Monday, September 15, 2014

With the FS7, Sony finally learns to cannibalize itself

At the International Broadcasting Conference in Amsterdam, broadcasting equipment companies announce new products, and often ship the new products they announced at NAB in April. For example, Panasonic showed near-production versions of its Varicam 35 that was announced at NAB, as did AJA with its CION camera. Sony, on the other hand, showed a new camera whose existence started to be rumored only a few weeks before IBC. The PXW-FS7 (referred to by most people as the FS7) is a Super 35 4K camera that fits in price between Sony's FS700 and F5, but is functionally superior to the F5 in many ways. It uses the full XAVC codec and records 10-bit 4:2:2 UHD 4K at up to 60 fps and 600Mbps (Digital Cinema 4K will be supported in a firmware upgrade scheduled for early 2015,) but it uses Sony's XQD flash media, which costs substantially less than the SxS Pro+ flash media used by the F5.

It's got built-in ND filters, and it natively accepts Sony's E-mount lenses; Sony announced a new professional power zoom 28-135mm F4 lens to go along with the FS7. An A-mount adapter is available, and of course, third-party adapters that connect a variety of mounts to A- or E-mounts will also work. It's got a standard grip control that puts many of the camera's most important controls on a hand grip. An optional extension unit enables the FS7 to record using Apple's ProRes 422 codec, outputs raw 12-bit 4K video that can be recorded by external Sony and Convergent Design recorders, and supports industry-standard batteries. The FS7 will be somewhat heavier that AJA's CION; the FS7 weighs 4.5kg without the extension unit that it needs to be functionally comparable to the CION, while the CION weighs 3.4kg. Both cameras are lightweights compared with Blackmagic Design's URSA, which weighs 7.4kg.

What makes the FS7 so worthy of discussion is that a number of observers have noted that it's in many ways a better camera than Sony's F5, for less money. The F5 sells for $16,490 (U.S.) at B&H, and that's without a viewfinder or lens. The FS7 will sell for $7,999 at Adorama ($10,499 with 28-135mm lens.) Introducing a new product that competes directly with another Sony product for less money was, until now, considered heresy. Sony took extraordinary pains to make sure that its products didn't directly compete with each other, except when the company was deliberately obsoleting an older product. In this case, however, Sony says that the FS7 will replace neither the FS700, which B&H sells for $7.699 and which the FS7 blows out of the water, nor the F5, which the FS7 compares very well to for about half the price.

Sony's no-competition policy dates back to when Sony was the undisputed technological and market leader in cameras. Any cannibalization of Sony's own products was seen as unnecessarily leaving money on the table. However, first Panasonic and then Canon showed that they could build cameras that could compete very well with Sony's offerings. Panasonic in particular was largely unconcerned if its cameras cannibalized its other models, and both Panasonic and Canon were happy to take sales away from Sony. Blackmagic Design showed that it can't yet design or build cameras to Canon's, Panasonic's or Sony's standards, but it introduced price competition into a business that hadn't seen much of it. That brought in AJA, which looks like it's learned from Blackmagic's mistakes and will combine high-end performance with aggressive pricing.

Sony's in a new world. It's now got competitors that are its technological equal and are willing to accept a lower gross margin on their sales. Sony has finally figured out that it's better to cannibalize yourself and keep the revenues, rather than let your competitors cannibalize you and take the revenues. Sony's going to let its customers tell it if the FS7 replaces either the FS700 or F5. The older products will stay in Sony's product lines until sales fall off sufficiently to make one or both unprofitable to continue to offer.

With the FS7, Sony is finally doing what many observers and customers hoped that it would do decades ago, Time will tell if the FS7 is a one-time fluke or the first product in a new strategic commitment.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sometimes risk is the safer option

This is a blog post that I'd much prefer not having to write, but I've learned some lessons that could be very helpful to others. I'll first describe what I did, and then, what I should have done.

