Ron Moore Confirms the Obvious: NBC Decision to Pull from iTunes Sucks

There is an extended interview with Ron Moore, writer/creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, on Wired.  Definitely worth reading.

One fun snippet:

Wired: You mentioned TiVo. Do you think you benefited from DVD box sets, TiVo timeshifting, the ability for people to go watch all of season one?

Moore: Absolutely. It’s a totally different world, and it plays to our audience. The fans of this genre traditionally lead all these technologies. The early adopters, the people who are very facile with computers and tech, and they will find the show in all these different formats. It absolutely has helped us.

Wired: Even being able to tell the non-fans, look, just go get the box set?

Moore: It’s great. That phenomenon has definitely occurred, too, where people who would not sample the show, who wouldn’t tune into something on Sci Fi Channel, much less called Battlestar Galactica, people would then press on them a DVD. They became fans. That happened a lot. People just put it on their iTunes. I bemoan the loss of NBC Universals relationship with iTunes for this show.

NBC’s decision to basically thumb their nose at their customers, their fans, around a theoretical strategic positioning on digital delivery is doomed to failure.  Not sure if the current management at NBC will get it, or whether they’ll have to be replaced (ala Disney/Pixar) to heal this one.  They have forgotten that the alternative to Apple’s rich ecosystem is widespread, DRM-free piracy.

They’ll figure it out soon enough.

Blueberries in Sunnyvale

I am proud to say that a little more than two months ago, I decided to follow a dream.  A dream that I’ve had for a long time.  A dream to grow blueberries in the warm, pleasant, and good-for-almost-everything-except-blueberries weather of Silicon Valley.

Not all dreams become a reality.  But check out this photo, from yesterday:

Gorgeous, right?  That’s the first bunch of blueberries off one of my eight (8), count them, eight blueberry bushes in my front yard.  They were about 10 in this group, all large, all sweet, all as good as any I’ve had.

Now check this out:

And that’s just one bush!  Fantastic for a first year harvest.

Now some details for those of you out there who share the dream of growing blueberries in the Bay Area, but always thought that they were a cold weather, Maine/Alaska sort of thing.

First, I didn’t get special hybrids from Master Gardners (although they have some excellent research on growing blueberries in California).  I actually got all of my plants in one and five gallon containers at the local SummerWinds nursery in Cupertino.  All of my plants were from Monrovia, which has a great website describing all of their blueberry varieties, and which zones they grow in.  There are now hybrids for almost every zone in the US.  I chose to plant two varieties:

  • Misty (Vaccinum x Misty): Sky-blue, medium large, very sweet fruit matures early season from midsummer through fall. Pink and white bell-shaped flowers bloom in late spring followed by fruit crop. Very low chill requirement of 300 hours to set a good crop of fruit. An attractive shrub with blue-green foliage for beds or the fruit garden. Remains evergreen in mild winters or turns brilliant red before shedding leaves in cold climates. Semi-deciduous shrub. Full sun. Vigorous growth 5 to 6 feet tall and wide.
  • Sunshine Blue (Vaccinum x Sunshine Blue): Hot pink bell shaped flowers are decorative before fading to white. Blooms in late spring. Yields an abundant crop of large tangy fruit with as few as 150 hours of chill. Self pollinating, but produces best when planted with another variety. Dwarf stature is far more suited to ornamental gardens and small space landcapes than other varieties. Semi-evergreen shrub. Full sun. Moderate growth 3 to 4 feet tall and wide

It’s amazing how well they have taken.  I planted them in an open stretch next to my driveway, where there previously were ornamental bushes.  I added some additional flowers and bulbs (200+) for color.   The flowers are extremely pleasant and fragrant, and it’s nice to have both white and pink flowering varieties.  Here is a shot of the complete row on March 29th, a couple weeks after planting.

This is what a single bush looked like, flowering, on March 29th:

Here is an updated shot, from Sunday (May 18th):

You can see the bulbs have sprouted, and the flowers on the bushes have now been replaced with hundreds of green blueberries.  They should be fully ripe in late June, early July at this rate.

I was a little paranoid about watering, and ended up putting in a new trench and line for daily watering.  Simple drip heads (4) with spray for 20 minutes a day in the morning.

