SAN DIEGO – Sheldon Dorf, who founded the world famous Comic-Con Internationalcomic book convention, has died. He was 76.
A longtime friend, Greg Koudoulian, says the Ocean Beach resident died at a San Diego hospital on Tuesday from kidney failure. He had diabetes and had been hospitalized for about a year.
Dorf, a freelance artist and comic strip letterer, founded Comic-Con in San Diego in 1970 after moving from Detroit.
Today, the convention draws 125,000 fans a year and is a major gathering for comic book fans, artists, writers and movie stars.
Koudoulian says Dorf was friends with comic greats such as Marvel artist Jack Kirby and “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz. He says Dorf was also instrumental in helping budding artists find audiences.
Farewell, Mr. Dorf. Hopefully you enjoy yourself in the great comic book convention in the sky…
But it’s good to know that, despite the sophisticated computational engine which underlies it, Wolfram Alpha hasn’t forgotten its “ancestor” the abacus, a tool used by many cultures before the dawn of the electronics age.
A few weeks back, I wrote a quick overview of Clayton Christensen’s explanation for how new technologies/products can “disrupt” existing products and technologies. In a nutshell, Christensen explains that new “disruptive innovations” succeed not because they win in a head-to-head comparison with existing products (i.e. laptops versus desktops), but because they have three things:
Good enough performance in one area for a certain segment of users (i.e. laptops were generally good enough to run simple productivity applications)
Very strong performance on an unrelated feature which eventually will become very important for more than one small niche (i.e. laptops were portable, desktops were not, and that became very important as consumers everywhere started demanding laptops)
Have the potential to improve by leveraging their industry learning curve to the point where they can compete head-to-head with an existing product (i.e. laptops now can be as fast if not faster than most desktops)
But, while most people think of Christensen’s findings as applied to product and technology shifts, this model of how innovations overtake one another can be just as easily applied to business models.
A great example of this lies in the semiconductor industry. For years, the dominant business model for semiconductor companies was the Integrated Device Manufacturer (IDM) model – a business model whereby semiconductor companies both designed and manufactured their own product. The primary benefit of this was tighter integration of design and manufacturing. Semiconductor manufacturing is highly sophisticated, requiring all sorts of specialized processes and chemicals and equipment, and there are a great deal of intricacies between one’s designs and one’s manufacturing process. Having both design and manufacturing under one roof allowed IDMs to create better products more quickly as they were able to exploit the interplays between design and manufacturing and more readily correct problems as they arose. IDMs were also able to tweak their manufacturing processes to push specific features, letting IDMs differentiate their products from their peers.
But, a new semiconductor model emerged in the early 1990s – the fabless model. Unlike the IDM model, fabless companies don’t own their own semiconductor factories (called fabs – hence the name “fabless”) and outsource their manufacturing to either IDMs with spare manufacturing capacity or dedicated contract manufacturers called foundries (the two largest of which are based in Taiwan).
At first, the industry scoffed at the fabless model. After all, these companies could not tightly link their designs to manufacturing, had to rely on the spare capacity of IDMs (who would readily take it away if they needed it) or on foundries in Taiwan, China, and Singapore which lagged the leading IDMs in manufacturing capability by several years.
But, the key to Christensen’s disruptive innovation model is not that the “new” is necessarily better than the “old,” but that it is good enough on one dimension and great on other, more important dimensions. So, while fabless companies were at first unable to keep up in terms of bleeding edge manufacturing technology with the dominant IDMs, the fabless model had a significant cost advantage (due to fabless companies not needing to build and operate expensive fabs) and strategic advantage, as their management could focus their resources and attention on building the best designs rather than also worrying about running a smooth manufacturing setup.