In late January of this year, I ended a multi-year consulting project. Much of my role in the project was done in the fall of 2013, and to be fair, I was expecting my client to end my contract as early as October. They were a great client to work with, but I had been thinking about what my next move would be for more than a year. I worked almost my entire career on the West Coast, and I really wanted to get back there if I could. Given the cost of living in Silicon Valley, I decided to look at Portland as the place to move; I started my career working for HP in Corvallis, Oregon, 90 miles south of Portland.

When my project ended in January, I had a lot of money set aside to pay income taxes; more than enough to pay for the move and several months of rent and utilities. However, I decided that it would be very risky for me to pick up and move to Portland without having a job lined up. In addition, I was convinced that I could find a new job or project in the Chicago area within a month or two. So, I stayed here, applied to jobs and took calls from recruiters. Unfortunately, from February to today, I've had exactly one job opening that resulted in onsite interviews, and the client ended up hiring none of the candidates, including me. I burned through the tax money to the point that it was insufficient to pay for a move, so I was stuck here. I ended up selling some of my belongings, and then my car, in a last-ditch attempt to move, but that fell through.

Now, I've got three job prospects, two in the Chicago area and one on the West Coast, and I'm hoping that one of them turns into a real job. I've also been working on a crowdfunded Internet of Things project since May. However, in hindsight, when my project ended in late January, I should have immediately booked a flight to Portland to find an apartment, and then moved. Moving without a firm job offer or contract in hand seemed like the much riskier option at the time, but in reality it would have been no worse than the situation I'm in right now. In fact, given that Portland has a far superior public transit system than the far northwest suburb of Chicago in which I live, it would have been better because there's an excellent chance that I could have sold my car if I'd needed to without having to buy a replacement.

The lesson is that you should look at the worst-case scenario for all the options available to you, not just what you believe to be the most likely scenario. In my case, I compared the worst-case for Portland with the most likely case for Chicago. If I had compared the worst-case for both locations, I would have moved immediately. Given my background and experience, I have a much better fit with the companies and markets along the West Coast than I do with Chicago. I could have lived in Portland and either worked full-time for a technology company there or consulted for firms from Seattle to San Diego.

Staying in Chicago, which I believed to be less risky, turned out to be the much riskier option. I made the mistake because I didn't judge both risks equally. Keep that in mind when you're making a major business or personal decision.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Detroit, Pittsburgh, and the value of diversification

I just watched Anthony Bourdain's visit to Detroit for his show "Parts Unknown." Bourdain showed plenty of what's come to be known as "Ruin Porn": Abandoned, burned-out buildings and entire neighborhoods that have been leveled. He also found signs of hope and recovery, although he made it clear that he doesn't believe that Detroit will come back to anything resembling its previous form. Government corruption played a massive part in the decline of the city, but there was another factor that was far more important in leading Detroit to where it is now: An almost complete dependence on the automobile industry for the city's and region's economy.

My hometown is Beaver Falls, PA, thirty miles from downtown Pittsburgh. I went to school and college in the Pittsburgh area. When I was growing up, steel was the sole major industry in Beaver Falls and most of Beaver County. There was a Valvoline refinery in Freedom, along the Ohio River, and the world's first commercial nuclear reactor was running in Shippingport, also on the Ohio, but beyond that there was steel and steel fabrication. Pittsburgh was long known as "Steel City," and the headquarters of both U.S. Steel and the United Steelworkers Union are still there. However, Pittsburgh was almost never wholly dependent on steel. It also was the corporate center for coal; coke, made from coal, is an essential part of steelmaking, but coal was at one time used for heating and steam engines, and is still a critically-important (although rapidly declining) fuel for power generation. CONSOL Energy, one of the country's biggest suppliers of coal and natural gas, is headquartered in the city.

