Trends in Computing

Here is Celent on what the trends are that affect technology in insurance companies:

  • Data as platform
  • Analytics
  • Cloud computing
  • The move from server-centric architecture to service-centric architecture
  • IT security
  • Data privacy
  • Social platforms
  • User experience

Pretty boring list. And, I think, a list that doesn’t cut to the chase. Here’s my list (in order from least to most ‘social’ in nature):

  • Speed (Moore’s Law)
  • Memory: that’s disk capacity (and speed), and working memory capacity
  • Bandwidth
  • Development of user-friendly interpreted languages
  • Standards integration

To me, everything else comes from one of these trends.

Want to know what’s going to happen tomorrow in technology? Take one or more of those trends and imagine what happens when you double its current state of the art.

When The Chips Are Down: It’s All About #1

I’m just going to quote this whole MR post:


Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available.  Other surveys have shown similar results.

…the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities, and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.

Here is more.  The researchers, Ilyana Kuziemko and Michael I. Norton, attribute this to “last place aversion,” namely the desire to always have someone below you in the income pecking order:

Which group was the most opposed [to an increase in the minimum wage]? Those making just above the minimum wage, between $7.26 and $8.25.

For the pointer I thank The Browser.


Here’s my comment on MR:

Maybe people automatically think that “the poor” is an unemployed person (ie somebody else, most people have jobs). When times are good, you probably don’t mind risking a tax increase for the sake of supporting a cause that signals your magnanimity.

When the ship is sinking, though, @#$@ the women and children, I need to watch out for #1.

My theory of political discourse is that people affiliate with causes when they perceive it to be relatively costless for them to do so. You can yammer on about the poor all you like; actually, you can yammer on about ANYTHING you like, but as soon as shit gets real, the decision-making process changes rapidly.

Talk is cheap: this is why prediction markets are the best way of figuring out what people really think.


Following a comment exchange below, please be sure to take the title to be a bit of artistic license (ie not, strictly speaking, true).

David Haye Retires

Let’s put aside the question of whether this is a real retirement or not. Let’s take him at his word.

Professional athletes have a strange fate. The most successful are the most tough mentally: they train harder, smarter and longer than their equally (or more highly) talented peers.

I actually believe success in any walk of life depends on experience and sustained mental strength. Sports, business, science, family life, friendship: it all takes work and intelligence and effort.

I say this because in all things except sports, you get to use your experience and knowledge and constantly improve for as long as you choose. If success grants you one thing it’s the ability to control your fate. The most successful keep at it right up until and beyond where social norms tell you you should stop.

In sports, though, you work at something from childhood and, just as you’re beginning to reach true mental and intellectual maturity, your physical abilities begin their decline. As an athlete, you have dedicated your LIFE to this activity and just as start to get it, you have to stop it.

They probably feel the same as they did when they were 20. How could those feelings be wrong?! This must be unimaginably frustrating.

Maybe you become a coach. Maybe you go get an MBA. Who knows. But the allure of un-retirement is immense. In contact sports like boxing there is a powerful disincentive, though. Here’s David Haye:

I didn’t want my speech to become any more slurred than it was when I first entered the ring, and was keen not to one day look like an extra from Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video.

This happens to a lot of boxers. This happens to even more football and hockey players, because those sports employ more people. Concussions destroy lives.

I think that boxers should retire before 30. I think that guys like Floyd Mayweather Jr. got into their 30s with relatively little physical punishment because of technique built on talent. Talent fades, though, and Floyd’s going to start getting hit.

These people train their minds to push their bodies beyond where the limits ‘should be’. This is a skill that begets extraordinary success and wealth.

A more valuable skill, for the sake of their lives, is turning it off.

Steve Jobs = Keith Richards

This Gladwell article got me thinking.

The making of the classic Rolling Stones album “Exile on Main Street” was an ordeal, Keith Richards writes in his new memoir, because the band had too many ideas. It had to fight from under an avalanche of mediocrity

Richards goes on to marvel, “It’s unbelievable how prolific he was.” Then he writes, “Sometimes you’d wonder how to turn the fucking tap off. The odd times he would come out with so many lyrics, you’re crowding the airwaves, boy.”

[Richards] came to understand that one of the hardest and most crucial parts of his job was to “turn the fucking tap off,” to rein in Mick Jagger’s incredible creative energy.

The typical and terribly wrong view of innovation is that education and intelligence and creativity are scarce resources and our education systems need to address this.

My view of innovation is that all ideas start out stupid. The scarce resources are filters that eliminate the most egregious wheel-spinners and execution that elevates the remainder.

We focus on guys like Jagger, ablaze in a creative frenzy, and think: “wow, if only I could write that much music, I’d definitely have a hit eventually”. But the real genius here is probably Richards. How do you figure out what to hammer into a song? What if you choose wrong?

