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.