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Merry Christmas

I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and other appropriate greetings of the season.  I also want to take time to thank QandO’s loyal readers and commenters for another wonderful year.  A couple of weeks ago we rolled past 8 million unique visitors on Site Meter. Since that’s always been the way we’ve celebrated another million unique visitors, we’ll continue the tradition.

What it tells me, since we average about a million a year, is that QandO is and remains relevant after all these years.  That’s nice to know. 

We look forward to another great year in 2012 and a very interesting political season as well.

The best to you and your family … may this be the merriest of Christmases and all the best from the QandO gang.  Here’s hoping for a very happy New Year as well.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Kimberly Webb Joyner RIP

The wife of one of our own, James Joyner of Outside the Beltway blog, passed away over the weekend.  Her death was obviously untimely as she was only 41.  James started OTB about the same time QandO started and has been a friend to this blog and many others over the years. 

We here at QandO want to express our most profound sympathies and condolences to James and his family.  Kimberly leaves behind two young daughters.   Please include the family in your prayers.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Happy Veteran’s Day

I wrote this in 2006, and it is as true today as then. Our combat troops are the best the world has ever seen – but without those who support them so well they wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as they are.

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Anyone who doubts all veteran’s are heroes need read no further. But for the vast majority of you who do, I’d like to take a little different slant in my tribute than you might read elsewhere. Most of the time when you read tributes to vets, they’re filled with the stories of those who’ve suffered in combat and we see pictures showing the battle-weary combat vets which pointedly make the argument about the sacrifices our veterans have made and continue to make.

But not all sacrifices are made on the field of battle. While infantry, armor and artillery are the combat arms – the tip of the spear – they, better than anyone, know how important the team that makes up the rest of the spear are to their success on the battlefield.

Those F-16s don’t show up on target at the right time unless that gal flying the boom of a KC10 tanker at 30,000 feet at 2am doesn’t do her job. That sabot round from an M1A1 fired at a threatening T72 isn’t there unless the truck driver hauling ammo day in and day out gets that ammo where it needs to be when it needs to be there.

Veterans are the guys like the cook who gets up every morning at 3:30 am and begins to prepare breakfast for his soldiers. The young man below deck on an aircraft carrier who makes sure the F/A 18 he’s responsible for maintaining is in perfect shape and ready to fly. The nurse who holds a dying soldier’s hand as he takes his last breath, wipes away the tears, straightens her uniform and heads out to do it again.

He’s the youngster in the fuel soaked coveralls who hasn’t slept in 2 days gassing up another Bradley from his fuel tanker. The company clerk who makes sure all of the promotion orders are correct and in on time, or the instructor in basic training who ensures those he trains get his full attention and who puts his all into helping them learn important lessons that will save their lives. He’s the recruiter who’d rather be where the action is, but does what is necessary to make sure he gets the best and brightest available for his branch of service. Or the MP at the gate who shows up every day, does her job to the very best of her ability and never complains.

Most vets have never seen combat in the sense we think of it. But every single solitary one of them has contributed in vital ways to the success of our combat efforts. Without those who support the combat troops, success would impossible. Without the wrench turners, truck drivers, fuel handlers, cooks, clerks and all those like them, the greatest military the world has ever seen is an “also ran.”

It doesn’t matter what a vet did during his or her service, it matters that he or she chose to serve and do whatever vital job they were assigned to the best of their ability. It isn’t about medals, it isn’t about glory, it isn’t about what job they did. It is about the fact that when their country called, they stood up and answered. They are all, every one of them, heroes.

To all the vets out there – Happy Veteran’s Day.

And thank you for your service.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Memories of home

You may have noticed that there was no podcast this week, and that there haven’t been any economic statistics reports this week. That’s because I had to travel to Houston, Texas this weekend to attend the funeral of my grandmother, Mildred Davidson. Many years ago, my grandfather bought their funeral plots at Brookside funeral home, and, though the family migrated out to California, we took them back home after their deaths. My grandfather, Paul E. Davidson, died in 2003.  Now, he and my grandmother are finally together again.

2011-10-18_13-27-42_226

When I returned for my grandfather’s funeral, I didn’t have a lot of time to do much beyond see some family, and go to his funeral.  This time, I spent three days in Houston, and had time to travel back to all the places I remember from my childhood.

I was born in Houston, and grew up there. My parents divorced when I was two, and my father moved back to New Mexico, where he was from.  I spent most of the year living with my mother, and summers with my father, mainly in Albuquerque, NM. So, I sort of have two homes, and two sets of people—entirely unrelated to each other—who saw me grow up. It’s kind of weird. But, Houston was the place I identify as home. So, I went back to the places I remember.

