Category Archives: the humanities

An end-of-year email re: end-of-year emails

[image credit: Kickstarter, evidently]

Sent from the office on my last day of work in 2015.

To a much, much younger cohort of coworkers. (And man, that’s depressing!)

This is my last day in the office before the New Year (barring any work from home, which I might do to get ahead of the curve) so for those of you still here, in case I don’t bump into you this afternoon, enjoy your holidays and have a great New Year!

For most people in the office, this is well before your time, but end-of-year emails were a Big Deal at my workplace at the end of 1999. It was the end of the millennium, after all! (Though technically since there was no year “0” the millennium actually started on Jan 1, 2001. But I digress…)

Starting in early December, people began to send all-company emails to the effect of “see you next millennium!” – with huge images attached. (The animated GIF probably hadn’t been invented yet. Heck, Google was only a couple years old, and hadn’t even started selling ads yet. That’s how long ago 1999 was!)

If you figure on a 2 MB image sent to 500 people, that was 1 GB of storage space consumed per email, and by mid-December, the IT group had stepped in and pleaded with everyone not to send any more “see you next millennium” messages.

1 GB is cheap nowadays – freebie giveaway thumb drives are bigger – but back in the day, when I used to walk to work (uphill both ways, leaving the house before I went to bed each night!) listening to my Sony Discman, carrying a man-purse sized selection of CD’s depending on my musical mood, that was a lot of computer memory.

Memory roughly halves in price every 18 months, in line with doublings of processor speed, so 15 years is about 10 doublings. Which means those emails were the price equivalent of each person loading the company email server with 1 TB. (And remember, there were at least 500 people in the company.) Meaning it was the equivalent of sending each a 2 GB, hour-long HD funny cat compilation video to everyone’s Outlook server!


Imagine clogging each of your colleagues’ inboxes with a thousand copies of this…



image taken from’s latest t-shirt

Before we get to this message’s main event, I’ll throw another brief shoutout to Pope Francis. Sure, he leads one of the world’s socially most regressive organizations, but he seems to be pulling in the right direction, and ultimately, he’s not in fact that powerful — his level of authority is more Barack Obama than Stephen Harper, let alone Kim Jong-Il.

While there’s general awareness of the doctrine of Papal infallibility, it was only formalized in the 19th century, and has only ever been invoked twice. So it’s one of many late-arriving concepts we secular moderns commonly think has always been part the world’s most populous religion. A couple others include:
– having a personal relationship with Jesus (famously invented by German Pietists in the 17th century, and infamously rejected in the 19th century by their very own Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader: Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche), and
– original sin (5th century, and a Western Christian exclusive; Eastern Orthodox Christians scratch their heads at it…)
It was pretty cool that Francis gave a shoutout to Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his speeches, too; Catholics and Protestants don’t always get along, and it’s a sign of openness when one can refer to the brilliance of one’s competitors in the marketplace of ideas. My favourite-ever inter-religious example comes from the Christian “Acts” (“of the Apostles”), in chapter 26. We’re told how Saul [also the name of a Jewish king] was travelling on the road to Damascus after having persecuted the followers of Christ, where he’s confronted by the voice of God. In this dramatic, climactic moment, Jesus … quotes a line from a 500-year old Greek theatre play. Boom!! Mic drop!

Jesus says, “why do you kick at the goads?”, which is from a contextually-identical scene in Euripides’ The Bacchae, where a king [Pentheus] who is persecuting the followers of a God [Dionysus] is confronted by that God. It’s awesome stuff. (Adherents can take comfort that since this is already the third time (!) the author has told this story in his chronicle, he can probably be forgiven for adding a dramatic flourish, if only to avoid boring his audience.)

But enough sideshow, on to the main event!

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How Trinity Western University (unintentionally) promotes divorce


Trinity Western University has been in the news recently, as law societies in Ontario and Nova Scotia voted to not recognize lawyers trained at the religious university’s soon-to-open law school. These two law societies – like your blogger and the vast majority of Canadians – recoiled in horror at the university’s community covenant (“covenant” is just a fancy way of saying “contract”) clause forbidding students from having sex outside straight marriage.

