May 24, 2006

Paul Graham's "How To Be Silicon Valley"

Paul Graham has another thought provoking essay out: How To Be Silicon Valley. Boulder makes the probable list, along with Portland.

Posted by moore at 01:19 PM

May 06, 2006

Book Review: What Just Happened

I recently read 'What Just Happened', by James Gleick. I'm a big fan of his--I read 'Chaos' years ago. This book covered the history of chaos theory; I was engrossed by the fluid writing and deft handling of such a tough subject.

'What Just Happened' is not such a book--rather than a coherent look at recent history, this book is a collection of stories spanning that time (from 1992 to 2001). From spam to bugs to online pornography to passwords to email forwards, Mr Gleick covers a number of issues that are still relevant for us today. I will say that the number of forwards I've gotten since I left college has fallen dramatically, but the amount of spam has not. The internet still 'makes it all too easy to fling random illiterate drivel across the planet'.

There are also a number of neat historic references. There is a five page article about Y2K, written in Jan of 1999, where Mr Gleick was already saying that we had nothing to worry about come 1/1/2000. Another suggests ways to 'make Microsoft for capitalism', written just around the release of Windows 95. Remember when we thought we could count on the US government to deal with monopolists?

On a personal note, I have to link to Zia Consulting, because one of their principals was mentioned in this book; you could apparently page Bindu Wavell over the Internet in December 1995.

The format of this book makes it a nice bus read. None of the articles are longer than forty pages and many are a good deal shorter. Whether you nod your head in agreement with some of the issues covered that are still present, or are wistfully transported back to the days when you were still interested in checking the status of a Coke machine over the Internet, this book has its moments. If you enjoy pop tech at all, or if you've been caught up in the wave the Internet has created over the past 15 years, chances are you'll enjoy this book.

Posted by moore at 10:48 AM

March 12, 2006

New blog on information technology and public policy

Here is a new blog on information technology and public policy blog that I've started reading. It's an interesting concept--each student is required to write once a week, guests are welcome to chime in (you can even follow along with the reading list, should you choose to do so), and the posts seem to be well thought out. I found the post titledFile-sharing, Market Impact and Consumer Welfare to be particularly interesting.

This is a graduate course at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, graduates of which include Samual Alito, Bill Frist, Eliot Sptizer and others. So the folks writing these opinions have, at the least, an opportunity to become a mover and shaker.

Via Freedom to Tinker.

Posted by moore at 12:36 PM | Comments (0)

February 16, 2006 an EBay for lending

Wow. I hope takes off. I think it will depend on the ability of the groups to enforce repayment and keep delinquencies down.

For more on microcredit, which is essentially what is, check out Wikipedia and this article by The Economist on Microcredit and Disasters.

I wonder what banks think of this? Via mnot.

Posted by moore at 11:07 AM | Comments (0)

PR: another industry being transformed by the internet

No, this entry isn't about blogs. If you want to hear how blogs are transforming PR, I suggest you visit Micro Persuasion.

Via Dave Taylor, I just found out about PRLeads, a service that lets you field requests for information from journalists. When you see a request about a topic on which you consider yourself an 'expert', you can correspond with the journalist. You provide information and context to the journalist and if things work out, you get publicity and gain authority by being quoted in a story.

I asked a friend who has worked in PR for a long time and this service is rather revolutionary. Ten years ago, the journalist would have looked to friends or in-shop files for an expert, but now they have access to everyone who knows about the service and is willing to pay the fee ($99/month--hardly backbreaking).

This is good for everyone. Journalists get access to experts who they might not find otherwise as well as the chance to write a more correct story (due to the fact that they'll be exposed to more viewpoints). Experts get a chance to shape public opinion as well as publicity. And the public is exposed to a wider range of views than they'd otherwise see. Win-win-win.

PRLeads is a perfect example of an internet company, by the way. It has network effects--journalists will go where the most experts are, and experts will go where the most journalists are. It's a service that just couldn't be efficiently run without the internet. And the main commodity is information.

Update: Here's a blog entry about results from

Posted by moore at 10:08 AM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2006

We're from the government and we're here to help

The US government has just released a DVD about identity theft. This DVD, "Identity Theft: Outsmarting the Crooks",

features experts from the government and the private sector talking about the scope of the identity theft problem and how a few simple steps can significantly increase protection. Experts also cover topics such as: online safety; access to credit reports; taxpayer vulnerabilities to identity theft; and dealing with debt collectors if you are a victim of identity theft.
For only $2, it might be worth checking out.

What is interesting to me is how the government is using new technologies to increase citizen access to information. The government has RSS feeds (here are some from the Treasury Department) and a host of podcasts.

Posted by moore at 12:35 PM | Comments (0)

IP to location application

I've been doing some recent coding with Google Maps (like many many other folks). Anyway, I ran across a IP to location mapper. Pretty cool stuff. Would be interesting to hook this up to access logs. Via Infectious Greed.

Posted by moore at 12:27 PM | Comments (0)

January 12, 2006

Complexity Speech by Michael Crichton

Here's an interesting speech about complexity by author Michael Crichton. It's hard to argue with his conclusions:

If we can’t even understand the basic aspects of our own systems [financial markets], what makes anybody think we can understand natural phenomena, that are thousands of times more complicated?
Posted by moore at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2006

Data mining 101 article

What do things like this article on data mining Amazon wishlists mean? It's awe inspiring, and not a little frightening, to think about what this kind of activity means... If all this information is available via a shell script and wget and 30 hours of work, what kind of information is going on behind the firewall, with direct access to the data warehouses?

Via reddit

Posted by moore at 10:31 PM | Comments (0)

The Economist citing Wikipedia

Well, Wikipedia has hit the big time, as far as I'm concerned. Check out article on Bayesian reasoning and the human mind. An interesting article, given that Bayesian filtering is used to fight spam. But what really blew me away was the figure entitled "Vital Statistics, which is drawn from Wikipedia. The fact that The Economist, a major publication, is using it as a source is even more compelling than The Onion mocking it.

Posted by moore at 06:01 PM

November 27, 2005

Amazon's Mechanical Turk

I did some work a long time ago with Amazon Web Services; I gave them an email address and they periodically send me newsletters about their web services. The most recent one contained a link to an article about a new service: Amazon Mechanical Turk. This service provides 'Artificial Artificial Intelligence' and lets developers place tasks in front of humans in a scalable, standardized manner. Amazon, with their infrastructure, makes sure that the task is completed and pays the human who completes the task. Right now, I only saw one set of tasks, sponsored by Amazon, so I'm not sure of the uptake. But this is certainly an fascinating idea--an interesting inverse of the normal computer/human relationship.

Posted by moore at 05:26 PM | Comments (0)

September 19, 2005

Yahoo IM and VOIP

I just installed the latest version of Yahoo Messenger. That and a 20 dollar headset lets me make free phone calls to anyone else on my messenger list (though they have to have the correct version of the software and a headset as well--and Yahoo reserves the right to start charging for the service.)

I may be a bit behind the wagon, since eBay just bought Skype and I have a friend who has been using vonage for over two years, but I was quite impressed witht he ease of install and the sound quality. I'll be interested to see where Yahoo takes this. They already allow you to make calls to external phone numbers, though you do have to pay 2 cents a minute.

Why is this any different than Skype or Vonage? Because:
1) it leverages the investment most folks have in their IM address books
2) when you're on IM, you sometimes want to have phone conversations to supplement the quick questions that IM is so good at conveying
3) yahoo is a fairly well known name (as is google, who is also getting into the business of VOIP). I don't have any numbers on relative bases, but from personal experience, the number of folks who IM is greater than the number of folks who use VOIP.

Remember the days when there was such a business as carrying long distance voice traffic? There are rapidly coming to a close, driven by VOIP and cellular phone usage, I think.

Update: The Economist has an article on Skype and VOIP in general.

Posted by moore at 03:11 PM | Comments (0)

July 20, 2005

Running your company on webapps

Here's an interesting post on running your company on webapps.

Of course, the issues of security (who's responsible for it? who do you call when an employee leaves?), data ownership (how can you export your precious data if you want to move to a different provider?), legality (using gmail for business is a violation of their terms of service--didn't check the other services), and access (if your internet access is disabled, your business is too) are skipped over entirely.

On the plus side, hey, it's easy to get started, and the ongoing maintenance is minimal! But consider the downsides outlined above before you jump in.