If you’ve read this far, chances are you think that replacing useless ornamental shrubs and bushes with gorgeous, fruiting blueberry bushes is a dream come true.   Well, you too can live the dream.  I’m happy to announce that growing blueberries in Sunnyvale is definitely a reality.

Starbuck is NOT the Fifth Cylon

This is the problem with getting busy and not posting for two weeks.  What was an insightful and debatable claim is now fairly obvious.

Still, I felt I had to write this post, given all the excitement two weeks ago about someone “cracking” the Entertainment Weekly “Last Supper” photo from earlier in the year.  You can read about the detailed analysis here (which would actually make Dan Brown proud ala “The Da Vinci Code”), but at the end of the day, the conclusion is wrong.

Starbuck is not the final Cylon.

True, she’s the “Harbinger of Doom” and she will lead the humans “to their end”, but she’s not a cylon.  Sorry, not dice.  Fact is, she doesn’t fit any of the known clues left about the fifth cylon, and Moore has basically gone on record stating that she is not a cylon, but something else.

Since, I’m on the topic, let’s cover what I’ve been pondering lately: the comments from the “First Hybrid” in the Razor movie, and the recent episode from Friday, “Faith”:

  • From the episode “Faith” that aired on Friday:

    It’s at this moment that the Hybrid grabs Kara and communicates a semi-vague, yet straightforward message:

    – The dying leader will discover the truth about the Opera House.
    – The missing 3 will be used to find the Final 5.
    – The final 5 come from the home of the 13th tribe.
    – Starbuck is the harbinger of death that will take them all to their end.

  • From the movie, “Razor”:

    At last, they’ve come for me. I feel their lives, their destinies spilling out before me. The denial of the one true path, played out on a world not their own, will end soon enough. Soon there will be four, glorious in awakening, struggling with the knowledge of their true selves, the pain of revelation bringing new clarity, and in the midst of confusion, he will find her. Enemies brought together by impossible longing, enemies now joined as one. The way forward at once unthinkable, yet inevitable. And the fifth, still in shadow, will claw toward the light, hungering for redemption that will only come in the howl of terrible suffering. I can see them all. The seven, now six, self-described machines who believe themselves without sin, but in time, it is sin that will consume them. They will know enmity, bitterness, the wrenching agony of the one splintering into the many, and then they will join the promised-land, gathered on the wings of an angel. Not an end, but a beginning.

So this brings me to my current thinking – everything the First Hybrid said is coming true, so there are likely more clues there.  Note the reference to “the wings of an angel”, which Kara Thrace was described as in this last episode.

The hardest part for me to rationalize in the current “four cylons” is Colonel Tigh.  Adama has known him for 40 years, since his youth.  That means Tigh got old… I didn’t know cylons could age.  But humanoid cylons didn’t come into being until well after the first Cylon war, so he can’t actually be a cylon… unless he either pre-dates the Cylons.  The quote from the hybrid suggests he is not a cylon per se, but from Earth.  Thats confirmation that cylons were not invented by the colonies recently, but may have existed long before.

That ties in with the them that “all of this has happened before, and all this will happen again”.

My favorite comment on my blog posts has been the ones that theorize that this is all some sort of elaborate simulation… somewhat like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  The Cylons killed their human masters long ago, and they repeatedly seed and build the colonies to repeat history and try to learn from it.

I doubt that will be the answer, but there is definitely a strong theme here that says that the Cylon/human issue has dated back well before cylons were “theoretically created” by the colonies.

The only non-linear hint here is that “Adama is a Cylon”.  Given the recently leaked backstory for the new series “Caprica”, it seems that a humanoid Cylon was made for the Adama family to replace Bill Adama’s lost sister… if his sister was Cylon, is it possible he is also?  Or that he had a model made to replace Zak?

We’ll see.

2009 is the new 1943: Welcome Back, Steel Penny

There have a been a couple of numesmatic debates that have seemed endless over the past few decades.  One, of couse, has been around the eventual death of the paper dollar.  The second, almost as persistent, has been about the death of the US one cent piece, aka, “the penny”.

A friend of mine at work pointed me to this site, Retire the Penny.