While discriminatory and immoral, TWU’s policy is not illegal. If I understand correctly, several years ago the Canadian Supreme Court agreed with the BC Civil Liberties Union that, as a private university which does not receive government funding or subsidies, TWU’s right to a discriminatory code of conduct trumps attendees’ right to sexual equality. (After all, people can choose not to attend that university.) Part of the ruling apparently included the statement that the Court found no evidence that TWU’s 21st-century-BC sexual ethics actually affect the behaviour of their 21st-century-AD graduates, once they enter the “real” world. Which is comforting, and de-fangs some of my concerns.

So, while I find its policy abhorrent, legal precedent tells me TWU must be allowed to have their own law school. On the flip side, the ruling also means that an atheist group could found the “Richard Dawkins Law School” with a community covenant forbidding students from engaging in religious practise, as long as they don’t take public funding either. (In a terrible case of “do unto others…” Dawkins has argued that religion is a form of mental illness, in the exact same way religious fundamentalists have argued that homosexuality is. While the guy’s a scientific genius, he’s as religiously illiterate as the people he rails against.)

As a semi-related aside, the Moral Majority movement started when the US Federal Government threatened to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University, a religious college which forbade interracial dating. Until the year 2000. Which was forty-five years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. As recounted by the Episcopal (Anglican) priest Randall Balmer, the Moral Majority’s founders quickly realized that – this being the 1970’s, not the 1870’s – no one would fund a group committed to keeping black boys away from white girls. So they made abortion their central issue.

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The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

The 1-2-3’s of EV market share in the US

My article on the 1-2-3’s of electric vehicle adoption in the U.S. went up on GreenCarReports on the weekend. The commentary went through a title change – a procedure familiar to many famous writers, and many more of us unknown mediocrities. :)

About fifteen years after a publisher’s first impression of Jane Austen’s First Impressions was as negative as its heroine Elizabeth Bennet’s first impression of Mr. Darcy, she rewrote the title (and, oh yeah, parts of the book) in the trochaic verse style, giving us Pride and Prejudice. Which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled literary masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  :)

The article involved breaking U.S. vehicle sales in 2013 by make and model, done by Tim Cain at, then looking up manufacturer’s suggested retail price for each and every one – done by me. After that, it was a straight-forward (albeit time-consuming) matter of making macros to do my bidding – in this case, slicing up the sales statistics by price point and vehicle type.

The 1-2-3 in my original title referred to the fact that, if one excluded trucks and crossovers/SUV’s (since the Toyota RAV4 EV is the only electric vehicle offered in those categories, and then only in California) then electric vehicle market share turned out to be:

– about 1% of passenger cars (again, excluding trucks and x-overs/SUV’s)

– about 2% of passenger cars with a base MSRP of $20,000 or more

– about 3% of passenger cars with a base MSRP of $25,000 or more

And way up in the nosebleed section of the luxury car market – where “high” might not just refer to the prices* – Tesla got about 17% of the passenger car market among vehicles costing $62,400 and up. (Tesla’s Model S costs $62,400 after U.S. federal incentives.)

Name-dropping Edwards Deming

One fun aspect of the article was that I was able to weave in references to W. Edwards Deming, the Godfather of statistical quality control. It’s the latest addition to my list of occasionally-Canadian cross-references, including:

– the Innovator’s Dilemma and Kleiber’s Law (both from this article)

– GM’s old philosophy of “a car for every purse and purpose” (here)

– Canada’s on-again/off-again aspirations to annex Turks and Caicos (here)

– and Wayne Gretzky getting traded to the Los Angeles Kings (here)

And the writer’s cut

Verbose babbler that I am – Scrabble players and spelling bee champions alike might say I verge on “logorrhea” — I came in a couple hundred words over target. Or, as I like to think of it, “overachieved”. :)

As a result, the following was originally present just before the Slimming Down U.S. Sales heading.

