Ellsberg vs. Snowden

December 22, 2016

A really excellent article about the fundamental and wide differences between Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden

In briefing Kissinger in 1968 about what it’s like to have security clearance, Ellsberg writes:
“You will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess.”

This is why I tend to give Presidents wide latitude in their foreign policy decision-making. They simply have more facts (and access to more informed opinions) than I, the writers of the articles I read, more than the participants on the programs I watch, and more than even the senior congressional leadership. That’s not to say they’re right all the time, but I’ve just convinced myself that, for decisions that I don’t quite understand, there’s more going on than the people informing me know about.

Another reason Gladwell’s article appeals to me (and I’m a much bigger fan of his magazine work than I am his books), is in his depiction of Snowden. I would never characterize what Snowden did as heroic or whistleblowing. He was a disgruntled, unsatisfied worker who disagreed with policy and found the means to blast it out to the world, regardless of the harm that would do.

It’s worth a read.

What Walter Isaacson Got Wrong About Steve Jobs

November 2, 2011

Hey Walter, were you even paying attention when we talked?

Walter Isaacson has done so much media in support of his biography of Steve Jobs that I feel like I’ve heard him read every part of the book except the ISBN and the chapter titles.  Everyone, probably even including Isaacson, wishes that the release of the book didn’t unhappily coincide with Jobs’ death, but it did and that adds extra poignancy to the work.  It didn’t hurt sales.

Some of the interviews with Isaacson have been better than others, of course and the quality of the interviewer usually dictates the quality of the interview.  This is what separates the dreadful  Ann Curry from Charlie Rose to cite just one egregious example.  Terry Gross of NPR and WHYY is one of the best in her field, at least in part owing to the fact that she has an hour to fill and can let her guest take time to develop and expand on their ideas.  Her guests really get to express themselves.

So I was surprised that after all these interviews and all this time with Jobs and thinking about his subject, Isaacson is wrong on an essential element of what made Jobs and Apple as successful.  Here’s Isaacson and Gross on the October 25th airing of Fresh Air:

GROSS: Now why did he want Apple to have its own operating system, one that would only run on Apple products?

ISAACSON: Jobs was an artist. It was like he didn’t want his beautiful software to run on somebody else’s junky hardware, or vice versa; for somebody else’s bad operating system to be running on his hardware. He felt that the end-to-end integration of hardware and software made for the best user experience. And that’s one of the divides of the digital age because Microsoft, for example, or Google’s Android, they license the operating system to a whole bunch of hardware makers.

But you don’t get that pristine user experience that Jobs as a perfectionist wanted if you don’t integrate the hardware, the software, the content, the devices, all into one seamless unit.

GROSS: So how did this work for and against Steve Jobs?

ISAACSON: It was not a great business model, at first, to insist that if you wanted the Apple operating system, you had to buy the Apple hardware and vice versa. And Microsoft, which licenses itself promiscuously to all sorts of hardware manufacturers, ends up with 90 to 95 percent of the operating system market, you know, by the beginning of 2000.

But in the long run, the end-to-end integration works very well for Apple and for Steve Jobs because it allows him to create devices that just work beautifully with the machines, for example the iPod, then the iPhone, then the iPad. They’re all seamlessly integrated. (emphasis added)

So in the year 2000, I think Microsoft probably had 10 times the market value of an Apple, but Apple surpassed Microsoft a year or so ago and is now the most valuable company on Earth by doing this integrated model. (emphasis added)

But that’s not right.  As James Surowiecki of The New Yorker points out in the October 17th issue of the magazine, it was ultimately Jobs’ willingness to allow others to use the platform and his precious products that made Apple the company that Isaacson recognizes as one that has transformed six and maybe seven industries and become the biggest market cap company in the world.  Apple left to itself was a 5% market share player.  Once it opened its platform, it was through the roof.  Sure it was partly because the products were great, but it doesn’t happen without the help of those outside Apple to make those products better.  Here is Surowiecki:

When Jobs returned [after having been fired], he still wanted Apple to, as he put it, “own and control the primary technology in everything we do.” But his obsession with control had been tempered: he was better, you might say, at playing with others, and this was crucial to the extraordinary success that Apple has enjoyed over the past decade. Take the iPod. The old Jobs might well have insisted that the iPod play only songs encoded in Apple’s favored digital format, the A.A.C. This would have allowed Apple to control the user experience, but it would also have limited the iPod market, since millions of people already had MP3s. So Apple made the iPod MP3-compatible. (Sony, by contrast, made its first digital music players compatible only with files in Sony’s proprietary format, and they bombed as a result.) Similarly, Jobs could have insisted, as he originally intended, that iPods and iTunes work only with Macs. But that would have cut the company off from the vast majority of computer users. So in 2002 Apple launched a Windows-compatible iPod, and sales skyrocketed soon afterward. And, while Apple’s designs are as distinctive as ever, the devices now rely less on proprietary hardware and more on standardized technologies.

The iPhone signalled a further loosening of the reins. Although Apple makes the phone and the operating system itself, and although every app is sold through the App Store, the system is far more open than the Mac ever was: there are more than four hundred thousand iPhone apps written by outside developers. Some are even designed by Apple’s competitors—you can read on the Kindle app instead of using iBooks—and many are so inelegant that Jobs must have hated them. Such apps make the iPhone messier than it would otherwise be, but they also make it much more valuable. The old Jobs might well have tried, in the interest of quality, to contain the number of apps: he always talked about how saying no to ideas was as important as saying yes. Though Apple does vet apps to some extent, the new Jobs essentially said, Let a thousand flowers bloom.

