November 19th, 2013

"Exit Ramp", David P. Spears II

Non-fiction, so I will spare you my usual warning about SPOILERS! If you think non-fiction can be spoiler-ed, well, run and hide.

"Exit Ramp" would be a novella, only it's non-fiction; I don't know what to call a hundred page at most piece of non-fiction. And you can get it as a paperback, as well as a kindle e-book. This kickstarter project involved a senior in college econ student panhandling at an exit ramp to see how much money he could make. He did it for about 12 days and yes, spoiler, he averaged more than minimum wage. Duh. That is not the interesting part, but if you are silly enough to think there's nothing else here to learn, I have no idea why you would read my blog anyway.

The author had previously served in the military, and that service was referenced on his sign. Thus, he had a bunch of vet-specific interactions, which made for a great sub-theme (particularly his commentary on the Ranger who wanted to make sure he wasn't just faking the service). Obvs, most people just ignored him, and he did a nice job of exploring how boring his days were, and how weird the whole thing was and so forth. Bonus: he was forthright about explaining his data collection and where it didn't accomplish his goals -- altho big negative points for his assumption that he could just look at people and assign them to a race and that was somehow "objective" in a way that guessing their age was not. Really? Really? Honestly, the only worse bit in the book was the assumption that gender was binary. *sigh*

And this is a relatively enlightened econ guy in Oregon. I guess that tells us a lot about econ guys.

In any event, his description of the hygiene packets (and efforts to price their contents) was nifty, and his tales of food donation were about what you would expect (the woman who bought him a club sandwich and brought it over with her kids was particularly nice, and I liked the way he described his interpretation of what she was doing). His conclusions are relentlessly middle class, which is unfortunate, because he had an opportunity to explore the spiritual aspects of his experience that, as near as I can tell, completely eluded him, while totally blowing my mind. I had somehow forgotten _why_ it was that certain religious orders insisted on a vow of poverty _and begging_, and this book reminded me in detail. But that wasn't the author's take at all. And that's a sign of a really good book, when there is a coherent theme, story or moral, but there's enough within the book that alternative themes, narratives and morals can be equally or more compelling to the reader, regardless of whether they were apparent to the author.

Highly recommend; hope he writes more. I'm sure the relentlessly middle class perspective will eventually grind me down (and I say this as a fan of that set of mores and ideals), but anyone who implements a project like this one (while meeting a certain minimum level of sensitivity) seems worth paying attention to. (He donated the money.)

_Dogfight_, Fred Vogelstein

Subtitled: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution

Okay, the genealogist in me feels compelled to point out that last name. I guess "stone bird" makes sense, but "bird stone" makes me giggle. Totally irrelevant; apologies if I offended anyone with that last name.

As I noted when reviewing Brad Stone's book about Amazon, the kinds of sources you have available really drive the sort of book you can write. Vogelstein's sources on the Apple side were really limited, and even on the Google side more engineering than executive (I really want to say c-suite here, which means I've probably been watching too much Bloomberg again). Obvs, it is easier to get people to speak candidly when they have moved on to another endeavor, particularly if they are desperately trying to attract attention to the new endeavor.

That said, Vogelstein produced a cogent timeline with enough technical detail to convey the difficulty of inventing? developing? implementing? the modern "smartphone" or "pocket computer". He, himself, seemed surprised at the difficulty here and how many of the limitations were hardware side limitations. He does a very good job of conveying how skeptical everyone was of the idea that you could put a "real" OS on a phone, and helps make sense of numerous corporate decisions -- at both companies -- to run seemingly incompatible initiatives in parallel because they really didn't _know_ which ones were going to work out. Throughout, Vogelstein's frame is that Apple and Google are reproducing, in many ways, the platform wars once engage din by Apple and Microsoft. At the midpoint of the book, it becomes clear that he really believes that Apple is going to lose again, and for the same reason.

Which is really weird. He might be right, but I think he has picked the wrong frame. At the beginning of his tale, Apple and Google got along great (actually, for large chunks of his tale), sharing many values, including their mutual antipathy to Microsoft. But over time, Microsoft became less relevant, and the cooperation dissolved as competitive pressure between the two built, eventually showing up in presentations, remarks in the press and other publication and lawsuits. This part of the story is compelling and well developed. Less compelling is the idea that this competition mirrors the older competition (and will have the same outcome for Apple). I don't see any reason that the new conflict couldn't be framed as Ford vs. GM or Pepsi vs. Coke or any number of other stories competitive relationships. The prediction from that frame shift would be dramatically different: this could go on for a very long while.

When writing a book -- any book -- choosing what is in scope and what is out of scope is tremendously difficult and in general, I support an author's choices as long as the book stays under 400 pages or the digital equivalent. Past 400 pages, I feel like the author had really better have made Really Excellent choices that I Almost Entirely agree with, because they are now expecting two books worth of my time and attention. Vogelstein's decisions about in-and-out of scope (Amazon is incredibly peripheral to everything in the story, which considering the Fire's position in the android tablet universe is a little odd, and considering the whole e-book thing is also a little odd) mostly make sense (altho I would have been so much happier with more detail on the Google hardware development side -- not just the phones, but the Chromebook and similar).

It's a fun read, and at no point did I go, oh, that so didn't happen (the non-fiction equivalent of failure to suspend disbelief, and a much more serious issue, at least for me). A very enjoyable slice of corporate drama.

Could I save money by getting rid of "cable"?

I decided to take a look at my bill, to find out. We live in a town with two major providers of Luxe Access: Verizon Fios and Comcast Infinity. We have option A, and we have the Triple Play Bundle with a bunch of discounts, and our cell service is also through Verizon, so we get a One-Bill discount. What with one thing and another, it can be a little difficult to know _what_ we would actually be paying if we went Internet only, but if I am to believe the line item, the internet plan we are paying for is $45/month. Subtracting the amount of our bill that is Triple Play specific, I get $70 -- that would involve ditching the landline AND cable. This is no hundred dollars a month savings.

Could I replace the shows that I watch through cable? Well, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are both available the next day after airing, and that's when I watch them anyway, so that wouldn't cost me anything. I could get The Rachel Maddow Show, albeit with a bit longer delay, through the iTunes video podcast, again, for free. I have a list of Crappy TV shows that I watch in any given week, different during the main season than the off season, but I'll figure it at main season. If I bought them through Amazon, the per ep cost would range from a little under $2 to a little under $3, depending on whether I subscribed and whether I went for SD or HD (this is what I do when something I TiVo'd gets chopped up, so that's probably what I would do if I wasn't able to watch it via the cable subscription -- I'm unlikely to wait for a DVD boxed set for purchase or rental, and I can't be bothered to figure out when the free window is on the network sites, Hulu, etc.). I watch about five shows during the main season, so call it $10-$15/week, or $50-$60/month.

This ignores the fact that there are three other people in the house who watch TV much less consistently, but who do in fact watch TV.

I'm not seeing any savings here, and I'm seeing a whole lot of inconvenience, so I'm betting that consumption patterns for people who have big savings by getting rid of cable are a lot different from ours. Here are some possibilities:

(1) They are in a town without as much competition for their business, so they are paying a lot more for quite possibly worse stuff.

(2) They actually watch worth while stuff available only through Netflix streaming and similar, where we watch Horrible Commodity Hollywood Programming. If we weren't so White Bread, we'd be able to save money, too.

(3) They _were_ paying for premium services like HBO or whatever.

(4) They dramatically reduced their consumption when they cut the cord, either by reading more, having family dinners, adopting a useful hobby, going to church more often, spending time with loved ones, or getting their media through the library, free streaming and similar.

Theories? Data? Rampant speculation?