Thursday, November 17, 2005

There's a reason David used a Sling

It is hard for me to write a post about how I disagree with Doc Searls' Article, because I think the article is so well written and covers so many important topics and ideas. So I want to start this off by saying that it is a fantastic article. But I would not write a post just to say "me too" either. So the rest of this post is about how I agree 100% with his description of the problem, but disagree with his prescription for the future.

Let me summarize for anyone who does not have the time (or patience) to read the entire article. Doc breaks it down into three sections.

Scenario I: The Carriers Win - Doc describes how the phone carriers (SBC, Verizon, etc) are fighting with the Cable companies over who gets to own the Internet. Both want the government to pass regulations to limit competition so that they can charge consumers more. It includes great examples of how these companies play dirty.

Scenario II: The Public Workaround - Doc explores the possibility that another company, perhaps Google, could challenge both types of incumbants with a wireless solution that replaces the pipes that they are fighting to control. He also discusses how these laws that are supposed to be pro-market are really anti-market.

Scenario III: Fight with Words and Not Just Deeds - In the final section Doc discusses how to reframe the debate by promoting the metaphor that the Internet is a place rather than a transport system. He concludes with seven paragraphs that all begin with either "We need" or "We should", stressing the importance of fighting the big companies from taking over the Internet. My favorite two paragraphs of this section are the following:

"We need to remind policy makers that the Net's biggest success stories--Amazon, Google, eBay and Yahoo--are the stories of Bezos, Page, Brin, Omidyar, Yang and Filo."

"We need to make clear that the Net is the best public place ever created for private enterprise, and that the success of the Net owes infinitely more to personal initiative than to the mesh of pipes in the ground beneath it."

I agree with the premise behind these two strongly, that the people made the internet, not the technology or the wires. (In fact I was thinking of this from a more anecdotal position yesterday; I must have subconsciously anticipated reading this article today.) However, my perception of what comes next is almost the opposite of what Doc suggests.

"These are ideas, of course. I present them forcefully because I believe we--the technical community--are being called to fight for a world we made and continue to make. And one which is under grave threat."

It's not just under grave threat, it's doomed. It is absolutely inevitable, in my opinion, that the system of yesterday will get devoured by the big companies. But while Doc suggests we should fight against this process, I say don't waste the effort. Instead let's focus on the next generation, the next invention that big companies won't understand for a few years and therefore won't be able to spoil. Let them have the Internet, because just as Doc highlighted, the real value is in the PEOPLE. They can have the product, but they cannot have the people who made it. We're going to go build something new and better and if the big companies want to stay where they are, fighting over who gets to squeeze the last drop of revenue out of yesterday's accomplishment, so be it. That's what David did to Goliath; he didn't fight brute strength with brute strength, he calculated a precision attack against Goliath's weakness.

Doc quotes "World of Ends", by David Weinberger and himself, in a blockquote section titled "The Internet is Stupid". He brings up a brilliant point: "Adding value to the Internet Lowers its Value.". If the carriers are determined to lower the value of the Internet by "improving it", then they are going to push more people towards the next generation.

One of Doc's concerns is the rising tide of Digital Rights Management (DRM) hardware. Hollywood is fighting hard to get copy protection built into television tuners. This would control what and how you record or copy broadcast television. There is also a hardware DRM system going into High Definition Radio players. Doc's suggestion is to "contact your Congresspeople. Tell them to keep the Net open and free and to vote against any legislation meant to protect any industry from "threats" they see coming from a new world they refuse to understand.", but why waste the energy. If you want to effect real change you cannot go through the seemingly direct, but ultimately toothless, mechanism of writing to Congress. You've got to harness the power of all those lobbyist dollars by sending a signal to the companies that pay them (with your dollars, mind you). Can you imagine if the electronics companies complied with the new law, put broadcast protection in a new line of televisions, and nobody bought them... I know, it sounds crazy, but just imagine if everybody stopped buying televisions, opting instead for monitors (a television without the tuner) and watching a steady stream of video podcasts (if you need some non-MPAA entertainment, I highly recommend Red vs. Blue). Now I realize that it is unrealistic to expect every single person to participate, but let's start with everyone who reads Docs' blog. I humbly request that instead of spending time writing letters to Congress, that Doc make an extra podcast so that we have less reason to bother with the RIAA and MPAA. They don't own sound or video, they only own the content they've bought up. The more good content we put out there that does not conform to their rules, the more we undermine their position.

Not that they need help! Look at the current Sony snafu for evidence that consumers are not going to put up with whatever the studios do. Currently the population in general neither understands DRM nor knows what to do to avoid it. This particular instance with Sony will probably raise the level of consciousness because it is easy to describe: people bought the CD's with the rootkit included and their computers were infected with a virus that Sony included on the CDs. David Berlind writing about his DRM woes in Between the Lines speaks to a different crowd and his call to stop buying DRM music is along the right lines in my opinion. Not to beat a dead horse, but the message that no company can fail to hear is the message of consumer dollars.