The introduction of the iPad has ratified this new reality, since developers have already released more than a hundred thousand apps for the tablet. The result is that the network effects that worked against Apple in the eighties, making it essentially a boutique company, are now working in its favor: the more apps Apple’s products have, the more people want to use them, which, in turn, makes developers want to develop for them, and so on.

Yes.  That makes perfect sense to me.  It’s a wonder that Isaacson missed it by such a wide margin.

What I read

March 28, 2010

Probably Enough to Keep Me Busy

My name is Mark and I am an addict.  My drug of choice is information, particularly on current events.

I started really reading in junior high, but it got out of hand in high school.  At first it was two newspapers a day (Chicago Tribune and the Arlington Herald).  Sports first, then the other stuff.  My reading an article about a rape trial got me “the talk” from my dad. I was in Student Congress in high school and there wasn’t a current topic that was off-limits, so preparing meant covering a wide landscape.  The guy behind the periodical desk at the library came to dislike me.  That experience introduced me to the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, as well as a broader range of general and not so general interest magazines.  Foreign Policy, anyone?  It was a gateway drug.

I went into remission in college, then resumed consuming thereafter.  It’s now really out of hand with both internet’s accessibility and my not having a job.  But even when I worked, I still always had about 40 pages of articles I’d reformatted into two-column, 10-point font to carry with me.  Walking to a meeting, waiting for a lunch partner, lunching by myself, on the train, and in other places appropriate or not, my appetite for news could be described as insatiable.  In the last couple years, I’ve fallen in love with podcasting, so now I’ve got news in through my ears and eyes, often at the same time.  If you see me with my headphones, chances are good that I’m tuned into Fresh Air or something similar, rather than Green Day.

I don’t watch much TV; mostly sports and a few entertainment shows (Modern Family tops the list, Wednesdays at 9/8CT).  I only occasionally watch cable news, and that’s only because I like the way certain people write their material, not because it adds much to my knowledge or understanding of a topic.  Cable TV does all of us a disservice by conflating the ideas of “governing” and “politics” and treating both in the same way CNBC treats the stock market or ESPN treats the baseball season.  It’s not a game.  Policy-making, like history, happens over a long arc of time and does not change eight times within 24 hours. I couldn’t help but notice how the so-called conventional wisdom on President Obama turned 180 degrees in the moments following signing the health care bill (and publication of David Frum’s “Waterloo” analysis). One moment, he’s a political blunderer, the next a genius.  It was never either one and there wasn’t a switch magically flipped on Sunday.  While there are addition points made in this this NY Review of Books piece, it encapsulates my feelings on the topic pretty well.

I used to have a business relationship with CNN and conversations with their executives taught me much about how they think and their need to “feed the monster”.  Essentially, their argument was:  We’re on for 24 hours and have to have something to talk about, so we take small things, small differences, highlight them and if we’re lucky, we’ll get a run of a couple days out of a story.  If that happens, it’s that many fewer other little stories that we’ll have to report. It was akin to taking crap and throwing it against the wall to see what would stick, then talking about it until it fell off the wall.  It works great at first (e.g., the first Gulf War), but with the proliferation of channels, the hosts of these shows have to continually come up with unique things to be outraged about, lest they lose their gigs (think Beck and Olbermann; Hannity and Ed).  If there’s nothing to be outraged about, what’s the point of having them on the air?  So outraged they are.  And we lose the concept of rational discourse in the process.

But I digress.

So, I read.  Don’t tell my business colleagues, but reading about business bores me.

I occasionally get asked what I read.  Unlike someone who came to national prominence in the last couple years and was unprepared for that question, I have an answer.  It’s a long one.  I’m exhausted looking at it.  You’ll note that it doesn’t include Time, Newsweek or any of the other “general interest” magazines.  My sense has been that if they’re only going to publish weekly, their analysis had better be excellent because it comes so late; I find their websites generally uninteresting, too (too much celebrity coverage).  The last time I checked, I didn’t think it warranted the effort.

It’s a habit I can’t kick.  I read the occasional book, but while doing that, I’m thinking of the other current things I could be reading about, so it sort of sucks the pleasure out of it.  The only exception is when I get my hands on a good history book, since I can put myself in the historical context and read it as if it was a current event.  It’s more confusing to explain than to do.

So here’s the list.

Physical media:

Online – consistently (I pay for access to the WSJ.  I would pay for content at other providers, too.  The notion that this stuff all has to be free is flawed as far as I’m concerned):

Online – occasional


  • PTI
  • C-SPAN After Words (from Book TV)
  • Fresh Air
  • NPR’s It’s All Politics
  • NPR’s Planet Money
  • PBS NewsHour
  • Slate’s Culture Gabfest
  • Slate’s Hang Up and Listen
  • Slate’s Political Gabfest
  • Countdown
  • This American Life
  • On The Media
  • Today in the Past

No Politico, Talking Points Memo or Daily Beast.

If I’m missing something, let me know.  There’s always room on the browser and in the stack of papers for another view.

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