Monday, December 15, 2008

BREAKING NEWS--Apple car will be called the iMO

What would happen if Steve Jobs took over a car company?--It might be called the iMo.

One of the things Congress might consider if it agrees to help bail out the Big Three automakers is that at least one of them be run by Apple’s Steve Jobs.

I wish that was my idea, but it isn’t. Robert X. Cringely, the pseudonym for one of the best technology writers in the business (I’ll never reveal who he is. Never!) came up with the idea in his PBS column here, and it is beautiful to behold. The name iMo, is a bit of imagination from a British designer who is now in a lot of trouble.

Cringely’s point is that the car companies are stuck in the past and shackled with conventional wisdom. No one ever accused Steve Jobs of either. If Jobs transformed say GM the same way he transformed Apple, it would be a whole new paradigm.

And if you want to know more about it, click here. More below

When Jobs returned to Apple from exile in 1997, the company was a basket case, even worse than General Motors. Michael Dell, of the eponymous computer company, suggested the only rational thing Jobs could do was liquidate Apple and return the money to the stockholders. Now, Apple is vastly more valuable than Dell, has transformed the modern world with products that everyone else, including Dell, is working very hard and unsuccessfully, to imitate. (Any websites out there breathlessly anticipating the next Dell product?) Think of what the iPod has done to music (Apple now is the world’s largest distributor of music now), and the iPhone to mobile devices (the second best-selling mobile phone in the world and every company is trying to imitate it). The reason Windows sucks and is actually losing market shares mainly is because it is a feeble imitation of Mac OS-X and has been for years. Apple is debt free and has enough cash in the bank to buy all three car companies with change left over. Buying Dell would come out of petty cash.

Here’s what Cringely and I think Jobs would do:

  • Eliminate brands--the American car companies compete not only with each other and with the foreign brands, but themselves. Why have all those brands? GM eliminated the Oldsmobile (but added Saturn), and Chrysler cut the Plymouth, but Cringely thinks more slashing is necessary. I own a Mercury Mariner Hybrid (excellent car, by the way) but it is identical to the Ford Escape Hybrid except for the grill. Why do this? Know anyone who owns a Pontiac? Jobs understood that you need to simplify your product line. Identify your best customers (in Apple’s case, the graphics and creative people) and aim right at them.
  • Eliminate losers--Jobs eliminated products that didn’t make money. Sounds simple, but explain why GM still sells Hummers? Indeed, it is the biggest SUV and the smallest cars, Cringely says, that make the least profit. (The big SUVs were hilariously profitable until oil soared to $100 a barrel). Why try to make a car for everyone? Leave the little cars to Kia and Hundai. Concentrate.
  • Forget the notion there is an eternal conflict between product people and financial people. Cringely points out that the best proof that you can have that there are people who do both well, and companies that do both well, is Steve Jobs and Apple.
  • Bank on new technologies--Detroit works on the basis that what went into a car and what made a car run for the last 100 years is still the best way of doing things. Think of gasoline and the internal combustion engine. Jobs has been superb at identifying new technologies and riding them to the bank. Pick one, any one. Hybrid? Electric? Hydrogen? Mice on a treadmill? Chose one and run with it.
  • Emphasize radical design--If Apple is famous for anything it is design. You either buy into the aesthetic or you don’t, but enough people like me do to sell lots of products. Jobs would make cars that reflected that attitude--radical, beautiful, intuitive. You can look at a desk from afar and tell if the computer on it is an Apple or a HP or Dell imitation of an Apple. You would see a Jobs’ company’s car a block away.
  • Don’t sell the cars people want; sell cars you convince people they want--Everyone loved the Sony Walkman until Apple came out with the iPod and convinced people they really, really wanted one. Everyone loves the Blackberry so Apple came out with the iPhone and convinced enough people that’s what they wanted. Detroit's excuse has always been it is selling Americans the cars they want. Big mistake. Eight or so years ago, Jobs eliminated floppy disk drives from Apples. Everyone said that was a mistake. Comuters need floppy drives. Jobs convinced customers they didn't need them at all and now no new compuers have floppy drives. Make them want the cars you sell. And lastly:
  • Don’t make cars--Cringely thinks Jobs would get his car company out of the manufacturing business and outsource that function. Apple no longer makes its own computers; companies in China and Taiwan build them. Cringely thinks Jobs would announce that his car company design and market cars, not build them. Then he would open the manufacturing for bidding. He’d close all his plants, fire all his workers (Cringely thinks that you get tumult when you lay off only a percentage of workers; things are more peaceful if everyone goes--I demur). It would have several advantages, including having a company far more flexible and facile and well as cutting costs. Close the plants and outsource.
And the iMO? It is the whimsical work of British designer Anthony Jannerelly, who will undoubtedly hear from Apple's lawyers in the next day or two. Wired has a story here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

We'll get to lower back pain and sex later.

