May 17

Alaskaair – watching movies on your phone

On flight AS 770, earlier today

I’ve enjoyed flying Alaska around the country in the past year. After a few flights, I pondered how to improve the trip and better enjoy movies on my phone, inspired by Alaska’s tablet and seat design.

Today, a flight attendant shared her appreciation for my simple solution, and this encourages me to share it here in the hope it might inspire others.

To watch movies, I bring a loop of 15 inches of elastic string to hang the phone from the magazine slot. The string is looped around the vertical magazine stay, can be used in any tray or seat position, and works with any phone.

The upcoming seat design will make this unnecessary. In the meantime, I share this to celebrate Alaska’s spirit of innovation.

#alaskaair #innovation #iFlyAlaska

Jan 16

East Redmond Corridor Parks feedback and the future of the Evans Creek Valley

Dear City of Redmond,

You asked for feedback on your capital plan related to the 2009 East Redmond Corridor master plan. We moved to the Evans Creek Valley in 2014 and have greatly enjoyed the elements of the corridor already in place. The master plan is very broad – I’d like to highlight three priorities in today’s context.

  1. Complete the corridor between Perrigo and Farrel-McWhirther parks for safety and access

I recently cycled from Martin Park to the powerline trail, and I experienced first-hand the difficulty to safely access Farrel-McWhirther park from Perrigo. Novelty Hill is particularly busy and perilous for hikers and bikers, in spite of the recent improvements. Since the city already owns Conrad Olson Park, it is imperative to open the trail through it to NE Redmond Road before the rest of Conrad Olson Park is developed. Similarly, the connection between Martin Park and the existing trail West of 196th in Southeast Bellevue is becoming more important with the anticipated increase in traffic on 188th associated with the opening of Costco next year. These connections should be prioritized over investments in park amenities.

  1. Expand the master plan to consider the corridor’s overall impact to the Evans Creek Valley, and maintain the rural and agricultural heritage of the valley

Through the many land donations and associated acquisitions, the city has created a strange city/county patchwork in the Evans valley – parks with city services along 196th, King County roads lots, and private lots with county services, if any. Annexation is probably no longer desirable outside the Urban Growth Boundary, but thoughtful planning is necessary: the Evans Valley was left out of most of the improvements on Union and Novelty Hill and has for instance no Comcast Service and very few fire hydrants. Furthermore, Perrigo Park is a great and attractive asset to the city, but is bringing city traffic to rural areas. Will the city bring city services to the parks and leave out their neighbors, or send city police to Perrigo Park to respond to an emergency there, but not to sort out speeding and parking issues along 196th alongside county parcels? I hope the city and county can provide a sensible services solution to this accidental patchwork.

In addition, the master plan acknowledges the rich agricultural history of East Redmond. But reforestation projects such as the one South of the ball fields at Perrigo endanger the openness associated with the rural character of the Evans Creek Valley (and over time will turn the Perrigo park sports fields into a mossy mess). Redmond has many great forested parks – please keep the Evans Creek valley open and rural and avoid re-forestation in these parks.

  1. Experiment with new recreation activities

Finally, and on a different note, throughout the corridor, the city has an opportunity to experiment with new small scale recreation activities reflecting the diversity of the city – for instance by installing concrete ping pong tables, bocce ball fields and outdoor fitness circuits in addition to the traditional playgrounds. Such low-impact, small footprint assets will make parks attractive to seniors and immigrants as much as to families and athletes.

Best regards

Dec 15

All the speeds of IT: How many speeds can IT really need?

Without a deliberate change approach, the only speed IT will play at is 78rpm –the speed of a broken record.


In the past five years, technology thought vendors have proclaimed that companies’ internal Information Technology (IT) departments need to work faster in order to successfully address the digital business challenges of the decade. First, BCG advocated a “Two-speed IT” in 2013, maintaining current technology practices in corporation but also developing a “second gear” to achieve digital speed with smaller, more agile teams modeled after online and software companies. Shortly afterwards, Gartner acknowledged the concept, and relabelling it as “Bimodal IT” included it in CIOs’ recommended agendas for 2014. Gartner’s proposed path followed BCG’s tracks: “build digital leadership and bimodal capability, while renovating the core of IT and otherwise preparing for the digital future.”