The wrong insight you might take away is that the best music ever written is probably languishing in a trashbin somewhere because nobody was able to polish it up. The real answer is that there is no such thing as the best music in a trashbin, because EVERY SINGLE Keith Richards is successful, but the VAST MAJORITY of Mick Jaggers aren’t.

Execution is hardest. Execution is what happens when you realize your original idea is stupid. Execution is identifying the redeeming quality and figuring out how to exploit it.

Let’s take technology companies, who control an enormous share of execution talent for innovative ideas: they have all the best engineers. What makes the difference between Amazon and, say, Execution.

But are Amazon’s engineers THAT much smarter than’s? Probably not.*

What probably happens at is that the filter doesn’t wipe out the bad ideas and whoever is in the Keith Richards role isn’t seeing the diamond in the rough.

And read the title to find out who sits atop the technology execution pantheon.

*By the way, I have no idea about any of this, obviously. I’m just picking companies out of thin air.

Notes from the 2011 MTV Music Video Awards

[This one is from the drafts folder]

– I was amused and bored by the canned reply about “what are you looking forward to most?”, which was: “Adele’s performance: I just LOVE Adele”. Adele is overweight, plain-looking and got her heart broken: it’s all very nice for singing-and-dancing bombshells to be fans of her music, but the over-the-top, obsequious condescension was a bit sickening.  They might as well say: “isn’t it cute when someone that looks like that can gets to hang out with us for a night? I love how good I look next to her on stage.”

-Speaking of those bombshells, Beyonce put on a performance that everyone agrees was a masterful combination of singing and dancing and looking good. And did it edging into her second trimester at that. Britney made an interesting comment at one point, though, that got me thinking: she said that the two of them came into the business at about the same time. How might one compare these two?

I think Beyonce will go down as the more successful artist. And if you put them through some kind of NFL-style pop star combine, Beyonce would probably jump right off the page: she’s taller, better looking, probably a better dancer, better singer, harder worker. Win win win.

And yet believe it or not I think Britney was by far a more compelling force artistically.

I’ll use a term my wife taught me when she used to act. Britney made music you feel in your crotch. I don’t really mean that sexually, either: it just connects on some deep level. Michael Jackson once said that the unorthodox 30-second lyric-less opening to Billie Jean needed to stay because “it makes me want to dance”.  That’s a powerful feeling and Britney, for whatever reason, has far more consistent ability to inspire it than Beyonce.

Beyonce goes about things differently. Her routines and music are often a spectacular display of ability and talent and creativity. The dance moves are immaculate, the difficult notes are nailed, the songs are often original and interesting. But dammit, I just don’t feel it in my crotch. Beyonce makes me think too much to appreciate her.

I feel like Britney’s career feel apart because she was strapped to rocket of talent and didn’t have the cognitive tools to deal with success. Beyonce has too many cognitive tools.

– Last and certainly least, I’m astonished that Chris Brown is being granted catchy tunes. Yeah x3 is excellent and I’m embarrassed to support this asshole. You don’t need to be a women’s rights activist (and I’m not) to acknowledge this guy’s a scumbag titleholder.

On the other hand, take it as an indication of my opinion of this spectacle that I’m surprised they didn’t cut to Rihanna during his performance. Maybe she wasn’t there? I’m not sure.

Reality Check

Here is some healthy corrective:

Six hours was enough, between the 6 a.m. start time and noon lunch break, for the first wave of local workers to quit. Some simply never came back and gave no reason. Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard.

So they go back to collecting unemployment or something? Yikes, that’s crazy-juice for right-leaning voters.

The thing that irritates me about ‘jobs policy’ (what a ridiculous term) is that people are not very concrete about the problem and I like to remind myself sometimes what it’s all about.

First remember that to quiet down voters we need to satisfy several apparently contradicting impulses:

People don’t want to live in rural areas.

People don’t want to do manual labor. People don’t want to work hard generally. That’s not a criticism, mind you. Who wants to be forced to do something unpleasant?

People want a better life than their parents and are happy to wait for it. And live with their parents until it arrives.

“Good jobs” allow people be lazy, urban and rich. Auto workers were the poster-children of this movement, and for good reason.

I grew up in the catchment area for the Motor City Auto industry and I’ll always remember the stories of the Temporary Part Time job contracts some kids of auto workers were granted.

This was stuff that made lazy teenagers salivate: lots of downtime, no skills required, lots of breaks, discounts on cars and $22/hour in 1998 for a 17-year-old. Absolutely outrageous. And the employment practices were no better than the most hideous nepotocracies* on earth. Insiders win.

Anyway, a complete discussion of this should match my criteria above with a picture of who is actually unemployed.

See here too. In order of predictive power, my understanding is that the characteristics go like this: poorly educated, urban, young and dark-skinned. I’m not actually sure this matters, because the unemployed have probably always come from the ranks of the disenfranchised in society.

