Quote of the Day

“One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention. This seems to be about where you find yourself now. Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this.”

– Flannery O’Connor
Letter to Alfred Corn
June 16, 1962

The Osbourne Effect

Companies – especially tech companies – face the difficult task of convincing consumers to buy future products… while at the same time getting people to also buy their current products. I’d guess that all of us have delayed a purchase at one point or another. Maybe you needed a new desktop computer, but wanted to wait for one with the latest Intel processor or USB 3 ports. Maybe you wanted an iPhone, but instead of getting the current iPhone 4 you waited a couple months for the iPhone 5. Or maybe you wanted to upgrade your HDTV but wanted to wait until LED TVs or 3-D TVs or 240 Hz TVs hit the market.

Believe it or not, there’s a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the “Osbourne Effect” and it comes from the Osbourne Computer Corporation. On April 3, 1981, the company released the Osbourne 1, the first commercially successful portable computer. It was the granddaddy of all laptop computers:

The Osbourne 1

Sales were pretty good at first. The company was selling around 10,000 units a month, which wasn’t bad for a computer that cost $1,795 at the time… which is a whopping $4,464 when adjusted for inflation!

But the Osbourne 1 wasn’t without faults. Although it was truly “portable”, the computer weighed almost 24 pounds (10.7kg), making it difficult to carry through airports. In fact, the Osbourne 1’s designer, Lee Felsenstein, once wrote that he had to carry two units four blocks from his hotel to a trade show and it “nearly pulled my arms out of their sockets”. The computer’s screen was tiny: just 5″ (13cm) across. What’s worse is that the unit’s floppy drive only supported single-sided single density disks, which were too small (even at the time) to support most business applications. Early units also had a failure rate of 10-15%, which is unbelievably high for a consumer product. To give a comparison, early Xbox 360 units had a notorious failure rate of 16%, compared to just 3% for the PlayStation 3 and the Wii.

Early in 1983, company founder Adam Osbourne announced a new model, the Osbourne Executive. Priced at $2,495 ($5,662 in 2012 dollars), the Executive would fix a lot of the problems of the Osbourne 1. It would have a larger 7″ (17.7cm) display, would support double-density floppy drives, would come with twice the memory of the Osbourne 1 (128KB vs, 64KB), and would come with useful software, like Supercalc and WordStar. The Osbourne Executive only worked off AC, although a battery pack with a 1-hour runtime would be made available as an option. But instead of getting lighter, the Osbourne Executive was actually heavier: 28 lbs (13kg).

When computer dealers saw the Osbourne Executive – in small groups in locked hotel rooms, a cloak and dagger scenario right out of a spy novel – they were blown away. But instead of keeping their current orders for the Osbourne 1 and placing new orders for the Osbourne Executive, they did something strange: thinking the Osbourne Executive would be a “game changer”, they instead cancelled their current orders for Osbourne 1s and placed orders for the new, upcoming Executive.

Osbourne Computer’s sales started slipping, so the company slashed prices on the Osbourne 1. But it didn’t help. The company, which had once manufactured 500 Osbourne 1s a day, soon ran out of cash. The company declared bankruptcy before the Osbourne Executive ever came to market.

But while the “Osbourne Effect” of badly managed expectations is a popular example in university economics, marketing, management and computer science classes, one might ask: is the story true?

Some folks prefer calling it the “Osbourne Myth”, which acknowledges the original tale while dismissing it at the same time. According to these people, it wasn’t just the announcement of the Osbourne Executive that killed the company. According to former employee Mike McCarthy, competition from Kaypro, which had released a portable computer with a 9″ (22.86cm) screen that was $400 ($936) cheaper than the Osbourne 1, really hurt Osbourne’s sales. But this, of course doesn’t “dispel” the myth of Osbourne’s demise. It just says that there was more competition in the marketplace than some otherwise remember. Plus, it could be that McCarthy was just playing a bit of “cover your ass”.

In 2005, a former Osbourne repairman named Charles Eicher told website The Register about how an Osbourne executive “found” $150,000 worth of Osbourne 1 motherboards in a warehouse. According to Eicher, the executive convinced Adam Osbourne to convert the motherboards into complete units for sale. So the story goes, the conversion ended up costing $2 million, and that was the real reason Osbourne ran out of cash. Osbourne’s own autobiography from 1984 – Hypergrowth: The Rise and Fall of the Osborne Computer Corporation – noted the incident, and called it “throwing good money after bad”. But is Eicher’s story true? $150,000 worth of inventory in 1982 would be worth $351,281 in 2012 dollars, which seems like an awful lot of inventory to “misplace”. Heck, it’d be a lot for Dell or HP to misplace today, and both companies are orders of magnitude larger than Osbourne ever was. And if Adam Osbourne knew that Osbourne 1 sales were tanking, why would he agree make more Osbourne 1s?

