Apple and 1984 all over again?…

Could Apple’s iPhone fall to the same fate as Apple’s Macintosh?

In Newsweek, Daniel Lyons (aka Fake Steve Jobs) poses that question in his article Back to the Future.  He notes that in 1984, Apple sprinted far ahead of the IBM PC makers with the Mac and its fantastic graphical user interface or GUI (you know, that thing that we’re all using right now to “point and click” with a mouse…)  It took Microsoft 6 years to come out with Windows 3.0, the first operating system that was comparable with the Mac’s. 

But what happened?  Microsoft eventually owned 90 percent of the market and Apple is probably closer to 5 percent now.  Lyons wonders whether Apple’s stance with the iPhone is like deja vu all over again…

Google has come out with their Android operating system for mobile phones that’s more open to development (think Windows 3.0…) and phone makers are starting to come out with comparable packages using the new system (think the new Droid phone from Motorola, working with the Verizon network…).   Debates are raging about iPhone vs. Droid.  There’s even evidence that strong key developers refuse to write for the iPhone, because of Apple’s burdensome app approval policies

I like my iPhone – I mean really like it…  But then again, I had a Mac in the early 90’s (in fact, two, and I really liked them then, too…), only to eventually have every computer in our house be a PC…   Maybe Lyons is on to something…

Odd Stats on Sarah Palin

This week’s Newsweek had a lot of interesting things that piqued my interest – here’s one regarding Sarah Palin

In Jon Meacham’s article, he talks about Why Palin Matters to Obama – And To You.  Certainly Palin is a polarizing figure – there are a lot of people who love her and a lot of people that think she’s dangerous.  Meacham relates Palin’s following within the Republican party to that of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964.

But the part I found the most interesting were the numbers – at least poll numbers…  Here’s a quote from Meacham’s article:

“According to Gallup, Republicans are more likely to say they would seriously consider voting for Palin for president (65 percent) than to say she is qualified for the job (58 percent).”

So, what in the world can we make of this?!  If we analyze the numbers a bit more, we can see a couple of things…

One, of Republicans, there are some of them that would vote for Palin for President, even if they thought she wasn’t qualified for the job – at least 7% of Republicans.  It could be higher if there were some that thought she was qualified but wouldn’t consider voting for her…

And, probably of more interest, these people who might consider voting for an unqualified Palin must believe that the alternative – any Democratic nominee – would be a worse option…

I don’t know what previous polls have shown for these “qualified vs. unqualified” polls, but I’m willing to bet that most people believe that the nominees, Democrat or Republican, are qualified to be President.  And, it is likely that people vote for candidates that they do believe are qualified…

But the fact that there are at least 7% of Republicans that would consider voting for an unqualified Republican as opposed to a qualified Democrat is less about the candidate (Palin or anyone else…) and more, I think, about the polarized political environment America finds itself in.

Right now, Republicans think Democrats are out to ruin the country by taking it over.  Also, Democrats think Republicans are out to ruin the country purely to enrich themselves.   Both are wrong, but given the state of things right now, there’s no telling them that… 

To me, this seems to be what is driving these interesting numbers.  Regardless, Palin makes for good political theater…

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Voltaire in his Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764) said, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien“, literally translated as The best is the enemy of good.”  (bet you didn’t think I knew French, huh?…)  It has been modified over the years to refer to “the perfect”, but it long ago captured a consistent logical reality that challenges us all, scientists and non-scientists alike. 

It’s a neat little saying (I once heard the late Jack Kemp, former Congressman, Cabinet Secretary, and NFL quarterback, use it in describing passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement…).  But, basically, it’s a nice way of telling yourself, “Get going!  We need an answer now!”

When scientists work on problems, we are always trading off time versus quality.  If you spend more time on the problem, you’ll (possibly) get a better answer.  But to the people who are looking for the answer, they are really interested in hearing what the answer is.  And ASAP!

The same holds (ever more so) in business.  You may have heard about “first to market” – well, this is exactly the same concept.  Customers want solutions, which means that they want a product that is good enough to solve their problem.  You may have a better solution to their problem, but the customer is interested in solving their problem now.  If you don’t solve their problem now, they will look to someone else.  So, the product has to be good enough (a bad product won’t solve anyone’s problem…), but it has to be provided now.

Message:  You have to produce.

We scientists have a habit sometimes of worrying about everything that’s not quite right.  In fact, we’re trained to look at the world, describe ways of explaining it, and then analyze the problems with that explanation in order to figure out new and better ones…

But there’s a limit to how “perfect” we think we can make something.  In fact, nothing is or can ever be perfect.   There’s always room for improvement, so we all need to figure out a way to be satisfied with the “good” while still focusing on what it takes to get to the “better”.

Especially in the business world, it is so important to get to a good answer, something that explains most of what you need, and provide that to others quickly.  Believe me, they will tell you if it’s good enough, or if it needs work.  But don’t be afraid of the feedback…

Now, I’ll admit, sometimes I find myself overanalyzing things and not taking action.  But I’m always pushing myself to “get going”, even if I have the urge to study things just a little more…  This is what got me blogging again…

Being productive is an incredibly important quality in business and in science.  We become valuable to other people by what we produce (how much good stuff), not necessarily the superior quality of very little output. 