As the year went on, more thought vendors jumped on the bandwagon: The Corporate Executive Board proposed “Adaptive IT” in direct response to two-speed IT: acknowledging the need for speed, but rejecting the organization split advocated by BCG and Gartner. Accenture joined the party this year with a recommendation for “multi-speed IT”, and McKinsey developed a set of recommendations for “two-speed IT”, unusually adopting BCG’s terminology.

Beyond the automotive and cycling allegories and infographics, what lies behind this fixation with varied speeds? First, companies continue to be face the natural challenges of continued and sustained competition, innovation and disruption in their markets. In the past two decades, these forces have been fueled by the spread of online and mobile technologies, creating new product and services and usurping old ones. The Economist recently developed the theme of business speed in detail, sifting the hype from the reality. Second, the companies confronted by these changes have challenged their internal technology teams to provide new tools and shape new products to match or surpass the ones offered by competitors.

These technology teams, however, are usually already overwhelmed by the difficult combination of managing the legacy systems built in the past decades and by reducing operating costs. Just when technology became a strategic differentiator for some companies, technology services consumed by them were seen as a commodity, a service to be outsourced and cost-managed just like any other. As the mobile economy, riding on the consumer success of the iPhone and Android ecosystems, exploded starting in the 2010s, most companies’ IT departments faced a skill, talent and resource shortage. Business units, frustrated by the apparent inability of IT departments to respond to the challenges, turned to outside vendors, digital agencies and cloud software providers to meet their needs – just as they had in the 1990s in the early days of E-commerce, when companies such as Barnes and Noble and Walmart set up independent subsidiaries to protect their business against a newly birthed Amazon.

More recently, the clash of technology approaches was also demonstrated in the public sector with the technical failures of Obamacare’s launch: traditional IT, with its myriad vendors, contracts and requirements, failed to deliver a seamless enrollment experience. As the now well-told story goes, the mess was fixed by a focused A-team drawn from Silicon Valley technologists… and with a generous removal of bureaucratic red tape given the political pressure to succeed.

Confronted by such lessons, the temptation for CIOs to set up their own agile and rapid teams is hard to resist – these can draw from the most entrepreneurial managers internally and from key strategic hires, and tackle the most visible needs of the enterprise with a nimble mix of internal and outside efforts. Unfortunately, as Forbes’ critics of bimodal IT have outlined, success in the most visible areas does not mean that the legacy of IT’s problems is effectively addressed. Problems can include poor motivation in the ranks of “traditional IT”, an increased reliance on offshore vendors to complete mundane but critical tasks, and underinvestment in security, reliability and disaster recovery.

The opportunity to simplify and rationalize “traditional IT” remains urgent at most companies: outside of the “fast” groups, teams still rely on outdated and overcomplicated methodologies and approaches to build and manage their services – a perverted manner of ensuring job security. At most companies, there is no career safety in driving business and technology simplification. Instead, only the innovators are rewarded, even when their innovations represent just one more system to maintain and do not adequately simplify the legacy. These are the environments where vendors thrive – offering to manage and maintain services for companies, but achieving only marginal cost improvement compared to a true reinvention of the business.

IT departments have much to learn from experimentation, from quick and agile teams, and from innovative suppliers. But only if CIOs are ready to systematically address legacy issues in depth will they reap the rewards of technology. Without a deliberate change approach, the only speed IT will play at is 78rpm – too often the speed of a broken record.

Nov 15

Don’t fall for the Amazon discount trap

In these days of pre-black Friday discounts and deals (farewell black Monday!), savvy online shoppers should beware of deals that seem too good to be true. As a father and uncle, I’ve regularly looked for discounted Lego toy sets on Amazon.com, with searches such as this one: Toys & Games : 50% Off or More :”lego”. In the past this has yielded a number of good Christmas presents.

No more. A large share of Amazon’s revenue and profit comes from Amazon sellers, who sell their inventory on Amazon.com for a fee. Today, my search for discounted Lego sets came up with a tempting hit: A 71% discount on the Star Wars set 75037, offered at $21.95 with free shipping by an Amazon seller, discounted from $75. Another fifty-nine different Amazon sellers offer this product for a higher price. Seems like a good deal? Not so fast.