Perhaps we’ll never really know what happened at Osbourne. After all, it was 30 years ago. Many involved in the company are getting older or have passed on (Osbourne, born to an English father in the waning days of the British Raj in India, died in Kodaikanal, India on March 18, 2003 aged 64). And others who led Osbourne have an obvious incentive to downplay the company’s faults or their role in it. So while the “Osbourne Effect” might not be 100% true, it’s still an important tale for business leaders of the future.


Ever heard of Vulcan Point in the Philippines? Probably not. But you might be interested to know that for years it was thought to be the largest island on a lake on an island on a lake on an island.

I’ll break that down for you: Vulcan Point is an island on Main Crater Lake. Main Crater Lake is a lake on Taal Island (also called Volcano Island). Taal Island is an island on Lake Taal, which is located on the island of Luzon in the Philippine island chain:

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If all that wasn’t enough, Vulcan Point is actually a cone of the Taal Volcano, which is active. Which makes Vulcan Point the world’s largest volcano in a lake (Main Crater Lake) on a volcano (Taal Volcano).

Now you probably noticed that I said that Vulcan Point was thought to be the largest island on a lake on an island on a lake on an island. That’s because last year some intrepid Google Earth explorers found a larger island in a lake on an island on Victoria Island in Canada.

Located in Canada’s extreme north, Victoria Island is the eighth largest island in the world – 83,896.5 square miles, about the size of Idaho, which is 83,570 square miles (or 217,291 km2 vs. 216,632 km2 for our metric friends). And here’s the amazing thing: it’s likely that no human being has ever set foot on the island! As of 2009, the population of Victoria Island is 1,875 people, and there are no settlements anywhere near the unnamed island.

According to this post on Live Science about the discovery, Canada already has some notable island trivia. Canada is home to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron (the world’s largest island in a lake) and Nettilling Lake on Baffin Island (the world’s largest lake on an island).

The Mettle to Melt Medals

It’s a pretty well-known fact that that the Nazis financed their portion of World War II in part by seizing the gold reserves of the nations they conquered. It’s hard to know exactly how much gold was stolen by the Nazis: contemporary accounts are a confusing hodgepodge of metric, Imperial and troy units, and books on the subject don’t always make it clear whether they’re using historical or inflation-adjusted currencies. But it’s certain that the Nazis seized tons of gold throughout Europe and sent it back to Germany, where it was melted down and recast with the Nazi stamp.

What is less known, however, is that the Nazis also banned the export of gold from Germany in the 1930s. At the time, the German government faced the dual problem making reparation payments to the Allies while simultaneously (illegally) rebuilding their armed forces. What’s worse, any Jews, academics, intellectuals and leftists who could afford to leave Germany did, taking their gold with them. Germany’s gold reserves fell to unsustainably low levels, hence the law forbidding anyone to take gold out of the country.

Which made the actions of two German scientists – Max von Laue and James Franck – a crime. Both men had sent their Nobel Prizes to the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. The Institute’s founder and leader – Niels Bohr – promised to keep the medals safe for the men.


The only problem was the Germans launched the invasion of Denmark and Norway – Operation Weserübung – on April 9, 1940. The Danes held out for a whopping six hours before giving up, but there was method to their madness: in return for their quick surrender, the Nazis allowed the Danes a fair amount of autonomy, and Denmark was arguably the safest place to be in Nazi-occupied Europe.

But the Nazis did go door to door throughout Copenhagen, looking for gold, Jews or anything of interest to the Reich. Bohr knew the Nobel Prizes would be a death sentence for von Laue and Franck. After all, they were not only made of 23 karat gold – which was illegal to export – they also had the recipient’s names inconveniently inscribed on them. And von Laue was a vocal opponent of the Nazis and Franck was Jewish. If the Gestapo found the medals… it would be bad.

A Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy was working in Bohr’s lab that day. He suggested to Bohr that they bury the medals. Bohr rejected the idea, as it was only a matter of hours before the Nazis arrived, and they certainly would notice any recently disturbed dirt on campus grounds. So de Hevesy had another idea: there was a chemical in the lab, a mixture of three parts hydrochloric acid and one part nitric acid known as aqua regia. It has several uses in the lab and it’s one of the few chemicals that will dissolve gold. Perhaps they could just… dissolve the medals?

