Where Your Future Comes From

Most of Silicon Valley this morning is buzzing about the quake. (It was a 4.2 forty miles away, you wimps. Try living in coal blasting country a while).  But once they get over that, they’re talking about the Amazon piece in the New York Times over the weekend and the reaction of Jeff Bezos. (Full roundup here via Ars Technica.)

To me, the standout line of the whole thing is when Bezos says “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.” And see, that’s where he’s wrong.  General Electric was the firm that brought stack ranking to the mainstream. Microsoft employed stack ranking until 2013, including all the way through the dot-com boom when they were the lodestar of high tech.  Even without stack ranking as such, there are plenty of businesses that grade on a curve at review time and only have room for so many “exceeds expectations” even when an entire department had to run at redline for an entire year just to keep up. 

The problem is, companies make bad decisions all the time without any regard for whether the company thrives or survives. To shamelessly borrow from Lisa Schmeiser’s hard work:

“[T]here are reams of data on the effectiveness of a shorter workweek (vol 1, issue 41), and data on the insane productivity of working mothers (vol 1, issue 45), and data on the unprofitable bias against working mothers (vol 2, issue 32), and data on the rise of workplace productivity when employees can take care of their personal business without stress or penalty (vol 2, issue 37).”

So in other words, we know these are bad ideas.  We know these are unprofitable if not outright unethical or immoral practices. And yet, before Amazon even rallied to its own defense, the usual suspects of Silicon Valley were out there defending it. Quotes like “BREAKING: Hugely successfull big co has ex employees not fully satisfied, willing to criticize it” and “employees rate Amazon better than IBM, Oracle, HP and ties Tesla” and of course, super-duper-apologist Marc Andressen with “Those new tech giants’ employees are coddled, entitled, overpaid babies!” “Those new tech giants’ employees are cruelly mistreated!” because obviously, all companies treat all employees exactly the same, even when they don’t fob off half of them as contractors.

But the real indictment is Andressen’s first tweet: “Well, given the number of workplaces designed for underachievers to feel good about themselves…” Which serves to prove two things:  1) Andressen is a an overrated VC with a penis for a head who hasn’t accomplished anything since conning AOL into buying a doomed browser. 2) Silicon Valley, in 2015, is focused more than anything on ensuring the self-selected Eloi can abstract away the Morlocks.  There’s no such thing as bad luck. There’s nothing that can’t be overcome if you don’t want it badly enough. Anything in life that goes wrong is your own fault, and any conditions that are intolerable are because you’re a fucking pussy, so either man up and fight your way into the ranks of the Chosen Ones or shut up and drive an Uber. My success is entirely of my own doing without help or fortune, as is your failure.

And the thing is, this ethos spreads. It’s the same thing that drove the world toward first cubicles and then kindergarten tables, the thing that makes tech websites want to portray themselves as tech companies rather than journalists, the thing that pushes the adoption of Slack and the risible notion of Snapchat as business tool. Everybody wants to be like a tech startup, because that’s the way to untold wealth and success – so goes the official fable of 2015. Horatio Alger and Dick Whittington can clear out and make way for Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick and that aforementioned literal dick-head from Netscape.

Silicon Valley is the land of Mitt Romney now. It’s long since time we stopped pretending otherwise. 


I have phone glee. It’s not the usual phone glee where I need the latest and greatest and coolest.  Quite the reverse.  My glee right now is to get my lovely bride’s iPhone 5S, get it unlocked, activate it on T-Mobile’s prepaid service and get myself 100 minutes a month of talk, unlimited texting and 5 GB of data for a slick $30 a month. I’d be giving away the larger screen and the NFC-based ApplePay on my current iPhone 6, but I’d also be able to pair it with the Apple Watch and pay that way – and I’d be getting a one-handed phone of a size that was just fine for two years.

To be honest, if you were on the original iPhone and managed to stay with the every-two-years pattern, you’re better off.  The alternating pattern which I think of as the S-cycle was the first to get video capture, the first to get Siri, the first to get improved antennae and dual-LED flash and TouchID (and depending on who you believe, the first to get Force Touch and AMOLED).  The integer cycle, which I had to get on when my original flaked out, was the 3G-4-5-6 which means you had to wait a year for all that stuff.  You did get improved displays and new networks first, sort of (the 3G got 3G first, hence the name, and the 5 got LTE first, but the 4S was the first to get non-LTE 4G which was almost as good) and you got NFC for payments in the 6/6+ for what that’s worth, but the Apple Watch puts that payment on the iPhone 5/5s/5c and with improved displays came bigger size whose batteries didn’t necessarily translate into better battery life.

