Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Economics of Appliances

My previous post on fruit tools got me thinking about the economic of household appliances. When I was shopping for a toaster ten years ago, I found a $10 Toastmaster.

The Toastmaster 2 Slice Toaster now costs $20, but it's still one of the cheapest models on the market.

My shopping companions squawked that I should buy something more expensive, that the cheap one would break. I replied that if it broke, I would be out only $10.

Ten years later, it's still making toast.

Similarly, a friend buying a vacuum cleaner wanted to buy the most reliable model. I said that was an old-fashioned way to think about buying an appliance. Look for the least expensive model, I advised. Appliances are so cheap, it's more expensive to repair them than replace them.

I recommended the cheapest vacuum cleaner I'd found years earlier, a Eureka upright model. It was $50 when I bought it (it's $70 now). Mine still works over five years later. If it breaks, I'll buy a new one.

I suppose a more expensive vacuum is important for cleaning huge areas, but most apartments and small houses take about the same time to vacuum regardless of price of the appliance.

I like making pesto, so I recently decided to purchase a food processor. Did I buy one with all the bells and whistles?

Not when Black & Decker makes a food processor for $30. After tonight's pesto linguini, it looks like another great appliance purchase.

My friends who wanted me to buy a more expensive toaster will roll their eyes when they see my latest kitchen appliance purchase. Let's see what they say ten years from now.

Bought a cheap appliance or gadget that you like? Leave a comment!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Fruit Tools

Every fruit has a tool!

I was at the hardware store yesterday and noticed how many cooking utensils are sold to help devour fruit. It's as if each fruit has created a Darwinian manufacturing niche.

Here are some of the fruit tools I saw.

Meet the Flexicado, a flexible avocado slicer that slices while you scoop out the meat of the avocado. You have to take out the seed first.

Then there is the Apple Corer which also divides the apple in eighths as you push down.

The cousin to the Apple Corer is the Mango Splitter. This device separates the seed from the meat of the mango as you push down. The package shows you how to cut the fruit in a criss-cross pattern, invert the peel and cut cubes of fruit off the skin.

Grapefruit aficionados will appreciate the Grapefruiter which makes it easy to extract sections of the fruit.

The Strawberry Huller removes the stem of the strawberry. With today's perpetual strawberry seasons, this is a year-round helper.

If you eat a lot of oranges or mandarins, a Citrus Peeler turns a messy peeling session into a quick and easy task. Snack away!

I like cooking corn in the microwave and removing the husk as I eat. If you prefer husking your corn first, try a Corn Cutter.

After you've cooked corn, it's much easier to eat with Corn Holders. I prefer multicolored packs because then everyone knows whose corn holder is whose.

Cherry Pitter makes cherries easy to cook. It also doubles as an olive pitter.

What a better way to end the hardware store tour than with a Melon Baller.

I scooped up a couple of melon ballers and corn holders on the way out the door. Not for me, of course, but for panic presents. Any of these would make perfect presents for friends setting up a kitchen or friends who seem to have everything.

Enjoy fruit. It's healthy!

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Erez Lieberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel came up with Culturomics, the cultural analog to genomics.
Culturomics is the application of massive scale data collection and analysis to the study of human culture.
At TED, Aiden and Michel described a database of 5 million books and their results researching the 500 billion words in the books. They show when words are censored or used in propaganda, how different career choices lead to different fame outcomes (hint: don't become a mathematician if you want to be famous), and how some words go through cycles.

When Google saw what these researchers were up to, Google Labs slapped together Ngrams. NGrams searches the database of 5 million books to provide histograms of word use by year, from 1800 to 2008.

Here are some fun Ngrams to start you on your own culturomics adventure:

Share your own Ngrams in the comments. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Apple v Samsung

The Apple v. Samsung patent lawsuits worldwide have captured Silicon Valley mindshare. The latest issue is secrecy: how can  U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh balance the rights of the companies to maintain trade secrets with the need for court hearings to be open so that the public understands and consents to the courts' findings.

