Babies born with missing limbs – do we know why?

In today’s news, a BBC story emerges: French Ain babies: Missing limb births prompt national inquiry.

This is so sad! And it’s a story that we need to follow carefully here in the U.S. as well, on its own merit.

But now I’m going to go off on a bent.

Reid Hoffman. Founder of LinkedIn. Famously made the statement (which I’ve railed against at every opportunity): “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.

For years, I’ve been saying that the problem with this statement, this philosophy, obvious to the most casual observer, is that it is infective. It’s contagious. Why just the first version of the product? Why not the second one too? You still have to beat your competitors on the development curve, don’t you? You have to get those new features into the market, or they will.

Problem: you don’t have time to fix what’s wrong with release 1 before release 2 comes out. You don’t have time to fix either release 1 or release 2 problems before release 3 comes out.

In short, you have these products with the same problems dating all the way back to their initial launch, that sometimes do not get resolved (obviously they may not be show-stoppers, so much as frustrations, limitations, things that require workarounds or corollary products to address the deficiencies), maybe ever.

I’ve watched this trend in Microsoft Office, in QuickBooks, in Gmail, and others.

But I never considered that it may be applicable to life sciences as well. Medicine. Drugs. Implants. Testing and/or therapeutic equipment. I’m forced to wonder, in the context of the above article, whether this is one of those cases. Obviously the cause of these birth defects is not yet known. Or rather, not yet publicly known. My guess is that there is someone who knows. Someone who might have known that this could happen, but chose not to or was told not to or was not in a position to be able to release that information. The truth will out.

Meanwhile: One-Third Of New Drugs Had Safety Problems After FDA Approval. After! One-third! These products have been withdrawn from the market, or warnings or new usage guidelines have been issued, or they have been revised or reformulated, etc.

So as that old saying goes, “Why is there always time to do it over, but never enough time to do it right?”

Maybe – now that we could be talking about babies, and not just computer programs – maybe people will stop and take that time to do it right the first time. There are no re-do’s in life.

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Faith restored by cinema, and the library. Thank you, Kanopy.

As one article I recently read starts out, “There’s literally never been a better time to get a New York City Library card.”

I just got mine, after not having one for at least a decade, to be able to watch Kanopy, the film-streaming service connecting libraries and educational institutions around the country with thousands of films that “truly resonate with us, that inspire us, enrich us, and challenge our perspectives” (from the http://www.kanopy.com site). I am literally moved to tears by what is available on Kanopy; it feels like I’ve been given a new lease on life amidst the dramatic downward spiral of Hollywood’s vapid offerings. Independent film houses are few and far between, there are no more video shops to rent foreign or independent films, and nearly all other streaming services are trying to out-blockbuster each other with further mindless and meaningless big-budget content.

www.kanopy.comKanopy, it seems, stands alone. And did I mention that it’s free? All you need is a library card. With that, you can watch up to 10 titles per month, so it’s not for binge-watching. But a full life should barely be able to accommodate 10 meaningful films a month… along with concerts, visits to museums and cultural institutions, and books to read, all of which are enabled, for free, with a library card.

Cutting the [cable TV] cord was the first step. The second step is using that detachment to select the material available to enrich one’s own life, on one’s own terms. With so much media and political pressure to join one bandwagon or another, the extent to which we are subject to outside manipulation is not even clear to us, even if we try hard to be vigilant against it. The fact that a group of people spends millions and millions of dollars to make the latest huge new sensational film should mean something, right? I mean, it must be important and compelling. Right?

Contrast that with someone who, with no money, no big resources or sponsors, a pocket-change and credit card budget, but with vision and purpose, would set out to make a film, to tell a story. We are so conditioned to thinking that we need to throw more money, rather than less, at every problem, in order to solve it, that going the other way is one of those things that makes us slap ourselves in the forehead and go, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?!”

So, thank you, NYPL (or any public library close to you). Thank you, Kanopy. Thank you, NPR. Thank you, PBS. Thank you to all the organizations whose purpose is to enlighten and enrich, to bring the greatest good to the most people. We need that, now, more than ever.

Will we need a universal basic income in the future?

rosie-robotI was drawn into a conversation recently of whether we will need a universal basic income at some time in the not-so-distant future. This is something that I’ve been thinking about perhaps since I graduated from college, and I’m now a few years away from retirement. So it’s something I’ve thought of from time to time, over the years.

I’d like to share with you a couple of TED Talks on the subject that I came upon just within the last week or two. First, one by Martin Ford, called “How we’ll earn money in a future without jobs,” and another, by Rutger Bregman, “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash.

There are others as well. But these two I found particularly key; the point drawn out of the first one is that even though this is a familiar tune we’ve heard numerous times before – the robots are going to put us out of work – the technology has shifted, not just in degree, but in kind, in ways that make it perhaps more of a realistic possibility now than at other times in the past. And the second illustrates the difference in peoples’ responses to everyday occurrences, decisions they have to make, life choices, etc., when comparing their financially-secure state with their financially-at-risk state. It makes the case for a guaranteed minimum income for reasons of what I’ll call social pragmatism, where the first one does so for reasons of technological encroachment on human employability.