– – – – – –

As is so often the case for plug-ins, hybrid vehicles offer an apt comparison. In 2012, hybrids claimed about 3.1 percent of the U.S. auto market, and 1.5 percent of the worldwide auto market. (1.2 million of 81.8 million vehicles.)

On the surface, this looks grim – fifteen years after the Prius premiered, hybrids remain in the low single-digit percentages. But better context comes when we focus on Toyota: in 2012, their third-generation hybrid technology was in a full 16 percent of their sales – almost one in every six cars they sold!

This added context helps us understand that bureaucracy, not technology, kept hybrid vehicles marginal: if corporate priorities had been different, there’d be far more hybrids on the roads today.

– – – – –

Fortunately, content is highly recyclable (as many a plagiarist and plagiarism victim is aware) so hopefully I’ll have a chance to deploy the above when I wind up 122 or so words short on an article. :)

– – – – – –

* being a lefty, I’m predictably happy about the fact that the U.S. seems to be easing up on its War on Drugs, which as Matt Taibbi recently noted, is a war waged mainly against the non-wealthy and the non-white.

But it was probably predictable that this would happen, because the winners of the past four Presidential elections were the candidates who’d done cocaine in their youth. (Obama wrote about it in his autobiography, and GWB has avoided making outright denials and was allegedly arrested for possession in 1972.)

The last time someone who’d never used the drug was elected President, Microsoft was king of the world, and Apple was almost bankrupt. Oh, how things change…

If Republicans and Democrats alike have been willing to fund-raise, campaign and vote for candidates who’d done hard drugs, it’s hard to imagine their attitudes towards drugs and drug users wouldn’t soften. And maybe, just maybe, that can lead to legal priorities more focused on prevention/rehabilitation, than on punishment.

Heck, if the U.S. can close enough jails currently crowded with non-violent drug offenders, that might give them a good excuse for that perennially popular bipartisan American activity, lowering taxes! :)

Putting the “X” back in Xmas

Xtians began using “Xmas” 500 years ago, since in Greek, X is the “Ch” in Christ

Around the holidays, some people (not to name names or anything) urge modern society to put the “Christ” back in Christmas. There’s much to criticize about the hollow vacuousness of consumer culture, after all. Most of us can buy into the idea of better treasuring time with family and friends; and who’d oppose charity and compassion for the less-fortunate? (Well, apart from that strangest of philosophical tribes, the Objectivists, that is…)

Heck, the leftists among us might even be open to the Christian idea of a 100% marginal tax rate, on assets — that whole “tithing” thing is so Old Testament ;) – which is backed up by the fact that Jesus’ early followers were basically communists! (Admittedly, it’s easy to give up private property rights when you think the world’s about to end…)

Unfortunately, some misguided folks want to put the “Christ” back in Christmas, because they think “Xmas” is a part of some sort of secular war on Christmas. If there’s any upside to this, it’s that secular humanists are the new scapegoats of Christian demagogues. After nineteen hundred years, the Jews finally, finally catch a break! Hallelujah!  :)

In Greek, “Christ” is spelled with an X

This is all very strange, since it was Christians who started using “Xmas” in the first place. Five hundred years ago. And followers of the faith used X (and/or Xp) as an abbreviation for Christ, an additional twelve hundred years before that.

They did so because the Greek word for Christ — Χριστος — starts with the Greek letter chi, which happens to look like an “X”. And Greek is the language in which the first Christian scriptures were written, and in which the faith was first widely proselytized. (To be rigorously accurate, some portions – the Lord’s Prayer and various figures of speech – seem to’ve originally been Aramaic.)

So the real question is why these commentators would want to take the “X” out of Xmas; for today’s Christians, its presence would visually affirm a continuity with the Greek-speaking communities where Jesus’ gospel was first preached, two thousand years ago, and where the religion’s scriptures were written. How cool is that?

Orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy

I do wonder of why Buddhists, Hindus and others just don’t seem to get as worked up about these kinds of things. And my impression could just be because I’m less familiar with demagogues from those traditions.

Still, I get the sense that in eastern traditions, anger and outrage are regarded as unhelpful, if not outright harmful. For all the crimes of the Chinese government against Tibetans in the past half-century, exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks don’t seem to have an “anger button”; they tend to express their distress and condemnation in astonishingly measured tones.

One difference between the major western Abrahamic faiths and the big eastern Dharmic faiths, is that the latter tend to be orthopraxies – they emphasize correct practice – while the western ones tend to be orthodoxies, emphasizing correct belief. I can’t help thinking that may have something to do with it.

If one has adopted a set of spiritual beliefs – an orthodoxy – there’s always the risk that new scientific knowledge could undermine them. Learning that the universe is billions and not thousands of years old could cause a fight-or-flight response in some people, leading to the bellicose annoyance and self-righteous indignation so commonly heard in the words of some conservative religious leaders. Especially if they think such beliefs are all that separate us from the nightmare of Hobbesian anarchy – an unending war of all against all.

But if one has adopted a set of spiritual practices – an orthopraxy – then scientific findings which invalidate their rationale and justification, might be inconsequential. If one is becalmed by meditation, and it seems to serve one’s community, so what if the universe is fourteen billion instead of one hundred and fifty five trillion years old?

Even so, there’s no doubt there are Buddhist and Hindu demagogues, just waiting for the chance to corrode the public discourse in their own home countries, as religious conservatives have done over here. ;)

It’s probably safest to say that we in the West have simply been lucky enough not to have heard of them, because a Fox News-type empire hasn’t given their televangelism and/or megatemples a worldwide media platform. Yet.

Paging Dr. Freud…

Logged on to desktop-Facebook recently.

Was greeted by these ads.

They were… disturbing.

disturbing facebook ads

I don’t even want to know what photos they used for the female or gay audience!

Perhaps this is some sort of bizarre homage to Renaissance painter Guiseppe Arcimbolo, colloquially known as “that crazy artist who painted people as if they were made of fruit”, as per the portrait below.


More likely, it’s just the latest example of the ubiquity of sex in advertising.

It also leads to the question of whether algorithms can be developed to detect this kind of sexual imagery; one can imagine Facebook would want to prevent such advertising from getting displayed to inappropriate demographics, though some of that might be covered off by stated interests.  (One imagines that the above images wouldn’t be pushed to someone who’s expressed strongly conservative religious interests on FB…)

The witless wisdom of Shai Agassi

dunning_kruger_effect by AddAttack

Dunning-Kruger effect graphed by AddAttack on DeviantArt.

LinkedIn has an “opinion leader” piece from Shai Agassi, founder of bankrupt car-battery-switcher Better Place, telling carmakers how they need to respond to Tesla’s success. Who better to give them advice than a guy who raised $850 million for an ignorant, impractical, impossible business model, then drove his company into the ground?

Inviting Agassi to share his clearly-witless wisdom about the auto sector, would have been like inviting André Maginot — architect of the not-so-great wall of France — onto the post-World War II lecture circuit to talk about the future of warfare.

Pre-fisking preface: about Agassi

Before we get to the meatless bones of his commentary, we’ll start with a bit of background about Agassi. From Wiki, he seems to’ve been a very successful software entrepreneur. He may even have been the Michael Jordan of enterprise software — the thing is, Michael Jordan knows that no one wants to hear him talk baseball.

Unfortunately, being so impatient that he didn’t want to wait two more years to become the CEO of SAP, Agassi resigned. Alas, power bends judgment as surely as gravity bends light, and he decided he was destined to remake the auto industry.