The really big issue, though, is the patent system. In a recent talk, John Naughton, Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology at the Open University, develops ideas on how technologies evolve, the increased proliferation of new technologies, and factors that dictate the success of a new technology.

Listening to Naughton, my first reaction was to ask whether today's patent system is proper.

Naughton argues that new technology mostly evolves from combining existing technology in new ways. With each new technology, the combinational possibilites increase. Thus, especially in fields like software and electronics, the rate of new technology proliferation skyrockets. This creates two important intellectual property quesitons:

  1. What incremental combination of technology deserves a patent? Every new combination of technology, or combinations that are "significantly" novel (whatever significantly means)?
  2. If the increment of combinational difference required to qualify for a patent is small, then the number of patent applications and, presumably, patents will proliferate exponentially.
In theory, patent applications require more than just a novel technology for approval. They also require a novel application. So, combining technology randomly isn't enough to thwart the current patent system. The new technology combination has to do something useful. Which leads to ...

My second reaction was to wonder whether generating valuable patents is a reproducible process that doesn't require invention, that ah-hah! moment of insight.

In his talk, Naughton also argues that consumer acceptance drives the success of a new technology more than the intrinsic value of the new technology. The classic VHS versus Betamax example is a good example. Betamax was measurably the superior technology, but consumer adoption favored VHS, and then VHS economies of scale killed Betamax technology innovation.

With this in mind, it becomes feasible to develop a patent strategy that has nothing to do with the intent of patents (to protect inventors against copies of their novel ideas) and everything to do with speculation. Assuming that consumers are technology kingmakers, a reasonably astute technologist could guess at 10 or 20 possible directions consumer demand could lead. For example,
  • Take basic human desires like eating, listening to music, or playing games.
  • Think of 10-20 different ways today's products could evolve for each of those desires.
  • From a catalog of existing technologies, combine technologies to create new products that do things like eating, listening to music, or playing games in novel ways.
  • Apply for patents on the all these "inventions." If money is a constraint, rank by factors such as market size and estimated product price. The cost of a patent applications could be lowered through repetition, and the time for patent approvals is increasing so that the costs of final patent arguments and issuance are further out when there is more certainty about the value of pursuing a particular patent.
It's not hard to imagine software that could replicate this algorithm someday. What if someone patented this algorithm? What if the algorithm worked and generated valuable patents that forced companies to license or buy the intellectual property? It's possible this system would miss some ah-hahs!, but it's also possible that it would extract a lot of money from the current patent system because it focuses on what consumers are likely to want in the future incrementally rather than non-linearly.

But then, what is an incremental versus a non-linear innovation? In market terms, incremental innovations may cause a non-linear response before a truly non-linear innovation can. For instance, in the case of silicon versus gallium arsenide and other integrated circuit substrate candidates, silicon keeps winning in the market with incremental innovations on top of a huge silicon infrastructure investments. The non-linear advantages of gallium arsenide should have won (like Betamax should have won), but can't beat silicon's infrastructure advantages.

Is the current patent system working? No, and it's creating ancillary problems like too many sealed filings in Apple v Samsung that undermine the courts' legitimacy. It's also likely that both Apple and Samsung have innovated in the smartphone and tablet markets in ways that both unwittingly benefit from. A new intellectual property system has to reconsider what inventions deserves protection (ownership), and what an individual or corporate inventor is being protected against (ownership rights).

Monday, October 10, 2011

Switching to Blogger Dynamic Views

I switched two of my blogs to Blogger's new HTML5.0-based "Dynamic Views" template over the weekend. You can see the results on The Best of Youtube and Gay Movie Blog. Overall I'm quite pleased, but there are several issues you should know about before you switch.

First, Dynamic Views is a work in progress, so you'll have to check in frequently as Google updates the system.

