Time To Do The Hard Thing

From John Mauldin’s latest weekly newsletter, Thoughts From The Frontline:

Whatever happens in the 2020 elections, governing such a bitterly polarized country will be tough. Which means the economic problems I’ve described will fester and probably get worse. That leads nowhere good.

The only way out of this, the only way to preserve what we have and get through the 2020s, is for people to set aside their tribal loyalties, work together, and find solutions. That means none of us will get everything we want. We’ll have to compromise in unpleasant and distressing ways.

I always have liked his newsletter, but this one really hit home for me. And I love his optimism:

We’re Americans. We can do hard things.

iPad or MacBook Pro

I love MacOS. Until 2008, I had been using Windows at work and Linux at home. Then I got my first MacBook, and have been all in on MacOS since. I love the beautiful apps, the automation capabilities, and the underlying BSD operating system. I endured many years of terrible Microsoft Office applications on the Mac. My home computer is a hackintosh that does everything an iMac Pro can do at less than half the price. My last two MacBook Pros (Apple would probably say I should call them MacBooks Pro, but I’m not going to do it) have had awful keyboards, but I’d rather run MacOS on crappy hardware than Windows on great hardware. The moment Apple releases a 13″ MacBook Pro with a good scissor keyboard, I’m buying one.

I have had many iPads over the years and it’s always been a supplement to my laptop and my phone. They have all been in the 9 inch to 11 inch range, I’ve never had a big one or an iPad mini. I currently have an 11″ iPad Pro and it is a fabulous piece of hardware. I used to have the 10.5″ iPad Pro, and it’s excellent too. The Smart Keyboard makes me crazy. I hate the globe key which brings up the emoji picker. I would be eternally grateful if someone who matters at Apple mandated that all of their keyboards had a proper inverted-T arrow key setup with full size keys.

Many times in the last few years I have run experiments to see if I could use my iPad instead of my Mac. Although I hate the emoji key, it has never been the hardware that’s held me back. It was always the software. iOS was just not good enough.

This summer Apple introduced iPadOS with better multitasking, a desktop class browser, Shortcuts with parameters, and a massively improved Files app. After it was released this fall, I tried again to go iPad only. This time it was the apps that held me back, not the operating system. Many of my applications did not support key iPadOS features like Split View.

I feel sorry for app developers; I think the summer of iOS 13 has been the buggiest one yet, and it’s especially jarring considering how smooth iOS 12 went last year. Slowly but surely, app developers are getting their updates out that fully support the new operating system features.

Of the applications critical to my workflows, GoodNotes was the first to get updated, and they managed to ship a new version of their app the same week as iPadOS. iA Writer came next, and between these two apps I can now do all my writing and note taking on the iPad. Combined with the new desktop class Safari, I finally felt comfortable with a broad range of tasks.

But a few of my apps still weren’t good enough. Outlook on iOS is good, but not great, and still doesn’t support multiple windows. Which is a real bummer for a single app that has contacts, email, and your calendar. We use Exchange at work, so Outlook is almost a necessity. Microsoft says it’s coming soon, but it’s not here now.

In the last couple of weeks, I think I finally turned the corner. I started a new job, and we don’t use Microsoft stuff. So I didn’t need to use Outlook. I’ve long used Spark for my personal email. I started using it for work email too, and this week it got a nice update which supports multiple windows; finally you can write a new email while browsing the thread your are replying to.

The Omni Group also shipped OmniFocus 3.4 with support for multiple windows. Clearly multiple windows are a big deal for me. Of all the other capabilities these app updates contain — improved keyboard shortcuts, dark mode, parameterized shortcuts — it’s the multiple window support that makes me feel like I can get real work done.

I’m still missing a couple of important things. Neither Fantastical nor Calendars 5 yet support multiple windows. It would be really great to have OmniFocus and the calendar set up in Split View, while still having the full screen calendar available in a different space.