In fact, being productive translates to being reliable and dependable to others, since they can always count on you to produce good stuff to meet their needs (usually, relating to timeliness of solving their problems).  Others can have a reputation for providing spectacular results, but you may never know when (or if) you’ll ever get them. 

Strive for perfection, but don’t let that get in the way of providing plenty of “good” to the people who care about what you’re striving for.


…is the New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2009 Word of the Year.   The term “unfriend”, a verb, means to remove someone as a friend on a social networking Web site such as Facebook.  (read more here…)
Oxford lexicographer Christine Lindberg says unfriend has “real lex appeal.”  (ugh….  there is no such thing as a good pun…)
Admittedly, I think it’s just really interesting to see how language evolves over time…
Apparently, finalists for 2009 also included:
 – netbook, which is a small laptop
 – sexting, which is sending sexually explicit texts and pictures by cell phone
 – birther, a conspiracy theorist claiming that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States
 – tramp stamp, a tattoo (usually on a woman) on the lower back


Dinosaurs Aren’t Extinct

60 Minutes has a fascinating piece this past Sunday on paleontologist and Montana State University professor Jack Horner.  He is your classic scientific rebel – doing things that confound the scientific establishment… and coming up with amazing and new findings as he does it…

So basically, even though we know the story about how a giant meteor crashed into the Earth 68 million years ago and killed all the dinosaurs, Horner says, “Not so fast”.  All of them didn’t go extinct – some survived and evolved into what we know today as birds.

Here’s what another post has to say about Horner and his unorthodox methods:

“Horner’s practice of breaking the bones apart and studying their insides to further his research has landed him in the middle of a huge controversy following his team’s discovery of blood vessels within the dinosaur bones.”

In Horner’s new book, “How To Build A Dinosaur“, (co-authored by New York Times deputy science editor James Gorman) he talks about the possibility of recreating dinosaurs – yes, real dinosaurs!  Here’s part of a summary from his new book:

“A kind of reverse genetic engineering could make it possible to ” build” a dinosaur embryo from the embryo of a modern bird – a chicken, say – since birds are the evolutionary descendants of dinosaurs.”

Hmmm…  Dino-chickens?

Horner is a MacArthur Award-winning paleontologist, advised director Steven Spielberg on his movie Jurassic Park, and apparently became the inspiration for Sam Neill’s character in the movie.

“The Moon Is Alive”

In today’s Los Angeles Times, John Johnson Jr. reports the latest from NASA’s “moon crater creator” mission.  Of course, the goal of the $79 million Lunar Crater Obsevation and Sensing Satellite mission isn’t merely to see if we can hit the moon with a rocket – it’s intended to impact the moon so that we can see what lies underneath the dusty surface.  Scientists beliieve that there may be deposits of hydrogren and water that lie in craters near the Moon’s poles, where the Sun’s light hasn’t shone for billions of years.

It turns out that multiple instruments have picked up strong signatures of water from the October 9 impact of the mission’s Centaur rocket – about 25 gallons of water in the form of vapor and ice in a crater about 100 feet across.  So what does this mean?  This leads to the real possibility for manned moon colonies – science fiction stuff that’s looking more real.

According to the LA Times story,

“NASA’s plans, currently under review by the Obama administration, call for a return to the moon at the end of the next decade, and construction of a lunar base in which astronauts could live and work for months at a time.  The presence of large quantities of water would make that plan more practical, since water could be used for drinking, breathing and even making rocket fuel.”

And based upon these scientific results, Anthony Colaprete, chief scientist of the mission, declared, “The moon is alive.”  Very cool stuff…

Wolfram|Alpha Links With Bing

I ran across a post by Erick Schonfeld on TechCrunch about Microsoft’s Bing search engine licensing search data from Wolfram|Alpha.  Might not be much of a big deal, but I think the Wolfram|Alpha concept is pretty cool… 

While Google and Bing provide you websites that have the search phrase that you are looking for, Wolfram|Alpha takes your search and presents you with brand new information.  It actually crunches through what it has access to, and creates new data that isn’t on any website.  I first wrote about the launch of Wolfram|Alpha a few months ago… 

Worth taking a look…

Ignoring Science

Recently, Sharon Begley of Newsweek wrote about psychologists’ unwillingness to utilize proven scientific methods in their practices.  For example, Begley points out that rigorous clinical trials show that cognitive and cognitive-behavior therapies are effective against depression, panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, obsessive-compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.  Instead she brings to our attention that:

“Millions of patients are instead receiving chaotic mediation therapy, facilitated communication, dolphin-assisted therapy, eye-movement desensitatization, and… well, ‘someone once stopped counting at 1,000 forms of psychotherapy in use,’ says (Univesity of Wisconsin professor Timothy B.) Baker.”

Dolphin-assisted therapy, huh?  Nice… if you can get it.

Arnold’s F-Bomb Veto

So, I’m through Newsweek this weekend, and I run across a quote from Goucher College mathematician Robert Lewand, where he said:

“Somebody in the governor’s office was just having a little fun.”