More and more, it seems like the smartphone reached the finish line in autumn 2013. The iPhone 5s added the dual-LED flash and TouchID; everything since has just been screen size and Apple Pay. Meanwhile, the original Moto X may well have been the perfect phone: assembled in America, with a power-sipping AMOLED display and 2 GB of RAM, and finally showing its full promise with the addition of Lollipop for battery management – plus the MotoMaker options made it the most personalized phone you could buy. I still wonder sometimes whether I wouldn’t rather have had the bamboo backing instead of the soft-touch woven-look polycarbonate. Sure, the phone wasn’t great, but you don’t buy an Android to replace your point-and-shoot camera.

And really, where have we gone from there?  Phones that have crazy 1080p displays and go dead before dinnertime, phones with twice as many megapixels (which are half the size but who’s counting), phones with a camera that protrudes from the back or a display that wraps around one edge for no apparent reason, phones too big for your hand or too big for your pocket or too big for anything but a Birkin bag. Meanwhile, the actual gain in functionality has been basically nil.

And this is important, because it means that two years on, you can get the finish-line phone free on a contract (as is likely the case for the iPhone 5s come September) or for less than $200 unlocked (in the case of the brand-new third-generation Moto G, which is as close to the original Moto X as you can still buy now that the X itself is swelling to ridiculous proportions). Much like the PC, we’ve reached a point where the hardware technology is good enough for most people at a sufficiently low price point to be ubiquitous. Maybe you’re a power user who needs the very latest whiz bang cafeteria tray phone to do your secret squirrel bullshit, but Ed Earl Brown is just fine on his iPhone 5s.

This is kind of a big deal simply because it undermines the entire model of American mobile telephony.  Time was, you only ever bought a phone on a 2-year contract because to buy it unsubsidized was outrageously expensive, and you had to have a contract for service anyway. Now, the phone companies are rushing to come up with no-contract models with payment plans for the phone, but if you go out and buy your own brand-new Moto G for $180, you can get that T-Mobile plan for $30 a month or get unlimited calling and text and 2.5 GB of data from Cricket for $35 or get something from Straight Talk or Simply Wireless for similar. For the first time, it’s become not only practical but actually profitable to separate the phone and the service. Three years ago, I took a phone from work because they had cut the subsidy for personal phones from $60 to $25 and I needed a new handset anyway to take advantage of LTE.  Now, I could just take my existing Moto and that T-Mobile deal, ask for the work subsidy and wind up paying $5 out of pocket per month for my service. And at that point, it’s worth $5 to me to have my own phone and my own service instead of being at the mercy of my employer.

Plus, I could get that 703 number again.  Of which…

Prima Nocte

So Google is now Alphabet.  Don’t let the org chart games fool you; the bits of Google that are practical and presumably making money or heavily involved in same (search, advertising, YouTube, Android) are being staffed out to themselves but the founders are running Alphabet, which appears to be composed of moonshots and 100x and buzzwords and things that would make the writers of Silicon Valley on HBO blush to pin that level of preposterous on another person.

But they also used the words “Berkshire Hathaway.” And that’s a name to conjure with, because Warren Buffett’s holding company has become synonymous with long-term investment with big returns. After all, dude is as rich as Bill Gates, supposedly. If Alphabet is expecting to be attractive to investors, the promise of crazy cash in return for your upfront money is certainly what you want to sell.  But I’m looking at this and seeing something else altogether.

Look at television, for instance.  Right now, ESPN is the only thing going that really makes you have to invest in a cable bill.  Because otherwise, you could pay for subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO and Amazon Prime, and you’d have pretty much most of the things you’d have gotten from your cable subscription ten years ago aside from ESPN.  Things like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black made Netflix the new HBO, and now the old HBO is not unlike Netflix with the advent of HBO Now.  Plus YouTube is the new hotness for the kids, and if you don’t believe me look at how Hannah Hart has gone in four years from making drunk cooking videos for her friend back East to hosting a Doctor Who marathon on BBC America and starring in a movie you can buy on iTunes and a revived TV series that will be…on the web.


Google owns YouTube.  What’s to prevent Alphabet from taking a stake, say 30% or so, in a publicly traded Netflix or Hulu? Or for that matter Amazon? Or buying big into Time-Warner, which impacts HBO, or into Disney which affects not only ESPN but the entire Star Wars and Marvel franchises? Or for that matter, into Apple? Or Microsoft? Or any other publicly held company whose interests might intersect or compete with Google?