Below the fold is a picture-heavy story; part travelogue, part history. If you’re interested in all about finding out about me, or my past, this is it.

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Moving technology from making things possible to making them easy

I’m coincidentally the same age as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I’ve seen and worked in the industry they created – what we first called "micro-computers" and later "personal computers" or PCs.

Even that term is falling out of favor. "Laptop" is probably heard more often now, with "tablet" and "slate" moving in.

I’m wondering, though, if "slate" will actually stick. Just as "kleenex" is the word most of us use for a small tissue to wipe your nose (no matter how Kimberly-Clark feels about it), I wonder if we’ll someday be talking about "ipads" from Amazon and Samsung. That would merely be continuing the trend where "ipod" is becoming the generic term for an MP3 player.

This is one example of the power of Steve Jobs to set the agenda in the last ten years. There are plenty more.

The changing signs on Music Row in Nashville are another testament to his ability to turn an existing order upside down. The iPod changed the music industry beyond recognition, and here in Nashville we had a front-row seat to watch the changes.

The area of most interest to me, though, is in software. I’ve focused more on user interface design over the years than any other area. I’ve watched Apple drive a trend that is powerful and desirable in our industry: moving from just making something possible with technology to making it easy.

For decades, it was enough for a software program to make something possible that was not possible before. DOS-based software was never particularly easy to use. The underlying technology to make it easy just wasn’t there.

Jobs and Wozniak pioneered that era, but Bill Gates ruled it. He reduced IBM to irrelevance, along with Novell, Lotus, and WordPerfect, all major league software companies at one time.

To some extent, Bill understood the importance of making things easy; Excel was about ten times easier to use than Lotus 1 2 3. But he never really innovated much in making things easy. His forte was seeing good ideas produced by others and then copying those ideas and making products based on them affordable and practical. Windows was never the equal of the Mac until (arguably) Windows 7, but it ran on cheaper machines and Bill made it friendly to businesses, which were the biggest buyers of PCs until somewhere in the 1990s.

Steve Jobs and his crew were Bill’s best idea source. I sometimes thought that they served as the unofficial research arm of Microsoft for user interface design throughout the eighties and nineties. Apple sputtered through that period, producing hits (iMac) and misses (Newton). At one point, Bill Gates even stepped in with a capital infusion that saved Apple from likely irrelevance or even bankruptcy. I suppose he didn’t want to see his free research lab disappear.

During that era, Steve Jobs kept pushing the boundaries. The very first Mac was a pain to use, because it was too slow to do what he imagined, and had a screen that we would laugh at today. But it made some new things possible, such as real graphic editing. Though a PC was my main machine in the mid-1980s, I would put up with the Mac’s flaws to do my graphics work. The salesmen at our company often said our diagrams of the system we were proposing often clinched the sale.

I believe Jobs had a vision during that period of what personal technology could be like, but the nuts and bolts were not quite there. Nevertheless, he always insisted on "user first" thinking.

Jobs understood something that is still misunderstood by almost all companies in technology. You can’t innovate by asking your users to tell you what to do.

The typical technology company convenes focus groups and does market research, and then says "Ah, what buyers want is X, Y, and Z. OK, you lab guys, go create it for the lowest possible cost."

Steve Jobs understood that consumers and users of technology don’t know how to design technology products any more than movie goers know how to write screenplays. To create innovative and delightful user experiences, it is necessary to get inside the mind of the user and understand them so well that you know what they will like even before they do.

This is hard. It’s so hard that only two companies in my lifetime have been any good at it at all: Apple and Sony. And these companies have dramatically different batting averages, with Apple up in Ted Williams territory while Sony languishes around the Mendoza line.

Finally, about ten years ago, the underlying technology started matching up with Jobs’ vision. The result was the iPod.

There were plenty of MP3 players that pre-dated the iPod. I had one, from Creative. It had about enough storage for three albums, and required me to organize files and folders on it to store my music.

Steve Jobs saw the small, low power hard disks coming on line and realized they could be the foundation of a new, reimagined device. First, it would store hundreds of albums or thousands of songs – a typical person’s entire music collection. It would use software designed earlier to manage music – iTunes.

The big departure was the approach to user experience. The iPod was so simple to use that someone could pick it up and figure it out in about two minutes.