Agassi’s clueless enthusiasm — let’s treat Smart cars like smartphones! — makes him a textbook case of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which basically states that:
– people who’re experts at something, know they’re experts;
– people who’re non-experts, know they’re non-experts;
– and people who lack the faintest clue, are so ignorant of their very ignorance that they think they’re experts too.

It boggles the mind that LinkedIn would list a guy who proved himself so catastrophically wrong, as a “thought leader” — what’s next, NPI (new product introduction) advice from Sergio Zyman and Brian Dyson, the men who brought you New Coke?

Pre-fisking preface: the business world’s Kim Kardashians

Of course, LinkedIn brought Agassi in not because of insight, but eyeballs. Or as the TV world calls it, ratings. LinkedIn’s “thought leaders” don’t need to have a track record of success, they just need to draw traffic to the site. And while LinkedIn might have snagged some deep thinkers, one rather imagines that most successful businesspeople are too busy, you know, running successful businesses, to pen puff pieces.

Which means the content providers will inevitably be attention-hungry, less-successful entrepreneurs: the business world’s equivalent of reality-TV stars. Except that reality-TV stars know they’re not A-list actors, while these entrepreneurial remoras seem to think they’re sharks. Again, Agassi might well be a software shark; but when it comes to cars, he’s chum.

Pre-fisking preface: channelling Tom Friedman

Agassi’s piece is so breathlessly definitive in its vacuousness that it looks to’ve been ghostwritten by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ opinion columnist most famous for the book The World Is Flat, written in his signature algorithmically-reproducible writing style.

To his credit, Friedman isn’t just a billionaire’s daughter’s kept husband: he has a unit of time named after him, the six-month-long Friedman unit — “F.U.” for short — for the fact that for two-and-a-half years he insisted Iraq would turn the corner in the “next six months”.

People wanting a cortex cleanse from Friedmanisms (e.g. “suck on this“, “hyperconnected“) are well-advised to read lots and lots of Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, whose signature anti-Friedman diatribes are the epic essays Flathead, and Flat N All That, the former of which is the source of the cartoon “The Moustache of Understanding” below. (click to embiggen)


That done, let’s turn back to Mr. Agassi’s titular wisdom from this LinkedIn post.

Three lessons from a highly ineffective founder

“Some of the most serious reporters concluded that Mr. Musk should throw his doors open and share all his secrets with the current carmaker. Tesla had already partnered with both Toyota and Daimler, so one should assume they shared some secrets with those market leaders.”

No, Tesla didn’t share secrets with Toyota and Daimler; they negotiated contracts to develop the battery systems for the California-only RAV4 EV compliance car, and the Smart Electric Drive. This is readily-available information; it’s taken me longer to type this paragraph, than to look it up!  Can a software guru be Google-illiterate?

“Imagine for a second that car companies are like yachts racing in the ocean. While the entire industry represent yachts jostling for position along a similar course, Tesla’s catamaran diverged from the pack, and all of a sudden seems to be gaining tremendous speed.”

Here’s a perfect Friedmanism – first off, a catamaran is not a yacht. If it’s in the race, then the opening sentence should say “boats racing in the ocean”. Next, the writer tries to express the idea that the Tesla catamaran has “raced ahead of” or “broken from” the pack. But “diverged” implies a detour; a wrong turn; it implies Elon Musk’s ship is accelerating in the wrong direction. What began as a promising simile has crashed on the rocks of impaired grammar. Editor…! — is there an editor in the house??

1. An electric car is an object of desire

All cars are objects of desire! That’s why companies invest so heavily in advertising and branding – to make them into objects of desire! The only person in the auto industry who ever treated cars as commodity products, was the guy who thought he could the manufacturers to build all their vehicles off a generic-enough design template to make it easy for him to switch the batteries!

Instead of deciding on “what environmentalists will be willing to give up to drive electric”— such as having only two seats in the back of an odd shaped car — Tesla decided to build a car that supersedes all buyer’s expectations.