Finally, reading through the comments in response to Docs' article, one from Jay struck me, "I'm tired of paying top-dollar for less than satisfactory services". My response... DON'T! You determine what you buy. If you are really tired of it, then make a change. My biggest problem with the post is that the language denies any responsibility for the purchasing decisions. Since I can assume that he is not talking about basic human necessities (people struggling to survive don't spend their time posting on blog comments, they spend it surviving), then he is making a choice to purchase these items, but refuses to own up to the responsibility. He continues, "As another commenter pointed out their dislike that everything in the US seems to have a price tag, and usually it's a premium price. I'm also tired of it as well". Everything has a price tag, capitalism simply puts it right in front of you. No matter what the economic system, there is a cost associated with everything. We take the sum total of the world's ability to produce goods, and it gets spread out among the people in the world. And regardless of the system, someone is placing a value on your time and exchanging it for equal value of goods. As far as the premium price goes, supply and demand are not some social experiment, they are names for forces that work in the system. Even when they are manipulated by governments or companies, supply and demand are still intrinsic forces. If you really believe that the price is too high, then don't pay it. Again, take responsibility for the purchasing decisions that YOU make.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Two Years Behind the Hype

I imagine I am about the last geek in my age range to find Friendster for the first time, but when I heard about it, about a year ago, I just did not get it. But a friend of ours had sent me an invitation to join her "friends" and I decided to go ahead. I wasn't actually expecting to get any benefit myself, it was more like when I receive a request for my contact info. I respond so that the person will have accurate information about me. Boy, did I have a surprise coming.

So I signed up for friendster and became a friend. Immediately I noticed that a good friend that I had fallen out of touch with was listed as a "friend of a friend". Within a few minutes I had found another few old friends, but this first "friend of a friend" was the one who responded in minutes. We opened a chat and traded highlights from the past 4 years in about 10 minutes. I had this wonderful feeling afterwards.

That's the power of the Internet. Forget all of the marketing and the "web special" deals, the best thing about the Internet is how it connects people. Without it, I know the address for my friend's parents, who I'd have to bother to ask for a current phone number or address. Or I might bump into someone who has kept in touch with her at my high school reunion next year, but with the Internet I reconnected with her that day.

Another part that was a lot of fun was reading the profiles of people who I would call acquaintances. Especially in college, there were a great deal of people that I knew who they were, I shared classes with them, but I was not friends with them per se. However, six years removed, it's really fun to read who lives where, works where, and what they are doing.

I also must give friendster a big hand for making it so easy to use their service. I would guess that the chat function that I used is relatively new based on the "Beta" tag, although FlickR still says Beta and it is not a spring chicken. However, the fact that we were able to have an instant message conversation without worrying about installing software, or who's using which provider, made a huge impression. I may be the last person in the world to find it, but I think the timing was

Monday, November 14, 2005

Is That Your Final Answer?

On Saturday I witnessed a bit of unintended comedy. While I was helping our neighbor, Cy, set up his DSL connection he went through one of those standard setup questionaires: name, password, etc, and of course the very popular secret question. This form gave a fairly long but mundane set of potential secret questions. I am going to skip the discussion about how secret questions tend to not be all that secret, it is too easy of a target.

Cy decided to use the secret question "What was your mother's maiden name?", then he proceeded to type in the four letter family name from his mother's family. Upon clicking the "Next" button, an error message explained "Your Secret Answer must be 6 or more digits".

I started chuckling immediately. Fortunately Cy was able to find another secret question with an answer that was long enough. However, if his first pet was named Rex, and his first job was as a cook (or chef), and the first street he lived on was Oak, etc then it could have been a big problem! I understand making passwords be of a certain length, but when you answer a question, you do not have control over the length.

This could be the jumping off point for a whole discussion of identity: how broken the system (or lack thereof) is, but I would prefer to leave it for today at the simple point that requiring a certain length answer to a question is just plain dumb... uh, silly... wait, idiotic...

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Locked in 16:9

If you think about filming a single person, it seems strange that film and video are wider than tall. After all, humans are upright and taller than even the widest reach of their arms. However, the reason must be the influence of gravity, that pesky force, that says that we all walk around on essentially a plane. We interact with other people and objects in that horizontal plane, so we need a wider lens to capture a group of people.

With still pictures, people became very comfortable with turning a physical print on its side to see a long shot. Then when digital photography took hold, programs became adept at rotating the photograph 90 degrees.

With digital video, the standard of television, 4:3, or widescreen, 16:9, are the oonly available sizes. If the video will eventually be displayed on a television, including the new rage, widescreen monitors, then it makes sense to keep the video in the standard view. But for a computer video, like the type that I have posted to our family blog, it would be better to turn the camera on it's side, and then rotate the video in the computer by 90 degrees to show Garrett in the majority of the window. A choice of 9:16 or 3:4 would be a nice addition to video editing software in an age of video blogs and easy file exchange.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The World is Listening

I got an unexpected answer to my question from the last post. As I was driving this weekend, I was listening to a CD of archived Gillmor Gang episodes. During this one, at about 15:20, John Udell answers the question "why do you care about Atom's release?" by explaining that Atom is able to carry XML data as a kind of attachment, which RSS was not intended to do. His example was that you could carry information like reviews.

So people are thinking about how you would represent structured data like reviews. I asked the blogosphere, and the answer was already cued up in my player.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Baby Steps to Smarter Consumer Experience

If there was a theme to Tangent from my Asides, it would be that I usually post when two separate idea streams crash together. I supposed Connecting the Tangents from My Asides might be a better description of what I try to do. So here goes...

The irony of the digital age is how the process of changing the little things in life from analog to digital is changing the big things in life from digital to analog.

First let me say that I'm using loose definitions of digital and analog, where digital means there is an on/off, high/low, yes/no structure underneath. By analog I am describing anything that has a continuous spectrum underneath. The power of the digital world is harnessing the potential of the on/off representation.

Example: If you copy a section of VHS tape that has a "value" of 6, an analog signal may be 6.1 or 5.9, generation 3 could be 6.2 or 5.8, noise gets mixed with the signal, and this is the problem with analog: a copy of a copy is not like the original. But if you copy a byte from a CD that is low, high, high, low, you get exactly that: low, high, high, low (that's a digital 6 by the way). This is what I mean by the potential of digital, a copy of a copy exactly matches the original.