Just take the damned pill and shut up—As we’ve discussed, the three things physicians know the least about are sex, nutrition and lower back pain Today we are going to talk about nutrition--again.

In the last decade, nutrition experts and the media have been swept away with antioxidants, like C and vitamin E. I’ve written about them. They are supposed to prevent coronary heart disease and various forms of cancer. Or not. “Not” is back in vogue. Keep in mind that next year everybody will probably have changed their minds again.

A study in the new issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that vitamins C and E do not reduce the risk of prostate cancer or any other cancer for that matter. The study, out of Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, was put out on early release by JAMA because of the results and has stellar credentials. The subjects were members of the Physicians’ Health Study II, a most reputable source, and was randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled factorial trial. Factorial means high math. This kind of study is the gold standard for science, as the cliché goes. But maybe not.

The physicians, all 14,641 men, 50 years or older, were chosen randomly and either took 400 IU of vitamin E, the standard dose, every other day, and 500 mg of vitamin C every day, or a placebo. The study lasted 8 years.

In the end, there were 1008 confirmed cases of prostate cancer and 1943 total cancers. Vitamin E had no statistical effect on the incidence of prostate cancer or total cancers. Neither did C. Nor was there an effect statistically on colorectal, lung or other site-specific cancers.

In this large, long-term trial of male physicians, neither vitamin E nor C supplementation reduced the risk of prostate or total cancer [the study authors write] These data provide no support for the use of these supplements for the prevention of cancer in middle-aged and older men.

In another study in the same issue, selenium also is useless. Earlier studies showed both were effective.

Well, hold on. The problem with these kinds of studies is the group of subjects. For one thing, the physicians in the study were very well nourished, perhaps more so than many other men. They certainly would be more conscious of health than most, making them different than your average guy, with a whole different life style.

We don’t know what else they ate or what other nutrients they took that might have also had an effect. Whether that changed the results we cannot know. The best news is that there was no apparent harm. Additionally, it is likely that these men had regular PSA tests, more so than non-physicians, which may have skewed the sample, although I don't know if that would effect the results.

Interestingly, the JAMA articles come with a third, an editorial, casting some shadows on prostate studies, so I'm not the only skeptic in the crowd. The editorial does conclude that physicians shouldn't recommend vitamins E or C to patients to prevent prostate cancer.

I have no idea what to tell you. I take 400 IUs of E and 500 mgs of C every day and I’m not dead yet.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Age of Edison is Over

Turn on the light so I can see this record label, please--The inventions of Thomas Edison, which became the hallmarks of 20th century civilization, are dead, dying, substantially altered, or doomed. The new century will be something else: the Post Edison Age. It is hard to imagine one man who had more influence.

The phonograph record was replaced by analog tape 30 years ago, and then digital disks, and even they are now being replaced by digital Internet downloads, which give purer sound, can be copied without loss and can last forever. The incandescent light bulb will be an anachronism in five years, falling to the compact fluorescent bulbs which use less power and last much longer. The power grid had grown in ways Edison could not have anticipated. The motion picture--images on celluloid film projected on a screen--is gradually being replaced by digital recording and projection, which gives a clearer picture without deterioration and allows for easier digital effects and better sound. And everyone is working on ways to substitute the current alkaline batteries with more efficient ones. Even the electric chair is passé.

Within 10 years, we will be using almost nothing that came from Wizard of Menlo Park. His time has just passed.

Edison was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. His most famous contribution to science, the Edison Effect, which anticipated the discovery of electrons 15 years later, was an accidental discovery and Edison left it to physicists to explain it. (In 1882, one of his assistants, William Hammer, discovered that when he turned on the filaments in an experiment light bulb, there was a blue glow around the positive pole and its shadow on the negative--we now know it was electrons moving from one to the other).

Edison did not invent the telegraph, of course, but his first inventions materially improved them, making it possible to send two messages at once, something Samuel Morse and the European co-inventors couldn’t do, and making it easier for someone hearing disabled, as Edison was, to read telegraph messages. Edison was so successful, he gave up a career as a telegrapher to be a full-time inventor.

While experimenting with underwater cables, he found that electrical resistance and the conductivity of carbon varied with pressure, a major theoretical discovery that allowed Edison to come up with carbon pressure relays to replace magnetic ones, improving Bell’s telephone network.