It seems clear to me that the idea of “running the country like a business,” as some still say they want us to do today, is an idea whose time has simply passed. With more and more business processes being executed by machines, computers, systems, etc., what does running a business have to do with solving human problems?

I think the time has come, rather, to run the country like a junior high school concert band, or soccer team. Here, the coach/conductor is rightly more focused on building character, helping the team members to find their strengths, than on winning competitions. With a sufficient safety net such as our modern society ought to be able to provide, people can be led to find their own truths, their own best skills, and quite probably make the greatest contributions to society at large. In eliminating the survivalist “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of thinking, we can create an entirely different national dialog and identity.

A guaranteed minimum income can provide the means to that end. And it may well have to.

The sad truth about drone warfare

Predator droneI’d like to comment on one aspect of an article that appeared recently in The Independent. To do that, I’ll start with a telling quote regarding the use of drones: “They’re the worst form of warfare in the history of the world, except for all the others.

The article in question is a guest editorial in The Independent, by Malik Jalal, titled, “I’m on the Kill List. This is what it feels like to be hunted by drones.

I am not a militarist, as a general rule. And I’m not particularly fond of things flying overhead that can drop bombs or fire missiles at those on the ground. Hell, I don’t even like traffic copters hovering overhead.

Regarding drones, though… their opponents often adamantly decry drone warfare for the fact that for every viable target, 9 or 10 more people invariably end up being killed as well. But they’re not so adept at stating what the military alternative is. I’m not talking about what the political alternative might have been. We’re past that. I’m saying, if the decision is made that some kind of brute force method must be applied to a particular situation, what’s it gonna be?
Agreed, taking out 10 people for every viable target really sucks. But consider traditional warfare. How many people did the U.S. (and most of the Western World) want to “take out” in WWII? One: Adolf Hitler.

That’s not completely fair, because there were probably 10 top targets who needed to be eliminated in order to arrest Germany’s actions. Himmler, Eichmann, Goebbels, etc.

The overall losses of human life in WWII – the costliest ever – were around 75 million. Estimates vary. Military deaths alone were estimated at about 25 million. Non-military, civilian deaths due to direct military action and “crimes against humanity” were approximately 30 million.

Focusing on the latter number, not even taking into account the staggering number of people who lost their lives due to famine and disease during the war – just the 30 million innocents killed as a direct result of the war – means that the cost was 3 million “bystanders” for each one of those “top 10” targeted leaders of the Nazi regime.

The simple and unpleasant truth is, the ratio of collateral deaths and injuries per strike in drone warfare is several orders of magnitude less than in traditional warfare. Until there is a way to either make warfare disappear, or to make the available strategies even more precise than they already are, we’re going to continue to see drones used to launch campaigns against hostile targets.

Any unnecessary loss of life is tragic. But drones kill far fewer people than other methods currently known and used.

QuickBooks for Mac – Let the buyer beware!

Caveat Emptor

Here’s the latest on QuickBooks for Mac (my version is 2013, which I have not updated in light of other peoples’ reviews indicating no net gain in doing so).

My main company file has gotten rather large over the years. For this reason, the automated backup of my company file no longer runs successfully to completion. So I decided to split off the “historical” transactions from, say, pre-2014, into a separate file, and just keep everything in the current file from 2014 onward.

Well.

QuickBooks has a feature to Condense Data. “This operation reduces the size of your company file by summarizing transactions dated on or before a specific date. After transactions are summarized, there may be list items that are no longer used (e.g. vendor names, employee names, etc.). quickbooks can remove some or all of these list items for you.”

Great. Sounds like exactly what I need! Let’s set it up, use the date 12/31/2013, and run it.

What’s the very first thing it tells me when I hit the “go” button?

“Before condensing the data file a backup must be made.”

I would say this message pretty thoroughly summarizes the joy of using this product. I’m being unfair, you think? I have 29 other documented “significant issues” with this software that I could mention, as I have brought to Intuit’s attention, with no resolution offered whatsoever.

Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware!

Apple’s battery case is a case in point.

This article is a comment on a recent Slate article published by Mr. Will Oremus, “Bad Apple – The company’s ugly, underpowered new iPhone battery case is a sign of trouble in Cupertino.

In the concluding paragraph, I’m not sure where Mr. Oremus gets his info that “What Apple used to understand is that you can’t have it both ways. You can build one legendary product, or a wide range of mostly pretty good ones.” Did that come from his own experience? Or did someone tell him? Because if he were deeply experienced with Apple products I don’t think he would have quite that perspective.

Here are two thoughts to consider:

1. Apple has a long and deep history of creating and/or marketing products that “wet the whistle.” Products such as ClarisWorks (which they purchased because it satisfied this philosophy, and later rebranded as AppleWorks), iWork (featuring Numbers, Pages and Keynote), Calendar, Mail, Contacts, etc. There are more of these than you can shake a stick at. All of these products were designed to offer great, intuitive functionality, but by no means were any striving to be full-featured and robust applications in their respective product areas. Apple learned early on that they needed the buzz and interaction of the developer community working hand in hand with them, in order to survive and, later, to thrive in the marketplace. There were numerous occasions in which they overstepped their bounds and released products that “went too far,” pissing off the developer or ancillary product community, and they took the lesson to heart and backed away. Apple printers were one such product.