The result? Fabless companies like Xilinx, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Broadcom took the semiconductor industry by storm, growing rapidly and bringing their allies, the foundries, along with them to achieve technological parity with the leading IDMs. This model has been so successful that, today, much of the semiconductor space is either fabless or pursuing a fab-lite model (where they outsource significant volumes to foundries, while holding on to a few fabs only for certain products), and TSMC, the world’s largest foundry, is considered to be on par in manufacturing technology with the last few leading IDMs (i.e. Intel and Samsung). This gap has been closed so impressively, in fact, that former IDM-technology leaders like Texas Instruments and Fujitsu have now decided to rely on TSMC for their most advanced manufacturing technology.
To use Christensen’s logic: the fabless model was “good enough” on manufacturing technology for a niche of semiconductor companies, but great in terms of cost. This cost advantage helped the fabless companies and their allies, the foundries, to quickly move up the learning curve and advance in technological capability to the point where they disrupted the old IDM business model.
This type of disruptive business model innovation is not limited to the semiconductor industry. A couple of weeks ago The Economist ran a great series of articles on the mobile phone “ecosystem” in emerging markets. The entire time while I was reading it, I was struck by the numerous ways in which the rise of the mobile phone in emerging markets was creating disruptive business models. One in particular caught my eye as something which was very similar to the fabless semiconductor model story: the so-called “Indian model” of managing a mobile phone network.
Traditional Western/Japanese mobile phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon set up very expensive networks using equipment that they purchase from telecommunications equipment providers like Nokia-Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, and Ericsson. (In theory,) the carriers are able to invest heavily in their own networks to roll out new services and new coverage because they own their own networks and because they are able to charge customers, on average, ~$50/month. These investments (in theory) produce better networks and services which reinforce their ability to charge premium dollar on a per customer basis.
In emerging markets, this is much harder to pull off since customers don’t have enough money to pay $50/month. The “Indian model”, which began in emerging countries like India, is a way for carriers in low-cost countries to adapt to the cost constraints imposed by the inability of customers to pay high $50/month bills, and is generally thought to consist of two pieces. The first involves having multiple carriers share large swaths of network infrastructure, something which many Western carriers shied away from due to intellectual property fears and questions of who would pay for maintenance/traffic/etc. Another plank of the “Indian model” is to outsource network management to equipment providers (Ericsson helped to pioneer this model, in much the same way that the foundries helped the first fabless companies take off) — again, something traditional carrier shied away from given the lack of control a firm would have over its own infrastructure and services.
Just as in the fabless semiconductor company case, this low-cost network management business model has many risks, but it has enabled carriers in India, Africa, and Latin America to focus on getting and retaining customers, rather than building expensive networks. The result? We’re starting to see some Western carriers adopt “Indian model” style innovations. One of the most prominent examples of this is Sprint’s deal to outsource its day-to-day network operations to Ericsson! Is this a sign that the “Indian model” might disrupt the traditional carrier model? Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
Back when I was still posting on Xhibiting, I was especially fond of interesting USB gadgets. Well, my good friend Anthony pointed me to this interesting gadget that he found out about through Engadget which takes my USB fascination to a whole new level:
The product is from Thumbs Up! and apparently, after plugging it into someone’s computer, will erratically turn on and off the caps lock, type out random text, and make random mouse movement. Better, still:
“Handily, the Prankster features a time delay setting, so that after installing it, you can make your getaway safely before it starts misbehaving.”
Glad to see they were thinking ahead. Thankfully, this is meant more to be a nuisance than a security risk, as its designed not to hit “Enter” or open/close files:
“The Prankster is highly annoying, but it’ll never activate the ‘enter’ key or close or save documents, so it’s mostly mischievous, not super-dangerous.”
Even so, to cover themselves morally (and possibly legally?), they note:
“However, it probably shouldn’t be used on computers that control nuclear reactors, security systems for genetically recreated dinosaur parks and/or zombie experimentation units, captured alien spacecraft or freezers packed with delicious ice cream.”
Businesses need to see the trends that will affect their performance, whether they be technical trends, business model trends, or economic trends. One trend which I haven’t seen as many companies factor in (although you see many governments talking about it) is age demographics.