*I wish I could put that one into the words of the day, but I googled it and found loads of instances. No such thing as a new idea, I suppose.

“Wall Street” Protesters

I walked by them this morning on the way to work. Hadn’t been by in a week or so. Some observations:

  • It actually smells like manure and compost in there.
  • I wonder what the point of it all is. They’re just kinda sitting there. “We’re going to live like homeless people until… um… until…”
  • What is “Wall Street”? Is that a euphemism for empowered insiders? For rich people? As I walk by in my suit I imagine they think of me as being a “Wall-Streeter” yet I find the idea ridiculous.
  • From a purely personal standpoint, the motivation can only be that they have nothing better to do and are looking for a sense of belonging. People are desperate for meaning and will do ridiculous things searching for it. Read this book.
  • People will say “get these idiots jobs” but that’s misleading. What these people really need are the mortgages, cable bills and car payments that come with having jobs. We need these people’s fear of losing their jobs to insulate us from this kind of stupidity. So yeah, they need jobs, but that’s only a means to an end.

One of my more silly pet theories is that I don’t believe in politics, only economics. Discourse is only good for signaling affiliation and escalating conflict. The only social force that matters is whether people feel they’re better off than they used to be and that means richer than they used to be.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles

I’ve recently come across this new insurance blog by Todd Bault and it’s friggen catnip to me. I disagree with a lot of what goes on in there, in particular (I think) his strange and interesting theory of capital.

That’s cool, though, because it’s making me think my own perceived understanding through more carefully, which is always welcome. His posts are so content-heavy that I’m overwhelmed with where to begin the discussion, so…

I’ll take advice from Barker:

The first step is crucial — keep it tiny. Do not be ambitious yet. That leads to failure.

Consider this the first step: a simple declaration of intent. I intend to keep re-reading Todd’s old posts and figure out exactly where we disagree. Then I’ll try to write something small.

A Teaching Moment

To my everlasting surprise, somebody made it far enough through some of my course notes to understand what on earth I was going on about.

I was forwarded a link to a real life implementation of xml. Actual examples are always nice to think through the implications of the theory.

But be forewarned, ye hapless Web denizens, this is a discussion not fit for all. Formatting reports for transferring retirement-related employee data among federal agencies. Has quite the ring to it, non?

Here’s the question: why and how do people use these tools?

The purpose of all this nonsense is to get machine readable data into the mothership system. Surely they’re choking on the fedex bills and warehouses of paper files. It’s the friggen 21st century after all.

XML does give you machine readable data. And it has this other benefit: it doesn’t really matter how you create it. Each government agency could format a report out of a sophisticated relational database or pay a legion of underemployed construction workers to handcode a text file. Either works as long as the format checks out.

So XML just plugs into your existing system (even if it’s a system of handwritten forms and carbon copies). Database systems are not quite so forgiving. You need a “new system”, in the most horrible, time/cost draining meaning of the term.

In this case, I’d speculate that the xml format is considered an early first step. It’s hardly feasible to lay the redundant paper-form jockeys off any time soon. Unions will make sure of that. But having a continuous corporate structure holds you back, too.

In more lightly-regulated process-heavy industries, most companies were either acquired or driven out of business before the haggard survivors finally completed their metamorphosis, which is actually never really complete. Google ‘COBOL programming language’ for an taste of the eternal duel against legacy software. And paper files?! Machines barely even read that crap. Try finding (with your computer!) any reliable data collected before 2000 (ie the dawn of machine history). Oh, you found some? Well, hide your grandkids, ’cause that shit was INPUTTED BY HAND!

Anyway, back to Uncle Sam’s pension files. The endgame is obvious: direct API links between the central system and every payroll/HR system in each office. This eliminates costs (jobs) and will improve accuracy. Good stuff.

Until then we’re still building XML files and presumably emailing them around. I can hardly be critical here as I’ve only just started to see the emergence of API links between insurers and reinsurers. No XML schemas, though, because they’re using a type-controlled relational database. Fancy way of saying they keep the data clean at the entry point: pretty hard to soil those databases. As it should be.

To my novice eye the system impresses. Flicking through the documentation suggests they might want to cool off on the initialisms and structured prose as it reads a bit like an engineering manual from the 60s. But engineers they probably are (and targeting an engineering audience to boot), so I’m probably being unfair.

Bless ’em.

More On Fire

Horace Dediu has an interesting and long discussion on the Kindle. Ultimately he shares a view I notice I didn’t put in my notes, but with which I completely agree:

Fire will not have the opportunity to disrupt the iPad or tablets in general. Amazon sees the hardware and software of a device as a commodity and the content and its distribution as valuable. This assumes that the device is “good enough” and will not require deep re-architecting or that new input methods can be easily absorbed. In short, they see the tablet as at the end of its evolutionary path. Apple sees the exact opposite.