First off, Tesla doesn’t target environmentalists, who frankly aren’t wealthy enough to afford luxury sedans. And “two seats in the back of an odd-shaped car” ? This is a throw-back to the EV1, which was fifteen years ago. That’s so long ago, they didn’t just release a movie about how it got killed, they released a sequel! Two years ago!

There is one (1) two-seater plug-in car available in the US today: the Smart Electric Drive, which looks exactly the same as a regular Smart. Why, it’s the very vehicle that Tesla used to work on with Daimler. (The current Smart Electric Drive is a 100% Daimler product.)

And there are at least nine plug-in cars on the market today that seat four or more people, and all of them look like normal vehicles. Well, except the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which looks normal in Mitsu’s home market of Japan. One of these normal-looking electric vehicles, the Chevy Volt, has won Consumer Reports’ award for highest customer satisfaction two years in a row, implying that yes, Shai, Olde Economy carmakers know how to meet buyers’ expectations with electric vehicles.

Seriously, claiming that Tesla is the first carmaker to discover that the secret to EV’s is to exceed customer expectations, is as ludicrous Italian Renaissance doctor Realdo Colombo claiming to be the first person to have “discovered” the clitoris in the 16th century — as if it was a faraway continent! How much of a bubble would Agassi have to live in, to think that after a hundred years featuring such iconic zillion-selling vehicles as the Model T, the VW Beetle, and the Toyota Corolla, it took until Tesla for anyone actually, finally get it right?  It’s a statement so stunning in its Valley-centric, navel-gazing ignorance, as to be mockworthy.

Oh, and one last thing – “supersede” means “to take the place or position of”. Tesla did not build a car that “took the place” of buyer’s expectations. It built a car to “sur-pass” or “ex-ceed” buyers’ expectations. Presumably, the spell-checker caught that sur-ceed wasn’t an actual word and suggested “supersede” instead. Furthermore, all carmakers already exceed their customers’ expectations, though most of them aim for lower price points than Tesla did with the Model S. It’s one of the reasons why they manage to sell so many more vehicles than Tesla does.

The lesson: Design a car that provides car buyers with the possibility of upgrading both battery and software, while retaining the car [over twenty years]. Such a possibility will enhance the resell value of cars, and in doing so could drastically reduce the monthly lease new buyers will face at the dealership.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Shai Agassi probably doesn’t drive the same car he’s owned since the first World Trade Center terrorist attack (1993). It’s hard to imagine that someone who tried to be part of the auto industry would be so blissfully oblivious to the fact that people’s car needs change over time. (How many university students buy minivans because they plan to drive their future tween-aged kids around town, twenty years hence??) But then, this is a guy who thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to convince the world’s major automakers to all change their designs, for his benefit.

Batteries are “Exponential Technology” – they benefit from reduced cost, improved storage and longer life with every generation, all of which are compounding year over year. Exponential technology is the most disruptive force that hits incumbent industries.

Every technology improves exponentially, because of a little phenomenon called the experience curve that applies in almost every manufacturing endeavour. Including internal combustion engines. There’s also the fact that batteries improving at 8% per year (at best) are far less disruptive than microprocessors doubling in speed every eighteen months. More broadly, rules from the world of software don’t always apply to the world of stuff. Our author should know this, given that his great success at SAP prepared him for … even greater failure with Better Place.

More broadly still, if he believed batteries were doubling in speed every eight years, what the hell was he doing trying to set up a battery-switching based business model??  The improvements in battery technology would have been a “disruptive force” that would’ve soon torpedoed Better Place, if he hadn’t sunk it himself, first. More likely, he started Better Place because he didn’t believe batteries would progress very fast — and rather than admit he was wrong, he glosses over that point. The reader’s ignorance is his bliss.

So average your future cost estimated down heavily and plan for profits to come after volume goes up the s-curve instead of focusing all your calculations on the first batch of cars.