Here is a very cool graph on how US population demographics will evolve over time as taken from the Calculated Risk blog (HT: Jeff L). In particular, I find the “Baby Boom” bulge (the wave of youngsters that came of age beginning from 1950-1970) moving towards the right to be very illuminating:
It highlights a trend which Japan is only beginning to grapple with – the “graying” of the American population that comes with the Baby Boomers becoming older. If Japan is any indication, that means the US will see a few things:
Rise in pension/Social Security costs and payments for care for the elderly
Decline in average wages as fewer lower-paid and younger workers replace more retiring higher-paid workers
Socio-economic changes that come from a smaller working-class population which needs to support a larger elderly population
Change in the political system as a balance will be sought between a growing importance in the elderly vote and the need for governments/companies to change the pension/healthcare payment balance and the ability of medical science to extend the workable years for elderly individuals
Change in business world as the elderly become more tech-savvy and become a more significant piece of the consumer population
If I were a business-owner looking at the long-term, I’d be looking long and hard at this list, and making investments into understanding how to convert these broad social/economic/political trends into insights which I can use to create a competitive advantage. For instance, if I were working in corporate strategy at Facebook, I’d be thinking of:
ways to make the site more attractive for the new generation of tech-savvy elderly
how to make my social network asset more valuable for elderly users (e.g. ways to make it easier to connect with old friends or family, ways to create mentoring relationships between older, more experience users and younger, less experienced ones, etc)
how to get useful ads that the elderly are more likely to pay attention to
In educational circles, there’s always a philosophical debate between those educators who favor allowing their students to use tools like TI-89’s or computer algebra-capable software like Mathematica and those who don’t, with those favoring their use citing the ability of the tools to expand the scope of the curriculum, and with those opposed worried about the tools supplanting the instincts that long practice engenders.
I personally am in favor of using such tools, as they allow a classroom to extend beyond simply learning how to do basic procedures to looking at real-world problems which are far harder and far more interesting than the simple “toy problems” which classrooms requiring all work to be done “old school” are limited to. But, even I have to say that the latest blog post by Wolfram|Alpha makes this supporter of new technical tools in classrooms a little wary.
Over on the Bench Press blog, we’ve posted a couple of times on the power of the new “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram|Alpha (brought to you by the makers of Mathematica) and its ability to help provide contextual medical and astronomical information, in addition to answers to sophisticated Mathematica queries.
Now, this should raise the eyebrows of any teacher who finds him/herself wondering if his/her students are “cheating” with computer algebra systems. And, what will raise their eyebrows even further is Wolfram’s latest post entitled, “College is Hard. Wolfram|Alpha makes it easier.”
I kid you not. Have problems balancing equations in chemistry? Just have Wolfram|Alpha do it:
I recently finished reading The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, a great collection of some of multibillionaire Warren Buffett’s greatest writings on business as collected and introduced by Lawrence Cunningham, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know a bit more about investing or business or both.
The book is organized into 8 “chapters”, with each chapter containing a series of excerpts from Warren Buffett’s writings, which as far as I can tell are mostly from the annual reports that Warren Buffett prepares for his company Berkshire Hathaway (I wonder if he writes personal financial reports…). The chapters discuss Buffett’s views on a number of topics, ranging from corporate governance to mergers and acquisitions to accounting to discussions of how investing should work.
Reading the book will give you an interesting look at the mind of one of the most successful investors of all time, but while I valued that insight, I think I was most impressed by three things:
I was amazed at how approachable and “folksy” Buffett’s writings are. Instead of relying on complex jargon and consultant-speak, he speaks in plain English, oftentimes using funny analogies or stories (and sometimes even Biblical/literary parables) or extremely nerdy puns to make very simple points. Case in point, to explain the irrationality of some companies who seem to always pursue that “one magical acquisition” which will take them to success, Buffet writes:
“In the past, I’ve observed that many acquisition-hungry managers were apparently mesmerized by their childhood reading of the story about the frog-kissing princess. Remembering her success, they pay dearly for the right to kiss corporate toads, expecting wondrous transfigurations. Initially, disappointing results only deepen their desire to round up new toads. Ultimately, even the most optimistic manager must face reality. Standing knee-deep in unresponsive toads, he then announces an enormous ‘restructuring charge’. In this corporate equivalent of a Head Start program, the CEO receives the education, but the stockholders pay the tuition.”
