Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Price of Fear

Driving home recently I noticed a young lady dragging a very heavy-looking suitcase behind her.  It was swelteringly hot outside, the sidewalk was badly maintained, and she was clearly in a hurry, and my immediate reaction was to stop and offer her a ride.  Instead, to my shame, I drove past without stopping.

Why?

Because I was concerned that she might misinterpret my kind offer as something more sinister and call the police.  Giving a ride to a solo woman is just not something one does anymore.

Twenty years ago I would have stopped without a second thought, so what has happened to drive us to the point where people are afraid to lend a helping hand?

I believe it is because “The Law” has become something that cannot be relied upon to behave predictably and, in the process, has become something that destroys trust and stifles creativity.

“The Law” can be a powerful driver of human behavior, and when laws are permissive and easy to understand, society and business can flourish.  But years of highly publicized frivolous lawsuits has given people justifiable cause to be fearful.  I could give examples but…there is no need, everyone has their own favorites.

In reality, the number of successful crazy cases is small, but they change behavior.  For example, after a highly publicized suit against Microsoft, I was not allowed to keep any consultants on site for more than 9 months, even though it took those consultants between 3-6 months just to get up to speed.  Inefficient and unnecessary, but a response to fear of “The Law”.

Laws that are overly punitive affect us every working day. For example, my job at a brokerage firm entails solving problems, and the Internet is a powerful source of information.  But, many years ago, the SEC put in rules to help curb insider trading. These rules state that all communication must be captured, stored and monitored.  Cell phone technology has since made it so easy to circumvent this monitoring that this rule is now completely obsolete, but the rule still exists.  The net result?  I cannot access websites that would help me do my job, and brokerage houses spend millions of dollars each year capturing and storing unnecessary emails and phone calls.

This is not something that happened overnight, and has been largely driven by our desire to be fair to everyone.

The problem is that as each new situation arises, people feel compelled to create another rule to cover that situation, with the result that “The Law” has become bloated, overly complex and something that no-one can understand.   It is therefore feared by the common man.

I was taught that laws are there to protect our freedoms.  But our current state is not a formula for security; it is a formula for paralysis.

This fear, this paralysis, is costing us in more ways than we realize.  It is costing us in real dollars, e.g. malpractice suits are driving up the cost of insurance and forcing doctors to run vast numbers of unnecessary tests just to protect themselves.

More importantly, it is costing us in lost competitiveness.  The pioneering spirit, that drove America to always be first, has been badly eroded because no-one wants to take chances anymore.  Why bother when any success you might have will just makes you a target for law suits?

We have created a society where mistakes are no longer tolerated.  And, while this sounds good on the surface, the other side of that coin is that we have lost the ability to innovate.  To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson “Being wrong isn’t good, but if you are not willing to be wrong you will never create anything original.

We urgently need this situation to change…but how?

We need to listen to lawyers like Larry Lessig and Philip K. Howard who tell us that:

  • We need to create laws that can be understood by anyone.  It should be something we can internalize, and should be based around expected norms in society.  We need to replace the libraries of law books with a set of principles and goals that people can agree on.
  • We should judge laws by their effect on society as a whole.  We can no longer afford to run our society by the lowest common denominator.
  • We need to put common sense back into the equation by allowing our judges to be able to make judgments based on what most reasonable people would see as acceptable.
  • We need to encourage fair re-use of content, ideas and technology – to allow people to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and build new things from what has gone before.

We are living in a world that is changing faster than any time in history, and “The Law” will never be able to keep pace in its current form.  If America does not embrace these kinds of changes we will, quite simply, be left behind as the rest of the world innovates and creates around us.

The Constitution is only about 7,000 words long, and seems to have worked well in the past, but only because people were allowed to interpret how this applied to different situations.

By putting the human element back into the equation, we can create laws that evolve naturally.  Such laws would enable us to save money on medical costs, support new business growth, and won’t stifle innovation.

This is my hope.

And, perhaps, if we have the courage to make these changes, we might one-day find ourselves in a society where helping a young lady carry a heavy bag does not carry with it the fear of arrest.

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122 Comments

Filed under Children, Life - or something like it, The Human Condition

iPad Misses the Mark for Business

Let me start by saying that I think Apple makes some very cool products.  I’ve owned various iPods and graduated to an iPhone earlier this year – I needed a new phone and, since I already had an iTouch, upgrading was a snap:   Buy the phone, plug it in and, voila!  Instantly I had all of my contacts and music on the phone, and my email worked immediately.

But lately I have found myself getting just a little bit irritated with Mr. Jobs.  His steadfast refusal to allow Flash on his products cannot, in my mind, be seen as anything other than vindictive.  I read his tediously long open letter to the world on the subject and, for those that can’t be bothered to read it, here is my summary (heavily paraphrased, of course):  “Don’t use Flash because it is a closed system, use my closed system instead.