So what am I calling "little stuff"? They fall into two categories: devices (mp3 players, cell phones, high definition television monitors, etc) and services (digital cable television, digital radio and podcasts, voice over IP, etc). Both are giving the user more while costing the user less because of the use of advanced digital components. The effect of Moore's Law on computing has driven these improvements into computers and electronics.

However, the effect on electronics and services has become the cause of a second wave of changes, one that has taken the on/off structure out of some of the traditional industries where barriers of startup costs created a divide between "big media" and "independent" enthusiasts.

For example, podcasting has taken the barrier of entry out of audio programming, which radio dominated for so long. The format of radio was so incompatible with the continuous spectrum concept that the last decade brought massive consolidation in the form of companies like Clear Channel. Today's radio is the epitome of digital, where only a multi-billion dollar company could hope to join in any significant way. But podcasting has produced a wave of independent content providers, with the cost of entry plummeting to the cost of a computer and a web host. This allows a one person to create a program for a small group of friends, while Adam Curry creates a program for a mass audience. The fact that these two can sit side by side is the model of a continuous spectrum of choice, what I call an analog system.

And this process is transforming all kinds of areas. Journalism is transformed even more heavily by blogging because it has had longer to disrupt that media, videocasts are just starting to explore how they can transform television. Skype is redefining the telephone, especially where international calling is concerned. Even software has become more analog from the process. Rather than shrink wrapping software at a certain point in development, companies offer downloads, allowing distribution to a small number of users and less overhead for releasing versions. However, some companies have abandoned software distribution altogether, moving to a web service architecture where the software resides on the web server, updates never leave the building, but the benefits of an upgrade travel in small pieces every time a single page is requested.

While all these ideas have been percolating in my head I had a horrible experience with some workers who came to our house to lay laminate flooring. To make a long story short, the laminate itself is great, but the baseboards that the same company installed look terrible, with gaps, rough edges, and white caulking that zig zags on our green walls. The next day I was thinking about how I wished I would have spoken to some previous customers before selecting the company and how I'd like to share my negative experience with other prospective customers. I wish I had been a smart consumer and I wish that the web could bring together the data to make it easier to be a smart consumer.

The virtual extension of the friendly recommendation has evolved along with the internet. I read online reviews of most of the products that I buy, from electronics to crib mattresses. Many online retailers, a popular example is Amazon, allow users to review and rate items. Amazon averages the individual ratings into an overall rating, but allows the freeform text to describe why the person gave the numerical rating they did. The second level of this process is to rate the ratings with the
"Was this review helpful to you?" question. This process will continue
to evolve with the increasing development of attention so that the rating of a product is not the pure mathematical average of all reviews, but a weighted average giving more weight to reviews who I entrust with authority to direct my purchases. Beyond product reviews, there are systems that rate online retailers. For example, EBay tracks their sellers and encourages every buyer to
enter a rating for the transaction that creates a merchant rating. However, I don't know of an analogous service to find and share reviews on transactions that happen off the internet.

At first I thought I wanted a review site, a place to enter my reviews of local businesses and read other people's reviews before I frequent a business. But then I realized that there's never a single site to fill this type of void. By the time a company has built a successful user base, someone else has created a competitor site with other strengths and weaknesses and the users have to choose between them, or end up duplicating every review and search in order to connect with the users of both sites. Not only is this impractical, but it doesn't stop at two sites and the number of sites grows as long as there is potential in the marketplace to get your attention (and therefore sell some ads for you to look at).

It didn't take long for me to realize that what I was looking for does exist, but in a much broader sense. The recommendation service exists as blog entries. People are already making recommendations about companies or services that they like or dislike. Last week I got around to listening to Scoble's podcast Talking about Blogging and his guest Steve Broback told a story about a hotel using misleading advertising (to listen start at 10:01). His response was to take out a Google ad that pointed to his negative review of the hotel based on their misrepresentation. He explained that 10 days later he received a call from the hotel management, hoping to make amends in return for him turning off the Google ad. The spectrum of progress had provided access to the customer base, but he had to create his pathway to the customer base, at personal expense, using Google ads. I want to see two advances to this evolution. I want a service to reduce the barrier of entry for people to add their ratings into the system, and I want the business to dig their way out of a ditch like this one by improving their quality and receiving higher ratings, not by convincing the negative reviewers to remove their caveat from the system.

I think that blogs should continue to provide the reviews, but I would like to see a standardized format for ratings so that they can be aggregated and filtered. Eventually I can imagine a system where a large percentage of my neighbors are rating and reviewing their purchases and when I want to search for a place to make a purchase, for laminate floors, a car dealer or a nice dinner I can find average ratings based on hundreds or thousands of transactions. Also, I want to be able to put more weight in a person's reviews of restaurants if I like his taste in food (explicitly) or if our recommendations are in agreement for places we've both reviewed

Building on that, I also would like options to filter by other factors. Perhaps I'd like to only see reviews of a restaurant by locals or by vegetarians or any other filter I can imagine. Obviously these last examples are advanced features that come after the initial system is in place. They also make sense in a world with federated identity because users are only going to answer specifics, like whether or not they are vegetarians, if they are building a persistent profile that they can share in part or whole with all the sites they participate in, rather than entering the minimum required information in hundreds of different site specific silos.

And what I realized is that this system does not need to be created in one event by one company, a digital event, but instead we're in the middle of the analog spectrum of increasing recommendation power through technology. The tools are growing and evolving out of the emergence of methods to share your thoughts about a transaction and then the growth of services that will combine and repurpose that metadata for other users. Blogs were not the beginning of this process, but Blogging represents a milestone in redefining who provides the data and who has access to the data. Now there's massive opportunity to build the tools that add value, which will encourage more users to take part, which will in turn open up more opportunities. The self perpetuating cycle is driving progress, and doing it in small increments every day, I just hate being patient...

