Robert X. Cringely

Welcome to the Post-Decision Age

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There are more things to talk about than Donald Trump, though I doubt that Donnie agrees with me. But we have to get on with our lives which, at least in my case, means getting on with my reading. Where does all the crap I write here come from but reading, talking to people, and waiting in line at Starbucks? Nowhere else! And if you want to be like me you may choose to read a new book by Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. Of course the book is very good and it’s very well-written and it will tell you a lot about how decisions are actually made. But if we are looking forward instead of backward here, the book and its content don’t really matter that much because we don’t decide nearly as much as we think we do. We don’t decide as much as we used to. In fact I’m about to argue that we’re well into the Post-Decision Age. It’s pretty much out of our hands.

Lewis’s book explains. He’s not breaking new ground but rather rediscovering old ground and explaining why it matters. In this case his earlier book Moneyball explained how the Oakland Athletics baseball team used statistics to win baseball games while this new book essentially takes the other side and explains why most of us (including many baseball managers) are not like the Oakland A’s.

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Saving the Internet of Things (IoT)

IOT Internet of Things

This is my promised column on data security and the Internet of Things (IoT). The recent Dyn DDoS attack showed the IoT is going to be a huge problem as networked devices like webcams are turned into zombie hoards. Fortunately I think I may have a solution to the problem. Really.

I’m an idiot today, but back in the early 1990’s I ran a startup that built one of the Internet’s earliest Content Distribution Networks (CDN), only we didn’t call it that because the term had not yet been invented. Unlike the CDNs of today, ours wasn’t about video, it was about the daily electronic delivery of PDF editions of newspapers and magazines. Canon told us that if the New York Times, say, would make a PDF version of its daily paper, the Japanese company would give an ink jet printer to every electronic subscriber, making their money solely on replacement ink cartridge sales. Communication would be between the CDN and printer with no PC involved. It was effectively an Internet of Things, circa 1994. Obviously, we failed, but learned a lot along the way.

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President Trump: The hangover

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Wow, what an election! I’m tempted to say the FBI gave it to Trump but the results are too strong for that to be the sole reason for his victory. There’s a real movement behind this result and it isn’t in any sense a triumph of Republicanism. In fact I think it may be hard for the Republican Party as we knew it to even survive. Time will tell.

Until such time, the world will go a little crazy. Stocks will slide, women will swoon, babies and men will cry. But eventually we’ll pick ourselves up and get back to work.

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What the heck is happening at Apple?

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"What the heck is happening at Apple?" people ask me. "Has the company lost its mojo?" "Why no new product categories?" "Why didn’t Apple, instead of AT&T, buy Time Warner?" And "Why are the new MacBook Pros so darned expensive?"

After first getting out of the way the fact that Apple is still the richest public company in the history of public companies, let’s take these questions in reverse order beginning with the MacBook Pros. In addition to their nifty OLED finger bar above the keyboard, these new Macs seem to have gained an average of $200 over the preceding models of the same size. What makes Apple think it can get away with that?

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Social media? Bob needs a social mediaTOR

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Okay, I’m back, still without cataract surgery but I have the fonts cranked-up on this notebook and my one working eye is still, well, working so I am, too. My next column will be about last week’s Internet DNS failure but right now I want to write about all these folks who have been asking to connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media. I’ll bet you have the same problems that I do.

Once you have enough connections (I have 2785 Facebook "friends" and 2552 "connections" on LinkedIn) you become a target for people trying to build their networks. In the beginning my philosophy about these things was to never ask anyone to be my friend or my connection but to always accept any friend or connection requests. I didn’t feel I was taking advantage of anyone yet my networks grew nicely, though I’d hardly met any of these people in real life.

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Fifteen years after 9-11, threats have evolved too

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Fifteen years after 9-11 it’s interesting to reflect on how much our lives have -- and haven’t -- changed as a result of that attack. One very obvious change for all of us since 9-11 is how much more connected we are to the world and to each other than we were back then. Politico has a great post quoting many of the people flying on Air Force One that day with President George W. Bush as his administration reacted to the unfolding events. Reading the story one thing that struck me was the lack of immediate information about the attacks available to the airborne White House. They had televisions with rabbit ear antennas and rarely more than a few minutes of TV coverage to watch at a time as they blasted around the midwest at mach 0.94.

Even Mary Alyce and I, sitting on our Wine Country hillside, were watching satellite TV that day. Today, of course, we all have news and social media coming-in through a wide variety of channels and nothing is very private for long.

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What Carrie Underwood's success teaches us about IBM's Watson failure

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I have a TV producer friend I worked with years ago who at some point landed as one of the many producers of American Idol when that singing show was a monster hit dominating U.S. television. She later told me an interesting story about Carrie Underwood, the country-western singer who won American Idol Season 4. That story can stand as a lesson applicable to far more than just TV talent shows. It’s especially useful for the purposes of this column for explaining IBM’s Watson technology and associated products.

You see the producers of American Idol Season 4 knew before the season was half over that Underwood would win. And, by the same token, I’m about to argue that IBM already knows that its Watson artificial intelligence technology has lost. In each case they chose not to tell us.

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John Ellenby dies at 75

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I wouldn’t normally be writing a column early on a Saturday but I just read that John Ellenby died and I think that’s really worth mentioning because Ellenby changed all our lives and especially mine.