Second, a lot of formatting and functionality you may have built into your blog disappears. Things like a sidebar of widgets are probably history unless Blogger figures out a clever way to make those fly around the screen. Here's a list of things that I miss (my requests for enhancement):

  1. Post formatting. While it looks like some of this is changing quickly, all the special formatting control over the words that show up in a given Post have gone away.
    1. No ability, for instance, to suppress author or post time, or change the words used to preface those fields.
    2. The social network links under a post are fixed as: Google plus one, Twitter tweet, and Facebook like. There is no way to add a Facebook share or a StumbledUpon button.
  2. No Google Analytics support. I can't find a place to insert my Analytics code, so Analytics is not picking up site activity. Both Adsensee and Blogger continue to generate statistics.
  3. JavaScript suport in Posts or Pages? It also looks like this is changing, but all the nice widgets from Facebook, Twitter, etc were not supported as I was converting over the weekend.
  4. Little control over formatting.
    1. Background colors and font colors & styles are not configurable for Blog Titles, Page Link, Post Titles, and Page Titles. There are some beautiful backgrounds to choose from (and you can upload your own background image), but most of the backgrounds obscure the Blog Title and Page links, and there is no way to configure the color of these to work with a dark background.
    2. Page links on the top bar are not in the order they appear in Blogger's Page editing tab. It took me a while to figure out they appear in the order of most recently edited. So, if you edit a Page, you have to open and save other Pages to make them show up in the order you want. Also, Page links to a URL only (as opposed to Page links to a page) do not appear.
    3. The dark Page link bar across the top disappears as you scroll down a page. I thought you had to scroll back up to the top to access the Page link bar, but the Page link bar reappears when you hover over it. It's a nice, but obscure feature. Probably better if the Page link bar worked the same as the top bar on Google Plus, where it's always visibile and, if you click on it, the page scrolls up to the top.
    4. Users can change the Dynamic Views style from, say, "Magazine" mode to any other mode. It would be nice to be able to suppress that option. I believe (but haven't confirmed this) the style reverts to the style the blogger has specified (or preferred?) when a new page is rendered. That might be confusing to a user who has reset the style.
  5. Default Image & Text. In most of the Dynamic Views modes, Blogger makes choices for you about what image and text will appear. For instance, in Flipcard mode, hovering over a graphic will reveal the title and date of your blog post. I would prefer the title and as many opening words of the blog post as possible because the date is not important to my readers. There is no way for bloggers to set that now. Luckily, the default choices are reasonable. Just not the best choices.
  6. Mobile support. In Dynamic Views, when the blog is opened on a browser that doesn't support HTML5.0, an option comes up to try Dynamic Views at your own risk or go to classic non-HTML5.0 view. For a mobile device, it would make more sense not to offer this option if the browser doesn't support Dynamic Views. Instead, the blog should default to the mobile format specified in the blog settings.
  7. Ad placement. Bad news: to the best of my knowledge, no control over where ads appear. Good news: they do appear!
  8. Favicons. Favicon support disappears, which means that if you set the small icon that appears in the browser tab to a custom graphic, it will now appear as the Blogger favicon. This feature looks dead for the time being.
  9. Default Label. It would be great to be able to specify a default label that is displayed when a reader goes to a blog's home URL. Right now, all labels are displayed. But I can imagine blogs for event producers, for instance, where it would be valuable to have only the events (with a label like "2011 Events") show up when a user goes to www.events-blog.com. Other labels would be discoverable later on. Likewise, it might be useful to be able to specify given posts that appear when the reader first lands on the home URL.
  10. Authors. Since my blogs (and I suspect most blogs) only have one author, it would be useful to be able to suppress the option for users to sort posts by author.
  11. XML Feed. Users who subscribe to a blog feed via the atom link may lose some information in their feeds. Specifically, it appears that images no longer appear in feeds.
From the list above, you might think that I don't like the new Blogger Dynamic Views. To the contrary, I love Dynamic Views.

