“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
We are still in the early stages of a literature revolution, a migration from physical to digital, and it is tremendously exciting to see the number of options that have become available. I still remember when, not too many years ago, people were saying that computers would destroy books and therefore authors and therefore the intellectual foundation of civilization.
Well, the exact opposite has happened — another example of why no one should believe the conventional wisdom. The prophets of techno doom never learn, no matter how many times the market outsmarts them.
The immediate reason for writing this piece concerns a little machine I picked up from a discount Big Lots store on Black Friday. I had seen the ad and couldn’t believe my eyes. For $78, I could buy a 6-inch tablet computer made by Nextbook that can read e-books. It has a backlit screen. With the Android OS, it can do movies, email and weather and has a camera too. It seemed too good to be true. I bought it just as an experiment.
I took it home and was initially impressed. In fact, I’m still impressed that I could pick up for such a low price a machine that would have dazzled the multitudes just five years ago. It does things that would have been miraculous 10 years ago. I can use the machine to make video phone calls to any place on the planet, for goodness sake. It came with pre-loaded e-books. I could use several apps to download more. This darn thing opens up a world of information as never before in human history.
What’s not to like? Well, this is where matters get complicated. You see, normally, I use the iPad. I consider this to be the best of the best of the tablets. I’m in love with the functionality. I bought one in 2011 after having purchased two prior machines made by Sony that specialized in e-book reading. I found both Sony machines, the first and second generations, to be virtually useless. They are still gathering dust.
You can like Sony’s product if you want. I have biases and, just to spell them out, I don’t like what’s called e-ink. Other people think e-ink is fantastic and would never use what I like, which is the backlit screen of the iPad or the desktop computer. Also I like the touch-screen method of navigation. The iPhone spoiled me forever more on the being able to touch the screen and work the machine.
Just based on my own bias here, the early Kindle reader was out of the question. When Amazon came out with it, I publicly dismissed it. I found the hardware primitive and the marketing scheme absurd. I found it preposterous that anyone in a universal digital age would imagine that they can produce the hardware, the firmware, and the products in locked-down proprietary format and expect consumers to go along with such an obvious monopoly scheme.
It turned out, of course, that from the marketing point of view, I was entirely wrong. The Kindle has been an astonishing success, so evidently, you have to take my own market analysis with a grain of salt.
The Kindle Fire was the first product by Amazon with the backlit screen, so it was something I was drawn to. But again, from the perspective of an iPad user, the first generation (which came out last year) struck me as clunky, heavy, and essentially frustrating. I had no interest in it. On the other hand, I had friends who fell in love with it and have never left it. They are dedicated to the Kindle Fire, so there you go: There’s no arguing with taste.
The Nextbook that I picked up seemed easier than the Fire, better than the e-ink Kindle, leagues above the Sony Reader, and — by pre-iPad standards — a stunning and thrilling machine in every way. I probably still feel that way, but I can’t tell for sure. I say that because I immediately ran into problems that reminded me of what it was like to use a Windows desktop in about the year 2000.
The Nextbook came pre-installed with a book app and another one from Barnes & Noble. I knew that the B&N app would take me to the store and want me to spend money. I confirmed that. This is one of several apps on the machine that want me to buy stuff.
But what I really wanted to do was download e-pub files from third-party sources, particularly the ones from the Laissez Faire Club and Project Gutenberg. This I did, and they opened just fine. I was happily reading. Then I closed the book and looked at the bookshelf. The books were not there. The shelf displayed only the pre-installed items.
Solving this puzzle devoured about five hours of my weekend. There was probably an easy workaround, but I never found it. I ended up browsing the machine, renaming some files, and reorienting the file structure so that the bookshelf reflected my entire collection. But there was still a problem. The shelf did not read the metadata from the book itself, so the books were named by their file names, meaning that I couldn’t tell what books I was opening.
The iconography on the tablet itself is opaque and strange and has nothing to do with the human mind. To the Android user, it might be obvious. But to me, there’s a triangle, a half envelope, a stack of dots, a slash, a swirl, and a caret, and there is no way to tell what is what without actually trying them out. Eventually, I found a pathway forward for every operation I wanted to undertake, but doing so consumed an enormous amount of mental and physical energy and time.
At some points in this process, I wanted to throw the machine across the room. The whole experience reminded me of the Windows experience from a decade ago, when to use a computer was also to become an expert in repairing a computer. You spent as much time trying to figure out how to do stuff as actually doing stuff. We lived with it and never knew any difference. And so it shall be for the Nextbook. Anyone who gets one will probably be happy with it because they do not know anything better.
To be sure, this review is deeply unfair. I’m comparing the best on the market (which is the iPad, in my view) with the worst on the market — and what is the fault of the hardware, firmware, and apps is very much mixed up. In any case, this is a dollar-store item sold in stacks at the cash register. There are so many products that are in between. The Google tablet (Nexus) looks just fantastic, is getting great reviews, and is half the price of a an iPad or iPad Mini. Samsung also offers what looks like an outstanding product at half the price. The newer Kindles like the Paperwhite seem effortless (but still won’t read certain file types).
And there will probably be a dozen or more coming on the market in the next months. I’m describing a slice of time, whereas the real market is an ongoing process of change. Nonetheless, consumers don’t buy a process. They enter into a slice of time and demonstrate their preferences.
And so it is a matter of priorities. How important is it to you that you have a machine that works, and works beautifully? It is a sad thing that people just getting interested in e-books will first buy the cheapest item on the market, have a less-than-stellar experience, and never know the difference.
E-books are the future. Tablets are an essential life tool. They are the new home for the vast portion of the information world that has migrated from the physical to the digital realm. Once you realize this, you also realize that it makes sense to put a few more resources toward getting either the best that the market offers or at least going for the midlevel product.
We are, indeed, living in revolutionary times. I admire so much how the market is making a range of products available. But in such times, it makes more sense to me to avoid the dime store specials that just end up wasting precious time. As with most products on the market, it makes sense to avoid the lowest and the highest and get the thing in between.
A quick note about public policy: In the early stages of the end-users desktop industry, government intervened in a huge way to declare what operating systems should contain, what had to be separate, what perfect competition would look like, how much market share a particular company had to have, and so on. Litigation began and went on 10 years, by which time the market had completely changed. Billions were wasted and consumers were no better off. So it would be if the government were to intervene in the tablet market now. Again, the market is a process, and its imperfections must be worked out by letting that process work.
Eventually, in a vibrant market, today’s luxury good becomes tomorrow’s product for everyone. Look at the wristwatch as an example. But the process has to play itself out over time. That time is not here yet. Conclusion for gift getting and gift buying for the holiday season of 2012: Forgo other things and spend more to get quality. For my money, that means the iPad. But for many, it might mean the Kindle Paperwhite or the Samsung or the Nexus. But if you settle for the lowest and cheapest, don’t blame the market for its failures. Praise the market for making miracles available for very low prices.