Monday, March 11, 2013

The perils of innovation. In a can.

I was reading the other day about the forces that hinder companies from real innovation and I was a little bummed out by the idea that most companies have become so risk-averse that it creates very few actual improvements. It got me thinking - what would happen if Edison had worked in today's economy? How long would they let Edison tinker with finding a commercially viable solution for the light bulb before they fired him and defunded his project? Would we have looked at William E. Sawyer vs. Thomas Edison and seen the same things that we see with Apple and Samsung now fighting over the finer points of their respective technologies?

Now, I do see the point of incremental technological improvements. We are always improving our computing capability by making new processors that can do more with the same or less power. We work on improving the cost to manufacture solar cells, so that it can become a technology with wider adoption. Chemical improvements are being made with batteries to make them larger and more reliable. These things can go on as planned, and we eventually reap some small reward from it, but it would be nice to see some real innovation once in a while. It's also possible that real innovation is going on behind the scenes however slowly, but thanks to the protective nature of companies and new products we don't see it particularly often. They're scared to hint at anything that might turn out to be a failure. About the only time we see high-profile failures any more are movies, cars, and food - but these failures are more failures of fashion than function. You may not want to drive an Aztek, but the car failed in the marketplace because it was ugly, not because it had rampant mechanical problems. I was going to cite a movie example here but Ben Affleck has taken enough heat about it already so I don't want to pile on. (Correction: One of my editors said that with Ben's recent Academy award win for Argo, maybe I shouldn't make an obtuse reference to Gigli. After all, Ben didn't write or direct Gigli anyway. ) So, I'm going to skip straight to the beverage part.

In an attempt to try to get soda drinkers to resist the temptation of drinking coffee in the morning, Coke and Pepsi have tried to find ways to leverage their own brands. Coke's last attempt at this was in 2006, with Coca-Cola BlāK which was discontinued by 2008. Pepsi had taken a swing at this a couple of times with the regular flavored but more caffeinated Pepsi AM (1989) and the coffee-flavored Pepsi Kona (1995?). Both of Pepsi's attempts were just as short-lived as Blāk was. So by now, Coke and Pepsi may have realized that the real holdouts that don't drink coffee in the morning are people that drink energy drinks, people who drink juice in the morning, and people that drink Mountain Dew. Both companies make energy drinks now, and both companies have had major juice brands in their portfolios for a long time. But, Pepsi can't help but feel that they still have an untapped market, so their new innovation is Mountain Dew Kickstart.

There are two flavors, "Orange Citrus" and "Fruit Punch". I opted for the "Fruit Punch" only because I found that most of the Mountain Dew flavor variants that I have had over the past several years that said "citrus" on the label have been a little bit too tangy for my taste. (I liked LiveWire, and they discontinued it, so I figured that it wasn't going to go my way.) It did not really taste like what I expected, as what I had heard previously about this drink was that it was "Mountain Dew + Juice". While it is true that there is juice in it, there is much less sugar in it. The 16 oz. can is 80 calories, while 16 oz. of regular Mountain Dew or juice would be easily 220 calories. After a cursory check of the label, it would appear that the sweeteners include HFCS, white grape juice concentrate, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose. There are some B vitamins in it, as well as the obligatory inclusion of glycerol ester of wood rosin without which I presume it can't have a Mountain Dew label on it. It does not have the thick mouth feel that Mountain Dew usually does, it was like a low-calorie sports drink in that regard. It might be useful to note that my wife described the beverage on first taste as "Mountain Dew + Gatorade". Coca Cola's sports drink Powerade adds B vitamins, Gatorade does not. I'm not entirely sure how much the B vitamins or the potassium contribute to the taste. There is also 92 mg of caffeine, 20 more than you would get in 16 oz. of Mountain Dew. Would I drink it again? Probably not - and certainly not for breakfast. It's cheap caffeine, but I could easily get cheap caffeine that I actually wanted to drink in other ways, and at the correct dosage.

Disclosure - I typed this entire post under the influence of most of a can of Kickstart. I had to backspace a lot more than usual.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Cube + Juggling = NPR?

Ravi Fernando is a name that's already made the rounds among cubers, but it would appear that NPR has finally taken notice of him after this video posted a few days ago.

I'd seen Ravi do something like this before - check this out from last year. This trick goes on for a while since he's messing with three cubes. It's clearly not designed for a short news segment, but he's working on his craft here more than his showmanship.