They already do this!!  Development costs for new vehicles run in the hundred of millions — the Volt topped a billion dollars — so the fact that new product launches don’t bankrupt “Olde Economy” automakers kind of implies they know how to amortize development costs over years’ worth of vehicle sales. It’s the height of arrogance for a man who didn’t know how to price his own auto industry product, to lecture established car manufacturers on how to price theirs. He’s a naked, failed courtier raving about his clothes. (I’d’ve called him an emperor, but he hasn’t enjoyed a modicum of auto-industry success.)

The lesson: If you launch a new category, consider very seriously launching it under a new brand with a whole new experience. Direct sales will allow incumbent carmakers not only to control its brand experience; it also translates into a lower per-unit cost of sales once volume starts to pick up. Ask Apple…when you have a differentiated product, you want a differentiated destination store for people to come and experience it. If you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!

One wonders if Agassi was using a team of ghostwriters and there was a shift change, because earlier in the article it’s (correctly) noted that “mass-market carmakers should probably never try to repeat Tesla’s model – in making cars or in business model. What works for Tesla will not work for GM, and most likely be value destructive for any mass-market incumbent.”

And yet several paragraphs later, it’s recommended that mass-market carmakers repeat Tesla’s model of direct sales because, “if you do it right, the retail value per square foot beats the rest of the industry – by a mile!”. Did he not proof-read his own article? Does he care? Is this a secret homage to Harry Frankfurt’s classic, On Bullshit?

Mass-market incumbent automakers have a massive advantage over Tesla in their omnipresent bricks-and-mortar stores, which give them direct reach and presence in tens of thousands of locations around the world. No one in their right mind would give this up — but then, no one in their right mind would champion or fund a battery-swapping company for cars. (Tesla’s situation is different, as their proposed swapping stations can be run at a loss – they aren’t a company profit centre. Better Place’s swapping stations were intended to be profit centers.)

The analogy with Apple fails as well; before the Apple Store, there were Apple “store-in-store” locations at Best Buy and other retailers. The automobile analogy would be to have a separate part of a showroom dedicated to a manufacturer’s electric vehicles. Dealers already dedicate different areas of their showrooms to various vehicles, and the sales person’s job is to help people find the vehicles they want. Besides, the showroom model is working pretty damn well for electric cars — Nissan is having trouble maintaining Leaf inventory at dealers, because it’s selling so fast!

In brief…

While LinkedIn may have thought Shai Agassi would make a great auto-sector “thought leader” — he’ll draw readers as surely as Kim Kardashian (somehow still) draws viewers — they would do well to recognize that they didn’t land themselves an automotive Steve Jobs; they got themselves a Steve Ballmer instead.

The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder

Reaching into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”…. in our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

First, a short medical analogy.

Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune disorders (Wikipedia prefers autoimmune diseases) occur when the body’s defenses — antibodies — no longer distinguish between healthy tissue and harmful cells. Instead of focusing on the dangerous antigens, they attack the body itself.

Type 1 diabetes is an example, where the patient’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing regions of the pancreas. Blood insulin levels drop, making it more difficult for cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, leaving elevated blood glucose levels, and all the associated problems of diabetes.

Multiple sclerosis is another example, where the patient’s immune system attacks their nervous system. Localized physical inflammation occurs, which causes nerve damage, which impairs sufferers’ quality-of-life.

These autoimmune disorders occur on the individual level.

The hygiene hypothesis

In medicine, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that allergies could be thought of as a sort of autoimmune disorder, brought about by excessive cleanliness (!).

The general idea is that our immune systems developed over millions of years in the, um, virulent and filthy conditions that characterized most of human existence until the arrival of modern sanitation. Given this, our immune systems have evolved to be hyper-vigilant.  After all, until recently, even minor flesh wounds could be fatal, if they got infected.

One theory posits that if our immune systems aren’t kept busy fending off microbial, bacterial and viral attacks when we’re young, they overreact when they encounter benign intruders (e.g. pollen), or even healthy human cells, mistaking these for existential threats. It’s the medical profession’s equivalent of the “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” argument…!