It is interesting to me that that broadband is enough of a utility now, if you can get it, that a business can think of putting something as crucial as their calendar on a remote website.

Posted by moore at 11:00 PM | Comments (0)

April 19, 2005

Article Clipping on the Internet

How many times have you been reading a print magazine and run across an article that would be of intense interest to one of your friends? This happens to me often, and when it does, I either rip out the article or give the magazine to my buddy (if it's my magazine) or make a copy of the article, if I'm in the public library.

I also subscribe to, a liberal online news magazine. On Sunday, I was talking to my mother about health issues and mentioned that today's kids are the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. This was from Growing Up Too Fat a recent Salon article. Like most of the articles, it was considered, well written, and entirely inaccessible to non subscribers. I would have loved to shot my mother the link to the article. This would have introduced her to Salon and its excellent journalism. However, I couldn't do this easily because to view the article she'd either have to be a subscriber or view a commercial, neither of which she'd be willing to do.

Why isn't the analog of the print article copying that we all have done available? I can think of a technical solution right off the top of my head that would generate a one time link that could only be used for a specific article (preventing someone from handing out subscriptions) and only once (preventing someone from posting the link to slashdot). My mother win, since she gets useful information via a reliable source (me). And Salon wins, because they've just gained exposure and also made me a happier subscriber.

There's no reason why this same technology can't be applied to any website that has subscription based revenues. Other than the development and the incremental bandwidth cost, it's free to the website, and it exposes the website in a positive light to people who are, by definition, not subscribers.

Posted by moore at 11:59 AM | Comments (0)

November 10, 2004

Mobile phones as examples of computing in context

Here's an interesting 20 page paper examining some of the issues surround context and computing.

A few choice quotes:
"...answering the telephone has something of a moral compulsion."

" much of this problem [a phone that understands context] reduces to that of building an intelligent computer."

" is better to have machines which act in predictable ways so users can understand how they work" rather than unpredictable machines that 'do the right thing.'

"A technology, like mobile phones, with its combination of voice mail, text messaging and the like, is something we dwell with in that it becomes part of the fibre of our practices and lives, even for those without(sic) reject them." As someone who swore off mobile phones for a long time and now doesn't know how life continued without them, I can sympathize with that sentiment.

"When people use a technology over time, and get used to seeing other people
using the technology, the actions of the technology come to be seen not as actions of technology but of the user themselves."

Interesting reading.

Via Mobile Community Design

September 10, 2004

Passwords and authentication

Passwords are omnipresent, but just don't work the way they should. A password should be a private string that only a user could know. It should be easy to remember, but at the same time hard to guess. It should be changed regularly, and only passed over a secure connection (SSL, ssh). At least, that's what the password policies I've seen say. People, however, get in the way.

I have a friend who always has the same password: 'lemmein'. She is non-technical. Whenever she tries to sign in to a system, she has invariably forgotten her password. She tries different incarnations, and eventually becomes so frustrated, she just types 'lemmein' and, voila, she is logged in.

I have another friend who is a computer security professional (or was). He has the same issue with forgotten passwords, but rather than have one insecure password, he keeps all his passwords in a file on a machine that he controls, protected by one master password. In this way, he only has to remember the one password, yet machines aren't at risk.

I sympathize with both my friends, since, off the top of my head, I can easily think of ten different passwords that I currently use, for various systems and applications. In fact, the growth of the web applications (since the address bar is the new command line) has exploded the number of passwords that I have to remember.

I'm not as blase about security as my first buddy, nor as together as my second friend, so I just rely on my memory. That works, sometimes. Often, if I seldom visit a site that requires a password, I'll always make use of the 'mail me my password' functionality that most such sites have. I won't even bother to try to remember the password.

Sometimes, password changes are imposed on you. I've been at places where your password had to be changed every three weeks, and must be different rom your previous three passwords. I was only there for a short period of time, but I'm sure that there are some folks who are cycling passwords ('oh, it's one of these four, I know it').

On the other hand, I worked at a place for three years; I had access to a number of web servers, often with sudo, yet I changed my passwords two times. It was just such a tremendous hassle to try to bring all my passwords in sync. (Yes, yes, we should have had an LDAP server responsible for all those passwords; that would have made changing it easier. There are some technical solutions that can ease password pain, at least within one organization.)

Passwords are even used in the 'real world' now. Leaving aside the obvious example of ATM pins, my bank won't let me do anything serious to my account over the phone unless I know my password.

Passwords do have tremendous advantages. They let me authenticate myself without being physically present. They're easy to carry with you. Computers don't need special hardware or software to authenticate a user via a password. Everyone understands the concept. But passwords are really the least of the evils when it comes to authenticating remote users (/entities). They're easy to pass around, or steal, since they're aren't physical. Passwords are either easy to forget or easy to crack.

I guess my solution has been to break up my passwords into levels. For simple things like logging into web applications, I have one or two very easy to remember passwords, or I use the 'mail me my password' functionality mentioned above. For more sensitive accounts that I use regularly, computer logins where I'm an administrator of some kind, my email, or web applications where my credit card details are viewable, I'll have some more complicated password, which may or may not be shared among similar systems. And for other systems where I need a good password but don't use it regularly, I'll write it down and store it in a safe place.

Passwords are certainly better than using SSN, zip code, or some other arbitrary single token that could be stolen. But they certainly aren't the optimal solution. I actually used a userid/biometric solution at a client's office (for the office door) and it rejected me a very small percentage of the time. The overhead to add me to the system was apparently fairly substantial, since it took weeks for this to happen. For situations where the hardware is available and deployed, biometric solutions seem like a good fit.

No one, however, is going to add finger/eye/palm scanners to every machine that I want to access, to say nothing of various interesting remote applications (I want my travelocity!). Some scheme where you login to a single computer that then generates a certificate that uniquely identifies you (something like xauth) may be the best type of solution for general purpose non-physical authentication. But, as a software guy, my mind boggles at the infrastructure needed to support such a solution. Looks like passwords are here to stay for a while.

Posted by moore at 01:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 31, 2004

Freecycling, couchsurfing and easy information transfer

One of the most amazing things about the internet is the manner in which it decreases the costs of information exchange. The focus of this decreased cost is often the business world, because that's where the money is. However, I'm fascinated by the other forums for information exchange that simply wouldn't exist without extremely cheap publishing and distribution of information. In the past, I've taken a look at the web and government budgets, but I recently came across two other activities that I feel are impressive, and exhibit just what the web can provide: freecycling and couchsurfing.

In the past, when I had something (an excess of garden crops, for example) that I didn't want anymore that was of negligible value, I had a few options for getting rid of it. In decreasing order of personal preference:

1. Foist it on a friend or family member.

2. Put it on the street with a 'free' sign.

3. Give it to Goodwill/Salvation Army.

4. Save it and have a garage sale when I had enough items of negligible value.

5. Give it to a thrift store.

6. Throw it away.

Well, now the internet gives me another option: post to a freecycle email list. There are thousands of these groups. I joined the Boulder list, and it has a simple rule: no trading, just giving. 876 people are subscribed to this list. Freecycling is similar in nature to option #2, except many more people will probably find out about your surplus rutabagas via an email than will drive by your house before they turn into a rotting mess (less effort, too--you can send emails from the comfort of your computer chair, as opposed to hauling produce to the curb). In addition to helping you get rid of stuff, these lists also let you accumulate more crap, easily, and without requiring new production. (I don't know, there may have been freecycle newsletters circulating around yoga studios and health food stores before email took off. Again, the sheer number of people, who by self-selection are interested in giving and getting new stuff, and the ease of posting and receiving the information, means that email freecycling is a better way.)

Speaking of free stuff, a few years I was bumming around down under, and ended up staying with a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. The free place to stay was sweet, but so was the local knowledge and a friendly face in a strange land. Upon returning to the USA, I decided it'd be great to build a website dedicated to these concepts. Friendster and the other social networking sites give you some of the needed functionality (who's connected to me, where do they live) but not all of it (search by locality, meet random people). I wanted to call the website 'findalocal' and even threw together a PHP prototype before I got sucked into other projects. Well, I was browsing Wired a few days ago, and came upon, a site which does almost exactly what I want, has been around for since 1999, and is much more professionally done than what I would have whipped up. The basic premise is, you offer up your local knowledge to anyone who is a member. You can also offer up other services, not least a place to crash for a few nights. For more info, check out the couchsurfing FAQ. Again, this is a service that would have a hard time without the easy dissemination of information provided by the web.