Alcoa (Aluminum Corporation of America,) the largest producer of aluminum in the U.S., recently moved its corporate headquarters to New York but has kept its operational headquarters in Pittsburgh. Like Alcoa, Bayer, the German chemical and pharmaceutical giant, had its U.S. headquarters in Pittsburgh until a couple of years ago, but it still maintains major operations in Pittsburgh. PPG Industries, one of the largest suppliers of paints, coatings and glass in the U.S., is headquartered in a landmark building in Pittsburgh. The city was the home of Westinghouse Electric and is still the home of Westinghouse Air Brake, both companies founded by George Westinghouse. Westinghouse Electric is now reduced to its nuclear plant division, majority owned by my old employer Toshiba, and a trademark licensed to a variety of companies by CBS. However, for decades, Westinghouse was General Electric's biggest competitor and one of the biggest makers of televisions, radios, major appliances and industrial electrical equipment, along with power plants of all types. It also owned the world's first (or second, depending on your opinion) commercial radio station, KDKA, which led to Westinghouse Broadcasting, one of the biggest non-network-owned radio and television station operators in the U.S. As one of its last acts, Westinghouse Electric acquired CBS and took the CBS name, which is why CBS licenses the Westinghouse name to others. Westinghouse Air Brake, now known as Wabtec, is still alive and well and headquartered in the Pittsburgh area.

Pittsburgh was and still is the home of H.J. Heinz. Many people in Great Britain think that Heinz is a British company because it sells so many products there, but it's from Pittsburgh. Rockwell International, now known as Rockwell Automation and Rockwell Collins, was based in Pittsburgh until 1988, and was at one time #27 on the Fortune 500. Candy maker D.L. Clark, maker of Clark and Zagnut bars, was based in Pittsburgh until 1999. It's also the home of PNC Financial, previously Pittsburgh National Bank, one of the biggest banks in the U.S., the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), one of the top transplantation centers in the world, and Carnegie Mellon University, one of the top 10 engineering schools in the U.S. Carnegie Mellon, in turn, has attracted Apple, Bosch, Disney, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Seagate and Yahoo! to open R&D centers in and around the city.

My point is that Pittsburgh had, and still has, a very diverse economy. When the U.S. steel industry collapsed in the early 1980s, Pittsburgh was hard hit. Every steel mill in the city closed, but the city survived because it had so many other industries to fall back on. Today, the steel mills have been torn down, converted into parks or repurposed as offices and retail space. Other towns around Pittsburgh weren't so lucky. My hometown, and the other towns that were almost totally dependent on steel, were decimated. What were once thriving downtowns are now mostly ghost towns, perhaps not as bad as you'd see in Detroit, but close. Detroit was much like Beaver Falls, on a vastly bigger scale: Just about every business made cars, made parts for cars or sold goods and services to the people making cars and car parts. When the car industry collapsed, there was nothing else big enough in the Detroit economy to compensate.

I've read pundits who say that there should be dozens of Silicon Valleys around the world, each focusing on a single technology or industry. Silicon Valley, however, has a diverse economy--semiconductors, computers, instruments, software, online services, consumer electronics, video games, pharmaceuticals, health care, and automobiles (previously GM, Ford and Toyota, now Tesla.) The Valley is in a constant state of reinvention, because it has such a diverse set of businesses and skills. A "Silicon Valley" focusing on a single technology or industry will be as vulnerable as Detroit was.

If Detroit is ever to recover even a part of its former glory, it has to make attracting and keeping a diverse set of industries its top priority, after reliably providing public services to its citizens. Diversification is the right formula for any city or region that wants to maintain its economic viability for generations.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

When is a watch not a watch?

Apple's announcements yesterday were guaranteed to stimulate feedback from pundits everywhere, myself included. The Apple Watch introduction has generated a lot of interesting feedback, both because it's a new product and category for Apple, and because it's competing in an established market. A few writers have speculated that the Apple Watch spells doom for high-end watch brands such as Rolex, Omega and TAG Heuer. I don't think it does, because the Apple Watch competes in a completely different market than the high-end watches.

