Monday, February 2, 2009

The Lure of Technology and Excuses about Blogging

My Lenovo died over the weekend. It never worked perfectly; I had problems with the graphics card from purchase, and it performed consistently slower than it should have, despite my persistent efforts to remove bloatware and guard against spyware.

The Lenovo/IBM came from a company best known for its quality commodity products, but in my case it came with RAM, memory, and extra doohickeys that were state-of-the-art when I bought it a year and a half ago. By getting a product that way, I violated my previous mentor Larry's advice about buying "at the knee of the curve."

Larry was one of my mentors in 1999 when I took a year off from school and worked in a laboratory environment. I had never worked in a laboratory and I constantly did stuff to piss Larry off, mostly because I was motivated and looking for ways to be helpful in an environment that had no idea what to do with me (I thought this problem was particular to that lab, and then I thought it was particular to academia; now I understand it's normal for older people managing motivated youngsters - they know nothing, but they are more motivated and in some ways smarter).

Larry taught me a few excellent lessons. Probably the most important one was that he taught me computer programming. Not everyone would be impressed by my computer programming, but I know some stuff, and he got me off on the right foot. It has been said, "Good programmers code; great programmers reuse." Larry taught me that by giving me a bunch of his code to jump-start me in writing code to control a test apparatus in the laboratory. Without ever having taken a class, I learned coding in a way that was appropriate to me, akin to language immersion. I still have never taken a class in programming, and I still code everything by reuse. I might not be the greatest programmer ever, but I'm fast and the stuff works. (I just wish Larry had taught me css because Linkspank could use some style, despite Darkspank.)

The Larry lesson at hand was buying at the knee of the curve. We bought plenty of computers and equipment in our laboratory environment, and since it was a high-physics lab all of these prosaic decisions were made by physicists rather than procurement managers or engineers or business people. Larry explained that you were best off buying a computer or anything else at the "knee of the curve" and he drew a graph to explain it (like a good physicist). The cost of what you are getting rises gently in a line, but when you get to newer technology the cost suddenly rockets up. You want to buy the stuff that is just before where it rockets up - that's the knee of the curve.

It may be that the knee of the curve solves some sort of optimization for the value you are getting for your money. But viewed from a business lens as well as a physicist-economist lens, it makes sense to buy at the curve because the more expensive technology is "bleeding edge", and the people who are bleeding edge are not the developers of the technology (who are making the only profits they can make in their line of business, since the cheaper stuff ain't profitable), but consumers like you and me. We bleed because the stuff breaks.

Expensive technology is not better; it's worse, because it breaks. My Lenovo is an example. The Nokia N series is an example. All-in-one printers are lost in a no-man's land between commodities and luxury products.

In my opinion, if you are buying technology, you should buy the best thing in the arena of completely cheap stuff.

There are two exceptions: toys, and special needs. Here is where it gets complicated, because people tend to file computers under one or both of these areas. But I would suggest that life is much nicer and more fun if you can draw crisp lines around the toys and special needs, away from the stuff that you actually need to work. I use my iPod touch to work (I wrote about 10-15% of my novel on it) but it's a toy; if it breaks, I can do pretty much everything anyway on my Blackberry.

For this reason, if you are a gamer, maybe it's better to go for Xbox over WoW. Or have separate computers.

Actually Larry taught me that too: about having production configurations. You don't install anything on a computer that you're doing work on. It's the only way to avoid messing it up (rather, it's a necessary, but not sufficient step).

If you view the knee of the curve philosophy more broadly as pertaining to non-monetary expenditures, you could think of it as a mantra by which you can allocate how you spend your time. Spend your time on things where it's easy, and you get good returns. Don't work too hard on anything, and don't dabble in anything. Work on things a proper, middle amount until you don't have any time left.

I'm not sure what that means about blogging. It would imply that blogging just a tiny amount is a total waste, and that putting tons of effort in is a waste (no problem there, since there is no professionally written blog on the web). Maybe it's telling about how a venture is going: you put in your effort up to the knee of the curve, and either the venture is working or it's not. If it's not, maybe you should drop it rather than going up into the high-cost zone (sweating blood to get anywhere); either it fundamentally works or it doesn't.

Life should be full of toys and commodities; may the twain never meet.