In short, I think that, although a lot of excitement revolves around the portions of the internet where you can make gobs and gobs of money, plenty of interesting stuff is going on with no money involved. In fact, the ease of information transfer is even more important when there is no explicit economic value. Invoices are going to be sent to suppliers, whether via carrier pigeon or extranet, but getting rid of my old bicycle by giving it to someone has to be easier than just trashing it, or, nine times out of ten, I'll throw it away. And couch surfing is even more dependent on free information exchange, due to the dispersed geographic nature of the activity.

Posted by moore at 04:48 PM | Comments (3)

August 22, 2004

Wireheads and depression

I re-read the first two books of the Ringworld series a few months ago. Great science fiction--cool technology, interesting aliens, cardboard characters, decent plot. In the second one, The Ringworld Engineers, one of the main characters is addicted to electricity. Seriously--he has a device that directly stimulates the pleasure center of the brain. Niven calls this 'addicted to the wire.'

Recently, however, I ran across this article: Shocking Treatment for Depression. Sure, sure, it will require a prescription, and it only helps "lift [your] mood." It's only for folks who are depressed. And Viagra is only for older men with erection problems.

Posted by moore at 07:39 PM | Comments (0)

August 04, 2004

Book Review: Divorce Your Car

Divorce Your Car, by Katie Alvord, is thought provoking. In the United States of America, an automobile is many things to many people: transportation, status symbol, hobby, money pit. Alvord takes apart the place of the car in modern society (the focus of the book is on North America, though she does refer to Europe and the Third World in places) and roundly condemns our dependence.

Her book is split into three parts--the first covers the history of the automobile and other forms of transport. She legitimizes what I'd often heard and dismissed as a myth--the car industry bought up the transit systems of cities in the US early in the 20th century and replaced them with buses. The second is a laundry list of the negative effects of the car (which, I must confess, I didn't finish--too depressed after the first thirty pages). The final section covers alternatives, including walking, biking, mass transit, non-gasoline cars, and telecommuting.

I found the book to be quite good in outlining the problem and highlighting solutions. The dependence of modern life on the car is a dependence on convenience. But, to some extent, it's a matter of inertia. Automobiles are so prevalent and easy that many of us never try the alternatives, let alone use them in preference to our car. A strong point is that she realizes that car-free living isn't for anyone, and makes a point that going car-lite can have a positive effect as well. She also touches on the far reaching implications that technology decisions have had on our society, our cities and our lives--from subsidies to the development of advertising. It would have been interesting to read more about that, but what she did say was definitely thought provoking.

However, I do have three quibbles. Alvord cites sources extensively, but her arguments would be more compelling were the sources less biased (as you can tell by titles like Asphalt Nation) and more first hand. She ignores two factors that would affect my divorce. Giving up your car, or at the very least being aware of alternatives, makes drunk driving less likely--a good thing! On the other hand, if you don't have a car, you suddenly have a dearth of available camping and hiking activities. But these concerns aren't everyone's, to be sure.

Overall, a book well worth reading, especially if you commute a lot. Too bad they don't sell it as a book on tape!

Posted by moore at 01:57 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 23, 2004

Internet Bookmobile

I have to say that the Internet Bookmobile is way cool. (I remember the bookmobile of my youth, and it didn't carry anywhere near 20,000 books!) I think that the Internet Bookmobile shows two things:

1. The enduring power of the book. I'm definitely not the first person to say this, but the portability, durability, cost and readability of bound books is hard to beat with any electronic format. They're going to be around for a long time, despite the efforts of e-book software purveyors.

2. Digital, public domain texts are a good thing. (But copyright keeps getting extended.)

(Thanks to Brian D Foy for the link.)

Posted by moore at 10:02 AM | Comments (0)

June 21, 2004

Trust, but verify

As I've mentioned previously the web lets smaller players get into the publishing arena, and we all know there are some amazing websites chock full of interesting and useful information. If you're tired of hearing the hyperbolic claims of either presidential candidate, and want to see them debunked, check out Non-partisan and detailed examinations of ads can only help voters make an informed choice. Now, if only they had an RSS feed!

Posted by moore at 03:06 PM | Comments (2)

May 14, 2004

Social issues of online gaming

Via the Mobile Community Design weblog comes an interesting presentation on some of the social issues for online gaming (unfortunately, the slide show is IE only). There's a basic overview of some of graph theory, and heavy emphasis on human social networks as graphs, and how you can exploit and support said networks for your game.

Some fascinating slides in the presentation, chock full of information: "In 1974 Granovetter’s 'Getting a Job' found that you get most jobs from weak ties, not strong ones, because weak ties inhabit other clusters and therefore have different information", the relative size of US cities have been constant since the 1900s, and the actual degrees of separation, from a 1967 experiment, is 5.5, not 6.

I wish I could have gone to the presentation, since I agree with Mike Clark: "bulletware isn't the content of [the] presentation", and I'm sure the speaker had plenty of interesting explication of his slides. If nothing else, though, the five pages of bibliography should provide plenty of future reading material.

(Also, check out the Internet timeline for images of the Internet's growth and more neat graphs.)

Posted by moore at 02:35 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 13, 2004

Book Review: The Social Life of Information

I just finished reading The Social Life of Information, by John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid. This was not the quickest read; it's a business book with the obtuseness of vocabulary that implies. However, if you're a computer person with any desire to see your work in a larger context, this is a book you should read. In it, they examine eight separate areas in which computers, and the internet in particular, have supposedly changed our lives (this is typically called 'hype', though the authors don't use the word) in the latter years of the 20th century. (This book is copyright 2000.) You probably remember some of these claims: the death of the corporation, of the university, of paper documents, of the corporate office. In each chapter, they review one claim, show how the claim's proponents over-simplify the issue, and look at the (new and old) responses of people and institutions to the problem that the claim was trying to solve. They also examine, in detail, the ways in which humans process information, and how the software that is often touted as a replacement simply isn't.

I really enjoy 'ah-ha' moments; these are times where I look back at my experiences in a new light, thanks to a theory that justifies or explains something that I didn't understand. For example, I remember when I started my first professional job, right out of college, I thought the whole point of work was to, well, work. So I sat in my cube and worked 8 solid hours a day. After a few months, when I still didn't know anyone at the office, but had to ask someone how to modify a script I was working on, I learned the value of social interaction at the office. (Actually, I was so clueless, I had to ask someone to find the appropriate someone to ask.) While examining the concept of the home office, the authors state "[t]he office social system plays a major part in keeping tools (and people) up and running." It's not just work that happens at the office--there's collaboration and informal learning.

I've worked remotely in the past year for the first time, and anyone who's worked remotely has experienced a moment of frustration when trying to explain something and wished they were just "there," to show rather than tell--the authors refer to this process as 'huddling.' When someone is changing a software configuration that I'm not intimately familiar, it's much easier to judge correct options and settings if I'm there. The authors explain that "[huddling] is often a way of getting things done through collaboration. At home with frail and fickle technologies and unlimited configurations, people paradoxically may need to huddle even more, but can't." This collaboration is even more important between peers.

Reading about the home office and its lack of informal networks (which do occur around the corporate office) really drove home the social nature of work. After a few years at my company, I had cross-departmental relationships (often struck up over beer Friday) that truly eased some of my pain. Often, knowing who to ask a question is more important than knowing the answer to the question. It's not impossible to build those relationships when you're working remotely, but it's much more difficult.

Another enjoyable moment of clarity arose when the authors discussed the nature of documents. I think of a document as a Word file, or perhaps a set of printed out pages. The explicit information (words, diagrams, etc) that I can get from the document is the focus (and this is certainly the case in document management systems sales pitches). But there's a lot more to a document. How do I know how much to trust the information? Well, if it's on a website somewhere, that's a fair bit sketchier than if it's in the newspaper, which is in turn less trustworthy than if I've experienced the information myself. Documents validate information--we've all picked up a book, hefted it, examined it, and judged it based on its cover. The authors say "readers look beyond the information in documents. ... The investment evident in a document's material content is often a good indicator of the investment in its informational content." Just as if someone says "trust me" you should probably run the other way, information alone can't attest to its own veracity. The authors also look at aspects to documents (like history, like feel, like layout) that simply aren't captured when you treat them as streams of bits.