Update: Since I wrote the section about our laminate floor, the sales representative came to our house and agreed to correct many of the problems we had. If I had reviewed the company in a rating service before this development, I would want to append my poor rating. Do they deserve as good of a rating as a company that does it right from the beginning, no. Do they deserve a higher rating than a company that refuses to fix their mistakes, absolutely. Finding a balance of how to append a poor review will need our collective wisdom. Ultimately the power of these services will not only be the collective wisdom rating the businesses, but also the collective wisdom rating the rating services. The service that adds the most value will receive the most traffic. The competition will drive innovation. That's when the consumer really wins. Let the games begin.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Playing with Fire

Be careful Scoble, don't you know you're not allowed to use Google search to look up anything about Google.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Been There, Hosted That

I'm late to the party on this topic, but I can pretend to be the cautious voice of reason that carefully crafted my response over the last two weeks, instead of the guy who did not see the original post and ensuing feedback until yesterday.

Robert Scoble thinks that "the thick client is coming back" and he responds to various critism with some reasons why he thinks so. For anyone not familiar with the term fat client, it means that the system you are working on has a relatively high amount of processor and memory capacity. This is contrasted with thin client where the power is mostly on a server somewhere, and the system you are using simply handles the display. OK, now we're all ready for the juicy part.

Scoble presents two arguments, but he should have quite while he was ahead, because the second is far less valid than the first. His invitation, "when you get Photoshop in your browser let me know", implying that Photoshop will not work on a browser, is simply myopic. XWindows was capable of hosting incredible complex applications in the early 1990's (and probably before, but I wasn't around to see it) because it decoupled the system preparing the screen from the system displaying the screen (and tracking input from keyboard or mouse). Technically this is not an example of running Photoshop in my browser, but consider it a proof of concept. Servers can process complex programs, receive and process the user interactions, and send the display to the client.

However, this brings me to my discussion of Scoble's first, and vastly more interesting, argument. You do not want a thin client on a two hour airplane ride. Let's set aside the discussion of 'who does major photo editing on an airplane', because one thing I've learned in the software industry is that there is always someone who wants to do the thing you cannot imagine them doing. "Won't" is not a useful design strategy, it's an excuse. Let's talk about how we got from the client/server architecture of XWindows to where we are today and where the signs are all pointing for tomorrow.

What happened to XWindows and how we got in this fat client world of today? I would posit, and I think I'd get a lot of agreement on this point, that the combination of the Internet explosion and the shrinking of devices killed the XWindows model. The place that I saw XWindows running beautifully was at Harvey Mudd, which is the ideal environment for the kind of thin client architecture that existed in the 90s. Departments bought large servers to host "enterprise" software that students would utilize for assignments or clinic projects. The students were all playing in a closed, trusted environment. There was a massive amount of setup to get a new user configured with logins for software and systems, much of it scripted but still initiated by a human administrator; however, the benefits to the students and faculty justified the expenditures and the cost/benefit analysis looked fine. However, when you move out of the closed environment, the world gets too scary and the administration gets too big to allow people to access your application server. There's too much risk involved and the administration costs are too high when you have to define what rights the users have and protect the data from the "bad guys". Furthermore, people were doing the type of computing that Scoble suggests, taking their notebooks on airplanes, places away from the landlines that were quickly connecting our digital experience. The cost reductions in manufacturing drove prices down, rates of computers in the home up, and the percentage of computer users affiliated with a closed system went way down.

These forces created the fat client world of today where "fast" computers were "cheap" and the problem of putting complex software on every workstation became a software engineering problem rather than an administration problem. That's because a software engineering problem, once solved, works for all users (when you hold certain things like operating system constant), but administration solutions only fix the particular system because it is dependent on infrastructure. So, for thousands of software products on millions of desktops, engineers solved the problem. Companies like InstallShield got big doing just that. We reduced user complexity without reducing capability, and all of this happened in a world of intermittant connections.

But things are still moving. The connectivity that moved us from closed networks to a big open "sometimes on" network is moving us to a truely global "always on" network. I've already seen wireless networking on airplanes, and I travel around town with an "always on" device in my pocket. Is the connection really "always on", no. But you have to look past tomorrow to what's coming. I love Steve Gillmor's statment that 'if it's going to be true, then it is true'. Granted, Scoble did hedge by saying "technologies like WinFS will keep thick clients relevant for more than a decade". He may see that eventually the thick client is going to give way but believes it will take a decade to get from here to total connectivity.

A DECADE! Think about how much can happen in a decade. Intel is talking about handtop PCs with built-in WiMAX in less than a year. Add in all the Sidekicks, Treos, and Blackberrys in the world, and there are a lot of people with truely mobile internet access, but on various hardware platforms. And the common ground, web access, will become the platform. The train has left the station!

The worst part of what Scoble is saying is the cause/effect relationship he's presented. He did not say 'lack of connectivity will keep the client thick, and WinFS will make that experience better'. Instead he said WinFS is going to "keep thick clients relevant". Even if this was not the intention, he's giving the impression that Microsoft is out in front of the train, trying to slow it down. That's the type of thing that people worry about from Microsoft and the type of thing that Scoble tends to have his radar out for. In this case, I think he got his signals crossed, but I bet we'll see more on this topic in the near future.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

May I have your attention?

