himym

How I Met Your Mother’s Corpse

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the finale of How I Met Your Mother.

Warning: This post also contains me taking a mediocre TV show far, far too seriously, and writing way more about it than is sensible or healthy.

I thought I was done being affected by sitcoms. I still enjoy them, but I’ve not really felt moved by one since I binged on season 2 and 3 of The Office USA, years ago. Nevertheless, the final episode of How I Met Your Mother managed to move me, albeit not  in the way I expected, or it seemed to intend. The reaction elsewhere on the web has been… mixed, to say the least, and while I’d love to offer a contrarian opinion and say it was a triumph, I can’t. Frankly, I hated it.

Now, there are already people saying that the very fact that it was controversial proves it was a success. It’s better to inspire love and hate than indifference, right? Well, maybe, but to end nine years of television with a show that most of your fans loathe seems a pyrrhic victory at best. I watched the finale with an unpleasant mixture of cringing discomfort and accumulating mortification, and unfortunately that’s likely to be my lasting memory of the show, not the often decent laughs it provided on the journey there.

Despite its hour long running time, the finale felt rushed and incoherent. Having spent an entire season dragging-out Barney and Robin’s wedding, the show dispensed with their marriage in a matter of minutes, before charging through the next few years with indecent haste. By the time the divorced Robin was getting weepy over Ted at a Halloween party, it was painfully obvious where the story was going, and it was just a matter of watching it play out through gritted teeth.

Instead of a sweet send-off, high drama, or a bittersweet farewell, the episode had the feeling of a death march. Of a show lurching step by step towards an ending creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays decided long ago, and refused to budge from no matter what. And as it lurched, it stepped over the corpse of its own fans goodwill. Over the corpse of several seasons’ worth of character development for Barney, Robin and Ted. And finally, most offensively of all, over the corpse of the Mother herself, who had to die so Ted could realise his enduring desire for his best friend’s ex-wife. Ick.

The decision to make the Mother a semi-regular character for the final season was a brave one, and well rewarded by the casting of Cristin Milioti who did a wonderful job of making solid a character who for years had only been a plot device. But Tracey McConnell was not well served by what should have been her story as much as Ted’s. In the end she was just another road bump in Ted’s journey to reenact the ending of Definitely Maybe. Six years deceased, and her widowed husband can’t even tell their children the story of how they met without making it all about his ex-girlfriend. Not they seem to mourn her any more than he does, choosing only to encourage him to get out there and start hitting on his ex again.

And that was where How I Met Your Mother Ended, with Ted back at Robin’s window, just as in the pilot, clutching a blue french horn. Circularity can be a powerful theme in fiction, but here it felt like arrested development. Like hack writers trying to wrap things up with meaning, only to end up squandering what meaning they had managed to accrue over the years. The show seemed to want to be about the highs and lows of lives well-lived, but instead it ended like a ghoulish, nihilist nightmare: People fall in love and get married, but then they settle into miserable middle age in jobs they hate, or get divorced and impregnate nameless women. People have careers and become famous and leave behind their husbands and friends, but are never happy. People get sick and die, and nobody cares, not their children, and not their husband, who is more interested in jumping back into bed with his ex.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I didn’t like this episode of television. Not in a love-to-hate way. Not in a let-debate-its-merits-forever way. But in the way that it was gross, offensive nonsense, horribly misjudged in every respect. The only silver lining is that I’m not alone in this opinion, and so the creators are likely to spend the next few years having to try and defend and justify it to all and sundry. If that’s the kind of controversial finale they were going for, then mission accomplished, I suppose.

Anyway, Game of Thrones is back next week. I suspect a disappointing end to an average sitcom will be long forgotten by the time first bars of that theme music blare out. Hell yeah.

zuckervr

Facebookulus Rift

I was as surprised by Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, and so was everybody else, it seems. That somebody bought them isn’t a surprise, especially with Sony stepping up its competitive consumer VR efforts, but Facebook probably wasn’t anybody’s most expected suitor. They weren’t anybody’s favoured suitor either, judging by the apoplectic reaction to  the announcement amongst many (most?) gamers and VR enthusiasts. Myself, I’m ambivalent. I can understand concerns about Facebook’s policies towards its users and third-party developers, but I also think that if you put that aside, then Oculus stands to gain a lot from the deal (beyond the immediate pay day for the founders and investors, obviously). And I also think consumer VR in general stands to gain, regardless of what happens to Oculus and the Rift in the long term.

It’s easy to imagine a nightmare “Facebooked” VR where you have to sign-in to FB to use the Rift, and your experience is repeatedly interrupted by inducements to ‘like’ and ‘share’ your current activity, and invitations to go play Candy Crush VR with a guy you met once at a work conference eight years ago. In fact, there’s probably an amateur film-maker or two working on viral videos that portray this ‘Facebook VR’ doomsday scenario right now. Similarly, restrictions on the Oculus platform could place onerous demands on third party developers to use and integrate Facebook’s services, hampering their ability to innovate or build truly independent products.