And there are many other examples of 'hype' that are deflated in this book, and a few other 'ah-ha' moments as well. As I stated above, this is a great read for anyone who thinks there is a technical answer to any problem (or even most problems). By taking apart various claims, and examining the truth and untruth of those claims in a real world context, these two authors give technology credit where it's due, while at the same time explaining why some of the older institutions and important factors in our lives will remain around. Reading this book was hard work, but understanding what the authors say gives me yet another way to relate to non-technical people, as well as fend off the zealots who claim, in a knee-jerk fashion, that more software solves problems. I majored in physics, in college, but minored in politics. It always seemed that the people problems, though more squishy, were more interesting. This book is confirmation of that fact.

Posted by moore at 02:20 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 10, 2004

People and automation

I read this article with interest. I've noticed the creep of automated services in the last ten years. Who goes into gas stations any more, unless you need a candy bar. Given the fact that these machines are a fixed cost investment (as opposed to an ongoing expense, like labor), I expect to see more and more of these. When reading this article, what every employee has to ask themselves is 'Am I an elevator attendant or a bank teller?'.

I remember reading a story in Analog, years ago, about a general purpose robot and the societal dysfunction it caused. These robots could do everything a human being could, but 24 hours a day, rather than 8. Of course, this caused riots among workers, afraid of their jobs being turned over to the robots. Luckily, workers' organizations and employers were able to come to an compromise--businesses couldn't own these robots, only people could. Businesses would rent them from individuals, who would thus be able to earn a living.

That's science fiction for you: both the problems and solutions are outlined in black and white. What we see nowadays is greyer--more and more ATMs are installed, yet tellers are being hired. Robots aren't general purpose (and humanoid)--they're slipping into the mainstream industry by industry. People aren't rioting in protest of robots--they're traveling extra distance to use them.

But the issues raised are still the same. Every machine that replaces a person (or two and one half people) causes a very real impact on the bottom line of the employee. At the same time, if a business can cut its labor costs, it will need to do so (especially if its competitors are also heading down the automation path). These differences revisit the old labor vs. capital divide (wouldn't Marx and Engels be proud?), and the answers aren't simple (or completely known, for that matter).

(The same issues arise in offshoring, and Bob Lewis comments here (sorry, you have to register to read the article). He states that the labor and capital national economies have been coupled for a long time, but now are being decoupled. He doesn't have any answers, either.)

Technology has been automating away jobs since the Industrial Revolution, if not before. Things have worked out fine in the past, but it hasn't always been pleasant to live through.

I don't see any substantive debate on the nature of labor disempowerment. Perhaps this is because "we've seen this before, and it has always worked out" or because it's an uncomfortable issue (especially in an election year) or because "we don't have any real leaders anymore" or because we're all vegetated by the modern opiate of the masses? I don't know whether labor will riot, but brushing the issue under the rug certainly isn't going to help.

Posted by moore at 04:05 PM | Comments (0)

May 05, 2004

Computer Security

Computer security has been on people's minds quite a bit lately. What with all the new different viruses, worms and new schemes to get information through firewalls, I can see why. These problems cause downtime, which costs money. I had recently shared a conversation over a beer with one of my acquaintances who works for a networking security company. He'd given a presentation to a local business leaders conference about security. Did he talk about the latest and greatest in counter measures and self healing networks? Nope. He talked about three things average users can do to make their computers safer:

1. Anti virus software, frequently updated.
2. Firewalls, especially if you have an always on connection.
3. Windows Update.

Computer security isn't a question of imperviousness--not unless you're a bank or the military. In most cases, making it hard to break in is good enough to stop the automated programs as well as send the less determined criminals on their way. (This is part of the reason Linux and Mac systems aren't (as) plagued by viruses--they're not as typical and that makes breaking in just hard enough.) To frame it in car terms, keep your CDs under your seat--if someone wants in bad enough, they'll get in, but the average crook is going to find another mark.

What it comes down to, really, is that users need to take responsibility for security too. Just like automobiles, where active, aware, and sober drivers combine with seat belts, air bags and anti-lock brakes to make for a safe driving experience, you can't expect technology to solve the problem of computer security. After all, as Mike points out, social engineering is a huge security problem, and that's something no program can deal with.

I think that science and technology have solved so many problems for modern society that it's a knee jerk reaction nowadays to look to them for solutions, even if it's not appropriate (the V-chip, the DMCA, Olean), rather than try to change human behavior.

Update (May 10):

I just can't resist linking to The Tragedy of the Commons, which does a much more eloquent job of describing what I attempted to delineate above:

"An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

In our day (though not in earlier times) technical solutions are always welcome. Because of previous failures in prophecy, it takes courage to assert that a desired technical solution is not possible."

Posted by moore at 02:05 PM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2004

First Monday

First Monday is a collection of peer reviewed papers regarding technology, "solely devoted to the Internet". If you want a feeling for how Internet technology is affecting society, presented in a clear, reasoned format, this is one of the places to go. Topics range from "what's wrong with open source" (which got slashdotted recently) to "how online education affects the balance of power at universities" to "how can we best keep track of information". Fascinating stuff, and the academic nature of the discourse means that it's got a solid foundation (as opposed to most weblogs, which are just some opinionated person rambling). You can even sign up for an email list to be notified when they post news articles (ah, listserv). Too bad they don't have an RSS feed.

Posted by moore at 11:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 31, 2004

Ease of programming

Much has been written about ease of use in software, but I think that ease of programming has an even bigger effect. Clay Shirky has a written an interesting post about situated software. Situated software is apparently social software written without certain 'Web Software' characteristics, and has some other unique traits. These include
1. not being as technically rigorous
2. capitalizing on 'real world' group knowledge without including that
knowledge in software
3. lack of generality
4. planned small number of users
5. accepted physicality
6. short lifespan
7. lack of scalability

His post simply acknowledges that social software (that is, software intended to be used by and relying on the strengths of groups) is becoming, much other software, easier and easier to write. This is due to a variety of factors:

1. Increasing awareness of computers. The PC has been around for 20 years, and is featured in more and more facets of life. This means that even folks who aren't computer geeks have a basic understanding of how applications work and can be expected to use any applications that are interesting.

2. Open source and costless software reduce the cost structure. If you have to spend thousands of dollars (or hundreds of hours building) for a crucial infrastructure component (for example, a database, or a web server, or a set of client GUI libraries), it's hard to justify if you're just whipping something together for a small group. But if you have MySQL, Apache, and IE already provided free of charge, it's a lot easier to build something interesting on top of these components. This also applies to technical knowledge. I'm on a mailing list for computer book authors and have seem quite a few lamentations about technical content being available for free on the web and cutting into book sales.

3. Programmers are expensive. Methodologies are expensive. Repeatable process is expensive. And all these are unneeded, if it's going to be a small application used by a known and finite number of people.

4. Increasing ease of use. Tools like perl, MS Office, VB and PHP are made for throwing together quick applications. Sure, you can build large scale applications with these tools if you want, but that takes rigor and discipline. The reason it takes discipline is because these languages were designed from inception to make 'easy things easy' even for non programmers. Microsoft deserves plaudits for realizing this and developing their applications with the idea of a non-programmer building applications in mind. (Have you seen some of the wicked Excel spreadsheets your accounting department has?)

This trend is nothing new. In the 1960s, you had to control your video display system in your program; now you just call on MFC or Swing to handle the guts of the GUI. In the 1990s, you had to build your own state machine for each web application; now you just download one of the many frameworks out there and you get a state machine for free.

My question is, what does it do to society when everyone has some kind of understanding of software? To lean on the analogy with cars, I think you'll end up with a similar division: a highly skilled, specialized, small workforce that builds software that's easy to use, and a large class of users, who have varying degrees of understanding of the software, but use it in ways that the designers can't imagine (how did you dent that?) in all facets of their lives.

Posted by moore at 10:40 AM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2004

Do you know where your sensitive files are? Google does.

Googling Up Passwords points out that Google's spiders crawl web server error messages and other misconfigurations just as easily as they crawl real content. For simple sites, like mine, there's not really an issue. Static HTML doesn't yield much of interest. For complex sites, like Amazon and Ebay, there is a phalanx of security experts waiting to pounce upon and patch the latest bug (perhaps not an entire phalanx, but those sites can and must afford security experts). But for the small workgroup web server, probably using MS products (for ease of use, convenience and training reasons), having such detailed examination of their web server available by keyword search is a disaster.