He produced the first electric printer for the telegraph, and in 1877, the phonograph, a matter of serendipity. (Edison was bright enough to appreciate accidents and thought nothing of reversing course to explore something). He was trying to find a way to record telegraph messages and found that using a stylus-tipped carbon transmitter on wax-lined paper, he could get a rough approximation of sound if you moved the paper. The vibrations left a path on the paper. He switched to tin foil instead of paper and wrapped it on a spinning cylinder. It took 10 years of refinement, but soon there was one in almost every home and Edison became world-famous. (The first recoding was Edison reciting “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” That would eventually replaced with hip-hop.)

In the 1870s, Edison bragged he could produce an electric light bulb, and with the backing of J.P. Morgan and the Vanderbilts, began work in Menlo Park, south of Newark. It proved more difficult than he anticipated and while he was failing, he built a practical generator that became the basis for the electric power grid, first installed in London in 1882. In October, 1879, he produced the first bulb using a carbon filament and he could demonstrate it to backers two months later. The steamship Columbia installed the first samples and became the first structure to use an electric lighting system. The first office building plugged in January 1881 in New York.

In 1888, using the concept of a zoetrope, a peek-in device that gave the illusion of motion to pictures flashed at a regular speed, Edison developed first the Kinetoscope, which vastly improved the zoetrope, and created the world’s first motion picture company in West Orange, N.J., to produce something to see on his new viewer. He then adapted a projector invented by Thomas Armat, which he called the Vitascope, and which became the first theatrical movie projector. He later found a way to synchronize the phonograph to the Vitascope and added sound to motion pictures.

Most homes lacked electricity and Edison wanted a power source for phonographs. That also was harder than he thought until (1912) Henry Ford, a friend, asked him to develop a battery Ford could put in his cars to crank up the starter. Ford produced research funds. Out of Edison's lab came the alkaline storage battery.

Edison acquired 389 patents for the electric light and power grid, 195 patents for the phonograph, 150 for the telegraph, 141 for the storage battery, and 34 for telephone inventions. His company became General Electric and he was, for a while, the main stockholder.

The electric chair? Edison’s power plants produced direct current and Edison believed the future rested in DC, not on the alternating current (AC) advocated by Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse. He thought AC was dangerous and to prove it, he helped develop the electric chair, which used AC to kill its guests. He lost that battle.

Now the digital world has replaced some of his inventions and we have moved on. But the 20th century was Edison’s. All hail!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Night of the Living Bots

Walk this way, master--It couldn’t last. The forces of virtue and honor--i.e., the guys who spend their time battling spam--had an all-to-brief victory last month. They managed to take down one of the leading spigots of spam, a boulevard of the botnets. Spam levels all over the world dropped by perhaps as much as 65%. It was a victory for the folks at the Security Fix column of the Washington Post, who managed to nail one of the worst offenders.

Botnets are networks of bots. For those of you still mired in the 20th century, a bot is a zombie that turns your computer into its slave. I knew that would be of help. It is a piece of malicious software that takes over your computer when you are not looking and sends out malware to the Internet, including spam, worms and Trojan Horses. [You do realize that 30 years ago that sentence would nave been totally incomprehensible]. There you are, working diligently and honorably while your computer is spewing out spam to the network and you probably don't notice, although it may get a little slow on Explorer. The largest botnets enslave millions of computers around the world, the reason why there has been so much concern in your inbox for you penis size (even if you don't have one), your pharmaceutical needs, and business transactions with the daughter of some Nigerian dictator.

Contrary to urban legends, botnets can take over Macs, but this is rare and requires the intercession of Windows servers. Same for Linux. Windows computers are the culprits.

Early in November, spam fighters shut down Mc Colo of San Jose, Calif,, one of the most notorious spam service providers, the result of a Post investigation. The result was instantaneous: according to, the net quieted down immediately. Among those botnets turned off when the plug was pulled were two of the most evil, Asprox and Rustock. Mc Colo also had the distinction of being one of the last American ISP providers doing spam.

No one in the zombie-watching business was sanguine. They knew the botnet folks would find a way around the break, probably by moving offshore to Eastern Europe, places like Estonia. Sure enough, late last week, spam traffic increased noticeably. Asprox and Rustock are back. Traffic levels haven’t reached pre-Mc Colo levels yet because the biggest of the botnets, something called Srizbi, hasn’t found a home. It has been the dominant force for the dark side since February, shooting out a Trojan horse. But no one doubts it is coming. It sucks in users by offering nude pictures of movie stars. Open the mail and your machine is theirs. I am as fond of Salma Hayek as the next man but even I am bright enough not to open mail from people I don’t know. And there aren’t any Windows machines around here.

In the meantime, I am Sandra Deloutrage, the widow of the late Nigerian President Murry Deloutrage. My husband left me $45 million in a bank in Croatia and I need your assistance in retrieving the money. You could buy a bridge...