If you've done a good job with your labels, Dynamic Views provides an engaging way for your readers to filter your posts visually. I'm already seeing an increase in page views. Part of that is because now reader have to click on a post to view it entirely. Since ad impressions don't increase (there are no ads on the opening page), it's not a meaningful increase in page views from a revenue standpoint. But I hypothesize that viewers will click on more posts on each visit because it's much, much faster to scoot around and sample the content.

You can use the Blogger template editing tab to see how Dynamic Views work with your blog without updating your blog template. Then you can decide whether Dynamic Views work for your content.

It looks like Blogger has made it possible to roll back to your current blog template configuration after you change to Dynamic Views, but be safe and put a copy of your entire blog template somewhere safe before you switch.

Please leave comments with your Dynamic Views experiences!

UPDATE October 26, 2011:

I continue to be quite happy with the move to Dynamic Views on the blogs that are using it. Many more things working now.

2. Google Analytics support is working. Here's the how-to.
4. & 5. Blogger has started to make certain formatting possible.
8. Favicons working again.
11. Images appear in feeds, but Youtube embedded videos are no longer converted to images.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

eBook Sales

Just how important are sales of eBooks?

In order to sell its digital graphic novels and comic books exclusively on the new Amazon Kindle Fire for four months, DC Comics is willing to forgo sales of paper versions of its products in Barnes and Noble stores for the same four months.

According the the Los Angeles Times:
Barnes & Noble said Friday it will not stock physical copies of 100 of DC's graphic novels that the Warner Bros.-owned unit is making available exclusively on competitor Amazon.com's Kindle platform, including the upcoming Kindle Fire tablet.

DC Comics prefers to ride Amazon's Kindle marketing wave leading up to Christmas than to put paper versions on bookshelves. DC Comics probably has looked at pre-orders for the hot Kindle Fire and decided that 300,000 to 400,000 people will be searching for content for their new tablets, especially in the days after Christmas.

That's how important eBooks sales are.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

eBook Writing Tools

If you want to write digital books, you'll need digital book-making tools. O'Reilly lists software for writing and designing digital books:

  • Demibooks Composer. For release later this summer, designs iPad books.
  • My Story Book. Another iPad design tool (see video below) due soon.
  • Aquafadas. A plug-in for Quark and InDesign to create eBooks rich in images.
  • Active Reader. A plug-in for Unity game developers to create graphic novels from games.
  • Periodic Technology. In beta, a tool from Atavist for iOS, Kindle, Nook, and Android (soon) that enables rich links that can be controlled from a CMS.
  • Moglue. Software (Mac or Windows) to create kids books for iPad or Android. Open beta soon.
  • InteractBuilder. Software (Mac or Windows) to create kids books for iPad.
  • App Press. Online site to build an iOS / iPad app for a book.

Some of these tools are for programmers, while other are simpler to use.

For instance, the My Story Book folks have made a how-to video that gives an overview of the entire process to create an eBook you can sell online at the Apple Store.

App Press provides a similar how-to video:

Scrivener is an authoring tool not included on O'Reilly's list that will create ePub- and Kindle-format files that work on iPad, Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, and Android devices. I've described in-depth experiences using Scrivener here. Scrivener also outputs to file formats like Word that are useful for creating printed books.

In an entirely different approach, consider HTML5 authoring tools to create cross-platform digital books. Here is a look at Aside Magazine. Aside is similar to Flipboard for the iPad, but it's based on HTML5 code rather than iOS proprietary code. The preview below gives an idea of the richness of HTML5.

I haven't listed any HTML5 tools in this post. HTML5 is rolling out in browsers over the next few months (you can use it in Chrome and Safari now). Full HTML5 market penetration only takes place when everyone upgrades their browsers. Expect to see traditional HTML tools upgrade for HTML5 support as well as new authoring tools tailored to eBook production.