I often think of computers and cars in the same light. Automobiles were difficult to operate, prone to breaking down, and expensive during the early years of the 20th century. However, eventually, the technology standardized, the industry consolidated, and the car became a fundamental part of (American) life. Computers have only been accessible to common folk since the 1950s, so it's not fair to demand the same level of reliability. Yet, how much more protean is the computer than the automobile? It took decades to get air bags installed and seat belts worn. How long will it take before folks have the same level of visceral, unconscious understanding of the perils of the computer?

Posted by moore at 03:59 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 09, 2004

With enough eyeballs...

I referred to Project Gutenberg obliquely here, but browsing their site I found that they've implemented distributed proofreading. This is a very good thing. I did one book, Hiram, the Young Farmer, for PG a few years ago, when I was in college and time wasn't so precious. The OCR went quickly, but the proofreading was slow going and error prone; the story wasn't exactly riveting, but it was in the public domain. (In fact, I just took a look at Hiram and found at least two mistakes. Doh!)

But Distributed Proofreaders solves the proofreading problem by making both the scanned image and the OCRed text available to me in a web browser. Now I can proofread one page at a time, easily take a break, and even switch between books if I'd like. Also, they've implemented a two phase review, much like Mozilla's review and super review process. Hopefully this will prevent mistakes from being made, since these are going to be the authoritative electronic versions of these documents for some time. Linus' law probably holds for text conversion even more than for software development.

Now, it wasn't apparent to me from the website, but I certainly hope the creators of this project have licensed it out to businesses--I can see this application being a huge help for medical transcriptions (work from home!) and any other kind of paper to electronic form conversion.

It looks like there is a bit of a type competition among the PGDP proofreaders.

Posted by moore at 03:50 PM | Comments (0)

March 05, 2004

Comments on "'Real Throwbacks' comment response"

Well, I was going to trackback this post, but Nancy doesn't have that enabled, so I'll just comment here. Much anger in this one.

The problem with raging about radio is that it's a *free* service. What do you pay for the time you listen to the radio? Now, of course ClearChannel is pop pap and there's a lot of consolidation happening in the radio business, with generally negative impacts on quality. Don't blame CC--they're just reacting to the mandates of the market. (Your media can be free, diverse, or equal, pick any two.)

If you don't like that-which-was-KTCL, blame the government for taking a public good and whoring it out without thinking about the consequences or having any more justification than 'the market always does right.' If there's one thing we should have learned from the last couple of centuries, it's that while capitalism may the least of the evils, it's still evil. Of course, this isn't a new thing.

Posted by moore at 02:01 PM | Comments (2)


I was at a friend's house a few months ago and ran across a copy of Harper's magazine. I'd read it before, mostly in dentists' offices and such, but I read this one cover to cover. There was an especially hilarious piece, Beware of Dogg by Dr. Ninjaforkian, in the Readings section (which has apparently been posted on /. and MetaFilter). Since then, there've been bits on ClearChannel, the food chain, Korean sayings, and the coming election. Eclectic, no?

I just found out that one of my favorite sections is online: Harpers Index displays fascinating facts and gives you the source for every one. Just what you need at parties!

"Percentage of Chinese exports to the U.S. accounted for by merchandise sold at Wal-Mart : 10 [Wal-Mart (Bentonville, Ark.)/Department of Commerce (Washington) ]

Number of factory jobs that China has lost since 1995 : 25,000,000 [Alliance Capital Management Corporation (N.Y.C.) ]"
from Feb 2004

"Number of Canadian prison inmates who overdosed in March on fellow prisoners' methadone-laced vomit: 2 [Saskatchewan Department of Corrections (Regina, Canada)]

Number of inmates charged with drug trafficking for providing the vomit: 3 [Saskatchewan Department of Corrections (Regina, Canada)]"
from Sep 2003

I didn't see the sources online, but they're there in the HTML source, and hence in the cut-and-paste above (I don't really understand why they weren't showing up; neither Mozilla nor IE displayed them). Go ahead, read them all.

Posted by moore at 12:49 PM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2004

Publishing power

You have to give the web credit for making information distribution a lot cheaper. Whether it's a small business distributing forms via the web or BlockBuster distributing rental coupons via email, it's just plain simpler to get information distributed over the internet.

A friend just forwarded me the expected US budgets for the next 5 years. And then he forwarded me budgets going back to 1996. An invaluable resource, to be certain. What other countries allow you to look at their budget on the web? The UK, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, India, Fiji....

Wow. And all this was found with half an hour of searching. Wonderful!

Posted by moore at 01:40 PM | Comments (1)

February 24, 2004

PowerPoint and presentations

I went to an ACM meeting last Tuesday at NREL. The topic was "The Role of Computational Science in Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Research" by Dr. Steve Hammond. It was an interesting talk--NREL is doing some neat stuff with alternative energy sources (one thing that Dr. Hammond mentioned was an algae that produces hydrogen gas--a possible clean, renewable, easily scalable source of that element).

Now, I definitely don't want to single out Dr. Hammond. He did a good job explaining the value of computing to energy research, as well as fielding questions that were out of his expertise from nitpicking engineers (are there any other kind?). However, his presentation just drove home to me how easy it is to let PowerPoint drive a presentation. And how doing that really detracts from the speaker's points. I'm certainly not the first person to mention this. But I just wanted to point out this very very good article about speaking during a presentation, rather than just reading from slides.

Hey buddy, I can probably read those slides faster than you can say them, and it's a lot less boring for me. Instead, explain the slides to me in a way that makes the talk more of a conversation. Don't let the technology drive the presentation; it may be easier to read the slides, but it makes for a much poorer presentation.

Posted by moore at 08:17 AM | Comments (0)

February 19, 2004

Control of core business functions considered vital

I know I've commented on offshoring before, but I was talking to a friend last night, and he mentioned that his department, which maintained a suite of products for a very large software vendor, was gong to be re-organized. The new boss was the fellow tasked with offshoring. [cue jaws theme]

On a related note, I read this article by Joel On Software about Not Invented Here syndrome. In the article, he makes very good points about giving up control of vital business functions. Actually, Joel puts it very succinctly: "If it's a core business function -- do it yourself, no matter what."

In some sense, that's what you do when you buy software off the shelf. You trade control for cost savings. I know that in several cases at a former company, we built software on top of a vendor's platform, but what we were building was so focused that we ended up twisting the platform all out of shape. I think it would have been better to focus the energy, money and time that went to learning and reshaping the platform into understanding the business domain better and building more features on a custom platform.

In general, giving up control of vital business functions is a bad idea. So, offshoring (or outsourcing) customer service is a good idea if customer service isn't a vital business function (right!). And vice versa.

The question then becomes, what's a core business function? Ask that question of any large business, and depending on what department you're in, you'll get some different answers. I was talking to a guy a year ago who worked for a pipe construction company (you know, water pipes, beer pipes) in the accounting department. We touched on offshoring, and he mentioned that his company was planning to move all of their accounts payable to India, but, "thank you very much, we'll keep the accounts receivable close to home." Getting paid is probably vital business function for everybody.

So, where does this leave all of the folks in IT? Well, Bob Lewis writes a lot about IT as a force for business change, and that sounds like a vital business function to me. Where does this leave my friend in the maintenance department? I don't know.

Posted by moore at 11:39 AM | Comments (1)

February 14, 2004

Customer service automation

Customer service, like everything else, has undergone a revolution in the past two hundred years. In the olden days there was a corner grocer who knew people personally and therefore could render excellent, customized service. Then the large department and grocery stores appeared on the scene. These large corporations could offer goods cheaply, but didn't know or care who their customers were nor what the customers were willing to buy. Now, companies are trying, via software and databases, to recreate the corner store insight and knowledge, but in a scalable fashion. Whether it is frequent shopper cards coupons, or automated recommendations of books, companies are trying to use software to scale their ability to know what the customer wants, and hence give it to them.

This is good for the company, because if companies only try to sell what is wanted, they do not have to spend as much money advertising and maintaining unwanted inventory. In addition, such tactics aren't as likely to annoy the customer as trying to sell the customer something undesired. This also builds customer loyalty, since the company gives the impression of caring about customers' perceived needs. This is not a false impression: the company does care about customers' needs, because satisfying these needs is the only way the company makes money.