Arguably, this cubing plus juggling thing has gone on for some time - here's Shotaro Makisumi (usually referred to as "Macky") doing an early version of this trick.
 Since cubing at its fastest is a combination of visual recognition and muscle memory, it would stand to reason that it's not that tough for the best cubers to engage the brain in other activities while cubing, since the actual cubing part doesn't take up a lot of working memory once mastered. This is largely the same technique I use to carry most of a conversation while I'm doing my relatively slow solves with a corners-first method. I have so much time while I'm doing moves that I can easily hold up part of a conversation, or if I'm talking about cubing itself I have enough mentally pre-scripted material that I can just explain what I'm doing while I'm doing it without slowing myself down in any noticeable way.

That being said, I'm not ready to start juggling anytime soon.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A wild Llama appears...

Now I'm going to preface this story with this: Lots of things here are not the way you would do them. I am aware of it.

Last night (Friday) my younger son, who we'll refer to as 'Bub', got to sleep by about 7:45, which honestly is a touch early for him especially in light of the fact that it's the weekend. I read to my older son for a few minutes, said goodnight, and then headed to bed myself knowing that I might be woken up again by barking dogs when my wife came home from work. Luckily, my younger son was not woken up by the barking dogs. So then let's fast forward to 1AM. I hear Bub say "I need a drink" and I go get him some water and then go back to sleep. The next time I wake up is somewhere around 3:40, where I hear him telling my wife that he's going to go watch a movie on the computer and that he needs to find some headphones. He's awake, so arguing with him about how he should go back to sleep will only result in waking up the one person in the house who is still asleep. Bub suggests that all the headphones are in the room of the person who is actually sleeping (his older brother), so at that point I get up out of bed and successfully locate the pair of headphones that are in the computer room already and help him get his movie started. I did think that it was rather considerate of him to want to watch a movie far away from the people trying to sleep, and with headphones on to boot. He's watched DVD's on the computer before, and he can usually manage to operate Windows Media Player most of the time, so I figure I can go back to bed, and this is where (for me) it all goes terribly wrong.

By chance, this is a DVD that he hasn't watched on the computer before. From a statistical standpoint, I didn't figure that was a big deal, since we have several dozen kid's movies and he's only watched five or six of them on the computer. The movie he picked was Robots, a CG animated feature from 2005 made by Blue Sky for Fox. It's a movie that I'm fond of, but I would watch sock puppets in black and white low frame rate Flash video if you told me that Ewan McGregor and Robin Williams were doing the main characters. I like this DVD more than most of the kid's movies we have because it has a very well-mixed DTS audio option and good soundtrack music including a marching band rendition of "Get Up Offa That Thing". I had no idea that once we put it in to the computer that I would find that it didn't act like a normal DVD.

Windows Media player knows that there's a disk in the drive, but it won't start it because it's not convinced that it's a DVD. There's a program asking to run that I had not encountered before called "HOTLLAMA" which at this time of the morning seems rather suspicious. The logo is a bright red llama-shaped silhouette. Since I just want this to be over and done with, I go ahead and install it, knowing that I will be removing it after the sun comes up when I come to my senses. I am ecstatic that it doesn't make me restart the computer when it installs, but when it starts the first time it a) checks for updates (expected) and b) tries to configure TurboTax It's Deductible 2006 (rather unexpected, and honestly edging over into Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot territory). My first thought is that it will check for updates and find that the page isn't even there and the company packed it up years ago, leaving me with a hung install that knows that there's an update and can't get one. As it turned out, it just wasn't any good at talking to the internet unless I had a browser window open. Having done that, the update downloads and installs in a minute or so, give or take a dozen extra mouse clicks to get the aforementioned Turbo Tax module to stop trying to reconfigure itself.

Before HOTLLAMA runs the second time, I spot something in the EULA that says that if I don't agree to it that I should uninstall the program and just watch the movie in my regular DVD program. Since I have a six year old sitting next to me, I exercise some restraint and do not vocalize the idea that if it would just play on my regular DVD program, I wouldn't be messing with this stupid Llama program in the first place regardless of how Hot it is.

So, I let the movie run and go back to bed, and guess what. The program misbehaves - Bub says that it "randomly rewinds" when he comes in to tell me about it - and he ends up watching it on the DVD player in our bedroom anyway. Suffice it to say that I've already uninstalled HOTLLAMA and did some registry cleaning. Now I think I have to go find a Mac user with a copy of Robots.

EPILOGUE: Upon further inspection of the DVD case, I noticed that it specifically says that is not compatible with the Apple Macintosh. Also, around 11:30 Bub poured himself a bowl of Cheerios, ate it, and then promptly fell asleep behind me at some point while I was folding laundry on the bed. Since I wanted to tie this up neatly, I put on 'Robots' again.