However, as cynical as Facebook’s policies towards their users and their platform are, I don’t think their management is so stupid as to immediately ruin a nascent and potentially highly lucrative new platform. Remember, Facebook beat Myspace because, when it first appeared, it was a far, far better experience, with a lot less bullshit. Just like Twitter didn’t include promoted tweets until they got big, and YouTube was ads-free for years. The management of these companies know that intrusive branding, advertisements and tie-ins are toxic to the initial experience. Once the platform has achieved critical mass, then they start to introduce these elements gradually, but not before.

In the short to medium term, I don’t think Facebook will mess too much with the Rift. They’ll be smart enough to remain mostly hands-off until consumer VR really takes off, but during that time Oculus will get some huge benefits that would not have been available to them if they remained independent. Most importantly, they will have a basically infinite supply of cash with which to hire talent and build custom hardware components. The latter is of particular importance. The new wave of VR was bootstrapped as much by the mobile phone industry as it was by crowdfunded cash, but relying on the vagaries of a separate, fast-moving industry is a dangerous situation to be in. Mobile phone screen sizes and technologies are constantly changing, and not necessarily in a direction that fits with the needs of VR. Likewise components such as cameras and accelerometers.

Oculus now have the scope to order their own components to their own specifications, such as ultra-high-resolution screens. That’s good for them, but also for other, smaller VR companies. Because once there is an established manufacturing base, other VR startups may be able to piggy-back on Oculus’ suppliers, in the same way that they piggy-backed on those of the mobile manufacturers. If consumer VR became a success, specialist manufacturing would have appeared eventually, but this means it could happen far sooner than it otherwise would have.

The second benefit is that Facebook’s infrastructure also presents a great opportunity for Oculus to experiment with large-scale VR experiences. John Carmack has long talked about his dreams of a “Metaverse” – an immersive, massively-multi-user alternative world. VR hardware can provide the immersion, but you will also need some serious computing power to host the servers themselves and make them accessible worldwide, and Facebook’s experience with data-centres and large-scale availability could be very beneficial there.

Finally, Facebook’s deep pockets should allow Oculus to price their initial products more aggressively, in order to quickly build a mass market. The sooner consumer VR is a proven technology, the sooner more companies will get serious about competing, and the faster the industry will progress. The eventual winners out of all of this may be Facebook/Oculus, Sony, Microsoft, Google, Apple, or someone else entirely. The first movers are rarely the ones who dominate an industry, but they’re necessary to get things started, and the more capable their initial product, the better, because it sets the standard that their competitors have to meet.

Innovation vs execution, and the myth of the big idea

Google’s recent acquisition of Nest for $3.2bn has raised some eyebrows, with some people questioning whether the valuation is sensible, and questioning how innovative Nest’s products really are. One comment I read claimed they did nothing that hadn’t been thought up years ago. In terms of the valuation, it is a high figure, and perhaps there was some amount of competition between Google and other suitors to drive it that high. In terms of Nest’s innovation, I’m not really familiar enough with their products to judge how groundbreaking they are, but I think the general complaint touches on something I’ve thought about for while: how the importance of “innovation” in technology coverage and comment is over-emphasised, and the importance of execution is under-emphasised. And also, misunderstanding about where innovation really is important in making a product.

The problem is this: There aren’t many good ideas that someone, somewhere won’t already have thought about and tried. The world is full of clever and motivated people looking for success. But ideas are intangible, and while intellectual property law gives them legal status as something you can buy, own and sell, you can’t make a world-conquering business from them without turning them into a real product, and that’s where the difficulty starts. Because building a successful product involves doing thousands of different things, in different areas, and doing them all as well as possible.

This is the execution of an idea, the act of turning it from an intangible thing into a reality, and getting it right is far, far harder than coming up with the original idea. Thomas Edison reputedly said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, which seems to sum up the problem. Edison’s approach certainly embodied this, as he would conduct a huge amount of experimentation to, for example, find the right material for light bulb filaments. Now, Nikola Tesla, who worked for Edison for a time, criticised this approach, claiming that Edison would waste huge effort on experimentally discovering things he could have determined through simple (to Tesla’s intellect) calculation. But even here we can see that Tesla is criticising Edison’s execution of his ideas, his wasteful perspiration, than the ideas themselves. He thought he could have executed on the idea better.

In coverage of technology, the press frequently plays up the original innovation, the “big idea”, behind a product. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the posthumous lionisation of Steve Jobs, who is referred to as the “genius” who invented the iPhone and the iPad. It’s a simple, heroic narrative, and therefore appeals to the news media,  whose job it is to turn complicated, messy reality into easily digestible stories that we can read during lunch. But the problem is, it’s wrong. The iPhone and iPad weren’t inventions, they were highly skilled executions of ideas that had long existed. Jobs’ success wasn’t coming up with the idea for a tablet computer, others, such as Microsoft, had done it long before Apple. His success was that he, with a large team of others, managed to execute on that idea in such a way as to make it a huge success.