This is also good for the customer because it gives them what they want, at minimal fuss. It also makes for cheaper goods in the long run, since companies aren't spending excessive amounts of money on ill targeted customers; a single twenty something with no children has no need for diapers, and sending them coupons for those diapers only wastes resources.

However, there is a fly or two in the ointment of customer awareness via large databases. In stark contrast to the grocer, large companies are not the peers of their customers, and this inequality can lead to issues. In addition, the quality of the customer service provided by software, while better than no customer service, isn't a replacement for human interaction. I am explicitly leaving aside the issues of privacy since they are murky and still being defined.

The corner grocer, whom companies are trying to emulate in service, was a member of the community. If he cheated a customer, word got around. If he was doing anything unethical, his peers and customers could apply neighborly pressure in order to rectify his behavior. And, most importantly, the knowledge he gained about hist customers was counterbalanced by their knowledge of him as a neighbor. Few of these constraints operate on modern, large companies in anywhere near the same fashion. I'm not denying that people can affect the behavior of retailers with words, activism and lawsuits. However, changing the behavior of a large corporation is never going to be as easy as changing the actions of a local shop owner.

In addition to the difference in resources and power between customers and companies, it's also clear that performance suffers. This isn't strictly related to the gathering of customer data, but the existence of such data inspires companies to cut costs by automating. In general, I believe that the service provided by any software is inferior to that provided by a real live human being. And by building these databases, companies are being seduced by the siren call of reducing human interactions—if software (a [relatively] fixed cost that scales well) can recommend a good book, who needs an employee (a recurring cost that scales poorly). I realize that this may sound Luddite, but certainly in the current incarnation, I've found such software doesn't match up well with recommendations from real people.

In short, I believe that more and more companies are customizing and tailoring the customer experience in order to cut costs and build loyalty. But I also feel that there are significant downsides to such tailoring and I'm not sure that it's worth it.

Posted by moore at 09:30 PM | Comments (0)

January 28, 2004

An IP address is to DNS as a URL is to Google

I just read this post from Mike Clark. Now, I agree with some of what he says. It's true that it is a whole lot easier to remember terms you were searching for than a URL. Words and concepts are just plain easier to remember than strings where the slightest mistype will give you a 404 error. That's why we use DNS rather than just typing in IP addresses everywhere. However, IP addresses work almost all the time, even when the DNS server is down or misconfigured. If I know the IP address of a mail server, then I can still check my email even when I can't resolve its domain name.

This is true of the search engine/URL dichotomy as well. Have you noticed the size of the uproar when Google changes PageRank? Every time a search engine changes its ranking algorithms, it will throw into havoc any sites you've memorized via search terms. And search engines change their systems more often than DNS goes down. But cool URIs [URLs] don't change.

Another issue is that when it's so easy to search vast amounts of information, you don't end up looking anywhere else. This rant, which circulated a few months ago, highlights that issue. It's almost like, if you can't find something online, you can't be bothered to find out about it. I do it myself. Even results of search engine queries don't get fully explored. How often have you viewed anything other than the first page at google?

I understand the power and love of search engines, but folks, including myself, need to be sure to understand the implications of using them as shorthand for permanent links and/or shortcuts for true research.

Posted by moore at 06:10 PM | Comments (0)

January 18, 2004

My most popular posting

I don't know why, but my post on yahoo mail problems is my most popular post thus far. I suspect it got picked up in google, or some other search engine, and is now serving as a place for folks to gripe about the free Yahoo! mail service. (Incidentally, I'm the second "Dan Moore" in google now! Meri has some interesting things to say about this intersection between the internet and real life.) This is interesting (and a bit amusing) to me for several reasons:

For one, there's no helpful content on that posting for these folks problems. In fact, I don't even use the free service from Yahoo (I pay extra for storage). And the posting concerns the short term problems a client of mine had with the new Yahoo mail interface, and how outsourcing exposes you to those types of risks. The comments are not germane to the posting.

Or should I say that the posting is not germane to the comments? As is ever the case on internet forums, this posting has been hijacked by people who want to complain and share possible fixes to a very real problem--they can't get to their email (I'm cranky when I can't to my email, after all). I don't begrudge them the use of my site; this just reinforces what Clay Shirky wrote about social software--people will twist software until it does what they need it to do, and fighting that is a lost cause (and has been for 20 years).

And that's not just true for software, but for technology in general. After all, I doubt anyone working on radar thought it would someday be used for re-heating leftovers, and I'm sure that Daguerre (the inventor of photography) would be shocked at some of the pictures I've taken at house parties.

Posted by moore at 08:24 AM | Comments (0)

December 31, 2003

Is the American tech worker obsolete?

I've been doing some thinking about offshoring recently. For those of you not in the IT industry, 'offshoring' is jargon for outsourcing of white collar jobs to developing countries like India and China. There's been a lot of talk about this phenomenon: Salon (1 and 2), The Economist [sorry, it's a pay article], InfoWorld, and CNET have all commented recently. In addition to reading these articles and others like them, I've also talked to folks in the software industry, as well as friends who work in aerospace and packaged good manufacturing industries. And I've come to the conclusion that a certain amount of offshoring is inevitable, since the labor cost differential is so great.

However, like any other business fad (or any fad, for that matter), there are external costs that haven't simply are not fully understood. Among these are

1. Loss of customers
The constant mantra of folks who are trying to tell IT workers how to adjust to losing their jobs is 'retrain, retrain'. But retrain for what? What job isn't offshorable? Nursing is the only one that comes to mind. If allvirtualizable (i.e. can be done without face time) service jobs where there is a price differential get pushed overseas, that's millions of jobs lost. The American economy has been the engine for most of the world's growth over the last 10 years, sucking up exports from other countries to the tune of billions of dollars. What happens when the consumers of the USA don't spend money, either because they are out of a job, or afraid of losing their job soon? It takes a visionary like Henry Ford to realize that if you grow the amount of folks who can buy your products, you grow your business.

2. Loss of future business leaders
If you export big chunks of your IT department, perhaps keeping only senior folks who can help manage external projects, then you win in the short run. However, eventually those folks will retire (ask NASA). And if you haven't brought any entry level talent in, where will you go to replace these needed folks?

3. Difficulty of managing far flung teams from different cultures
This is difficult in two ways. One is the logistical aspect. If you want a teleconference, you have to adjust either your schedule or theirs. And if the country is on the opposite side of the globe, possibly both folks need to be in the office at an awkward time. The second difficulty is related to quality. Just as the Japanese products in the 50s and 60s were thought cheap and low quality, some of the work done overseas today is a lower standard than expected. This is true of all software of course, but it's harder to control the quality when you write a spec and throw it over the wall.

In short, offshoring is in its infancy. More of it is coming down the line, but, as the hidden costs are discovered, the benefits of local teams will come back into focus. I can do much of my consulting work from my house, yet I still find that most companies want me to come into their office. Why? To some extent it's control (should be careful not to blog my way out of a job here), but it also is because communication, in each direction, is easier with someone who's on site. There's extra effort expended in any kind of virtual communication. And by meeting me, the customer and I build a relationship, which is perhaps more important for trust in business than anything else.

I also want to address Michael Yuan's comments:

"3. Coding is a dying profession in the long run. If the jobs have not been outsourced to developing countries, the new generation of model-focused automatic code generation tools will eliminate the need for basic coders anyway. The jobs that have a future are system designing and architecting (the real engineering jobs). I think the ability to design end-to-end systems using whatever tools available is an important skill for the future."

I've commented enough, I hope on, the idea that all coding work will or should be outsourced to developing countries. But I think that the idea that 'the need for basic coders' will be eliminated due to improvements in 'automatic code generation tools' is foolish for a number of reasons.

1. If you don't understand basic coding on a system, when the automatic tool doesn't do what you need it to, the means you're screwed. Basic coding is not something you can pick up at school--you need to be out in the real world, working on crufty systems that are too expensive to change and older than dirt, to really appreciate what automatic tools can and cannot do, and what systems can and cannot do. In addition, easier code generation means more code out there, not less. And, easier code generation means more code out there. And, the easier the code is to generate, a la Visual Basic, the more likely the person doing the generation won't get it right, or won't document it, or won't understand why there's certain behavior exhibited. In this case, someone who has a deep, visceral understanding of the system and language will be called in.