If you search Amazon.com for Lego set 75037, three items are shown: in second place, the discounted set I originally found. In first place, however, Amazon itself ofsearchfers the set for only $12.19, with free shipping – a much better deal! Another 97 sellers offer it for a higher price. As a reference, the MSRP for this set was $14.99, but it is sold out on Lego.com

What happened? When listing an item to sell, Amazon sellers are trusted to create their own listings if they cannot find a similar item in Amazon’s catalog. In this case, an enterprising Amazon seller “overlooked” the original item listing, created a duplicate, and another fifty-nine sellers jumped on the bandwagon. These sellers are not competing with Amazon on price – they’re competing to catch discount-seeking customers.

infoHow successful is this tactic? Based on the product reviews, at least 14 customers fell for the trap of the higher-priced set, and gave it an average three-star rating, realizing too late how they were tricked. Just a few days ago, Barbara F. left this comment: “Disappointed. This was never a 75.00 item. This is the first time I felt deceived by Amazon. Please note this is a very small set. There is no sale or special pricing on this item.”

Without access to Amazon’s tools, it is difficult to gauge how pervasive this “duplicate, inflate & discount” is across all product lines. But a quick scan yielded at least a few suspicious duplicate Lego sets: 42020, 75035, 31036, 41026. Lego conveniently numbers its sets, which makes finding duplicates easier.

The bottom line: until Amazon finds a way to quickly and simply prevent duplicate listings, buyers beware: when you find a good deal, always cross-check that you truly got the best price – across both the Web and Amazon.com. And read the reviews.

Note: pricing and inventory on Amazon is dynamic, and the prices and items referenced in this article may no longer be available when you read this. A special wishful thinking award goes to the Japanese seller who is offering the 75037 Star Wars set for $77 under the third listing!

Sep 15

Software just ate Volkswagen

When Mark Andreessen explained how software was eating the world, the business disruption he was anticipating isn’t the one Volkswagen faces today. The US pollution test evading functionality engineered into many of Volkswagen’s diesel cars has already claimed the head of its CEO, and others are sure to follow. Other countries are investigating their exposure to this functionality, and executives at competing car manufacturers are probably busy ordering internal reviews.

The scandal was uncovered by the old-fashioned scientific method: test, and when the results seem weird, test again. But the ultimate irony here is that the disruption came from a piece of well-crafted software, intentionally embedded by authorized users but hidden from all but the most careful and knowledgeable investigators.

When the rest of the industry was worried about drive-by car hacking and the disruptive potential of Apple’s future electric cars, Volkswagen shareholders should have worried more about good old internal creative “hacking.”

Mar 14

Missing airliner, internet of things and the NSA

the unfolding saga about the missing Malaysian airliner feels like a blend of “Survivor” literature, technology magazine and bad spy novel. This is a great illustration of how the internet of things (in this case the jetliner calling “home” from somewhere on the globe) and real life mesh in a messy way. No agency involved has access to all the telemetry involved, most in the silos of national military agency. Big data solutions could help, but with interfaces buried in diplomatic channels, is unlikely to help.

Or is it? Reading other news, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine that the NSA has the capability to link the threads in a programmatic way. But what if it found out critical cues, and couldn’t mention them without disclosing its capabilities (if there are any undisclosed ones left, that is). Take a page from Sherlock Holmes – send the searches the right way in a carefully targeted vague direction…

Oct 13

Deep in the Swiss Army caves… Sasso Gotardo

For those fascinated by Rick Steve’s descriptions of Swiss Army caves and guns hidden under pastures, the new Sasso San Gotardo attraction/museum at the Gotthard pass in Switzerland is worth the trip. Opened in 2012, this huge complex of caves and tunnels at the top of the pass was built during WW and stayed in active military duty into the 1990s.

Once you get to the pass, find the discreet tunnel entry on the side of the mountain just North of the Pass hotel (look for banners and flags, and call ahead in Winter to make sure the road and museum are open). Enter through the tunnel, and you’ll come across the ticket booth after a few steps (Swiss Museum pass accepted). Continuing a few hundred feet, you will visit the first attraction: the deep mountain caves designed as a base for Swiss soldiers have been turned into a theme museum (water, power, wind). You can also marvel at the WWII engineering which made these large caverns possible, and read about the historical function of each cavern.