Apple don’t exactly discourage the press narrative, of course. Their products are marketed as seamless, gleaming and indivisible units. Apple may talk a little about the fancy materials they employ, or a particular new feature or facet, but you aren’t encouraged to think of them as being a composite of parts, or the end result of a messy engineering process involving hundreds of people, or compromised by technical and economic trade-offs. They’re perfect and complete, supposedly, at least until the new model arrives. It’s easy to think of such products as springing whole into the imagination of a genius inventor, who needs only to put his vision down on paper and leave it to lesser mortals to build it.

Such geniuses may have occasionally cropped up throughout history, but they’re exceptional, in every sense of the word, and technology has long surpassed the ability of a single person, no matter their intelligence, to conceive of every part of a product like the iPhone. Instead, teams of very clever people work for a long time, doing lots of different things, and at the end, perhaps, a good product emerges. Or it doesn’t. And that’s the other source of faulty thinking about innovation. The one that lead to the iPad being dismissed by many people before it launched, because the idea had never worked in the past, so the idea itself was determined to be bad.

In fact, only the execution of the idea had been bad. Whether it was mistakes by those building them, bad marketing, limitations on the technology available, or simple bad luck, these earlier products failed. And many people attributed that failure on the inherent badness of the idea itself, and insisted that it would never be a success. In retrospect, we can see they were wrong, but that doesn’t help us unless we learn how to avoid making the same mistake in future.

To properly judge an idea, we need to differentiate between its inherent qualities and those that have become attached to it via cultural association. We shouldn’t forget or ignore the latter, they can still be very useful, but we should recognise that they can also change. Microsoft wanted to make tablet computers, but their idea of a tablet computer contained preconceptions formed by their experience with PCs and Windows that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t jettison, and that stopped them from creating a successful product.

Similarly, we also need to properly recognise those parts of a product that are a necessary consequence of its core idea, and those that are a result of a particular execution. The overwhelming majority will be of the latter type, which prompts us to question whether doing one or many of them differently would have resulted in a product being a runaway success or a miserable failure.

The matter of making particular decisions differently, or changing certain things, brings us to the final point about innovation in building technology. The process of executing on an idea itself involves coming up with a huge number of further ideas. These can include choosing a name and a colour palette, finding new solutions and workarounds for tricky technical problems, or clever ways to trade-off competing constraints. All of these ideas are examples of innovation, of a less flashy but more important type than coming up with the big idea. It is products that have a lot of this type of innovation that are truly groundbreaking, but it the type of innovation that gets less coverage in the press and recognition in larger culture. It tends to get put in the box labelled “engineering” and forgotten about.

The Oculus Rift is, I suspect, the next product that may vividly illustrate all of the above. Virtual reality was considered a winning idea, but the problems and failures of its actual manifestation in products eventually soiled it by association. Apart from a few die-hards, most people wrote it off as a joke. Now it looks like those same die-hards may get the last laugh, by building a product that does for VR what the iPad did for tablet computing, at least to some extent.

What impresses me most about Oculus is that they seem to really understand the importance of execution, sometimes to the frustration of people eager to get their hands on a headset. Palmer Luckey could have easily spun Kickstarter cash into a straightforward, commercialised version of his original prototype. It would have made money and been reviewed as the best attempt at VR that anyone had made. But it wouldn’t have been a world beater. It would have been low resolution, and made people sick, and had poor software support. It wouldn’t have changed people’s opinion that VR was a niche idea, with no prospect for broader success.

What Oculus have actually done is to expend the time, effort and (investor) money to try and get everything right. They’ve hired a large team, with expertise in hardware, software and business. They kept their promises to deliver dev kits, but they’ve resisted the urge to rush out a commercial product. Instead they’ve iterated on their technology and built up their infrastructure. They’re making considered trade-offs to ensure that no one aspect of the product, such as weight, resolution, field of view, latency, or price dominates to the detriment of the others. The results, by all accounts, are spectacular already, and they still say they have a long way to go.

Because Oculus have taken the time to get the execution right, it looks like the final product will be something very special indeed. It’s a telling contrast with many of the supposed Oculus competitors who get hyped up in the tech press occasionally. They tend to be small teams, working on prototype with a single unique selling point, whether its resolution, or FOV, that is supposedly 100x times better than the rift. The problem is, what sacrifices are they making in other areas of their products? And are they investing in the other things, like business organisation and infrastructure, that are key to success despite, not being an actual part of the product? It doesn’t appear that any of them are.

If Oculus succeed, it will be because of their ability to apply the lessons of other successful products and execute well on an idea, not because of the inherent brilliance of the idea or the genius of their founder. And the same lessons are important for anyone building anything in technology. To focus less on coming up with the world-beating idea, and instead on collaborating with others to build something world-beating a single step at a time.