This was done by purposely leaving out features that were arguably useful. While the other MP3 makers were designing and marketing on checklists of features, the iPod stripped things down to the basics. And kicked the others to the curb.

Jobs realized before others that it was time to stop working on "possible" and start emphasizing "easy". When technology is new and rapidly evolving, something new is possible with each passing year, and giving buyers new features is enough to sell products. But when technology reaches a certain point, and the feature lists get long enough, all products have the essential features. The differentiation then becomes based on something very simple: what people like.

This is particularly true as technology starts appealing to a broad market. If you try to satisfy everyone in a broad market by including all the features anyone in a broad spectrum wants, you’ll end up with an unusable mess.

At some point in the evolution of technology for a given space, people just assume that the features they really need will be in all the devices they see. They start choosing based on emotion. That is, they seek what feels elegant and fluid to them, something they really want to be a part of their daily life.

This is where genuine design, based on universal design principles that go back decades or centuries, starts adding value. For example, Hick’s Law says that the time required to choose an option goes up as the number of options increases. Simply put, users get frustrated trying to find the feature they want from a long list of features in a menu, or trying to find the button they want on a remote control that has fifty-eleven buttons.

There is an entire body of knowledge in this space, and the first major computer/software company to emphasize designers who knew and understood this body was Apple. The culture at Apple values people who know how to get inside the mind of a user and then create a new way of interacting with technology that the user will love.

Jobs created and drove that culture. He went from turning the music business upside down with the iPod to turning the phone industry upside down with the iPhone, and now Apple is remaking their original territory, the personal computer, with the iPad.

I’ve discussed before in the comments here that I don’t like the iPad. It’s slow and limited for my purposes, many of the web sites I use are not compatible with it, and I don’t like iTunes.

But it’s not designed for me. That’s a key lesson that designers grow to appreciate. Each design has a target audience, which must not be too broad. The true test of a good designer is whether they can design something for someone who is not like them. 

I put my iPad in the hands of my 76 year old mother, and she immediately took to it. I showed her a few basic touch gestures, and she could immediately do the only things she uses a computer for – browsing and email. For her, it was easy, and as a veteran of the made-to-do-anything-and-everything Windows (I got her a computer for email and such six years ago), she really appreciated that.

The culture created by Jobs can do things that Microsoft, for all its money and brains, is not very good at. Microsoft people are smart. I work with many of them, so I’ve seen it firsthand. But almost all of them have a tendency that is all too common in the human race. They can only see the world through their own eyes, and are not very good at seeing it through the eyes of someone with a radically different background or different abilities.

When Microsoft teams start designing a new product or version, most of the times I’ve been involved, the process started with a list of proposed features. In other words, their process starts with what they want to make possible for the user.

Unlike Apple, the culture at Microsoft places little or no value on making things easy. This isn’t surprising, because Microsoft’s success over a span of decades has not been dependent on innovation in making things easy. It’s been in making things possible and affordable. They copied the "make things easy" part from someone else, usually Apple.

But even Microsoft has seen the direction for the industry laid out by Jobs and Apple, and realized that things have sped up. Copying isn’t good enough any more. Jobs perfected the process of laying entire segments waste with an innovative new entry, and as the iPhone showed, it can happen in a single year.

Those at Microsoft are starting down the path of worrying more about user experience. They may not like it much, but they realize it’s now a matter of necessity. 

First, they created the XBox – an entirely new product in a separate division that successfully challenged established players in a world where user experience trumps everything else. Then, shamed by the abysmal Windows Mobile products they had produced in the phone space, they created a pretty decent product there in the Windows Phone.

Their steps are halting and tentative, but at least they are toddling down that path now. I hope they learn how to walk and run on that path, but given the effort it will take to turn their culture around, that will take a while.
 
I don’t know that they would have ever gone down that route if Jobs and Apple had not pushed them down it. I’ve chafed for most of my career at the apathy and ignorance in the Microsoft community around user experience. I’ve always believed that our systems and devices exist for users, not for our own aggrandizement. As such, we owe them the best experience we can give them.

I was never a major Apple customer. Apple was never a cost-effective choice for the business and data oriented software I’ve created.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate what Steve Jobs did for our industry. I absolutely do. I wish he could have been around for another decade or two, continuing to show the world that "possible" isn’t good enough, and push the rest of the industry into respecting our users and making things easy.


Hiatus

As in I’m going to take a short one to hit the road and hang out with my college buddies at a reunion in the hills (and on a river) of Arkansas.