It was interesting to see how consistent Buffett’s principles have been. It’s rare to find a politician, let alone a businessman, who has had the consistency of values and strategy that Buffett has had. You can take any essay from any chapter of this book, regardless of when it’s from, and, other than mentions of specific years or specific political/cultural references, you would not be able to tell what year that essay had been written. His core message and beliefs on corporate governance, mergers & acquisitions, and especially his investment philosophy have not changed.
I was especially impressed at Buffett’s humility. Most executives seem to desperately crave the spotlight and credit for positive things which have little to do with them and to deflect blame for things which are. I can’t fault them for that, as their salaries and jobs are dependent on the perception that they are capable stewards. But, Buffett takes a markedly different approach. In many an essay about Berkshire Hathaway’s success, Buffett attributes the credit to the managers of the businesses Berkshire owns, oftentimes noting that his job is only to pick good businesses to own and that it is the managers and the businesses themselves that drive success. In essays about Buffett’s missteps, he freely owns up to them. In multiple essays, he has owned up to holding on to his textile business for too long or not exiting General Re’s derivatives business fast enough. Buffett even goes so far as to explain mistakes that he had made which nobody outside of Berkshire’s leadership team would know about (i.e. investment opportunities he could have made but passed on).
While I definitely learned a great deal about business and how Buffett thinks of the market, I think the most important learning that I took away from the book is what Buffett calls the “Noah principle”, and it is something I will aim to try to adhere to for the rest of my life:
“Predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does.”
No, they’re not my weakness. But apparently they are in Truro, MA, where a town which seems to have skimped on its basic math finds themselves besieged by fractions (HT: Neil Saunders’ Friendfeed):
In a vote of 136 to 70, voters passed a new time limit on how quickly a cottage colony, cabin colony, motel or hotel can be converted to condominiums. The new limit requires that those properties be in operation for three years before being converted to condominiums.
The exact count of the vote — 136 to 70 —had town officials hitting their calculators yesterday. The zoning measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass. A calculation by town accountant Trudy Brazil indicated that 136 votes are two-thirds of 206 total votes, said Town Clerk Cynthia Slade.
Brazil said she used the calculation of .66 multiplied by 206 to obtain the number.
But using .6666 — a more accurate version of two-thirds — the affirmative vote needed to be 137 instead of 136, according to an anonymous caller to town hall and to the Times.
Slade said that she called several of her colleagues to see how they calculate a two-thirds vote, and the answer varied widely. In Provincetown, Town Clerk Doug Johnstone uses .66. But Johnstone said he’d never had a close vote where it might matter.
One of my favorite aspects of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts are Snoopy’s attempts at novel-writing and his classic opening sentence:
It was a dark and stormy night…
This was, of course, immediately followed by some comically ingenious sentence which made it immediately obvious that Snoopy, although quite creative (and talented! how many dogs do you know who can use a typewriter?) would probably never realize his dream of being a published beagle.
Cloud Computing/Data Center blog Data Center Knowledge has an interesting interview with Connelly on his use of some of the most mysterious and unusual settings to ever grace a novel:
Data Center Knowedge: What led you to choose a colocation center as the workplace for Wesley Carver?
Michael Connelly: [My researcher] sent me a link to a video tour of a colocation center. I was impressed by all the security and hardware, how the center was located underground and how it was protected from forces of nature as well as electronic intrusion. It was a fortress and these sort of things always interest me because it always comes down to people, who you have inside the fortress is the most important thing.