Comparing the Apple Watch to, say, a TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 16 chronograph, is like comparing a Honda Odyssey minivan to a Lamborghini Huracan, or like comparing a food processor and microwave oven with a gourmet kitchen. Neither one is a great analogy, to be sure, but both get the point across. People will buy the Apple Watch, as they buy other smartwatches, to be an extension of their smartphones. Timekeeping is just one of many functions that they expect a smartwatch to perform. Buyers of the Calibre 16, on the other hand, are buying the watch for two reasons: 1) To keep time, and 2) To demonstrate their taste (and that they can afford a Calibre 16.) The TAG Heuer watch, which is relatively inexpensive for a high-end watch, is priced at $4,950. It's a mechanical watch with a Swiss made movement that can run up to 42 hours without rewinding.

Everyone in the watch industry knows that electronic movements are more accurate, more convenient and less expensive than mechanical movements. In fact, the widespread introduction of quartz movements by Seiko and Citizen decimated the mechanical watch industry in the 1970s and 1980s. The mechanical watch makers that survived did so by making their watches more sophisticated and more expensive. Their watches evolved from functional timepieces into collector's items and works of art. Someone who buys an A. Lange & Sohne Tourbillion Perpetual Calendar Handwerkskunst for $357,700 (that's not a misprint) is willing to trade off the inconvenience of winding for the chance to own a gorgeous watch that only a handful of people in the world can afford or appreciate. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, will be an heirloom to be enjoyed until the Apple Watch 2 comes out in a year or two.

The Apple Watch, and all the other smartwatches out there, are gadgets and compete with other gadgets for consumers' dollars. High-end mechanical watches compete in a completely different category. That's not to say that I'd be surprised if Rolex, Omega or Tissot releases their own smartwatch to participate in the category, but it's still not going to compete with their high-end mechanical watches--it will be for people who find the Apple name on their smartwatch to be too pedestrian.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Apple gets its mojo back...for now

Earlier today, Apple held a multi-product announcement at the Flint Center in Cupertino. I'm going to skip the product specifications and discuss what it all means, at least to me:

iPhone 6

The long-rumored iPhone 6 was announced, in two flavors: The iPhone 6 with a 4.7" display, and the iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5" display. Other than display size, the two phones are functionally identical to each other. The big news, obviously, is the bigger screens. Prior to today, if you wanted an iPhone, you could choose between a 4" display and...another 4" display. Android smartphone vendors have successfully competed against the iPhone with bigger phones--in fact, some analysts attribute a fair portion of the decline in iPad sales to substitution of bigger smartphones for tablets.

With the deliveries of the iPhone 6 models in September, Apple will have its own "phablet" to compete with big Android and Windows Phone models. The iPhone 6 Plus, in particular, is likely to cannibalize sales of iPads and iPad minis, but Apple would rather steal sales from itself and keep customers inside Apple's ecosystem than lose sales to competitors and risk having customers switch to Android or Windows Phone.

Apple has also adopted Near Field Communications (NFC) for use in financial transactions. The company's new Apple Pay service enables customers of five of the largest U.S. banks to make credit and debit card payments without taking out their cards. Apple says that over 220,000 stores are already equipped for Apple Pay transactions. Again, this is an area where Apple is catching up with competitors; the first NFC-equipped Android and Blackberry phones were released in 2011. NFC hasn't taken off in the U.S., largely because a relatively small number of customers had compatible smartphones, and partly because not enough banks and merchants were supporting it. Apple Pay goes a long way to cutting the Gordian Knot by bringing Apple, payment networks (American Express, MasterCard and Visa,) banks and merchants together. However, Apple Pay only works with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, so for quite some time, the vast majority of iPhones in customer hands will be incompatible.

From all appearances, the new iPhones are well-built, well-designed smartphones that compare well with the best phones from competitors. However, the key features that differentiate the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus from earlier iPhones, particularly the iPhone 5s, are features that competitors have had for some time. With today's announcement, the top iOS, Android and Windows Phone smartphones are largely at parity.