What Dr. Lewand was describing was the result of a recent veto by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  So, what could have brought this so much attention?

Well, it turns out that the statement accompanying Gov. Schwarzenegger’s veto came with a subliminal, more obscene message.  Here’s what the actual statement said:

“For some time now I have lamented the fact that major issues are overlooked while many unnecessary bills come to me for consideration. Water reform, prison reform, and health care are major issues my Administration has brought to the table, but the Legislature just kicks the can down the alley.

Yet another legislative year has come and gone without the major reforms Californians overwhelmingly deserve. In light of this, and after careful consideration, I believe it is unnecessary to sign this measure at this time.”

Seems harmless enough, right?  Well, if you look at the actual statement, and especially the first letter in each line of this statement, you’ll see the intended message of “f–k you”.  (To read more about the story, you can go here…)

You might be asking – how does anyone know that anyone intended anything?  Couldn’t this just be a coincidence?  Well, it could be, but we have to ask ourselves a couple of questions:  One, how likely is it that this arrangement of letters occurred by accident?  And two, how likely is it that someone in the Governor’s office arranged the letters on purpose?

In science, we ask ourselves these questions all the time to figure out which one leads to the right answer.  So, let’s start with the second question first – how likely do we think that a government staffer actually played with the sentences to make the message read this way?  I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s pretty unlikely, but let’s say that the odds of this happening is… oh… 1 in a million.  Let’s even put it out there more – let’s say the likelihood of this happening is about 1 in 1 billion.  That’s certainly pretty rare!…

Now, what we do next is to figure out how likely it is that these seven letters came out the way they did by accident.  Well, if you look at how often letters actually occur in the Engligh language, you can calculate this likelihood.  I went to Wikipedia and found these occurrence probabilities, so I calculated the likelihood for myself.

(if you don’t mind, I’d rather not list the letters here – don’t want the obscenity police coming after my blog…)

But here’s something that was interesting.  Originally, when I heard that Professor Leward said it was a 5.5 in 1 trillion shot for this arrangement of letters to be random, I didn’t believe him.  I thought he was off. 

Starting simply, if there are 26 letters in the alphabet, then assuming that each letter is equally likely (which it isn’t, but this is where I started…), then 1/26 = 3.846%, and then multiplied seven times for the 7-letter message, this would be about 1 in 8 billion.  So I thought, “Wait!  This mathematician is wrong, isn’t he?!”…  Well, it turns out that I was…  But then again, I wasn’t (I’ll get to that below…)

So I did the calculation using the actual letter frequencies that I found on Wikipedia, and that’s where I got the same answer as Professor Leward – 5.5 in 1 trillion, or 1 in 185 billion… (it turns out that the letter “k” is actually quite rare – only 0.77% as opposed to the letter “f” which occurs 3.78% of the time…)

But wait, there’s more.  It turns out that Professor Leward should in fact revise his calculations.  The letters of the obscene message actually occur as the first letter of each word, and the letter frequencies for being the first letter of a word are different than the letter frequencies regardless of where the letter shows up.

So, if you use the letter frequencies for the first letter of each word (also on the Wikipedia page), you get a likelihood of 1 in 485 billion or about 2 in 1 trillion, about 2.7 less likely than Professor Leward’s original calculation.

Now, which cause for the “FY” memo is more likely?  Well, now what we do is compare the likelihoods, and the one that has the greater likelihood is the best explanation.  So, even though it would be very rare for a staffer to embed coded vulgarity into the Governor’s statement (1 in a billion), it’s still nearly 500 times more likely that this is the cause than for these letters to have arranged themselves by accident.  Using our likelihood ratio analysis, we can have a lot of confidence that some staffer is going to get a spanking sometime soon…

So is this proof?  It depends on what you mean by proof, but nothing is absolute – you can only compare how likely things are to cause what we see.  This is how science works, and how we all make our decisions…  

Obscene messages happening at random and government staffers arranging for obscene messages to show up in official documents are both very, very rare events.  However, it’s far more likely that Gov. Schwarzenegger’s F-bomb veto is the result of purpose than of accident…

Predicting What Comes Next

There’s a new book out by NYU Professor Bruce Bueno de Mesquita called “The Predictioneer’s Game“.

Bueno de Mesquita combines game theory and computer modeling to make predictions on global events and happenings.  You can read more about his book here.  I’ve read about him before – I think that he’s got a really interesting handle on how people and groups interact with one another…

Just for kicks, here are a few things that he predicts would happen (exerpted from the latest edition of Newsweek magazine):

– If the U.S. doubles its aid to Pakistan this year to $1.5 billion, it would be enough to ensure a civil, secular government that no longer accomodates terrorists.

– By 2012 Iran’s bonyads – charitable trusts that control much of the economy – will wield more political clout than any other faction; a more secular regime will emerge.

– Copenhagen will be a bust, as will its main mission: by 2040 we’ll have given up on regulating carbon emissions.  Global warming will be solved with wind, rain, and solar invention.

– The best path to peace in the Middle East:  make Isreael and the Palestinian Authority share tax revenue from tourism, 60-40, boosting the P.A.’s GDP by 20%.