The generally agreed-upon workaround is to make sure kids wash their hands before eating and after using the washroom, but to otherwise roll around in dirt, play with animals and so forth. The former steps help keep children safe from more dangerous microbes, while the latter keeps their immune systems busy.

Stranger still, medical researchers are exploring the treatment of autoimmune diseases by deliberately infecting patients with parasites!  Reasonably benign parasitic worms which co-evolved with humans and co-existed with us until the advent of modern hygiene, are introduced to the body.  Improvement comes when the immune system stops attacking healthy body tissue, to focus on beating back the parasites.

Unfortunately, the immune system sometimes resumes attacking the body after it beats back the parasites, meaning that periodic reinfection may be necessary. In helminthic therapy, you don’t take vitamin supplements, you take parasite supplements!

Societal-level autoimmune disorders

I think the recently-revealed excesses of NSA / PRISM / surveillance state can be best thought of as a societal-level autoimmune disorder. Human society has almost certainly become dramatically less violent over time, and that’s a very good thing. Especially for those of us who’re members of ethnic groups who’ve historically been the victims!

Meanwhile, for a roughly fifty-year period in the 20th century, an enormous American security apparatus evolved, to address the perceived existential threat from Soviet Communism — and, uh, stamp out any less-than-solidly-pro-American governments in Latin America and other strategic parts of the world. (We should try to be objective, eh?)

With the threat of Communism now gone, the vast resources of American society’s “immune system” have become focused on terrorists — individuals who can cause damage and suffering, but who cannot and could never pose the kind of existential threat of an invading army. This is a good thing: we want to be safe from those who cause us harm.

But like a white blood cell which indiscriminately attacks other cells in the body — not just the harmful antigens — the NSA has effectively wiretapped everyone in the world. Given that in the normal course of law, courts must be convinced of reasonably-probable wrongdoing for wiretaps to be granted, the NSA is essentially treating everyone as a suspect.

In this sense, its behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.

The price of freedom…

If autoimmune disorders can be prevented and/or treated by allowing the body to be exposed to lesser pathogens, this might hint at the path out of the surveillance state. If citizens accept that to maintain their major freedoms, they must accept that minor acts of violence might succeed, the recently-revealed excesses of the NSA could be curbed. A government which tracks its people’s communications, by the very act of doing so, subtly impairs their freedoms of conscience and expression.

The above is a bit abstract, so I’ll close with a couple closer-to-home examples.

1) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush made the comment to the effect that “[terrorists] hate us for our freedoms”. In doing so, he both oversimplified and mischaracterized the motives of such attackers, which relate more to the various humiliations of Western colonization, and the despair of resolving or overcoming the injustices they perceive.

But if Osama bin Laden hated us for our freedoms, then restricting those freedoms through the surveillance state gives him exactly what he would have wanted! (Political violence — such as terrorism — is successful when it causes the victimized government to bend its policies in the desired direction.) If for no other reason than thwarting bin Laden, it will be important for us to rein in the surveillance state.

2) brings us back to the “pull quote” at the start of the post.

Reaching deeply into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. It’s been misattributed to many Great Men in American history, among them Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, though it seems to’ve been a British actor who first formulated the phrase.

In our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

[July 25 – light editing to summarize the conclusion at the outset. – Thx for the tip, Bob!]

Wynne-win for Canada! And, is America ready for another white male President?

I welcomed Kathleen Wynne‘s victory in the leadership race for the ruling Ontario Liberal Party this past Saturday, even though I live in faraway British Columbia.   And I do mean far away — seriously, the International Space Station is ten times closer to the surface of the earth, than Vancouver is to Toronto.  (Though that probably says more about how not-so-far-away the International Space Station is to us.)

Wynne is of course lesbian, and her ascent to the Premiership of Ontario — Canada’s most populous province — is a matter of minor national pride, whatever her policies may be, and however effective historians judge her tenure.  Someone’s always got to be first.  [For our dear American readers, a provincial Premier is analogous to a state Governor.]

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