It’s great that we have a mechanism for third-party file providers, which allows any developer to integrate the documents from their app into the system Files app. However, several of the file providers I use do not support all of the capabilities of the iOS API. Specifically, I really wish Dropbox, Nextcloud, or Google Drive supported open-in-place. This would allow well-built apps like iA Writer to seamlessly read and write files directly to any file provider.

iPads have made great progress, and I can use one for much of my real work. I might even feel like I could use an iPad instead of a MacBook Pro. I’ll always want a desktop Mac for grinding out the company 2020 financial model, writing python code, and doing any music work in Logic or Finale. I also need my desktop Mac to organize and backup all my data: family pictures and videos, movies, and fonts.

But now, I think I have finally arrived at iPad or MacBook Pro, instead of iPad and MacBook Pro. That is, until that 13″ MacBook with a scissor keyboard comes out and I’m back to and.

Starlink Is An Ocean Of Gold

Casey Handmer teaches us why SpaceX needs Starlink:

There are only few trillion dollar industries in existence: energy, high speed transport, communications, IT, healthcare, agriculture, government, defense. Despite common misconceptions, space mining, lunar water, and space-based solar power are not viable businesses. Elon has a play in energy with Tesla, but only communications provides a reliable, deep market for satellites and launch.

Elon Musk’s first space-related idea was to spend $80m on a philanthropic mission to grow a plant on a Mars lander. Building a Mars city will cost maybe 100,000 times as much. Starlink is Elon’s main bet to deliver the ocean of gold needed to philanthropically build a self-sustaining city on Mars.

Some of Musk’s ideas, like the cybertruck, seem ill-conceived. Nobody I know who owns a truck, and I know lots of people who own trucks, would buy this monstrosity. Casey walks through the physics and the economics of a cloud of satellites to cover the earth with internet access. Starlink is not some marijuana induced dream. Casey’s calculations estimate a middle of the road cost of $0.003/GB.

The SEA-WE-ME 4 is a major submarine cable running from France to Singapore, commissioned in 2005. It is capable of transmitting 1.28Tb/s, and cost about $500m to deploy. If it operates for 10 years equivalent 100% capacity, with a 100% overhead for capital costs, then the price per bit works out to be $0.02/GB. Transatlantic cables are shorter and a bit cheaper, but the undersea cable is just one entity in a long line of people who need money to deliver data. The middle of the road estimate for Starlink is 8 times cheaper, all in, than just the undersea cable.

This is the best thing I’ve read about space in years. Highly recommended.

via Om Malik

The Danger Of Traveling Light

Dr. Jay Wellons, a pediatric neurosurgeon, tells a wonderful story about being the doctor on a plane:

We made our way to the back of the half-empty plane. There on the next to last row was a middle-aged man covered in blood. He held a cantaloupe-size wad of tissue under his nose from which blood was pouring out as if a spigot had been opened. He had a deep laceration on the top of his nose but the blood was coming from inside.

Not having the microcatheter and glue that would have been used in a hospital, he and a nurse practitioner improvised with Afrin nasal spray and tampons.

Crushing a Patent Troll

Unscrupulous lawyers in search of an easy revenue stream often acquire rights to patents and then sue large tech companies for infringement. Rather than bleed legal fees fighting all the lawsuits, these tech companies often strike licensing agreements or settle with these patent trolls.

In 2017 Blackbird Technologies, one such patent troll, asserted a ridiculous software patent (which we should do away with, but that’s another post) against Cloudflare. Instead of following the traditional playbook, Cloudflare decided to fight back. Instead of fighting it out in the courts using the traditional method, they created a new pattern for everyone else to stand up to patent trolls. Their clever method consisted of three parts:

(i) defending ourselves vigorously against the patent lawsuit instead of rolling over and paying a licensing fee or settling, (ii) funding awards for crowdsourced prior art that could be used to invalidate any of Blackbird’s patents, not just the one asserted against Cloudflare, and (iii) asking the relevant bar associations to investigate what we considered to be Blackbird’s violations of the rules of professional conduct for attorneys.

They won in court, but it took two years and they spent a lot of money. But winning once isn’t enough; Blackbird could bring other patent suits against other companies. The community submitted prior art on 49 of Blackbird’s patents, and an anonymous donor allowed Cloudflare to challenge other Blackbird patents with administrative proceedings (a less costly way to invalidate a patent that suing in federal court).