I do it every year now and I’m not going to be contributing here again until next Monday.  So hopefully my fellow bloggers will pick up the slack and keep the posts rolling.

Best to all of you, see you next Monday.

And, please consider this an open thread if you like.

Before I leave, a couple of good links.

Occupy Wall Street – Doug Mataconis hits a home run with his post.

Fast and Furious – Trying to kill the coverage.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


The golden nectar (Updated)

Apparently, I’ve been far too depressing. Fine. Forget the collapse of the dollar, hyperinflation, exploding debt, moribund economy, etc., etc. I mean, why be so down?  In the long run, we’re all dead, anyway, right? So why worry? Let’s talk about something we can all enjoy, then: Beer.

Actually, not beer, as such. I generally don’t drink plain old beer.  If you enjoy the watery, bland flavor of of your Michelob Light or Miller Genuine Draft, then knock yourself out.  I wouldn’t touch any of that stuff, though. I like to go deeper into the catalog, and enjoy the stout, the porter, and the fantastic subset of beer known as India Pale Ale, commonly known as IPA.  I’ve actually been on a tasting rotation of several different IPAs in the past few weeks, and I thought I’d jot down a few notes about them. And, living in what is probably the epicenter of craft brewing in the United States, I have lots of choices.

Stone IPA

Stone Brewery, which is conveniently located several blocks from my house, has an excellent reputation, and they have some great products, particularly the Imperial Russian Stout, and the Oatmeal Chocolate stout. and they’re probably best known for their Arrogant Bastard Ale.  You’d expect the Stone IPA to be similarly enjoyable, but…I dunno.  It really seems like a bland and uninspired IPA to me.  It has just enough hoppy bitterness to be an IPA, but considering the premium price, and the quality of Stone’s other offerings, it should be better.  There’s literally nothing about the Stone IPA that sets it apart.

Ballast Point Sculpin IPA

Ballast Point is another San Diego brewery, and the Sculpin IPA is very hard to find.  If you do find it, I suggest you grab all of it you can, as it’s produced in small batches, and anything other than the 22oz singles are hard to find. As are the 22oz singles. This is a very complex IPA. The hoppy bitterness has a hint of pine, and the finish is complex and spicy. This is an recognizable IPA in flavor, but with lots of extra complexity and character at the finish. Highly recommended, if you can find it.

Widmer Brothers X-114 IPA

Widmer is just now getting into IPA brewing, and are starting off a "Rotator Series" IPA which will eventually consist of four different IPAs.  The first release is the X-114 IPA.  I imagine that the primary motive for brewing this was the thought, "You want hops? You want bitterness? Then stand by!"  This is a very bold IPA.  The nose is very redolent of pine, as is the taste. It’s just pure hops. I call it "Christmas Ale" because that’s what it reminds me of.  It’s the smell of a clean house with fresh Christmas tree in the living room. The flavor is similarly crisp. I’d say you really have to love a bitter, hoppy ale to enjoy this, but if you do, this is the one for you. [UPDATE: I had another one after writing this post. This is an enjoyable brew if you're an IPA fan, but if you're just starting on IPA, you should stay away from it. It really has a strong character of hops, and newbies will find it far too astringent to enjoy.]

Sierra Nevada Torpedo Double IPA

This is one of the most balanced IPAs I’ve run across.  Everything about it is just good.  It’s not as complex as the Sculpin, and not as bitter as the X-114.  It’s balanced, crisp, and refreshing, without going overboard in any direction. It has a nice, clean nose of hops, and just enough bitterness to bite. There’s no single element of the Torpedo IPA that’s outstanding. Instead, all of the elements are in balance, resulting in a marvelous IPA that’s more bold than, say the Stone IPA, without being overpowering. If you can’t find the Sculpin—and you probably can’t—then the Torpedo Double IPA is equally good.

New Belgium Ranger IPA

Ranger IPA is very close to the Torpedo in fine balance, strong, but not overpowering bitterness, and a clean, hoppy nose.  I’d put it between the Stone IPA and the Torpedo for complexity of taste. At the same time, it seems lighter, crisper, and more refreshing than the Torpedo. It’s like an extra bitter summer ale.

And, finally, not an IPA…

Deschutes Obsidian Stout

This one is hard. Try it back to back with a Guinness (Extra Stout, not Draft), which is a dry stout, and you’ll hate it. Try it by itself, and you’ll love it. It’s an unusual stout, in that it has these flavors of malt and barley sweetness that the bitter hops overcomes at the finish. Lots of dark chocolate and coffee notes as well. It’s a much bolder stout than usual.  I wouldn’t use it as a refreshing summer drink, because it isn’t. This is a sipping stout that’s very robust and substantial. I’d think that you’d really need to be a porter or stout fan to truly enjoy this, as it’s definitely not an introductory brew. Also, it’s available no further east than TX.

