The genius of Steve Jobs

I was asked to write up something about the death of Steve Jobs for the Lutheran Witness website.  I’ll link to that when it goes up.  In the meantime, here is something in today’s Washington Post that I think is very telling about the man’s  genius.

It seems the public was disappointed about the unveiling of the iPhone4S.  Apparently, it didn’t look much different from the old iPhones.  People were looking for matters of appearance.  But look at the reality of what this new device can do:

The launch wasn’t really about the phone at all. It was about the software inside and possibly the kick-start of the next big revolution in how we interact with our gadgets.

That software is called Siri, but Apple would like for you to think of it as your “intelligent assistant.” And what Siri does is nothing short of amazing.

Siri can listen to your “natural language” (that is, words spoken as you would to another human, not a computer) questions or requests and respond like a digital secretary. It’s not just that Siri listens, either. The software is capable of understanding the context of what you’re talking about, so if you ask it to set an alarm on your phone, it will ask you for what time. And again, you don’t. Have. To. Talk. Really. Slowly.

If you ask Siri to schedule an appointment, it will not only check to see if it conflicts with any of your other meetings but will help you juggle the time slot until you have your day’s events mapped out. Siri will find movie theaters close to you or tell you how to get home from your current location. It can identify family members, spouses and co-workers you’re always talking to, and it knows when people’s birthdays, anniversaries or other big events are coming up.

Here’s an example of a chat I had with Siri:

Me: “Schedule an appointment with Jack for 3:30 p.m.”

Siri: “Okay, here’s your meeting. Note that you already have a meeting that overlaps with this. Should I schedule it anyway?”

Me: “Change the time.”

Siri: “Okay, Joshua, what’s the new time and date for this meeting?”

After I learned that my new time overlapped again, I asked Siri to cancel the meeting, and it asked me if I wanted it removed from my calendar. All this happened in the span of a minute or so, and all of it felt strangely normal.

More interestingly, Siri is plugged into Yelp and Wolfram Alpha (a search engine dedicated to finding facts instead of Web pages). If you ask Siri how much $45 is in British pounds, it can tell you the answer. Or how many cups are in a gallon (16, for the measurement challenged). But again, the best part of this is that you don’t have to tone down or over compensate for computer hearing. Siri listens like a person, and often responds that way, too.

via Apple Siri: the next big revolution in how we interact with gadgets? – The Washington Post.

It seems to me that Jobs and his company did not just give people what they want, following the dictates of the marketplace.  Certainly, someone who does that is likely to have great success.  Rather, he came up with things no one knew they wanted, things they never even dreamed of.  He led the marketplace.

There is a lesson here for churches that want to engage the culture and Christians who want to make an impact.   Just conforming to cultural trends and following fashions is not going to do very much.  Try addressing what the culture does NOT already have, finding something that it needs or that it doesn’t know that it needs.  Don’t just imitate the dominant styles.  Invent new styles that other people might imitate, to the point that your style might become dominant.  Don’t follow the culture.  Lead it.

This applies also to technology, business, and the arts.

A tea party of the left

Since the middle of September, some 1000 protesters have been demonstrating on Wall Street, denouncing big business and high finance, calling for more regulations on banks and corporations, an end to housing foreclosures, and more taxes on the rich. The protest movement is called Occupy Wall Street.

The protests have been growing.  This weekend 700 demonstrators were arrested on Brooklyn Bridge.  The movement has spread to Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities.  Celebrities from Roseanne Barr to Michael Moore are supporting the cause.  So are intellectuals such as Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky,  and Cornell West.   Reportedly, some labor unions are considering getting involved.

Occupy Wall Street is claiming kinship with the Arab Spring.

See Occupy Wall Street – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Is this potentially the tea party of the left that liberals have been calling for?  Do you think this will bring new life to political liberalism?  Is there actually an underlying kinship between those who protest big government and those who protest big business?