Finally, Cloudflare filed ethics complaints against both of Blackbird’s co-founders before the bar associations of Massachusetts and Illinois. The rules of professional conduct for lawyers prohibit them from acquiring a cause of action to assert on their own behalf. Blackbird purchased the patent they asserted against Cloudflare for $1, but it’s likely there was some additional side agreement that Blackbird would split any legal proceeds with the inventor. Bar proceedings are generally confidential, but could result in sanctions including disbarment, suspension, and/or financial penalties.

Not only did Cloudflare win their case, but they made it substantially more difficult for Blackbird to sue other tech companies. It was more work for them, and also more money. But if everybody who got sued by a patent troll followed this pattern, I think we could make patent trolls go away. Every tech company should do this.

And software patents suck.

Suspicionless Searches of Travelers’ Phones and Laptops Ruled Unconstitutional

The United Stated District Court of Massachusetts has ruled that suspicionless searches of travelers’ electronic devices at the border are unconstitutional.

“This ruling significantly advances Fourth Amendment protections for millions of international travelers who enter the United States every year,” said Esha Bhandari, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “By putting an end to the government’s ability to conduct suspicionless fishing expeditions, the court reaffirms that the border is not a lawless place and that we don’t lose our privacy rights when we travel.”

The district court order puts an end to Customs and Border Control (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asserted authority to search and seize travelers’ devices for purposes far afield from the enforcement of immigration and customs laws. Border officers must now demonstrate individualized suspicion of illegal contraband before they can search a traveler’s device.

That Part Which Laws or Kings Can Cause or Cure

One year til Election Day (give or take), and the presidential campaign season is in full swing. I expect candidates from both parties to heartily embrace demagoguery — the use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.

Trump says:

I alone can fix it.

For Trump “it” means everything.

Elizabeth Warren proclaims:

You’ve got things that are broken in your life? I’ll tell you exactly why. It’s because giant corporations, billionaires have seized our government.

The reality is much closer to Samuel Johnson’s rhyme from more than 250 years ago:

How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

Hoping for civility is probably too much, so I’ll hope for a bit of personal calm in what will likely be a ferocious storm.

UPS Delivers Prescription Medications By Drone

UPS delivers prescription medications to US homes by drone for the first time:

These aren’t the first drone deliveries that have been made in the US, nor are they even the first from UPS specifically. Google offshoot Wing launched a drone delivery service of its own last month in Virginia which delivers over-the-counter medicines and other health and wellness items, and UPS has also been operating a drone delivery pilot at WakeMed Hospital in North Carolina since March where it says it has now made 1,500 deliveries. What’s new is that UPS Flight Forward’s service includes prescription medications, and that it’s flying them directly to residential homes.

My guess is that in less than 5 years drone delivery will not only be commonplace, but it will be the primary mechanism for delivering small packages. It’s easy to imagine a tractor trailer full of packages and drones arriving in a community and spending several hours flying those packages to their final destinations. This approach would be much more efficient than driving the truck to every delivery.

Amazon Turns Off Its Final Oracle Database

Amazon built its business on Oracle databases. They are an Oracle customer no more.:

We migrated 75 petabytes of internal data stored in nearly 7,500 Oracle databases to multiple AWS database services including Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon Aurora, Amazon Relational Database Service (RDS), and Amazon Redshift. The migrations were accomplished with little or no downtime, and covered 100% of our proprietary systems. This includes complex purchasing, catalog management, order fulfillment, accounting, and video streaming workloads. We kept careful track of the costs and the performance, and realized the following results:

  • Cost Reduction – We reduced our database costs by over 60% on top of the heavily discounted rate we negotiated based on our scale. Customers regularly report cost savings of 90% by switching from Oracle to AWS.
  • Performance Improvements – Latency of our consumer-facing applications was reduced by 40%.
  • Administrative Overhead – The switch to managed services reduced database admin overhead by 70%.

Twitter Bans Political Advertising

Jack Dorsey says that Twitter will stop all political advertising.

We’ve made the decision to stop all political advertising on Twitter globally. We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought.

Jack specifies this policy includes both candidate and issue ads.

Best news from a social media company in a really long time. Unusual for a social media company, Twitter is putting the right thing to do ahead of profits. I wish other social media companies like Facebook would adopt the same policy.