For the most part, the call to retire the penny has been made on the back of two basic arguments:

  1. Nuisance.  People don’t value them anyway, and tend to just stuff them in dishes, jars, piggy banks, or literally on the ground.
  2. Cost.  With the rising cost of metals like copper and zinc, the cost of the penny has actually exceeded one cent, meaning that we lose money every year.  In fact, people are melting them down, illegally, spurring law enforcement action.

On Friday, May 9th, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 5512, which gives the US Mint 270 days to change the base metal of the US one cent and five cent pieces to more affordable metals.  The current bill actually calls for “copper-colored steel”, although there are arguments for even more cost effective metals.  From

The House debated on the legislation and finally voted yesterday to change the metallic composition of the penny and 5-cent nickel to a less expensive copper-colored steel.

Although the prices of copper, zinc and nickel metals in coins have declined in recent months, the penny and 5-cent nickel still cost more to make than what they’re worth—resulting in a reported loss of about $100 million every year, or $1 billion over a decade.

It now costs about 1.26 cents to make the penny and about 7.7 cents to make the nickel.

House bill “H.R. 5512, the Coin Modernization and Taxpayer Savings Act of 2008” would seek to change those manufacturing costs by using copper-colored steal, which could cut the cost of making pennies down to about 0.7 cents each. But its recent passage in the House is no guarantee it’ll make its way to the White House for signing.

H.R. 5512 must still go through the Senate and then the President, and not everyone is happy with the current legislation.

Personally, I’ve always loved the steel pennies from 1943, the one year that they were switched due to wartime rationing of copper.  I even bought a few hundred on eBay just for fun.

Little known fact – Canada switched to a copper-colored steel penny a few years ago.  Who knew?

This type of change will remove the second argument against keeping the penny.  Personally, I think the penny is largely retiring itself. As more and more retail institutions display “give a penny, take a penny” dishes, they are effectively making the cent unnecessary for transactions.

This is all very interesting given that 2009 is designed to be a celebratory year for the penny, marking 100 years of the Lincoln cent, with collectible versions made out of pure copper.

Obama Victory Probability at Over 85% (Iowa Electronic Markets)

I’ve really enjoyed the ongoing empirical experiments at the Iowa Electronic Markets, where people can use real money to trade futures on political (and other) events.  As can be expected, political polls tell a very different story than markets where real money is at stake.

Tonight, with the marginal victory for Clinton in Indiana, and the large win for Obama in North Carolina, a major shift happened in the future markets at IEM.   See below for the graph:

As pointed out on IdeoBlog, the likelihood of a Clinton victory, according to these futures, dropped today from 28% down to 12%… a 55% change.  That’s an incredibly significant shift, and it puts Obama back in the probability range that he spiked to after Super Tuesday.

Interestingly, there are still arbitrage dollars to be made on John McCain, whose futures are only trading at around 94.5%.  You can make 5.5% or so just by buying the obvious winner.  Of course, I believe IEM still limits your total funds to $500, so I’m not sure you can really make that much money here.

It’ll be very interesting to see the presidential futures for the final candidates once they are out – I’m expecting a very different story than the polls to date have been indicating.

Happy Cinco de LinkedIn!

Today was a bit of a party at work, as LinkedIn hit a couple of milestones.  This weekend, we passed 22 million members.  More importantly, today was the 5th anniversary of the website.

Yes, Cinco de Mayo was Cinco de LinkedIn this year.  Sure makes it easy to remember the anniversary!

Chris Saccheri, our Director of Web Development, posted a fantastic look back at the last five years.  I highly recommend checking it out.

My favorite part is the 5-screen walkthrough of the history of the homepage of LinkedIn.  As you may know, our team launched a homepage & site redesign a few months ago, and it’s neat to see it in the context of what came before.

LinkedIn Home, 2003LinkedIn Home, 2004LinkedIn Home, 2005LinkedIn Home, 2006LinkedIn Home, 2007

(here is a link to the LinkedIn homepage today)

Happy Cinco de LinkedIn!

Should You Be Eating Your Own Dog Food?