Apple Watch

Today's Apple Watch announcement (really a preannouncement--I'll explain in a moment) finally brought to an end most of the speculation about the "iWatch"--speculation that began in late 2012. Many, if not most of the current assortment of smartwatches from Pebble, Samsung, Motorola, LG, Sony and others, owe their genesis to a desire to get into the market ahead of Apple. Apple isn't in the market quite yet--they announced the Apple Watch with two different display sizes and three models, but didn't discuss the actual screen size, resolution, storage space, RAM size or battery life. We also don't know when the Apple Watch will ship, other than some time in early 2015. The prices was specified at "starting at $349" in the U.S., which suggests that the three models will be differentiated by screen size, bands, and possibly memory. (We've since learned that the models are also likely to be differentiated by case materials.) So, we know a lot about the Apple Watch, but if we don't know when we can buy it, how much it'll cost or how it's equipped, it's a preannouncement.

People have criticized Samsung for their tendency to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their smartphones, whether or not the features are actually going to be used or work very well. I felt the same way about the Apple Watch feature set. Some of the features, such as using a GPS-based time server to maintain the correct local time, and the ability to use the Watch as the "front end" for texts, phone calls and email, make a lot of sense. The exercise features make the Watch an effective substitute for a fitness tracker. However, some features, like the ability to draw on the crystal with your finger and to send your heartbeat to another Watch user, go into the "What were they thinking?" category.

It feels to me like no one--not Apple, Samsung, Motorola or the rest--knows what the real use cases for a smartwatch are. Of course it has to tell time; otherwise, it's not a watch. But anyone can buy a perfectly adequate watch for telling time for $25. How do you justify spending $250 or more for a smartwatch? One way is to let it act as a "front end" for the smartphone for the most common uses--phone calls, texts and emails. Using the watch for maps and navigation is also nice, and fairly common. And, of course, if the smartwatch can do everything that a fitness tracker can, you don't need the fitness tracker. But here's the problem: Other than telling time, the smartwatch doesn't do anything as well as a smartphone. The screen is too small, especially when people want smartphones with bigger and bigger screens. Fitness trackers aren't selling well, and many people who bought them have stopped using them. Will they use the fitness features longer or more regularly if they're part of a smartwatch? Perhaps. Will they want to feel someone else's heartbeat? Maybe once.

I don't think that anyone, Apple included, has as of yet either 1) Justified the prices of their smartwatches, or 2) Figured out the right feature set to make them a mass market item. At $349, I expect a watch that's a smartphone, not a watch that has to be connected to a smartphone in order to do anything more than tell time. Maybe at $199, smartwatches with comparable functionality to the Apple Watch will sell in big numbers, but at $349, or even the $249 that most Android Wear watches are priced at, they're going to be niche items.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

An approach for funding independent films...via Netflix

The business and process of funding, making and distributing motion pictures is going through changes at least as wrenching as those caused by the rise of television after the Second World War:

  • Technology has changed everything from movie production to theater projection. You can buy a camera that will give you images that stand up quite nicely in a movie theater for the same price as a big screen TV from a few years ago. Editing and color correction that once required hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment can now be done on a PC that you buy from Amazon. The only company that still makes motion picture film is Kodak, and they're still in the business only because the big U.S. motion picture distributors agreed to buy a minimum quantity of film per year. Film is almost completely phased out as a delivery medium for theaters; it's been replaced by digital projection.
  • International revenues from movies are starting to exceed domestic revenues. In particular, China has become the single biggest and most important international movie market. Dialogue-heavy movies tend not to do well in China and some other markets, so the major studios have shifted their emphasis to expensive, special effects-heavy movies like Marvel's superhero series.
  • The shift in emphasis from plot-driven to action-driven titles has dramatically decreased the amount of funding available for smaller, more literate movies that were once the "bread and butter" of the major studios. There are still a few producers who make these kinds of movies (Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures is a good example,) but by and large, the major studios acquire these titles for their prestige and award-winning possibilities, not with the expectation that they'll make much money.
  • Most of the major studios have shut down their independent divisions, or as in the case of Universal's Focus Features, have radically reorganized them to fit better with the studios' new international emphasis.
  • Streaming and Video-on-Demand have largely supplanted, although not totally replaced, DVDs and Blu-Ray discs for home video distribution. The studio revenues from streaming and VOD are significantly less than what they made from physical media, but consumer preferences (a shift back to movie rental after years of purchasing DVDs) have forced the studios to adapt.
All of this means that if you make small, independent movies, it's getting harder and harder to get them funded and onto movie screens. Note that I didn't say "get them distributed." It's easier than ever to get independent movies into consumers' homes, with Netflix being by far the biggest outlet, while Amazon, Apple iTunes, Crackle, Epix, Google Play, Hulu Plus, Redbox Instant, Sony Unlimited Video, VHX, Vudu, Xbox Video, Yekra, YouTube Movies and others also stream movies to consumers. Some of these distributors selectively license titles, while others are open to anyone.

For independent producers, the problem isn't finding distribution--it's making money. Let's take a movie that costs $1 million to produce (including post-production.) You send the movie to Netflix, but they offer you only $1,300 for the rights plus a bonus based on the number of times your movie is watched. Apple's iTunes and Amazon won't pay anything upfront, but iTunes will sell your movie for a 30% commission, and Amazon will take a 15% commission. Unless your movie is very popular, none of the three will do any promotion for you, and the promotion they will do is limited to preferred placement of your movie on their websites and apps. That means that you've got to budget a significant amount of money for promotion, which may include:
  • Submissions to film festivals
  • "Four-walling" (renting) theaters to get a theatrical release and reviews
  • A social media outreach campaign
  • If you happen to have a well-known actor or two in the cast, queries to radio stations, local and national daytime news shows, daytime and nighttime talk shows, syndicated daily entertainment shows and celebrity/entertainment magazines.
There's no single rule of thumb that says how much you should budget for your promotional campaign, but for a $1 million movie, the very least that you should expect to spend is $100,000. If you've got a lot of well-known actors and a strong pitch, you could end up spending $1 million or even more (but in this case that's good news, because it means that you're getting lots of coverage.)

So, let's say that all-in, you've got $1.25 million in the movie and promotion. You've got to get back at least that $1.25 million just to break even, and you and your investors would certainly like more. Let's take a simple case: You price the movie at $10, and you sell 60% of your total sales through Apple and the remaining 40% through Amazon. To break even, you need to sell a little under 165,000 copies. 165,000 is a high but not completely unreasonable number if your promotional campaign is successful. However, you have to raise the $1.25 million at the very beginning of the project in the hope that you can sell 165,000 or more copies at the end.

There may be another model, at least for some distributors and filmmakers. Netflix has built a very successful business using an "all you can eat" subscription model. With its recent price hike, Netflix charges $8.99 per month in the U.S. The company has 48 million subscribers worldwide as of their last financial quarter. The cost of the infrastructure and bandwidth to serve those customers is factored into the $8.99 price.

Netflix could create a second tier--call it "Netflix Premiere"--that would offer exclusive new movies 30 to 90 days before they're available through any other outlet, for an additional $5/month. If 10% of Netflix's subscribers sign up for the Premiere service, that would be an extra $24 million of gross revenue each month--largely incremental revenue, because the infrastructure and bandwidth are already paid for. A hefty portion of that $24 million could be used to fund new independent films. If Netflix reserved 70% of the revenue for film production, that would result in $16.8 million that the company could use to fund films each month. To a studio, $16.8 million is chump change, but to independent filmmakers, that could represent two or more complete films.