Why the government makes a poor investor

A chronicle of the failure of Solyndra–a “green energy” company that received half a billion dollars worth of government “investment”–demonstrates the larger point that government bureaucracies are just too ponderous to function as venture capitalists:

The Obama administration’s vaunted initiative to catalyze the U.S. clean-energy industry — under attack for betting half a billion dollars on the solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which closed last month — has become a case study of what can go wrong when a rigid government bureaucracy tries to play venture capitalist and jump-start a nascent, fast-changing market.

[Uwe] Schmidt [whose company scored a similar loan but turned it down] concluded in early 2011 that the influx of inexpensive flat solar panels was undercutting his company’s year-old proposal to use a field of mirrors that concentrated sunlight on a thermal tower. Despite market changes, however, the terms of the federal loan guarantee wouldn’t let Solar Trust switch in midstream to flat panels. So Solar Trust sought private financing.

“We look at a lot of technologies, and I don’t care which one we build — I want to build the one that makes the most financial sense,” Schmidt said.

The inflexibility of the terms for Schmidt’s project was just one of the troubles that have plagued the Energy Department’s $38.5 billion loan-guarantee program from its beginning in 2009. . . .

Solyndra, a solar-panel maker that went bankrupt in August with $535 million in federally backed loans, was riskier than many other proposals, industry executives say. Its cylindrical tubes captured a high percentage of the sun’s energy and its panels were easy to install, but they were expensive to make.

Silicon prices hurt, too. When Solyndra first sought financing during the Bush administration, which picked its proposal as one of 16 finalists, the price of silicon was soaring. Solyndra’s tubes didn’t use silicon, an advantage then. Since 2008, however, silicon prices have collapsed and Solyndra’s costs haven’t come down as much.

“The Solyndra project . . . assumed that the cost of materials, silicon, would remain high and that the cost of panels would not go down as fast as they did,” said a senior executive at a renewable-energy financing fund. “In the end, those assumptions were wrong.”

Many industry experts said the Energy Department should have anticipated that because projects were underway to bring more silicon onto world markets.

via Some clean-energy firms found U.S. loan guarantee program a bad bet – The Washington Post.

America’s decline and China’s rise?

Robert Kaplan sees President Obama’s refusal to sell the latest F-16s to Taiwan as a sign of America’s decline and China’s rise:

By 2020, the United States will not be able to defend Taiwan from a Chinese air attack, a 2009 Rand study found, even with America’s F-22s, two carrier strike groups in the region and continued access to the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa. Moreover, China is at the point of deploying anti-ship ballistic missiles that threaten U.S. surface warships, even as Taiwan’s F-16s, with or without upgrades, are outmatched by China’s 300 to 400 Russian-designed Su-27 and Su-30 fighters. Given that Taiwan is only 100 miles from China and the U.S. Navy and Air Force must deploy to the Pacific from half a world away, the idea that Washington could permanently guarantee Taipei’s de facto sovereignty has always been a diminishing proposition. Vice President Biden’s recent extensive talks with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping (who is poised to succeed President Hu Jintao), may have reinforced the notion inside the administration that Taiwan is better defended by a closer American-Chinese diplomatic understanding than by an arms race.

Notice what is happening, though. The administration is not acting unreasonably. It is not altogether selling out to Beijing. Rather, it is adjusting its sails as the gusts of Chinese power, both economic and military, strengthen. Thus the decision to help Taiwan — but not too much — illustrates how decline itself is an overrated concept.

Decline is rarely sudden: Rather, it transpires quietly over decades, even as officialdom denies its existence and any contribution to it. The Royal Navy began its decline in the 1890s, Princeton University professor Aaron L. Friedberg writes in “The Weary Titan,” even as Britain went on to win two world wars over the next half-century. And so, China is gradually enveloping Taiwan as part of a transition toward military multipolarity in the western Pacific — away from the veritable American naval lake that the Pacific has constituted since the end of World War II. At the same time, however, the United States pushes back against this trend: This month, Obama administration officials — with China uppermost in their minds — updated a defense pact with Australia,giving the United States greater access to Australian military bases and ports near the confluence of the Pacific and Indian oceans. The United States is making room in Asian waters for the Chinese navy and air force, but only grudgingly.

