'm not pointing out every example of this sort. Just a few of them. I _really_ want to like this book, because I actually don't disagree with his thesis. But the support and evidence rallied in defense of the thesis is so bad I'm starting to have doubts.

Active Users, Markets and Mountain Bikes

After describing the nomenclature of product adoption and how the people who use a product interact with the development of that product, Sims says (about 1839):

"Take the mountain bike. It wasn't invented by a person or company. In the mid-1970s, dozens of avid pro-am riders in northern California started making modifications ... The microtrend grew ever more popular amongst enthusiasts, such that, by the early 1980s, commercial producers had finally taken note. The market took off from there; by 2004, mountain bikes accounted for more than 65 percent of all bikes sold, or $58 billion in sales. Mountain bikes was an enormous idea and market waiting to be discovered. Anyone learning from those early adopters would have seen it coming."

This is tricky, because it's tough to point to any one aspect of this and say it is factually incorrect. However, I believe Sims has drastically misunderstood the shape of the mountain bike adoption curve and overlaid it with a separate adoption curve in a way that sort of "cancels out" with respect to the overall thesis. I agree with the thesis (active users interact with product development). But the vast stream of mountain bikes in 2004 included a huge amount going to kids riding on sidewalks and bicycle commuters who needed a more upright riding position. Once the production community had a better understanding of what people were buying mountain bikes (as opposed to "road bikes") for, they started branching out and making commuter bicycles, cruisers, and utility bicycles -- which is the same active user phenomenon, but a second curve of it.

But there is _no way in hell_ that anyone participating in the "mountain biking" trend (you know, actually riding up and down trails on hills, or possibly not on trails) per se could have predicted that the mountain bike would be chosen as a best-available-approximation by a largely unrelated market of people who wanted to ride their bike to work, school, the store, etc., and were picking the mountain bike because it had a more upright riding position, less aggressive geometry, and a slightly dropped top tube.

Not only would it be difficult if not impossible to predict the wild success of mountain bikes as a mountain biker (because of a failure to predict that the geometry would be adopted by an unrelated and larger group of people), I would argue that it actually wouldn't be easy to predict the second trend (the utility or commuter trend, which took off around 2007-8), _even if you were one of the people buying a mountain bike for these purposes in the year 2000_.

Yeah, that would be me. I ultimately went to the Netherlands a couple of times, fell in love with the Nexus internal hub (I cannot believe I just typed that), came home and said I wanted a bike with that and a drop frame. R. was convinced they didn't exist, _even tho in 2004, there were multiple brands available_. And that trend didn't really take off for another 3-4 years (which was a lot longer than I thought it would take).

Bicycles are a great market segment to see the active-users-influencing-product-development in action, mostly because there's a wide network of small shops with mechanics who can customize, which interacts somewhat minimally (but somewhat) with a broader network that cranks out bikes for the masses. But even if you are, like me, a second rank sheep (I'm no innovator, but whenever I look around me, I'm surrounded by a big herd of other people) and relatively well aware of that fact, it's _still_ hard to predict much less enact a business strategy based on that knowledge. Sims' superficial analyses and flip summations (anyone would have seen it coming) are Not Helpful.

All that aside, Joe Breeze _is_ really good at innovating and anticipating trends and building a successful business AND lobbying for good policy based on a detailed understanding of the mountain bike's story. And acting like what he did is something anyone can do deeply misunderstands him and his accomplishments. Summarizing mountain bikes without mentioning him is probably wrong, too.

_Little Bets_, Peter Sims (kindle)

I've already posted some not-a-reviews; this, however, is the actual "review". And I did finish the narrative portion of the book, however, there is extensive back matter and I have not read all of that. I might, actually; it looks interesting.

I like my non-fiction with a clear authorial voice, and Sims' provides that. He's a little on the ra-ra side, and this feels very businessy-non-fiction, which are both negatives for me. He tells a few in-my-life anecdotes (like the ones about knowing Russert as a child), all of which grated. My sense is that he's someone who came from a mildly oppressive, or at least overly structured (competitive? with high expectations?) background and he wants to make sure kids don't have their Creativity Crushed by Educators.

The thesis of the book is perfectly aligned with one of my most basic beliefs. There's no point in putting together a Grand Plan for doing something you've never done before. You don't know how to do it yet, so you should pick a piece that is close to something you do know how to do, do it, and then see what happens before deciding whether to proceed and if so, how. The biggest hole in Sims' analysis is his failure to understand that innovators who "prototype" or write a "shitty first draft" or otherwise do a rough version of something which they then refine _already have a long history of doing what they are doing_. This is actually the biggest thing missed by people who attempt to understand "creativity" and/or innovators, so I don't really blame him personally. It's still annoying. You can't think if you don't have anything to think with -- while Sims' sort of gets at this with his diversity-of-real-world-experience, it's not in a very helpful way.

The next problem is his handling of the idea of "healthy perfectionism" vs. "unhealthy perfectionism". He seems to think that "healthy perfectionism" is compatible with creativity/innovation, but that "unhealthy perfectionism" is not. Without getting into the details of the difference, I will merely note that he didn't include _any_ Jeff Bezos examples in how creative people are "healthy perfectionists". There's a lot of fantastic (for suitable definitions of fantastic) innovation out there that's really kind of crummy, even when it gets out into the world. It's a sort of 80/20 crummy, usually in an arena where making it 90/10 or 100% Teh Awesome would actually make it worse, or at least accessible to fewer people. 80/20 approaches are more compatible with incremental or user-driven development anyway; ignoring them seems to miss the point.

The third problem is the interpretation of Wiseman's luck research. I'm not familiar with Wiseman's work, so I can't speak to the original analysis, however the story told in this book about the self-defined unlucky people being told to count photographs in a newspaper and not noticing the thing in the newspaper that said to stop counting is open to at least one other interpretation than the ones on offer. It's a serious issue with real world consequences and revolves around our ability to notice "unrelated" things when focused on a task. My experience with innovators and successful entrepreneurs is that this ability to notice "unrelated" things while maintaining task focus is Important. Wiseman's strategies to improve luck may help with this, but I suspect there are other approaches that would address this specific problem even more.

The hands-down _best_ part of the book _separate_ from the thesis of the book is the brief section where he describes taking his rough, 3 page book description and shopping it around. "I'm interested in right brain thinking" made me cackle -- and I don't think Sims' understood what she was getting at at all, which is just as well, really. This section did more to explain why there's so much dreck out there being published by the Big 6 than anything else I have ever seen. Ever.

The best part of the book relative to the thesis is the title: both the original ("Experimental Innovation") and the original subtitle, which became the title: "Little Bets".

It's sort of a mess, so I'm not prepared to recommend it, but I feel like Sims might be capable of highly readable and worthwhile non-fiction, so I'll keep an eye out for further work. You could skim it at the library, maybe.

I may supplement this if it turns out to be one of those odd books where the back matter is better than the narrative.

False Accusation in Custody Case Story in LA Times


It's an old story -- someone made false accusations to try to get sole custody. It's a particularly disturbing one, in that if the accused hadn't been so well-documented in the course of his day (buying lunch, going to the bank), he probably would be in jail now. It's also upsetting, because there are hints within the coverage that it should have been possible to _prove_ the story was false (if, indeed, the rope was tied as described). Police just apparently had trouble imagining that someone would make up a story like the one in question.

Weird. But I guess this is one of the reasons men are much more likely to be convicted of a crime than women: people just cannot believe women would do things like this, but they're quick to believe men would do awful things.