That was mostly the Apple of old. That was the company that knew how to make legendary products, but well understood that even legendary products could not survive in a vacuum, that they needed the symbiotic relationships with other key players (Microsoft, HP, Intel, Adobe) in order to retain their relevance. I would never think to blame Apple for its decision to leave fruit on the vine for other developers – sometimes even low-hanging fruit. This, in my view, was entirely intentional.

Which brings us to…

2. The world is different after the release of the iPhone than it was before the iPhone. First and foremost, what happened when the iPhone was released was that Apple became a phone provider. That’s obvious. But what’s not so immediately obvious is that that world does not tolerate – or foster – the guarded, heavily engineered, quality-first approach to design and development that had led Apple for so long. It changed almost overnight. In order for Apple to play on this new field, it had to play by the new rules. Those rules were perhaps best spelled out by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, in what to me is one of the most destructive statements ever fostered by a for-some-reason respected business leader:

“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

This single statement best epitomizes the new world that Apple had gotten itself into, and it forever and perhaps irreversibly forced them to lower their standards in order to stay in the game. It had to be a wrenching change for Apple to make, and in particular for Steve Jobs to make. He knew, I’m sure, the path he was being led down, and probably did not see a way out of it. It had become an inescapable truth that “the public” was now his customer, and that customer had long been accustomed to buying a book for its cover, and were all too willing to judge on promise more than on delivery. If the product didn’t deliver, you could conduct surveys and post apologies on social media and use crowd sourcing to determine the hot buttons you needed to address in the next release of the product.

None of this is the way Apple used to do things, and the change came about due to factors external to Apple. Apple is very big, but the world is bigger. As people become more and more intellectually lazy (which argument has been made by others better than I could try to make it here), they see less and less the pathways that result from the choices they make today. There’s always this underlying expectation that it almost doesn’t matter what we put out right now, which path we take today; it can always be fixed tomorrow. This seems true whether we’re talking about smart phones, computers, or political candidates.

To the old guard which I represent, it’s a hard turn to take. To those of us who grew up trying to get things right before putting them out there, this notion of throwing everything at the wall and seeing if it sticks is anathema.

Save yourselves! No, really – save yourselves!

Slow sand filtration schematic

Slow sand filtration schematic

Don’t get me wrong – I very much care about health and living conditions in the more remote reaches of the globe. But I’m getting tired of seeing the PSA messages on TV where the teary-eyed children are shown collecting putrid water which, so the story goes, is all they have to drink. Enter well-intentioned white people who, through a charitable organization funded by similarly inclined people, are going to show up and save the day.

Really? There have been bio filtration methods available since the early 1800s* (and primitive forms of sand filtration even existed in ancient times!). You don’t have to be well-educated to look at nasty water and know that it’s nasty. Assuming that a community did not just spring randomly out of the soil, but was established in a particular spot, what reason would there be to establish it there? The presence of water would be a top one. If the water wasn’t very good, would the people of the community really not be able to figure out for themselves that it needed to be purified? Would no one among them be aware of any development anywhere else in the world that might offer a tenable solution to the problem?

There’s a big problem today with missionary zeal. In her book, “Dead Aid,” Dambisa Moyo writes, ‘Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.’ In short, it is (as Karl Kraus said of Freudianism) ‘the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.’

We need to get our New World sensibilities turned around so that, if anything, we’re helping others to figure it out for themselves. We can’t always just be about raising enough money to solve other people’s problems. We keep trying to maintain the illusion that we’ve got it all sorted out and we’re so ahead of the game that we don’t even have problems of our own. We go out and “solve” these remote problems, instilling a bit of the “American Way” out there. Once they derive the benefit, others soon believe they want to be like us, and eventually there’s a McDonald’s in the middle of Vanuatu.

If that’s what we really want the world to be, if that’s really the best idea we can come up with, then yeah, we’re on the right track. On the other hand, if we maintain that diversity is a good and necessary thing on a global-macro scale, then we have to stop rushing to fill the void whenever and wherever one materializes. There are more organic processes that can solve problems, over time, that offer more lasting improvement at less expense to the individuality of the community, and these I think are what we should be striving to promote and maintain.

If a community truly can’t solve its problems on its own, even over a certain period of time, sure, let’s send some help. Sometime however that help may be nothing more than a simple diagram, or a manual, on how to produce a slow sand filtration system, say, rather than raising millions of dollars to go there and create an advanced and energy-consuming system that would dramatically change the focus of the people’s lives.

We don’t always need mega-solutions. We have to get out of that mindset. “Small is Beautiful” is not just a slogan, or a book title. It’s a key to having a future worth having.

[* See Biosandfilter.org for the reference]