2. Yuan talks about architecture and system design being the 'real engineering jobs.' I'll agree that those are more stimulating and challenging than coding, and also have a higher value add. But again, how many folks are system architects right out of school? I certainly wouldn't want to work on a project that had been designed by someone with exactly 0 years of real world experience. If you abolish entry level positions, you eat your seed corn, as I mention in my comments about offshoring above.

3. There is no silver bullet. The hard part isn't writing the software, it's determining what software needs to be written.

4. Someone's got to write the tools. I remember an old science fiction story, by Isaac Asimov I think, about a world of taped learning. You took a test at 18 that determined what your skills were, and then you listened to a set of tapes that taught you all you needed to know. The protagonist was distraught because the test just didn't seem to fit him--he was outcast and ridiculed for not knowing his profession. Of course it turned out that the folks that couldn't be tape educated were exactly the folks who were able to write the tapes. Someone's got to write the tools. (I don't pretend, however, that anywhere near the same number of folks are needed to write tools as to use them.)

Michael and others are certainly correct that things are going to change in the software world. It's not going to be possible to just know a language--you have to be involved in the business and maintain relationships. But change is nothing new for IT workers, right?

In short, it appears that Neal Stephenson was correct. I leave you with an excerpt from Snow Crash:

"When it gets down to it--talking trade balances here--once we've brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they're making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here--once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel--once the Invisible Hand has take all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity--y'know what? There's only four things we [America] do better than anyone else

microcode (software)
high-speed pizza delivery"

And none of the four above are guaranteed (except perhaps the high-speed pizza delivery).

Happy New Year.

Posted by moore at 03:11 PM | Comments (1)

December 19, 2003

Business Process Crystallization

I'm in the process of helping a small business migrate an application that they use from Paradox back end to a PostgreSQL back end. The front end will remain written in Paradox. (There are a number of reasons for this--they'd like to have a more robust database, capable of handling more users. Also, Paradox is on the way out. A google search doesn't turn up any pages from in the top 10. Ominous?)

I wrote this application a few years ago. Suffice it to say that I've learned a lot since then, and wish I could rectify a few mistakes. But that's another post. What I'd really like to talk about now is how computer programs crystallize business processes.

Business processes are 'how things get done.' For instance, I write software and sell it. If I have a program to write, I specify the requirements, get the client to sign off on them (perhaps with some negotiation), design the program, code the program, test it, deploy it, make changes that the client wants, and maintain it. This is a business process, but it's pretty fluid. If I need to get additional requirements specification after design, I can do that. Most business processes are fluid, with a few constraints. These constraints can be positive: I need to get client sign off (otherwise I won't get paid). Or they can be negative: I can't program .NET because I don't have Visual Studio.NET, or I can't program .NET because I don't want to learn it.

Computerizing tasks can make processes much, much easier. Learning how to mail merge can save time when invoicing, or sending out those ever impressive holiday gift cards. But everything has its cost, and computerizing processes is no different. Processes become harder to change after a program has been written or installed to 'help' with them. For small businesses, such process engineering is doubly calcifying, because few folks have time to think about how to make things better (they're running just as fast as they can to stay in place) and also because computer expertise is at a premium. (Realizing this is a fact and that folks will take a less technically excellent solution if it's maintainable by normal people is what has helped MicroSoft make so much money. The good is the enemy of the best and if you can have a pretty good solution for one quarter of the price of a perfect solution, most folks will choose the first.)

So, what happens? People, being more flexible than computers, adjust themselves to the process, which, in a matter of months or years, may become obsolete. It may not do what they need it to do, or it may require them to do extra labor. However, because it is a known constraint and it isn't worth the investment to change, it remains. I've seen cruft in computer programs (which one friend of mine once declared was nothing but condensed business knowledge), but I'm also starting to realize that cruft exists in businesses too. Of course, sweeping away business process cruft assumes the same risks as getting rid of code cruft. There are costs to getting rid of the unneeded processes, and the cost of finding the problems, fixing them, documenting them, and training employees on the new ones, may exceed the cost of just putting up with them.

"A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history - with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila." -Mitch Ratcliffe, Technology Review, April 1992

A computer, for the virtue of being able to instantaneously recall and process vast amounts of data, also crystallizes business processes, making it harder to change them. In additional to letting you make mistakes quickly, it also forces you to let mistakes stand uncorrected.

Posted by moore at 02:03 PM | Comments (0)

December 05, 2003

Will you be my friendster?

Friendster is an interesting phenomenon. The premise of site is that it's easier to meet and become friends with folks if you are somehow connected to them. This is common sense and much validated by my experience--one of the things that made meeting folks in hostels when traveling was that you knew you had at least one thing in common with them: you were interested in travel. And this is true of other clubs and special interest groups--the Elks, adult sports teams, volunteer organizations, book discussion groups--all these are venues for adults to hang out with other people, knowing they have a common interest (which is whatever the purpose of the organization is).

Friendster takes this to a new level by making the social connections, by which we all have benefited, automated. Instead of having to introduce all my college friends to all my friends in Boulder, I can just invite both the Friendster, and let them check each other out. Of course, this is a pale imitation of true networking, but it's a start. And, as many folks can attest, something that starts out as a simple on line friendship can become as deep and real as any other.

What's interesting to me is that the level of effort to 'get to know' someone is very much reduced. You just look at their profile and you see what's important to them. It's almost as though there's another level of friendship being created--you know more about these people than strangers or acquaintances, but less than real friends. I've had people email me, asking me to be their 'friendster.' This level of familiarity is disintermediated (I can operate entirely virtually) and permanent (unless I delete my profile, it's going to be there as long as Friendster is around) and public (anyone connected to me can see my profile--family, friends, enemies). This means that the level of intimacy and sharing on Friendster is drastically less than you'd find at other 'meeting places,' including a house party.

Another interesting topic is: how the heck is Friendster going to survive. They've obviously put a lot of time and effort into their software. (For that matter, the members of Friendster have also put in a substantial time and data commitment.) How can the website make money (at least enough to make the site a wee bit faster)? I can see four ways:

1. Selling user information. Not very palatable, and I think this would drastically affect the quality of information that folks would be willing to give them. I'm not a big fan of giving corporations something valuable of mine to sell, and my connections definitely are valuable to me. In terms of selling information generated by users, by posting anything to Friendster, I grant them "an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, fully paid, worldwide license to use, copy, perform, display, and distribute such information and content and to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such information and content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing." In terms of selling information about users, their privacy policy doesn't mention the possibility, other than specifying that if they change their use of personal information, they'll email us.

2. Advertising--they already have some on the site, but we've all seen how profitable advertising funded websites are. Even if you're getting a tremendous number of hits a day, the advertising has to be very focused to be successful.

3. Selling subscriptions. This is definitely coming down the pike. It will be interesting to see how many folks bail. Personally, the content on Friendster just isn't compelling enough to pay for. If I wanted to stay in contact with old friends, especially in the age of free long distance on the weekends, I'd just call them.

4. Affiliation with product vendors. This would be easy to implement (after all, Friendster is already capturing book, movie and music info about users), wouldn't impinge on current usage, and would offer a valuable service to users. Frankly, I'm surprised they haven't done it already.

I like Friendster, and I like the idea of a new set of folks to ask questions of, interact with, and send email to. But I'm just not sure how long it's going to survive. Enjoy it while it's here.

Posted by moore at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

October 09, 2003

Any sufficiently advanced technology...

... is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C Clarke.

I took my car in to be serviced a few days ago. A normal 33,000 mile checkup, which I'd postponed for about 1500 miles. Not a good thing. So, I was already nervous when a fellow came out and started talking to me about "trans-axle fluid change" and "radiator back flush". Now, I don't know much about cars. Sure, I have some of the basic principles down--I understand in theory how internal combustion works, for example. But I really don't know anything about the nuts and bolts of making a car work--I've never understood how the two front wheels in a turning car stay synchronized, even though the outer wheel goes a greater distance (or how they handle being out of synch). This is the case even though I've had it explained to me multiple times. Cars are complicated pieces of engineering that have taken decades of engineering to get where they are, and auto mechanics is a specialized discipline that takes years to learn.