One of the best parts of my job at LinkedIn is responsibility for a world-class User Experience & Design team.  It’s a new and rapidly growing team, and with the addition of new people and new voices, I’ve really enjoyed the thoughtful discussions and debates that have been occurring.

Recently, an article featured on the Silicon Valley Product Group site spurred quite a bit of debate internally, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of those thoughts here.   The issue, as per the title, was the merit of the old product stand-by of “eating your own dogfood”.

What does it mean?

If you aren’t familiar with the phrase, it dates back to the 1980s, and was one of the core elements of the Microsoft software development philosophy.  (How many people in Silicon Valley realize that they are espousing a Microsoft-based software principle I don’t actually know…)  It’s an oblique reference to old Alpo commercials, where Lorne Greene would say that it was so good, he feeds it to his own dogs.  You’ve likely heard hundreds of commercials that make the same equivalent endorsement.

In software, this concept served at least three purposes:

  • Convince customers that their products were good enough for general use, by providing an empirical example.  For example, “We’ve been running our operations for the past year on this software, and the results are phenomenal!”
  • Ensure that software developers and other employees “feel the pain” of their customers.  The idea is that it is easy to ignore bugs, or miss simple problems with a product if you yourself don’t feel the pain personally.  This is one the reasons, for examples, many companies actually try to use new products internally first before release.
  • Ensure that software developers build applications and software that they themselves would use.  This theory holds that if you can put yourself in the shoes of your customer, so to speak, then you’ll have more insight into the ideal features and design of your product.

The Argument

The article in SVPG aggressively staked out a position that focused on that third bullet point in particular, and several members of our design team rallied around the critique.  This paragraph summarizes the problem well:

But the real issue here is not the importance of running your own software.  The real issue is that this is just another symptom of a big problem we have in our industry, but especially here in the valley.  We tend to believe that our customers and users are much more like ourselves than they really are.

For many designers, one of the most important reminders to begin every project with is the mantra, “The user is not like me.”  For several members of our team, this reminder is crucial to great customer-centric design, because it forces you to do your homework on the actual needs and characteristics of your target user and use-cases.  Too many designers, product managers, engineers and executives take the short cut of assuming that because they personally find a feature useful or annoying, that their personal experience will map directly to their customers.

For this group, the call to “eat your own dog food” potentially exposes the team to the danger that they will mistake their own personal reactions to the software with those of their customer.  If you are immersed in LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter on your iPhone, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most of your users, in fact, are not.  In fact, the most extreme version of this argument says that by exposing yourself to heavily, you cannot avoid personally biasing your product decisions toward your own needs rather than the needs of your customers.

For others, the importance of using your own software on a regular basis is fundamental to building great product, for many of the reasons outlined above in the three bullet points.   Needless to say, it’s a great debate if you are passionate about building customer-centric product and organization.

The Answer

Personally, I thought the SVPG piece was well balanced, but understated the reasons why companies who “eat their own dogfood” tend to outperform those that don’t over time although there are people that actually try their dog food to see how good it is they get something from a great Pitbull food guide and want to test their quality.

It is very easy to “de-prioritize” and undervalue problems and issues that face users of your products if you don’t depend on them yourself.  It is very easy to get attached to theoretical frameworks, market research, testing, and all sorts of valid means of evaluating how things work and what gets fixed.

But if you don’t use the product every day, chances are, you will undervalue real problems that your customers have, and overvalue ones that they don’t.  More importantly, you’ll be lacking the context to see the patterns & causal factors in the research.  The biggest problem with all forms of research is the issue of differentiating correlation from causality.

In our case, LinkedIn is a site for professionals.  Every person in this company is a professional.  Are LinkedIn employees representative of the entire span of professionals, or even the majority?  No.  Are LinkedIn employees a valid subset of professionals that should be able to use LinkedIn daily?  Yes.

We are actively working to open up as many channels as possible to listen to our customers: usability, focus groups, customer service, email feedback, LinkedIn Answers, community commentary on this (and other) blogs, and of course site metrics & testing.  At the same time, we are constantly using LinkedIn internally, as we endeavor to use the site on a daily basis to make ourselves more effective professionals.

I’m committed to finding balance between the two poles.  The risks of poor product & design decisions on both ends of the spectrum are too high.