Interestingly enough (although I haven’t read it yet), the novel relies on a few real-life technical features in many data centers including cutting edge fire suppression systems, VESDA smoke detection systems, and man traps. Very impressive, considering how few people know what goes on in data centers (which is a shame as data centers are a driving force in the web/computing space, and are massive contributors to jobs in under-developed areas and local energy concerns).
To the uninitiated who don’t realize how bizarre and amazing data centers can be, check out this video of a data center in Stockholm built in what looks like a supervillain’s fortified hideout. As it was built in the Cold War, it is even said to be able to withstand a direct nuclear assault!
Now, can we make the next James Bond movie in a Google data center?
Every investor dreams to find something that nobody wants (and hence are willing to part with cheaply) and be able to turn it into something that everyone wants (and hence something you can sell for a lot). Well, a prefecture in Japan stumbled on just that. From the always amusing Reuter’s Oddly Enough:
A sewage treatment facility in central Japan has recorded a higher gold yield from sludge than can be found at some of the world’s best mines. An official in Nagano prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, said the high percentage of gold found at the Suwa facility was probably due to the large number of precision equipment manufacturers in the vicinity that use the yellow metal. The facility recently recorded finding 1,890 grammes of gold per tonne of ash from incinerated sludge.
That is a far higher gold content than Japan’s Hishikari Mine, one of the world’s top gold mines, owned by Sumitomo Metal Mining Co Ltd, which contains 20-40 grammes of the precious metal per tonne of ore.
A week or two ago, I had a conversation with a couple of coworkers about the use of blogs/social media to gather information about subjects (and hence justify why I spend so many hours on Google Reader). They were fairly skeptical of the ability of blogs to do the same job that the New York Times or the Economist did.
Although we didn’t settle the debate (it takes time to convince the uninitiated), I had three basic responses:
Insight – News agencies don’t always provide insight or analysis. They relay talking points and soundbytes. They wrap it up with fancy “wrapping paper”, but they don’t reliably provide useful insight. Blogs can be a great source of insightful commentary and background — especially for things that are out of scope or out of the reach for many traditional news sources.
Reputation – One issue my coworkers had was that nobody was regulating what bloggers said. “Why should you trust what a blogger has to say?” I replied, “Why should you trust what the New York Times is saying?” The answer to the original dilemma, of course, is to only read blogs which you trust. “But how do you know who to trust?” You don’t. But, while you might not know if you can trust a single random journalist from a single newspaper, thanks to the power of blogging, I can quickly read blog entries by Ezra Klein, Greg Mankiw, Megan McArdle, and Tyler Cowen and not only get four insightful accounts (often with sources for me to get more information) from people I trust more than a random reporter for a newspaper, but compare their accounts and perspectives to formulate my own informed opinion. Not so easy to do with even a newspaper editorial section.
Moreover, its not like the traditional media aren’t using Twitter/Wikipedia/blogs to do their own research: (HT: PhysOrg)
An Irish student’s fake quote on the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia has been used in newspaper obituaries around the world, the Irish Times reported.
Shane Fitzgerald, 22, a final-year student studying sociology and economics at University College Dublin, told the newspaper he placed the quote on the website as an experiment when doing research on globalisation.
Fitzgerald told the newspaper he picked Wikipedia because it was something a lot of journalists look at and it can be edited by anyone.
“I didn’t expect it to go that far. I expected it to be in blogs and sites, but on mainstream quality papers? I was very surprised about,” he said.
It’s been a while since I’ve worked in a lab, but I remembered always being fascinated by the “tell all” posters which were on the lab walls which laid out everything in a cell/system pertaining to a specific concept in biology. What appealed to me about them is that they conveyed a the complex and interconnected pieces which only together made life work. It was very awe-inspiring (as well as a quick cheat sheet when I had to pretend like I knew what I was researching).
As frequent readers of this blog know, my Benchpress-partner-in-crime Anthony and I like making $100 offers for failing companies/divisions. One may inquire, then, given Blockbuster’s plight, why we haven’t made our usual $100 offer.