Bohr agreed, so the men put the Nobel Prizes in the aqua regia. The thing is, though, aqua regia breaks down gold slowly. Dissolving the medals might have taken days or even weeks! And so the two men spent several very nervous hours watching the medals ever so slowly dissolve. I imagine it was like a scene in a movie where the Good Guy copies a bunch of files to a flash drive while being hunted by the Bad Guys, and we all watch as the agonizingly slow progress bar tracks the copy: 20% complete… 30% complete… 40% complete. Only in real life this chemical process went on for hours and hours!

Continue reading “The Mettle to Melt Medals”

Spam as Poetry

So one of my clients had an employee leave a couple months ago, and last week I finally got permission to delete the user’s Exchange mailbox. My standard operating procedure in this situation is to export the mailbox to a PST (archive) file (in case the data is needed later), then delete the mailbox. But since this user had been gone for a couple months, the mailbox had several hundred unread messages. So I decided to go through it first, deleting anything that was obviously spam.

I deleted dozens of “CHEAP Vi@gr@!” and “PRESIDENT APPROVES MORTGAGE RATE SLASH!” emails before I noticed a few little poetic emails. There were no links in the emails, no mention of satisfying your woman or your credit score changing or new careers in interior design or the latest secret discovery by Dr. Oz. Just little bits of – what I assume are – test emails to see how spam filters work. I was struck by how these little emails sounded like something Ezra Pound would have written:

He was awful surprised

And away he went, Next day was auction day.
She was beautiful.

So gather around the drum circle, stroke your beard if you’ve got one, and enjoy the beatnik poetry of the spammers:

He looked surprised

I cleaned out the place, CHAPTER XXVIII.
Good! says the old gentleman.

Nice. Short, solid, and to the point.

I tried it

Thems the very words, CHAPTER XXV.
All right.

A southern twang, almost like Flannery O’Connor!

It was dreadful lonesome

So she hollered, But the king was cam.
You git it.

No wait… that’s Flannery O’Connor.

We are highwaymen

And Ive et worse pies, Hungry, too, I reckon.
Well, guess.

Alan Ginsberg, for reals.

2013 Music at the Half

Thanks to the good folks at Last.fm, here are my Top 10 songs for the first half of 2013:

1) Marsheaux – “So Far”
2) Owl Eyes – “Nightswim”
3) Marsheaux – “Secret Place”
4) The Raveonettes – “She Owns The Streets”
5) Anya Marina – “Whatever You Like”
6) Marsheaux – “To the End”
7) The Raveonettes – “You Hit Me (I’m Down)”
8) Marsheaux – “Alone”
9) Marsheaux – “Summer”
10) The Raveonettes – “The Beat Dies”

And here are my artist playcounts for the first six months of 2013:

1) Marsheaux (392)
2) Saint Etienne (297)
3) The Raveonettes (145)
4) Owl Eyes (73)
5) Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (69)
6) Nightlife (39)
7) Françoise Hardy (36)
8) Stumbleine (28)
9) Anya Marina (28)
10) Carla Bruni (27)

The Saddest Thing Ever

Dollar Tree is a chain of variety stores in the US where most everything sells for $1, much like Poundland in the UK.

Most of the products sold at Dollar Tree are private label items; walk down the hardware, kitchen gadget or toy aisles and you’ll find that almost everything is “imported by Greenbrier International”, the Dollar Tree subsidiary that purchases and distributes those items. Dollar Tree also sells a lot of “faded brands” like Fabuloso and Bon Ami cleaners, Aim and Ultrabrite toothpaste, Lavoris mouthwash, Sunbeam batteries, and so on. They also sell a variety of off-brand grocery items, mostly stuff like canned chili or dried pasta that wouldn’t sell for much more than a dollar at a regular grocery store. And when dollar stores started really taking off in the mid 1990s, high profile manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Johnson Wax started making goods especially for them. So where a local grocery store might sell a box of 30 Ziploc brand bags for $2.79, Dollar Tree might sell a box of 10 for $1.

But there are some goods which just don’t belong in a dollar store. I was at my local Dollar Tree today, checking out the new freezer case, when I spotted a “Ribeye Steak” for only a buck. I knew there HAD to be a catch, so I opened up the freezer to check it out:

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Yeah… let’s turn this thing over:

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Wow. That’s… one teeny tiny steak ya got there. Look how thin it is compared to my finger:

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Good Lord, it’s barely enough for a single cheesesteak sandwich, and that’s not even counting the “up to thirty percent solution” of salt water added to the meat to bulk it out.

Jesus… I almost feel sorry for the cow, ya know? The poor thing ended up as a Dollar Tree steak… and you know no cow ever dreams of that. I bet when most cows are young they hope to one day become steaks at Ruth’s Chris or Morton’s or Peter Luger. But maybe some cows hit middle age and become resigned to the fact that they’re going to end up at Outback or LongHorn, and they’re OK with that. Cows that don’t give a damn and smoke and drink too much (Bukowski cows, they’re called) end up at Denny’s and Waffle House. Sickly cows end up in dog food. But what kind of sad cow ends up as a Dollar Tree steak?