It's amazing how you can come so close to coming to a conclusion, then have it blasted to pieces by some other pieces of information. However, here's what I'm thinking about now. For full background, you'd need to read the following thread: start with Deconstructing the "Conversation" (Part 1), then read Markets aren't conversations?, and finish with Talking markets. That's actually only a small bit of background, but I haven't even read the whole Cluetrain Manifesto, so I do not expect you to ;o)

In short the topic for today is markets as conversations. My main disagreement with Dave Rogers is not with his assertion that vendors are seeking to find advantage in a transaction; I think we could all agree with that. But Dave assumes that this inequality in the relationship precludes conversation. To suggest that conversations can only exist between two parties with matching objectives, is to negate the majority of conversations that occur. Transactions revolve around a conversation between parties with opposing objectives within the transaction, but a common interest in completing the transaction. Buyers communicate their preferences about product features and the price they are willing to pay for these products. Sellers communicate the price at which they will sell products with a particular feature set. Hopefully, a common interest point is found where supply and demand meet, and a transaction occurs.

I also think that he brings up a valid point about authority, but he exagerates the reasoning, which weakens his argument. People do not keep a job simply because they are worried that they would be 'considered "homeless"', they worry that they would be living on the street. Furthermore, I believe the post confuses two distinct types of authority. There is authority that is exerted and authority that is given. An army can exert authority through force, but this is the less common and less interesting form of authority. The other variety is the type of authority that a doctor holds over his patients. The patient who comes willing to the doctor and invests authority in the doctor is engaging in a conversation that communicates that there is a trust in the doctor's abilities. Whether this is because of faith in the doctor's ability or faith in the system that qualifies medical professionals, the point is that the patient cannot be forced to accept the authority of his doctor, but the patient finds it in his best interest to identify a doctor that he can invest authority in.

Finally, the post from Dave Rogers concludes with "And note that I'm not trying to sell you anything either". Of course he is! He's trying to sell us his ideas, so that he can gain authority in the ethereal sense. Blogger's Blog to be read. As readership increases, so does the quanitity of authority gained. But this is a mutually beneficial exchange. I consume his written perspective on the topic in exchange for granting him some measure of authority on the topic. Then I synthesize my own ideas to post back into my own blog. This way the collective wisdom of our combined intelligence is gaining authority through commentary. It is analogous to how scientific ideas gain authority through peer review.

However, my original seed of thought that ties this discussion with my previous thoughts on attention (I know I said specialization, but it was leading to attention already) is how attention and authority come together. I have been very aware of the limits of my attention recently. There is vast amounts of information that would hold my interest, but I am faced with the reality that I cannot consume it all. Obviously there are certain sources that I deem entertaining and humorous. But in addition to these items, there is a vast array of topics that I would like to stay informed on. Lately I have found that I have actually reduced the number of blogs that I subscribe to in order to make the number of entries managable. However, I use these subscriptions as both an information source and a jumping off point. I find interesting links within these items that can generate a thread for further consumption. Currently my subscriptions center around various members of the Gillmor Gang. I invest my authority in these people because I have found over a period of time that doing so increases my efficiency. However, at some point in the future my list of "trusted" sources might evolve to include new members, perhaps at the expense of one of these members.

But the difficulty that arises is that the number of posts or even the length of the posts does not necessarily reflect the authority of the post. I automatically go to any new entries from John Udell before any other items in my aggregator, because I know that I place more authority in these items than the length of time I spend there might suggest. This also is not dependent on the frequency of his posts. So, I assume that this type of preference would be lost in the attention model as I understand it. Maybe I am wrong, but the focus seems to be on mining frequency and time. I would suggest a very non-dynamic, non-sexy approach to this issue: user ranking. I'm not saying that you only rank, but you also rank. If I know that I give a particular source more authority, then I should be able to idenitify that fact in any attention system.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Original Pet Peeve

What is so great about sliced bread?

Crazy like a Fox

I have been working on a post about specialization all week, but I feel the need to distill the ideas a bit more (even a tangent from an aside needs a throughline). However, hopefully early next week I will harvest at least one thread to make a post. As I type this, I am considering breaking the concept into several pieces to increase cohesion.

In the mean time, if you are a citizen of the democratized world and care about the future you must listen to Thomas Barnett's Emerging Worldview talk from Poptech that is hosted by IT Conversations. Download THIS FILE and listen to it. Now, if you are not in the class of people that I described above, then you should listen to it TWICE! There is not a single person in the world who would not benefit from hearing what this man has to say. If you are a citizen of the democratized world, this will explain what that world is trying to do (or should be focused on doing). If you are not, then you will be in the path of this policy, so it would benefit you to understand it. The great falacy of the United States is the call for bi-partisan discussion. What we need is NON-partisan discussion: clear, straight-forward, logical progressions brought to their inevitable ends. I admit that as an engineer, hearing the world political landscape described as an enormous engineering problem plays right into my natural bias, but it also makes sense. Engineering is not an social construct like politics, it's a human approximation of a natural process.

I discovered this brilliant recording after listening to the Gillmor Gang's Podcast from November 5, 2004 where John Udell brought up the topic for discussion. I highly recommend this Podcast as well, in fact you may prefer to listen to this first as it includes highlights and discussion that could enrich your listening of the full audio presentation.

You may ask, why post this now? The talk was given in October 2004, the Gillmor Gang discussed it in November 2004, what's the relevance in September 2005? Other than the fact that none of the facts behind his presentation have changed, a new event has brought new links. The discussion around President Bush's statement that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levee's" is comparable to various statements by his administration that nobody could have predicted there would be such a strong insurgency an Iraq. I see only two possible conclusions: the President and his top officials are either a) apallingly uninformed or b) nefarious in their deceit. I would suggest that the former, while disturbing, is far less sickening than the latter. And yet evidence, such as learning that Thomas Barnett was working for Donald Rumsfeld's "Transformation Guru", reduces the validity of the former option. The information was not simply "out there", it was "in there", not just in the government, in the higher levels of government, where it really should have been consumed and persued. If you insist on holding onto the first excuse, then it must be transformed because the administration is no longer simply ignorant, they are now incompetant. As the picture becomes bleaker and bleaker, as you factor in domestic goals like dismantling... I'm sorry "saving" Social Security, I find that I'm driven towards the less palatable conclusion that Bush isn't bumbling fool I'd like to dismiss him as, he's the wolf in sheeps' clothing that I should not dismiss.