Decline is also relative. So to talk of American decline without knowing the destiny of a power like China is rash. What if China were to have a political and economic upheaval with adverse repercussions for its defense budget? Then history would turn out a lot more complicated than a simple Chinese rise and an American fall.

Because we cannot know the future, all we can do is note the trend line. The trend line suggests that China will annex Taiwan by, in effect, going around it: by adjusting the correlation of forces in its favor so that China will never have to fight for what it will soon possess. Not only does China have some more than 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles focused on Taiwan, but there are 270 commercial flights per week between Taiwan and the mainland, even as close to a third of Taiwan’s exports go to China. Such is independence melting away. And as China’s strategic planners need to concentrate less on capturing Taiwan, they will be free to focus on projecting power into the energy-rich South China Sea and, later, into the adjoining Indian Ocean — hence America’s heightened interest in its Australian allies.

This is a power shift. Subtle and indirect though it may be, it is a clearer story line than what is occurring in the chaotic Middle East, a region less prosperous and less dynamic than East Asia in economic and military terms, and therefore less important. Taiwan tells us where we are, and very likely where we’re going.

via A power shift in Asia – The Washington Post.

I would say that it is absurd to speak of America’s military decline in relation to China or anyone else.   It isn’t simply that America’s military has a huge technological advantage.  That alone is significant.  But America’s military also has something that is priceless when it comes to an advantage over an enemy:  combat experience.  Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have given us that, at least.

Still, decline is not just a matter of military prowess.  Certainly our nation is weakened economically and culturally.  Also politically and in our national mood.  Does anyone think we would defend Taiwan even if we could?  China is resurgent and energetic, with its particular hybrid of communism and capitalism seemingly carrying the day.  Do you think Kaplan is right?  If so, should anything be done, or should Americans just get used to a second-tier status?

Europe’s problem and our problem

Economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson gives a good explanation of what’s going on in the European economy:

Europe’s banking crisis — and “crisis” is used advisedly — tells us how much and how little has changed since the onset of global financial turmoil in September 2008. Then, people worried about the viability of major American banks, loaded with “toxic” mortgage-backed securities whose value was difficult to determine. Now, people worry about major European banks, loaded with government (a.k.a. “sovereign”) bonds whose value is difficult to determine. We are flirting with another financial crisis not unlike the post-Lehman Brothers panic.

So American financial institutions were pulled down because of bad loans on houses.  European institutions are on the verge of being pulled down because of bad loans on whole countries.

Read the column for the details:   Is another financial crisis looming in Europe? – The Washington Post.

More on the great Ponzi scheme

Charles Krauthammer explains in detail why Social Security is indeed a Ponzi scheme, as we discussed here in an earlier post:  “In a Ponzi scheme, the people who invest early get their money out with dividends. But these dividends don’t come from any profitable or productive activity — they consist entirely of money paid in by later participants.  This cannot go on forever because at some point there just aren’t enough new investors to support the earlier entrants.” This is exactly what the pay-as-you-go funding of Social Security involves.

He goes on to say that the mandatory nature of Social Security makes it work longer than the Bernie Madoff schemes.  Then he gives some interesting statistics:

You can force young people into Social Security, but if there just aren’t enough young people in existence to support current beneficiaries, the system will collapse anyway.

When Social Security began making monthly distributions in 1940, there were 160 workers for every senior receiving benefits. In 1950, there were 16.5; today, three; in 20 years, there will be but two.

Now, the average senior receives in Social Security about a third of what the average worker makes. Applying that ratio retroactively, this means that in 1940, the average worker had to pay only 0.2 percent of his salary to sustain the older folks of his time; in 1950, 2 percent; today, 11 percent; in 20 years, 17 percent. This is a staggering sum, considering that it is in addition to all the other taxes he pays to sustain other functions of government, such as Medicare, whose costs are exploding.

The Treasury already steps in and borrows the money required to cover the gap between what workers pay into Social Security and what seniors take out. When young people were plentiful, Social Security produced a surplus. Starting now and for decades to come, it will add to the deficit, increasingly so as the population ages.

Demography is destiny.

via A Ponzi scheme that should be fixed – The Washington Post.