Thursday, February 24, 2011

Microsoft and the Star Trek Economy

I'm currently neglecting my wife and kid while my laptop finishes downloading and installing Windows 7 Service Pack 1. If it finishes the last 4% in the next five minutes, I'll be able to catch the 5:59 bus home. The smart money is wagered against me.

The wait has given me time to monologue about Microsoft. I am increasingly orbiting further away from its gravitational pull. Firefox long ago supplanted Internet Explorer as my browser of choice. I gave up on my Hotmail account a month or two ago. I use OpenOffice rather than Office 2007/2010 on a number of computers. I even installed the Ubuntu operating system rather than Windows when I salvaged an old laptop. I've found that I can easily live without Microsoft.

I'm worried that I'm helping to destroy a good thing.

You can despise the muscle-flexing that Microsoft used to establish its hegemony in the computer world, and you can doubly despise how Microsoft incessantly installs patches and add-ons and whoosy-whats-its to all of its products. You also have to admit that Microsoft Windows and Office have been pretty useful over the years. I came of age when PCs moved from novelties to essentials, and I credit much of the evolution to the way Microsoft got everyone onto the same system. It reminds me of old history lessons about how marauding armies of yore helped standardize communication by forcing people to speak their language. They may have spread smallpox and slaughtered innocents, but they also got everyone speaking the same language. Microsoft spread Windowsox and Officesox for money, and by doing so revolutionized the way almost everyone does business.

But now there are comparable options that are free. You can save the $140 and buy another mp3 player or whatever. Is that a good thing in the long run? The freeware world confuses me because I don't understand how it is sustainable. In any economy, you exchange goods and services for goods and services, with money as the grease to that transaction. I make pies, you make cakes, and we can both have pies and cakes if we're willing to trade. Now, programmers make pies, and they get back... good feelings? I'm left feeling the same way I did in the late '90s, when everyone quit their jobs to work for internet startups. You'd ask your buddy to explain his business plan, and he's say something about, "Well, we don't make money now, but once we get enough subscribers, we'll make money from advertising." The plan worked for very few of them. Very few, despite the time they put in and the good that came of it. Most have transitioned to more traditional jobs like marketing, lawyering, and real estating. Maybe they were motivated by self-interested hopes of becoming millionaires, but what they produced was pretty damn useful to the collective. Some of my college roommates helped to pioneer online job recruiting, for example. I'm old enough to know what a web-free job search was like. It stank, and it made who you knew much more important that what you knew. In a very real way, Crimson Solutions (the original name of their company) helped to revolutionize how you get a job. I don't really know how much they all made from their venture, but it wasn't much, in my opinion, in relation to the amount of effort they put in and the amount of good that came of it. Their story made me apprehensive.

The incentives to create the things I want most, like good software and good music, seem to be fewer and fewer while the incentives to create things I don't want, like another mp3 player, haven't changed. I know I'm airing a tired idea. I know economics is about supply and demand, not about effort or actual good or productivity or any of that other idealistic stuff. I know all progress is scary; and that this will all work itself out in the long run because, well, because life goes on and it has to work itself out. Because programmers and artists and everyone else have no choice but to get something for their services. I keep hoping, though, that we're finally at the cusp of the Star Trek economy. If you're a Next Generation Trekkie like me, you know that the intrepid explorers of the USS Enterprise worked for goodwill's sake, that money was a thing of the past. I suppose you can get away with fantasy stuff like that on TV, where everyone knows their place and stays busy and feels appreciated and eats. What's standing in our way of having the Star Trek economy... today? It seems like we have the means, productivity-wise. Is it pride? Greed? Logistics? It it simply that one kind of supply - the material kind - is limited and another - the software/art kind - is limitless? How close are we to a functional replicator of the Star Trek sort?

I love the freeware world and I admire the principles behind it, but I don't understand how it will sustain unless other goods and services also become free; and it doesn't seem like Exxon-Mobil or Con-Agra will be moving in that direction any time soon. Until the Start Trek economy becomes a reality, do I have an obligation to even this equation and buy Microsoft? What's the right thing to do in the long run?

Addendum: It's 2:40 pm three days after I started this post, and Service Pack 1 is finally done installing. I'm starting to think that the right thing to do is to teach myself how to program and to contribute some sort of application...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Biggest Little Study

I finished putting together a presentation for the 2011 American College of Medical Genetics Annual Meeting and reviewing some interview notes, both about some work we called the "Recontact Study." They'll probably be the finishing touches on the biggest little study I'll ever work on.

Here's the short story of what we did: some melanoma patients donated DNA back in the early 2000s to help identify genes for the disease. Usually, that's the end of the story for patients, and if researchers use the DNA to discover a mutation, it doesn't really matter for you because you're not going to hear about it. Is that ethical? There's a lot of debate on the issue, but little of it is based on any real data. Key questions that hadn't been addressed include whether people even want this information, how they respond to disclosure, and what burdens does disclosure put on researchers. We developed a pilot disclosure protocol and tried to address those very questions and more.

In a nutshell, people wanted the information, they responded very well to disclosure, and it was expensive and time-consuming for the research team (big caveat: because of the unknowns, we erred on being 'safe'). If you're interested, you can read peer-reviewed articles about our study here and here. What's shocking to me is that we squeezed two publications, a couple conference presentations, and some press coverage out of a study that ultimately only included 19 people.

Trust me, I'm not apologizing for the study at all. It was two year's worth of work on my end alone, and I wasn't the one who provided the genetic counseling. There are a lot of studies out there that enroll lots of participants and end up with no publications in the end. That's science (even social science!): you try things out and oftentimes they fizzle. And if they fizzle, nobody's going to want to hear your story unless you're writing about something people care about. Fortunately, we had the opposite scenario - we got good data about a subject people care about (two subjects really: melanoma genetic testing and disclosure of individual research results).

Which finally brings me to the point of this posting: what should an academic study? Stuff you care about, or stuff other people care about? Professors always tell their students to focus on the former, but it's a recipe for career dissatisfaction for people like me who want their work to be important. Am I the only one yawning when someone starts into a presentation about how physicians can improve care by using more personal pronouns? Don't we have 50 million Americans who don't even have health insurance? I realize one shouldn't always cater to the flavor-of-the-day topic, but the vehemence of many academics' beliefs that they should be funded to study whatever's on their minds constantly surprises me and is one of the reasons I think that academia suffers from a critical lack of self awareness.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Entering the blogosphere

Welcome to my initial blog attempt! I'm sure there are a few of you who are wondering why I would make this leap. I have long thought that maintaining an interesting blog requires discipline that would be better exerted on career advancement or marital bliss. Or parenting. Or teaching myself Chinese or piano or programming in R or just about anything else. Everyone has a few interesting things to say, but can one maintain an 'interesting' pace for months? Years? Most blogs I've seen start out well, but lose my interest as the postings take on a "must... post...... something........" feel. I avoided the blogoverse because I worried that I'd reveal to the world that I fundamentally have only ten to twelve interesting threads.

So what changed? Frankly, I am feeling a sense of grandeur that I haven't felt in years. Those who run the world have a healthy arrogance and a vigor that allows them to shape how things should be, not just follow through on how things are being done. I am starting to believe, again, that Kurt's way is a better way. More importantly, I am simply happier. A number of personal failings, climaxing in the death of my mother, sent me into a deep depression that has only recently lifted. I'll save those thoughts for another day, but the short of it is that I'm pretty sure I'll feel good about myself even if I can't keep pace on this blog.

So let's see where this goes, and maybe I'll learn some new tricks along the way!