Plus, Barnett is gosh darn funny!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The design is intelligent, but the product has its moments...

At the risk of this blog becoming "My Pet Peeves", I'm going to share with you why I think people need to take a step back. And let me just say for the record that "people" includes this person. I can attribute 99% of the arguments I have had with my wife to one small miscommunication, compounded by more and more miscommunications built on that fundamental misunderstanding. The times that we are able to step back, look at where we blew off the tracks, and clear up that initial misunderstanding, we've been able to come back and discuss the issue, rather than veer farther and father apart until we scream because the other person cannot hear us from that far away (off topic you say, look at this blog's title...).

So my real subject for today is the whole debate over Intelligent Design. Although I think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a comical and worthwhile contribution to the debate; I want to take a step back to talk about where the two sides miscommunicated in my opinion, and why they are now so far apart that they cannot understand each others language.

In my view it boils down to a fundamental confusion of the concept of How and Who (same letters, but position is everything!). Science, including Evolutionary Science, is all about How. How did humans become the dominant species on Earth, How does light get from A to B, and How does the Sun produce so much energy. Intelligent design is all about Who. Now I happen to have a personal belief that there is a greater power in the universe, and in English we've given that concept a word, God. However, this single word has come to carry so much historical baggage that it's taken on a life of its own. The one thing that I feel 100% confident about asserting is that God is beyond human understanding. Everything else that I think or say about God is colored by that tenet. When I see evidence of something amazing in the world, for example that the human brain can understand, analyze, categorize, and theorize, I associate that with the category of things that are beyond my understanding. Not that I don't understand analysis and categorization from a conceptual standpoint. But I cannot teach a computer to categorize anywhere near the capacity of the human mind. It's an awe inspiring feat of engineering! So I look at that feat and I say, 'Wow, that's amazing', and I put it with that word I mentioned for things beyond my understanding, God.

Now here's the problem, the human brain does all of this analyzing and categorizing by reducing. It's fundamental to the problem. When you have tons of data to store and you want to be able to retrieve that information, even search on that information, you put it in a relational database. And when you create the database, you have to give it BOUNDARIES! You say "The data is going to look like this!" Then you take each piece of information, and you shape it so it looks like the boundaries you have set. It's not that you loose information so much as you put emphasis on certain parts of the information that fit the boundaries. And you use those emphasized pieces of information to make relationships between different rows of data. At some level the human brains works like this too. To draw conclusions across the enormous amounts of data we take in every day, we have to find commonalities to compare across. But the problem is that there is 1 and only 1 concept that is not reducible: God. By definition, these things that are beyond our understanding cannot be shaped.

So I want to tie this back into my comments about How and Who. Science is the attempt to understand the universe, to describe things that previously could not be described by humans, or to do a better job at describing things that we took a stab at once before. That means that science is the process of taking small bits from the "do not understand" category and putting them into the "understand" category. However, there will always be a "do not understand" category. At one time molecules were in the "do not understand" category, but we hypothesized, experimented, concluded until we could describe molecules. But atoms, quarks, and whatever makes up quarks were still in the "do not undertand" category. Scientific discovery is like dividing a fraction, half of 1/2 is 1/4, half of 1/4 is 1/8, and you can half to your hearts content, but you will NEVER get zero. (NOTE: I am NOT suggesting that the "do not understand" category is a small fraction, the halving example was to show infinite resolution, not to quantify the categories).

So if we have this word, God, that describes the "do not understand" category, then Science is the process of revealing information about God. It is NOT the process of attributing items to someone or something. Science is not particularly interested in the Who, which is not to say that Scientists don't think about the Who (not the band, stay with me here). Science is neutral on the subject of Who. Some people confuse neutrality with disagreement and believe they must discredit Science because it does not specifically name God as the Creator. I cannot describe how they make this connection because it completely eludes me. But what I can explain is that they want science to prove Who, which is not the purpose of science. They reduce the discoveries into things that are inside their understanding of God and things that are outside their understanding of God. Anything outside their understanding of God they think is in conflict with their understanding of God. It's the black or white, you're with us or you're against mentality that ends discussions, when we all should be expanding discussions. It also tends to put scientists who do believe in God on the defensive. Their personal spirituality should not influence their research, and forcing them to choose between one or the other, to be a How person or a Who person, just hurts both groups.

On top of this misunderstanding we must pile on years of miscommunications on top of the original split. Intelligent Design is the latest attempt in a campaign to obscure the fact that science reveals information about our world that we should all want to understand and then extend. Unfortunately, the sides are now so far apart that they can only scream at each other over the chasm of misunderstandings.

If the Kansas School Board really wanted to improve education, they should take a step back. If they realize that science is about How, not Who, then they will advance a curiculum that promotes questioning How. There are still deeper levels to uncover, halvings to be made, knowledge to be gained. Teach them not to accept what other people tell them about how the world works; teach them to test it for themselves. That's the kind of education that will enable our next generation to answer the questions of the universe. Confusing the How and the Who just adds noise.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Which Finger are they Pointing?

Media companies really aren't getting it. The Proof ( Registration Required) continues to roll in.