New Belgium Summer Ale and New Belgium Fat Tire Ale

Both of these ales are very close in flavor. They are much more lightly hopped than an IPA, and both have a fuller, more malty hint of sweetness in taste.  The Summer Ale, however is a bit lighter, and crisper, and is an excellent, refreshing hot-weather beverage. Both are very good pale ales. I was drinking the Summer Ale a few weeks ago when we were having a heat wave here. You can drink it like water, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that, unless you don’t need to operate heavy machinery. Or stand up.

I went to BevMo this weekend, and picked up a couple of six-packs of some British imports: Fuller’s London Porter and Extra Special Bitter and Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, so I’ll be trying those out for the next several days. I’ll let you know how that goes. I’m especially keen to try the Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout.  This is the original modern oatmeal stout. First brewed in the 1750′s, Smith’s produced it until after WWII.  They resurrected this type of stout in 1980, and were quickly followed by others in the UK and US.

UPDATE

I put the two different bottles of Fuller’s in the fridge this afternoon, and I couldn’t wait to taste it this evening.

Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter)

It pours a dark amber, with a thin, tan head. The nose is filled with hints of apricot and dried fruit. The taste comes on with a very slight hint of bitterness that is quickly overcome by a full malt flavor with hints of toffee and caramel, and finishes with a taste of whole-wheat bread sweetness. it’s got slightly more carbonation than I remember from pub draft bitter in the UK, which is only to be expected from the bottle, which dissipates after the glass has been sitting for a few minutes. Other than that, it’s very much in the tradition of a draft pub bitter. Probably a good choice for people that find the bitterness of an IPA is too much, and prefer the milder, sweeter ales. Or people, like me, who just like to try different ales. Even The Lovely Christine, who hates beer, tasted this and pronounced it drinkable. It’s that good, and that mild.

Fuller’s London Porter

Oh. My. God. It pours black with a red flare.  Before you even sip it fills your nostrils with a strong essence of earth and wood smoke. The taste attacks with strong notes of coffee and chocolate and toast. And it finishes with the bitterness of roasted malts, rather than the astringency of hops, followed by sweet toffee aftertaste. It has a thick, substantial mouth feel, and is smooth and creamy. Under it all is this sweet, malty, richness. I’ve had a number of American "Smoked Porters", but nothing like this. The coffee and cocoa notes are so pronounced! It’s lightly carbonated. This is just absolutely fantastic. Rate My Beer gives this a perfect 100. Now I know why.

~
Dale Franks
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On the road again

Headed home from the Twin Cities meetup. Sitting in a truck stop cafe typing this on the iPad. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Met a lot of folks, saw a number I knew, heard Bachman, Cain and Pawlenty. More on that later.

Long road trip but definitely worth it. There’s 30years of road warrior in me that needed this. There’s also the fact that one can get isolated and a little disconnected from life and reality sitting in a house or office daily writing about what one reads or sees on TV.

So it’s nice to get out and see a bit of the country and people again.

That means 12 states in a week. Call it a “grounding” experience. Makes you remember what a vast, beautiful and great country we have.

By the way, if you’re ever near Little Chicago south of Minneapolis (off I-35), stop into The Steer for breakfast. Get the “Trucker’s Special”. Good stuff.

~McQ

Twitter: McQandO


Henry Kissinger

Every now and then I’ve been given the opportunity to talk with some of our movers and shakers from the past. First it was former SecDef Donald Rumsfeld as he launched his book "Known and Unknown". And through the Rumsfeld office, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to now sit down with former NSA and Sec State Henry Kissinger today as he launches his new book, "On China".

Unfortunately I received the book yesterday and haven’t been able to read it, but as the title suggests, it is all about China – history, politics, foreign relations, etc. Kissinger has apparently been fascinated by the country ever since Richard Nixon sent him to Beijing to help open and better relations between the US and China.

If you have any serious questions about China – since that’s obviously going to be the theme of the coffee klatch arranged for today, I’d welcome them.  I think it will be a fascinating hour or two.  China has always been an enigma to the West, and it is no less so today.  Drop any ideas for q’s in comments and if they’re good, I’ll try to ask them.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO

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