Alphabet is the instrument by which Larry and Sergey can get a piece of everything and anything. You don’t have to sell out to Google anymore.  Alphabet can just buy a chunk of whoever you do sell out to.  And given the shoddy nature of securities regulation in this country and the limits of what can be done abroad, it’s not difficult to see them getting away with it.

Google might have been getting too big to innovate, but Alphabet might be too big to let live.

Second Impressions

For the first time I can remember, Apple has overbuilt the hell out of a battery. This Apple Watch has never dropped below 29% before it gets to the charger, and that was a circumstance where I put it on my arm fully charged at 10 PM, slept in it, wore it all day, attached a Bluetooth headset to it around 7:30 PM the following day and played music, from the watch, for two hours.  My theory (and my brother-in-law’s) is that the battery was spec’d out at a time when there were going to be more powerful (and more busy) sensors in the watch, not to mention native apps running directly on the watch. So that battery may drop non-trivially when watchOS 2 hits in the autumn.

Having the fitness tracking on my arm has been extremely effective.  I look at the circles, I make sure they get filled, I stand up when I’m told, I take the stairs instead of the elevator, I walk out to a computer rather than relying on remote support. And in the course of doing this, I rely on coffee (largely unsweetened except for the occasional drip-drop of stevia) and sparking water from the office SodaStream (rarely adultered with so much as ice). I haven’t bought anything out of a vending machine in a week and a half. Lunch is almost always salad and unsweet tea and doesn’t come with a big Rice Krispie Treat tossed in the bag.  I can’t remember when I last bought a Coke Zero.  Sure, Sunday got a little wacky because I was at a soccer game and a pub after, but that was one day and it let off a lot of steam to let me be good on the other days.

It’s to the point that I’m wondering how I’ll wear this abroad if my iPhone is locked.  The Moto X is still the designated travel phone because it’s free to use any old nano-SIM, but there’s no using it with the Apple Watch (and I can’t go back to the Pebble, let’s be honest – nothing it can do is of any particular use to me when going abroad, which is why it stayed behind on the Japan trip). I’m not going to be amused if this all boils down to me having to splash out on an unlocked iPhone next time out, but then, it’s not like I wasn’t already indentured to the Apple ecosystem. Then again, the X may or may not be that viable by the time we next go abroad – it’s not like the camera’s worth a damn compared to an iPhone, and while the battery life seems much improved, it’s not going to play my iTunes collection…

There’s a little paradox-of-choice going on here, the same issue that leads to me having way too many Nerf guns that are 80% of what I’m looking for instead of the perfect one.  Through happenstance I wound up with an iPhone from work, a Moto X on my own, and an iPad mini on my own, and left to my own devices (see what I did there) I could probably lose the work iPhone and carry on just fine for the foreseeable future. But now I have the Apple Watch and that means iPhone. Which is fine, given that there hasn’t been an Android that compelled me since the coming of the original Moto X.  But if I did have to go out and buy a new phone on my own, it would be tough not to just take the iPhone 5C in white, cut my audio loadout by 75% and get by as long as I could, because after getting so much phone for $350, the thought of laying down double that is a bit tough to take. Then again, if I could get the T-Mobile $30 plan still…but that’s a problem for another time.

Other than that, the only real issue I have with the watch is that I haven’t yet sorted out that force-press is different from just long-press. I have screens dipping out under my finger ever so slightly as if they don’t know whether to go away or not, and I haven’t gotten use to just giving the on-screen button a thump – or force-pressing to see other controls and options (like, say, switching the watch from getting its music off the phone to its own local storage). But the much-debated “learning curve” isn’t that big a deal – this is for notification and quick action and not pulling the phone out of your pocket. And it’s a lifesaver in that regard – the two-factor authentication app for work runs on the watch and it’s so much more convenient to use 2FA now.

I’m glad I bought it.  It seems to have stifled the television glee and the car glee and several other glees, so I guess that alone is worthwhile.

Fucking Americans

When the Canadian team behind HitchBOT announced their robot was going to try to hitch its way across the USA, I had a sinking sensation almost immediately. I thought there was no way that robot would make it safely across the country, because people are assholes. And then I felt kind of bad for assuming people would be assholes, but I figured I’m not wrong. 

I’m not. 

It’s depressing as hell. This is why we can’t have nice things, because we’re one generation away from going full Idiocracy in this country. Would that I could live somewhere that has plenty of fog, plenty of low-key drinking establishments with fireplaces, no cops who need to load up like they’re trying to take Tora Bora, no NFL and no SEC, someplace where a robot in rubber rain boots can hitch unmolested from coast to coast. 

But this isn’t that place, and we’re worse off for it.