2013 TV at the Half

2013 has been an interesting year in TV so far. American network TV has been a huge disappointment… but there’s plenty of great stuff out there if you know where to look. And this year’s “best of” list contains a few surprises: two shows from New Zealand, and the first ever non-English language show!

So… let’s get it on! As always, you’ll find the list of my favorite new shows, in rough ascending order of preference (keep in mind that the list is only for new shows, so Breaking Bad and Mad Men aren’t on the list). Then there’s a list of shows that tried but failed, a section about miniseries, a tribute to shows that have left the air, and various odds and ends.


The Americans (FX) – This show has the potential to be great: Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, an all-American couple raising two kids in northern Virginia. However, their real names are Mischa and Nadezhda, and they’re a pair of KGB spies trained to pass as Americans. The “spy stuff” on the show is great, although it doesn’t hold up to close examination: you’ll find yourself asking “Why would they… ” or “How come they don’t…” early and often. In spite of that, it really does keep you on the edge of your seat. But where the show fails is “any time they aren’t doing spy stuff”. Philip and Elizabeth have domestic troubles like any other couple: intimacy and trust issues, trouble with the kids, etc. Others, such as neighbor (and FBI spy hunter) Stan Beeman have similar (boring) problems, too, and it drags the whole show down. Still, the supporting cast is great: Margo Martindale plays “Claudia”, Phil and Elizabeth’s KGB handler, and Richard “John Boy” Thomas plays Stan’s boss at the FBI. One odd thing about the show is the lack of historical detail. The sets and costumes look more like “generic Americana” than the early 1980s specifically. And sometimes the camera seems to focus on one particular object – like an old rotary phone – as if to make up for the lack of a time-specific feel. It’s like the show doesn’t have the budget to do the nice touches Mad Men is known for, and to make up for it they have the camera linger on a Space Invaders arcade game or Kim Carnes cassette as if to scream “SEE! IT REALLY IS 1981!!!”. Most of the suits the FBI agents wear would be perfectly acceptable in 2013 corporate America: not a single polyester jacket, wide lapel or obnoxious tie is seen. In early episodes, rotary pay phones and old cars are really the only hints that it’s 1981 and not 2013. Perhaps it’s a minor quibble, but Mad Men has really raised the bar for details like this.


Way to Go (BBC Three) – For years I’ve believed in something I call the “French Film Fallacy”: a certain type of film buff will only watch French films because they’re “so much better than American films”. Of course, in a good year only the six best French films make it to the US, so the pretentious hipster never sees the 200 crappy French films made that year. The point is, I don’t know if I’m losing my taste for British comedy, or if the easy downloadability of TV shows has “diluted the talent pool” such that I’m seeing a lot more crap comedies these days. This makes Way to Go especially interesting. Although made in the UK with British actors, it’s written by Bob Kushell, an American who has written for The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle and 3rd Rock from the Sun, among others. Blake Harrison stars as Scott, a nice guy who has taken a dead-end job as a receptionist at a veterinarian’s office because he can no longer afford medical school. When his gambling addicted half-brother Joey (Ben Heathcote) gets in trouble with the Wrong People, Scott reluctantly agrees to help pay back the bookies by assisting a terminally-ill neighbor’s suicide. Scott steals euthanasia drugs from his vet’s office and asks his friend, Cozzo, who repairs machines at fast food restaurants, to build him a “suicide machine”. When the suicide is successful, Scott, Joey and Cozzo decide to go in to the assisted suicide business… and people are just dying to become customers! (Sorry, that was truly terrible). Although morbid (and more than a little controversial), the show was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on UK TV in a long time. The characters remind me a bit of a more daring Reaper. Blake Harrison (Scott) plays a similar “nice guy” character to Bret Harrison’s Reaper character (they have the same last name, too!), and Marc Wootton (Cozzo) is not only a dead ringer for Tyler Labine, he plays a similar “good friend who is a slacker, and constantly screws up” just as Lebine did in Reaper.


Continue reading “2013 TV at the Half”

Quote of the Day

“Life is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So you’re stuck with this undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there’s nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while there’s a peanut butter cup or an English toffee. But they’re gone too fast and the taste is… fleeting. So, you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. And if you’re desperate enough to eat those, all you got left is an empty box filled with useless brown paper wrappers.”

 – William B. Davis as “The Cigarette Smoking Man”
The X-Files, “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”