The reason is simple, despite a couple of long discussions about Blockbuster: Anthony and I are simply not confident that we could turn around Blockbuster.
There really are only three ways for their management to proceed:
Out-Netflix Netflix. The major benefit of this strategy is that this is the business model that its management would be most familiar with – selling/renting video content. However, that’s about the only benefit that this strategy has. They are now strategic followers in a game which Netflix created and perfected, rather than leaders. But unlike Microsoft, they lack the resources to outlast or outinvest their competition (in 2008, Blockbuster lost $374 million compared to having only $626 million of equity [all their assets minus all their debts], while Netflix made a profit of $122 million on $347 million of equity) nor do they have a premium offering to combine with their new strategy (e.g. Microsoft can roll innovations in things like Virtualization or Cloud Computing back into Windows or Office). Blockbuster’s one asset over Netflix, their physical presence around the country, is now relatively unimportant given the prevalence of broadband internet (and new internet-enabled set top boxes) and the cheapness and speed of mail delivery and their traction thus far in gaining major electronics and set-top box wins has been disappointing. Their most promising press release (a partnership with Microsoft to use Live Mesh) may be the only thing going for them – and this happens to be with the player who’s not the leader in portable media players and who’s Live Mesh product won’t really get full force until late-2009/early-2010. This strategy is not promising.
Fundamentally change their business model. This is an idea I pushed at first – suggesting that Blockbuster switch business models to selling home entertainment gear, something which could help tie with their current product offering and give them much needed partners to counter their current slump and lack of customer mindshare. However, Blockbuster’s lack of resources (as of Oct 2008, only $95 million in liquid cash) and profitability and the high risk and long-term horizon of this strategy make this un-feasible as a game changing play. Simply put, there’s not enough farm to bet on this strategy.
Sell themselves. This is probably the most promising strategy in that Blockbuster will only need to turn itself around just enough to convince another buyer to acquire the assets. But, given that Blockbuster is the largest brick & mortar renter of videos and its dim prospects, its unlikely there are any buyers interested in owning a video rental store. Success would require finding a party interested in:
Buying an industry stalwart who’s likely to shed off much more in losses and brand value before being able to turn itself around
An unwieldy network of physical stores
Investing large amounts in either outcompeting Netflix, fundamentally changing their business, or some combination of the two
Sorry, Blockbuster – maybe Dogbert will cough up some dough for you?
Taiwanese ODMs are set to completely change the PC landscape again with new computer designs based on ARM chips (not the traditional x86 processors which Intel/AMD make) like the QBook
The Taiwanese government is actively being courted by Elpida (Japanese memory manufacturer) and Micron (US memory manufacturer), the two candidates who seek to gain control over Taiwan Memory Corporation, the Taiwanese DRAM manufacturer who will consolidate all of Taiwan’s failing DRAM players
It’s never too early to get kids started on the essentials for success in the professional world. Of course, that includes things like teaching them confidence, good communications skills, basic math, but it also includes the most essential thing for any savvy business person: the crackberry.
But, RIM (Research in Motion, makers of our most glorious business device) doesn’t provide a kids model. What shall we do?
Enter Leapfrog, “a leading designer, developer and marketer of innovative, technology-based educational products and related proprietary content” (way to emphasize the “related proprietary content”, guys) and their upcoming “Text and Learn” (HT: Engadget):
Junior is going to be an excellent consultant when he grows up, isn’t he? What does this beginner’s Blackberry include?
the ability to send text messages to “Scout” (the puppy shown above?)
the ability to check Scout’s calendar
a “pretend browser” (I’m not making this up)
learning programs to help test/practice following directions (like a boss’s email?), match shapes/letters (like on a PowerPoint slide?), and “silly animations and sound effects”
Wow, sounds like my Blackberry – except sans silly animations and sound effects. I wonder if I could convince my firm to let me use one of these. I really could use some silly animations and sound effects…