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Sunday Buzz: It's the Stiction, Stupid (by Denny K Miu)


I taught mechanical engineering for nine years and the one thing I tried to explain to my students was that they didn't come to school to study the real world, they came to study a "model" of the real world.

So when I teach friction, forces or fluid mechanics, I explain to them that the mathematical concepts that I am presenting are merely our best approximation of how the world behaves. For example, there is no such thing as an elastic body. Most materials are not purely elastic, but under certain circumstances, they behave closely to our mathematical model of elastic material.

But the one concept that has no mathematical equivalent is "stiction" and I usually spend less than a minute explaining the phenomenon and move on.

Fiction is the resistive force that attempts to slow down a moving body when it is in motion relative to another. It is proportional to the perpendicular force that keeps the two bodies in contact. It is what we call "dynamic" friction and the proportionality constant is what we call friction coefficient.

On the other hand, stiction is "static" friction and it is the force that prevents one body from sliding against another in the first place. The only way to overcome stiction and to break free is a "push." Once the body starts moving, then our mathematical model of dynamic friction would kick in.


Interestingly, when I left academia and entered the "real" world of entrepreneurship, I understood stiction in a completely different context.

First of all, recently we hear a lot about "frictionless" sharing from Facebook. To me, friction is an overhead. It doesn't prevent anyone from doing anything. It just makes it a little harder. So by removing friction, you are basically making the transaction a little easier, a transaction that would have happened anyway, but easier.

Put it differently, as an entrepreneur, racism, cronyism and all the other "ism's" are just dynamic friction that requires more effort to overcome and makes it a little harder to do what we want to do, but should never be enough to prevent us from trying in the first place. Like criticism and cynicism, racism is just more overhead.

Stiction, however, is different. It is both a physical and an emotional barrier. It is the non-quantifiable force that holds us back from trying. The only way to overcome stiction is a "kick" and the only way to get someone to commit to a decision is to make the decision a "no-brainer."


When running a company, it is all about making sales. Stiction kills sales and leads to failures. Success is to figure out how to overcome customers' reluctance to buy and to make the purchase decision a "no-brainer."

Unfortunately, just like there is no mathematical model to stiction, there is no simple recipe for a "no-brainer."


When my family first came to America forty years ago, buying from Sears Roebuck was a "no-brainer." The "quality" of their products were "guaranteed" meaning that if you bought a Craftsman wrench or a Kenmore home appliance and something went wrong, they would take it back. It was made in America and it was made by unionized workers, which meant quality.

But they didn't guarantee prices. The only way to properly buy from Sears was to open the center page of the Wednesday issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. That's when they advertised what would be on sales the coming Sunday. If you missed the weekly sales, that's tough. If you bought the same item a week ago at full price, that's double tough.


Then Walmart came along with their tagline, "Everyday Low Prices" meaning that you didn't have to wait until Wednesday to know what's on sale on Sunday. You can buy any day of the week. If an item was on sales after you had made the purchase, you could bring back the original receipt and they would reimburse you the difference.

Now that's a no brainer.

Of course, "price" guarantee continues to evolve and now if an item is on sales at a different store, you could get a competitive price from somewhere else if you just ask for it and show documentation.

Finally the ultimate in price guarantee is the iPhone app from Amazon released during the holidays where if you scan the bar code of an item at a physical store (the location of which is confirmed with your GPS coordinates), Amazon will ship you the same item overnight with a $5 discount, no sales tax and no shipping charge.

In other words, leave your brain and your wallet at home, just bring your iPhone.


Today I do much of my family shopping at Costco (either physically or online) because they took the guarantee policy and kick it up couple of notches.

First of all, they have unconditional "satisfaction" guarantee. If I buy something and I am not "100%" satisfied, I could bring it back with no questions asked. There is no time limit (except 90 days for electronics) and there is no need to bring back the packaging materials or even the receipts.

This makes any purchase a further no-brainer. It eliminates impulsive buying because all buying is now impulsive.

But actually their genius is in their "values" guarantee. They made purchasing a complete no-brainer because they have removed selections. Unlike shopping at Safeway where you have to choose between twelve different kinds of soy sauce or five different kinds of frozen chicken pies, there are only one brand of everything (or at most two, with one generic).

So essentially you have outsourced competitive analysis and trust that Costco has done the homework and they have selected the best merchandizes on your behalf, not only for the best price, best quality but now best values.

Buying from Costco is a no-brainer because they have figured out that the key to their success is not to trigger any neurons in your brain. The less you have to think, the quicker you are to part with your money.

Like stiction, active neuron is the "static" friction that keeps the credit cards from sliding out of customers' pockets. Active neuron doesn't just make spending more difficult, it prevents spending from happening in the first place.


Apple is the King, the Queen and the Bishop of "stiction-less" buying.

In their case, price guarantee means buy today and we won't raise your price tomorrow.

Quality guarantee means this shit won't break because it has no moving parts but go ahead and spend another $100 for Applecare so we could replace the charge cable whenever necessary because Steve Jobs refused to put in a stain relief in order to not make it look sucky.

Satisfaction guarantee means you will be more than 100% satisfied with our product until the next model comes out less than a year from today.

Values guarantee means we make our product selection so drop-dead simple that you can buy any color of an iPhone that you want as long as it is either black or white.


But where Apple has gone where no men has gone before is with their "awesomeness" guarantee.

This one I say with all seriousness and respect.

Under Steve Jobs' leadership, Apple very rarely ship undercooked products. They don't ship any products or any genre of a product before its time. And they don't think of their products as either hardware or software but as a total user experience.

In other words, Apple doesn't turn off our neurons but instead, they have completely repurposed them, away from making analytical decisions and towards memory retention and pattern recognition for happiness, satisfaction, well-being and craving.

They have identified the i-ons.

Demanding their products "don't suck" is such a simple and no-brainer business model that surprisingly no company has been able to copy even today.


Have a wonderful Sunday, everyone.

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