Netflix could distribute the money in two ways:
  • It could be an investor in a film (for example, funding half the film while other investors and distributors fund the remaining 50%.)
  • It could fund the entire cost of the film, and own the film outright when it's complete.
Netflix would have the exclusive first distribution window in either case, as a condition of the producers accepting its funding. It's very unlikely that any film funded by Netflix would get domestic theatrical distribution because of the first-showing restriction, but there's a good chance that at least some of the films would be picked up by other streaming and VOD distributors. There might be some opportunities for hotel and airline distribution as well, not to mention international distribution in markets where Netflix either doesn't do business or doesn't exercise its first-showing right.

For the first year or two, Netflix would have to underwrite the Premiere service, acquiring and showing movies until its subscriber base covers its costs. After that, however, the Premiere program could underwrite at least a dozen independent films a year, and potentially many more. This approach certainly won't fix the independent film funding problem, but it will put a dent in it, and if it's successful, it'll encourage other companies to launch similar programs.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Opening Schrödinger's Box

Robin Williams's suicide has gotten me thinking a lot about death (more than usual,) which got me thinking about Schrödinger's cat. Physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed his "cat-in-a-box" as a thought experiment, and an analogy, to explain some of the "spooky behavior" (to quote Einstein) of quantum physics. In the experiment, a cat is placed inside a box, into which has already been mounted a capsule of poison gas and a hammer with a trip mechanism, connected to a radiation detector. The box is closed, and if the radiation detector senses the decay of a single atom, it trips the hammer, the gas is released and the cat dies. Assuming that you can shield the box from all sources of natural radioactivity, to which we're exposed all the time, whether the cat is alive or dead at any given time is a probabilistic exercise. Schrödinger argued that while the box is closed, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. We don't know the cat's true state until we open the box, at which time we can definitively learn whether the cat is alive or dead (if it's alive, the probability that it's dead is zero.)

Schrödinger was illustrating a paradox of quantum physics, which is that a subatomic particle is in all potential states simultaneously until it's observed or measured, at which time it collapses down to a single state. Let's now use that subatomic particle as an analogy for a human (or animal, or plant) life. While the box is closed, the person is alive; when it's opened, they're dead. So, alive and dead aren't the states that we're interested in. When the person is alive, the have the potential to do an enormous number of things. A baby has the potential to do just about anything. Circumstances (where they're born, how wealthy their parents are, the quality of their schools) can either limit or enhance their potential, but they still have enormous potential. As time goes on, choices they make and choices made for them can further constrain their potential, but even a career choice made fairly early isn't necessarily constraining.

For example, Michael Crichton, author of "Jurassic Park" and many other works, originally wanted to be a writer but switched to anthropology while at Harvard, then attended Harvard Medical School and got his M.D. degree, but wrote novels while still in school. "The Andromeda Strain," which he wrote in 1969, was the first of his books to be adapted into a movie. He started writing television screenplays in 1978, and directed his first film, "Coma," that same year. He was also a father, and given that he was married five times and divorced four, a not-so-successful husband. He could have made a career out of any one of his pursuits, but he was able to do all of them in a 66-year lifespan.

We retain the potential to do many different things throughout most of our lives. We may be temporarily trapped in a job (or lack of a job,) a location or a relationship that limits us, but there's usually a way out. Going back to Robin Williams, even if he had early-stage Parkinson's Disease, he still could have worked for several years, and then turned his attention to his family and to charitable causes, as Michael J. Fox has done very successfully. (I'd argue that the work that Fox has done since largely leaving acting behind, like the work that Bill Gates has done since leaving Microsoft, is far more important and useful to society than the work that he did in his first career.) For Williams, however, depression was the limitation that he couldn't escape or control.

To return to Schrödinger's metaphor, when we die--when the box is opened--all of our potential is gone. We no longer have any options. Our quantum superposition collapses down to one state. We've all heard the saying "Where there's life, there's hope." A more accurate version is "Where there's life, there's options."