But here's the point. I don't want to know. I don't want to understand even the slightest bit of how a car converts old dinosaur bones into energy--I just want to harness that energy to go to the grocery store.

This has cost me a fair bit of money, as you can imagine, and wrecked at least one car from the inside out. I've learned to my cost, that you have to get the car checked out periodically, even if it makes me feel like a blithering idiot. "Sure, take care of that trans-axle fluidish stuff. You betcha." And even if I take a car to the best shop in the world, I should still be verifying that everything is done according to the manual. Which requires me to read the manual. Which means that I have to learn something about a car. Dang it!

Now, consider computers:

Computers are complicated pieces of engineering that have taken decades of engineering to get where they are, and computer programming is a specialized discipline that takes years to learn. Learning how to interface with a computer takes time. They have their own jargon, just like automobiles. Most people (in the first world) need to use them every day.

Now I have a both a bit less and a bit more sympathy for the computer illiterate. More, because, hey, they don't want to learn about computers--they just want to use them. I can dig that! Less, because if I can't get
away with just driving my car, if I have to learn something about it, then they need to buck up and do the same. If they don't, they'll be in the same position I was at the service station--helpless before professionals.

Posted by moore at 09:49 AM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2003


Database Nation, by Simson Garfinkel, is a fantastic book. I admit that I'm a fan of what I like to call 'Chicken Little' books (I like William Greider and I even remember thinking that Revelations was the best book in the Bible as a child). My friends tell me that one of my typical greetings is 'Have you read XXX? You should!' I like books that challenge me and confront me with realities that I haven't considered before.

Database Nation definitely challenges. The author approaches the burgeoning issue of personal privacy, and the coming lack thereof, in several different ways. Whether it is biometric identification, the possibility of protecting privacy via property rights, or a chapter of possible solutions, he treats the topic in a manner befitting its fundamental nature. I found his historical emphasis, where he compares the current situation to the one created in the early 1950s by the newly forming credit reporting agencies, to be especially useful. There's nothing new under the sun, as they say. And the problems we've faced with privacy before have dealt with. The sky has fallen before, but it's possible to pin it back up.

Privacy has been on my mind for a while now. I work in technology, and one of the things that is allowing this current invasion of privacy is the ability to collect, store and mine vast amounts of information. As an example of just how far it has gone, I can access 12 million business records (and 120 million US households) via my library's
website--they've bought access to a database called referenceUSA. Search on business size, focus, years advertising in the Yellow Pages, location, etc. Slice and dice as you wish. As part of the usage agreement, you can't use the database for unsolicited commercial mail, but, having found the names in Reference USA, you could look up the business in the Yellow Pageseasily enough.

While such data aggregation has been possible for years and years (ask the insurance companies), computing power and disk space have become so cheap that it's much less work than it used to be--and collecting such information is only getting easier. See Cringely's column for a suggested solution. I'm not sure how I feel about it, but it's one idea for keeping the sky from falling.

I watched Enemy of the State again recently. While I enjoyed watching Will Smith and Gene Hackman avoided the satellite images and bugs of the NSA, I have no idea how much the movie made up and how much it nailed on the head (the Economist had this to say about satellite imagery in 2000). Still, this movie displays in a fundamental way what loss of privacy can mean. When folks say 'hey, I don't have anything to hide' I don't think they realize just what it means to have no privacy. There are shades and shades of 'hiding'; there are things that I would tell my parents that I wouldn't tell an acquaintance. Likewise, there are items I'd tell a new friend that I would rather not be published in
the daily paper. Discretion is something that all humans need--you do have things to hide since no one is perfect at all times! Having something to hide doesn't necessarily mean that you are doing something illegal--perhaps it's just embarrassing (or would be if exposed to certain people).

Another aspect is the federal 'do not call' list and all the hullabaloo surrounding it. Telemarketers feel they aren't going to be able to survive--everyone else feels they don't want to be called unless they opt in. Even Dave Barry has chimed
. This is an issue that resonates with everyone and calls into dramatic perspective the tension between making your contact information publicly available and wanting to control what someone else does with that information. Imagine what it would be like if everything were public?

Expectation of reasonable privacy is something fundamental. I'd hate to lose it.

Posted by moore at 09:48 AM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2003

Technology is not always the answer

I volunteer at the library. I put in 2-4 hours a week at the Special Services division. One of the primary missions of the Division (which consists of one part time employee and a bevy of volunteers) is to find books that homebound patrons would like and deliver the tomes to them. Of course, one wants to make sure that the same senior doesn't get the same title twice.

The library has a large java based app (probably backed up by a mainframe) that keeps track of all the books. What's checked out, what's in transit, and most importantly, who owes fines. But it doesn't keep records on what patrons have checked out (don't tell the Feds).

What Special Services does is keep a stack of catalog cards (the old cards that I used to use to look up books on the Russian Revolution or beet production reports for school), and on the blank back of these cards, records the author and date and book title that have been picked for this particular person. These cards are all banded together and kept in a cabinet, filed under the patron's last name.

This is a database, right? Just not a computerized one. The first day I volunteered, they showed me the system. Being the computer geek, I immediately thought of ways to computerize this database (with PDAs as the client and a java app talking to a database and delivering information to those PDAs). But, there are reasons to stick with the current system.

1. It's cheap. The cards are being reused and the time of the volunteers is free as well. Not to be discounted in a time where branch libraries have to close one day a week to save funds. A new system would probably
cost thousands of dollars in hardware alone (even if it was built by volunteers with free software), because it would have to be mobile.

2. Mobility is built into the system. When I have to go pick the books for Mrs. Smith for this week, I can take an entire pack of cards out with me, and make sure that the mysteries I pick aren't ones she's read before. This is the primary purpose of the database, and it works very well.

3. The very low tech nature of this solution is a selling point. Many many folks are intimidated by new technologies. But darn near everyone is comfortable with pen and paper. There's a very low barrier to entry. I didn't have any trouble picking up the system in an hour, and neither has any of the other volunteers.

Not every process is amenable to being computerized. This experience has driven home the old saying--when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Even if it's not.

Posted by moore at 09:47 AM | Comments (0)

October 02, 2003

A new purpose for RSS

I used to host at Dear Diary. Great service, provided for free. But now I host my own blog (thanks to the good folks at Movable Type and Dion (thanks for the tip, Dion), and I have total control over posting. I did use a simple CGI blog tool for a while, but Movable Type is quite feature rich. It generates RSS feeds from postings automatically.

I'm not sure what RSS really stands for, but it's simple in concept. It's an XML standard for making site content changes known to the world. It's basically like those 'what's new' announcements that appear on websites, but automatically generated and usually automatically picked up and formatted for human consumption (or aggregated). It takes over some of the functionality of those 'sign me up to be notified of changes to this site' email lists because, if you point your aggregator at a website's RSS feed, you'll be automatically
notified when there are changes--no need to clutter up your inbox. It also subsumes some of the functionality of bookmarks, because, again, you pull data you need, rather than having to visit the sites to see if content has changed.

I used to go out and check 4-5 pundits websites (Joel On Software, DaveNet, SkippingDotNet, and a few others) oh, once a week. I'd visit the sites to see if they'd put up any new articles, which I'd then read. Now, however, I rolled my own RSS aggregator, which outputs a nice listing of changes to some of those websites. It is nice to be informed of new postings, but the downside is that I hardly visit the sites that don't provide RSS feeds.

I was chatting with some friends after seeing an author speak at a book signing at the Boulder Book Store (Neal Stephenson, promoting Quick Silver. It has pirates!). I was complaining because I am sure there are plenty of free and low cost events out there that I miss because I'm not aware of them. I thought it would be great to have a web site that aggregated all those events for a particular locality into one page that I could visit. 'Hey, it's Friday and the CU astronomy department is letting folks look through their telescopes!' This would be a huge undertaking, however, if one had to screen scrape the 'New Events' pages of each interesting organization. If, however, they all made their schedule available as RSS, it would be trivial.

The question is, what do the organizations gain? Increased visibility. If it's a book signing, the purpose is to draw folks in so they buy books. If it's a library event, then the more folks one draws, the more the library is being used. If it's the Boulder Theater, then the more people come to an event, the more beer they can sell.

Think of it as a automated version of the "What's Happening" section of your daily paper. Wouldn't that be sweet!

Posted by moore at 01:29 PM | Comments (0)
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