I'll admit my views on this subject seem a bit radical. But I think it's imporant to analyze why exactly we accept that media has a right to control content, simply because they always have and they tell us that they have this right. There are two sides to this argument and I tend to focus on the loosing battle of the theoretical basis, and this is because fundamentally most people (and to some degree myself included) believe that people who create content have a right to control that content. I realize that record companies spend a lot of money to produce, distribute, and promote music. I don't think that I have a right to copy that music for free, but I do think that record companies have completely abused there position as content providers. I do NOT think that a CD should cost $20. I also do not think that record companies deserve unrestricted rights to capitalize music. But there is also a functional argument: that in a world of digital everything, suing everyone who copies a music file, just like they copy a text file, generates a lot of ill will. My biggest complaint about media companies is that they had showed no interest in moving to an internet distribution channel until after Napster showed the enormous interest of music via download. I know these guys are playing it safe, but if they want us as customers, they need to carry their weight as service providers. Sure, they CAN sit back and say "that's not fair, that's mine", but I respond much better to people out there saying "look what I can offer you". Those are the places I want to put my dollars, and my attention for that matter.

I look at my relationship with iTunes more as a service relationship than a goods relationship. Before iTunes, I had almost completely stopped buying music. As mentioned above the price seemed excessive to me, especially after several experiences of spending $15 or more dollars to discover that the single I liked was the only worthwhile song on an entire album. A few times a year I would spend money on a select group of artists that I felt I could trust to deliver an album of worthwhile music. However, iTunes does 2 things right: they make it easy for me to find and purchase music that I like in the right amounts (singles only), and they charge what I consider a fair price in return for the convenience of having the music I want download to my computer with no hassles. The musician delivers the goods, iTunes delivers the mechanism, they both receive revenue for the transaction, and the record company receives a cut because I cannot cut them out of the deal, plus the important thing is that I'm happy with what I receive for what I provide.

Why do I choose to pay for my music rather than download it for free? Is it because it is illegal? Actually no, it's because it's a pain in the butt. I have to spend hours of my time searching for the stuff I want, downloading what may or may not be the song I asked for, and opening my computer up to spyware and viruses. iTunes saves all those headaches, at a fair price. I only purchase a few tracks per month and the number has been steadly decreasing since I acquired some of my long lost favorites. However, with the current model I still find that iTunes is the best way to get music that I am willing to purchase.

Another thing that has decreased my desire to purchase music lately is my increasing consumption of podcasts. Things like The Gillmor Gang capture my attention more than the latest single. And to top it all off, they are FREE! Podcasters realize that to compete for your attention, paying for content becomes a hurdle rather than a revenue stream. Or to put it differently, pick any price you want and multiply it by zero customers and you get the same revenue as if you take zero dollars and multiply it by any number of customers. What's the difference between these two equations? The number of people you can reach, the viewpoints that you can advance, the way you can change the world one listener at a time is only in the second equation.

So, for those who don't have a NYTimes login, the short version is that the record companies are pushing to increase the price of popular songs on iTunes. This is a great way to go out of business! IF I decide to purchase any more music (remember I said I practically stopped buying CDs, I'm a fickle consumer), I will divide the amount I'm willing to spend by the price of songs. The revenue is flat and the amount of music I have is less, which makes me less likely to continue my end of the relationship, so eventually even that number declines. Corporate thinking at it's finest.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Quick Friday Update

If you are a Geek and you haven't listened to The Gillmor Gang or haven't heard the Archives from IT Conversations, stop reading this and go listen to them. In fact, even if you aren't a Geek, go find out what's important to Geeks...

Finally in Geek News, Justin turned me on to Experts Exchange, which is going to save me hours of frustration. So far I've only been reading, but starting Monday I have a few questions for those so called experts!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Back in the US of A

Home sweet home, I had a relatively easy and completely safe trip home.

To update on my previous post, I was able to solve all of the problems we were having and the wrap-up meeting concluded that we are ready to move to the next phase of development on the software.

I spent my last night in Germany with Georg and his wife, Agathe, enjoying a nice meal and then I drove to the airport. I woke up @ 5 to check-in, then returned to the hotel for breakfast a shower, the big benefit of staying next door to the terminal. I slept during the flight to London, then watched movies most of the flight to LA: The Interpreter (well done with limited violence and lots of thought provoking politics, B+), The Upside of Anger (good writing and acting, a few "over the top" moments, but not enough to ruin my enjoyment, A-), Cheaper by the Dozen (missed the very beginning, nothing special but cute, B-). Getting through the airport was easy and I didn't mind the traffic home because I was in the car with Andrea.

I slept 12 hours on Saturday night to get back on schedule and yesterday was a pretty quiet day. Now it's back to work and some design documents for new features. Tonight back to Martial Arts and try to work off some of that German food...

Friday, August 19, 2005

Not just a good idea...

It must be a law of nature that regardless of the length of my stay in Germany, or the purpose of the trip, the last day that I am here everything breaks! Of course today was no different, except that things broke both here at Multitest and back at home.

First I checked my email because Tim agreed to be responsible for creating the Install package for the new (and improved) version of ProWorks. Instead of the expected "Here you go and have a safe trip home", I get an email that basically says "I put it on the server because I said I would, but we found a bunch of problems and I don't think you should install it anywhere...". Alrighty then. So I dive into fixing these problems and face the fact that I will not be here long enough to see the software rolled out to the rest of the company. Then I get pulled over to see some tests that they are running here involving a feature we spent a long time on recently (and was working in test versions). This feature is now broken again. It's the type of feature that takes specialized equipment to test and reproducing the Multitest environment in Pomona is practically impossible. So now I'm scrambling to try to debug and fix these problems while I'm still here.