If you don’t recognize his name, John Ellenby was a British computer engineer who came to Xerox PARC in the 1970s to manufacture the Xerox Alto, the first graphical workstation. He left Xerox in the late 1980s to found Grid Systems, makers of the Compass -- the first full-service laptop computer. In the 1990s he founded Agilis, which made arguably the first handheld mobile phone that wasn’t the size of a brick. Finally he set up a company in both New Zealand and San Francisco to do geographical mapping data before most of us even knew we needed it. The man pioneered four technology industry segments, putting him on the same level as Steve Jobs.

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The self-driving car is old enough to drink and drive

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Twenty-one years ago, when we were shooting Triumph of the Nerds, the director, Paul Sen, introduced me to his cousin who was working at the time on a big Department of Transportation research program to build self-driving cars. Twenty-one years ago! Yet what goes around comes around and today there is nothing fresher than autonomous cars, artificial intelligence. You know, old stuff.

As you can see from this picture, driverless cars were tested by RCA and General Motors decades earlier, back in the 1950s.

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Moon Express gets FAA 'approval' for Moon mission

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Last week Moon Express, a contender for the Google Lunar X-Prize (GLXP), announced that the company had received interagency approval from the White House, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of State and other U.S. government agencies "for a maiden flight of its robotic spacecraft onto the Moon’s surface to make the first private landing on the Moon".

This heady announcement got a lot of press including this story I am linking to because it was in the New York Times, the USA’s so-called pape of record. If the Times writes "gets approval to put robotic lander on the Moon" it must be true. Only this story isn’t true. Yes, the FAA kinda-sorta gave Moon Express permission to land on the Moon. But by the same token, the FAA has no power to deny Moon Express -- or anyone -- the right to land on the Moon. It’s not in their jurisdiction.

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Outsourced IT probably hurt Delta Airlines when its power went out

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Delta Airlines last night suffered a major power outage at its data center in Atlanta that led to a systemwide shutdown of its computer network, stranding airliners and canceling flights all over the world. You already know that. What you may not know, however, is the likely role in the crisis of IT outsourcing and offshoring.

Whatever the cause of the Delta Airlines power outage, data center recovery pretty much follows the same routine I used 30 years ago when I had a PDP-8 minicomputer living in my basement and heating my house. First you crawl around and find the power shut-off and turn off the power. I know there is no power but the point is that when power returns we don’t want a surge damaging equipment. Then you crawl around some more and turn off power to every individual device. Wait in the dark for power to be restored, either by the utility or a generator. Once power has been restored turn the main power switch back on then crawl back to every device, turning them back on in a specific order that follows your emergency plan. You do have an emergency plan, right? In the case of the PDP-8, toggle in the code to launch the boot PROM loader (yes, I have done this is complete darkness). Reboot all equipment and check for errors. Once everything is working well together then reconnect data to the outside world.

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Famous American blogger strikes back against China

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A few weeks ago I published a column here about online journalism. You may remember it from the picture of Jerry Seinfeld which I am using again here. While I have many readers in China, my work isn’t normally distributed there so I was surprised when a reader told me that column had been translated almost in its entirety and republished on a Chinese web site. How should I feel about this?

I might be flattered or I might be angry. Certainly the translation was not authorized by me and I received no payment for it. It goes far beyond the 250 word excerpt that is the day-to-day definition of Fair Use so it is a copyright violation. But the worst part, if Google Translate is to be believed, is that it doesn’t represent very well the ideas I was trying to present. Yet, having used my name and attributed the work to me, they are claiming this is what I wrote.

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Is anyone at Yahoo paying attention? Probably not

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So Verizon is buying the heart of old Yahoo! I include the exclamation point because it was always there in the Yahoo! we knew back when the Internet was young. $4.83 billion in cash is a lot of cash, but for Verizon it’s a way of buying into the future while buying what to many of us seems to be the past.

So let’s get the business part out of the way: Verizon can see Yahoo! as a bargain because Yahoo! has nearly always been more profitable on a gross margin basis than Verizon, a phone company. Even Yahoo! in decline will pull Verizon up. But that’s not why I’m writing about Yahoo! I’m writing because a reader yesterday more or less suggested I do so. At the risk of my sounding like Donald Trump, the reader suggested I had been right all along about Yahoo!

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Why SoftBank is paying $32 billion for ARM Holdings

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SoftBank is buying ARM Holdings for $32 billion. Why would a company not presently in the semiconductor business spend 32 times sales to enter a new industry? By traditional measures it makes little sense. But for SoftBank it makes perfect sense, because here’s a company that has spent more than 30 years making high-risk bets on entering new businesses by apparently over-paying for assets. It’s the way they’ve always done it and it has nearly always worked. In this case SoftBank is paying a 43 percent premium over the recent ARM share price because that’s how much money it took to overcome the resistance of ARM management. And it’s just a guess on my part, but I’d say those very ARM managers are, for the most part, doomed. SoftBank isn’t buying ARM because Masayoshi Son is so impressed with ARM’s success: SoftBank is buying ARM because of what it can become.

The only way SoftBank can justify paying such a high price for ARM is if Mr. Son is about to change ARM’s business model.

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A PayPal mystery

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A loyal reader of this column has come to me with a problem that I, in turn, am submitting to all of you. He sells downloadable software over the Internet but lately some customers have been ordering, paying, downloading, yet not requesting the required unlocking key to use their software. Money is piling-up in the reader’s PayPal account and he is starting to worry this is some kind of scam. But if it is, it’s a scam that’s new to me.

The first such order was placed on June 4th and there have been 20 such customers so far, though some of those customers have placed double orders so the total amount is $1,758. The reader is in the USA but the orders have come from Belgium, Norway, Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Japan, and Israel. Nobody has requested an unlocking key and nobody has requested a refund.

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