He also claims Flash drains battery life – which is probably true.  But the simple answer to that would be to have it disabled by default and give the users a button to turn it on – along with a suitable warning such as “Warning: Enabling Flash will cause your battery die in milliseconds.” just so that people know what they are getting in to.  It’s unfortunate for Jobs really – perhaps if he had enabled Flash he could have blamed the recent iPhone4 problems on Adobe!

I could put up with the lack of Flash when it was just a phone because, well, I was never really going to do any serious browsing on it anyway.  But when the iPad came out, I found myself thinking that Jobs had made a serious error.

As usual, Apple has done a fantastic job of producing a product that you just want to touch and hold – it is  pure sex with a glass front.  But it lures you in with seductive promises, and then rolls over and gives you the cold shoulder as soon as you want to slip in your favorite application.

This is because Apple forces all apps to be delivered via the iTunes app store – a veritable fortress for anything that Jobs doesn’t like.  There is so much fantastic free software around these days that, as a self confessed geek, I am like a kid in a candy store (you can see a short list of my favorite free software here). But most of this lovely software will never feel the brush of a finger on any iApple devices.  I have already seen from the iPhone that any free software that competes with Apple’s money making apps (e.g. ringtone generators) will never make it into the iTunes store and is therefore Software-non-grata to the iPad.

By locking the doors on the iTunes store, Apple is not paying attention to corporate customers.

Apple has an opportunity to tie in companies for a long time, if they would just give corporations the ability to create and install applications directly, or at least through a less closed system.

Imagine this scenario.  Company A builds an iPad app for a specific need in their organization (not cheap) and submits it to Apple, who then have the right to say “Nah…I’m just not feeling it.”  That corporation is then out of luck!  And what about bug fixing? Are you seriously saying that a company has to wait until Apple feels like pushing a new version if its latest release has a major flaw?  That just doesn’t make sense!

In the mean time Google is making application development for Android so easy it can be done by cat lovers that have never seen a line of code.  And…oh…did I mention that their OS is actually open?

No, the iPad could have been something awesome and game changing in the business world, but Apple now runs a serious risk of letting the tablet PC makers catch up and, just possibly, take control in a segment with a lot of buying power.

Cool consumer device – absolutely!  But it could have been so much more…

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Filed under Technology

Mini-van – The Ultimate Performance Enhancer

I love just about anything that has wheels but, in particular, I have been a huge fan of the Porsche 911 since I was a kid. I still remember holding a model of a 911 as a young child and wistfully wondering what it would be like to own one.  These were cars for rich people – which we most certainly were not!

Performance driving became a passion of mine from the moment I first got behind the wheel, and if I wasn’t upgrading my car, then I was using snow-covered areas as make-shift skid pans or spending money on track days.  I then turned to the ‘dark-side’ once I discovered that motorcycles offered a far cheaper way to get in touch with The Force, and I still dabble in those black arts today with my BMW R1150GS.

Joanne tried to save my soul in 2005 when an alignment of the stars (a mid-life crisis, a wedding anniversary and vodka induced spousal approval 🙂 ) brought a ‘pre-owned’ 2003 911 C4S my way. That car is now my daily driver, clocking up around 15k miles each year.

The car is fast but, after months of every day use, it all  starts to feel a little…ordinary.

I used to solve this problem by buying new cars, or by spending money that I could ill afford on performance parts.  Carburetors, tune up kits, cold air intakes, free-flow exhausts and that gold standard for teenagers, the K&N air filter, have all seen use on vehicles I have owned.

But a few years ago I stumbled upon the secret of getting my jolly meter back into the red without spending large sums of money on things that do little more than invalidate the car’s warranty.  The solution…use someone else’s car for a couple of weeks!

I first achieved this trick with the use of my father-in-law’s Hyundai G350 a few years ago, and I have just detoxed again by using a rented VW Routan mini-van to take in the delights of Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Big Sky and the mountains of Colorado on our recent family vacation.  Since my kids have seen the film RV, the van was immediately dubbed the ‘Rolling Turd’ for the duration of the trip.

After two weeks of driving The Turd, I came home to re-discover the joys of my C4S.  Just backing down the driveway was enough to let me know that I was in something a little different and, once underway, even the slightest touch on the throttle would have the car leaping forward like…umm…a very leapy thing.   It is so addictive that other road users must think I’m drunk, because I find myself speeding up and slowing down again repeatedly, just for the heck of it.

My new enhancement method is far cheaper than a new car or adding a supercharger, and is unlikely to leave me stranded at the side of the road with oil dripping from the engine!

So, only one interesting question now remains.  If I have two vehicles at home that can cover the zero to sixty sprint in five seconds or less, then why is it that my first speeding ticket in ten years was acquired behind the wheel of a rebadged Town and Country mini-van? Doh!

Despite the speeding ticket, I have a hard time visualizing my kids longingly holding a hot-wheels Routan Mini-van and dreaming of the future.

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Filed under Automobiles and motorcycles, Travel