After the museum, you’re on your way to the second sight – the guns and solider housing. You will walk through an eerie half-mile long tunnel – just the length of this deep tunnel is worth the trip. At the end of this gallery, you’ll be greeted by a friendly Swiss lift attendant who will help you up ride along the staircase which the soldiers had to climb. The stairs have been complemented by a custom-made funiculaire (cable car), saving you a long slog up the stairs.

Once you reach the upper level, don’t miss any of the four exhibits: First, the soldier quarters – complete with toothbrushes and uniforms, you’ll feel as if the soldiers are coming back any minute from their mountain hike.
Second, the arsenal – storage for the ammunition – has been transformed into an odds and ends museum for Swiss army equipment. Third, the gun positions – visit the high-perched gun holes and peer down at the cars heading down for the Ticino, blissfully ignorant of the armed menace above. Finally, after climbing a steep stair, you can also visit a nearby machine gun position, no less a threat to the tourists below.

As I returned from my summertime visit to this redoubt, I could not help remember how, by building these fortresses during the war, the Swiss were telling the Germans, “thy shall not pass”. They never tried.

More information: http://www.sasso-sangottardo.ch/en

Apr 12

Swiss town makes Rick Steves honorary mayor & citizen

Gimmelwald, April 1, 2012. “this is the town that Rick made”

A small village off the beaten path, Gimmelwald was on Swiss maps but not in any guidebooks until Rick Steves christened it his top recommendation for tourists visiting Switzerland. Steves, a resident of the Great Pacific Northwest, is famous for his “back door” travel guide series and media empire.

Peter Hansli, Gimmelwald mayor and owner of the “Monk’s Inn”, expressed his gratitude to Steves: “Rick put our village on the map. Without him, our village would have died and I’d be working at a big bland hotel in Interlaken. Instead, we all transformed our farms into inns – some travellers even pay to stay in the barn!” Many local businesses had already posted thankfulness plaques and “recommended by Steve” signs (see insert). “We wanted to give Rick something special. We don’t have a city gate so we gave him a key to the gondola – so he can visit us whenever he wants.”

Mr. Steves could not be reached for comment – his office said he was travelling in Amsterdam for pleasure. “It’s fair to assume he will be thrilled, however,” commented his assistant. “The key will go nicely with the plaque Gimmelwald already gave us for the store here in Edmonds.”

Sep 11

Wow. Amazon meets Simple Magazine – two columns!

Aug 11

It’s 2041 and Steve Jobs 2.0 just became CEO of Apple

Cupertino, August 25 2041

As was widely anticipated, Steve Jobs 2.0 was just named the new CEO of Apple, Inc. The 30-year old executive, who had been groomed since birth for this post, was ambivalent about his promotion: "This is what my genetic predecessor wanted of course, and I’m thankful for his provisions for me over the last three decades – I think I’m ready for this, and I’m obviously well suited. It is my destiny, whether I like it or not."

Upon his 2011 resignation as CEO of Apple, the first Steve Jobs secretly established Malum LLC, a corporation whose sole purpose was to raise a set of identical clones based on his own DNA, for the purpose of maintaining  the Jobs legacy at Apple. Each of the ten clones was placed in a different host family for fifteen years, and upon reaching that age three clones were chosen for continued education and preparation. After the tragic death of SJ Clone II in 2020, SJ Clone V was placed at Reed College and briefed on his destiny. Upon dropping out from Reed, he was hired at Apple in the design department under an assumed name. On April 1, 2035, Apple Inc. acquired Malum LLC and revealed the whole scheme to incredulous shareholders and customers. The company’s share price immediately doubled on that day.

In the following year, the plan’s success was endangered by a lawsuit brought by SJ Clone X, the third pre-selected clone, who challenged Malum’s selection process and threatened to establish a competitor to Apple. The case was settled out of court.

To this day, the remaining SJ clones are unaware of their origin, and generous scholarships and trust funds were discreetly established for each. It is widely assumed that a SJ 3.0 class is in preparation.

© 2011, Manu Schmitt