But the good news is that even the broken stuff seems to be breaking in consistent ways [Pounds repeatedly and vigorously on wooden desk]. I've already fixed the list of bugs from Pomona and have a good idea about what is going wrong here.

With any luck I'll be able to wrap these items up within the hour and then Georg and I can have the two meetings that have been put off until today. If not, these meetings can be done over the phone. I choose to focus intensely on the bright side. And hey, I would never say the end of a trip was boring!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The More Things Change...

It's Thursday Morning in Rosenheim and it looks like it's going to be another very productive day. We've made excellent progress on rolling out the latest version of software here and the final Release, with a few kinks smoothed out, will be distributed around starting tomorrow.

My big realization for the day is that the more technology can do, the more we expect! This is not the first time I've realized or pondered this fact, but I was reminded of it this morning as I struggled to make a reliable call home. Unfortunately the phone system at the hotel is not accepting the toll free number that allows me to use my company calling card. The only explanation from the front desk staff is "I'm sorry, you'll have to use a direct connection and pay the hotel rate".

I've been avoiding this all week by using an amazing program that's gotten a lot of press in the last year called Skype. This program allows you to connect 2 computers in a voice chat that is just like a phone call, just using the computer. Skype isn't the first company to offer a service like this, although I will say that they have been more successful than their predecessors at making the system work well. The biggest factor seems to be the quality of your internet connection. There is a time delay factor when we call the ECT facility in Hudson, NH, but when I connect to Multitest's wireless network and "call" my boss in Pomona, it sounds clear as a local telephone call. The best part... it's absolutely free. Or rather, there is no additional charge. You have to pay for a high quality internet connection like they have at Multitest or ECT Pomona, but no charge for using that internet connection to create a voice chat. As I said before the New Hampshire facility always has a slight delay when we call from Pomona. It's not bad every time, but there have been occasions when we've disconnected the Skype session and switched to a telephone, never a good sign for this type of technology, but so far it has not been bad enough on a consistent basis for us to turn away from it completely.

However, the advance that Skype has either made or made popular (I don't know if anyone could do this feature before, and that's my point), is called SkypeOut. It allows you to make a connection between 1 computer and 1 telephone. This means I can substitute the computer on my end, but call our house phone. There is a fee for this service because Skype is obviously paying the telephone company to connect from a computer near home to our home telephone. However, the rates are incredibly good. The cost for a call between Germany and the United States (either direction) is .017 Euro per minute. That's two Euro CENTS for a minute. Considering our corporate calling card rate is somewhere near a DOLLAR per minute, this is a huge savings.

Now if any of you are asking either a) why do I care about all this? or b) didn't he start off saying that he'd had a frustrating time, why is he rambling about software? then the answer is either a) maybe you don't, you don't have to read this or b) I'm telling you how far we've come, now I'll tell you about my disappointed higher expectations...

Tangent completed I'll jump back to the idea that I've been using Skype to sidestep the hotel telephone. The hotel offers a T-Mobile service that is wirelessly available in the hotel room for 2 Euros per 15 minutes. Even a 2 Euro overhead combined with paying cents per minute makes a 3 minute Skype call less expensive than a 3 minute telephone call and the savings gets better by the minute after that. However, the internet connection at the hotel is not what I was calling a "high quality internet connection". When I first got in to Rosenheim on Monday, the hotel telphone and internet system was down for an hour (just long enough to miss my chance to call Andrea before she went to work), then it took half an hour to configure, but then it worked and I left Andrea a message on our answering machine. Tuesday it worked OK for a SkypeOut call, although 3 or 4 times the sound would drop out for about 2 seconds and then come back. Wednesday I again spent about 30 minutes getting the wirless connection to work, but I was rewarded with another 15 minute "call" with only a few 2 second blanks. However, I must have run out of luck, because this morning it was horrible. I could hear Andrea just fine, but she could only hear every other word from my end. We fought with this for 15 minutes, closing and restarting the session every few minutes to try to get a better connection over the internet (unfortunately that wasn't the problem, the problem was the connection on my end). After hanging up the last time, I promptly switched to the telephone in the room and tried the calling card number one more time. With no luck, I broke down and dialed the international number directly and profusely apologized to Andrea for the frustrating time of trying to talk for 15 minutes when she could never hear a full sentence.

We kept the call short, having no idea what rate the hotel would charge, but fearing the worst. On my way to breakfast I asked the front desk to tell me the charge for our call. I didn't time the call, but it was probably between 2 and 3 minutes, and the cost was 3,30 Euro (the comma is a nod to the German convention, mentally substitute a decimal point). Basically one Euro per minute, which at the current exchange rate is only marginally worse than the calling card that I was insistent on using.

So what's the point! Now that I've experienced a crystal clear Skype call for no cost to me (our company is paying the internet line, but my usage isn't directly increasing the bill), I expect this. I want to talk without interruption without paying anything extra for it. I am willing to pay a few cents per minute for SkypeOut because of the convenience for Andrea to use the house phone rather than sit at our computer and it's so much less than before that my mind can justify it. But I will not accept a bad quality connection. I expect my bits and bytes to travel from Germany to California and back fast enough that I cannot tell it wasn't instant. And the funny thing is that in many cases, they do. But when they don't... well, let's just say that I'm going to stick to calling from the office at the end of the day and not deal with the hotel lines for anything but email for the rest of the trip.

I'm sure in 25 years, a sound exchange between any 2 points in the world will have become a trivial thing and my child will not understand how I could ever have struggled to make a call overseas. But my guess is, he or she will be frustrated because a videochat between 5 college friends in different states and countries dropped some frames. The more things change... you know the rest.